“Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” opens with a riot of color and activity that immediately hooks the reader, promising beauty and mystery in the story to come. Some writers are often afraid to open a story with vibrant images and settings. In your opinion, what makes a great opening scene?
Thank you! I wrote this one back in 2005 when I was starting to turn some significant corners in my craft and it showed with “Of Metal Men . . .” It was my first professional sale after Writers of the Future, and most of the other stories I wrote at that time landed in good markets. I had about a dozen small press sales under my belt with stories that were carefully written with clever opening lines that worked well enough. But once my storytelling muscles had some practice, I started trying out different kinds of stories and different kinds of openings. I was tackling alternate history, literary fantasy, and magic realism pieces that opened with “historical” quotes or bits of lovely language or just matter-of-fact narrative introducing a character and their problem.
But this story was a bizarre blend of magic and science that didn’t apologize for itself and assumed everyone was on board with the imposed world. And it opened with an image, though it took seeing Allen Douglas’ painting of Isaak for me to truly feel the power of it: A metal man found weeping in a crater by Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts and a story about an unlikely ally in a king who want to replace some of what that act of terror had taken from the world. When I saw the painting, the 9/11 influence of it all struck me and that experience ultimately led to the birth of The Psalms of Isaak, which fully incorporates this story in the early chapters of the first volume, Lamentation.
I think there are a lot of great ways to open a story. Danger, mystery, and wonder seem to be the three big hooks that work for me as a consumer of story. And I count literary prowess under wonder—sometimes, the beauty of the lines is able to pull me in by creating a sense of wonder all its own. Show me a character in trouble, or set up a scene full of questions that get me immediately engaged, or show me something magnificently evoked with words, and I’ll stay the course. I think the key words here are engage and evoke. Often, we’d rather explain. But good storytelling, for me, is like crowding a bunch of people onto a rusty tour bus and driving them through Imagination Forest. Rather than explain what they’re seeing, hit the potholes, drive under the waterfalls, get stuck in the mud and invite them to hop out and help push. Not just at the front, but all the way through. If they have the vicarious experience we’re hoping they’ll have, they’ll get back on the next bus for another ride to Storyland.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story?
Absolutely! The first snippet of this showed up in a bit of a writing experiment I was doing. I had just written “The Santaman Cycle”—a 900-word story that Jay Lake said was one of the shortest epics he’d read—and was playing with more language. I had a line in my head that wouldn’t go away and I wrote it down: “Rudolfo rode to Glimmerglam in the Age of Laughing Madness.” There was more—I have it somewhere—but this was the only bit that stuck.
A few months later, I saw that there was a market with a call out for stories featuring a mechanical oddity, and that name, Rudolfo, was still in mind. And I had that opening image—a mechanical man weeping in a crater in the smoldering ruins of the world’s most important city. The story unfolded for me as I wrote it, doing most of my words in a Big Time Hero sandwich shop in downtown Portland on lunch breaks from my day job at the time. I had no idea why I was writing it beyond the market I was leaning toward, but Leroy, my inner redneck muse, knew I was processing some big things. Not just the events around 9/11 four years earlier and its impact upon the world, but also the loss of my stepfather and my Mom’s failing health. My subconscious was already weaving together a tale of loss from the raw materials of life mixed up with some of my favorite trappings of genre.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good mechanical man story going back to The Wizard of Oz. And one of my first and favorite SF books—The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey—carried that forward. Followed soon after by C3P0 and R2D2 when Star Wars showed up. And there was Twiki in Buck Rogers. Later on, I was wowed by “The Bicentennial Man,” Bladerunner (and the novel it was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and AI. Isaak is certainly a hat-tip to the metal men before him, and it’s been suggested that maybe I subconsciously named him for Asimov, though I was actually aiming for the Old Testament character—a name that means laughter for a robot found weeping. Of course, if you go on to read Lamentation, you’ll learn why the name was important to Rudolfo.
