Interview with R. R. Virdi (THE FIRST BINDING)
R.R. Virdi is a two-time Dragon Award finalist and a Nebula Award finalist. He is the author of two urban fantasy series, The Grave Report, and The Books of Winter. One of his short stories was part of a collection of artists’ works to go to the moon aboard the Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander in 2022. Should the writing gig not work out, he aims to follow his backup plan and become a dancing shark for a Katy Perry music video.
Welcome to the Hive, R.R. 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!
I’m what’s known as a pantser, but I genuinely find so long as I can hammer down the opening to my satisfaction, and have the climax/catharsis in mind, I’m good to go in writing. That’s it. For music, I love music without lyrics. I have ADHD and words in the background are just distracting. But I’ll listen to anything from epic music (that’s orchestral, bombastic, episodic, like movie soundtracks), to trap, classic, edm, instrumental, whatever. I’m not picky. I just listen to whatever suits the mood.
Speaking of worlds, your book is a South Asian inspired fantasy, and the world building used in the land of Etaynia richly and beautifully reflects this. Were there any particular South Asian stories, or aspects of the culture/heritage which inspired you the most? Could you tell us more about the mythology you used please?
Etaynia actually came about as an analog to Spain and Italy, the latter being where the Silk Road ended in old Venezia (Venice), so when the story begins, we’re at the end of the road so to speak. For the South Asian influences, I went back to proto-indo-european roots and went to source myths that existed before India had its own mythos because I wanted to see what myths led and changed over time to be adopted/co opted and changed in shaping India’s own mythos. From there, I had an understanding of the evolution of things for me to spin back anew in my world that makes them feel South Asian and familiar, all while being new for my world and being believable as having formed there.
I’m careful about sharing which myths I used because there are a lot of references and easter eggs that I’d prefer to keep secret for those reddit theorycrafters that I know exist.
The magic system within The First Binding centres on the magic user’s mind and their will. It is fascinatingly complex yet still easy to comprehend. Could you tell us more about how you developed your magic system, what inspirations did you draw from? Was it easy to create limitations and a structure, or did you find any parts particularly tricky?
This I can answer a bit more clearly ;P
The magic system comes from something I felt was off in most modern day magic systems to me and that’s…well, they don’t feel magical anymore. Magic lost its numinous and ethereal nature to me. It’s become indistinguishable in many ways from hard sciences the further hard magic has become popular. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
For me, though, magic has always been a tool, and it needs to serve everything else and be a byproduct of the world it exists in, not the other way around. So, for a world revolving around stories, things that are true and false, soft and yet concrete at the same time and prone to changing shape, I needed a magic system that could evolve in that world. It had to thread the line between hard and soft – something in the middle.
I turned to Asiatic philosophies and practices of meditation, reflection, visualisation exercises found throughout eastern cultures, then tied them to the principles of the bindings you will see in the novels. I can’t say more than that, though. Because understanding all of the bindings, what they do, and how they work, is part of the journey. And, part of what makes them so magical.
Just for fun, If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare? Would you use binding magic?
I would be TERRIBLY tempted to study and use them. However, I know their costs better than anyone else. And there are costs! I think knowing what I do…I would dabble because I cannot help my own curiosity in seeing how far I could push things, but my fear of what could go wrong would keep me from further pursuing them. I think I would be much better, and safer, if I dabbled with Artinsaning instead. <.< >.>
Now let’s discuss your characters! Tell us about Ari, our storyteller, and Eloine, our dazzling singer/dancer. Were they both easy characters to develop or did you encounter any difficulties? Which aspects of Ari’s backstory did you enjoy writing the most?
They both came naturally together as I conceptualised Ari. That might sound odd, but he was originally a nameless character to show up in a standalone South Asian fantasy I had. A side character – an intriguing one. Someone to hint at more to be in the world and what it could offer, and in true Ari/Storyteller fashion, he stole the show and my mind. So he took off with a story all his own, and as soon as that happened, Eloine formed before I’d begun writing the very first chapter.
They both reflect and enflame (at times) the best and worst about and within each other. But I have enjoyed getting to know them more and more and peeling away their layers, even if those aren’t all shared with the readers yet.
They will be.
