Today I’d like to welcome Michael Dellert, fantasy author of A Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, the first two books in The Matter of Manred Saga.
Can you give us your quickest description of your book?
A Hedge King in Winter is about the reluctance of a loyal man to supplant his crippled brother as king when the kingdom is threatened by their shady cousin and ruthless bandits. A Merchant’s Tale is about a young foreign trader and his companions as they journey across the uncertain lands of this hedge king to deliver a mysterious chest, and the adventures they encounter along the way.
So your books are kind of history-like Fantasy? What literary works would you compare your series to – more Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, or something else entirely?
I haven’t read much of George R.R. Martin, actually. Only A Game of Thrones, the first book of his A Song of Ice & Fire series. I’ve also read some of his earlier work in the Wild Cards shared universe series. I can see how his work and mine have some similarities (judging mostly from the TV series) and we probably draw from the same historical sources. His Kingdom of Westeros seems to bear a number of similarities to the historical periods of both the Heptarchy and the War of the Roses in Britain, for example, where my work is drawing on the historical period of the Five Kingdoms of Ireland prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion. So in that sense, creating worlds that are fantastical and yet deeply rooted in the realistic, I think he and I are working in a similar vein.
And I’d be lying if I said Tolkien wasn’t a huge influence, though I’ve chosen to work in more limited third-person and first person points of view than he did.
CJ Cherryh is the author I most frequently cite as my primary influence. Her Morgaine Saga is one of my favorite pieces of fantasy literature, primarily because it’s actually a science fiction piece told from a point of view that doesn’t understand the science, but firmly believes in magic. This is an aesthetic I try to emulate in my own work: there’s a “science” behind the magic that exists in my world, but ordinary folk don’t understand it, and those who do are rare and either respected or feared for that knowledge.
I also owe a lot, I think to Chris Bunch’s Seer-King Trilogy and to the work of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The heroes of my stories so far are natural men confronted by the supernatural, and striving to either overcome it or turn it to their advantage.
Annnnd, I just added these to my “To-Read” List. CJ Cherryh is one of my dad’s favorite authors, so I’ve heard a lot about her work – I love that you take away those aspects you mentioned. What are you working on currently?
The Romance of Eowain, the third book in my Matter of Manred series. It picks up a few days after A Merchant’s Tale in story-time, and continues the story of the hedge king and his struggle to hold his kingdom together by entering into an arranged marriage with a foreign and headstrong bride.
How many books do you have in mind for this series?
If everything goes to plan (and when did that ever happen?), I expect to write maybe nine, more likely twelve books in the series. Plus subsidiary stories that explore secondary subplots that I find interesting or exciting.
Ambitious plan! What is your favorite scene you’ve written? Can you give us a peek?
I’m a parent, so that’s like asking which child is my favorite. They’re all darlings, of course. (At least, that’s what I tell them.) But (between you, me, and all your readers), my favorite at the moment is from A Merchant’s Tale, a scene that I’ve taken to calling, “The Hounds of Annwn.”
The trail twisted up a grassy rise between two stands of birch, hazel, and oak. Adarc and I were walking together ahead of the oxen. Corvac and Jôkull were ahead of us. Behind, the Gallavach drover sat upon the wagon seat, slapping absently at the slow-moving beasts. The road narrowed somewhat into a gentle rise. To the southeast, the hillock rose to about the height of a man, but our route passed north of the rise through a gap and down into trees on the other side. From somewhere over the hill, I heard the warbling call of birds.
Just as the oxen succeeded at pulling the wagon up the first rise, there arose the most terrible caterwauling. A howl, as from a horn, followed by the barking and baying of hounds on the hunt.
I smelled it first, strong, hot, and rank. Then, from behind the hill, it arose, a shaggy and tremendous shape! It seemed like it would never stop rising, taller and taller, taller than two men. A broad, domed skull and steep forehead hunkered over narrow-spaced, petty red eyes.
It rose to face us, fierce and ruthless, a big brindled bear with unusually long hair on the spine and shoulders. It loomed and towered over us like a thunderclap with a shocking arsenal of teeth and claws. The nostrils flared in its dismayed face, catching perhaps the first taint of us. But it turned instead to the east, from whence the sound of horns and barking drew closer.
Not only did I enjoy writing this scene, but I collaborated with a voice-over artist, Will Hughes, to have this scene narrated. As much as I enjoyed writing it, his reading of it set the hairs on my neck on end!
How cool that you had it narrated! This scene is very descriptive. Is that something you enjoy – showing your readers what this world looks like?
