Monday, May 27, 2019

An Interview with Scott Oden, Author of "A Gathering of Ravens"


(Originally Posted on Aug 29, 2018)

Scott Oden is a historical fantasy author, a fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre, and an avid gamer since 1979. Publisher's Weekly called his work "...complex as an old tree’s roots, and a pleasure to read," in a starred review. He's gained a reputation for combining historical fact with fantastical elements more commonly seen in a Tolkien or Dargonlance book, yet his stories are grim, gritty and frightfully realistic. I reached out to Scott to get the scoop on his books, as well as his thoughts on historical fantasy, getting published, and the works of Robert E. Howard.

MARTIN: So Scott, can you tell us a bit about your writing journey? What led you to become an author, and who or what are your biggest influences in your genre?

SCOTT: I first got it in my mind that I wanted to write as my profession back in 1981, at the age of 14. I recall seeing something in an old issue of my brother's Writer's Digest about authors being paid and I was, like, "say what? People pay you for that?" My brother was already a journalist with dreams of writing the Great American Novel, so he had a few books on craft; the rest I gleaned from skimming WD and from emulating my favorite author -- Robert E. Howard. I embarked upon a thoroughly inconsequential short story career, after that, ultimately writing 30-odd short stories that earned me nothing but rejection slips over the years. I turned my hand to novel writing, choosing as my debut a pastiche Conan novel I intended to write for Tor Books (they were unaware of my intent, by the way; younger Scott was all about asking forgiveness rather than begging permission). A friend had recently hit the big leagues with his third or fourth novel, so I harassed him for feedback on my three Conan chapters -- which had been endlessly written and rewritten over the past years. He took me to task: "It's decent, but what will you do if you can't sell it to Tor? Write your own characters, man!" He said a lot more, but that was the gut punch.
So, I regrouped. I went back to the drawing board, and in December of 2000 I started writing what would become Men of Bronze -- which is barbarian fiction in the guise of a historical novel. A string of bad life events had left me extremely depressed at the time, so my motivation was literally "write or die". I do not recommend this route, by the way. It is neither glamorous nor romantic. It is asking for trouble, really. Somehow, though, I pulled it off. Wrote my first novel by Spring of 2002, had an agent by 2003, and sold it in early 2004 to a small start-up publisher called Medallion Press. I have been under contract to various publishers since.

MARTIN: So for those of us new to your books, can you give us a quick rundown of your Grimnir books, as well as some of your other stories? A quickie elevator pitch of sorts to any potential readers out there.

SCOTT: Absolutely. The basic idea behind A Gathering of Ravens, its sequel Twilight of the Gods, and the proposed third book in the series, called The Doom of Odin, is this: "What if Tolkien found direct inspiration for his Orcs in Norse myth?" I had the idea years ago to write "an Orc book", but things kept getting in the way. And when I did sit down and start to work on it, I discovered my secondary world-building skills left a lot to be desired. My friends told me to press on, to write it and see, but I despaired of writing another secondary world Orc novel when there were already excellent examples of such tales out there (Stan Nicholls' Orcs being the flagship of the genre-within-a-genre). What could I bring that no other writer could, or had up until that time? My friend, Josh Olive, threw down the gauntlet: he dared me to write Orcs as historical fiction and make them believable. I dismissed the idea, but then he double-dog dared me. Such a dare, as you well know, cannot be ignored. I set out to deconstruct the origin of the Orcs from The Silmarillion and found they could be reverse-engineered into Norse myth quite easily. I couldn't call them Orcs, of course, as the etymology of the word was too new. Thus were born the kaunar, the plague folk -- dvergar who'd been kidnapped by Loki and force-fed the afterbirth of Angrboða's monstrous children, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel (each has a parallel in Tolkien's Orcs: the affinity for wolves, the serpentine cunning, and the immunity to disease). To give them the black blood Tolkien mentions, I gave the kaunar an extreme form of hemachromatosis, which will kill them if ever they lose the burning anger that spurs them on. Twisted, hateful, profane, Loki meant for them to guard his children but they failed this task when the Æsir came against them. Those that remained fled to our world, to Miðgarðr, and hid themselves away. They enter countless myths as creatures like Grendel, the Fomorians of Irish myth, or the kallakantzaroi of Greek folk tales.

That's a long elevator ride! More concisely, A Gathering of Ravens is the tale of the last Orc, Grimnir, on a quest for revenge against the man who killed his brother; Twilight of the Gods pits Grimnir against a zealous Crusader and a berserker queen, all of whom are but puppets in a supernatural plot to trigger Ragnarök; The Doom of Odin takes Grimnir into the enemy's heartland, 14th century Italy as the Black Death takes its toll, where he plans to finally end the curse upon his people.
There's also my non-fantasy historicals, Men of Bronze and Memnon. The former is set in Egypt of the 26th dynasty, and features a Phoenician mercenary called Barca who seeks to thwart the Persian invasion of the Nile Valley; the latter, Memnon, is a biographical novel about the only man Alexander the Great was said to have feared, the illustrious Memnon of Rhodes.
MARTIN: So overall, your books seem to have a strong historical focus, even when adding D&D staples like Orcs. But that's a vastly different approach to many writers, who prefer the "Secondary World" (ie, Middle-Earth, Eberron, Young Kingdoms, etc) approach. In your opinion, what's the biggest difference in writing Historical vs Secondary World fantasy? Is it easier due to preexisting cultures you can draw from? Harder because of historical accuracy? Or a little bit of both?

