Today I’d like to welcome John C. Adams, horror and fantasy author of Souls for the Master, Aspatria, and Dagmar of the Northlands.
Can you give us your quickest description of your books?
My latest fantasy novel is called Dagmar of the Northlands, but really it’s everyone’s story. Dagmar is only one in a cast of characters, but each has their own challenges. The Gortah van Murkar books are set in a universe with lots of pitched battles involving sword and sorcery, but there’s also plenty of romance and focus on characters, too. Both Dagmar and Gortah are exploring their sexual identity with new partners, for instance.
Some of the main characters also appeared in the prequel Aspatria, but Dagmar and the Men of the North appear for the first time in this novel. Aspatria was inspired more by an Anglo-Saxon universe whereas the Men of the North, who live in the Northlands, feel like a Nordic culture. When Dagmar and her fellow Men of the North sail off to raid Orkna one autumn morning this brings them into conflict with Gortah, who claims the island as part of his empire.
I also write horror.
I really enjoyed how well your characters are developed, as well as the historical feel of your setting. There’s plenty of fantasy, but it also feels like it could be real history. Do you research a lot of history/cultures to add to the context before you write?
I’m English, but we live very close to the border with Scotland. I did a lot of research for Aspatria to get the Anglo-Saxon feel right, and then the same for Dagmar of the Northlands, which is Nordic inspired. Orkna is based on the Orkneys, of course, which I’ve visited and researched, too. And Murkar has a Dutch feel to it in some ways. I do read a lot of period history before writing a fantasy novel, and it’s well worth the investment of time to do this to get the everyday details right.
What are you working on currently?
My next novel will be a horror one, the sequel to my first novel Souls for the Master. It’s called Blackacre Rising. It’s due out in September, so the text is finished of course, but I’m already moving on to my next project: writing the sequel to Dagmar of the Northlands. I haven’t settled on a title just yet, but it features new characters in a Russian-inspired culture alongside old friends like Gortah and Khan Nicholai of the Albins. I’m about halfway through the first draft.
Great! Do you find that it’s easy for you to move from book to book and genre to genre, or do you like focusing on one at a time?
Any writer who works in more than one genre will tell you that it’s always a bit of a jump from one to the other. In longer fiction, I’m either writing a horror novel or a fantasy novel at any point in time and these can easily take over a year to finish up if not longer. However, I review both genres and write short fiction and articles in each constantly, so in some senses it feels like I’ve never been away because I’m constantly immersed in both.
What is your favorite scene you’ve written? Can you give us a peek?
I’m an incurable romantic, so my favourite scene ever is from Aspatria when Gortah, who is 48 and who has been a widower for ten years, takes his son Eugene to visit a new queen Dextra who has risen to the throne when every man in her family is killed in battle. She’s inexperienced as a ruler, but she’s already making her authority felt and he is unprepared for the potent mix of her beauty and her position, which is equal to his. She puts him right in his place, and good for her.
Gortah smiled down at Dextra. The young queen’s delicate beauty was working the same charm on the king as it did on every man she met.
Dextra was routinely described as the most beautiful woman in the world for good reason. She had blossomed from a gangly, awkward child into a lovely young woman and, in the last year, her beauty had become radiant and rich. Now, the sorrow of her grief at the loss of her menfolk gave it a fragile quality that made it even more potent.
A blush spread across Gortah’s round face, and his eyes widened. The most powerful man in the world could still be taught a lesson about female beauty when he was least expecting it.
As Dextra looked up at Gortah her expression hardened.
“I am your equal, sir, get down off your horse and greet me accordingly.”
A gasp of surprise went round the square at Dextra’s rudeness to the king. She’d entirely misunderstood Gortah’s manner of greeting her.
Gortah rolled his eyes. He kicked his leg over the pommel of his saddle and slid to the ground. He thumped down with a crash as his boots hit the stone flags. He took a single step forwards and dropped to his knees right in front of Dextra. He was grinning. She looked around surreptitiously.
Dextra dipped into a low curtsey. Her white dress billowed out in all directions. She bowed her head and kept her eyes fixed on the ground in front of Gortah. Their faces were only inches apart. His eyes flickered downwards and over her body. Her low-cut dress gave the king a full view of her charms. Her repentant demeanour added to the picture. His Majesty was floored by both elements.
Gortah clambered up. He was not an ungainly man, but he was heavy and muscular. The redness of his cheeks eased, and he adjusted his crown so that it was square on his silver head again. He held his hands out to Dextra once he was securely on his feet. A buzz of relief spread around the crowd. She looked up at him winningly. Then she placed her tiny white hands in his gigantic palms, and he closed his fingers around them.
