Author Spotlight – James Priest (THE KIRINS SERIES)
James D. Priest, M.D., is the author of the four-book KIRINS fantasy series. He majored in English at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He studied English in the masters program and received a Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Minnesota. He spent three years in Japan as a physician in the U.S. Army caring for casualties from Vietnam, and four years in orthopedic residency at Stanford University. He practiced orthopedics in Minneapolis for twenty-one years. He has authored or co-authored approximately thirty medical articles and received the Minnesota Medicine Outstanding Writing Award.
Welcome to the Hive, James. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about Kirins: The Seer of Serone – why should readers check it out?
The Seer of Serone is an adventure in the classic fantasy tradition with a twist—it involves a hidden fantasy world co-existing with our own right here on modern-day earth. That thriving world just beyond our senses is inhabited by miniature, magical, humanoid beings called kirins, who dwell in elaborate tree villages and underground sanctuaries.
The novel is the fourth in my KIRINS series but can be read as a standalone story. At the beginning of The Seer of Serone, a renegade kirin magician named Fairmean surreptitiously gains access to the source of kirin magic and momentarily disrupts the global spell that keeps kirins invisible to humans. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious kirin messenger from Alaska arrives at the door of a magician named Speckarin. He aims to persuade Speckarin—who was renowned for having experience with human beings—to help rescue a kirin lad who disappeared after being temporarily rendered visible to humans.
The novel offers an expansive, well-developed fantasy world involving nearly one hundred different characters from kirins to humans to the kirins’ animal companions. Fans of sylvan fantasy settings will love reading about kirin clans that populate majestic trees and ride all manner of forest fauna. Fantasy fans who enjoy miniatures will enjoy reading about and imagining the kirins’ sprite-like existence. Fans of quests and adventure will find the book brimming with them. On a deeper level, the book explores themes of division, reconciliation, and redemption. And I’ve written a whole kirins trilogy that chronologically precedes The Seer of Serone, so if you enjoy this novel, you can immerse yourself in an even more expansive world of kirins.
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!
When I wrote the series, I had a writing room with a window overlooking a serene, wooded lake with grand, stoic trees and woodland creatures such as squirrels, birds, and—my favorite—wood ducks. As I gazed out that window pondering what to write, I imagined that the terrain before me was inhabited by a civilization of small, magical beings thriving just beyond our senses. That was the inspiration for my books, and that scenery remained my inspiration and constant companion.
I wrote much of the series at night because I had a busy medical practice during the day. But I really wrote anytime and anywhere that I could. I preferred to have no music or anything that would distract me, but I didn’t need a particular routine—just a computer and some available time.
Speaking of worlds, what inspired you to create your own world within our world? And do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I wanted the challenge of creating a fantasy world that coexists and interconnects with ours. The hard part, of course, was to create an elaborate fantasy world that plausibly exists immediately adjacent to present-day human civilization. I decided the way to do this is to make the race that inhabits this fantasy world—kirins—invisible to humans but not to other creatures. This way, kirins could interact with nature but remain beyond our senses. There had to be a backstory to this. That backstory engendered a theme that underlies the entire series: an ancient rift exists between kirins and humans. In the distant past, kirins and humans were friendly, but humans being human, they ultimately mistreated kirins and drove them to use their magic for self-preservation. Over the ensuing millennia, without our kirin companions, humans forgot how to practice magic. Our collective memory of kirins survive only in legend—tales about sprites, elves, leprechauns, Menehune, and similar small, magical, humanoid beings found in every civilization’s mythology.
The seat of kirin magic is Stonehenge, overseen and protected by the Guardian Magician. In the third book of the series, The Secret of the Hanging Stones, we learn that Stonehenge—the hanging stones—act as a kind of antenna that collects and focuses cosmic energy into a current of magic broadcast to kirins across the globe. Magic is central to kirin existence—kirins use it to conceal themselves from humans, to bond with their ilon (animal and bird companions that kirins use for transportation), to communicate across distances, and for many other life necessities. Whoever controls the source of kirin magic ultimately controls kirindom.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
My influences are classic science fiction and fantasy tales and writers: Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert. I imagine that’s why I’m told my stories are reminiscent of classic fantasy fiction. To be honest, the writers I dream of working with are no longer with us.
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?
I’ve never found any aspect of the writing process stressful. Every step in the writing and publishing process is enjoyable. An approach to editing that I found most useful was that every time I sat down to write, I would start by reading over and editing everything I’d composed the last time I wrote. I edited as I went.
