For more interviews with the author, including questionnaires and essays on topics related to writing, publishing, and promoting "The Saga of Beowulf," please see the Virtual Book Tour page in the Supplemental section of the Archives.
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November 2, 2008
Posted at: proudbookworm.blogspot.com [NOW DEFUNCT]
Q: Congratulations on your debut novel “The Saga of Beowulf.” How does it feel being published?
A: Oddly, it's a mixed blessing, really. There was, of course, a wonderful initial rush and sense of accomplishment seeing the book in print, holding a physical copy in my hands. After years of work, seeing it come to fruition was a wondrous thing. It's what we live for, really. Creating something that was not there before. And then came the realization of all the work I still had yet to do. I would like to get right on with my next book, you know. But now there's marketing to do - ad campaigns and networking and demographic studies to determine how to focus sales. And much of that is exhilarating in itself, particularly interacting with other writers and especially the readers. I haven't done any book signings yet, but I'm looking forward to that. Right now, however, I'm in this strange intermediate state of limbo waiting for the first reviews to come in, because that's where you really find out how you've done, if you've connected with another person somewhere out there in the world.
Q: What made you decide to write a book about Beowulf?
A: It was a long time in the making, actually. On the Fantasy Castle website you can read a lengthy essay I wrote on how it all came to be, and the grueling adaptation process. But the short version here is that at first I wrote it as a film. In college I was a medieval lit student, and Beowulf was, of course, a fundamental work in that regard. But somehow it really struck me, more than most. At the time I was managing a video rental store, and it occurred to me that there had not yet been a movie made of Beowulf. So I wrote one. I had already done extensive research on the subject, but I had never written a screenplay, so it took quite a while. In the meantime, of course, two other versions sold and were both made into films. So that ended any chance I had to sell a third. But I done so much work already, and had gone to college, in fact, to become a writer, that I couldn't just let all that effort go to waste. So that's how the novel came to be. And in the end, I'm glad it worked out that way, because I think the book is better for it. It has a very dramatic, visual style that it might not have gotten otherwise.
Q: How much research did you put into the novel?
A: Tons. I can't really even begin to estimate how many hours it would amount to, because it's well into the years and years range, counting all the work I did in college, studying the original poem itself. I learned Old English and did my own translation into modern English. I read every critical work on the subject, compiling several notebooks full of notes. I had at one point four bulletin boards plastered with maps and genealogies and outlines and plans of battle strategies. Then I studied early Viking history and culture, how their ships were made and houses built, what kind of crafts they did and how they made their swords. I read a lot of works external to Beowulf, because within the poem there are a great many passing references to contemporary events the audience of the time would know, but which are now forgotten, save in scattered documents. The fact that it was an adaptation of a classic work vastly multiplied the amount of work required of any period piece.
Q: What kind of things will the reader expect to see in the story?
A: At its root it is an adventure tale, so there is quite a lot of action. A great many battles take place, both on an epic scale of warfare between opposing clans and on the smaller, more personal one of individual characters at odds. And it is also a legendary fantasy, with mythological creatures such as ogres and trolls, and a fire-breathing dragon - the dragon in Beowulf is one of the first in western literature, in fact (Tolkien, of course, drew heavily on Beowulf for his Middle Earth epic, so much of it might seem strangely familiar). But on top of that there is tale of personal struggle. It is a quest story, really, of a man in search of himself. Many of the characters are at odds with their world, in one way or another, trying to fit in or find a place where they belong, and it is that which truly propels the events, rather than just one adventure after another. The story dwells a lot on Fate, and how one finds (or makes) meaning in one's life. It is a very philosophical work in many ways, dealing with some fairly heavy issues, foremost of which, of course, is facing death. It is a tragedy, as you know if you have read the poem, but one which is not without hope. And there is a poignant love story interwoven through it all, which is the heart of all the rest.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Saga of Beowulf and what was the process like in getting published?
