INTERVIEW: Blake Charlton on ‘Spellbound’ and Middle Book Syndrome
Blake Charlton (Medical Student, Novelist, Essayist, Dyslexic) is the author of Spellwright and Spellbound from Tor Books. He is also currently a medical student at Stanford Medical School. Find out more about Blake at his website (BlakeCharlton.com and by following him on Twitter (@BlakeCharlton) and Facebook.
We had a chance to talk to Blake about his new book Spellbound (sequel to Spellwright), writing and “middle book syndrome”…
SF Signal: Spellbound is your second book to be released. How did you go about tackling the inevitable sequel problem and avoid the sophomore slump that seems to plague so many projects?
Blake Charlton: When I started out on Spellbound, anxiety about a “sophomore slump” haunted me, and given that this is the second book in a trilogy, that anxiety was compounded by a fear of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”–wherein the trilogy’s middle book lacks a satisfying start and finish.
I had started worrying about these two problems while working on the end of Spellbound. I deliberately wrote the end of that book to allow me to hit the ground running with book two. I don’t think I did it perfectly: a few critics have noted that the end of Spellwright goes on longer than is necessary or good for a satisfying conclusion. Good or bad, I think most will agree that it did allow me to start Spellbound off with a bang. (Coincidentally, I’m hoping to do something similar, with a bit more skill, in the transition between book two and three.)
By my lights, a sequel cannot improve a series unless it brings something new and unique. Without such, a sequel becomes a mere extension. For me, I found what I hope is Spellbound‘s fresh perspective in its leading lady: Francesca DeVega. Her character and voice informed much of how the book is constructed. In writing her, I feel that I matured as an author. Though the readers are the final judges of any work, I’m heartened that Spellbound has won starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal, and the very strong review from Romantic Times. All of these, I hope, indicate that I have avoided a sophomore slump.
To combat “middle book syndrome,” I tried to rethink how epic fantasy is serialized. Most epic fantasy series are told in one, surging progression that ends in a final crescendo–a bit like a tidal wave or an avalanche. We can point to Tolkien as the progenitor in this, as in so much else. Modern examples might be found in Jordan, Martin, or a host of others. In all of these, epic forces are described in continuous and ever greater detail. The story has one beginning, an indeterminate number of intermediate surges, and one climactic ending. Some authors get carried away, including a nearly infinite number of intermediate surges. There are few things less annoying than a series that proposes to epic but then starts flirting with endless at the rehearsal dinner. However, many authors avoid this problem and write excellent epics via this mode of serialization. I grew up on and love such books. And yet…I didn’t want to write one. True, my medical training doesn’t allow the time to do so. But a more compelling reason is that I find an alternative mode of serialization more interesting. I want my trilogy to be, not a continuous progression, but a set of contained stories–an epic not like a wave but like a stone skipping across the water. I believe this mode of serialization allows one to tell a complete epic with several, self-contained books, thereby avoiding middle-book syndrome.
SFS: Spellwright had some points that felt very autobiographical for you: Nico’s struggle with his own form of dyslexia, something that you noted as a major influence for you. Do you feel the same way about Spellbound?
BC: I hold the unpopular believe that every piece of fiction is an autobiographical event. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to create a powerful story without putting something true about themselves into the work. Of course, one does not want to feel that a novel should have been a memoir or even a work of non-fiction. There does have to be enough of a lie within the truth to make it art. My goal with Spellbound was to mine my personal experiences for the novel’s raw material while at the same time increase the skill and power of the lie, the fiction, I was inserting into that story. If Spellwright is a story about a mystery and coming of age, Spellbound is a story of a mystery and a romance…or, as those who have read the book would understand…romances. Furthermore, I see a great deal of myself in Francesca’s character. She is a healer in training, and I can sympathize with many of her hopes and fears. She is a lot wittier than I am, or perhaps she is often as witty or snarky as I wish I could be.
SFS: How has your work in medical school influenced your writing?
