An interview with Joel Shepherd

Joel Shepherd

It's been 6 years since we last spoke - an interview we did back in May of 2012 (found here).

What have you been up to since you finished writing A Trial of Blood and Steel?

I've written books four, five and six of the Cassandra Kresnov Series - 23 Years on Fire, Operation Shield, and Originator. I've also written the first four books of my big new military Space Opera, The Spiral Wars, those being Renegade, Drysine Legacy, Kantovan Vault, and Defiance.

What was it like returning to sci-fi after your foray into fantasy? Or, maybe more to the point, what was it like swapping from sci-fi into fantasy?

Each genre requires a different writing style. Fantasy is more formal, more 'literary', I suppose. Characters tend to speak more eloquently, and as a writer I feel I have a licence to turn a phrase with greater flourish than I'd get in SF. In most SF worlds, I feel, written language is always getting crowded out by technological alternatives, as we can see today in tweets and other social media usage that makes the purists cringe. Modern English will always obey less and less traditional literary rules, and I think it feels more realistic when it does.

Can you give readers of A Trial of Blood and Steel and The Spiral Wars a sales pitch on the Cassandra Kresnov series?

If you liked either of the other series, you'll probably like Cassandra. The first three books were the first I ever had published, so they're a little raw compared to where my skill level is today, but if I didn't love the characters, I wouldn't have returned to write the second trilogy after A Trial of Blood and Steel.

Cassandra's an entirely synthetic soldier who was made to fight in a war that she no longer believes in, so she defects to the side of her former enemies in search of a peaceful life. Until her past catches up with her, of course. She's a very different character from Sasha, she's cool and level headed, but she's been made to be a killer and she's on a mission to prove that she's more than her creators intended. Which takes her through moments of self-hatred on her way to a deeper understanding of her true nature that she can truly come to terms with.

Having read both A Trial of Blood and Steel and The Spiral Wars, there's at least one common thread that runs through both, and that's the idea of family - both complicated blood relationships and the family we make on our way.

Was this in any way an intentional aspect of your writing process for both series?

Not really. Family is obviously going to be important in a fantasy series like Trial, because the entire civilisation is built to some extent upon the idea of family inheritance in power and politics. The real utility for family in a medieval setting is that power is not some impersonal political thing, it's your brother, your father, your sister. And when these decisions of power and politics get tied up in the personal relations between individuals in family - which aren't always good and simple - then the great decisions of state become that much more dramatic, infused with all the emotion and torment of a good family feud. Game of Thrones became the world's most popular TV show based on just this phenomenon.

Did you write any intentional familial parallels as you worked on The Spiral Wars?

The decision to make Erik Debogande an heir to one of humanity's most powerful families was mostly a plot device to insert him into the upper-level workings of human power. It means he understands these things instinctively, which then saves me an awful lot of explaining. When you write complicated stories like I do, exposition can be a torment, so you have to find ways to make it fast and neat, for the sake of both reader and writer. Erik just knows how power works, without having to spend pages and pages learning it from someone else.

In both cases, main characters are forced to reform families away from their blood ties. Is this intentional? Does this speak to something in your life, or just a compelling plot device?

It's just a story I find compelling. Ultimately none of us have any idea who the people will be that we connect with most strongly. Sometimes those will be blood family, other times they'll be people not remotely related. Human relationships are complicated and unpredictable. I've always liked stories about bonds between unlikely friends.

The death of Koenyg at the end of Haven is, to me, one of the most impressive scenes you've ever written, given that - in a single scene - it forces the reader to revisit and revise their opinion of Koenyg, and the role he found himself having to play.

Did you have any specific intention to write such a character-defining moment for Koenyg in that scene?

Koenyg made his own death pretty much inevitable, by virtue of the person he is. He's impossibly stubborn and strong, he'll never change his mind. Once he ended up on the other side to Sasha and co, he was only ever going to stop when he died.

Was Koenyg's death inevitable from the beginning? Did you create or modify the character with his end in mind?

