Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Betsy Dornbusch.
Betsy Dornbusch is the author of a dozen short stories, three novellas, and two novels. She also is an editor with the speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec and the longtime proprietress of Sex Scenes at Starbucks.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BETSY DORNBUSCH
- Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I’m a wife, a mom, a snowboarder, punk rock fan, and a writer. I’ve been a writer the longest, since fourth grade.
- How did you become a writer?
My best friend in fourth grade, Sheri Joseph, liked to write stories so I started doing it too. We’re both writers still, incidentally, though her work is literary. My first novel was an OUTSIDERS riff, written in seventh grade. Incidentally, I got to meet SE Hinton. She came to my school in fourth grade too. Eventful year.
I wrote steadily through college, then quit when life in my 20s caught up to me. A few months after I had my daughter I started writing the SENTINEL series. ARCHIVE OF FIRE is that first book. That was 12 years ago.
- Have you always been interested in fantasy fiction?
Yes, it was always my favorite genre to read, though I gave it up for a few years to read British mysteries. Now I read mostly epic fantasy with a sprinkling of other genres. I read lots of non-fiction too, in the form of articles.
- What are your favourite fantasy authors and novels? Have any of them been a source of inspiration to you?
In no particular order and by no means a complete list because it’s just off the top of my head: Martha Wells, Carol Berg, Brian McClellan, Mazarkis Williams, Jeff Salyards, Tad Williams. Gah, there’s more. I just suck at remembering names. I like Martha’s voice a lot; it’s efficient and conveys emotion without going into exposition. Carol’s work is intellectual and her world-building is flawless and deep. I haven’t put my finger on what I like so much about Brian’s books. I think it’s the characters, but also the pacing and the military aspects. You just get gently propelled through his books. Jeff’s work is just plain fun—characters, action, everything. It’s probably closest to mine in pacing. Tad’s stuff is so sprawling and epic, it’s amazing. Oh and of course GRRM—the show is also raising the bar on fantasy, gratuitous female full frontal notwithstanding.
- You've written two novels (Sentinel, Book One: Archive of Fire and The Seven Eyes, Book 1: Exile) and your third novel (The Seven Eyes, Book 2: Emissary) will be published next year. What has been the most rewarding part of writing these novels?
They were all different experiences and each had their own rewards. Archive of Fire has characters near to my heart and was my first real foray into novel writing. It’s a complicated plot and story, so that I could achieve what I did as a young writer was rewarding. Incidentally the book will be going out of print at the end of the year…hint hint :)
Exile I wrote soon after AOF with the goal of simplifying. Frankly, I wrote it for myself because I never expected it to be anything but a trunk novel. I had a great time with it...it was just plain fun to play in a fantasy world and twist up tropes. That Night Shade eventually wanted it and that my agent loves it means a lot to me. I try hard to keep in mind that I need to write for myself.
Emissary was a more difficult story to write. It’s bigger, for one, and had lots of challenges. Draken has to face a lot of his past and for me it was emotional and difficult to get across. It also digs a little deeper into prejudice and with equality being such a hot topic in SFF, I had a tough time not feeling like people were looking over my shoulder. But I’m excited about the story. I got the chance to really develop more of Draken’s world and his backstory because he has to go back to his home country where he faces execution and a religious revolution. It also was a challenge because it’s less of a mystery and I tend to lean toward mysteries in my writing. I’m making a more detailed study of them this year for a new project I’m contemplating.
- Exile is an exciting and entertaining fantasy novel for adults. What inspired you to write it?
I’d started reading epic again, in particular Carol Berg, and I wanted to try my hand at the genre I loved. I also was reading a lot of thrillers so I wanted to achieve a quicker pace while managing enough fantasy description. It was a tricky balance. Draken is in a country that’s new to him, which is a handy device for description. But he also knows some things about Akrasia and has built-in prejudices, so he is somewhat of an unreliable narrator. I set out some specific challenges for myself with his story, and I’m still trying to follow through on those: embracing my favorite tropes but twisting them, exploring the clash of cultures, and letting the characters be wrong sometimes.
- The protagonist in Exile, Draken, is a royal bastard who's falsely condemned for the murder of his wife. What inspired you to write about Draken and his problems?
