Interview with Joaquín Baldwin (WOLF OF WITHERVALE)
Joaquín Baldwin writes epic fantasy with a queer touch. As a multi-disciplinary artist, he’s been recognized for his work in cinematography, photography, 3D design, and illustration, and his animated shorts have won over 100 awards. He unadvisedly decided that writing novels was the next thing on his list. While at Disney, he worked on films such as Zootopia, Encanto, Frozen and Moana. He spends an inordinate amount of time crafting the complex world of the Noss Saga.
Welcome to the Hive, Joaquin. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about the first book in your queer epic fantasy – what can readers expect in Wolf of Withervale?
Thanks for having me! I’m absurdly excited to share this saga with the world.
Wolf of Withervale is the story of a young man who inherits a magical mask from an old shapeshifter, who dies before she can warn him of the mask’s powers, of the empire who is chasing after it, and of the war that the mask is dragging behind itself. That’s the most basic way to set up the plot for Book 1 of the Noss Saga, but a much bigger tale of transformation ignites from there, spanning all six books.
There’s incredible action, a love story of an unconventional nature, animal spirits, ancient relics, and a magic system that is tightly grounded. But beyond the flashy bits, at its core, the Noss Saga is an exploration of sexuality and gender. It is a tale of self-discovery that deals with bigger philosophical themes such as the concept of deep time, the nature of consciousness, and even the consciousness of nature. I think the Noss Saga will make a huge difference particularly for the young, queer adventurers who have not seen yet themselves properly represented in stories of this kind.
And as an artist, I could not help myself but go way over the top with the art for this world. I’ve done dozens of illustrations, a ton of maps (really, check them out, they are insanely detailed), developed my own language and writing system, and lots more. The extras page I’ve prepared for each of the books are extensive, rich, and visually striking, and I’m constantly sharing new works to my mailing list, including behind-the-scenes images on how I make my illustrations.
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 so much wish I could listen to music while doing anything, but my brain can only focus on one thing at a time. I also wish that I didn’t do so much “writing” at 4am (I tend to wake up with a random idea, I write a note to myself, then I can’t sleep for hours as I process the implications of what I wrote).
I tend to outline some core aspects of my story. I give myself goalposts to reach, specific beats that I need to arrive at by a certain moment in the story, then let the characters dictate how I’ll get there. I love being surprised by where the story naturally drifts to, but I also want to know I’m crafting something with purpose and a clear destination.
At first, I was obsessed with keeping extensive worldbuilding notes, but then I realized that I simply let the world develop as I write and that upkeeping those notes took too much time for no real reward. I let the world evolve and forgot about all that, keeping most of it just in my memory except for some more critical bits of information I needed in tables and appendices.
The story I wrote is very much about self-discovery, so leaving room to discover aspects about the characters as I wrote them was quite satisfying. I knew where the core plot would lead, but never expected certain characters to become the focus or to change in so many ways through the story. They’ve surprised me often, and now I love them for it.
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I’m a photographer and cinematographer, so I’m extremely visual in my approach. A lot of my inspiration comes from photography tips I’ve taken all around the world. In a way, the Noss Saga tries to rescue the magic and beauty we already have with us here, and I simply shape this reality that I think is already fantastical enough into something new.
The magic system in Noss is based on the aetheric elements. Imagine that each element in this world had an identical aetheric counterpart, absolutely indistinguishable from it’s common variety except for one key attribute.
For example, magnium is the aetheric variant of iron. It forms stronger bonds and tougher alloys by imbuing those matrices with magnetic properties. Simple, but revolutionary for a developing civilization.
Aetheric carbon is known as soot, which seems to have some inexplicable link to the bonds between lifeforms, allowing those who inhale it as a drug to visualize the connections.
Pharos, the aetheric variant of phosphorous, luminesces when oxidized. Brime, or aetheric sulphur, constantly produces heat. Galvanum, for silver, has electrical properties. And aether, or aetheric hydrogen… Well, no one yet knows for sure how to isolate it and test its properties. Maybe someone knows, but I won’t spoil that.
There are more aetheric elements, perhaps even one for each common element, but they are exceedingly hard to detect since they mostly behave and look the same as every other atom, making them near impossible to properly study. But imagine the power such knowledge could bring…
Can you tell us a bit more about your character, Lago? And who else can we expect to meet along the way?
When we first meet Lago he’s only twelve, and right at the start of the story is where he inherits the magical mask the saga revolves around. Lago has had it a bit rough, and that has made him become a bit violent and distrustful, but he is still studious and passionate (he’s working on it, alright?). He’s fascinated by the stars and works as an assistant to his professor, Crysta, at the local observatory in his hometown of Withervale. Lago is gay (the in-world word for that being lorrkin), but at that age he hasn’t quite come to terms with that fact yet.
His best friend is Alaia, a worker at the coal mines who is optimistic, resourceful, and always makes sure Lago is headed in the right path. She takes the role of a big sister, even if she’s from an entirely different race: the Oldrin, who grow bony spurs on their bodies that make them lesser in the eyes of the locals, who treat them nearly as slaves. There’s also Bear, Lago’s mostly-mutt shepherd, but he’s just an excitable pup at the beginning of the story. Everyone loves Bear, even if he often brings trouble.
