Interview with Justin Call (MASTER OF SORROWS)
Following on from my review of Master of Sorrows and the accompanying Author Spotlight I wanted to know more about the work that went into the story and the author behind it all. So today I am excited to welcome back Justin T Call to the Hive!
Justin Call earned his Master’s in Literature and Creative Writing from Harvard University in 2012. He is an avid gamer, a board game publisher, and co-designer of the games Imperial Harvestand Royal Strawberries. Justin currently lives in Park City, Utah with his wife and two sons, his Great Dane (Pippa) and his Saint Bermastiff (Herbie). Justin‘s debut novel, Master of Sorrows, will be released on February 21, 2019 and is the first of four books in The Silent Gods series.
Hi Justin. For those that haven’t heard of you, pitch Master of Sorrows (MoS) in 50 words or less. Go, go, go!
An acolyte training at an academy for warrior-thieves seeks to attain a higher office, but dark secrets and cultural prejudice threaten to obstruct him. To succeed, he must forge his own path and come to terms with the magic inside him and the prophecy that seeks to rule him.
Readers are introduced to Annev, an apprentice of the Academy in Chaenbalu, and it is his story we follow. It’s not a spoiler for me to say that Annev only has one arm, which in a society where anyone with a physical ‘difference’ is considered afflicted with the ‘mark of Keos’, is a death sentence. Annev is not defined by being differently-abled, but it is key to who he is and the story.
Where did the idea for Annev as a character come from?
Interestingly, the inspiration for Annev’s arm originally came from Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The protagonist, Manuel Garcia “Mannie” O’Kelly-Davis, is a computer technician with a prosthetic arm, and Mannie uses the prosthetic to interface with computers and other circuitry. I liked the concept and eventually ported it over to a game of Dungeons and Dragons where I had devised a thief who wore a prosthetic containing lock-picking tools and other useful items. There is also the issue of Nuada Airgetlám – the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann from Irish folklore – who I learned about after developing Annev’s character but who subtly influenced his final form. Airgetlám means “silver hand,” so named because Nuada lost his arm in battle and had a new one crafted for him. He had to do this because tradition dictated that a king must be physically perfect, and losing his arm disqualified Nuada from rulership. So you can see seeds of prejudice there. There is also some question about whether Nuada was actually a god-king (not just a king) for the Irish, and Annev’s tale follows a similar pattern.
MoS is an EPIC start to what promises to be an incredible series. Speaking of epic, there is a wealth of world-building and history here. Where did the idea for your world come from?
Lots and lots of places. Speaking specifically of the world of Luquatra, though, most of its cosmology started around the concept of there being only three “elements” (instead of the traditional four or five that we see in occidental and oriental cultures). I thought it interesting that some cultures viewed the world in terms of “earth, air, fire, water,” while others grouped it into “metal, water, wood, sky, fire.” Sometimes things like “spirit” or “void” gets added, sometimes not.
So that got me thinking: “If we can split the elements into smaller pieces, can we also group them into larger ones? Could we have just three elements instead of four or five?” That process led me to develop the cosmology behind the three prime gods, their physical magic (skywater, earthblood, lightfire) and their metaphysical magic (mind, body, spirit). Later, I went through the same process for inventing the five Younger Gods and their own elemental stewardships (being subsets of “earthblood”).
Going with your tagline ‘every master has an apprenticeship’, what was your road to becoming a published author?
It’s been a long one. I knew I wanted to be an author from a very young age, but I was methodical about how to become a published author. For example, I studied literature and creative writing for both my undergraduate degree at BYU-Idaho, and then again for my master’s degree at Harvard. Every class I took was with the intent of making myself a better author, but it was a slow process because I was also working full-time while finishing my master’s degree. I did a rough draft of Master of Sorrows for my thesis (called “Mythopoeia and The Hero’s Journey in The Hand of Keos”), and then I started the slow process of querying agents with my manuscript. I think I only queried 16 or so before I got a phone call asking for representation (he was also the only agent to ask for my full manuscript).
Sticking with taglines, ‘what if you were destined to be a villain?’; which would you be – hero or villain?
In real life, I think I’m actually a pretty nice guy, and I’m usually looking to help out other people, be a peacemaker, etc. That should make me a hero, right?
At the same time, I’ve been known to be a bit dickish when it comes to ignoring proper social etiquette, I can be uncomfortably blunt and/or dry (depending on my mood), and I frequently revel in the awkwardness of others (I literally thrive in awkward situations). So that pushes me more towards the villain camp. I’m also given to over-analysis, which is another trait more often associated with villains.
Personally, though, I tend to be suspicious of anyone that thinks of him or herself as a genuine hero – I know some genuine heroes, and they would never think of themselves that way. I tend to be a lot less critical of people who call themselves villains, though. Also, if you call yourself a villain, you don’t have to do any soul searching when people call you a jerk (you can just be a jerk and move on); and if you decide to do something good for someone (because, hey, it turns out you really are a nice person), you don’t have to go explaining yourself to anyone . . . because screw them.
I think there’s probably a category for heroes who are often called villains (like Nightcrawler), or villains who keep showing up to help the good guys (like Venom). Or maybe for the bad guys who are really good-intentioned. That’s the camp I’d fall into. Like Doctor Doom. The dude is a genius and actually wants what’s best for the people of Latveria (his home country), and he’d fight equally hard to save and protect the rest of humanity (if they’d just let him rule the world in the process).
I have to come out and say this: your cover is GORGEOUS! Seriously. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC from Gollancz (thanks Stevie!) and a signed/numbered limited edition from Anderida books (thanks team!). What do you think of the cover?
I absolutely love the cover! The prettiest thing I’ve seen on a book…maybe ever.