A1: That is two questions, so I will give you two answers. Overall it took more than a decade from start to finish. But as I said, I came to it through a very circuitous route, and did not work on it all the while. Long periods went by when I did not work on it at all, for one reason or another, and then a flurry of activity would go on for some time, so that it came in fits and starts. Sometimes when months (or years) went by I would have to start again from Chapter 1, re-reading all my notes and all that came before to get back up to where I was. There is so much detail and such a wealth of information to keep straight, that even so many notes became a burden. But in terms of actual writing time it was probably something like two to three years on the novel, and another year for the screenplay before that, spread out over ten and interspersed with research. Just the outlining and writing of the synopses probably comes to a year alone. I had this great chart running along the top of my wall for a span of six feet or so, laying out all the subplots so I could see where all the characters were at any given point, and keep the pacing steady.
A2: As far as the publishing process goes, I sent out about 60 queries a year ago, mostly to agents, of which I have as yet only heard back from barely half. Of those I had requests for partials from 8 or 10, and have still not heard back from half of those. The rest, of course, were rejections, though a few with helpful notes and words of encouragement. I have actually only submitted to three publishers, and heard back from one. Daw rejected it after two months, and Tor has had it for over three with no reply. There are very few publishers who specialize in fantasy, and a scant handful who will take submissions without an agent. And all but one or two of these require exclusivity, meaning you can submit to only them, and then you must wait for their reply before sending it to another publisher. It's an utterly ridiculous process, geared entirely to benefit the trades. So in the meantime, not being one to wait around for someone else to decide how my life would go, I decided to start my own publishing company. And Fantasy Castle Books was born. In this age of modern technology, with print-on-demand and internet retailing, the trade publishers no longer have a choke-hold on the market. It is now the readers who determine what is good and what is not, and not the boardroom publicists, whose only goal is massive sales. As an independent author/publisher I can connect directly with my readers, and am happy with far fewer sales, because I know they will be based on my writing and not on advertising. My only marketing is through channels like this, just to let the readers know the book is there. Then it is up to them to decide for themselves if it deserves a place upon the virtual shelves of Amazon and B&N.com.
Q: Did you make The Saga of Beowulf; more historical than fantasy, more fantasy than historical, or a balanced mixture of both?
A: That is an excellent question, and one I am glad you asked. Beowulf is almost always taken as a tale of fantasy, both by critics of the original poem and authors of adaptations. There have been quite a few short novellas done over the years - John Gardner's "Grendel" and Michael Chricton's "Eaters of the Dead" most notably among them - and even a few longer works; but almost all deal with it as a monster tale, a period fantasy and nothing more, with the historical elements only providing a palette for the fantasy. Beowulf, however, is based in part on actual events that occurred in the early 6th century, corroborated by external evidence, both in archaeology and chronicle. It was the historical elements that most fascinated me, and which ultimately enticed me to undertake this work, all the more because they are so overlooked, even in the poem, where they are scattered as broken shards among the ruins of a fallen race. I did my best to piece these all back together and present them as a cohesive narrative, albeit one enmeshed in fantasy. So hopefully I have achieved some sense of balance between the two. There is definitely more overt fantasy, but it is difficult to extract the two. The most strictly historical (and best documented) portions come in the third quarter of the story, and right at the beginning where I set up the premise, but it is all built on a strong historical foundation.
Q: In the Beowulf universe, who is your favourite character and why?
A: Wiglaf is my favorite, although I came to love (and despise) a great many of the characters. But Wiglaf is really a core character, and represents for me the true man in the story. In the poem he is really just a bit part, but his role is so pivotal and so important in the scope of events that I brought him in right from the start and made him more significant. To me he is much like Sam Gamgee is in Tolkien: the little guy who has his head on right. When all the more lofty characters have issues of ego and greed and power to contend with, Wiglaf is the loyal friend, the honest one whose heart is true and brave. And he is funny too, in his way.
Q: I have to ask, what did you think about the recent CGI movie about Beowulf? The one with Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie.
