Interview: Courtney Schafer, author of The Whitefire Crossing

August 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Posted in Interviews | Leave a comment
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Whitefire Crossing coverCourtney Schafer’s first novel, The Whitefire Crossing, was released last Monday by Night Shade Books. Normally I just review books here, but since Courtney happens to be my sister, I feel it’s best to recuse myself and leave the reviewing to others. Instead, this seemed like an appropriate occasion for this blog’s first interview.

Thanks for taking the time to do this. I know it’s a busy time for you, not to mention more than a little stressful.

No problem at all, Matt – thanks for inviting me to Yet There Are Statues!

Let’s start with the basics for those readers who haven’t heard anything about The Whitefire Crossing yet. It’s a fantasy novel, but these days that can mean almost anything. What sort of story is it?

I like to call The Whitefire Crossing an adventure fantasy. It’s set in an imaginary world, but it doesn’t quite fit either of the usual categories of “epic” or “sword-and-sorcery” fantasy. The story has the tight character focus of a sword-and-sorcery novel (as opposed to the grand, sweeping scope of epic fantasy), but while there’s plenty of sorcery, there aren’t any swords – just pitons, ropes, and ice axes (one of my protagonists is a mountain climber). In short, it’s the story of a mountain guide who agrees to sneak a wealthy young man across the spell-protected border of a neighboring country, only to discover his client is far from the harmless youth he appeared, and he’s caught up in a deadly war of intrigue between rival mages that will decide the fate of a city.

“Adventure fantasy” is a good term, not to mention a lot easier to say than “Ice-axes-and-sorcery”. What else, in your view, sets The Whitefire Crossing apart from similar novels?

The mountain climbing makes for a bit of a different spin. I haven’t read any other fantasies that involved roped climbing and ice axes in action scenes, and explore the particular mindset of a climber. More than that, I like to think there’s a difference in how mountains are portrayed in The Whitefire Crossing. Though plenty of fantasy novels have characters traveling through mountainous terrain, most often mountain ranges are treated merely as obstacles or scenic backdrops, not a setting wondrous and evocative in its own right. The inspiration for my mountains is a little different, too – instead of looking to medieval Europe as is so common in secondary-world fantasy, I based my setting on the Owens Valley and eastern Sierra Nevada of California. For anyone not familiar with the Owens Valley, it’s a region of incredible geographical contrast. The floor of the valley is arid desert, full of sagebrush and sand. Yet the valley is bounded on both sides by snow-capped mountain ranges soaring 14,000 feet: the Sierra Nevada to the west, and the White Mountains to the east. The Sierra Nevada escarpment is particularly stunning: a veritable wall rising 10,800 feet in a few scant miles. The wild and woolly history of the area really lent itself to inspiration for worldbuilding as well. I thought it’d be fun to write a novel that didn’t feature kings and knights, but smugglers, climbers, prospectors, spies, and ganglords.

Most secondary world fantasy novels published today are part of series, it seems, and sometimes publishers are less than meticulous about marking books as being only the first part of a single story. To what degree does The Whitefire Crossing stand alone?

The Whitefire Crossing is definitely the first in a series. The main plot arc does come to a satisfying stopping point (or so I hope!), but several plot threads are left unresolved. I know as a reader it really annoys me if a publisher doesn’t mark a series as such, so I told my editor I felt very strongly there should be some indication that Whitefire wasn’t standalone. So the back cover of Whitefire does say “Book I of the Shattered Sigil,” as does the main title page – hopefully that’s enough to clue readers in.

There’s a lot more to The Whitefire Crossing than mountain climbing, but climbing is a major part of the story. Fantasy, maybe more than any other genre, tends to stand in dialogue with the hugely popular works that have gone before, and much ink has been spilled about the influence of writers like Tolkien, Howard, Miéville, etc. But I’m having trouble thinking of a story that spent a lot of time in the mountains. Am I forgetting something?

I haven’t personally read any other fantasy novels with climbing as such a strong element of the story – if anyone else has, please tell me, because I’d love to read them! – but I have read some books where I perked up and thought, “Hey, this author knows mountains.” Carol Berg’s novels, for instance. I remember reading one of hers – I think it was one of the Bridge of D’Arnath quartet – where the description of the mountain scenery was so beautifully accurate and vivid that I felt certain she had to have done some true alpine hiking. Sure enough, when I turned to the author bio in the back, I saw she was from Colorado. And in one of Tara K. Harper’s novels, her protagonist climbs a cliff to escape those chasing her, and I knew right off from the description of her movements that Harper must have rock climbing experience. As a climber I always get a little thrill when I realize an author is a kindred spirit.

One of the novel’s main characters, Dev, is basically a professional climber. It’s not very lucrative and there’s not a lot of job security since it ends up being a mix of odd jobs: escorting caravans across a dangerous mountain range, recovering bits of rare and thus valuable rock when he comes across them, and smuggling goods across a fortified border. My knowledge of mountain climbing is pretty limited (coming as it does from the occasional Discovery channel program and, well, this novel) but I have this hazy idea that mountain climbing was basically invented a few centuries ago as a leisure activity. Are there historical analogues for Dev’s brand of blue collar climbing, or is this an outgrowth of the geography or magic of your setting?

