Sean Russell is a Canadian fantasy writer. His most recent books are The Swan's War series; The One Kingdom, The Isle of Battle, and The Shadow's Road.
Spherical Time: To begin with, can you describe where and when you write? Do you write in longhand or directly into a computer? Do you have an office where you do most of your work or is there some other location where you like to write?
SR: I have the traditional book-lined study upstairs in our house. I'm very lucky to have a glorious view out my window. I work directly on the computer but when I was writing my first book (back in the last century, circa 1980s) I wrote long hand and then typed. I started working on the computer because a friend who was going away from the winter insisted I take his computer while he was gone. Although I have a desktop I tend to do a lot of work on my laptop. I can write almost anywhere as long as it's quiet.
Spherical Time: Do you follow a process or method when you write a book? If so, can you give us a general idea what it is?
SR: I don't know if I follow a process. I tend to think about books for a long time before I write them - sometimes for years. I open a file (computer file) and every time I think of something to do with that book I type it in. Sometimes I type in questions about the plot or the characters and then, over time, type in answers. It's a kind of one man brain storming. I try not to judge any idea but just put it in and then weed out the bad stuff later. By the time I'm ready to start a book I often have over a hundred pages of rather random notes. I then start to sort the notes according to subject; some are about themes, others about plot, some are about characters. I often have fragments of scenes, images, and bits of dialogue which I try to order as well. At the same time as I'm trying to bring some order to this I try to weed out the ideas that I don't think I will use. I often highlight the text as I'm doing this and change the font colours. Green are ideas I'll probably use, blue ideas I might use, and red are likely rejections. I then put all the red text into a reject file. I usually delete this when the project is done.
Once I start writing I have a very rough plan - think of it as a holiday where you plan to visit certain places, London, Paris, Rome, etc, but you don't know how long you'll spend in each place or how you will get from one place to another. I know that certain events will likely take place but how I will get from one to the other is often a mystery that reveals itself as I work. A lot of the best ideas I have come when I'm doing the actual writing so for me it's important not to have too rigid a plan.
Spherical Time: Your work takes place in expansive and intricate worlds, such as the Asian themed Wa in The Initiate Brother or the European country of Farrland and presumably Pacific themed island of Varua in World Without End. How do you research a fictional world well enough to write in it? How much background work does each duo of books require before you start writing the manuscript?
SR: The first six books I did were all blends of fantasy and the historical novel - at least that's how I thought of them. I did huge amounts of research but then used that to build a world. The Asian books were inspired by 10th century Japan and T'ang dynasty China and both Japanese and Chinese literature. When I researched this I was looking for unusual things that would make the world seem exotic but also details of day to day life that would make the worlds seem real. The book I just finished is a straight historical novel and I did years of research before I wrote it including visits to places in Europe and a lot of time in museums. I collected a small library of books because even if I could have found the books in a lending library I would never have been able to keep them for the length of time I needed (the book took two years to write). It doesn't matter how much research you do ahead of time, you are always doing more as you write because you are always finding there are things you don't know.
Spherical Time: Would you explain how you develop and form your inspiration or ideas for your novels?
SR: I always have a lot of ideas for books - not all of them good, mind you. When an idea persists I open a file and start adding things as they occur. Some files continue to gain material and some fall fallow, so to speak. I like to think that the best ideas win out in a sort of Darwinian process. At some point I become a bit obsessed with one of these book ideas and that usually becomes my next project.
Spherical Time: In four of your books, the Moontide and Magic Rise and The River into Darkness duos, you explore the relationship of cultural mysticism with the concept of Western Naturalism. Can you talk a little about how these themes influenced your writing? Do you consider yourself to be more of a mystic or a naturalist?
SR: I'm not sure what you mean by Western Naturalism. I think of naturalism as being a movement in literature akin to realism. Do you mean science?
Spherical Time: Sorry, my fault for being unclear. I meant metaphysical naturalism, which was the basis for the sort of scientific inquiry that is part of the conflict in your Moontide and Magic Rise books. Tristam and Erasmus both seem caught between the mystic and the scientific. Would you agree that this clash between traditional religious beliefs and science was the theme of those books?
SR: The idea behind World Without End was this: in the wake of Darwin many people in the west had their world view shift from a religious world view to a scientific world view. Not that everyone suddenly gave up religion, obviously, but in the west there was a big shift in thinking. Before Christianity there was a greater belief in magic - a magical world view (and the Christian's burned the witches). What I wanted to do was write about a world in which a magical world view changed to a scientific world view. But then our hero - a naturalist like Darwin - travels to a place where magic is still operating - partly because there is still belief in it. Belief gives it power. I wanted to make science and magic work in the same book, which had seldom been done successfully.
