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.

You can follow him on his Twitter account

You can read our review of Dreams & Shadow here.

Our Robert Cargill reviews

Queen of the Dark Things by Robert Cargill

Two boys, spirited away into a dark world of myth and folklore that has lived, grown and changed alongside our world, have grown into men and now make their way. But faerie has not forgotten them, it never could, they wield too much power, too much hinges on them, so it reaches out again. And a trip to Australia becomes a terrifying adventure amongst new gods, new spirits, new embodiments of an ancient land and power.

"The Queen of The Dark Things as a book focuses on destiny: is it important, can it be broken and are other people’s destinies actually just complicit in your own? I found this a very interesting concept that compelled me to think of my own life and actions. When it comes to decisions do you do what is best for you or the best for the world around you? I cannot recommend this series enough and hope that we don’t have too long to wait for another book by C. Robert Cargill."

Read our review

Dreams and Shadows by Robert Cargill

In the debut novel Dreams and Shadows, screenwriter and noted film critic C. Robert Cargill takes us beyond the veil, through the lives of Ewan and Colby, young men whose spirits have been enmeshed with the otherworld from a young age. This brilliantly crafted narrative - part Neil Gaiman, part Guillermo Del Torro, part William Burroughs - follows the boys from their star-crossed adolescences to their haunted adulthoods. Cargill's tour-de-force takes us inside 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 world and returned to the human world, Ewan and Colby discover that the creatures from this previous life have not forgotten them, and that fate can never be sidestepped. With sensitivity and hopeful examination, Cargill illuminates a supernatural culture that all too eerily resembles our own. Set in a richly imagined and constructed world, complete with its own richly detailed history and mythology, Dreams and Shadows is a deeply engaging story about two extraordinary boys becoming men.

"This novel begins with a perfect love story and yet this isn’t about the love story, there are no happy endings here, instead this is a dark tale where bad things happen to the characters involved. Sometimes this can simply be because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Have you ever read older versions of fairy tales? The ones where bad things happen to people who don’t know the rules and fairies aren’t all sweetness and light? If you have and you loved them, then this is the story for you... if you haven’t read those tales then you should read Dreams and Shadows anyway as you might just be surprised." Michelle Herbert, Fantasy Book Review

Read our review