A: I had mixed feelings about it (as well Beowulf & Grendel, with Gerard Butler, which came out the year before). Overall I thought it wasn't bad, although I think it was a great mistake to make the humans CGI. It's amazing how good animation is getting, but it's just not there yet with human characters. It made the whole film look too cartoonish, and hard to take seriously. Had they made it more like the recent Star Wars films, where the humans were filmed real, but in a world made up almost entirely of CGI, it would have been so much stronger. Having actual actors lends a reality to the animation that is just not there otherwise. Angelina looked great, but Hopkins did not, and you could definitely tell where the computer guys spent all their time! My main complaint about the Robert Zemeckis film, though, was the dialogue. Neil Gaimon & Roger Avery are good writers, but the script was really weak. Period dialogue is really hard to do, granted, but so many good fantasy movies are just utterly ruined by stilted dialogue, and the "I am Beowulf!" business has gotten plenty of just ridicule of late (even though the line is actually in the poem, albeit in a completely different context). In general, the story was done pretty well, but the plot twist involving the demon-spawn business was just taken too far, and ultimately amounted to little, really, in terms of emotional attachment to the characters. Character motivation is everything in a story, to me, and unless you can identify with their drives it is very hard to appreciate a story for more than its action.
Q: What do you have planned for next?
A: Before I went to college, long ago, I had actually begun a fantasy story called "The Jester's Quest," in which a lowly court jester falls in love with the princess and sets off on an epic quest to prove his worth. I went to college to study writing because of that story, but have not yet gotten back to it. I pulled it out the other day, and honestly I think now that I just should have written it. An education never hurts, but I think I was on the right track all along. In another year or two we'll see if that holds true! I need to get that one done, because I have other ideas pushing at the back-side of my brain, wanting to get out.
Q: What final thing would you like to say to any potential reader who isn't sure if they want to read your book?
A: If you're still unsure, hop on over to fantasycastlebooks.com, where you can read the whole first chapter and half the second online. Amazon also has the Look Inside feature where you can read the first eight pages or so. But if you like epic fantasy adventure it doesn't get much bigger than this. 640 pages for fifteen bucks, and it's really packed: Viking ships and sea serpents, battles on land and sea, love and betrayal, action and adventure, swords and dragons and joy and tears.
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January 4, 2009
Posted at: interviewswithauthors.blogspot.com
Author Pen Name: R. Scot Johns
CA: How did you choose your pen name?
RSJ: I suppose I ought to have used some clever epithet like Roger the Hermit or Mithridates Meat-Cleaver, or some such thing as that. But sorry to say, I wasn’t that inventive, and just stuck with my real name, boring as that might be. Do you think it’s too late to change it now?
CA: Scot LOL if you change it to something ending in Meat-Cleaver then I think I’ll have to ummm… not run this interview. *grin*
CA: What genre(s) do you write? Why do you write the stories that you write?
RSJ: I tend toward what I like to call “historical fantasy,” that is, fantasy fiction set in the real world of a past time period, like Homer or the Arthurian legends. The Beowulf story is a good example of this, although the mythological aspects in the original poem far outweigh the historical references. In my novelization, The Saga of Beowulf, I’ve tried to balance those out somewhat more evenly, developing the historical elements from references within the poem as well as external evidence from chronicle and archaeology. I’m fascinated with ancient and medieval history, and would like to write a work of pure historical fiction, although instead my next book will go the other route and be pure fantasy.
CA: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
RSJ: I actually woke up in the middle of the night some twenty years ago with this full-blown story running through my mind, in that utterly lucid state where it’s just as real as life and you know it like your own life story. I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote until the sun came up. Then - after a lengthy nap - I went out and bought an old manual typewriter that very day and set up a card table in my attic. That was 1988, as I recall, and that story will be my next book. After working on it every day for several months I decided that if I were going to approach writing seriously I should get a proper education in the craft. So I went to college for six years and wrote a completely different book instead, and only now am getting back to that first story.
CA: Who or what was your inspiration for writing?
