Tuesday, July 30, 2013

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: R. Janvier del Valle

R. Janvier del Valle, author of the swords-and-sorcery epic Sword from the Sky, talks about his background and inspirations.

Sword from the Sky (Book I) 

Hi, Rey! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer? What got you into writing?

Hello Mary, thanks for having me! Well, I’ve always been a creative person. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid and had a vivid imagination, but I was never really into writing until I got into my mid twenties. I was always a film lover, and to this day film is still my primary passion. During my high school days, I wrote a few action screenplays for a few of my friends' films, but when I went to college, I put the creative part of me aside so I could concentrate on my studies until many years later when the creative bug came back in full force. Initially, I was strictly a screenwriter, spending my time writing romance films (yes, romance), but they were more of what I call romance noir, that is, dark and moody romantic thrillers (which I hope to one day revisit in the novel form). After that, there was a weird period (that I’m sure most authors have) of writing poetry for a year or two, and finally, when I entered my master’s studies, I discovered Tolkien and Lewis. It was then that I decided to become a novelist.

I've noticed that you've written a number of epic, swords-and-sorcery type fantasy novels. What is it about the genre that appeals to you as a writer? 

Good question. Like I said, I first wrote romance for a few years, and from there I went into writing spec scripts for tv anime, more specifically, space operas. So, it wasn’t until I actually started writing novels that I broke into the fantasy genre. I guess because I was so involved in my studies in philosophy and theology and in the works of Lewis and Tolkien that I believed fantasy to be one of the highest forms of literature (though to a lot of people is known as the lowest), being that it used fantastical elements to inform the reader of the metaphysical realities not readily seen or understood in our natural world, and that’s what first drew me to the genre. Plus, growing up in the eighties, I was heavily influenced by movies like Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, Willow, Legend, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Dragonslayer, and Japanese mecha anime/live-action kaiju series like Ultraman, Ultraseven, Robotech, Mazinger Z and Voltron. All of these works were very epic in scale, very fantastical, and I completely fell in love with them. And I also think that with epic and heroic fantasy, I had the opportunity to really delve into what Tolkien called sub-creating, and that is creating a world from scratch, full of dynamic individuals and creatures living among certain physical and natural laws that the author brings to life, effectively mirroring not only our natural world but what is greater than our empirical world, and that to me is the world of spirit and of universal and eternal truths.

"Sword from the Sky" is the story of a 12-year-old boy with a wooden leg aspiring to be a master swordsman. What inspired his character? Why did you choose to give him a wooden leg?

The evolution of Luca has been a long metamorphosis. For instance, Luca’s character started as a powerful adult woman. Many years later, he is what he is today, a humble boy with an artificial leg. To make a long story short, I’ll tell you of a dream I once had. I saw Santa Claus walking through a cold and snowy forest one day, and suddenly, a sword landed on the ground behind him, seemingly falling from the sky. As expected, I woke up confused. Was I supposed to write about Santa Claus and a sword falling from the sky? At the time I had the dream, I was taking a class on Christianity and Jungian Psychology, and we were discussing dream analysis (coincidence?). And so through careful analysis I came to the conclusion that Mr. Claus represented childhood or something to do with children and myth, and the sword from the sky had something to do with a more powerful and unseen reality. So, a few days later my sci-fi novel I was working on at that moment suddenly gained a young boy as its hero and a change of genre--epic fantasy. And as to why I made him have a wooden leg, well it wasn't all my idea. I first created Luca without it, that is, with both legs intact. And after some time with Luca running around in my imagination, I discovered that his leg had been lost for some reason. Now, as an author, I could have either accepted that new revelation or intervened and made him whole again, but I decided to leave his crippled leg as it was because I knew that he would face more hardships that way and it would build a certain strength and character that would ultimately create a great hero. I also wanted to make his journey with him and understand his sufferings and faults. So I left his leg as it was and I think it has made him a better character because of it.

What stuck out to me about "Sword from the Sky" was the mythology and history woven into the story. Can you tell us a bit about your world-building process? 

