Everyone needs a break from reality now and then — in 2020, perhaps more than ever. Picking up a novel — whether it by science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre — is an excellent way to avoid the news for a bit, and the lessons and ideas put forward in these novels often shape the way we view our own world.
One of my favorite fantasy authors also happens to be a dear friend of mine. Brendan Patrick Walsh recently published his fourth novel, The Century’s Scribe. I sat down with Brendan to talk with him about his newest offering and why this novel means so much to him.
Scott Wagner: This novel is your first foray into high fantasy. How did you go about the process of creating the two worlds that make up The Century’s Scribe?
Brendan Walsh: Well, that’s a good question because I haven’t tried to create my own fantasy world before. Each of my books before took place in the real world. Even Immortale, which was a fantasy novel, had world-building in it.
I had a lot of help. Around the time I started thinking about this story, I was reading a lot more high fantasy. Prior to that I was really exclusively just an urban fantasy reader. I took a lot of notes from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. That was the first one I read that I really latched on to and really loved.
I started out slowly. Because I don’t usually outline. I write what I first think about, then I review what I write, then I think, “Oh, this might be a neat thing to add on to that.” I start with a blank template and just add things to the world. I like that power! As a writer, you don’t always need to justify yourself, I’ve found. You can sort of do what you want. I just kept writing and the world began to make sense for me—both of the worlds, I should say.
SW: Did you ever have instances where you had ideas that didn’t really fit together? Or did it flow pretty easily from one idea to the next?
BW: It flew semi-well. It was quite a while from when I wrote the prologue of this book to when I finished. I started writing it in October of 2017, and by the time I made it to Chapter 8 or 9 it was already April of 2019. I was taking it very slowly, so I had a lot of time to think about it. Which meant that I had subplots that I was introducing that proceeded to go absolutely nowhere because I dumped them. And, in editing I had to get rid of them.
But I think about half the time I was successful. I would bring up a new thing regarding one world, regarding one character, and in the other world I’d bring up something with the knowledge that I was eventually going to bring these two worlds together. I thought, “if I introduce this thing here then that’s less work for me in the future.” At that point, around maybe Chapter 4 or 5, things started to better connect with me.
SW: You brought up these two worlds, represented by the cities of Kroonsaed and Brunswald in the novel. How would you characterize those two worlds?
BW: Well, there’s quite a few differences. The world of Brunswald, which is the capital of Skaltbard, the country where most of the action takes place, is more similar to the real world. I imagine it kind of looks like Victorian England. That’s been my vision for it. As far as what technologically exists in it, it’s maybe 1880s, 1890s London. Kroonsaed is a little bit harder to place, and that’s kind of my intention. It could be Enlightenment era, maybe 1700s. It could be even be the Renaissance based on what we know exists there.
There’s an early scene in the book where characters see guns for the first time, and they don’t know what they are. That gives you a hint of the technological differences between the two of them. In Kroonsaed, which is where our three main protagonists hail from, there are two sort of prominent species that live in the society. There are humans, and there are avehos, which are a humanoid species of avians that seem, in actions and in psychology, pretty similar to humans.
SW: I’d love to dive into that a bit more. The relationship between humans and avehos seems to be a central current throughout this entire novel. How did you go about crafting that interspecies relationship?
BW: To reiterate something that I said earlier, I didn’t really plan out a lot of things. I introduced the first aveho, which is one of the main characters, in Chapter 2, and at that point I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just thought, “Okay, here’s an idea,” and then I just put it in there. And as I went on and realized what I wanted to do with the book, it got a little more complex.
SW: Complex how?
BW: One of the things that a reader might find strange that’s revealed at a certain point in the book is that despite the fact that the humans and avehos of Kroonsaed seem comparatively backwards, they’re aware of the theory of evolution. It’s mentioned a couple times by some of the characters. I created this in line with the evolutionary ideas of vertebrate development over the last millions of years. The evolutionary chain for vertebrates goes fish, amphibians, lizards, birds, mammals. And I thought, “What if there was a species of bird that came before humans? What if civilization predates humans? If there was this other species that beat them to it?” I wondered, “What would happen when these two species met for the first time?” Probably nothing too productive, if I understand people at all.
A lot more information comes out in the second book, but in this one it’s definitely hinted that things aren’t perfect between humans and avehos. I think that’s sort of one of the things that attracts the three main characters to Brunswald, because they have this idea that there isn’t this conflict there, that it’s purer in a way. As we read in the book, that’s far from the truth, but from their perspectives, they’re in positions to be freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.
SW: I love that phrase – “freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.” It captures something I was thinking about with this novel. For the three main characters of the story, it feels almost like a coming of age novel cloaked in the mantle of high fantasy. As a recent university student and now young author yourself, how much of your own experiences went into drawing the characters of Dreden, Chanin, and Gerrika?
BW: Inevitably, a lot of my own experiences came up. I think its impossible not to, because pretty much every character I’ve ever written is influenced by someone I’ve known. And I think that’s what makes me have so much fondness for them. It makes my ability to relate to them that much stronger and it gets me more invested in the story.
