Author Interview – Peter Birk June 22, 2012Posted by thehypermonkey in Author Interviews.
Tags: author interviews, peter birk, raioume, the violin, to trust the wolf
I wrote and drew a little comic book in one of my notebooks in high school. I was going through my first major depression, sparked by my first adult crush going badly. I became obsessed with drawing and writing this comic, panel by panel. I was working through some really complex emotions for the first time, but what was captivating me about the process was that I was fictionalizing it. I wasn’t just writing about how depressed and sad I felt– I was telling a story about a little penguin trapped at the bottom of a hole. I didn’t know what was going to happen to him, which is why I was so focused on working on it all through school. When I did reach the end, it was very cathartic for me
Up to that point, I’d always been more interested in comics, cartoons, and animation. But when I started working on things, I found my artistic skills lagged behind my verbal skills. I was fortunate to have a really good English teacher in junior high. She was a real taskmaster– we all hated her, but for two years, the actual craft of writing was drilled into me. When I got to high school, writing was something I could do well, so it became how I expressed myself.
2. Do you have any writing rituals?
I used to be very fetishistic when it came to writing. I had to write longhand in a bound artist’s sketchbook with a Scheaffer fountain pen with purple ink. I had to go to this specific coffeehouse, had to drink black coffee, had to smoke Marlboro reds.
There’s a difference, though, between saying, “I like to write with fountain pens,” and, “I have to write with a fountain pen.” When your tools become the excuse for why you’re not writing, they’re no longer your tools. The important thing is to keep writing, no matter what.
I still have strong preferences regarding my tools. At some point I graduated to black ink, and now writing in anything else drives me crazy. But I’ll write in blue or purple or whatever color ink is in the pen I happened to grab when I sit down to write, because the important part is just to write. I have a goal of writing at least 750 words a day. They can be words about anything, but I try to write at least that much everyday. Writing everyday, and writing a good bit every day, at least in my experience, makes it easier to just sit down at the keys and bang something out when you’ve got the time.
3. If you had a chance to sit down with your favorite author, who would it be? What would you say?
If I got a chance to sit down with James Joyce over a cup of tea, I’d be too scared of sounding like an idiot to really ask anything profound. I’d ask him who the man in the macintosh is in Ulysses. I really do want to know that.
4. Did you always know you were going to write fantasy?
No. I probably should have, given how much of it I read through the years. When I was a kid, I devoured any fantasy novel I got my hands on. When I started studying writing, though, I wrote serious fiction, modern, literary fiction. Not to put down sci-fi or fantasy, but there’s something to literary fiction that you don’t often find in most commercial fiction, genre fiction included; a fundamental function of the art form that works like the trigger of a gun, and figuring out that function, and how to make it work, that’s the difference between writing well and writing beautifully. It’s that moment when the narrative reaches out, grabs your heart and gives it a little squeeze, that point where all the little symbols and relations the author has stitched through the text suddenly line up and etch themselves like lightning across your brain.
I’m not dismissing sci-fi or fantasy that doesn’t do this. Another fundamental function of the art form is the power of narrative to supersede the reader’s thoughts, to allow the reader to become lost in the fictional world, and good genre fiction excels at this. Like I said before, I’ve been a long time fan of both genres, but in college I always pictured myself writing literary fiction. The fact is, though, that a few years out of school, I had really given up on the idea of being a writer. I felt as if I was out of practice after not being in school for so long. It was almost unpleasant for me to try to write, because I would compare it to things that I had written years before and feel that it wasn’t as good. This novel started out as a script for a comic book, which was how I talked myself into working on it, because no one was going to see my awful prose, just my awful dialog. But then the plot and the characters just kept growing and growing, and soon I found myself writing actual narrative. Once I was rolling, I couldn’t stop.
I’m not saying writing sci-fi or fantasy is easier, either. In so many ways, it is a lot harder. Not only do you have to create a new world and make it real, but you have to figure out how to introduce it to the reader without bogging down your narrative. And sci-fi/fantasy readers know the genre, and know it well. They know what’s been done before. They know how it’s done, and what they like to see.