The parts of Ari’s backstory I enjoyed writing the most would be his time with the Sparrows, or, honestly, his time making friends in the Ashram. He needed both parts of those experiences in early life, especially so early in his story, to become the person he has in story. Without them, you’d have a very different Ari. One to whom maybe kindness wouldn’t be as important. And if I were to explore what this story would be like with such an Ari, in another world, in more unforgiving circumstances…they would be a very dangerous person.
And not one I’d want to share close proximity to for too long a time.
Or at all.
Your novel celebrates the art of storytelling and explores themes of poverty, social injustices, fate and even the caste system which determined one’s social status. Were these themes something you had always planned to write about or did they organically develop as you began writing?
Yes. From the getgo I knew these would all be tackled because they are all themes that do in fact play roles in everyone’s stories. I haven’t met anyone (personally) whose life hasn’t been hurt/affected/changed by some kind of injustice (not always social) or…perceived in justice. Financial matters have always played a role (and especially in mine). Societal status, lack thereof. Social pressure (being South Asian, the fabled line comes to mind: what will the neighbours think? What will family think?” But as I started writing Ari, the themes evolved in HOW I would explore them, and specifically what they would mean to Ari, how he would experience them, and what he would walk away from them feeling and thinking.
It’s one thing I enjoy about pantsing. The further I got into Ari’s mind and heart, the more things evolved organically in the best way, as did his philosophy, past and present.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I’ve heard it best phrased this way: You don’t have a muse. You have a mortgage. After hearing that…well, it’s a pretty good motivator. But, that being said, I struggle with depression, and there are days it is agonising. What’s worked best for me has been rereading things I love before I write. It’s inspiring, and soothing. After that, I remember another piece of advice I’ve been giving: It’s nearly impossible to only write half a line once you get going. So start there.
I just commit to half a line, knowing it might be hard to come up with the full phrase. But once I start, I get frustrated with an unfinished thought or thing, so I keep going. Sometimes it doesn’t go far before I have to stop and start again, but it’s certainly farther than if I hadn’t started at all.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
Ha! So that’s a funny one. This project originally started indie, and I had worked with an artist to draft up concept art including a working indie cover. I sent all this to TOR after they bought the series. They loved it so much they hired my artist to just do the same cover but with more detail and a few chances. So, I say I had a lot of involvement. 😉
And it turned out perfectly!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I’d like to say dragon, because of the aesthetic, right? Come on. But…look, flying up that high doesn’t seem to work well in my mind. At least on dragonback. You’re probably not going to have a great view of things unless you’re strafing low into the battle. And if you’re close enough for dragonbreath to hit your enemies, you’re probably close enough for them to shoot down. Maybe a dragon’s hide is tough, but people are squishy.
Then there’s the whole, if your dragon goes down…or you somehow fall, well…gravity hurts. 🙂
I’ll have to go with the D&D nerd answer: a freaking BEHOLDER! They’ve got an eye for detail…as in any details I might need to disintegrate, petrify, deathify (death…I know), fear, and so on. How can you go wrong with a creature that can do all that? Plus, I think more people would be afraid of someone riding in on a giant blob with a fanged mouth and wiggly ray-shooting eyes than a lizard.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
Oh, absolutely. Book two is better than book one. It’s larger than book one. And there are clues to the book in book one.
Teasers like that, right? 😉
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your release in August? Do you have any upcoming virtual or in-person events our readers may be interested in?
I’ll be touring in Louisiana, appearing on a local morning show, then doing some local radio interviews, all before doing a signing in New Orleans at Tubby and Coos. After that, I’ll be flying home to celebrate by having Georgetown Cupcakes delivered to my home and having a cheat day. I will be doing virtual tour stuffs, but I haven’t been told all of what that’ll be, or what my local hometown tour will be like. But, close enough to release, about two weeks after, I will be guesting at DragonCon (a favorite of mine) where I’ll be paneling, celebrating the release with fans and friends, and probably eating my bodyweight in cake.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
That everyone has a story. That everyone’s story is important, even if you don’t realize or think so. That stories are worth hearing, and one of the best ways to understand people. And that not every story needs to be fast, hammering, and full of action/battles. Most peoples aren’t. That doesn’t make them any less interesting. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things you can learn from. In fact, some of the best stories lack battle, but they are filled with love, loss, understanding, heroism, personal triumphs, and better insights into life than some of the greatest battle stories.
And who’s to say one person’s story or life can’t be an epic all on its own?
Thank you so much for joining us today!
The First Binding is out today in the US and on the 18th in the UK! You can order your copy HERE