Interview with Christopher Buehlman (THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF
Christopher Buehlman (@Buehlmeister) is a native Floridian and author of the literary horror novels ‘Those Across the River’ and ‘Between Two Fires.’ He is the winner of the 2007 Bridport Prize in poetry, and the author of several provocative plays, including Hot Nights for the War Wives of Ithaka. Many know him as comedian Christophe the Insultor, something of a cult figure on the renaissance festival circuit. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. His first novel, ‘Those Across the River,’ was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2012.
Welcome to the Hive, Christopher!
Congratulations on your release of The Blacktongue Thief! How does it feel to have your book finally out there in the wild?
Bizarre and wonderful. I first signed this deal way back in the spring of 2019, so 2021 seemed impossibly far away. With 2020 and all it brought, I had no idea just how far. I’m glad to see it coming out at a time when vaccinated people in America and the UK can safely go to bookstores again; but that gladness is tempered with a realization that the rest of the world isn’t there yet, and that we could and should be doing more to help them get here.
I absolutely agree. Especially in countries like India who have been suffering so much lately.
For those who may not know, can you tell us a little bit about your book? What can readers expect?
This a dysfunctional world presented through the lens of a cheerfully flawed young man. Kinch, our protagonist and narrator, is a thief indebted to his guild and commanded by them to follow a fearsome knight on her quest to find a lost queen. Along the way, encountering krakens, goblins, and witches in downward towers, he fills us in on the tragic history of the war-torn, horseless human kingdoms; though with such relentless gallows humor I would hesitate to call the book grimdark. Perhaps grindark.
That is an excellent term! I would like to make a call for more grindark novels please!
I was lucky enough to read and review an early copy from the UK publisher Gollancz and I have to say, it’s already one of my favourite reads of the year.
That’s delightful to hear.
Something I really enjoyed was your inventive worldbuilding. Your world includes various races, religions, languages and cultures. It also has an important history of Goblin Wars, and the population of women was far higher than the men. What sparked your inspiration here? And how much would you say your love of Renaissance Faires has influenced your world?
Hmmm. Wherever would I have gotten the idea for a system that wracks its youth with crushing debt in return for an education that may or may not prepare them to succeed in a world that’s gamed against them? (Looks sadly homeward).
As for renaissance faires, it’s hard for me to comment on how they influenced me while so far under their influence. I mean, it seems perfectly natural for me to oil my leather boots against a rainy day, as we see our characters doing at the start of their journey, or to listen to someone play the harp in a tavern, or to shoot a bow, or watch a crowd watch a show. Though I generally don’t pickpocket them as Kinch will. My writing and performing insult comedy at Faires for a quarter century probably furnished Kinch with more colorful language than he’d otherwise have.
I really enjoyed Kinch’s voice so I’m glad for that!
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Oh, that’s going to be dull! I should probably lie here and say I only write with sepia and goose quill on parchment, in an unheated, leaning wood cabin while a hired musician plays the violin.
Ah, but don’t all you authors write like this?
But no. It’s actually quite missionary-position – Coffee shops and headphones. I try to read before I write just to prime the word-making machinery. Aim for 2,000 words, but will take 1,000. I tend to edit as I go; maybe that’s the exotic bit when the usual advice is to blart out raw material and fuss with it later. In the evening, I subdue my wife and compel or bribe her to listen to what I’ve written. I highly recommend reading one’s own work aloud. Rubbish is easily detectable under these conditions; if you don’t believe it when you say it, it shouldn’t be in there.
That’s great advice.
As for what’s on those coffee shop headphones, it’s usually film scores or period music. One of my favorite musicians was a fellow named Owain Phyfe, whom I was lucky enough to know. Best voice on the renaissance festival circuit. You can find his music easily- look for his name, with or without The New World renaissance band, which included such luminous musicians as Martha Gaye, and the late Malcolm Smith and Bob Bielefeld. All top of their field. Too many of them gone now, but their rare, sweet music is caught in amber.
One of my favourite aspects was your use of humour. The main protagonist Kinch has such a distinctive, often cynical narrative voice, which I found really entertaining. Was the humour and tone something you had planned from the onset or did this just emerge as you began writing?
I often begin new books with a writing exercise – take some scene or other and just go. In this case, we had Kinch waiting in ambush as a reluctant highwayman, just about to be ordered to attack a lone traveler. This of course ended up being the actual opening of the book, but with a few important changes. Chiefly, I switched from third person to first. Telling the story from Kinch’s perspective leavened the violence and bleakness of the world I was describing, for me as well as the reader. I had fun writing Kinch, and it sounds, in your case at least, as if that shows.