The process was an interesting one since it began with Gollancz asking my opinion about style and tone. I told them I wanted something abstract – a symbol or an image that represented the story but which didn’t depict the typical fantasy tropes (like a mysterious figure in a robe/cape, a glowing sword, etc). I actually suggested a drawing of the Hand of Keos (the gold one mentioned in the book), which has an engraving of a fiery anvil with a hammer floating above it. We tried the hand thing, but it just didn’t look right, so we lifted the art from the hand and used that as a template (hence the appearance of the fiery anvil). The hammer was also called a “war falcon” initially, but I think the illustrator, Patrick Knowles, thought it was literally supposed to be a falcon…so that’s what he drew! I recognised the error immediately, but I really liked the image of the bird and asked if we could switch it to a phoenix (since that’s what Annev is often associated with). It had also originally been designed to look like an engraving on a piece of gold metal, but when Patrick revised the illustration, he moved it over to dark teal stone background (beautiful) and changed the engraving to a gold embossing. I was speechless. Couldn’t have been happier with the final product. And then the Gollancz team produced that gorgeous hard cover and…wow. It’s literally a work of art. I can stare at the cover and turn it over in my hands and never get tired of the detail found there. It’s going to be hard to top that!
2019 is shaping up be one heck of a year for fantasy, with some big name releases (Joe Abercombie, Ann Leckie, Mark Lawrence) as well as plenty of other voices that deserve to be shouted about. Is there anyone that you’ve recently enjoyed reading who is due to release a book in 2019?
Several! I’m looking forward to reading Mark Lawrence’s Holy Sister very soon, and I have been anxiously awaiting the last book in Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark trilogy, Crowfall. I’m also a big Brandon Sanderson fan, so I’m always on the lookout for the next book he releases (though I tend to read more of his large adult fantasy series); I have yet to read Skyward, for example, but it’s in my TBR pile. I also recently purchased the audiobook for Christopher Ruocchio’s Empire of Silence, and I’m looking forward to getting into his Sun Eater series (Ruocchio’s second book comes out this year, I believe).
If you were to do an Avengers-style ‘crossover’ between your world/characters and that of another author, who would you work with?
Brandon Sanderson. We are very different authors, but I think we also share a lot in common when it comes to our world building and magic systems. In fact, if you look at Sanderson’s Cosmere, it would be no difficult stretch to place my own fantasy world (Luquatra) within his universe. Beyond that, I’m just a huge Sanderson fan and I’d love to work with Brandon on a project.
If you could have your books produced in a different format (e.g. film, TV, game, theatre, comic etc.) what would you choose and why?
The smart answer here is film because that is where all the money is. I’ve also studied screenwriting, and I wouldn’t mind taking an active hand in writing the script.
But the problem with film and epic fantasy is that they don’t play well together. Epic fantasies need room to breathe and show the world building and character development, and they can’t do that in a single movie (sometimes not even in a series of movies). TV shows are much better for telling epic fantasy stories (see Game of Thrones), but it takes a lot to get it done right, and I feel most directors end up taking short cuts.
I’m also a board game designer, so of course I’d like to convert my own IP into a game (I believe that’s called vertical integration). And I wouldn’t say no to a comic.
But film is where the money is at, so that or TV would be my first choice. Second choice would be designing a game integrating parts of my fantasy series.
For the writers out there, what’s the one golden nugget of knowledge that you would pass on them, that you know now you are published?
If you’re a plotter like me, you have a hard time letting go of your outline and just writing. And while you’ve probably already heard the advice to just “vomit out that first draft,” I’d offer two other helpful points of advice.
(1) If you are a truly hardcore plotter and you’re having trouble motivating yourself in the drafting phase, try breaking down your outline into more manageable pieces. For me, it helps if I’ve “pantsed” an outline for all the chapters in my book, with at least three “beats” of action in each chapter. Then when I go to write, I take those beats and separate them into smaller, bite-sized pieces. I use those pieces as a road map to the (much larger) story, and as long as I keep taking bites, I find that I can keep a manageable drafting pace and stick fairly close to the story I’ve planned.
(2) Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect before it gets sent off to your editor. Yes, that would be lovely, but your editor is just going to give you a bunch of messy structural edits that force you to tear things apart and move bits around and repurpose a character’s actions/motivations, etc.. So if you spend too much time putting make up on your manuscript, you’ll find yourself having to revise and repaint a lot of it anyway. Instead, you should trust in the process. Get your draft out and worry about polishing that turd later down the assembly line (there will be plenty of time for that one structural edits are done).
Of course, if you’re not currently getting published by a traditional publisher, not all of #2 will apply to you. Instead, you’ll be trusting you wrote a perfect manuscript and you’ll be trying your hardest to polish that puppy into something that looks like a final draft (just so it’s attractive enough to garner some agent/editor’s attention); that can’t be helped, but once you’ve gotten past that, know there is a system in place to help you turn your good stuff into great stuff.
And last but certainly not least, if there was one thing that you could have a reader take away from reading your work, and remember in 10 years’ time, what would you want that to be?
We – each of us – are the heroes of our own story. We aren’t spectators or side characters – we are the heroes. That means we should be active participants in the story going on around us; we should be actively working to change our environment and not let events dictate who or what we are. If we don’t like our narrative – if we don’t like the direction of our story – we can always change it. Changing a passive life into an active one requires pain and sacrifice (as it does with any good story), but that’s also what makes us heroes.
Be the captain of your own ship. Be the hero of your own story. Be the master of your own destiny.
Thank you for joining us today and answering my questions Justin!
Justin Call is the author of epic fantasy Master Of Sorrows, available now from Golancz.