It’s been a few days! Things have been very busy on my end, trying to get The Thousand Scars ready. No ETA yet on the relaunch yet, but editing has been going very well. Stay tuned!
Today I bring you an interview with Assaph Mehr, who is also owner of The Protagonist Speaks. Tyir had a roadtrip over there once. It was very pleasant.
As always, I have a list of my current interviews for SPFBO(5) down below. Check out whichever you like!
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?
G’day Michael! I write what I like to read: Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic – for lovers of Dark Urban Fantasy, Hardboiled Detectives, and Ancient Rome. I love reading across all those genres, and since there was no paranormal investigator set on an Ancient Roman background, I set out to rectify that.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
Together. Each novel I wrote was a bit of a different experience. In terms of plot, since they are mysteries I know where we start (my protagonist gets offered a bag of coins to deal with what looks like a supernatural cause) and I know where it ends (what the mystery is about). In between I usually have some aspects of Roman culture and fantasy that I want to hit (the historical-fantasy speculative “what if” bit). Then I write to discover the story in between for myself.
The characters grow organically. They usually come to me and present themselves. If it’s a major character, I might interview them or let them ramble on for a bit, so I get to know them better. Usually as I write they emerge with the story. For example, in the WIP I was writing a scene I called “road trip” because they were supposed to, err, perform a tactical repositioning to another location (strategically running away). They presented it to the person in charge, and she absolutely refused. She even came up with reasons why it’s not a good idea, and a better solution. I had to rename the scene to “Not a road-trip”, and do some fancy re-plotting…
Tell us about your current project.
My current WIP is the third full-length volume in the series, titled In Victrix. It is a story of gladiator games and chariot races, of secret societies and womanly mysteries (or more succinctly, “races, curses, and women’s places”). My protagonist is out of his depth, which is fun to see.
I enjoy researching different aspects for each novel, and I love how each has a slightly different tone, despite what on the surface might appear just similar detective cases. The first novel, Murder In Absentia, was a “howdunit” – a crime that couldn’t have happened; the second novel, In Numia, had an important courtroom drama, trying to nail the bastard. This third one is a “whydunit” – the reasons behind the crime being the most important.
There’s also an over-arching arc for the characters that goes throughout the series and their lives, which I love exploring as well.
Who would you say is the main character of your novels? And tell me a little bit about them!
In a classic hard-boiled detective style, the stories are narrated in first-person by the detective, Felix. His full name is Spurius Volpius Felix, but everyone calls him Felix the Fox (because it’s nicer than Weasel). It’s pig-Latin for “Lucky Foxy Bastard” (not historically accurate, but fun nonetheless).
He’s got a bit of a checkered past. He started to study magic formally but got booted out when the family fortunes were lost and he couldn’t pay tuition. A brief stint in the legions taught him quickly that career soldiers do mostly marching and digging, interrupted by bouts of terrifying violence. He managed to get himself invalidated out in an incident involving loaded dice and a live hedgehog, and somehow found himself working for a couple of notorious private investigators. When the Fates brought them a case with paranormal aspects they didn’t want to touch, Felix jumped on the opportunity and built up his own niche.
He’s been doing nickel and dime stuff (one should say, semis and quadrans), like cursed rings or chasing monsters in the sewers. Since he was desperate for income, he’d take any job and do anything for a bonus (or a free meal). Morals are fluid when you’re hungry. His reputation grew, and the books tell of his major cases, the ones that built up his career.
Is this your first entry into SPFBO? If not, how many times have you entered?
My entry to SPFBO this year is my second novel, In Numina. It is the second major case for Felix (since the cases are independent – there’s just some continuity in his personal life –it’s not a series as such by the contest definition). It’s a tale of haunted houses and court houses, of depraved curses and inspired legal maneuvering, one that will leave readers breathless.
My first entry some three years back was Murder In Absentia, the first book I’ve written. It got a “Very good, but not quite” review from the blog that judged it – and I agree. I’ve learned a lot since and improve with each work I write (and readers agree, as they keep coming back for more and leaving glowing reviews).
