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The Devil’s Workshop: an interview with author Donnally Miller

When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.

Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.

So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as

A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.

In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.

And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.

The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.

This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.

Now let’s hear from Donn.

 

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.

DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school.  My first love was drama.  My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up.  In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions.  When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor.  I also started writing plays at that time.  Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else.  After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere.  At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school.  A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote.  So she read it and brought it home for me to read.  Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in.  I said sure, why not?  And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association.  So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out.  Of course, none of them were ever accepted.  At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel?  I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked.  And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.

DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?

DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.

DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?

DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot.  So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters.  I had no idea of the plot when I began the book.  I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot.  In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot.  I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift.  That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot.  Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes?  But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want.  It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.

DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?

DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue.  Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character.  I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it.  There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.

DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.

DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary.  So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side).  A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language.  When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.

DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?

DM: I think that’s the wrong question.  The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy?  I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction.  Many people eventually move on and their tastes change.  Mine never really did.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’  So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading.  What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.

DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?

DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting.  However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean.  I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient.  So I made up the world of the Coast.  This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.

DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?

DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense.  I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point.  Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act.  As to what fiction should do, I have no clue.  Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it.  You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it.  If they’re good at it, you just take it all in.  Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984?  You bet.

DC: Who are your favourite authors?

DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?

DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity.  The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision.  For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say.  Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.

DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?

DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words.  I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature.  Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story.  I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.

DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?

DM: No, I don’t.  All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again.  I have started something new.  I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.  It has nothing to do with the Coast.  I have no plans to return to that world.

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later.  I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.

 

The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂

To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/

Notes

1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/  To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.

 

 

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Review: “The House of Shattered Wings” by Aliette de Bodard

Shattered WingsThe House of Shattered Wings by multiple award-winning author Aliette de Bodard is one of the most unusual and absorbing books I’ve read in years. How unusual? Let me count the ways.

First, it doesn’t categorize easily—and bored as I am with the cookie-cutter offerings from the big houses, this is a huge deal. Although shelved as Fantasy, this book is so much more. It’s Alternate History; it’s a Mystery; it’s a Supernatural Thriller; and it’s most certainly a major Gothic novel.

The story takes place in a late 20th-century Paris devastated by the Great War that began in 1914—except that in this world the Great War was a supernatural one between warring gangs, or “houses”, of fallen Angels and their human followers. With no clear victor, the conflict has settled into a kind of supernatural Cold War in which the houses spy on and plot against one another in the ruined debris of the once-great city.

In the burnt-out shell of Notre Dame, surrounded by the hopelessly fouled black waters of the Seine, House Silverspires and its leader Selene struggle to maintain the house’s power and place among the others, and in particular to resist Asmodeus, the brutally cruel leader of House Hawthorn. But when the mysterious Vietnamese Immortal Philippe triggers a curse that brings down the deadly power of the Furies against Silverspires, Selene and Madeleine, House Silverspires’ alchemist, find themselves beset on every side. Especially since Madeleine—now perilously addicted to Angel essence—is an escapee from House Hawthorn. Added to all this is the mystery of Philippe’s connection to the Fallen Angel Isabelle, and the strange disappearance of House Silverspires’ founder, Morningstar (aka Lucifer).

De Bodard deploys the full range of her writing skills and inventive audacity in this dense and deeply melancholic novel. There are strong echoes of both Western and Eastern mythologies, of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the underwater Dragon Kingdoms of East Asian folklore. The novel’s characters are real and believable, layered with tragic pasts and complex motivations as they move through their haunted, broken city. Yet even as the action and intrigue—and sometimes horror—ratchet up relentlessly, there is always a vivid sense of remembered splendour and grandeur, a yearning for the vanished beauty and elegance that seems to shimmer just below the surface of the ruined city.

Those familiar with the author’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy will be delighted to discover this new world in what is hopefully—de Bodard seems to be keeping her options open in this standalone work—the first book in a new series. That this book is both darker and more complex is certain, and some may need a few chapters to adjust to its Gothic tone. But this is a powerful novel that sinks deep into the reader’s psyche, taking you into a world so rich and characters so compelling that they linger for months after turning the last page.

Don’t miss it.

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Review: “The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu

Grace of KingsI don’t write many reviews. Quite apart from the time investment, few books grab me enough to move me to the pulpit. Of those few, even fewer in recent years have been Epic Fantasy, a genre I view with some wariness for its tendency to never-ending series and faux-Shakespearian dialogue. And as an unapologetic fan of Tolkien, my personal bar—not just for story, but for the level of craft needed to pull off an original work in this genre—is set very high.