It definitely shows, and he was definitely a fun character to follow.
Can you tell us a bit more about your other characters? Galva, Norrigal, Deadlegs and even our adorable cat, Bully-Boy, were such an eclectic group! Which ones did you have the most fun writing? And do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
Well, my favorite type of character is a wisecracking thief, hence the narration; but I enjoyed writing all of these characters, or they wouldn’t have made the cut.
I like Galva because she’s this hardened, haunted, lethal soldier – but she likes good wine and a long hot bath when she can get one, and she’s not humorless, though you have to pay attention to catch it. Norrigal is this young witch, powerful but unrefined, unsure of her own worth. Coming from the same country as Kinch-her tongue’s as black as his-she shares some of his humor and mischief, but with more of a practical edge. As their relationship progresses, it’s clear she’s calling the steps of their dance. I’ll let the reader discover Deadlegs and Bully-Boy on their own.
I have to agree with you there, Deadlegs and Bully-Boy are best to be discovered knowing very little about them!
Can you tell us a bit about how you use magic in your book? The magical tattoos and Deadlegs’ staff were both brilliant!
Magic is great fun to write about. You have to establish rules for the system so it seems credible, so it isn’t all-powerful. What good would armies be if some arch-mage could just lightning them all to ashes?
Yes! Limitations are definitely a must!
In the world of THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF, iron and steel damp magic, where copper and natural materials amplify it. You can tell if a group has a magicker by whether and how they’re armored. Magic can be ‘free’ as with a spell, or ‘caught’ as a tattoo that turns weapons used with the dominant hand, or that staff Deadlegs made that becomes a clockwork horse. A fabulous thing, that, but it took her a summer to make it, and it only works for an hour before it’s just a stick again.
You’re more well known for your horror books such as The Lesser Dead and The Suicide Motor Club. What made you want to move away from writing horror and step into the realms of fantasy? I mean, I could definitely still see some elements of horror in THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF, particularly in one scene which I think many readers will never forget! But how similar did you find writing both genres, and what would you say were the major differences?
Writing Horror is like writing form poetry in a way. Rather than rhyme and meter, you’re working with feelings of dread, shock and terror, and these have to be present with some regularity, in some rhythm, like the climbs and plunges of a roller coaster. Fantasy is much more like free verse – you can frighten if you want, but the reader isn’t expecting or demanding it. Certainly there are rhythms and structural requirements, but they’re not dependent on creating a specific visceral reaction like horror, or its cousin, comedy. All you have to accomplish in fantasy is the minor feat (sarcasm font) of telling a good story.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
As I mentioned above, I edit as I go, so the first draft takes longer, but is perhaps less rough. Still, there will and must be other drafts. I don’t enjoy the process of taking an existing thing apart and reworking it as much as I enjoy first building it, but I still enjoy it. It’s just a different thing. More deliberate. As much craft as art.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/horror influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
As with any horror author of a certain age, I cut my teeth on Stephen King’s novels, and his influence is deservedly foundational in the genre. His son, Joe Hill, is doing good work, and it would be fun to do something with him, especially on the TV front. On the fantasy side, Martin, Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss are all huge influences. I’d be beyond delighted to collaborate with any or all of the above.
Now that you mention it, I could actually see touches of Neil Gaiman’s style in your book.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. Did you encounter any difficulties?
In the first draft of this novel, I did stall out a bit about two thirds of the way in. I had to step away from it and ask some hard questions about who the real antagonists were. That’s when the Takers Guild came into sharper relief not just in Kinch’s life, but in world affairs on a massive scale.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover and yours is extremely eye-catching. How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I’ll be candid and say that I had hoped for a more traditional fantasy cover, perhaps picturing the party face-on, in a naturalistic painting. But when I saw Marie Bergeron’s striking design, I had to examine my prejudices and realize that these were informed by what I’d seen and enjoyed in the past. What I thought I wanted has been done before, many times. This was something wholly new, and brilliant, and needed to be seen on its own terms.
Absolutely, and personally I love that the cover appears quite different.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
That has to be one of the most unique answers we’ve ever had!!!
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Without any spoilers, what can readers expect in your sequel?
Look for wilder fauna and stranger cultures beyond the Thrall mountains. Beware the Book of the Full Shadow. Also, we’ll hear a good bit more about Galva’s experiences in the Daughters’ War.
And I cannot wait for that!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
Copies for all their friends.
And family, neighbours, work colleagues…
Thank you so much for joining us, Christopher!
Thank you for your interest!
It’s been a great pleasure!
The Blacktongue Thief is out now!