An interview with Robert Cargill
Christopher Robert Cargill, resident of Austin, Texas, is a novelist, film critic and screenwriter. His debut novel, Dreams & Shadows was very well received by both readers and critics and this month will see the publication of the second book in the series, Queen of the Dark Things. Michelle Herbert caught up with the American author to talk about his work, influences and inspirations.
Why did you decide you wanted to write a dark story about fairies and wishes – was there a particular moment where the idea clicked into place?
Yeah, there definitely was. My wife had one of those Poem-a-day desk calendars and on one particular day it had the first stanza of John Donne's “Song”. “Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root/Tell me where all past years are/Or who cleft the devil’s foot/Teach me to hear mermaids singing/Or to keep off envy’s stinging/And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind.” I had been trying to figure out what I wanted to write next and that poem hit me like a brick. I knew I wanted to write about children in a very dangerous fantasy world and what it would do to them as they grew up immersed in it. The story percolated for a while, but it was a chance encounter with Neil Gaiman at a convention that brought all of the pieces together. I ended up with him at hotel bar for about two hours and between talking to him about it and him reading THE DREAM HUNTERS the next morning (which was being sold at the time as being based on an old (and ultimately bogus) Japanese fairy tale) everything just fell into place. The story wouldn't leave me alone, and while it took almost a decade to finally sit down and write it, it was those initial pieces that remained the chief influences.
There are some heavy themes running through both books about the loss of innocence and dealing with the consequences of your actions. Is this something that you felt could be dealt with via the fairy tale elements?
Definitely. The fairy tales of old are often bleak, dark tales meant to teach children lessons they'll need growing up. When I realized that you could merge fairy tale elements with modern storytelling (via the aforementioned DREAM HUNTERS) I knew that was the only way to make the story work.
Why did you decide that you wanted to write novels? Did you always know that you wanted to write the story of Colby Stevens?
I've wanted to write novels ever since I was a child. I gave it a go in my early 20's, but wasn't yet ready. Instead I spent the following ten years learning about story as a film critic and finally gave it another shot. This time I was ready. Colby's story was one my wife loved and kept insisting I write down for her, so when I felt the fire kindling inside to put something of my own down on paper, it was the obvious place to begin.
Colby is an interesting character almost stunted in certain areas of his life. Were you reflecting the times we live in or is it that with so much power it becomes harder to relate to other people?
Both, really. But Colby is mostly stunted by the notion that he's learned so much and yet understands so little. He knows God exists because there are angels and demons, but he still has no idea what that even means. Every answer only brings bigger, harder questions. And he's lost, ever navel-gazing looking for the answers he knows he'll never really find. Worse still, he's a guy straddling both worlds, neither of which really accepts him. He's an oddity in both, and that isolation only drives him further away from anyone who might accept him.
I love the character of Colby and the way he is manipulated for other people’s ends. Will there be further adventures to look forward to?
Hopefully. I have a third book in mind that brings his story, as it is, to a conclusion. I certainly have more ideas for exploring this world, but Colby's story is three books long.
Are the characters in both Dreams and Shadows and your new book, Queen of the Dark Things, based on people you know in real life?
Only a handful. Most of them are very much fiction. But Austin (the character) is rooted in the girl who was my geek Yoda growing up, a girl two years my senior who put tons of great books in my hands over the years and introduced me to the basics of philosophy and cutting edge science. She went off to become an honest to god rocket scientist but remains one of the quirkiest, brilliant, most laid back people I've ever known. So of course I had to put her in a book eventually. Some of the more minor characters, the humans mostly, are based upon people I know here in town; the fairies and angels I usually conjure from the ether.
How true is the Austin, Texas in your books to the real Austin?
Pretty close. I've written them in such a way that locals know exactly the places I'm talking about without it becoming a name dropping festival showcases my favourite businesses. But the vibe and flavour are very much the Austin I know and chose to make my home. I love this city with all my heart. I'm very fortunate that it is also a lot of fun to write about.
What book would you say inspired you to become a writer?
Firestarter. I had a huge crush on Drew Barrymore when I was a kid (we're the same age) and I desperately wanted to see her new movie. My parents refused to take me to a Stephen King movie, but my aunt bought me the book with Barrymore's picture on it thinking I wouldn't ever read it. I did. Three times. On the third read through I knew that this was what I wanted to do for a living.
What one question would you like to answer that you’re never asked?
Where I come up with the names and fairy types for my characters. While almost all of the new characters from QUEEN OF THE DARK THINGS are based on actual historical figures or previously defined mythological entities, most of the character names in DREAMS AND SHADOWS come from the region of the creature's origin and was chosen for the meaning of the name. Yashar, for example, is Persian for Immortal, his immortality being the core tragedy that defines him. All of the fairies were named for their personality traits or personal histories. And all of the fairy types chosen for the Limestone Kingdom were chosen from the cultures that initially settled Austin during and around its founding. A casual reading of these books might suggest they are haphazardly assembled, with many of the decisions being driven by aesthetics, but everything has meaning, even the names.
Robert Cargill books reviewed
Dreams and Shadows
The Limestone Kingdom, a parallel universe where whisky-swilling genies and foul-mouthed wizards argue over the state of the metaphysical realm. Having left the spirit worl...