I think you raise a good point about it feeling kind of like a coming of age story in a high fantasy setting. Even though this book pretty much only takes over the course of a week, the characters do come of age quite a bit by the end. In writing this I think I’m reflecting some of my own experiences as a university student, some of my own anxieties that I had about what I would do when I graduated. I asked myself, “How am I going to be able to adapt well enough after this setting that I was so fond of for four years?” You definitely see that in Dreden. I think as you learn more about the driving force behind the protagonists’ decisions, and why they each want to escape the way they do, each of them is very relatable.
SW: One of the characters even takes an interest in becoming a writer.
BW: Yes, Gerrika. At the start, he’s never been extremely fond of the written word. Nothing has been able to grab his attention until he reads the plays of Winds Wilk, who I imagine to be a sort of Terry Pratchett-esque figure. He writes satire, and is supposed to be very funny and clever – probably a bit ridiculously silly at times, but that’s part of the fun. But Wilk isn’t regarded extremely highly. Like Terry Pratchett when he first became an author – some people liked him, the critics hated him.
SW: He was seen as a “popular” author, not high literature.
BW: It wasn’t until his eighth novel, Guards! Guards! when people finally admitted, “Oh, this is a very smart book, this guy is very good at what he does.” And someone who is that passionate about the world, who’s heart comes out in his work like Terry Pratchett’s does…what people can go through for their own writing sometimes is humbling.
Now, with Gerrika, he connects with these plays because he wants to be able to be a writer, and to create what he wants. And what he wants to create are things in the similar spirit of these plays by Winds Wilk. However, nobody seems to want that. And that’s definitely a complication for him.
SW: Speaking of complicating things, The Century’s Scribe was originally much longer – you ended up splitting the novel into two parts. How did you decide where to split the narrative, and how did that affect the editing process?
BW: Yeah, it was originally 160,000 words. My publisher felt that was a bit too long. If they published that, a paperback would be maybe $23, instead of $18.95. They recommended that I either cut a certain part of it, or divide it into two books. I didn’t want to cut things, because I liked it how it was. I thought, “Okay, if I cut it into two books, I don’t have to do as much work. And, in the future, I could get more money, because people are going to buy Book Two if they like Book One.” I cut it to about 86,000 words.
The place I cut it was the best place I could, I think, because—well, I won’t say exactly what’s revealed, but the place I cut it deals a blow to the Prime Minister of Skaltbard, who is one of the secondary protagonists.
SW: It does end on a cliffhanger – some of the mysteries of the novel are revealed, but we’re left as a reader thinking, “Hang on, what’s going to happen next?”
BW: Exactly. We end with our main characters beginning to piece things together themselves. They have a fraction of the answers, enough to realize, “Oh, God, we haven’t been taking this seriously, what do we need to do? We need to figure this out.” I think that’s the best way the book could end because it summarizes everything that they know to the reader. And when the story picks up again, my hope is that those final questions that the protagonists are asking themselves will still be fresh in the reader’s mind once the sequel comes around.
SW: Besides the enjoyment of a narrative well-written and a story well-read, what’s one thing that you hope your readers take away after reading the Century’s Scribe?
BW: I think more than my ability to create a good intriguing plot or to be able to have interesting world-building, my preference would be that they think I write good characters. My favorite thing to read in a review is that I write character relationships well, or that I have three-dimensional characters. And I think the reason why is because these characters seem very real to me. A lot of them are based on a conglomerate of people that I’ve known throughout my life in the last ten years. Sometimes you intend a certain thing for a character, and they take on a life of their own, and they become their own person. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are very real. To me these characters feel as real as actual humans in my life.
I’ve said this many times – I don’t necessarily think that I write fiction. If it’s true that there are an infinite number of universes out there, then what I write is fact somewhere out in the vast cosmos. And if that’s true, I’m not a storyteller. I don’t make things up. I’m simply somebody who has the privilege of telling you what’s happening in one of those universes.
I do like what I did with the world-building, I do like the plot, I think there are a lot of things that are relevant in there. One of my favorite things in fantasy is when fantasy worlds hit a post-industrial society, like Skaltbard – I just think that’s really cool. But more than anything, I would like my readers to like my characters. To be able to relate to them, and almost care more about how it’s going to be resolved for them personally than how the story is going to be resolved for the world they live in.
SW: I think that’s really the strength of good science fiction and high fantasy – being able to ground this fantastic world in the humanity of the characters. What can readers expect from the second part of The Century’s Scribe? And does the sequel have an official title yet?
BW: I am probably going to call it The Century’s Last Word. I don’t want the title to deviate from the title of The Century’s Scribe because I want to reinforce the idea that this is one story, that this is a direct continuation. It picks up right where The Century’s Scribe left off.
I’m currently going over it again and I’m doing some edits for my publisher before I send it to them. I’m going to add a couple new scenes before I do. I’m going to add a new Chapter One to catch the reader up on what has previously been revealed and what previously happened.
And what can they expect? They can expect things to start going downhill real quick. This second part is a lot more of a rapid fire, oh-crap kind of book than the previous one, because it’s completely building off and riffing off what has come before. A reader is going to be sucked in very quickly.
At the end of The Century’s Scribe, some characters aren’t in the greatest emotional state. We will see a sort of culmination of that and how each of the three protagonists deal with it afterwards. And we will see as things start to take a turn for the worst that help can come in some unexpected forms for them. That’s what they can expect.
The Century’s Scribe is available for purchase on Amazon now.