Jin Li Tam was a tip of the hat to my wife, Jen, who is just a few inches over five feet tall. I’m about a foot taller. For the purposes of this story, I reversed our heights and made Jin Li Tam taller and Rudolfo shorter. And of course, when I wrote the story, I had no idea that I would later turn her into one of the main characters in a series that will land at five books and 750,000 words over a decade of my life. The character here—like Sethbert, Gregoric, and the others—is just backdrop and set-dressing for Rudolfo and Isaak’s story to take place around. But of course, Jin came to life for me once I started writing in her POV, and she’s taken me on quite a journey. You really have no idea from her single scene in this story that she is far more than Sethbert’s consort—she is actually part of a powerful banking and intelligence gathering family, House Li Tam, and is doing her House’s work in the Named Lands much like Bond serves Her Majesty.
I think it took me a few weeks to finish this story, and while I did, the market I was writing for closed to submissions a little ahead of schedule. So I was left with this unusual story to find a home for. And funny thing, despite this story growing up to change my life in pretty big ways, I never imagined that it would be as popular as it was or take me into such vast project. I think it bounced from one or two of the other markets before Doug Cohen pulled it from the Realms of Fantasy slush pile and sent it up to Shawna McCarthy. They ran it in 2006 with amazing art from Allen Douglas.
Imagine my delight to see the story coming out now in Lightspeed one long and very interesting decade later! And just as I’m wrapping up the series that Rudolfo and Isaak inspired.
Rudolfo is a pure delight. A dash of high fantasy, a smidge of faerie tale, a pinch of dashing rogue, he wears the story like a fine cloak made just for him. He fills every scene, yet for all his skill and flair, he never loses that spark of humanity. Relatable characters, even those larger than life, are vital to a story. Were there particular characters that captured your imagination as a boy? Anyone who fired your sense of wonder?
I’m so glad all of that carried over into him. In my mind, I saw this king full of ruthlessness, charm, and compassion combined with a zest for life faced with the mystery of a desolated city and a weeping robot. He just kind of showed up and announced that he was Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses and General of the Wandering Army, and he’s now been hanging around in my brain for eleven years.
Just like Isaak comes together from a lifetime of metal men that had goshwowed me, Rudolfo was frankensteined out of lots of characters that have influenced me and my hungry muse over the years, both with and without my conscious awareness. The truth is, it can sometimes be years before I see the various influences that show up in a project. But they are always there.
First and foremost, we may not see the caped crusader on the surface of Rudolfo, but certainly Bruce Wayne—orphan boy shaped by tragedy into a great detective and crime fighter—was an influence as one of my earliest heroes. Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Gray Mouser, Elric, and any Errol Flynn role were also characters that grabbed me all the way back into childhood and added their own influence to Rudolfo. The line “that damned Rudolfo to those I’ve bested in battle or in bed” was a nod to “that damned infernal pimpernel.” I wasn’t nearly as aware of it when I was writing the short story. My relationship with Rudolfo is now ten years older and five novels deeper so it’s harder to just see him here at the beginning of his journey without seeing the rest of it. But the story started with him, and I knew, once I realized it was a much bigger story, that it would also end with him.
And of course, there were so many other types of characters that wowed me—still wow me. The orphan of prophecy. Dreaming kings or queens. Displaced characters facing new worlds. Anyone living in Apocalypse. The homages and amalgamations of those types of characters don’t seem to leak into my short fiction very often in such a clear way as Rudolfo did. But they have certainly shown up all over the series with the hidden pope, the dreaming queen, the courtesan spy, the waste guide. And at the end of the day, I write the kind of stories I like to read . . . about people who are larger than my life and facing far scarier problems than mine.
From Fred Saberhagen to Larry Niven to Terry Brooks, the conceit of the powers of the past, whether technology or magic, evolving to become the magic of the current day is familiar to many readers. Here, the ancient works of Xhum Y’zir have leveled a city, and the Androfrancine Order write programs to run their mechoservitors. What other wonders of the past do you see having influenced the world you created?
This is a fantastic question. Saberhagen, Niven, Brooks, and Andre Norton, Clark Ashton Smith, and Sterling Lanier. All of these writers and more fed my muse, and when I wrote “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise,” I had no idea that’s what I was doing. I was hinting at something—and suggesting a blend of fantasy and science fiction—but because it was a “one-off” short story, I had no notion what it really was and didn’t need to know. I try to write strictly from the POV of my characters and Rudolfo doesn’t sit around and wonder about how his world came to be. He has a mythology, a history, a tradition that tells him and he accepts it. We don’t see much of it in this story, but Rudolfo’s is a world of moon wizards living in towers and ghosts in the sea and magicks that will heal you or hide you or make you strong, all taken from the ground. And darker magicks taken from blood that will do even more. And metal sparrows from the moon that can bear messages further, farther, and faster than Rudolfo’s raven. And steam-powered mechoservitors.