BC: I would pay a great deal to know the answer to that question. Presently, I can’t say for certain what type of effect it is having, only that it is having a profound one. Most days in the hospital, I spend writing; however, medical prose is so profoundly different from fictional prose that it is hard to explain. An absolute premium is placed on objectivity, formality, and brevity. Indeed, brevity is so much in demand that words are often omitted in favor of acronyms and medical argot. For example, “Pt is a 54YCM c PMH of DM, HTN, CAD s/p LAD stent (2007) now p/w CP at rest,” translates into something like “This patient is a middle aged white guy who’s had diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease–for which in 2007 he had a stent placed in the left anterior descending artery–who now is showing up in clinic because he is having chest pain even when he is not exercising.” Writing this kind of code all day, and often late into the night, is changing how I see the written word. I believe it is making me more acutely aware of the benefiters of brevity and precision.
However, perhaps a more profound effect on my future writing will prove to be the humanistic experiences one runs across in medical training. I just spent a very intense month at our academic pediatric hospital, taking care of some very very sick children…many with very poor prognoses. Many of the things I’ve seen or done cry out to be transformed into something for the page, and yet the powerful moments come so fast, one on top of the other, that when there’s enough time to actually write, it’d difficult to remember what was once so profound or upsetting about a particular event.
In total, I believe medical training has been a good thing for my writing: by my lights, authors should always continue to evolve and change. However, I worry that medical training is causing me to change–both as a writer and as a person–too fast. Though I want each book in my trilogy to be unique, I want all three of them too feel as if they are “of a piece.” As I work on the third book in the trilogy, I am already struggling to keep my style and subject matter similar enough to its predecessors. My hope is that, years from now, if someone sat down to read the whole series start to finish, they would feel that it read as one pleasing whole despite individual differences between the books.
SFS: One of the things that I really enjoyed was the approach to the medical elements of the novel: right out of the gate, there’s an approach to fantasy that one doesn’t see very often: your magic is almost clinical, studied. Does that push the fantasy boundaries a bit?
BC: I certainly hope so! The idea to give magic hard-and-fast rules is not a new one. A few years back, the community was tossing around the title “hard fantasy” as a sub-genre. Brandon Sanderson and L. E. Modesitt are two very successful authors who also write such fantasy. However, I’m not aware of another author that explores how a magic system might physiologically be produced or effected by a body. Given that my magic system is based on linguistics, and given that biological life is composed of two different languages–polypeptides (proteins) and nucleotides (DNA)–I hope that the connection between body and magic is a fitting one. I do think that in Spellwright I was a bit too excited about the technical nature of my magic system; it distracted too many away from the sense of fun and wonder I was trying to construct with that magic system. In Spellbound, I set out to preserve all the complexity of the magic system and yet cut down on the technicalities.
SFS: There’s a huge jump in time between the ending of Spellwright and the beginning of Spellbound: what prompted this leap forward?
BC: On the simplest level, I wanted to give Nicodemus more time to develop along the lines I had set down at the end of book one; similarly, I wanted Francesca’s existence (which, those who have read the book will understand) is much more complicated than it first appears. But more importantly, I desperately wanted to avoid “middle book syndrome.” By pushing the series forward ten years, I gave myself space to create a new backstory, to add more mystery. It was part of my attempt to create a new way of serializing–the epic as a stone skipping across water, that I alluded to earlier.
SFS: There’s a marked difference in the tone of Spellbound: it’s darker, a bit more serious. What did you find you were able to do that you weren’t able to accomplish in the first book?
BC: The tone is deliberately darker. I created the book to be so for two major reasons. First, it seemed appropriate to the themes: Spellwright is about coming of age and escape, its themes are those of a young man gaining more and more potential in the world. Spellbound is a mystery and a romance, one in which the characters have to make great sacrifices. Spellbound is a book about the middle of life, about gaining knowledge, and making choices that reduce potential. Second, a good series has a clear progression of tone: it’s not hard to see that the Spellwright Trilogy is hurtling toward a catastrophic but poorly understood event known as the Disjunction; as such, the tone of the series needs to progress along an analogous course. As I see it now, Spellbreaker will be darker still.