I often compare the series to “Harry Dresden in a Toga”. There are significant differences (Felix isn’t a powerhouse magician, but a failed one – the focus is the mysteries), but I do think that it will appeal to the same readership. It also pertains to what I said before – go read Storm Front (the first Dresden book) again; I hope to improve with each subsequent book in the same way Butcher had 😉
What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Funny you should ask. I’ve recently lectured for a few local writing groups about just that subject. Based on these talks, I’ve put up a summary of the worst (and, incidentally, the best) pieces of advices a new writer can receive: The Art and Craft of Writing (or, the worst and best advice you’ll ever get as an author)
What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding within your book?
I’ve been to Rome when I was a teen, but I loved the period even before – from the first time I read Asterix. I do a lot of research into daily life during that period, by reading non-fiction in addition to well-researched fiction. Sometimes I think writing is an excuse to research a subject I love. It was important for me to build it as “historical fantasy” – fantasy that is deeply grounded in our real history. It gives a tremendous richness to the story’s background, from superstitions to legal code, from dress fashions to military science.
On top of that, of course, comes the speculative aspect. How would Roman society look like if they had real magic? It’s not just about religion, but their whole attitudes towards the subject. They were often very practical and cynical when approaching the real and divine worlds, so I added that dimension as well. The laws of magic and men happen to be a focus of In Numina, the entry to this year’s SPFBO.
What inspires you to write?
A distinct lack of novels in the ancient-Roman-paranormal-hardboiled-detective genre. It’s a mix of what I like to read, and since no one else is telling those stories, it’s up to me to keep doing it if I want to read them.
As for inspirations for specific stories, those vary from book to book. It’s my excuse to explore different aspects of the fantasy-Roman society blend.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
The lack of Hollywood movie producers knocking at my door. It’s a work of genius, damnit! Sign up those A-listers I mentioned already, and let’s get going with the blockbusters.
Seriously, there wasn’t a particular “part” that I can say was the hardest. There were days with self-doubt, every author gets them, but I moved past them. There were moments of trying to figure out how to resolve imminent plot holes, but I got around them too. Then there is always editing, but since I like the stories I never mind reading them again and again, to polish them into the best shape they could be.
If there was anything that was holding me back or slowing me down, it’s just the lack of time. So hurry up with those movie deals, cause I’d love to retire and do this full time.
What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?
Between kids, work, pets, and life I don’t get much time to write. Mostly I do it on the train commute to and from work. This limited time means that my routine is pretty much sit down, open laptop, start writing.
My mind can come up with all sorts of plot twists at other times (like in the shower, or during a particularly boring meeting). I jot those down for later, but when the time comes to write – I (mostly) write. The muse works for me, not the other way around.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
Usually the middle bits. My writing pace often picks up together with the plot – as things come to a head in the story, I type faster, enjoying it more. I have been known to cackle when thinking up a new plot twist (which can be a problem, as I write on public trains).
Things I enjoy in particular: evil plot twists that leave my protagonist gape-mouthed, landing him in the sewers (it isn’t a Felix mystery otherwise – though he prefers the parts at the brothels), and bits of Roman trivia that aren’t plot-essential but stick in the memory of the readers far more than anything else because they are so alive.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
Exactly how much of the “book experience” is actually supplied by the reader, rather than the author. This comes in many aspects, about what and how readers set expectations, and how it colours what they get out of a book – which isn’t always what I put into the writing. It’s an almost surreal (and occasionally frustrating) experience.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
Somewhere in between. As noted above, I know what the story is all about when I start (the underlying theme). I know where it starts, where it ends, and a few critical points I want to reach in between.
Then I write to discover the story. I often know the next few scenes I need to write, though not necessarily the whole path the story will take from start to finish. I brainstorm short stretches as needed, and keep track of everything off-page in a notebook with tables for characters, sub-plots, time-lines, etc. (You can see it in action here, in a post about how I make the muse work for me). Once the first draft is done comes the time to edit and polish the story for coherence and flow.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
I let them talk and tell me what they do. This can be organic as I write a scene, or ahead of time. When I do it ahead, I often let them just ramble on and tell me their side of the story in their own words. This is particularly useful for antagonists, as it gives me a chance to explore their motivations, their voice, their off-page actions.
