How did “Renfrew’s Course” emerge for you?
Pretty much every year for the last decade-plus, my wife, Fiona, and I have flown to Scotland to spend time with her family in Kirkcaldy. My in-laws live within walking distance of the Beveridge Park, which is a large, public park where Fiona and I have taken a succession of family dogs for their walks. In addition to a paved walkway that circuits the park, there are a number of dirt trails through the woods that border it. At the end of one of those trails, there’s a stone structure—a kind of tower or keep—that, Fiona told me, was supposed to have been the local dwelling place of Michael Scott, the Wizard of the North.
Scott’s a somewhat minor historical figure who shows up in Dante’s Inferno but about whom a great deal remains unknown. He admitted to studying magic, was supposed to own a book full of supernatural creatures, and was associated with the Emperor Frederick II. A number of local legends attach to him.
On our way to the tower, Fiona and I batted around ideas for a story that would feature it and/or its famous resident. It occurred to me that the literal course we were following might blend or coincide with a more metaphorical course of magical study, which in turn led to the idea that walking the one might be the route to studying the other. I liked the idea of having to follow a secret path to gain admittance to a wizard’s tutelage, but that didn’t seem quite enough of an entrance fee.
What if, I thought, the path you walked took you through your life past, present, and future, so that you would know as fully as you could what it was you were giving up in order to pursue this other vocation? And what if you were with someone who was part of that life, and what if they were part of what you would have to give up, to the extent that not only would they cease to exist, they would cease to have existed? And what if they had the same experience and opportunity, and what if there were only space for one of you in the wizard’s class? Now that seemed like something I could make a story out of, so I did.
There are lots of donors in stories; fairy godparents, devils, old Jedi masters, and more mundane examples such as a family member or friend. Why did you choose a wizard to be a donor in this story?
Initially, it was due to the contours of the Michael Scott material I wanted to employ. I’d made use of ambiguous/evil magicians in a couple of earlier stories, though, including my first published pieces, “On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt,” and I liked the idea of returning to them.
I also liked the idea that, in order for you to study magic, there would have to be some kind of significant price paid, that magic wouldn’t be something you would happen to be born to, or understand intuitively. Thus, the magician who was going to instruct you would be not so much a donor as a vendor. No doubt that’s a preference that’s informed by my own experiences as a student and a teacher. The Harry Potter books and films have been so much in the air these last few years, they certainly played a part in all of this, but so must one of the formative books of my youth, Peter Straub’s Shadowland, which is all about the cost of studying magic.
There seems to be a parallel between Alzheimer’s and Renfew’s tuition fee. Can you tell us more about this connection?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but that parallel had not occurred to me. I wanted the disease to be a very real possibility for one of the characters in order to add pressure to his ultimate decision about the wizard’s offer.
Can you tell us what a day in the writing life of John Langan is like?
Far, far too much time spent on the Internet. I used to do most of my writing in the morning; lately, it’s at night. I don’t know what that shift means.
My next collection of stories, Technicolor and Other Revelations, will be published by Hippocampus Press later this year. I have stories forthcoming in S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings II and Orrin Grey and Silvia Garcia-Moreno’s Fungus anthology. I’m about two-thirds of the way done with my latest novel, which I’m concentrating on finishing by early summer.