Slow-dancing with madness: an interview with Michael Fletcher

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Michael Fletcher

Michael R. Fletcher is a science fiction and fantasy author, a grilled cheese aficionado, and a whiskey-swilling reprobate. He spends his days choreographing his forklift musical (titled “Get Forked”), and using caffeine as a substitute for sanity. Any suggestions that he is actually Dyrk Ashton in disguise are all lies. His latest novel, SMOKE AND STONE, the first book of the CITY OF SACRIFICE trilogy, was just released.

Hi Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Congratulations on the release on SMOKE AND STONE, as it’s been getting excellent reviews across the board. Let’s jump right in.

I found one of the most compelling aspects of the novel to be the layout of Bastion, the last city of mankind. Were there any historical societies that you modeled this city after, or was it all an original design? Did you do any research in building this society?

What!?! Who are you? Get out of my head! Hold on. Maybe I agreed to something like this. Oh..  ok. I’m gonna pretend you’re real. I started with this idea that Bastion was going to be treated as if the city were a character. I wanted it to have personality, but just be a backdrop to the story. That’s kind of the way I write: the world (or in this case city) IS the story. The city wasn’t taken from anything historical. Rather, it’s an allegory of sorts for modern civilization. The civilization, however, is very much influenced by Aztec and assorted African flavours. Not much research went into the city. I knew before I started what I wanted it to be. The magic system on the other hand…

I love the idea of basing the magic system on using powerful drugs to speak with gods, enter a dream-state, and bind with allies in the spirit world. Along with Rebecca Kuang’s The Poppy War, the usage of magic in your series not only exhausts the user but carries the all-to-real threat of addiction. What was the creative process behind designing this system? Did you draw from any real-world experiences?

I haven’t read Rebecca’s stuff yet, but it’s definitely on my list. For me a key part to any good magic system is the cost. That’s probably due to my decades of roleplaying. There’s never something for nothing! The system for these books is MASSIVELY influenced by Carlos Castaneda’s books. The Teachings of Don Juan. A Separate Reality.  Fantastic amount of philosophy hidden in a fiction novel disguised as an anthropological text. I strongly recommend folks read them. A fair amount of research went into Mesoamerican mythology and sorcery, though most of it I butcher and tweak to fit my needs so I’m not sure how much will be recognizable. My own experiences with narcotics and hallucinogens definitely played a part in this novel as well. I’ve never been much interested in getting high, but twisting reality/perception is something of an obsession.

If someone wanted to learn more about this topic, which book would be the best place to start?

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge is definitely the place to start. Learning to control your folly–those things we pretend are important but really aren’t (and most people don’t even realize/understand they’re pretending–is a key lesson.

Sounds like a good lesson in perspective.

Going back to the topic of Mesoamerican influences in the book, it’s interesting to note that the gods created Bastion based on an Aztec-like caste system. I found myself asking if this design was the best idea the gods had to offer: a literal class divide. Did you write this as a commentary on what mankind might need in order to survive the long haul?

Well, without giving too much away, there’s some debate on what the gods intended. With two religious texts, The Book of Bastion (the widely accepted text), and The Book of the Invisibles (the text of the Loa) there is some disagreement as to the original intent. Even then, The Book of Bastion has been rewritten and edited many times over the last 25,000 years. This will play a bigger part in book two as we learn more about the inner rings and the history of the world and Bastion. I wouldn’t dare to suggest what mankind needs. I’m not nearly smart enough for that. But rather I like to poke at ideas, try and pick them apart, perhaps show them from another angle. My goal is always first and foremost to tell an interesting story; I want to take the reader somewhere new. But if I can spark a few thoughts along the way, then I really feel like I’ve done my work.

Some of your earlier works push the boundaries of what grimdark has to offer. SMOKE AND STONE opens with a very different atmosphere than your previous books, but the story gets darker and darker the further we go along. Is this an intentional choice, or something that your characters gravitate toward naturally as the story unfolds?

I straight up don’t understand grimdark. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing it. Basically, all my favourite books get labelled grimdark. But I don’t really get it. In my delusional and clearly flawed opinion, I have never written a grimdark novel. What I write is dark fantasy.  That said I have (kind of) come to terms with the fact that what I think doesn’t matter. Anywhere. Ever. I think Mark Lawrence really proved this with his Grimdark, We’re Nailing it Down post. That’s BEYOND REDEMPTION sitting at the top of the grimdark scale which clearly states that I haven’t a fucking clue what I’m talking about.

What was the question?

Oh yeah. Character arc. I started SMOKE AND STONE knowing how it was going to end. I had the last scene in my head from the very beginning. The fun part is that I had no idea how to get the characters from the (relatively) innocent folks they are at the beginning to the people they become by the end. That’s the magic, and if I could explain it I still wouldn’t. So… yes, some of it was planned and most of it happened organically. Did I rant earlier about how, in fantasy, the world drives the story? What I’m saying is that if you drop those two characters into the world of Bastion, that’s the story that falls out. I don’t really understand plot. Plot is like this boring planned thing. Stories are what happens when people in difficult situations make difficult decisions and shit goes sideways. Am I making sense?

About as much sense as you usually make, which is the perfect amount of sense.