I wanted a few things in my protagonist in this book. I wanted him to be middle-aged; I wanted him to be experienced, capable, and skilled; and I wanted a fairly traditional fantasy world so I could upend some of my favorite tropes. For instance, Draken has a magic sword, which he really hasn’t the least notion how to use. He’s a trained archer.
Draken’s an outcast who tried his damnedest to belong to the culture he was born into. Lesle, his wife, was the one essential person holding him there. There’s something about marriage--if you have someone marry you, you’re worth something. It lends credence to even the most unlikable people. That’s Draken. Marriage helped nudge him from being a total outcast to respectable. But at heart Draken is a guy who is in the wrong place and time. He doesn’t belong in his old country, and he doesn’t really belong in his new one either. It’s not quite that he has a foot in each world, it’s more than his feet are squarely in some other world, another unreachable, unnamable place. He’s also a master at denial.
- There's interesting magic in Exile, because you write about necromancy and possession by the spirits. Have you always been interested in this kind of magic?
My interests run toward ghosts and supernatural, yeah. I believe in God, angels, ghosts, demons (though I’ve got a different view of them than some). So a lot of my magic tends to run toward ghosts and possession. Banes are like demonized ghosts—they feed on whatever evil is inside people. Draken has a lot so he tends to be a victim. It’s natural that he would hook up with a necromancer. The magic sword has to do with life and death too…I think there needs to be real stakes in the use of magic. I envision it a bit like religion: not really knowable but as humans we have the constant urge to pretend we do. Sometimes we’re going to get stung. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy magic like the powder mages in McClellan’s books, but I’m always asking myself what the stakes and costs are. There are a pantheon of Seven Gods based on the seven moons in the world—most people believe in the Seven. I figured it’d be tough not to…the moons are considered evidence of their existence, and it’s why I only made one pantheon, though there are some differences in emphasis and practices. I don’t think I leave any doubt as to their existence, but Draken is a resentful follower at best, even when he ends up using their magic. Hell, especially when he uses their magic.
- Could you tell us something about the sequel, Emissary? What kind of a fantasy novel is it? What can readers expect from it?
Emissary is more sprawling, 30% longer than Exile. He has to go back to Monoea (his home country) as a diplomat. Unfortunately, part of his conviction includes execution if he sets foot on Monoean soil again, and few people in his new country know who he really is or where he’s from. It’s a closely guarded secret because Reasons. Of course when he gets to Monoea he finds warrants for his arrest and the threat of execution are the least of his worries… Aside from all that, he has a lot of past to sort out, though this is a middle-book, so don’t expect his emotional issues to get all tied up with a neat bow.
- Exile is more original than many other new fantasy novels. Was it difficult to create and write an original fantasy novel?
That’s quite a complement, thanks. Difficult is a strong word. Hard work and lots of thought might be a better way to describe it. Writing a secondary-world fantasy is like this: Every time your character turns a corner, there are decisions to make about what is going to be imaginary and what is going to be based on our real world. Every word that comes out of every character’s mouth, every step they take, makes more decisions: What do we call money? What are the gods names? What do we call that tree? That fruit? What do they eat usually? Horses or some other strange rideable creature? Can they read…is there even writing in this world?
So while I’d reserve “difficult” for jobs like laying roads and brain surgery and engineering, writing fantasy does involve constant decision making.
- If Exile were to be filmed, which actor would like to see play Draken and Osias?
I have a tough time with this question. Osias is based on a real person that I know (an acquaintance) so I can’t really imagine him any other way. Draken looks a lot like the cover of the book to me—I worked closely with the artist—and I’ve yet to find an actor who looks like him. He’s biracial, between a blonde race and a race something like from the East Indies, and his features lean more to his darker-skinned heritage. He has greying hair, he’s fairly soft-spoken, and he’s gentle, though he’s pretty scowly. He’s also enormous; I imagine him 6’5 or something and really broad-shouldered—the sort of guy everyone notices when he walks in the room. I think he’s the kind of guy who many women would want to “save,” and the kind of guy who many guys would want to avoid in a dark alley.
- What are you currently working on?
Enemy is the final book in the series and it’s my current project. I’m also revising a book called The Silver Scar, which is about a religious crusade set in futuristic Boulder, Colorado. Plus my agent and I are mulling over an idea for a completely new series that I’m really excited about.
- Is there anything you'd like to add?
I think that covers it. Thanks for having me here!