I think it was inevitable. Koenyg was always the ultimate pragmatist by the standards of his own world. He never cared particularly about ideologies or feel-good notions of nationhood. He believed in strength, and in the world he lives in, that's perfectly understandable. He saw that Lenayin's greatest attribute was its martial power, while its greatest flaw was its internal divisions, so he sought a path that would minimise those divisions while maximising the value of its fighting strength. It's what all great nation builders have done through history - the Chinese today value stability above all else, perfectly understandable given their long history of civil conflicts. They take some pretty tough measures to enforce that stability, measures that people like Sasha wouldn't like, but Koenyg would understand them completely.

When Sasha wins at the end, Koenyg remains entirely consistent to his worldview - Sasha's side is now the stronger, and she must pursue that strength mercilessly by uniting Lenayin around it, and crushing all of her enemies, including all those he once called friends. It's entirely pragmatic of him, and entirely in keeping with the person he's always been, to the end.

Who are some of your favourite but underrated characters in your writing?

I've always enjoyed writing Director Ibrahim from the Cassandra Kresnov Series. He functions as the ultimate ethical man, which always poses an ethical challenge for the author when writing him, because I have to figure out what the ultimate ethical position would be. And sometimes, it's not always pretty, and it brings him into conflict with friends who find his ethics cold.

In The Spiral Wars, I always look forward to writing scenes with Skah - he's just a kid, he's kuhsi (an alien species), he's one of the many ragtag mob of misfits who come to make up the Phoenix crew. But in a world of adults, there's nothing like a child's perspective to shine some illumination on the true nature of things, and to notice things that adults miss because they're so busy thinking adult things.

And in Sasha, I think it's not so much any individual character as certain combinations of characters. One of the most fun things to write was the network of relationships surrounding Sasha, and the way different people would bring out different sides to her personality. I especially enjoyed writing scenes with Jaryd and Sasha in Haven, because of the arc they've been on together - they start out in the first book as naive kids who have all the world still to learn. And Jaryd hits on her, unsuccessfully, but she likes him anyway... and then in Haven they're each in love with someone else, they've been through their own separate hells, and they reunite as old friends who recognise the change in each other and in themselves, and they can talk with an honesty and depth of friendship that wasn't possible before.

Throughout all four books of A Trial of Blood and Steel, Sasha - and many of those around her - are forced to question their own perception of reality. Sasha must comprehend the various intricacies of her homeland, Rhillian has to learn the failings of the serrin, while Errollyn has to come to terms with who he is apart from simply being "apart". And all around them are the differing worldviews from across the world. However, I feel as if maybe it is less of a focus in The Spiral Wars. That being said, The Spiral Wars brings its own unique brand of worldview and differences of opinion to the mix, but with less of the serrin obsessive introspection.

For you, are these forays into worldview and personal development keys to any well written story, or were they an intentional focus for you?

It's just something I like to write about. If you're writing about fictional worlds, in SF or fantasy, the good ones tend to be complicated. I've always been interested in this world, and how it works and how different people perceive their own role in it. When you're dealing with these notions of nationalism and identity, you have to deal with different characters' subjective experiences. And the advantage of doing that, from a dramatic point of view, is that you're no longer stuck just writing about one objective 'good' and 'bad' position in the story, but a whole range of possible story roles where every character might feel themselves to be the hero, and no one the villain. And it relieves me of the tedium of having to have the 'good' guys all on the same side and allows the introduction of all sorts of dramatically interesting shades of grey.

What are the differences you intended in worldview between A Trial of Blood and Steel and The Spiral Wars?

There are similarities in that the lead characters of both stories begin with a fixed view of what's right and wrong with their world, and then as their journey progresses, they learn that it's all a lot more complicated than that. Sasha begins her story as a Lenay patriot, but only one kind of Lenay patriot. She wants to advance her people's cause but comes to learn that that cause involves other causes as well, and some of them even more persuasive than her own.

