Garrett Calcaterra is author of the fantasy series The Dreamwielder Chronicles. His other full-length books include The Roads to Baldairn Motte and Umbral Visions. When not writing he enjoys playing guitar, hiking with his two dogs, quaffing good beer, and enjoying life with his wife and best friend, Mandy.
As a young writer, you try to find a balance between heeding the advice of your mentors and discovering your own voice as a writer. This was certainly the case for me. From Lidia Yuknavitch, my first instructor in fiction writing, I learned to not shy away from my own inner demons—to, indeed, let them inhabit my characters. From Gordon McAlpine, I learned the nuances of discovering my voice as a writer through the voice of my characters. Pilar Rotella, a magical realism scholar, exposed me to non-linear story telling and made me question all the naïve assumptions I made as an inexperienced storyteller. James P. Blaylock taught me to dig beneath the surface of the plot to find the magic in the worlds I created, even in the most ordinary and mundane of settings. And Tim Powers conveyed to me, through his own meticulous work ethic, the importance of research and planning a complex plot. But at the same time, I wasn’t the same as any of these writers—I was motivated by own creative impulses.
I recall Powers, for example, preaching the importance of focusing on the immediate story and never consciously putting “theme” into your writing. I saw the wisdom in this, but at the same time recognized that my own writing was best when there was an underlying, bigger issue I was exploring in my stories. It all came into focus for me a couple of years ago when I came across an old article on writing comic books by Alan Moore. I’m paraphrasing here, but they way I remember what Moore said was something along the lines of, Plot is what happens in a story, but theme is what a story is really about.
That sentiment perfectly categorizes what I do when my writing is working well, and that was certainly the case with writing my first published novel, Dreamwielder. On the surface, it’s a high action fantasy with many of the tropes common to the genre. But in the steampunk-influenced setting, there’s an underlying exploration of the inherent conflict between technology and nature, and the folly in thinking we, as humans, can bend Nature to our will. There was also a conscious effort to kick aside gender stereotypes in the fantasy genre.
That particular “theme” has carried over into the sequel, Souldrifter, and I know the novel is all the better for it. I didn’t set out to write strong female characters. (The very goal of doing so is proof that a writer thinks of females as “different.”) Rather, I set out to write strong characters, some of whom are female and live in a world that respects them less because of it.
I wrote with the confidence of having learned so many lessons from my mentors over the years, most importantly from the lessons of my newest mentor, Bruce McAllister, who taught me the importance of finding the inner life in my characters, characters who can then move the reader with a simple insight, even in the midst of ether-powered airships, beast-wielding sorcerers, and a nefarious political conspiracy that will keep you guessing to the end.