[GUEST POST] Garrett Calcaterra, Craig Comer & Ahimsa Kerp on Mosaic Novels
Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. His books include Dreamwielder and Umbral Visions.
Craig Comer’s shorter work has appeared in several anthologies, including: Bardic Tales and Sage Advice, and Pulp Empire Volume IV. Craig earned a Master’s Degree in Writing from the University of Southern California, is an avid hiker, and likes to tramp across countries in his spare time, preferably those strewn with pubs and castles.
Ahimsa Kerp is a peripatetic language mercenary and spec-fic writer who is fond of rambling hikes, craft beer, and tofu tacos.
Together they have co-written the mosaic fantasy novel, The Roads to Baldairn Motte.
GARRETT: Seven years ago, Craig Comer and Ahimsa Kerp asked me to join them in writing a collaborative project called The Roads to Baldairn Motte. The resulting book-a sprawling and highly unconventional mosaic fantasy novel-was published by an independent publisher and garnered a small bit of critical acclaim. Rogue Blades Entertainment, in particular, praised the novel, saying it “contains some of the best and most thought provoking studies in heroism at the individual level that I’ve seen in quite a while.”
We, of course, were ecstatic. But still being inexperienced and largely unpublished at the time meant we had no established readers and knew nothing about marketing a new book. The Roads to Baldairn Motte disappeared into obscurity, eventually going out of print. That would have been the end of it, if it weren’t for Mary Moore, managing editor with Reputation Books. Mary saw untapped potential in the book, and with her guidance, Craig, Ahimsa and I completely reworked the novel, adding new vignettes and interstitials, reordering the three main narratives to provide a more traditional three-act structure, and clarifying plot points readers had criticized on Goodreads and Amazon with the first edition.
The resulting new edition is vastly superior to the original, and yet we face a similar hurdle with its release: many readers are reticent to pick up a mosaic novel. On numerous occasions over the past couple of weeks, reviewers have asked us, Why a mosaic novel? What does it offer that a traditional narrative doesn’t? To answer that question, we have to go back to the inception of Baldairn Motte. Like with much modern fantasy, it started with a discussion about The Lord of the Rings.
AHIMSA: I have loved The Lord of the Rings since I first read it in the third grade. Upon multiple re-reads, however, I started to become aware of new aspects. Such as the Dunlendings, who had been driven from their homes in the valley up into the mountains by the Rohirrim. They wanted their homeland back from aggressors, and yet were depicted as the bad guys. Harsh. Likewise the Haradrim, who were a poor folk living in a desert so desolate and inhospitable that Sauron bought their allegiance with offers of wealth and water.
I remember talking to Garrett and Craig about how interesting it would be to read a narrative from a Dunlending or Haradrim perspective. What did they think about the war? (The Last Ringbearer is an unofficial sequel to LOTR where Gandalf, et. al. are the baddies, but that completely misses the point, in my opinion.)
Real world examples abound: in America, I was taught we won the Vietnam war, for instance. Perspective is fascinating. I think George R.R. Martin was an influence for all of us as well; characters like the Hound and Kingslayer went from reviled to revered over the course of the first couple books.
So we had all these ideas about perspective and relativity and gray characters floating in our heads, though we didn’t want to overdo the Rashomon effect. For instance, the Ordained are powerful antagonists in Craig’s main narrative. But in my story they meet the protagonist, bowing and scraping all the while. Same people, different context. Ultimately, the journey from a different perspective in The Lord of the Rings to our venture was an examination of the nature of truth. And it was Craig that provided the framework for it all.
CRAIG: One framework to rule them all-well, maybe it wasn’t that oppressive. We started with a loose structure of events: a battle, the stakes, and some basic geography. I put together a list of major players and a rough timeline of the action. From there, two key thematic elements shaped our world.
First, as our title implies, our narratives are driven not by a body count but by how our characters arrived at the climactic battle, that of Baldairn Motte. The Why they were fighting and Where they came from were much more interesting questions to us. Because each of us authors picked a different faction, it was left to us individually to fully flesh out the people and their reality. Thus started a chain of emails with descriptions of landscapes, characters, and motivations. We contemplated how our characters saw things differently, and how they were alike.
The second element that helped craft our world was one of status. It wasn’t Sauron or Gandalf’s perspective we wanted to tell, but that of the commoner. Our protagonists are the soldier, the sailor, and the farmer, not the realm’s power players. This allowed us to explore the notion of the everyman being caught up in a war where they had very little they could control.
For the local peasants, for example, all these armies come crashing down onto their fields. Their lives are in jeopardy not only for the course of the battle, but their livestock is gone; their crops are gone; they’re worrying over their wife and kids, and their liege lord is asking them to shut up and stand there with a spear.
In all, The Roads to Baldairn Motte was not an effort to produce a common narrative. The mosaic structure allowed us to embrace differing perspectives and accounts of the climactic battle.
GARRETT: Exactly. Why a mosaic novel? Perspective. Too often, war is glamorized in fantasy fiction (as well as in other genres, and hell, even real life). By having three authors collaborate and show war through the eyes of a half-dozen viewpoint characters on the front lines, we were able to more realistically depict the horrific consequences of war. The reader gets a unique, holistic view of the conflict, while still being grounded very much in characters. We discover the combatants on all sides share similar values and are more alike than different, yet war is still inevitable. As Basilides, a leech who survives the battle, says, “To dismiss enmity and hatred is to admit to yourself that your slain kin and friends have died for naught.”
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