In The Spiral Wars, the entire ship's crew is really the collective protagonist. They're human nationalists, understandably enough given the precarious position of humanity in that galaxy. They're prepared to risk their lives to advance the odds of humanity's survival, but the further they venture, the more it becomes clear that humanity's survival is tied to the fate of other species and peoples whose perspective they've never really considered before. The common thread, I think, is how a narrow focus on the righteousness of a single cause can blind you to the best interests of the people you think you're fighting for.

I can quite easily claim that A Trial of Blood and Steel is one of my favourite fantasy series - and I've read a lot of them. It also appeared as if you concluded the series in such a way as to leave the door open for future stories. There's a lot of peril left for the royal family of Lenayin to navigate, and the apparently impressive serrin navy never really gets to make an appearance.

Do you have plans - near or future - to return to Family Lenayin?

No plans at present, I've too many other things I'd like to write first. But that could change.

You hinted a lot at the mystical in A Trial of Blood and Steel but very rarely shone a light on it. Do you think that might be a point to explore if you ever return?

I'm not sure... it depends whether you're talking about magic or mysticism. Magic in fantasy I've always felt is an unnecessary trope. It works well in plenty of fantasy, but in others it just becomes repetitive. The thing that makes these stories really work, if they work, is the characters, and how compelling their drama. Once I got that story down, in A Trial of Blood and Steel, I never felt I needed the magic particularly.

Mysticism? Well plenty of cultures have mystical elements, including the cultures of that world. But the worldbuilding is much about the characters sense of their culture, and their faith in it, and how it gives them a feeling of identity. Looking at any culture from the outside, a foreigner might feel that it contains a lot of silly beliefs that don't hold up to scrutiny, but it still feels very powerful to the people of that culture. If you interrogate that too hard as an author, you risk destroying the dynamic that makes culture, identity and belief so interesting in the first place.

Is there anything you would do different this time around, that you wished you'd done differently for A Trial of Blood and Steel?

Not especially. Writers are always improving and changing, or they should be, so sure, there's bits I think I could have written better if I'd done them today. But if you get into that habit of thinking, you end up thinking nothing you write is any good, because you'll always reach some point in the future where you could do it better. All of a writer's books are a product of the time and place where they were when they wrote them. I think that stuff is best just left alone and accepted for what it is.

Do you regret any decisions you made at the time you wrote A Trial of Blood and Steel? Anyone you wish you'd killed off, or hadn't? Any character or personality traits that you regret?

Again, as above - the work is what it is, and shouldn't be dissected too much in hindsight. Regretting killing characters off usually happens only if you were very attached to that character. But if you regret it because it hurts, that means the death was probably a good thing dramatically, because good drama requires a degree of pain and loss, particularly in a story like this one.

On the contrary, the more I think back on Sasha in particular, the more I remember how much I enjoyed writing her. Most of us have restraints, things we'd never say or do because we're not that brave or crazy. Sasha's one of those characters who gets to talk and act as though most of those restraints or filters were removed. She's limited by her innate goodness as a person, but she still gets to say and do all the things the rest of us might wish we could say or do, but don't have the guts or the fighting skills to face the consequences of. She's fun like that.

Turning to The Spiral Wars, one of the obvious differences between a sci-fi series and a fantasy series is the proliferation of planets, cultures, aliens, etc, inherent in a sci-fi setting. The Spiral Wars takes this and adds thousands of years of technological evolution to the mix.

What is your writing process like for The Spiral Wars? How much in the way of background notes and visualisation do you have lying around your office?

Not all that much, actually. I've accumulated extensive notes on the various species and history, but it's all down in the books, so if I need a refresher, I'll just reread the relevant passages. It's actually safer to do that, because I need to make sure I'm not contradicting myself from some earlier book. Notes are just notes, but the books are 'canon'.

Each location we visit, every alien, every space station and planetoid seem to be so visually fleshed out: Is that how you read a story, visualising every scene, or there another reason that you so carefully portray each setting?

The way that I write has always been that I try to imagine what it's like to actually be there. Some writers struggle with this, they have their omnipotent narrator floating around and it's very hard to pin down exactly what the narrator's perspective is. Omnipotent narrators can see everything, which can ruin the experience of reading the scene because no one actually experiences reality like that. You're only aware of what your eyes, ears, nose etc can tell you.

