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Interview: Evan Winter

Born in England to South American parents, Evan Winter was raised in Africa near the historical territory of his Xhosa ancestors. Evan has always loved fantasy novels, but when his son was born, he realized that there weren’t many epic fantasy novels featuring characters who looked like him. So, before he ran out of time, he started writing them. You can find him online at evanwinter.com, and on Twitter at EvanWinter.

The Rage of Dragons is the first book in your epic fantasy saga about Tau, a country swordsman who trains as a warrior for his people, the Omehi, who are caught up in an eternal, unwinnable war. And there are dragons! How did the premise come together for you?

The premise for The Rage of Dragons came together over a year of thinking about my life, my family, my history, and my love for fantasy. I consider the story to be in conversation with the genre I grew up with while also exploring my feelings around concepts of power, society, and the systems we use to keep those things in place and functioning. But the reason my thinking actually turned to writing, when it so often doesn’t, was because of my son. I wanted him to have this story because, when I was growing up, it didn’t exist. I wanted him to have an epic that regarded the world from a vantage point closer to his identity and his humanity.

I love the fact that you’ve written this for your son so he can see himself in this kind of story. What’s his take on it . . . or is he old enough to read it yet?

My son is seven years old and, right now, he’s on chapter six of the final Harry Potter book. He read and finished Philosopher’s Stone in grade one and he’s on track to complete the series, by himself, before he’s out of grade two. I’m immensely proud of him. He’s so much smarter, braver, kinder, and better than me in every way, and sometimes that scares me because I worry about how the world will treat him. So, yes, he does want to read The Rage of Dragons. He is, without doubt, technically capable of doing it, but . . . I’ve asked him to wait until he’s older.

I can see why. You describe your book as Game of Thrones meets Gladiator on Arrakis. That could be heavy stuff for his age. Were these works, including Frank Herbert’s Dune, major influences on the book?

All three works have influenced the book, but Rage was not written with them in mind. Instead, I wrote the story I would have wanted to read and then tried to reverse engineer its components to see how I could best explain it to potential readers in just one sentence.

On your website, you mention Robert Jordan as a favorite author of yours. What are some of your favorite books of his and how have they informed your writing?

The first half of the Wheel of Time defined reading for me for many years and, while waiting for some of the sequels, I dove into the Fallon series, his historical fiction written as Reagan O’Neal. His worlds were so full and real. I would read his work and be transported. For me, that was the real magic in the Wheel of Time.

When did you know that you wanted to write fantasy?

I can remember saying I wanted to be a writer in grade three in Zambia. I was in Mr. Cook’s class, and he’d asked everyone about the jobs they might want to do when older. There were some police officers, firefighters, and doctors, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to write stories.

You’ve done storytelling with visual media as a director and cinematographer. What aspects of your experience in this field made an impact on your storytelling in prose?

I think, most importantly, my experiences in film taught me to value shot listing. Time is extremely expensive on set, and I figured out (a little too slowly) that I made the best use of my time and achieved the best results when I made meticulous plans and clearly knew my intent. So, my outlines for book one and two are each around twenty percent the length of the final books. If I write a 700-page novel, I have a 140-page outline that describes, in detail, every single story beat. I do this so that I can go over and over and over the outline to feel where it breaks down for me and where it soars. I won’t know if it’ll work for anyone else until they have the final book in their hands, but there’s never really a way to know that anyhow. So, doing these detailed “shot lists” eases my worries about the story-making. It makes first drafts flow without me getting blocked, and the planning allows me to freely discover new directions that I can then consider within the context of the whole.

Let’s get into some of the worldbuilding in your novel. At the beginning, I mentioned there were dragons, which are black-scaled. There’s also a demon-populated underworld, called Isihogo, where Tau learns to send himself to continue his training. How did you come up with these details of the world he lives in?

I see stories like puzzles. I know the picture I want to finish with and then I have to create the pieces that build to that picture. So, each element becomes a piece, developed out of the overarching need to create a coherent finale. The type of magic, its costs, the people, the castes, everything comes from my desperate efforts to properly put into place the pieces that will form the end image that’s in my head.

Is your worldbuilding based on any research you had to do for the book, and if so, what did you have to research?

I had to do some research into Africa, but I’ll freely admit that the research I did was minor. It was about getting small details right so the environment feels realistic versus complex big ideas about the actual history and development of Africa as a continent. I did it this way intentionally. I wanted the world of the story to feel like my memories of growing up in Zambia feel. Xidda, Osonte, and the world itself (Uhmlaba) are a direct translation of a child’s experience of the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of equatorial/southern Africa.

