Back in August, I received an ARC from Pyr for The Scroll of Years, the first full length novel of Chris Willrich. The blurb caught my curiosity and after reviewing the book (here), it was released on September 24th, I sent Chris this interview. Hope you enjoy!
First, can you briefly introduce yourself and describe your book for the non-initiated?
Hi -- my name's Chris Willrich, and I'm a fortysomething former children's librarian from the U.S. who writes fantasy and science fiction. My output's been short fiction up to now. I grew up in the state of Washington but I now live in Silicon Valley, where I'm married to a software engineer and look after our two kids. The Scroll of Years, my first book, is a sword-and-sorcery tale featuring Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, pair of romantically linked rogues who find themselves fleeing the familiar lands of the "West" for a distant, China-inspired "East."
With a couple of short stories starring Gaunt and Bone written over the years, why was now the time to write a full length novel?
That was really happenstance. Like a lot of people I have a couple of unsold novels on my hard drive, so trying to write at that length wasn't new. However, this one was originally meant as a novella. The story started snowballing, especially when I added more point-of-view characters.
What did you learn from writing your short stories that made The Scroll of Years a better book?
I think I've got a lot to learn still. But hopefully the short fiction keeps me alert for when the narrative's dragging. There's nothing wrong with jumping forward a few weeks in the span of a paragraph, if the story's just spinning its wheels and going nowhere. However, at the same time, I've also learned a somewhat contradictory impulse: to make each section interesting for its own sake, rather than just serving as a bridge to the next plot point.
The Scroll of Years is clearly influenced by Chinese culture. How much work went into research and how much of the tales you were told by your mother-in-law are part of the book?
A lot of the research was actually reviewing things I'd already read over the years, including stuff from college classes. (I'm a terrible packrat, but this time it was helpful.) I did read through the Tao Te Ching (Pinyin Dao De Jing) and the "Cold Mountain" poems of Hanshan, because they helped in getting into the mindsets of certain characters. (They're also just very interesting reading.)
The story labeled "The Tale of the Girl in the Window" is very close to how my late mother-in-law told it, with tweaks to make it fit into the setting. She also told a story about a siege broken by the divine appearance of a lone, gigantic shoe, an image that appears in Chapter 12. Hers was the more exciting story, I think! But I hope my take on it is fun. Other details are based on things she said, but thoroughly broken up. For example there's an aside about how utterly the imperial government would destroy a rebellious family -- that's essentially a quote from my mother-in-law. And there were bits and pieces about a challenging girlhood, which show up in the character of Next-One-a-Boy, and to a lesser degree the characters Lightning Bug and Wu.
Making Gaunt pregnant was a bold move and was seamlessly integrated into the plot. Where you afraid while writing that it could hinder your possibilities?
It was one of the starting points for the story, so it felt more like a hook than a barrier. My main worry was that it would make Gaunt seem passive or helpless. Hopefully her personality and reactions overcome this.
Was the story for the book set in stone from the beginning or did it evolve as you wrote?
It was very fluid. I knew it started with Gaunt and Bone on the run, and Gaunt pregnant, and that they'd end up in the East. The rest was up for grabs. Even the assassins changed between drafts.
Do you already have many stories of Gaunt and Bone in mind for the future?
Yes, there are a lot of ideas, ranging from nebulous thoughts to notes to drafts in various stages. I don't know how it all fits together yet, though.
Will there be an overarching plot for the books or will they all be standalone adventures?
What a great question! Seriously, I'm trying to answer that for myself right now, while writing the sequel. I have a bias toward self-contained stories, but I also want some overall plot threads, and striking a good balance will be interesting. So far I can say the sequel references events from the first book, but is also very much its own thing.
I liked the names of the characters in The Scroll of Years, particularly for the people of Qiangguo. Is it also influenced by Chinese given names?
It's partly influenced by reality, but there's a lot of fantasy there too. For the bandit names I was inspired by Barry Hughart's "Master Li" books in particular.
Did your experience as a children’s librarian influence your writing?
Not directly. But I love children's literature's willingness to embrace seemingly crazy ideas, for the sake of a fun story.
How were you introduced to genre fiction and more specifically to sword and sorcery?
Genre seems like it was in the air I breathed. Television, movies, and comics had lots of fantastic ideas in them. There were teachers who introduced me to A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit. My mom pointed me at Treasure Island, which I think has a familial resemblance to the fantasy genre.
Sword and sorcery specifically was something I got into in college. My best friends were role-playing gamers, and we swapped around books that shared what you might call a Dungeons and Dragons vibe, such as stuff by Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, and Steven Brust. It wasn't all what you could classify as s&s but a lot of it was.
Did you read much sword and sorcery before getting into The Scroll of Years?
Yes, though there's a lot I haven't seen yet, and writers whose works I've only scratched the surface of. I've read many of Moorcock's Eternal Champion books. Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard are naturally on my shelf, though I really need to catch up more on both of them. I've also read some of Charles Saunders' Imaro stories and Joanna Russ' Alyx stories. There's also Roger Zelazny, whose Amber books, and more so his Dilvish stories, might qualify as sword and sorcery.
What’s your opinion about the fantasy genre and community today?
I'm not very plugged into the community, but all my encounters have been very positive. As a reader, I'm delighted by all the choices, more than I can ever keep up with. Although I'm writing sword and sorcery (in my opinion anyway) I enjoy epic, urban, grim, slipstream -- all kinds of stuff.
Do you read reviews or are you anxious to?
I do get a little anxious about reactions, so I try to limit reading reviews to once in a while. That said, I do very much appreciate people spending time reading and reviewing my work, whatever they think of it.
Are you working on any other projects?
I'm working on a sequel to The Scroll of Years for Pyr, called The Silk Map. I've also got a Pathfinder roleplaying game tie-novel coming up titled The Dagger of Trust.
I rate the books I review by Characterization/World building/Magic system/Story/Writing and general feeling. Are any of these aspects more important in your case when you write?
That's going to depend a lot on the story. For Gaunt and Bone in particular, I think general feeling would probably come first, then writing, and then the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of story and character and setting. This is not a manifesto, though! I respect other approaches, and might try them myself.
What book(s) would you recommend to your readers?
I'd certainly recommend all the writers mentioned above.
Beyond that, if you liked The Scroll of Years, some writers you might consider are Howard Andrew Jones, Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne Valente, Vera Nazarian -- and Yoon Ha Lee, who has a new story collection titled Conservation of Shadows! Also, the sword and sorcery anthologies Griots (edited by Milton J. Davis and Charles R. Saunders) and Tales of the Emerald Serpent (edited by Scott Taylor) are well worth your time.
Anything you wish to add?
Well, speaking of books, right now I'm slowly and simultaneously reading books by Valente, N.K. Jemisin, Sam Sykes, and Brent Weeks, and really enjoying them all. My brain keeps wanting to create a gigantic comic-book style crossover of all their worlds, though, so I may have to cut back to one or two books at a time ...