Wow. Where do I start? In all sincerity, it did take a number of years to research and build my world before I even started on the manuscript. Did it have to take a couple of years? Probably not. At that time, I was working in advertising so I was using writing as a hobby of mine and I felt quite content just writing about different characters and creating various lands and having mock-interviews with Luca and everyone else. I also wrote short stories and folk tales involving some of my characters and other characters that weren't even mentioned in the main manuscript. It was sort of a geek cathartic thing, I guess. It wasn't until I decided to become a true novelist that I actually started working on the manuscript. But I guess the point is that, yes, creating a fantasy world does involve a long period of developing characters, worlds, cultures and mythical elements. I first start with creating the land and geography (I go from macro to micro), and then I go and construct the cities and the economic, political, and religious systems, and I do this by researching the great cities and civilizations of old and applying what is relative to my world. Next, I move on to the characters, and once that is done, I create the plot’s shell, a sort of cage if you will (i.e.: outlines, story arcs, etc.). I proceed to throw my characters into that plot cage and I let them run around inside the plot structure for a few weeks or so until the characters start taking a life of their own. And then I just observe. I’m like a journalist trapped in my imagination. I watch and write down everything they do. 

How has your background in theology affected your novels? 

I would safely guess that my background in theology and philosophy greatly influences my writing, especially when it deals with epic fantasy. Because of my education, I believe I’m able to understand the bigger eschatological picture of the war between good and evil, that is, what it is to understand the idea of the last days or of the end of the world which is very prevalent in fantasy literature. Also, my grounding in classical Aristotelian metaphysics and scholastic philosophy helps me understand my story’s narrative through the lens of an objective morality, of a world full of black, white, and gray, of universal concepts like truth, beauty, and goodness, and of the meaning of pure evil. Theology also helps me when dealing with spiritual things, especially with concepts like that of the supernatural, of immaterial spirits, of angels and demons, of sin and suffering, and of faith and hope. All of this helps me to build a world that’s not nihilistic but very meaningful, that is not relative and subjective but operating under absolutes and an objective natural law, and that is rooted in the belief that there is something greater than ourselves beyond what we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell.

Can you share one of your favorite passages from "Sword from the Sky" with us? 

One passage that stands out to me consists of a small group of paragraphs describing Luca’s temperament during the aftermath of his pronouncement of exile. The contrast between the immaculate bridge and Luca’s somewhat soiled self was very symbolic, representing the coexistence of the earthly and heavenly. Even though, from a theological standpoint, we live in a fallen world, we are cradled and nurtured by a higher, maximally perfect spiritual realm, and because of this, Luca felt as if his temporary suffering was nothing compared to the abundance of eternal joy he would one day experience.  
"After he had bowed his head to the officials, he took a few steps backward, turned and headed out of the hall. He entered the school’s main passageway, and after the doors closed behind him, he quickly changed into his exile clothes. As he changed into his new clothes, despair entered him, and he suddenly felt the urge to break loose and run with all his might. Once done, he took off running down the school, breaking out into the courtyard and sprinting down that length of the bridge known to all Davinians as One’s Path.
Sweat poured down all the lengths of his cheeks as he ran faster than he had ever run before, but he soon found himself stopping, for he felt the need to walk and contemplate the things around him. Luca had traveled half the length of the bridge when he came upon this sense of peace.

The sun reflected off the gorge’s expansive cliffs, and he could feel a breeze leap up from the bottom of the river to the top of the bridge, gently lifting his clothes up and invading the dead air space caught between his skin and the surface of his cold mask. He experienced relief and felt the need to keep himself free of emotion, at least for the time spent crossing the latter half of the bridge.

The boy looked out of place. He was a dirty old thing, sporting many levels of stains on his garments. The wooden blades he wore were dull in comparison to the marbled floor of the great bridge, and it seemed from far away as if Luca was a spec of dirt cleaving onto something beautiful and immaculate. As he crossed One’s Path, not one bird sung nature’s hymn. One could not even hear the running of the river’s hum but only a desperate sound, that of a solitary wooden leg smacking the bridge’s unblemished floors. How could sorrow be surrounded by so much beauty, he thought? Yet, unexpectedly, he smiled."

What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Characterizations? Back stories? Descriptions? Dialogue? Something else entirely? 

Editing. And I don’t mean copyediting or developmental editing, but editing as in revising and rewriting. That’s the true nature of the craft. That’s where I find the pearl inside the oyster. My first drafts always come out something akin to a high school essay project; it’s filled with cliches, throw-away dialogue, continuity issues, repetitive word usage, and so on. That’s when you start revising, making it tighter and tighter until you can read a chapter without having any highlights except for every five to ten pages or so. I liken the process to molding clay or sculpting a work of art. You start out with a big mess and you chip away at it, finally making it something recognizable, and lastly adding in all the sharp details. That’s the fun part. That’s when you can turn something really banal into something unique and crisp. There’s great satisfaction in digging your hand inside that oyster and finding that rare pearl.

Are there any themes or messages in "Sword from the Sky"? 

I didn't set out to create a story full of themes, but I have no control over my subconscious, and certain themes always tend to seep their way into my narratives via my influences, beliefs, and philosophical convictions. So, I would say that SFTS does contain a number of messages. Some are readily identifiable and some aren’t. Some are put in there with me being aware of them and some themes only readers tend to find. First and foremost, I tried my best to make my narrative as universal as possible, that is, make it relatable enough where people can not only pick out certain themes for themselves but also insert their own themes into the narrative as well. But off the top of my head, I can only think of a few. One is the age-old concept of good versus evil, which I tend to shy away from the literal interpretation of good versus evil since to me that suggests a sort of dualism that I don’t particular subscribe to. I see it more as a universal goodness that is corrupted by the immorality of mankind, thus evil then is a deprivation of goodness, so what is good in Esterra is suddenly becoming deprived of its goodness and therefore turning evil. That’s why darkness begins to slowly overtake the sun. The setting of the sun represents to me the extinction of mankind’s inherent goodness. Another theme, a more philosophically abstract one, would be the imagery of the fog endarkening the bright and sunny Esterran lands. That to me represents the destructive modern philosophies that tend to fog people’s hearts and numb their spiritual awareness (and I’ve been known to refer to the Enlightenment of the 17th century as the Endarkenment). A third theme deals with the realities of spiritual beings that are pure intellect and will, for instance, angels. Those higher angelic beings are alluded to in the novel through the use of the cosmic guardain star-beings that sort of act as a symbol of a spirit’s superiority over mankind. There’s also the theme (or concept) of eucatasrophe, which is a term coined by Tolkien referring to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the good guys of the story eventually triumph over evil, and not just because of chance, bravery, or hard work alone, but also supported by providential means, as if Luca’s journey is ultimately a part of some divine cosmic plan.

The book world is changing day by day. Amazon is on the rise, Barnes & Noble might be in trouble, and the Big Six is now the Big Five. As a writer, how are you navigating this ever-changing landscape? What's your experience with self-publishing been like? 

It’s tough, really tough. I’ve never done anything as tough. Only a few self-published writers have been able to really break through and become successful in a relatively short period of time, but for the rest, it’s a slow and painful process, but still quite rewarding in its own way. You just have to write, write, write, and keep building up your list of true fans, that is, fans that will buy anything you write. You definitely need to have a mailing list. There has to be someway you can keep in contact with your true fans. That’s one of the most important things. As a self published author, you really have to take it day by day. Everything changes daily. Your Amazon ranks change, your reviews, your fan base. You could have four and a half star consensus one day and the next it’s down to less than four, which might lessen your appeal to some readers. You can be in the best sellers list one day and then three days later, you’re out, and no one knows your book exists. You constantly have to manage your book as if it were a product regardless of what other authors or experts say. First, you write, then you manage, making sure you get as much exposure as possible. It’s exposure that sells your book (considering that you already have a great cover, a great description, a well-formatted and edited novel, and of course, an entertaining read). If you go in with the mindset that it’ll be a long journey to fulfilling your dreams, you’ll do well in the business. If you go in looking for instant success, you’re going to face a harsh reality.

Are you working on anything new? 

Right now I’m working on finishing up Book II of Sword from the Sky which should be out in a couple of months. It’ll introduce quite a number of colorful characters and it’ll be more epic in scale. I’m also working on series number five of the Deaf Swordsman novellas which a lot of my fans are patiently waiting for. Additionally in the works are two books that are not in the epic fantasy genre. One is a cyberpunk fantasy that deals with the topic of cloning and demonic possession and I have a bit over forty thousand words written on that one. The other is a Victorian mystery crime thriller set in Boston in 1885, featuring a young protagonist with a mysterious past who investigates a series of murders that deal with a serial killer who takes pleasure in assaulting pregnant teenage girls and murdering their unborn babies. I have just over forty thousand words written on that one as well.

Sword from the Sky is available at: Amazon (Kindle), Amazon (paperback)


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