RSJ: Like many fantasy authors, Tolkien is among my foremost inspirations, if for no other reason than the fact that he wrote the book he wanted to regardless of how long it took or what anyone else thought that it should be. Of course, the fact that it’s brilliantly written and immaculately conceived has been a source of wonder (and emulation) for fantasy authors ever since. But also in my ongoing study of history I am always drawn to the works of literature that define their time – from Homer to Asimov, Hamlet to Beowulf – so that it is writers who I most believe to be the foremost chroniclers of the human race. Without writing, in fact, there would be no history, and much of what we know would long ago have been forgotten.
CA: What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
RSJ: Incredibly erratic. It would be wonderful to be an author full-time and have a steady writing schedule, but I can barely imagine that, so unlike it is my real life. As it is, I write when I can, so that I will go through periods when I have no energy at all left after work and get no writing done for days and months (and sometimes years); and then I’ll get a break or find some inspiration and I’ll write in every spare moment I can manage for a string of weeks and months, barely surfacing for air. Fortunately, I do now have a job with summers off, so that’s become a major creative time for me of late. But oftentimes, when it’s down to rewrites and editing (or publishing and promoting), it’s really just a matter of putting in your time like any other job, plowing through a few hours at a stint until it’s done, whether there’s energy or not. That’s one the biggest surprises I’ve discovered about the writing process that I really didn’t anticipate: a lot of it is just plain hard work, choosing words and piecing sentences together, tedious beyond belief when you’re faced with rearranging 360,000 words as I was with this one. But, in the end you have this world where nothing was before, and that makes it all worth while. It’s like giving birth, but to something solely of your own creation, emerging from your mind and soul to live for all of time.
CA: Your book is about to be sent into the reader world, what is one word that describes how you feel?
RSJ: Trepidation. But mixed with great excitement and anticipation as you wait for the initial response. One word can’t really cover what you feel, there are so many factors involved at that point: enormous relief at being done with it, and that sense of accomplishment is very buoyant and ethereal. But then it’s like rocks being tied about your ankles to bring you back to earth when you send it out, because what you’re bound to get for quite some time – at least if you pursue traditional publishing avenues – is rejection, and lots of it, from people who won’t even read your book. And just when you thought you were done writing, you suddenly have to come up with this wealth of promotional material: queries and blurbs and outlines and letters and synopses and proposals and tons of research into agents and editors and publishers, and all for nothing for the vast majority of us. Writing the thing, it turns out, is a very small part of becoming an author. But having done it, I can say that there is really nothing to compare to it, in my experience at any rate.
CA: What was your biggest challenge in writing your book(s)?
RSJ: Overcoming my own doubts, mostly. There were a lot of challenges, not least of which was the fact that this was an adaptation, so that I felt I had a lot to live up to. And there was an enormous amount of research to be done, which took quite a few years in itself. But really, what blocked me most and caused the most grief throughout the long and grueling process that this turned into (ten years from start to finish), were nothing but my own misgivings. Unlike most authors, I had never written so much as a short story before, so I was really starting from ground zero. It was a ridiculous project to undertake, but my experience in college English Lit courses (along with a few professors) prompted me to think that I could do it. At least some of the time, that is. But it was enough.
CA: What do you like to do when you're not writing?
RSJ: Sleep! Actually most of the time I read and listen to music. That’s pretty well how I spend my time. Never too many books, never enough time to read them all. However, I tend to spend as much time daydreaming, as I have one of those minds that likes to wander, as most writers do, I imagine. When I read it stimulates my thought processes, and suddenly hours will go by while I’m staring out the window with the book still at the same page. I get a lot of good story ideas that way, and it’s how I tend to work out my plot complications when I’m stuck.
CA: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
RSJ: This is my first that’s finished, so I guess that narrows the choices down as to which is my favorite. I’m very excited to write this next one, though, because I think it will be a very different experience from the first. With The Saga of Beowulf, because it was an attempt at doing a thorough and accurate adaptation, I was very restricted in where the story could go, so that greatly limited my free writing, and every choice I made had to be based on a number of criteria not dealt with in pure creative writing. The next one, The Jester’s Quest, will be a very open-ended adventure tale, a hero’s quest type of road trip. And although I know the overall story arc and where it will all end up, there’s a lot of latitude (literally) that I can cover in my literary wanderings. I will also be writing this one online – or more accurately, posting my writing sessions each day on my blog (at http://authoradventures.blogspot.com/), so that readers can follow along and comment on it as it grows, and in so doing, very likely effect how it turns out. So join me there for a fun-filled adventure, and see what writing a book is like!