Most of Book 1 takes place six years after we first meet Lago, when he’s just turned 18 and is forced to flee his hometown. We’ll meet Ockam, a mysterious scout from the Free Tribelands; Fjorna, the chief arbalister from a specialist squad who is after the mask Lago has been hiding; Jiara, a brawny commander who won’t take no for an answer; Banook, a mountain of a man who lives alone in the mountains; and General Hallow, a ruthless ruler of pragmatic ambition.
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 enjoy it, but I wish I had more time for it (or rather, I wish it didn’t take so long, so that I would have time to do more illustrations). I polish extensively. I think I did about nine full edit passes on Book 1 before I handed it to my editor, who didn’t find many typos by that point–that helped him focus on more important stuff, like proper word usage, clarity, continuity, character motivations, voice, etc.
Can you tell us a bit more about your job as a Disney animator?
For my day job at Disney, I bounce between the roles of Director of Cinematography, Layout Supervisor, and Layout Artist. They are all tightly related, dealing with the camera and staging for animated features. Basically, we take the storyboards and translate them into 3D, reinterpreting the images into a more cinematic take, sometimes adding or removing beats, working with the editor to make sure it plays well. We also animate entire sequences, although always roughly and economically, working with many iterations. It’s like an early draft, were we find what the story needs and what to trim or add before we pass it on to the next department that will clean it up (in this case, we pass it on to the animation department, who will add finished animation and then hand it to lighting, etc).
Working in such a creative environment has been a blessing. I learned a ton about storytelling there. And I also learned what I don’t want to do with my own stories. I’m taking a big departure with my saga from what I’ve learned from structured takes like Save the Cat or McKee’s Story. I know how to write screenplays, how to set up my acts and beats and arcs, but I purposely did not want the Noss Saga to follow such predictable formulas. I let it develop naturally into something unique, keeping what I’ve found valuable through decades of learning film, but not limiting myself to those conventions.
Which of the films you’ve worked on is your favourite and why?
Zootopia would be my first pick, not only because it has anthropomorphic characters (anthro characters are a big part of the Noss Saga, although in a very different manner), but because it deals with complex themes like bias and mob mentality, and does so in a clever and relatable manner. Although I enjoy escapism, I prefer stories that tackle difficult concepts.
You’ve said that you worked a lot on the layout and overall design of your book(s). Can you tell us more about this? Was there always a particular aesthetic you wanted to portray?
I spent a lot of time at book shops simply opening up fantasy books, counting lines per page, seeing how the margins feel, the font size, the headers, what fonts they use (very few list them–a shame), how they handle the info on dust jackets, on copyright pages, etc. I simply love studying how it all works.
I was a web designer before I became an animator. I also did some layout work for magazines, so designing a book simply felt like an extension of that. I didn’t aim for a particular look to replicate, but simply wanted it to feel timeless, elegant, and within the genre expectations. There’s a little flare with sci-fi undertones in there (subtle, but on purpose), but overall it is minimalistic and clear. I love clarity. I don’t want the design to distract, but to flow.
Ok this is just for fun and is one of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I would ride a giant white wolf just like in Princess Mononoke, because that’s one of my favorite movies, and because there are also giant dire wolves in Noss. And I mean giant.
You’ve already written the entire six book saga, can you give us any glimpses into what we can expect next?
This will be hard without spoilers, but let me try. First, from the beginning, we are aware that there are sixteen enormous domes in the lands of Noss. The eighty-mile-wide structures are sealed, no one knows what’s in them. It’s probably obvious we’ll travel into them at some point, and I can tell you to expect the unexpected in each of them.
The story will span a great conflict from dueling empires seeking for the magical, wolf-like mask that Lago has in his possession, but also other artifacts of a similar nature. There are multiple love stories tangling through the vast tale, and many smaller adventures in each new location we visit, although it’s not exactly episodic.
We’ll learn more about the lost tribes who created the magical artifacts, about the shapeshifting animal spirits who seem intrinsically connected to their powers, and about the cause of the Downfall: a great cataclysm that erased most of the past memory of the planet, fifteen centuries before the story takes place. A much bigger goal will be set for the characters, something greater than the war that is coming, but that I cannot speak of, not yet.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate the release of Wolf of Withervale in October? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
I am a boring introvert who will celebrate at home by tweeting and sharing cool stuff and by answering comments from all the awesome fans. The “event” will be the links going live on my website, me sending hordes of people to check it all out, and then sitting anxiously in my chair waiting to see what happens.
I’ll have some giveaways though, in the days right before, the day of (October 10), and likely the days after, too.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
One of the unusual things about my fantasy world is that all that is fantastical about it is very grounded. Extinct species, locations directly lifted from real-world places, chemistry, astronomy, geology, things that I find fascinating make their way in there and are presented in a new light, but are truly already things that exist here, in a similar manner, today. In a way, this story is trying to show how magical and fantastical our world already is, and how much we need to learn to appreciate what we have with us. The process of discovery, of learning, whether it is about the natural world or about ourselves—that is what I find fascinating, and what I hope others will too.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Wolf of Withervale, Book One of the Noss Saga, is due for release 10th October 2023