I very much want my readers to get a sense of “being there,” and getting lost in the world that I’ve created. Verisimilitude is, in my opinion, the highest goal for which a writer should strive. The best books I’ve ever read have left me with the feeling that, even if the story events didn’t happen in this world, they certainly happened in some world. It would be the greatest honor to hear a reader tell me that I left them with that feeling.
What is one question about your books that you wish more people would ask?
I enjoy world-building questions. To create a fantasy world, one has to do a lot of research and put a lot of thought into how one’s world got to be the way it is. But a lot of that thought and material doesn’t make it into the story. Like an iceberg, the story represents a part of the world one has constructed, but there is often a lot more under the surface that couldn’t fit into the story. I enjoy answering questions about those things, like what the drymyn are, where I got my inspiration for the current political situation in my stories, and so on.
World-building is so much fun and probably my favorite part of the creative process. So to answer your own questions (See how I set you up there?): What’s an example of something that couldn’t fit in the story, what are the drymyn, and where did you get inspiration for the politics of your stories?
LOL. Yes, I rather thought that was a leading question. So, to answer your (my own?) questions:
The drymyn are philosopher-priests, based in part on what little is known about the real-world druids in our own world, mixed with medieval Celtic Catholicism, some popular fantasy notions about druids, a good bit of theosophy, and a lot of extrapolation from pseudo-historical connections between druids and esoteric Pythagorean philosophers.
And that answer gives you some idea of the extent of the iceberg that can’t be presented in the stories. The Drymyn Order has a fictional history that goes back at least 1500 years in story time, full of schisms and conflicts and periods of persecution. Of the three “Circles” of the Order that exist at present time in story-present, the most powerful of them is at odds with the Circle native to the land in which the stories take place, because the practices and traditions of the Circles have evolved differently through a Dark Ages period. But all of that religious history could fill a volume in itself, and I can’t just stop the present story to explain it; I would lose most of my readers’ interest very quickly. So I have to be content to drop hints and allegations that provide a glimpse and a bit of depth and texture to the present conflict, and resist the impulse to fly off on a hare-scramble in medieval philosophy and Pythagoreanism.
As for the inspiration behind the current political situation, I’ve borrowed a great deal from the twenty years of Irish history leading up to the Anglo-Norman invasion by Strongbow in 1170-1172AD. I have a strong Irish heritage myself, and so Irish myth and history are a strong influence on my work.
(Irish here too.) Is there anything you’ve read that made you jealous you didn’t think of it first?
I know of an author who writes science fiction, yet boasts that he never reads books or watches cinema in that genre. He claims that this allows him to “be original” and “not be influenced” by what’s come before him, and he takes pride in never having watched an episode of “Star Trek.” In my opinion, that writer is doing himself a disservice. While Jules Verne never watched “Star Trek” either, I’m pretty sure the writers of “Star Trek” probably read Jules Verne. Literature is a conversation, a dialogue between the reader and the writer. If one hasn’t been listening to the conversation, how can one contribute anything new to it?
Of course, I suffer from the usual amount of author-envy when I see a particularly well-turned phrase that isn’t mine. I try not to be jealous so much as learn from the experience: Why do I envy that particular author’s work? What are they doing that I think I’m not doing? How can I do something similar and yet keep it fresh and new? By examining my own reaction to their writing and the writing itself, I work to improve my craft. But no, I’ve never gnashed my teeth over someone else’s work. When two authors write about the same idea, a dozen different stories can be born. And there’s no copyright on ideas. If I like an idea, I’ll start writing about it. Even if it’s been done a million times before, there’s always a million-and-first way to look at it. One just needs the creativity to discover what’s still new about the idea and contribute to the conversation.
That’s a great way of looking at it. (That science fiction writer infuriates me a little bit, but that could be a whole other discussion.) It’s important to try to always improve and grow in our own writing, and learning from others writers is a great approach. Is there an author in particular that spurs you on and invigorates your creativity?
That writer infuriated a lot of people in an online forum, both for his position and for the godawful and undeserved arrogance with which he defended it. Clearly, humility was not a virtue with which he’d ever been acquainted.
But yes, that’s, as they say, another kettle of fish. To your question: Every author I’ve read has an influence, whether for good or ill. I’ve mentioned CJ Cherryh, who was fundamental in setting me on my path as a writer. I continue to look to her for inspiration, and I can only dream of having a career as successful as hers: 60 published books in 40 years; two Hugo Awards; a Locus Award; hell, she even has an asteroid named after her. But as much as I love her work, I have to give particular credit to two underappreciated authors: Evangeline Walton and Sean Russell. Ms. Walton’s re-telling of the Welsh Mabinogion stories are captivating, and Mr. Russell’s Swan War Trilogy has some of the most lyrical prose I’ve ever read. They did a lot to help me fashion the stories I’m currently telling.
Thanks, Michael, for sharing!