CA: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
RSJ: Definitely from my imagination. I’m sure there are a lot of real-life elements that I borrow from unconsciously, of course, since writing is really reenactment in a lot of ways (or “acting out” as parents like to call it). But I didn’t base them on my friends or anyone I know specifically. And again, since this was an adaptation, many of my characters came pre-made, so to speak, if very thinly sketched. The vast majority of them I had to create wholesale to populate the world. So I built my characters based on the needs of the story rather than building the story to fit characters I wanted to write about. At least for this one, anyway. That might change if I write a true historical work. But with Beowulf there is nothing at all known about the few historical characters involved, in terms of their personalities and whatnot, and even very little about their activities, so that I had to make them up almost entirely from scratch. I had a good idea what I wanted from the outset, and the story fleshed them out as they made their way through it. You hear authors often talk about characters coming to life and taking over their own story, and it’s true, and very weird when it occurs. Whole characters will emerge fully formed from nowhere just as if you turned a corner or walked through a door and there they were, like in real life. So you say hello and let them in.
CA: Do you have any advice for the aspiring writers out there?
RSJ: Good lord, no! Don’t listen to me, I don’t know what I’m doing. Honestly, though, I would say to read: read all the time, read tons of stuff, but most of all read what’s good. Read the classics. “Good stuff in, good stuff out,” I like to say. Sort of a “you are what you eat” philosophy for the mind. We are all very much the products of our environment, and if you read crap that’s what you’ll think good writing is. Be critical of everything your read, and especially your own work. Develop your ability to discern what is good writing, and adhere to it at all cost.
CA: How can a reader contact you or purchase your books?
RSJ: I have both a website and a blog, as well as MySpace and Facebook pages, so you can look me up. My website addy is fantasycastlebooks.com, where you can find a vast wealth of resources for your further enjoyment of my debut novel, including free downloads of the first six chapters (the first part of which is also online) and audio readings of several pages, as well as artwork, extensive adaptation notes, a deleted sequence, and a “Norse decoder” for two bits I put into the book in Nordic Runes, but intentionally gave no translation for. You can print out your own bookmarks, too, by the way, with artwork I did for the cover. There’s a page with links to many of the places you can buy the book online, in either print or eBook form, but Amazon has always got the best price so far as I can tell.
CA: Is there anything you would like to add?
RSJ: Your blog rocks! Everyone should have a feed to Crystal’s fifteen blogs. Leave your comments and I’ll answer them as quickly as I can. And if you read my book, please tell me what you think of it, as readers are the “weighers of a writer’s soul,” as it were. Feel free to contact me at any time, either at my blog or through the contact link on my website. I look forward to hearing your responses.
CA: I interrupt lol, I don’t have 15 blogs only 3… but who knows maybe I’ll create another one just because I can… lol!
RSJ: Oh, and by the way, we’re doing a drawing here on Crystal’s killer blog for a copy of my book, drawn from among the comments left here to this interview, one week from today. Only one entry per commenter, but feel free to comment many times. Also if you leave a comment on either of my sites saying that you read the interview at Crystal’s place I’ll count that too, but still just once per entrant. And for anyone who leaves a comment, but doesn’t win the book, I will be more than happy to send you an autographed bookmark if you like, just for being a good sport and reading all this drivel. CA: Thanks so much Scot for an awesome interview and for the great giveaway! I’ve told you why Beowulf sticks in my mind, and one of these days I’ll make sure to read your book… but from all the sites I’ve seen you on, it must be really good! Now everyone, like Scot said, he’s going to be giving a way a copy of his book, The Saga of Beowolf to those that leave a comment or question here. The winner will be announced on Monday Jan. 12, so make sure to leave a way that Scot or I can contact you. No way to contact, no win.
Happy New Year to you all, may 2009 be the best!
March 12, 2009