SCOTT: Confession time: I've never successfully written Secondary World fantasy. I've wanted to; I've longed to be the sort of writer who can bring the strange worlds of his imagination to life with a few strokes of the pen. But, alas! My forte, it seems, is taking the unbelievable and creating a hole for it in accepted history, or taking the dry facts of academic histories and bringing them to life. I've never traveled beyond the American south (save for one trip to NYC), but multiple world travelers swear I've been to Greece or to Egypt. Sadly, no. I have an active imagination and a thesaurus.
I do read a lot of Secondary World fantasy, however, and I rarely see world that are not drawn from ancient cultures. Anglo-Saxon and western European are the default, but there are several I've encountered that take their cues from Medieval Spain, Classical Rome and Greece, Renaissance Italy, Egypt. The key is to file off the serial numbers just enough to give it the gloss of creativity, but not enough to sever the deeply-ingrained cues that cling to our minds like barnacles.

MARTIN: I guess to a certain extent a good number of fantasy worlds out there are driven by a love of historical cultures and stories. Tolkien certainly drew on a lot of historical elements for his works, and George R.R. Martin is perhaps best known for a certain book series inspired by the War of the Roses. But in your case, you obviously draw a lot more from real-world elements than even GRRM. So in terms of historical inspirations, what's your War of the Roses? What settings get you the most pumped for a fantasy remix?

SCOTT: I have a whole laundry list of time periods I long to explore: the Peloponnesian War -- though from the point of view of a common soldier rather than an historical luminary; Alexandria at its height; al-Andalus and the intermingling of Europeans and Moors; the Athenian stage (Euripides, specifically); the life of Baibars I . . . honestly, there's enough blood and thunder in the annals of history to keep a writer busy for a thousand years. My holy grail, I think, would be to finally write an historical fantasy that captures the essence of the ancient mind -- the pre-Enlightenment sense of doom and wonder that gave rise to the great tales of myth. We see these tales as allegory, as superstition, but I want to finally realize characters who believe these myths as surely as you or I believe the dictates of science. We're constrained, I think, by the need to write for the modern mind, as possessors of the same sense of modernity. Ancient gods are either super-powered video game bosses or dismissed with a wink and a nudge. Very few writers have captured the mystery and the mystique of these ancient cults (Steven Pressfield did it, I think, with Gates of Fire; Mary Renault, as well).

MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that you played tabletop, particularly D&D. It seems with the soaring popularity of 5th Edition and the widened exposure of the game through shows like Stranger Things and Critical Role, D&D is kind of everywhere these days. Do you feel that tabletop influences the subject matter of your work at all? And if so, are there any other games besides D&D that you enjoy? Call of Cthulhu or GURPS? Heck, maybe even something weird like Everyone is John?

SCOTT: I think my work is fairly free from tabletop RPG influences. More than anything, my early exposure to D&D (I started with the Holmes edition back in '77 or '78) helped hone the skills I'd need as a storyteller: pacing, description, action, moments for characters to shine, etc. A lot of people cite Appendix N in the old DMG as their first introduction to the beating heart of early fantasy literature. My oldest brother, though, was already a hardcore SF/F literature nerd -- even before such a thing had a name; through him, I was exposed to a good deal of the classic SF/F titles long before I cracked open the DMG (further, I was blessed with a Mom who had a strict "you WILL read at least an hour a day!" policy -- and if we had nothing to read, we read the dictionary or the encyclopedia). I've played quite a few games other than D&D, though my favorite is still an old swashbuckling RPG called Flashing Blades! from Fantasy Games Unlimited. It was a game of intrigue and swordplay in the age of the Musketeers. I've recently become enamored of Cubicle 7's The One Ring RPG.

MARTIN: So as someone who's traditionally-published, do you have any advice for those of us out there who might be looking to go that route, especially writers interested in Historical Fantasy? Who (besides you, of course) would you recommend they read to prepare themselves? And do you have any advice for newcomers looking to acquire an agent? Your perspective on the latter really interests me, because you mentioned writing Conan stories, but then re-writing and adapting them until they were a unique and marketable story.

SCOTT: Be prepared for rejection. Lots of rejection. When it sells, publishers and agents love historical fantasy. It's the best of both worlds: the cachet of the historical and the fan-base of fantasy. But, most will initially respond with some version of "I don't know how to sell this." Even as they say this, you can flip through the bestseller lists and see historical fantasy successes: Madeline Miller, Guy Gavriel Kay, Harry Turtledove, and so on. They balk initially, but once you get a foot in the door. . .