So when I heard that multiple award-winning author Ken Liu was embarking on an Epic Fantasy series, I was intrigued. Liu—one of the most extraordinary talents the Science Fiction/Fantasy field has seen in the last several decades—never disappoints. And the fact that the series, named The Dandelion Dynasty, was going to be informed by and draw upon the Chinese Classics suggested this might be something new in a genre which I’ve generally found to be rather disappointing.

Well, “new” doesn’t come close. With The Grace of Kings, standalone first volume in the series, Liu knocks this one out of the ballpark. This isn’t just a terrific book, it’s an important one that comes at the epic tale from a different angle, with an unusual sensibility.

At 640 pages, The Grace of Kings, by the standards of the genre, isn’t a very large book. But the scope of lives, of events, of pure, unalloyed story that takes place here is more than most authors pack into a trilogy.

From the sweeping, cinematic opening scene, the author shows a command of his craft that delights. Like his characters, Liu takes great risks, using narrative techniques and pacings that, in the hands of another, would result in distancing and detachment. Instead, the cumulative effect of Liu’s technique, with its free-ranging viewpoint and delicious digressions as new characters are introduced, feels very close to the oral storytelling tradition at the core of every culture. As night deepens, we gather closer to the fire, listening with rapt attention, fully immersed in a world so real and characters so alive that, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Zelazny’s Amber, it’s impossible to not wholly believe in them.

But Liu gives us more than brave deeds and battles, love and loyalty, passion and betrayal, song and spectacle. From start to finish, and with not infrequent undertones of wry humour, The Grace of Kings is a meditation and commentary on power, and the ways in which that power seduces, drives, corrupts, and (in Liu’s own words) occasionally ennobles. This is a novel that embraces ambiguity and relativism, that makes simple judgments difficult, even impossible. In a world as real as ours, in which “good” actions can bring catastrophic results, and where people, feelings, and loyalties are subject to living, dynamic change, what is right? Who can see around all corners?

Not everyone likes to face ambiguity. For many—including those of a secular bent—the essentially Christian narrative of good and evil is more comforting. The fact that Liu can bring these questions before the reader without for a moment sounding preachy or sacrificing story, wonder, and sheer, breathless adventure is a supreme achievement—and you’d have to be dead to finish this book without asking yourself where certain lines are, or if they indeed exist. And to his credit, even at the very end, Liu never tips his hand, never makes judgments. He respects and trusts his readers to be smart enough to think for themselves.

But, you ask, what’s the book about? Well, here’s the sketchiest summary:

The islands of Dara, a sprawl of historically strife-torn, warring nations, are finally at peace. But that peace has been dearly bought: under the iron rule of the Emperor Mapideré, clans are split, families are divided, and men throughout Dara are forced by corvée to work for years at a time on the emperor’s monumental projects, often never to see their families again.

Against this backdrop of totalitarian brutality, a series of small events started by minor players—a corvée gang leader trying to save his skin by faking an outlandish prophecy; a wily, charismatic tavern rat named Kuni Garu; and the vengeful giant, Mata Zyndu, grim heir of a noble clan expropriated by the emperor—escalates by degrees into an armed uprising.

Before long, Kuni and Mata, now allies close as brothers, find themselves and their trusted followers at the forefront of a revolution that breaks the empire apart. But as their power grows, so does the complexity of the politics and the influence of their advisors and generals, paving the way for miscalculations, misunderstandings, and treachery.

And the players in Dara are not only human. The fractious gods and goddesses of this ancient land have their own designs, and are not above taking on human form to help their favourites in the power struggle unfolding in the human realm.

As upheaval grips this land of nobles and peasants, rascals and heroes, exotic creatures and wildly imaginative silkpunk technologies, Liu delights us with a cast of unforgettable characters, among whom Jia Matiza, a skilled herbalist and Kuni’s wife; Gin Mazoti, a female street urchin who rises to become the world’s greatest military commander; Luan Zya, a brilliant adventurer and Kuni’s master strategist; Kindo Marana, a tax collector reluctantly placed in command of an army; the Lady Risana, a clever illusionist and Kuni’s consort; and Gitré Üthu, the magic book of knowledge that writes itself, given to Luan by a mysterious teacher.

In conclusion, The Grace of Kings is a book whose audience extends far beyond the traditional readership for Epic Fantasy, a must-read for anyone who enjoys a great story.

Now where’s book Two?

___________

Full disclosure: I was a beta reader of an early draft of this novel, and also the editor/publisher of Liu’s award-nominated novella, The Man Who Ended History (in the 2011 Panverse Three anthology from Panverse Publishing).

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