Going back to your thoughts on grimdark, I’d like to mention that after attending a couple of grimdark panels with some of the more well-known authors in the genre, it still sounded like everyone has a different definition for the term. One common thread I kept hearing was that ‘it’s a world where there is a complete absence of hope, and nothing is ever going to get better for the world at large.’ That certainly applies to your Manifest Delusions series, and so far, it can be argued that SMOKE AND STONE falls under that umbrella as well.

I see bleak hopelessness as a key ingredient to grimdark. Certainly my Manifest Delusions novels have that in spades. They were meant to hopeless from the first word. Hell, the whole point was to write a book where all the characters were beyond redemption. But when I wrote SMOKE AND STONE I thought, Ah-ha! Finally I’ve written something that won’t get called grimdark! And then everyone went off about how grimdark it is. “It’s grimdark as fuck,” “Fletcher truly is a god of grimdark,” and such. I guess I don’t see the City of Sacrifice series as hopeless. I see the characters on both sides of the struggle striving to do their best, fighting for what they believe is right. There are no good guys and bad guys. Each side is the hero in their story. Both are trying to save the city. That said, obviously it ain’t gonna end well for everyone. SOMEONE is going to have to lose.

There are only two POVs in the story, and both are forced into making some… let’s call them ‘difficult’ decisions as the book progresses. Are you ever concerned about crossing any lines and alienating your readers with some of the situations you put your protagonists through?

I don’t think about crossing lines. I also don’t think about horror or shock value. I’m not interested in that. I’m not writing to titillate or scare. My job is to dream up the world and the characters and then tell the story as honestly as I can. Sometimes terrible shit happens, and then my job is to not shy away from it. I think part of this comes from the way I write. Books start as movies in my head. I literally watch the scene play out and then try and write it such that the reader will see what I saw. Try being the operative word. Alienating readers… I probably should put some thought into that. Nah. Fuck it. Other people can tell the safe stories. I’d rather tread (lightly) on some toes. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing really that far out there in my books.

“Tread lightly,” so you say? Have you heard of the television show Steven Universe? It’s the one where magical space rocks fight each other and occasionally sing. Two of the characters are named Garnet and Amethyst. How does it feel to know that you completely ruined this cartoon for me forever because of that one nightmarish scene in your book?

Ha! I have no idea what you’re talking about. Never heard of the show.

I wish I hadn’t either.

You published a short story collection (A COLLECTION OF OBSESSIONS) earlier this year that gathered together many of your ideas as a young writer in the 90’s through today. While there were some stories that featured a dark fantasy setting, there were also some stories that focused on near-future science fiction that felt like a cross between Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick. Do you have plans to expand any of these non-fantasy short story ideas into something bigger?

Yes. I have a noir SF novel (about a third written) that makes use of the memory plugs which appeared in several of the stories in that collection, and the personality-altering tech that appeared in one. None of those stories, however, were influence/inspired by those two writers. George Alec Effinger is the inspiration for basically all my short SF. Right now, however, I am solely focused on the City of Sacrifice series and the Obsidian Path series, which I’ll launch next year. Because I can be a flighty fuck, I’ve decided that I’m not allowed to work on any other novels until both series are done. My hope is that once they’re out of my system, I’ll feel ready to tackle the last Manifest Delusions novel. I gotta be honest, that book freaks the fuck out of me. I’ve started it three times, and tossed upwards of 30k words each time. Someday. Just need some distance. Not easy being in the right (or perhaps wrong or bent) mindset to write those books.

What can you tell us about The Obsidian Path series?

You might remember Khraen from DEATH AT THE PASS, and DEATH AND DIGNITY in the short story collection. The Obsidian Path trilogy is his story. Oh, and THE UNDYING LANDS from the same collection takes place in that world too. This is one of those stories where I know exactly how it is going to end. This story has been in my thoughts for over two decades. I first tried to write it back in the 90s but couldn’t finish it. I think I got maybe 60k into it before giving up. I trashed all of that and started again. With a few other novels under my belt, I now know how to tell this story.

I don’t want to give too much away. so…

A young man awakens in the far north. He has no name and no past. Something pulls him south, a need. He discovers there are shards of obsidian littered around the world. With each one he finds, each one that once again takes its place as part of his stone heart, he remembers a little more of who he once was. As he follows this obsidian path, he learns of his dark and terrible past.

So basically another light and fluffy Fletcher novel.

I remember these stories well. Was it this world and characters that were based on some role-playing games that you and some friends created back in school?

Yep. That campaign started in high school and ran off and on for about a decade. Which was nice because I still had all the world-building I’d done. Books and books of spells and creatures and demons and history. Sometimes I worry about me. I seem to flee reality.

I think some of us can relate.

While we’re on the topic, can you tell us what you’ve been reading lately and make some recommendations?

I’m going to stick with fairly recent releases that have floored me.  Anna Smith Spark’s Empire of Dust trilogy is pure brilliance.  I’ve been lucky enough to work on some serial fiction with her for Grimdark Magazine (no release date yet). It’s humbling trying to keep up. Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer is amazingly inventive. Daniel Polaski’s Low Town series is a must for any fan of dark fantasy.  And let’s throw in one classic: Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer books were a huge influence on me.

And the last burning question that we all want to know… where are bodies buried, Michael?

There are no bodies! I dissolve them!

This was never about the interview; we now have a written confession! The cops are on their way.

Thanks to Michael Fletcher for taking the time to infect us all with a touch of madness. SMOKE AND STONE is available now.

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