Then, for each book I worked with several professional editors to get multiple perspectives. They were wonderful editors, and they all helped me improve each book. I really relied on them to help ensure the book was logical and readable before it was published. I incorporated about ninety percent of their suggestions. For example, at a spot early in The Seer of Serone, one of my editors, Doug Benson, identified a great place to address a slight discontinuity: the evil magician Fairmean (mentioned above), who as a punishment had been shorn of all magical powers, later discovered he retained a spark of magic—enough to commit an evil act. Doug suggested I trace the origin of that spark to a moment when Fairmean held a metal plate to momentarily and vengefully disrupt the global spell that renders all kirins invisible to humans. In that moment, Fairmean absorbed a tiny bit of magical energy, a small measure of his once-formidable power. It was a great suggestion.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
Thank you. I used the same cover artist—Jim Rownd— for all my books. That was quite remarkable since they were published across several decades. I was deeply involved in the process of selecting and developing the artwork for my book covers. Each of my covers features a scene from the book. Selecting that scene and ultimately the artwork was a winnowing process. For example, for Book One of the series, The Spell of No’an, I proposed around twenty-five possible scenes. We narrowed it down to three. Jim created sketches of the three, and from those we chose the one we liked best. It was very collaborative.
The aesthetic we aimed for on each of the covers in the series was to convey a sense of mystery, wonder, and action. Each cover depicts a scene at a critical juncture in the book. And with Jim doing the artwork for every book, his style brought a certain continuity to the series.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing? What inspired you to create the Kirins?
I think the hallmark of my main kirin characters is personal integrity and a sense of duty and loyalty to each other. As my father said to me after reading a manuscript of my first kirins book years ago, “The kirins do things the right way.”
That said, the reader will meet all kinds of characters in my books, kirin as well as human. The Seer of Serone alone has nearly one hundred characters, and the trilogy has hundreds more.
I like creating magicians and snarky old guys, so you see lots of magic users and grizzled warriors in my stories. I also like to create strong, wise female characters.
I was inspired to write the KIRINS books when I sought to exercise my creative muscles during a time, back in the 1980s, when I had a full-time medical practice as an orthopedic surgeon. When I ultimately decided to write a book, I initially considered writing about my experiences as an army surgeon caring for wounded soldiers coming out of Vietnam. But reliving those memories was painful. Creating a fantasy race in a magical world was a complete creative release for me, a catharsis of sorts.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
You could say my world has shifted—it’s called being eighty-three years old! I can’t write as much as I used to, or as much as I’d like to. When I’m not writing, I love playing tennis (although my tennis days are probably behind me), spending time with my grandchildren when they come to Hawaii to visit us, watching sports, conversing, and enjoying the fine weather in Hawaii.
It was once suggested to me that I could pick three activities to visualize as a way of relieving anxiety. I chose to picture myself playing tennis, operating in the operating room—because I was very good at that—and sitting at my computer writing. Those were my safe places, the places I enjoyed being. So, in my writing heyday I also spent a great deal of time in my medical practice and on the tennis court.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
A Balrog. Short of Gandalf, no one is defeating a Balrog.
Huh, no one has ever said Balrog…
As for creatures from my own stories, I would ride a volodon into battle. Volodons are airborne terrors that typically travel in packs and attack from the air. If I had to choose a battle companion from my series, it would be a character named Diliani. She is wise, extremely knowledgeable, an able fighter, and has the most level head among the exploring party at the heart of the series.
Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?
The Lord of the Rings books are my favorite of all time. Not hidden gems, to be sure, but it doesn’t get much better than that.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
In addition to fantasy writing, I enjoy writing travel essays. I have numerous essays on an Internet writing destination, channillo.com. I am also kicking around some nascent kirin tales. But many story lines in my published kirin books are left open, and it has crossed my mind many times that I would happily welcome other authors to take up the mantle and produce further tales based on my work, taking kirins to heights and depths the kirins and I have heretofore never dreamed of.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
No celebrations or virtual events planned at this time. I am just truly enjoying sitting back and seeing new readers discover my book and this series that I have been working on for four decades.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
For me, the overarching message of The Seer of Serone is one of hope and redemption, for individuals and for groups or societies. On the individual level, there’s always hope for anybody—even the most wretched individuals have the capacity for change. But that process also requires that others be willing to listen with an open mind. Forgiveness and reconciliation are especially hard—but especially necessary—when the individuals involved belong to different “groups” divided by longstanding mistrust.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
It was my pleasure. Thank you for the thoughtful questions!