I love the descriptions and language you use. I noticed multiple times throughout your book that you make women and men equals – whether on the battlefield or in leadership roles. Was this something that was important to you in this story?
As someone who is nonbinary, it’s important to me to portray those of both genders and none with the utmost respect. Anyone is capable of good leadership or bad, and the answer lies in character rather than in gender. I also embrace diversity of sexual orientation in my writing. Gortah is bisexual, and Dagmar is coming out as same-sex oriented.
I’ve just written my first trans character in the fantasy novel I’m drafting at the moment. These are exciting times in gender and orientation, and I hope my fiction reflects that.
What is one bit of advice you’d like to share with writers?
I’d probably ask them, ‘Have you considered reviewing?’
I review for the British Fantasy Society, the Horror Tree and Schlock! Webzine. It’s made me grow as a writer because every week, one way or another when you include reviews on Goodreads and Litsy I have a review out about that often, I’m reading awesome novels in horror and fantasy (plus a bit of science fiction here and there) and analysing what works and what doesn’t. I’ve learnt so much about those genres by really getting down into the details of the books from themes to imagery, from plot to character. And it’s worth the effort because every so often I find myself feeling like I actually know what I’m talking about!
Haha. As a reviewer/writer, I agree. It’s amazing how much you learn from critiquing others. Have you found you catch yourself taking your own advice, so to speak, about your own writing?
Always, because one of the things that has really helped me grow as a writer has been to see what others are doing right. I’ve learnt a lot about the genres I write in from analysing them for articles and writing reviews of specific books. I’d recommend doing that to any emerging writer.
What is one question about your books that you wish more people would ask?
Q: Why is the farmhouse in your horror universe called Blackacre?
So glad you asked! Before I became a writer I was a solicitor. At college, land law was a compulsory part of the syllabus. When you need a fictional piece of land, which includes a house, to use as an example and to compare with neighbouring properties to deal with boundary disputes for example, you call the first property ‘Blackacre’ and the second ‘Whiteacre’ and so on through red, green etc to distinguish them. I think I was far too imaginative to make a good lawyer because I always found my thoughts drifting to what a morbid, evil place it sounded and how polished and cultured Whiteacre was by comparison. So my horror fiction features an aristocratic family at Whiteacre (who are all bonkers) and an uplands farming family, the Flints, at Blackacre, which is a pretty dangerous place to live.
That’s interesting! Do you include other real-life names or details in your stories? Kind of personal Easter eggs, even if other people don’t know about them?
I think those who know me well, especially family and friends of longstanding, will have no trouble identifying people and situations that have provided inspiration. The best way to make writing vivid is to draw from real life. Blackacre is located in Cumbria, but a lot of the farming families and communities portrayed in my horror fiction are based on our lives in rural Northumberland. I often use names that reflect the meaning of the place or person to lighten the horror mood, such as the village of Hellhole near the Flint family home or Brett Flint’s mother Narcissa and his father Patrus (the head of the family). Most of what I write is liminal horror, so lightening the mood a little is often a good idea.
Who inspires you to write?
It’s actually perfectly simple. In terms of writing reviews, which I’ve been doing for about two and a half years now, and articles, which I’ve just started expanding into, I seem to have an opinion on every subject under the sun, and I can’t resist sharing them with everyone I meet. Joking aside, I love sharing my thoughts on fantasy and horror, and I always seem to have something new to talk about.
It’s great to gather ideas from all over. Do you make notes when you come across something interesting that gives you an idea for your own writing? Or do you let ideas roll around in your head until something comes together?
I’m the world’s worst note-taker and I don’t even have a writer’s notebook – shocking admission, I know! I use a technique called lucid dreaming, whereby you spend really quite a lot of time thinking while awake about characters, plot, action, dialogue and background but without writing any of it down. I believe this style of approach makes my creative experience more robust because the subconscious has time to reflect on the contents of the lucid dream before you set pen to paper. It takes a lot of self-control not to try to note everything down while you’re doing this but to trust to being able to come back to it spontaneously later on. However, over the years I’ve learnt to let it seep into my brain and mature there before writing a novel or a story. It always comes back, either in that form or a better one later on.
In a perfect world where you could cast your book for a movie, who would you pick for your main characters?
Like many writers, perhaps especially those who are out and out romantics, I’m utterly absorbed with my own fictional creations and to me they feel absolutely real. I think you need that sort of obsession as a writer to be able to invent, from right out of nowhere, a whole cast of characters. In both horror and fantasy I write series, so some of my characters have been alongside of me for many hundreds of pages.