But for me, writing a fantasy novel became very liberating, because it freed me from the shackle of trying to write serious fiction, of trying to create art. I had a story I wanted to tell, a story that was captivating me so completely that all I wanted to do was work on it, just so I could be in that world. But there are a lot of bits in the text that the serious writer in me is pretty proud of, nice turns of phrase and such, and there are moments in the text that still generate an emotional response in me, even when I was revising and revising and revising. When you’ve read the same passage nearly a hundred times and it still chokes you up, that’s something.
I’d been invited to play D&D with some friends. One night when I was driving home from the game, I started thinking about a new campaign, one that would mix swords and sorcery with a western theme. I came up with this image of a witch on horseback who was a solitary law enforcer, like the Texas Rangers of the Old West. She was riding through mountains, hunting a renegade werewolf.
I never got started on the campaign, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene and started just scribbling about it. The Little Red Riding Hood story started to become the perfect frame for the ideas and scenes I was envisioning. I’ve had a long-standing interest in stories involving wolves, but Little Red Riding Hood isn’t so much about the wolf as it is about the girl, so it wasn’t until Perdita came along in my notes that things really snapped into focus. Originally, the story was all about Lupus Rex, about how he was this misunderstood anti-hero, but creating Perdita changed all that quickly, and it became her story instantly.
6. The world of Raioume is very elaborate, do you keep notes when you write?
I started with several draft documents that were just raw ideas. Anything and everything that popped into my head, I jotted down. As I got into writing the text, I kept a stack of 3 x 5 notecards handy, and would write ideas down on them as I went. I would go through them later and work the ideas into the text or toss them out.
At one point, I got concerned that I had too many characters to keep track of, so I started making a timeline. I ended up drawing it on graph paper, and then ended up taping extra sheets to it to keep track of every character. The final time line ended up being seven sheets of graph paper taped together, two high by three wide with a tail. It was a good thing I did it, too, because I discovered that some of the timing was not going to work out. Anna DuBois ended up being older than I was writing her. Estelle Mathieu started out as Sylvia’s mother, but became her grandmother as I saw how things were falling out.
used Scrivener for a lot of the composition and editing, and it was really easy to add notes to sections and ask questions. Also, my editor and I made a ton of notes about things as we revised the book. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the book and its world, a lot of time thinking about its history, so there was a lot I could reference obliquely in the text. My editor was really good about asking about obscure references, and helping me elaborate where she felt I needed to.
7. Who was your inspiration for Perdita?
I would love to claim that Perdita sprang from my forehead fully formed, but that’s not very realistic. I did get a very clear sense of her early on. I can see a Kitty Pryde influence. She was my favorite X-Man when I was reading comics back in the 80s. I think Chris Claremont did a wonderful job of keeping her wide-eyed and innocent, intelligent, constantly overwhelmed by the challenge of being a super-hero yet continually rising to meet that challenge. But Perdita has this stubborn sense of fair-play that I find really remarkable, that from an early age she has seen that there is injustice and evil in the world, but that’s not what upsets her. It’s the lack of balance between the bad things and the good things in life. Perdita knows first-hand that bad things happen to good people. What outrages her is that the good things don’t happen to them as well.
Well, my goal when I published the first book was to have the second book out by the end of 2012. And now it’s June. Yikes. I have been working on the book, but I’ve also been working at my day job, going back to school, and taking care of my son in the mornings. Marketing the first book has also taken more time than I thought. So, the end of this year is looking a little unrealistic.
I don’t see it taking six years, like the first book. The plot, characters, and settings are pretty well established. To Trust the Wolf was the longest piece I’ve written to date, and my first attempt to write a novel as opposed to a short story. I learned a lot about the process, and have a better idea of what’s needed to complete a book. So, probably not by the end of the year, but hopefully about a year from now.
I do post little snippets and scenes on my personal blog– not from Little Red, but different realistic scenes based on things that happen around me. And I am planning a web-based serial for Little Red, a side-story that takes place well before the novels, something where I could put a scene or a chapter out every week or so.
We’re working on audiobook version, and looking to release a chapter at a time as a podcast. And finally, I’m in talks to have the setting used as the background for a new free form role-playing system that is in the process of being published. I’ve read recaps from their role-playing sessions before, and it really is more like collaborative story-telling than game playing, so I’m excited to see what happens with that.
Thanks goes to Peter for the interview!
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