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INTERVIEW: Jon Sprunk Talks About his Epic BOOKS OF THE BLACK EARTH Series

Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow’s Son Saga (comprised of Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and more recently has started the Books of the Black Earth series with Blood and Iron. He kindly answered some questions about his work.


Paul Weimer:For those readers not familiar with you, who is Jon Sprunk?

Jon Sprunk:Jon Sprunk is a father, husband, fighter, lover, and occasionally…a writer. He’s working on his second fantasy series (the Book of the Black Earth) and hopes to have volume two of that saga out in stores by early next summer (2015).

PW: Your published career started with Sword and Sorcery (your first series, starting with Shadow’s Son). What drew you to writing Sword and Sorcery?

JS: That’s also a tough one to answer because it assumes I write according to genre, which isn’t exactly the case. I mean, I love classic S&S. Howard, Leiber, Burroughs, etc… But when I sit down to pen a new project, I’m thinking of the characters and the story, not which niche it will fit. I also read a lot of other sub-genres of fantasy, some scifi, some horror, non-fiction (emphasis on history), and so forth.

When asked why I write what I write, the most honest is: I’m a mirror of all that I have seen, read, heard, and experienced. If that places my work in a certain genre or sub-genre, fine. That’s not my concern. My sole concerns are writing the best stories I am able, to continually improve my technique and the depth of my prose, and pleasing my readers. (And I wouldn’t mind making a decent living doing it, if that’s possible.) Everything else is dross.

PW: As the Shadow books progressed, and now, especially with the Book of the Black Earth, your writing has shifted toward the Epic. Although both are secondary world fantasy, they can be very different beasts to read and write. What was that writing transition like?

JS: It just sort of happened with the Shadow books. I didn’t plan for them to expand in scope so much as it just occurred while I was writing. I tend to follow my heart. When something feels right, I try it. I suppose I had an inkling that those characters were destined for bigger things, but I can’t say it was a conscious ploy. Though I’m quite proud of the final product.

As for the Black Earth series, there were elements in the story foundation — the ancient historical roots, the mythologies at play, the questions about power (magical, religious, and temporary) — that needed room to breathe. And so I just went for it. Again, following my heart.

It wasn’t so much a writing transition as a decision. I wasn’t going to try to write an epic fantasy. I was just going to be me and let the chips fall. One thing I’m learning is that every artistic endeavor gets mixed results. Even the greatest writers of our time, or any time, have their detractors. The important thing is to follow your own path and not let those outside voices distract you. Easier said than done sometimes, but that’s the goal.

PW:Speaking of decisions, the Book of the Black Earth are set in the same universe as the Shadow Son‘s saga. How do they relate to each other in time and space to your first trilogy?

JS: The two series occur in the same world during roughly the same time (the Black Earth books take place a year or so after the Shadow series concludes), but they are in different geographical locations. None of the characters or major events crossover at this point.

PW: The Shadow Saga novels feel like they are set in a post-Roman Empire Western Europe, but the locales for the main action of the Book of the Black Earth feel very different. What were the cultural touchstones and inspirations for the Akeshian Empire and its part of the world?

JS: I’ve always been a lover of ancient history. While the realms of the Shadow books were shaped by medieval Europe (specifically Italy, the Celts, and the Norse), for this new series I dipped into Babylon and Egypt. The Akeshian Empire is a blend of both with the added spice of a magic-wielding ruling class.

This part of my fictional word is much older than the western nations, with a history (both oral and written) that goes back over a thousand years. In many ways their culture has become stilted over time, which makes them vulnerable to sudden change, such as the arrival of two very powerful sorcerers from foreign lands…

PW: On the subject of sorcerers. Although there is magic in the Shadow series, the Book of the Black Earth series has a lot more sorcery. including a viewpoint character, Horace, learning he is magically gifted. What were your challenges and inspirations in going from a very murky sword and sorcery look to a more epic fantasy feel?

JS: There are some parallels to the Shadow series. Both Caim and Horace learn how to use inherent powers without much instruction. But you’re right, the Black Earth series features much more magic. My inspirations to go that route were myriad. Rand from The Wheel of Time. Quick Ben from The Malazan series. Pug/Milamber from The Riftwar Cycle. Luke Skywalker. And many more. The Good Wizard archetype is fascinating to me, especially when matched up with a morally gray world. And that’s Horace’s journey to me: not so much the mastery of his powers, but the questions of where and when to use them. Must power always corrupt?

As for the challenges, they were legion, too. Firstly, I’m always cognizant of “power creep.” How much magic is too much? Then there’s the challenge of keeping things interesting and fresh. Most fantasy readers have read about dozens, if not hundreds, of magic systems. How do I make mine feel both familiar and new? It’s a difficult balance.

PW: The Shadow series felt like a “road series”, at least for Caim, as he heads north to find his heritage and destiny. Horace seems like he is going to stay put in Akeshia for the moment as events swirl around him. How is your worldbuilding, on a nuts and bolts level, different? How do you keep the same “Terrain” fresh?

JS: My approach to the worldbuilding is pretty much the same. I map out the basic region and then consider the history that shaped it. The biggest difference now is the depth of that culture. With the Black Earth series, the setting (the Akeshian Empire) was almost as big a pull on me as the storyline or the characters. A lot of that goes back to my love of ancient cultures, but there’s also some smidgens of older writing here. I actually first wrote a book that included this setting years ago. Nothing came of it, but the seeds were still there, waiting to be rediscovered.

As far as keeping things fresh, I don’t focus on that. I try to relate the details of setting as honestly and viscerally as I can within the context of the story, and then I move on. I’m not writing five-page descriptions of tea parties, but a lot of the joy of fantasy is being to picture the places. So that’s my goal.

PW: So, Blood and Iron is out now, and Storm and Steel is the next book in the series. What are your plans for the series in terms of length? Have the goals of the series changed with one book out and under your belt, and a second in the pipeline?

JS: The series is still planned for four books. None of the big-picture goals or storylines have changed since I started, but with each book written I get to know the characters and their situations better. So there have been adjustments along the way. For instance, I didn’t originally plan for Queen Byleth and Horace to develop such a close (co-dependent?) relationship. And Jirom and Emanon are becoming quite the power-couple.

But that’s a normal part of the process for me. I devise the overall structure, and the story guides me through all the twists and turns along the way.

PW: Well, I want to thank you for answering my questions. Besides the remainder of the Books of the Black Earth, what else is on your plate? Any convention appearances coming up?

JS: It’s always a pleasure talking with you. I’m not looking too far ahead right now. I want to finish the Black Earth series strongly. After that, I may have the kernel of a new book in the back of my head. It would be more of a return to my S&S roots. But we’ll see.

As for conventions, I’m taking it easy in 2015. I have a writing conference I attend every year here in PA, where I catch up with old friends, present a few workshops, and so on. Otherwise, I’ll be staying home. I will miss DragonCon especially, but I hope to get back there in the years to come. (If I can find a hotel room…. it’s getting insane.)

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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