My daughter Midnight is in Sixth Form and she’s about to start applying for drama school. She has recently been preparing some videos reading selections of my work. She’s doing a wonderful job with them, and I’m so looking forward to sharing them with my readers when they’re ready. Naturally, when we talk about which actors would play the key roles it is firmly tongue in cheek on my part, but for her there is a real possibility that they’ll one day be her co-stars, and that’s incredibly exciting.
In a nutshell, Leonardo di Caprio as Gortah van Murkar, because he’s pretty much bang on the right age, has a wonderful physicality for the role and there’s no one better for a romantic leading man. Dextra is smart, funny, incredibly beautiful and a superb leader who inspires those around her. It would be hard to narrow down which actress I’d like to see play her – so many stars in Hollywood fit the bill right now. I’d love to see Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren play Queen Riley o’Eira, she’s so feisty and individual, so much her own person that it’s a joy to write about her and I’d love to see her made real on the big screen.
Wow, that is a cool project! Sounds like creativity runs in the family. I can completely see any of those actresses as Queen Riley. She was one of my favorite characters, even if kind of minor. Do you have favorites?
Gortah van Murkar, probably, and in that I’m not alone. Readers who get in touch to share their responses to my novels invariably mention him. I think they respond to his complexity and depth, comparing his sense of duty to his inner vulnerability. Riley’s always popular, in part because she has a very distinctive voice. I’m 49 and as I get older I feel like I’m becoming more like her. Right now, Gortah is the most personally relatable of all my characters for me, partly because he is drawn from within in many ways and partly because we’re almost the same age.
When you get stuck in your writing, how do you make yourself keep going?
We’re quite a creative family one way or another so in truth the thing that keeps me going when I’m stuck, and that happens to any writer occasionally, is imagining the baleful expressions of sympathy on the face of my kids or my boyfriend when, at the end of a long day’s writing, they ask how much I’ve done and I have to admit it’s ‘not as much as I’d like’. Focus on that and suddenly it’s easier to just push on through to meet your quota.
Haha! That is not an answer I’ve heard before, but that’s great. Do you let them read what you’ve written to get feedback as you go, or wait until you’re “done” to show your work to anyone?
There’s nothing like peer pressure, is there?
My daughter’s interested in reading excerpts of my work for audio book and for social media such as You Tube. That’s one of our forthcoming projects. My boyfriend’s also a writer, and he’s professional enough to be my fiercest critic in private but really supportive in public. I have an amazing beta reading team, some of whom see the work partway through and some of whom see the ‘polished but not final’ draft. I mix it up, but they make an amazing difference to the finished product, and I try to repay the favour with my feedback on their writing. I also have a regular team of editors for short and long fiction, and I am constantly grateful for everything they do to improve the quality of my writing.
That’s a nice team in your corner! Do you use your personal experiences in your writing?
Almost always a character is based on real people I know or have known. It’s a good thing I’m a lawyer because I’m usually able to stay on the right side of the line and avoid being caught up in libel litigation but sometimes it’s a pretty near run thing. I also have a great poker face, so I can always face them down whenever a friend or relative asks if the character was based on them. The secret lies in making them feel they’re been unpardonably egotistical and presumptuous in imagining they inspired the character.
Sometimes you don’t know who a character is based on, but you know you’re drawing deep to create them and write about their quirks and foibles. Usually, you can convince yourself they’re really based on someone else and you don’t really know who it is, but just occasionally the last line of defence fails and you have to inwardly admit that, in this instance, you’re writing about yourself. And that’s scary.
I encounter that same realization when adding quirks to characters. It’s so easy to draw off people you know well, and often you don’t totally do it consciously. Do you feel you learn more about yourself when you include elements of your own personality in your characters?
Always. I couldn’t agree more. By drawing upon yourself for inspiration, you’re digging really deep. And by externalising traits or action into another character, you are bringing them to the surface and laying them bare. That’s not always comfortable, but it is productive creatively and in terms of growing as a person.
Is there anything you’ve read that made you jealous you didn’t think of it first?
The first time I read a story by my boyfriend, Jim Graves, I thought ‘Damn, you’re better at this than I am!’ Not that I’d ever tell him, of course, that kind of thing can go to a man’s head.
Perfectly reasonable response. Haha. Would you ever collaborate in writing something together?
We recently started writing a story together and are partway through it. I’ve never written with anyone else before so it was a big step to try. It was more for fun than anything else. I think we were both reticent about how our writer’s styles would mesh to form a single authorial voice bearing in mind that our styles are very different. So far, it’s been interesting and actually very positive. Above all, it’s been fun. The creative process has been smoother than we anticipated, and I’ve really enjoyed working with another writer for a change. We might even get round to finishing the story and writing another.
Thanks, John, for sharing!
WHERE TO FIND John C. Adams: