Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Author Interview: Keryl Raist

I "met" Keryl through a group on Goodreads, where we're both members. Her first novel, Sylvianna, is a modern-day fantasy adventure with a strong romantic sub-plot. It's a long book but I read most of it on the five-hour Amtrak trip from New York to Manassas last month. I really enjoyed it (although there were a few passages that made me blush to read on the train!) so I thought it would be fun to get Keryl over here to answer a few questions.

Spoiler alert: this interview contains some mild spoilers for Sylvianna. I chatted with Keryl about this, and we don't think it should reduce your enjoyment of the book, but if you'd prefer to read it with no idea of what's to come then you may want to come back after reading the novel.

Let's start with the basics - tell me a little about your inspiration for Sylvianna.

I am, and I'm sure this will shock you deeply, a geek. Old school, hardcore, gamer geek. In college I lived in the Writer's House, and had the joy of some very creative friends who were also gamers. We were playing a RPG based on the Amber books by Roger Zelazny (which are brilliant) and my buddies came up with the very basic characters in my book. Magic user on the run from the apocalypse, the fairy stuck on earth, the buddy who vanishes, the geomancer in love with his boss' wife, and the healer who doesn't know what all is going on, are all basic character ideas from that game.

So that's where I got my basic character sketches from. Why the magic user had been involved in an apocalypse was interesting to me, so I began playing with it. Then, because it's a story written by me, it's got to have a romance and some theology. Especially in fantasy, where supernatural power and Gods are literally, physically, undeniably real, I feel like some level of theology is appropriate. I don't remember when I decided why Chris killed his God, but I do remember it was a turning point for the book. The original version was much darker, with Chris having done it knowing it would end up with everyone dead. But I began to like Chris, and Sarah, and I wanted something less grim for them.

So how much of your friends' original roleplay characters is left in the way your characters think and behave?

10%? Not all that much. Take Chris for example: his red hair, running away from the apocalypse, flesh melt, and missing his wife are all from the original character. All but the red hair I messed with pretty intensely. Why was he part of an apocalypse? That's entirely new. Why and how did he use flesh melt? Completely different. What happened to his wife? Also completely redone. Basically, my role playing buddies were a significantly less sympathetic group than my characters. We were having fun exploring our (very) dark sides, and when I began the book, I started off closer to the original characters. But the more I wrote, the more I began to like Sarah and Chris, the more I wanted them to be 'good' guys. So I toned down the evil, and made the characters more sympathetic.

Mostly the similarities remain in how the characters look, some key aspects of their back story, and some speech and mannerisms. The motivations, almost all of the back story, and all of the current plot are new.

Can you explain your decision to make Sarah Jewish? Do you think things would have turned out differently if she'd had a different religious background on Earth?

Originally, back on page one, Sarah was Jewish because I was interested in writing a character who wasn't the typical Urban Fantasy Heroine. They're usually godless or Christians. I've got a background in Religious Studies, and a long time ago I began to study Judaism, and found it compelling. I wanted to share what I liked about it with my readers. Over time, as I kept writing, and the story kept developing, Sarah's Judaism became more and more important to how the sequel shapes up.

I suppose most of Sylvianna would have been pretty close to the same if Sarah had been Christian, but I would have lost the opportunity for the home based religious interaction. For most Christians Church is where the majority of religious observance happens. For Jews, it's at home. So, some of my favorite scenes with Chris and Sarah would have had to been majorly restructured.

I also think, that had I written Sarah as a Christian, Chris' sexual acceptance/forgiveness arc wouldn't have worked as well. While it's true that there are plenty of devout Christians who do engage in pre-marital sex, I think if Sarah had had the same level of devotion as a Christian as she does as a Jew, their relationship would have remained chaste.

I can definitely say the things that will happen in the sequel would have been remarkably different if Sarah had been anything other than Jewish. The core of Christianity is forgiveness. Any and all sins can and will be forgiven by Christ, and Christians are supposed to emulate Jesus and forgive each other. Jews don't believe in that. They believe The Lord forgives sins against Himself, and that the rest of it is up to each individual you've wronged. In addition to that, Judaism is very big on Law, on following the Law and the creation of a just society.

As you know, there's a huge mess waiting for Sarah and Chris, and if she had been a devout Christian, what's coming up would have been very different.

Sylvianna is set on Earth, but there's a whole world in the background which we barely see, except in snatches of visions and memories. How did you go about constructing that world and its cultures?

Good question. I'd say The Ossolyn of Hidiri are an organic out growth of years as a gamer/history/religious studies wonk, but that sounds like a whole lot of thought didn't go into it, and it did.

So it worked something like this: I had an image of a character, who eventually became Ahni Al Ath Gyr Bui. Red hair, blue skin, white eyes. Why did he have these things? No idea. It looked cool. Likewise, I had his name, and also the name Cellin Ath Dath Wa. From there I built my Ossolyn naming structure, and once I had the names, I suddenly had positions for Cell and Ahni. Once I had positions for them, the others sort of fell into place. From there I started to round them out. I built a medieval-esque structure because that's the sort of world I'm most familiar with and could make the most 'real.'

Meanwhile, I knew I was going to destroy that world, and I knew my characters would be responsible. So I wanted it to be disagreeable enough so that the readers could sympathize with my characters. But it was also their home, so it had to be nice enough that the characters would miss it, and feel bad about what happened.

I knew that I had to come up with a compelling reason for apocalypse to be a worthwhile risk, so that meant the big bad had to be really big, and really bad.

And then there were just bits and pieces that hit me, and I liked them. So they got worked in. The war was one of those ideas. It wasn't part of the set up originally, but when it occurred to me, it really worked, so it got added into the mix.

As I wrote Sylvianna, I was also working on the back story and sequel. By the time Sylvianna was done I had about 75k words of back story finished as well. And that made for a very concrete world, culture, and storyline to play off of as I got into the edits and revisions on Sylvianna.

We've talked a little about the book, but what about your personal writing process? How do you get from page one to the end?

I use something called the BIC method. Butt in Chair. Every day, I sit down and write for at least two hours. I go to the gym, my kids go to the Kidzone, and I take advantage of the baby free time to write. Most days I write in the evening as well, but not all of them.

You change viewpoints a lot in the book, and the characters have very different levels of knowledge. Do you have any particular techniques for switching between different characters' thoughts?

I have a physical reminder I use when I'm writing. I did the different characters in different fonts so that I could easily "see" when I was in each character's P.O.V. Also for Sarah and Pat, what they know (or don't) is very much part of their motivations, so it made it easier to keep who knew what in mind.

Beyond that, there's very careful editing. I re-read the book like seventeen times to make sure no one knew anything they weren't supposed to. I'm working on the sequel now, and ran into a flashback where I completely muffed who knew what. Fortunately that wasn't too difficult to fix, but still... Mostly it's just a matter of really paying attention to what's on the page.

Thanks Keryl! Sylvianna is available in paperback or on Kindle. Personally, I can't wait for the sequel...


Slamdunk said...

Well done Rachel and Keryl.

I like your BIC method. Being successful requires discipline--no matter the endeavor.

christine said...

great interview - I use different fonts for different characters, too:)

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