What I find fascinating about your main character’s people, the Omehi, is that they’re a matriarchal society that worships a goddess, yet it seems as though their sense of divine chosen-ness keeps them engaged in a forever war with another people whose land they’ve occupied for millennia. Their sense of divine chosen-ness also seems to stoke their continuing the cycle of violence.

I would say that, from my perspective, you are exactly right in the way you read this.

As someone who’s been raised in a culture centered on war and combat, Tau is part of that cycle of violence, too. How much of Tau’s motivation of revenge and his obsessive impulse to train to the point of endangering himself are a product or a reflection of the Omehi’s sense of divine chosenness? It seems to me to verge on borderline blind faith.

It’s a great question, and I find that Tau’s behavior and path are a reaction to the world around him and the culture in which he finds himself. I believe his journey is, in many ways, a rare but inevitable one. The story is a zoom-in on a specific time, place, and person; not because that person is the chosen one, but because the longer a world like his exists, the more inevitable a “Tau” becomes. So, having come across the “rare but inevitable,” I’m interested in examining it, exploring it, and watching it play out in one of a million possible conclusions.

By the way, the combat and training scenes are intense. I mean, Tau, his sword brothers, and everyone else who has skin in the game show no mercy—and they can’t, because the stakes are so high. Do you have a martial arts background? Because these scenes feel like they’re written from firsthand experience. And what was your approach to choreographing these scenes?

I’ve trained on and off in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for almost two decades and I think that I conceive of these scenes and their effects in terms of the way I view physicality, violence, and the aspect that willpower plays in one’s ability to both enact and resist violence. There’s always something so desperate and immediate in being martial and there often comes a strange point where you’re exhausted, being beaten, and there’s nothing left in you but the will to win. I’m fascinated by that moment and the things that follow from it.

Now, this book was originally self-published. Tell us a little about what your self-publishing experience was like.

When I was writing and thinking about the future for the series, it was always going to start out self-published. I didn’t query agents and I didn’t email publishers. I didn’t want to run a gauntlet of gatekeepers, and this was because I’d worked for almost two decades in creative fields where I was servicing someone else’s vision. With The Rage of Dragons, I wanted (just once) to create something exactly as I saw it, with the hopes that there would be a few other people in the reading world who might enjoy it, too. I can’t help but think that self-publishing is important in the way it allows for that.

With that said, my current experience with traditional publishing, albeit limited, has been incredible. The team at Orbit feels like fantasy fans every bit as much as they are peerless professionals. They’ve made me feel at home and they’ve shown me that they’re here to help me tell the story I want to tell. I’ll always be glad that I got my start self-publishing and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I’m also very glad that I’m now with Orbit and my editor there. They can help me become a better writer, get this story to a much larger audience than I could on my own, and open doors that, unfortunately, still tend to remain closed to self-publishers. In the end, given the winding road I’ve taken to get here, the main thing I feel is fortunate.

When you self-published The Rage of Dragons, did you have a four-book series in mind before Orbit picked it up?

Yep! I’m a heavy outliner and, long before book one was finished, the series was planned in four parts.

So when can we expect the sequel to come out?

Orbit plans to publish book two in summer 2020, and I know it seems like I have to say this, but I truly think that book two builds on book one and is better. I’m glad that I feel that way. It’d be hard to think the work had gotten worse. However, I can still step back far enough to know and accept that the real test will be if readers feel that way, too.

Are there any other writing projects you can tell us about?

I have the very faintest concept in mind for the next story I want to tell, but it stays firmly in the background as every day feels, joyfully, consumed by thoughts and ideas around how to bring out the absolute best in the current series.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about The Rage of Dragons?

Yeah, I’m deeply grateful to all the readers who gave this book a chance when it was self-published. I’m very thankful for all the efforts that everyone at Orbit and Hachette have put into helping me tell the best story I can. I’m also swept away by the writing community, daily. Authors I’ve respected and whose work I’ve loved for years have reached out to me, blurbed the book, and offered wonderful advice. Reviewers and bloggers have been kind, gracious, and energetic in both their praise and write-ups. It’s been a wild journey so far, and getting to do this interview with you, for Lightspeed, just makes it all the more epic. Thank you!

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.