Interviewing: Sebastien de Castell

Exclusive tell all with Sebastien de Castell!
  1. When did you first begin writing?

My first serious attempt to sit down and write fiction was when I was twenty-seven. I was making my living (if you could call it a living) playing guitar and keyboards in a touring cover band. The gig wasn’t exactly a creative peak for me, so I went to the library and found a box of book tapes called: “Let’s Write a Mystery” by Ralph McInerny. It was a sort of course on twenty-four cassette tapes where you basically wrote a book alongside Ralph. That experience of writing an entire novel for the first time was really life-changing for me even though the novel itself was pretty terrible. Years later, I decided to write another novel, which at the time I titled, ‘Three of Traitors’ but which would eventually become Traitor’s Blade and launch me to my first four-book publishing contract. I haven’t looked back since.

2. What first attracted you to the fantasy genre?

Fantasy is a great genre for writers who are strongly attracted to the theme because it allows you to build a world where the physics, the cultures, the very landscape ideally suits the theme you’re trying to explore. With the Greatcoats series, I was drawn to competing notions of idealism and the law, so I created a world that’s filled with corruption: the nobles are crooks, knights are thugs, and even the saints aren’t trustworthy. In such a world I could create heroes in the form of travelling, sword-fighting magistrates who were constantly forced to confront whether their ideals really had any purpose anymore, and in so doing, I got to consider what role idealism plays in our own world. That would be hard – for me, at any rate – to achieve if I were writing conventional crime fiction or historical fiction.

3. The Way of the Argosi is your eleventh novel – how do you keep coming up with so many scenarios and concepts?

Coming back to the theme as a driver of fiction, you can almost never explore all aspects of a theme in one book. With the Greatcoats series, I was very focused on this notion of idealism and whether it still served a purpose. So the first book, ‘Traitor’s Blade’, pitted idealism against rampant corruption. The second book, ‘Knight’s Shadow’, explored idealism as the opposite of pragmatism or what we sometimes call “the ends justify the means”. The third book, ‘Saint’s Blood’, was about idealism versus faith and how each one serves us in different ways. The final book in that series, Tyrant’s Throne, balanced the ideal of justice (which is subjective) against the notion of the law (which is meant to be objective). These days, we almost always tend to revert to the notion that justice is more important than the law, but something always troubled me about that, and writing Tyrant’s Throne allowed me to figure out why.
So, if you’re drawn to themes as a writer, then often it takes several books to navigate your way around even one of them in depth. Of course, a book that’s all theme basically becomes a polemic, so you have to let the theme be a kind of creative impulse or question you’re exploring, but focus your writing brain on the characters and their lives and journeys. Often where a character ends up at the end of one book brings up new questions about where they go next, and that leads you to the next novel.

4. Do you relate with any of the characters from Way of the Argosi?

I can always relate to some part of the characters I write. For instance, I’ve never gone through what Ferius goes through in the book, but the feelings of inconsolable loneliness, of desperately wanting revenge against those who’ve done her wrong – those are things I can relate to from my own teenage years. But I can also relate to the Jan’Tep mages who are the principal antagonists in the story and their sense of anxiety and insecurity about the very people they’ve harmed, always fearing they’ll come back to get vengeance on them unless the Jan’Tep find a way to eliminate that future threat. I wish I related more to Durral, of course; if I could be one-tenth as cool as that guy, I’d be happy.

5. I noticed, while reading Way of the Argosi, you write in the first person in a descriptive and provocative way. Would you say you have been influenced/inspired to write in this style by anyone in particular?

One of my favourite fantasy writers, when I was young, was Steven Brust with his Vlad Taltos series. His ability to convey all the different layers of a 1st person narrative, from the upper layers of dialogue and action to the more reflective layers of thoughts and emotional responses, and even to that most challenging layer of conveying things to the reader that the character themselves aren’t aware of, has been hugely influential on me.

6. Chronologically, is the Way of the Argosi a ‘prequel’ to the Spellslinger?

Prequel is kind of a dirty word to me. I’ve never particularly enjoyed prequels and never wanted to write them because it’s hard for me to see what the emotional stakes are when you know that character either lives or dies from the books that come later. But Ferius was different for me somehow. Even though we know her as this swaggering, wandering philosopher who never gives a straight answer in the ‘Spellslinger’ series, we really don’t know how she became that person. We also don’t know all that she’s hiding inside her, and so that meant there really were emotional stakes for me to explore. That said, you can actually start with ‘Way of the Argosi’ and then move onto the ‘Spellslinger’ series later, so it could be seen as the true start of the series rather than as a prequel.

7. Your works have won a few awards over the years, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal, what were those experiences like?

My experience with awards mostly involves not winning them, but I’ve been lucky enough to win a couple here or there. To be honest, the best part has usually been that it gives you an excuse to meet and get to know the other people nominated. For example, when I was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar award for best fantasy newcomer, I got to meet John Gwynne – who was up for the best novel award – and his wonderful family. John and I have become friends since then, so even though I didn’t win the award, I couldn’t be happier with the result.

8. You have a beautiful website and three books due out later this year. How do you find time to juggle writing and promoting your work?

Part of it is having the right people to help you. My website is run by ModFarm Design, and Rob McLellan is great to work with and updates my books without me having to deal with coding or design. Similarly, my publicist, Mickey Mikkelson, coordinates interviews (like this one!) so I just need to show up and be vaguely coherent. I have a part-time author’s assistant in the U.K. named Lauren Campbell who helps me with research and edits some of my work. In the old days, a lot of this kind of stuff was handled by publishers, but they’re on constant firing sprees these days, so a full-time author often needs to find people they enjoy working with to balance everything out.

9. When getting your book covers illustrated, do you have any say in the cover,or do you let the artist have free reign?

I’ve been fortunate with both my series that my publishers have involved me in the process from the initial creative brief to requesting final tweaks. The artistry all comes from the designers and illustrators, but I’ve been delighted with getting to be a part of the process.

10. What’s next for you? Are you going to be doing tours or online events once the pandemic is calmed down?

I love to travel and usually do a lot of it every year, so that’s the thing I’ve missed the most during the pandemic. The moment they let me fly again and someone wants me at a conference or book tour, I’ll be there!

Question from our Viewers:

I wrestle with this question a lot because first and foremost I want budding writers to just write – to give themselves permission to try things, to push through the hard parts of a novel when it feels like it’s all going to be a disaster just to see what’s on the other side, and above all else to be kind to themselves along the way. Believing in yourself doesn’t mean thinking you’re either a creative genius or a total failure; it means believing you’re worthy of the effort you’re putting into your art. So I guess that’s my big advice for today: be kind to yourself as you write.

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