Mike Allen‘s first novel, The Black Fire Concerto, came out in July from Haunted Stars Publishing. Tanith Lee, this year’s recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, calls the book “a prize for the multitude of fans who relish strong Grand Guignol with their sword and sorcery.” By day, Mike works as the arts columnist for The Roanoke Times. His horror tale “The Button Bin” was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. He’s also the editor of the critically-acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthologies — the latest volume, Clockwork Phoenix 4, was funded by a $10,000 Kickstarter — and the fiction and poetry webzine Mythic Delirium.
by Mike Allen
Hello, folks! Thanks for reading. When John DeNardo offered me the chance to write a guest post about my first novel, The Black Fire Concerto — the story of a pair of traveling musicians battling ghouls and sorcerers in a grim post-apocalyptic world — I polled friends and colleagues about what topics would be best to talk about. In foolhardy fashion, I’m going to tackle just about all of them, because they all intertwine. Let’s start with how this book came to be published.
The explosion of self-publishing success stories in the digital age means that every writer who finishes a book faces a question of whether to go “traditional” or “indie” when trying to get it into people’s hands. Both routes promise great rewards, and both are fraught with long odds.
The Black Fire Concerto straddles both worlds: I call it “half-indie.” John O’Neill of Black Gate magazine wanted to experiment with creating a line of books published the indie way. He recruited writer and poet C.S.E. Cooney as an editor, and she recruited me. I had an unpublished novelette in my stash, my own version of an origin story for a traveling sword-and-sorcery-style duo, and Cooney asked me to expand it. Because John was looking for something short — a throwback to the days when your typical sci-fi or fantasy novel clocked in at about 180 pages – it was feasible, barely, for me to write and revise it in the really short time frame required. So I went for it, working on it at the same time I was editing my new anthology, Clockwork Phoenix 4. Both books ended up getting finished together, and published at the same time, which still kind of blows my mind.
Right now The Black Fire Concerto is available as a trade paperback and it’s enrolled in the Kindle Select program, which means an Amazon Prime member can borrow it free and John and I still get money. I had a wonderful editor in Claire Cooney, and John and crew recruited a stunning cover from Lauren K. Cannon — and unlike a full indie publication, those things didn’t have to come out of my pocket. And I have a partner invested in promoting the book, so I don’t have to flood my Twitter feed with “buy my book” tweets just to let people know it exists. For a small press book, it’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario.
And it allowed me to write the story I wanted to write, without having to concern myself with a marketing pitch.
I’ve long been interested in having my own duo of traveling fantasy adventurers along the lines of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Yet nothing had quite gelled. In recent years I had a character lurking in the back of my mind, a tall, quiet, intimidating woman, good with a gun, who traveled town-to-town Weird Western-style, but I couldn’t have told you what her story was.
Then a friend that I knew through theater circles, familiar with my penchant for writing horror, shared a nightmare he had with me and gave me permission to use it. The nightmare involved a diner where unsuspecting visitors were delivered to a basement and thrown in with the zombies corralled there – the victims would be bitten and become zombies themselves – and then the living human diners cannibalized the zombies.
But why would they do that?
I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with British novelist Ian Watson on some fiction and poetry projects, and one of the things he taught me is that some of the best stories emerge when you set two seemingly unconnected ideas against each other. I aimed my gunslinger into this scenario, and suddenly had a bizarre post-apocalyptic setting where magic has cursed ghouls to roam the earth and sorcerers can harvest them for power. My woman warrior, Olyssa, acquired musical talent that she could use to cast spells. The restaurant became a floating fortress, and Olyssa’s future sidekick, Erzelle, starts out the story trapped inside it. (If you’re curious where all this leads, Haunted Stars Press – the imprint John O’Neill created specifically to publish The Black Fire Concerto, because he considered it too disturbing for the younger Black Gate readers – has made the entirety of Part One available.)
Olyssa’s searching for her missing sister, and it’s a good thing that she takes Erzelle under her wing. Erzelle, a harpist, comes into magic of her own, and they need all their resources for the hellish places Olyssa’s quest takes them.
I’ve been asked in a couple of interviews about the challenges of writing woman characters. Erzelle is 12 at the start of the story and Olyssa appears to be in her early 30s, but is possibly much older. I made no conscious choice to center this novel on a duo of women — that’s just how the story always went in my head. I am, however, well aware of the debates taking place in the fantasy and science fiction scene about women characters and women authors, and how even though we’re well into the 21st century the field is lagging behind in its attitudes and unreasonably limited in its concepts of what a female character can be.
I think I could best describe my approach this way: though of course it’s important that Olyssa and Erzelle are women, it’s not what defines them – it’s not the most important thing to know about them at all times. People are always more than what antiquated gender expectations purport to require of them.
My colleague Elizabeth Campbell, whose Antimatter Press makes great e-books, shared some of her frustration with fiction on Twitter the other day: “Falling in love is not a default condition of being a woman.” Which compels me to mention that there’s not a jot of romance in The Black Fire Concerto. It’s a mix of horror, fantasy and action.
My friend Leah Bobet wrote recently on Facebook that “being a writer is a complicated side effect of really wanting a certain book to read, but nobody’s written it for you yet.”
I saw an opportunity to do just that when Claire and John recruited me for this project. As epic fantasies have grown more padded, more bloated (Thanks, Robert Jordan!) I’ve often found myself nostalgic for the lightning quick pace of Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels. Even when I read The Guns of Avalon in the early 80s, I remember being startled at how that slender book compressed enough incident between its covers to fill a novel twice its size. So that was the pace I shot for.
And in a nod to that other famous sword and sorcery duo, Elric and Moonglum, I decided I didn’t want the brevity of my book to limit the scope of what could happen. I particularly had in mind the novella that opens Michael Moorcock’s The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, in which Elric becomes part of a surreal, galactic scale, anything-can-happen magical battle that unfolds in just a few dozen pages. Before my novel is over, Olyssa and Erzelle get their own chance to go larger than life – multiple chances, actually, from which they never back down. No matter how scary things get.
My buddy Tiffany Trent, who was kind enough to grace my book with a blurb, had a good-spirited complaint as she was reading. She told me that “I think you should feel very good about your book–it gave me serious nightmares.”
Yes, that e-mail made me grin. I suppose her reaction’s fitting, as a nightmare inspired the book. As a kid I was extremely prone to nightmares – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Heart Heart,” which I encountered in third grade, kicked off night terrors that lasted for years – and so I eventually compensated by becoming a connoisseur of all things horror, from H.P. Lovecraft to Clive Barker to obscure treasures like Brian McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones. I’m sure that pieces carved out of all those influences appear in the course of Olyssa and Erzelle’s harrowing adventures.