But then a character like a Fleet officer on the bridge of the UFS Phoenix will also have a whole bunch of background knowledge to bring to the situation - they might be thinking tactically so I might have to briefly explain Fleet tactics in these scenarios, etc. Or they might be juggling any of a hundred other things in their head. I like to try and put the reader in that character's head, to create the experience of being there. So, my details are probably more about that than they are about being a precision worldbuilder like some authors. I'm not the kind of Frank Herbert or J.R.R Tolkien person who will construct entire mythologies and languages that barely even make it into the book. I try to show as much as the viewpoint character is aware of, and no more.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Spiral Wars, for me, is the way that you've placed it so far into the future - but also made humanity's history so comparatively insignificant when compared to everyone else.

What was it like working on these mind-boggling timescales?

Well you have to simplify a little bit. If I were to list all the history that's happened on every alien species' timeline across the millennia, the books would be unreadable. So, I try to stick to the basics, and let the readers know there's a lot more complexity in there that other characters will be aware of, but my viewpoint characters don't have the time or patience to find out, so thus the readers don't need to know it.

Also, history does slow down in some ways... I think we can see it happening even today, as an artefact of technology. Languages used to shift very fast - modern English isn't much more than five hundred years old, but I doubt very much it will have changed enormously in another five hundred years, because not only do we have writing and widespread literacy, we have recording technology, the internet, etc. Languages used to change because people forgot how they used to speak - there was only a very tenuous sense of the past because it wasn't so well recorded and would get forgotten, so people were far more wrapped up in the present which, less anchored to the past, tended to drift. But today, we know exactly how people used to speak a hundred years ago because we can hear them in recordings, or read their writing from far earlier than that, and so we become far more anchored to our past, and big things don't change as fast.

And similarly, there used to be lots of little wars, overthrows, revolutions, etc... history was once extremely busy. Now wars are relatively rare, governments far more stable, everything lasts longer, and the chaos has reduced. In the big space regimes, I'm imagining in The Spiral Wars, this is even more true, partly just because the enormous scale of them means that major change takes a huge amount of time to move from one side of an empire to the other. So, I think the time scales are deceptive, I'm not sure that a thousand years in The Spiral Wars really accounts for any more history than a hundred years on Earth today, or fifteen years in the 1500s.

Did you intentionally try to reduce humanity's importance by making them relative newcomers to the universe? If so, what was the reason for making humans relatively "new" and "young" to the universe?

The journey of my main characters - the crew of the UFS Phoenix - is to go out and discover things that were not previously known. So, it makes sense that humanity's knowledge of the galaxy should be limited, or else they'd already know all this stuff in the first place and would have no reasons to go journeying.

I also wanted to create the ultimate motivation for my characters. I think a lot of military SF just views humanity as moving pieces around a chess board, like back in Napoleonic Europe, lots of factions fighting without ever getting any clear sense of why. I knew my characters were going to be military - this isn't a peaceful exploration ship, it's one of the most powerful warships ever built. It's an idea I had a long time ago while watching Star Trek and thinking how much more interesting I'd find it if they weren't all explorers. Explorers exploring is easy. Soldiers being forced to become explorers/historians/diplomats etc, against all of their training and expertise, is far more interesting to me because they're not used to it, and the temptation is always to resort to pointing big guns at things. So, I give them lots of problems that big guns won't solve and watch them struggle to deal with it.

The ultimate motivation for soldiers in this galaxy is the survival of the human race, so I created a history where Earth had been destroyed a thousand years ago, most of humanity wiped out, then came fighting back to supremacy with alien help, thus tying us into this paralysing web of allegiances that we've had for a thousand years and rarely thought to question. So, it creates this position where humanity is still relatively new as a space power, but traumatised, suspicious, heavily militarised with a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Which creates a very nice mindset for my crew to be forced to break out of, when they find themselves running from their own Fleet and off on an adventure to discover what the hell is really going on in the galaxy.

Interview by Joshua S Hill.

Joel Shepherd books reviewed