Mountaineering as an organized sport is an invention of the 1800s, sure, but people have been climbing cliffs and mountains for far longer than that. For example, archaeologists have found evidence that Ancient Puebloans climbed most of the buttes in the Grand Canyon – and let me tell you, many of today’s climbers would be too nervous to attempt cliffs of such nasty, crumbling sandstone, even with all our modern safety gear. And in the Alps, shepherds have been scrambling around peaks for centuries – they were the ones who showed the naturalists of the 1700s what to do. (The modern ice axe is a modification of a shepherd’s alpenstock.) As for Dev’s climbing…I based the outriders of The Whitefire Crossing on the local guides and crystal hunters in the Alps circa 1700s, who would help travelers cross the region for pay, but who also climbed for the love of it. (The first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc was made in 1786 by a crystal hunter, Jacques Balmat, accompanied by a Chamonix doctor.)

Actually, once you mentioned the Alps, I immediately thought of Hannibal. He used local guides to help with his famous crossing. He had no shortage of swords, but I suspect he wished he had some sorcery to help him in his crossing.

No doubt! And speaking of historical mountaineering, here’s another example: back in 1492 Charles VIII ordered that a sheer-sided peak in southern France named Mont Aiguille be climbed. One of his servants, Antoine de Ville, reached the summit by using techniques developed in the siege of castles. So really, if you’ve got enough ingenuity, no need for magic in mountaineering!

One of my many pet theories is that people who gravitate toward engineering as a profession have a mindset that influences their preferences in fiction, whether reading or writing. Speaking for myself, I like reading stories where I have to figure things as I go along, and I prefer even fantasy settings to seem grounded in a discoverable reality. Unfortunately, my training as an engineer tells me a sample size of one isn’t sufficient grounds to believe a theory. Although I’m currently talking to your dashing fantasy author alter ego, I happen to know that by day you’re a mild-mannered electrical engineer. Do you think that your engineering background had any kind of influence on The Whitefire Crossing?

Heh. I remember describing to a fellow engineer the mechanics of how my blood mages cast what’s known in the book as channeled magic, and he said, “So…they basically lay out giant circuit diagrams to direct the flow of magical power.” Me: “Oh my God, you’re right.” So yes, I suspect my engineering training influenced the story more than I ever realized while writing it! Though really, what’s been interesting to me is how solving a plot problem in a story uses the exact same mental skillset as developing a challenging algorithm. You’ve got to start by puzzling through the problem logically, but that’s just to get the motor of the subconscious revved up and running. It’s the flash of insight from the right brain that’ll show you the best solution; but you can’t have the flash without laying the groundwork. And algorithm or story problem, there’s nothing like the excitement of knowing you’ve got the solution at last, and it will be awesome.

I know the feeling. At least in software (and I suspect writing), the trick is always to sustain that enthusiasm through the grueling process of implementation.

So true. There are definitely days when writing or revising feels like squeezing blood from a stone. Yet if you love your story deeply enough, you’ll keep coming back. And it sure helps to love your story beyond all reason when you have to read it a hundred times during the publication process. By the time I finished going over editorial revisions, copyedits, galleys, etc, I felt I had the entire manuscript memorized (and was desperate to read something not written by me!).

The distinction between YA and adult fiction seems blurrier than ever, at least to someone like me who doesn’t read YA very often. I know you have read, and still read, a lot of YA fantasy. I guess by the definition that really matters (what publishers and bookstores say) The Whitefire Crossing is not YA, but where do you personally draw the line, and where do you think Whitefire ends up with respect to it?

As a reader, I’ve never paid much attention to the supposed dividing line between YA and adult fiction. When I was a kid, I read adult books same as YA books, and enjoyed them equally. The same remains true for me now. If a book is good, it’s good no matter how old you are. That said, as an author I’ve seen publishers using two main distinctions between YA and adult fantasy: 1) the age of the protagonist (usually under 18 for YA novels), and 2) the focus of the story – is it about issues considered particularly relevant to teens, like finding your place in the world, or the thrill of first love? The Whitefire Crossing doesn’t quite fit into that box – at 18 and 23, my protagonists are a tad too old, and the story is more about trust, sacrifice, and brotherhood/friendship than romantic love or an outsider finding acceptance. (Not that I’m saying the latter are the only themes in YA, just that they’re more prevalent there.) But even though The Whitefire Crossing is not marketed as YA, I believe teens would enjoy it just as much as adults.

I know you’re working right now on a Whitefire sequel for Night Shade Books. How’s that going, and do you have any ideas about what you’ll do after that?

Yes, Whitefire‘s sequel The Tainted City is due to release in the fall of 2012, so I’m hard at work on the manuscript! I’ve talked elsewhere about how challenging it is to balance day job, motherhood, writing, and now the business/promotional duties of a writing career, so I won’t belabor that point. Instead, I’ll say that that what keeps my nose to the grindstone is how deeply I love the story and characters. I’m just as excited about The Tainted City as I was about writing Whitefire, and I hope readers will enjoy it just as much. After that…well, I’ve always thought I’d want three books in the series to fully explore my two protagonists’ character arcs, but any third novel will depend on how well these first two books sell. And when the time comes to leave the Shattered Sigil world, I’ve got a few ideas for new potential series floating around. But right now I’m still happily buried in Dev and Kiran’s ongoing story.

Thanks again to Courtney for stopping by! The Whitefire Crossing is available now in bookstores both online (including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and Powell’s) and otherwise. For more about the novel, check out Courtney’s web site and The Night Bazaar, a group blog she started back in January with six other Night Shade Books authors.

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