Spherical Time: Another theme of your book is that of a main character that is controlled or influenced by an outside, often supernatural, force or authority. The Children of Wyrr from The Swan's War are an example of this sort of supernatural puppet masters pulling the strings of mortal characters. Would you talk a little about how you develop characters in relation to this theme?
SR: I've never been aware of this as a theme in my books, but then authors often have repeating motifs in their work that they're not aware of. I actually didn't think of the children of Wyrr and their hosts as being like puppets and puppet masters. I thought of it as the blending of two personalities - the result was someone different altogether. I liked this idea because you could never be sure who this new entity would be.
Spherical Time: Biographically, I know very little about you, except that your Wikipedia page lists you as Canadian. Your first published book was The Initiate Brother, which is set in an Oriental themed fictional world. Why did you choose that setting? Did you find it challenging to write about a world so drastically removed from the one in which you live?
SR: I actually chose the Asian setting to differentiate my work from the Tolkien imitators. So many books were set in a pseudo medieval world that I thought it might be a good idea to go elsewhere. I had always loved Chinese and Japanese poetry and had read a certain amount of history - enough to know that there was an amazingly rich culture and history to draw from. Actually, I didn't find it any more difficult than writing in a more western setting. In some ways it was very freeing. I discovered some interesting things researching these books; one was that the body of Chinese literature is vast - far larger than the body of English literature.
Spherical Time: Why do you publish primarily duologys? Is it just due to length, or is there some other reason you prefer the format?
SR: There is no reason for this. The first stories I wrote were too long to fit into one book but not long enough for three.
Spherical Time: I hear you just finished the manuscript to a new novel. Can you give us a sneak peek inside your latest work?
SR: I've just finished a historical novel set in 1793. It should be coming out in North America next autumn (September 07) from Putnam/Penguin. It's the story of a character whose father was English and his mother French. At the beginning of the French Revolution (1789) he's on leave from the British Navy and visiting his mother's family in France. Being what we would call a liberal thinker he thought replacing the King with a republic was a good idea - and then he saw what the mobs could do. At the outbreak of war (1793) he finds himself first lieutenant aboard a British frigate whose captain is a tyrant and a coward. The idea was to take a revolution and shrink it to the size of a ship and then put my main character in the middle of it. The political climate of the time was fascinating and I wanted to show how the American Revolution and the writings of people like Tom Paine etc had worked their way into the psyche.
We've also sold the book, to be called "Under Enemy Colors" to Michael Joseph\Penguin Group in England and to a publisher in Italy.
Spherical Time: When you published your first novel did you use a literary agent, or did you submit directly to the publisher? At the time, how extensive were your writing credits?
SR: I had no writing credits, really. I did have an agent (not the agent I have now) but it was a different world then. Publishers would accept unagented books and eventually read them. My first book had an odd publishing history as many publishers really loved it but didn't think it was a fantasy. It was this odd hybrid between the historical novel and the fantasy (common now but considered unusual then). The first reader at the publisher who eventually bought it loved the book but he too didn't think it was a fantasy. He was also not sure the Asian setting would sell. He passed it along to the fellow who wrote the rejection letters. Being interested in things Asian he read a few pages of the book and couldn't put it down. Instead of writing a rejection letter he took it to an acquiring editor who decided to take a chance on it. The Initiate Brother sold about 75,000 copies.
Spherical Time: Have you read any good books recently by other authors that you'd like to recommend?
SR: I read a lot of books for research, and not nearly enough fiction. I also read a lot of history, politics. Lately, I've been reading about climate change, like everyone else. I'm reading a novel called "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson which is a marvelous piece of writing.
Spherical Time: What is your favorite word or phrase?
SR: I don't actually have a favourite (note the spelling - I am Canadian) word. My favourite phrase is, "We'd love to publish your book."
Spherical Time: Do you have any final advice to aspiring writers?
SR: I write many, many drafts of my books - up to seven. You really have to push yourself and not be satisfied with work that is merely acceptable or even publishable. Make every sentence the best sentence you can write. It's all about never being satisfied with the quality of your work. You can always make it better. Set the bar higher than you think you can jump - then force yourself to make it over.