Interview with S.L. Farrell

February 4, 2008

farrelljacketsmall.jpgToday I present an interview with my good friend S. L. Farrell.  Steve is the author of the popular and critically acclaimed “Cloudmages” Trilogy and has a new book, A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, coming out on Tuesday, February 5.  He teaches writing at the university level and is also an accomplished musician and a Sandan in Aikido.  I first met him at RiverCon back in the late 1990s and though we don’t see each other nearly as often as I’d like, we do keep in touch.  He’s not only funny, uncommonly thoughtful, and keenly intelligent; he’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet.  Recently he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his recent work, his upcoming novel, and writing in general  

DBC:  Why don’t you begin by introducing yourself to those readers who might not be familiar with your work?  Who are you?  What have you done? 

SLF:  I’m S.L. Farrell, and I’m a writer of (mostly) fantasy.  My previous three novels were part of the “Cloudmages” series (HOLDER OF LIGHTNING, MAGE OF CLOUDS, and HEIR OF STONE), which were Celtic-based fantasy taking place in a fictional Ireland — all from DAW Books, as is my current book.   The series was well-received:  Booklist called the last one “Good enough to cast in gold” (now there’s a piece of hyperbole I like — and makes a great cover quote!) and Publisher’s Weekly said I was a “rising star of Celtic fantasy,” which strikes me as nice but rather limiting, especially since after that trilogy, I’ve moved away from the Celtic mythology.  And hey, speaking of cover quotes, there’s one from you (about the Cloudmages series) on the back of my new book… I’ve also started writing some short fiction.  You’ll find my story “Incidental Music For Heroes” in INSIDE STRAIGHT, the new “Wild Cards” novel edited by George RR Martin (out from Tor Books in January ’08).  I’ll also have a story entitled “Dirge In A Major Key” in the second volume, BUSTED FLUSH, which might be out later this year.  

DBC:  Your upcoming book, A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, is the first volume in a new series.  Can you tell us something about the book and the world in which it’s set?  Is this world entirely new, or is it linked in some way to any of your earlier work? 

SLF:  No, there’s no linkage.  While I have several stories I’d still love to tell in the Cloudmages universe (and hey, I might get around to them someday), I wanted to try something different.  I’ve always been fascinated by that murky, unclear interface between superstition and science, and after reading a few books on the Renaissance period, and after a trip to France that proved extremely fruitful for creative ideas, I started creating a world where magic existed but the use of ‘spells’ and such has always been linked to religion.  But now there has arisen a secular group who is also performing magic (albeit not as powerfully), and who claims that the use of magic has nothing to do with faith or God, but is only a matter of following a ‘formula.’  That cultural conflict is at the core of the book, though it’s a much more complicated story than that.   I also like to push myself a bit as a writer, so in this one I also took some chances and played with the narrative structure, using nine or ten separate viewpoint characters and alternating between each of them.  I think that lends a lot to the book, as the reader gets to see the intrigue and action from several vantage points and through characters who have very different agendas.  It may be a bit ‘harder’ on the reader than a single or limited POV, but I think they’ll also find it more rewarding.  I hope so, anyway!  🙂  

DBC:  You’ve written epic fantasy, space-based SF, and pretty much everything in between.  Are there themes that tie your works together, concepts you like to explore from different personal and literary perspectives? 

SLF:  To me, writing always boils down to “character” — the genre in which you’re writing doesn’t matter; the concept you’re playing with doesn’t matter.  If there aren’t characters that the reader can identify with, if there are people the reader doesn’t care about (one way or the other), ideas or themes don’t matter.  As a writer, I’m interested in these people I’ve created and how they’re going to interact with this world I’ve put together for them to play in.  I find myself fascinated by social issues:  with status and power and how that twists and shapes people; with the frothing interaction between different cultures; with the notion that no one is truly evil or truly good, that nearly everyone is some shade of gray; with the idea that once you know someone you consider an enemy, you can at least appreciate and understand his/her worldview even if you don’t agree with it. All that’s bound up in “character.”  

DBC:  When you’re not writing (or playing music) you’re a writing instructor.  What are the three most important bits of advice you would offer to writers who are just getting started? 

SLF:  Just three?  🙂  Let’s see… 1)  There’s no Muse.  Don’t let anyone tell you that She exists, or that you need to wait for Inspiration to come so the words just burst out from you in some sort of artistic creative fit.  If you wait for the Muse, you may wait forever.  Most of us — beginners as well as established writers — have to deal with that thing called Life and Jobs and Paying Bills.  That means that if you want to write that great novel in your head, you need to sit down and start writing it because otherwise it will never get done.  When I started out, I waited for the Muse, for the story to gel entirely in my head and emerge pretty much full-blown.  As a result, I only wrote short stories (because you’re never going to contain that novel in your head), and I only wrote one or two stories a year.  It was only when I realized that I actually could write in those fleeting 15-minute-to-one-hour scraps of time; that getting one paragraph down still got me one paragraph closer to those two magic words THE END; that what I wrote that way was just as good as what I was writing when ‘inspired to write’…. well, then I started actually being productive.  I found that I could write a novel every year and still work a full-time job. 2)  Write what fills you with passion.  Don’t chase trends.  Especially if you’re writing novels, well, by the time you finish your novel, that hot new trend about anthropomorphic snails in space is going to be last year’s fad and no one’s going to be interested.  And besides, you don’t really care about anthropomorphic snails, and that means there’s no passion in your words.  The reader, first of all, is going to sense that lack of passion.  And secondly, if you don’t have passion for your work, you’re far more unlikely to finish it, especially if it’s something that takes as much effort as a novel.  Write what you’re burning to write, whatever that is!  If there’s excitement in you, there will be excitement in your prose as well. 3)  Make writing a bad habit.  Seriously.  Write every day, seven days a week.  Writing is like exercise:  it feels good when you do it, and you love the results… but it’s easy to decide “Hey, I’m tired and I’m going to skip today’s workout.”  Then the next day, because you skipped the day before, it’s even easier to say “Well, I’ll get back to it tomorrow.  Really.”   And all the sudden it’s two weeks or a month since you’ve actually been at the gym — or sitting in front of your computer — and now you’re thinking “Heck, I’d just be back where I was…” and so you continue to stay away until it’s like you’ve never been there before and you’d be essentially starting over if you went back, so you never go back.   Writing is an intellectual activity, but there are ‘muscles’ and reflexes and knowledge that you build up with time and repetition, and just as with physical exercise, if you don’t use those muscles, you lose them.  Make writing a habit. And a BONUS bit of advice!  4)  Be patient with yourself.  If you want to be a professional musician, you can’t just pick up a guitar or sit down at a keyboard and expect what comes out to be professional level music.  Writing is an art like any other art:  it requires practice.  It requires making mistakes.  It requires writing stories that are so badly flawed that no editor is going to be even vaguely interested in them.  It requires repetition.  It requires study.  It requires dedication.   And all those things take time.  Sometimes a lot of time.  So be patient.  Every time you practice your guitar, you get a little better, a little more proficient.  Every time you write a scene, it’s the same.  Becoming an overnight success takes years.  Be patient.  

DBC:  Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. 

SLF:  You’re welcome!

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One Response to “Interview with S.L. Farrell”

  1. doc said

    hey this is doc from the itunes podcast: Heroes of Science Fiction and Fantasy, enjoyed the article. Some advice that i need to take.(i have a few stories bouncing in my head). I keep thinking that i need to wait till retirement. Anyway, thanks for the great article. website http://www.heroesofsciencefictionandfantasy.com voicemail 1-206-333-1297

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