SFS: The next and final book in the trilogy is Spellbreaker: what can we expect from that book?
BC: I’m going to be fairly closed lipped about the book until every “t” is crossed and “i” dotted. I do feel safe saying, as above, that the tone will be darker and the events of the book will center on the Disjunction–which will prove to be far different than anyone (including, hopefully, the readers) expected. I can also confidently say that there will be a thirty year jump between the end of Spellbound and the beginning of Spellwright.
BC: It’s a fine balance an author has to walk. Certainly, making yourself available to readers and other authors can help get your name out there. And more importantly, it’s tremendous fun. I’ve found my readers to be delightful. It can also be helpful: I learned a lot from interacting with my readers. However, readers are interested in authors not because they write witty and snarky status updates (though that is a wonderful bonus) but because authors write interesting and compelling novels. I think it’s more important for authors to continue to develop and grow in their craft than to self-promote. Coincidently, I believe readers often forgive authors for being absent from their blogs and Facebook/Twitter accounts in order to produce the next book; however, they have a much harder time forgiving the opposite situation.
SFS: With the recent demise of Borders books, there are fewer places to find new books. How do you think the recent bookstore closures will affect the genre?.
BC: In the long run, hard to say. On one hand, seemingly everyone agrees that Borders was managed poorly and has been teetering on the brink for years. One could argue that that Border’s demise is a good thing, clearing up space in the market for better run brick-and-motor booksellers. More room for independent booksellers, perhaps? Others might argue that physical books themselves are on the way out and this is an appropriate downsizing. Pollyannas might say that ebooks and audiobooks will completely replace the physical book and provide the publishing industry with the markets it needs. Those more incline to play Cassandra might say that the ease with which ebook and audiobooks are pirated and a decline in the number of readers will cause the publishing market to fall out, that the era of the commercial novelist is now over. Me personally, I usually wake up a Cassandra and–provided I have enough coffee–progress into a Pollyanna as the day goes on.
In the short run…well…judging from my personal experience, I’d say the publishing industry is in for a bit of a hiccup. One metric of a book’s success is its pre-publication orders: in the US, two of the largest such orders came from B&N and Boarders. I was always thrilled to have Boarder’s support and now they’ve evaporated so have their pre-orders. Of course publishers and other booksellers are smart enough to try to correct for this in their assessments, but it seems to me that there’s another degree of uncertainty in the industry. This is to be added on top of the larger uncertainties of ebooks, online booksellers, audiobooks, and changing reading habits. These should be interesting times for those of us wishing to sell words.
SFS: What’s next for you? Any post-Spellwright trilogy plans in the works?
BC: The immediate future is clear. I have a little more than a year’s worth of medical clerkships to complete before I finally get that MD, then a year of applying for residency programs and of writing furiously to ensure Spellbreaker is both published in a timely manner and that it exceeds its predecessor. Those two things will be the major foci of my life for the next two years…but afterwards, what might come next? Well…there are many possibilities. It is a major distraction.
From everything I have seen and heard, residency is an order of magnitude more consuming that medical school, which at present doesn’t quite bare imagining. And yet, like many authors, I have several projects cooking away in the back of my mind. Projects I am dying to work on: a magic realism / new weird story inspired by my experiences riding the short bus to special ed and taking care of disabled children as a med student; a secret history (a la Tim Powers) of an Elizabethan playwright named Thomas Lodge, who competed with Shakespeare and then became a physician; a young adult science fictional novel in the style of my novella “Endosymbiont” (text audio). These are the things I daydream about when cramming for an exam or after a 30 hour hospital shift, but figuring out how it can all happen without going (completely) insane…well…at the least, it should be an interesting ride.
Filed under: Interviews
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