Atlantic Ocean-hopping Mazarkis Williams is the author of the Silk Road Fantasy Tower and Knife trilogy (The Emperor’s Knife, Knife Sworn, and the new novel, The Tower Broken). Maz was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
Paul Weimer: Hello Maz! I understand that Mazarkis Williams is a pseudonym. Why use a pseudonym?
Mazarkis Williams: Why a pseudonym? Since that was the decision made by my publisher, I can’t really delve into the exact reasons why. There have been a lot of discussions in the last few years about pseudonyms and the effects they may and may not have on sales, and while it’s a fascinating discussion I don’t think any of us authors have the data to make any conclusions. However I do think that for buyers who care about the gender of an author, gender-neutral tricks such as initials (e.g., J. V. Jones) take it out of the equation, at least for that first moment at the bookstore.
Definitely, the gender neutral identity of Mazarkis Williams has raised some interest, and due to that, I in turn have learned a lot about gender in the last few years. I’m grateful for that and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
At the same time many readers like to see the personality behind the story, and for some of them, fairly or not, gender is an important element of that. I think some readers don’t know what to do with me. I’ve definitely had awkward conversations with people who weren’t sure of my gender or sexual orientation, but over all, I kind of like being a disembodied voice, for which my body and the bits it has or does not have are not important.
MW: Well there are two things I specifically remember. The first is that I had been reading the history of the Ottoman empire, and I was struck by the story of a prince who had been held prisoner in a similar fashion to Sarmin. All princes at that time were held in “the cage,” a lush prison (in effect), rather than leading armies or governing provinces as they once had. When an emperor died, one of the sons would be chosen to take his place. The custom was for the newly enthroned emperor to have his brothers killed, thus preventing civil war or palace plots. This particular prince, Mustafa, was kept alive when his brother Ahmed became emperor, in part because he was insane. He was said to have spoken with angels, if that reminds you of Sarmin! So the idea of Prince Mustafa was very much in my mind when The Emperor’s Knife was written.
The second thing is that Mark Lawrence and I were competing a little bit. I recall that we were sending emails back and forth, trying to outwrite one another. So that first paragraph, in which Sarmin is pacing back and forth in his well-appointed room, was written very quickly because I wanted to send it to Mark. In a short time the first chapter was written, and it was clear there was a story there.
The rest was a bit more difficult. Because Sarmin was stuck in his room, he couldn’t be the only point of view character. Others were needed to give life to the palace and world, and to propel the plot forward. Though the first book is named for Eyul, he wasn’t the first character and the story wasn’t originally centered around him. Then Mesema came along, and then Tuvaini.
PW: The Emperor’s Knife, with that Ottoman flavor and feel, does help put your series into what I call Silk Road Fantasy. What other cultures and history inspired the various polities in the series?
MW: Well, the Romans, obviously, because the religion in Tower & Knife is polytheistic, and because all the plotting and double-dealing, while perhaps typical of any palace, has to be connected to the fact I’ve watched I, Claudius about ten times.
Then there is a big part of it that’s simply made up. The organization of the empire, in particular, is not based on any historical example. A real empire – at least one that was going to last – would be far better organized.
At first, the Felt were thinly, thinly based on the Mongols. I used a few historical details – for example, I named them “the Felt” because they made felt like the Mongols – but after that I started inventing things. By the time I got to the third book I had learned a small lesson about making societies that were “similar to” or “almost” something else – the Fryth are not based on any historical group, at least not on purpose. Since I am always reading history books I can’t promise that I didn’t grab a stray idea or two. But then much of Fryth society remains in my head, or on my computer, rather than in the book.
As for the legendary enemies of Cerana, the Yrkmen – I never said much about them, on purpose. Fanatical and aggressive, they set fear into the men of Nooria even from a thousand miles away. Keeping them mysterious made the book more exciting.
MW: The Emperor’s Knife, the first novel in Tower & Knife, is intimate in nature. It’s about the desires, fears and regrets of the four main characters. The plot develops from no more than these emotions, and the palace and the desert are both limited in scope – the palace because those who live there never leave it; and the desert, because even with its wide skies it is inhospitable and unvaried. Sarmin’s small room, where he is imprisoned, is a symbol of the state of everyone in the book – trapped but desiring something else very much.
The second novel, Knife Sworn, brings a sense of the greater world. The wide-reaching implications of the decisions in book one become obvious, in war, in magic and in politics. The characters in Knife Sworn learn what their roles will be within the empire and what sacrifices must be made. And they are beginning to look out rather than in – beyond the palace and the desert to where both allies and enemies wait.
In the final book [The Tower Broken] the whole wide world comes roaring in. I don’t want to spoil anything, but in Tower Broken the characters have everything coming at them – gods, armies, traitors, disease, and kitchen sinks. Well, maybe not kitchen sinks. But it’s exciting.
PW: Looking back, what do you think the trilogy writing experience has taught you?
MW: First of all the Tower & Knife trilogy taught me I can write, even with big things going on in my life and under tremendous pressure. I don’t think I’m unique in that I always wondered whether I was fooling people – just pretending to be good. But after finishing three books in three years, mostly on time, with good reviews and people contacting me to tell me how much they care about the characters, I feel great about what I can do.
The second thing it taught me is the importance of craft. For me, writing is equal parts natural ability and craft. Without craft, you won’t get far. I see it as similar to cooking. You don’t reinvent the art every time you go into the kitchen. To make rice or pasta, you boil water. To make a roast, you turn on the oven. These are not decisions you have to agonize about. The writing craft is similar. You agonize only about the important stuff, and the less important things become automatic.
Third and finally, writing the Tower & Knife trilogy taught me a lot about the publishing industry. Before publication I spent most of my time in closed, smallish writing communities on the internet. Though I had freelanced for some publishers – mostly nonfiction – I had no experience with fantasy publishing. I had done no research. Yes, that was silly of me, but I was focused on the writing end of things. I had no idea how much self-marketing was involved, or how difficult it really was to sell books. Now I know, and I’m a little scared, but I can’t stop writing. What would happen to all the stories in my head? So I will have to make a second foray into the publishing world.
MW: I have quite a few stories in mind to follow Tower & Knife. I have one involving colonists, original inhabitants, and pirates that I began a long time ago, but delayed it because I want to deal with the issues related in colonialism the right way. It also involved magic trees, but Robin Hobb finished her book about magic trees first.
Another story I have involves what I call opposite-vampires, and their role in a group of baronies as each struggles for dominance. Actually that story is set in the same world as the first, a world I spent a great deal of time creating and then never used for a book. Yet.
I have a story about a guy who is a compulsive liar, and how he gets himself tangled into a magical conspiracy through his own fabrications.
Finally, I have a story about golem servants and their masters, a world that has fallen apart, and a few people who must fight malicious not-dead to put it back together again.
PW: How can readers get in contact with you and learn more about you?
MW: Well, I have two Facebook pages, one authorial (mazarkiswilliams.com), one personal, and people message me there quite a bit. I also have an email address, of course, Mazarkis (dot) Williams (at) gmail (dot) com. I am on Google+ as well, although I don’t spend as much time there as I should. My blog is Sarmin’s Corner at mazarkis.blogspot.com.
I think the best way to learn more about me, though, would be to read my writing. That’s where an author throws his or her soul.
Thanks for the interview, Paul! It was fun.
PW: Thank you, Maz!