I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the short story, but by the time I was working on Lamentation in 2006, I realized I was dealing with Clarke’s Third Law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, this was all evolving for me, too. And each new volume has surprised me with more as Leroy unpacks parts of this story that I just never saw coming when I started it all eleven years ago.
Of course, there’s so much more, but I’d hate to spoil it if folks decide they want to explore Isaak and Rudolfo’s world further in the series.
You have been very open about your struggles with PTSD and how it affects your life and ability to write. How do you feel your experiences have affected your writing itself?
Yes, Jay (Lake) taught me that openness in how many lives he touched by sharing his cancer experiences. So I try to be transparent in the hopes that it will take away some of the stigma and get people the help they need. The PTSD has definitely not only affected me, but has in many ways shaped me—I had it fully in place while my personality was developing as a small child. And I’ve discovered, as I’ve spent time with it and learned from it, that there are gifts PTSD brought to me. One of them is the ability to solve complex problems—which really serves storytelling well, since stories are really just characters solving problems. So that’s one aspect of how it’s affected my writing. There is a level of hypervigilance and perfectionism, too, that can come with PTSD that I’m experiencing less now, but as I was developing my craft, those areas of intense focus served me well.
Another area it’s impacted my writing is that it’s given me a rich well of experience to draw from. It’s a bit uncanny that I tackled a series about how trauma and loss shapes us and our world . . . only to then experience more concentrated loss than I’d ever seen in such close proximity. And if I can understand something, I can write it effectively. If I can feel it, I can express it in my words. Writing characters who have been scarred and changed by trauma comes easily to me.
And the sword goes both ways. PTSD has impacted my writing, but my writing has also impacted my PTSD. It gives me a coping and processing tool like no other, with deep lines into my subconscious mind where the stuff of dreams bubbles up. Scooping out stories from that well helps me understand myself and process the soup of who I am. Bradbury said it best: “[You must] stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s been hard learning the patience to wait until my brain is ready to use that tool but once it is, I discover a lot about what is going on beneath the hood . . . all while telling stories.
I try to say this anytime it comes up: If you’re reading this and you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, reach out to someone for help and keep reaching until the help arrives. And drop me a note through my website if any of my experience with it can help.
Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you get started? Are you a pantser or a planner? Do you have a particular location where you prefer to write?
Usually, I try to get my words first thing in the day so that they’re done. Otherwise, resistance builds and other things start looking more exciting—like dishes and organizing my paperclip collection and weighing the cat. Back when I had a day job, “first thing” was around three a.m. These days, with me working from home and Daddying, I don’t sit down until closer to eight a.m. after the kids have gone to school. And now, exercise has trumped writing as my “first thing.” I used to use a stationary bike, but I’ve shifted to walking. That external stimuli helps get my brain going and it’s easier on my knees.
I can write anywhere as long as I am not around people I would rather spend time with (as opposed to the ones in my head). And I especially don’t tend to write well around other writers. If I’m with writers, I will want to talk about writing rather than write. So if I really want to find words, I don’t do writing dates or retreats, typically. If I have my backpack and my headphones and my laptop, I can find my words. I enjoy writing in diners and bars to mix things up or if I’m on the road. But when I’m at home, I write in the Den of Ken, a room full of books and treasures I’ve picked up along the way. The one thing I need is music. And if I’m stuck, then I need Simon and Garfunkel. Or some protein.
I try to be heuristic in my process, letting it evolve and adapt as I go. And I’m a hybrid—I do a little planning and a little pantsing, using three-act structure and some other tricks to shape the story’s bones before laying on meat and muscle. I tend to write . . . then sit and think between the acts . . . then write some more. And I tend to plan my short stories out more than my novels, but I think that’s because I have more experience with short stories and the moving parts come together faster for me. I’m hoping that as I become more aware of exactly how I write novels, I will develop more planning skills for them. And of course, now that I’m learning to write without the PTSD monkeys screaming in my ear, there’s no telling what new tricks I might pick up as I get back to work.
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