That foot in the door is the hard part. Query far and wide, is my best advice. Follow agents on Twitter; follow publishers, too. Keep abreast of news and trends. Be patient, persevere, and write what you love. Your passion for an era will shine through. Don't just read historical fantasy, either. Read everything -- from the women's fiction of Cathy Lamb to the spy thrillers of Daniel Silva to the latest Roman epic from Ben Kane. Read non-fiction, articles, journals, archaeological dig reports . . . everything.

I used to sit down at my typewriter with a battered copy of Ace Books Conan of Cimmeria or Conan the Wanderer and start typing out Howard's stories. I paid attention to how he used language, his pacing, his exposition, his action. And as I typed, I'd slowly start changing things. My own creations crept in -- pale imitations, true, but enough so that I learned how to write a story. Those first attempts were burned. Later, I'd keep copies of REH nearby for inspiration (something I still practice to this day) as I wrote original stories. As I mentioned, Men of Bronze was originally a Conan novel. You can still see small vestiges of the Cimmerian in the main character, Hasdrabal Barca -- a Phoenician mercenary serving in Egypt -- but most have been broken down to the trope level: an outsider, considered a barbarian, born to the sword, and with a ferocity unmatched by his contemporaries. The writing style is still reminiscent of Howard's, a sort of muscular, blood-and-thunder style with very few digressions into character thought or emotion, punctuated by bloody, detailed violence. That has become my own style over the years, for good or ill.

MARTIN: Hey, speaking of Robert E. Howard, as a fellow fan, I'm curious to see what else besides Conan you enjoy? I'm quite partial to Solomon Kane myself, as well as anything with a slight cosmic horror tinge. I haven't yet read Bran Mak Morn or Kull the Conqueror, but they're on my list. Also, any other pulp icons you dig? The Shadow and anything by Lovecraft are both paragons of the pulps, and some of my absolute favorites.

SCOTT: You should definitely read "Worms of the Earth" if you like the cosmic horror vibe. It's the foundational Bran Mak Morn tale, and one of the best works Howard wrote. I'm a fan of all his writings, save for the boxing stories, the mysteries, and the humor (I just don't care for humorous fiction, regardless of the writer). I'm most partial to Conan, of course, followed by the Crusader tales, Bran Mak Morn, El Borak, Kull, and Solomon Kane. Howard was also a powerful poet, so those are well worth your time to seek out, if you've a mind. I'm quite fond of Harold Lamb, as well -- especially his Crusader stories, the Cossack tales, and his novelized biographies. Lovecraft is hit and miss with me, and I cannot read ER Burroughs. I love the concept of Tarzan or John Carter, but the man's prose was atrocious.

MARTIN: Last question! Hypothetically, let's say you're beamed away by martians and taken to their leader. The God-King of Mars, bedecked in silks and gold, offers you an ultimatum: you must present three of your favorite movies to prove the worthiness (or lack thereof) of Earthling cinema, which will decide whether or not they vaporize the planet. What three movies do you choose, and why? Choose wisely, the fate of the Earth is at stake!

SCOTT: Oh, the pressure! I spent many years working for Blockbuster Video, so this could take a while. People probably expect me to pick the low-hanging fruit and mention Conan the Barbarian (1982), but they would be mistaken! While it was a great fantasy movie, it utterly failed as a Conan movie, IMO -- though Basil Poledouris' score almost makes up for it. Nor would I pick the Jason Momoa Conan, or the fairly wretched Solomon Kane..There has just been no faithful REH adaptations. So, my first pick would be Richard Lester's The Complete Musketeers: The Three Musketeers (1973)/The Four Musketeers (1974). This is quite possibly the finest book to film adaptation ever. It has the rollicking atmosphere of Dumas' original, and some solid acting -- even from Oliver Reed, who was reputedly drunk for most of it. The film chews scenery where it needs to, and does so with pathos and humor to spare.

Next, I'd select something a bit pulpier: Raiders of the Lost Ark. This movie made me want to be a bullwhip-wielding archaeologist who finds lost treasures, punches Nazis, and gets the girl. It is the absolute embodiment of the pulp era.

By now, the God King of Mars is going to be strung out on adrenaline, hot and bothered, and perhaps a little leery of Humans due to the fightiness of our species. So, the last movie should be a bit of more laid back, a cinematic night-cap. I could go a dozen different directions -- something funny like Spaceballs, or something slower paced but epic, nonetheless, such as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, or something romantic but tragic like The Whole Wide World. Should I unlimber Wes Anderson's odd world view with something like The Moonrise Kingdom or Fantastic Mr. Fox? No, I think for movie number three, I will show the God King of Mars a modern masterpiece of animation: Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings. This film got me right in the heart. The power and imagination of the story hearkened me back to my youth, before the cynicism of age got its knives in me. My wife laughs, but I watched Kubo on the floor, curled around a pillow like I was twelve years old, again. I think these three movies will convince the God King we've got fight to spare, but we've also got heart.

Enjoy this interview? Please consider checking out Scott's Amazon Page if you haven't already bought his novels. And if you have, please be sure to leave a Goodreads review to let other readers know what you think. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media!

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