I adored “The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned.” It covers so much territory: religious and cultural differences; aging; myth; friendship; the terrible cost of violence; responsibilities to family; single parenting; parent-child relations. The list goes on and on. Not only is this a story that entertains, it also encourages the reader to think. When writing, how conscious are you of any social messages in your stories and how they may be received?
Thank you! The story means a lot to me so it’s wonderful to see it connect with others. It originally appeared on Podcastle in audio form, if you want to hear the great reading by Graeme Dunlop.
Social messages . . . that’s tricky, isn’t it? You can’t really sit down at the type-o-matic and say, “I want to write a story about misogynist culture!” That’s a good way to write a polemic. I find that once a story finds a heart, a theme, that theme lends itself to social commentary.
This story started out (you can tell from the title) as a goofy pastiche, but it found its heart when I had to talk about Amir’s mother. All of the sudden, I was looking at the problematic sex in the Conan stories. There was no way to talk about statutory rape and keep the story quick and light-hearted. With every draft of the story (and there were quite a few) I had to go deeper into that. It was really tricky, keeping Cromdor a sympathetic character while acknowledging the horror of what he had done.
What inspired you to write a takeoff of the usual lone wolf/barbarian sword-and-sorcery trope?
The title! I don’t remember what the prompt was, but I was writing off prompts with a group of friends, and I came up with the title “The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned.” It was too good not to use.
I first encountered Conan in Robert Jordan’s work-for-hire novels, reprinted in the 1990s to take advantage of Jordan’s Wheel of Time fame. And I liked being Conan. You get a kind of rush, a heady feeling of power from being the guy. Every problem can be solved by a sword stroke and a mug of ale. Yet at the same time, I recognized that Conan was “that guy” in the locker room—the one who “never lost a fight” and “bagged a chick last weekend.” You have these constant moments, as a sixteen-year-old boy, wondering, “Is that manhood?” And then you look at gentler men, men who would get creamed in a barfight but are genuine healers and teachers, and you think, “Is that manhood?” My father is a therapist, and a wonderfully understanding guy. He wasn’t about to go crack any jaws over a mug of ale, though. And my mother and sisters were a lot stronger and more complex than Conan’s “wenches.” So this story became really personal, because it was a story about different kinds of manhood, about unexamined assumptions, and about trauma and how it shapes us.
Worldbuilding in fiction can be tricky, yet here you seamlessly blend secondary and historical references from Ursalim to coffee to the Calderians to the Amarites. What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of building a world that is not only a backdrop for the story, but a place where the characters live even after the story is done?
You’re going to laugh: I am the only fantasy writer who is terrible at worldbuilding. I don’t make linguistic charts and extensive maps and a game-ified magic system—not at all. Usually I come up with a character’s journey and build the world around that. In the case of this story, I got lucky, because I had been working on a never-ending Crusades fantasy, and so it was very easy to borrow from that cosmology to put background in this story. I did invent the Frosthands, although that in itself was a takeoff of an archetype.
Basically, kids: Steal from everywhere, including yourself.
You’re not only a writer, you’re a musician. Do you find one ever influencing the other, cross-pollinating as it were?
Hm . . . I do, but the creative processes are different. Music is entirely intuitive. Something sounds right in a song or it doesn’t. I also hyper-focus when I start recording; I can work on a recording for twelve hours at a time. (Let us pause to thank my wife for her patience when I’m tracking drums.)
When I write, I’m very aware of structure, where characters are in their journeys, and I don’t ever write for more than three-hour chunks, or I get burnt out. I have it down to a science in a way I don’t music. Weird, huh? I would kind of like to trade one for the other. I would get a lot more writing done the other way, although I’d forget to eat or go to work.
I have written a few stories that revolved around music. I’ve got one book in the works that uses music as a part of the “magic system,” and I’ve been shopping around a mainstream YA novel about kids in high school trying to write the perfect song. But yeah, they’re very different “siblings.”
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Do you have a particular time of day when you’re most productive? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I pants short stories and plot novels. Is that allowed?
I have three kids and two jobs, so I get most writing done by taking the early bus to work. I get to work about 6:45 and write from 7:00 until 7:45 or so, then on the weekends I write in longer chunks. I am one of those morning people that everyone loves to hate.
What’s next for Spencer Ellsworth? What can readers look forward to in the coming months?
I have a novelette coming out on Tor.com sometime this summer called “When Stars Are Scattered,” and it’s an absolute monster, an Israeli-Palestine-esque conflict on another planet, about religious conflict and agency. Oh, and aliens shaped like kites. It took ten years to write, and I think it’s finally ready.
Beyond that, there are some longer things in the works, but I can’t officially tell. Watch my site for announcements, and find other stories there, and other magical things.
Spread the word!