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Author Spotlight: Chris Willrich

What inspired the Bone and Gaunt series and “The Mermaid and the Mortal Thing”?

Several years ago my wife gave me good writing advice—stop trying so hard to outguess editors and write something you’d enjoy reading, whether or not you think it can sell. Surprisingly that turned out to be sword and sorcery. At the time I’d been noticing a thread of influence leading from Lord Dunsany through H.P. Lovecraft and on to Fritz Leiber, and I wanted to write adventure stories that captured that particular vibe.

“The Mermaid and the Mortal Thing” is of course indebted to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” It’s also inspired by all those amazing constructions you can see in sand castle competitions. A long time ago I’d had the idea of a mermaid building such sand castles, and it would have turned out she was a fan of human architecture. For some reason that old idea came up when I was thinking about Gaunt and Bone, and the combination clicked.

Where do the events of “The Mermaid and the Mortal Thing” fall in the chronology of the Gaunt and Bone stories? When in the series did you write it?

In the chronology it’s the second Gaunt and Bone story, right after “The Thief with Two Deaths” (F&SF, June 2000), but in order of writing it’s the sixth.

Could you share the process of writing a short story series? What’s the easiest part of returning to familiar characters? What’s the hardest?

I’ve tried not to plan too far ahead, and instead let things develop organically. I’ve even resisted making a map, even though I love fantasy maps. I’d also like each story to have its own flavor, and to be an enjoyable experience even if you know nothing beforehand about the series.

The easiest thing about writing the series is the “want ad” factor. If you’ve got characters who can reasonably get involved in lots of crazy adventures, there’s this wonderful moment when you introduce them to a new scenario and see if they want the job. You can practically hear them sizing up the situation and exchanging grim jokes about their odds of survival.

The hardest part is trimming the series of baggage. If I want readers to be able to come to the series cold, to pick it up at any point, then I can’t overcomplicate the overall storyline. Gaunt and Bone’s larger goals have to be fairly simply stated. Get rid of a magic book. Get away from trouble for a while. Start a family, but find a way to stay safe while doing so. Luckily, as a couple with an evolving relationship, they also have this built-in story arc that’s easy to relate to.

Faced with Bone and Gaunt’s choice, would you have saved the mermaids’ victims or hesitated? Do you relate more to Bone or Gaunt?

Oh, I’m definitely with Bone on that one. I’m a little in awe of people who behave heroically. It’s hard to say which character I relate to most overall, though. They’ve gotten so familiar now it’s easy to slip behind either one’s eyes.

“Bone recalled the old philosopher’s conundrum: If you replace all the wood of a vessel, is it the same craft? If you replace all the particulars of a man’s life, is he the same man? What, then, of self-knowledge? It seemed the only answer available was for the man to board the ship that life offered.” Is Bone’s conclusion yours or do you have different answers for the questions?

I didn’t want to present an absolute answer—I doubt there is one—but I’m basically with Bone here and his practical response. I want to believe there’s a divine, irreducible spark of selfhood in each of us, but given how mutable thought and memory can be, and how circumstances can change our perspective, sometimes it seems a very sputtery spark indeed. So I think in that sense our actions define us. We may always be in flux mentally, but our choices have concrete consequences that for better or worse can’t be undone. So Bone defines himself, in a small but real way, by beginning a new stage of his journey with Gaunt.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m working on a story, set in Gaunt and Bone’s world, about a black cat who genuinely causes bad luck, and how she deals with this power. I’m sketching more Gaunt and Bone pieces, and also working on a sequel to my space opera “Sails the Morne,” (Asimov’s, June 2009.)

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Jennifer Konieczny

Jennifer KoniecznyJennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century Latin legal texts, slushing for Lightspeed Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.