I also run a blog dedicated to interviewing characters out of books. While that blog is for promoting other authors (my own little contribution and helping hand to the writing community), I occasionally use the same format for my own characters.
Such interviews (whether formal or free form) also make excellent bonus material for fans, and I started to include them at the end of the books.
What are your future project(s)?
My WIP is the third full-length Felix mystery. It’s a story of games and races, of secret societies and womanly mysteries. After that I will keep writing Felix novels, because they are just so much fun for me, and I have plenty of ideas and aspects of the occult-antiquity world I’d like to explore.
That said, I do have some other ideas, and I’ll tackle one of them next. It’s a “pure” fantasy (not historical), but there will be little straight-forward about it. It’s currently in the planning stage, which means I have a notebook page dedicated to capturing ideas – the kind that makes me giggle randomly at odd times and attract strange looks.
What is your favorite book ever written? Who are your favorite authors?
Books are more like children, not ice-cream flavours. I have many books that impacted me, books and authors that I’ve re-read throughout my years and will probably continue to do so. But there is no way to narrow it down to just one. It is always a matter of how I respond to a book based on my state in life – see the above answer about how much of the “book experience” is supplied by the reader.
In no particular order: Herman Hesse, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Barry Hughart, Tolkein, David Wishart, Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, Heinlein, Viktor Frankl…
What makes a good villain?
For me, a convincing reason for their action. Everyone is the hero of their own stories – I just don’t buy into the whole “ultimate evil” trope, where villains are evil for evil’s sake. Most everyone sees themselves as legitimate, with perfectly logical (to them) reasons for their actions, even if we don’t agree with them. Actually, if we are made to agree with the antagonist at least in part, to see their point and the sense behind their action to the point where we could almost be convinced, that is a much stronger story.
For me, a good villain is an antagonist. Someone with perfectly valid reasons for their actions, reasons we might accept ourselves under similar circumstances, but whose ultimate goals put him at odds with the protagonist. It’s the clash that makes the story.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I raise spiders.
Well, not exactly. But I live in Australia, and spiders are a fact of life. I do raise kids, which does take up a lot of my “spare” time, even though they are messier than spiders and less useful when it comes to catching flies.
My other main hobby is martial arts. I’ve been doing some form or other of practice for the past 30 years. I’ve started with Israeli Krav Maga, did a bit of competition Taw Kwon Do, some Kung Fu and Judo in between, and now do an internal branch of Wing Chun. I also watch (sadly not practice) Historical European Martial Arts. I do hope that all of this translates into high-octane action scenes.
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
I could do three jobs at once: critiquing books while testing sofas and tasting cakes. I could do all simultaneously. I won’t even charge much for these services.
You can travel to any planet or moon in the Solar System. Where would you go, why and what would you do there?
An all expenses paid cruise in a first-class star-liner (with artificial gravity – I know how the Apollo astronauts went toilet) would be fun to go see the sights. Barring that, I’m quite comfortable here on Earth, and there are plenty of places I’d like to visit that I still haven’t.
Pick any three characters from a fiction novel. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Same novel or different novels? I’ll assume the latter, for funsies.
Corvinus (Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus), from the David Wishart novels. The guy knows how to have fun, particularly when it comes to wines and comforts. He also brings a nice budget for those travels.
Much as I like Harry Dresden I’ll probably give him a pass – he attracts too much trouble. How about Zelazny’s Corwin? The guy certainly knows how to have fun.
And lastly, of course, my own Felix the Fox. He knows how to get out of trouble (even though he’s not always wise enough not to get into it in the first place, but we’ll rein him in; Also, I’m sure he would love to spend some time with me, talking royalties).
As for where we’d go – with Corwin, that’s pretty much everywhere we’d care to. There’s a long list of historical places I’d like to visit, events I’d like to witness, lost books I’d like to read…
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
Whatever works for you!
I’m on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads – just google!), but my main website and blog is egretia.com. This is dedicated to my Three-Rs: Reading, Writing, and Romans. It also has free short stories and novella within the same series (like any good drug dealer, I give free samples).
Contact me however you like – I’d love to hear from you!