Please welcome David Mealing to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Soul of the World was published on June 27th by Orbit.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
David: Pleasure to be here!
I started writing seriously three years ago. The spark came during my first vacation in almost nine years, reading Brandon Sanderson’s WORDS OF RADIANCE cover-to-cover at a beachside villa on the big island of Hawaii. I finished the book, asked myself why I had never tried to write anything of my own, and nine months later I had a first draft of SOUL OF THE WORLD.
Before then I’d never written any creative fiction, but I’ve always been a storyteller. Pen & paper roleplaying games were my primary outlet, and they taught me all the basics of drama – how to keep an audience engaged, how to build lovable characters and create immersive, impactful scenes. I’m still learning the craft of writing, but I’ve been creating worlds and telling stories since my first game of D&D when I was five.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
David: Pretty close to a pure pantser, which surprised the hell out me. As a DM in pen & paper games, I would spend hours building immaculate worlds, with dossiers on every NPC, long lists of political ties and trade routes, maps of every city, etc etc etc. I tried to do the same for novels and found it just didn’t work for me. I would sit down to follow my outline and immediately be hooked to follow something I found while writing the scene. Pantsing has cost me thousands of hours of rewriting to polish those ideas into a workable narrative, but I’ve found my best scenes come from a place I can’t access while outlining. I have to surprise myself first, then clean up the mess when I’m done.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
David: Learning the craft. I’m constantly in awe of how much greatness there is in SFF as a genre. Writers like Pat Rothfuss, N.K. Jemisin and Guy Gavriel Kay stun me when I read their stuff. I want to osmose their greatness, steal it and siphon it into my writing. I’m quite relentless when it comes to dismantling my work and looking for areas to improve, and while I try to be proud of the things I feel I do well, I know there is still so very much to learn.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
David: Everything! I’m a thief at heart. I shamelessly steal ideas, techniques, scenes, character concepts, story structures and more from every piece of media I consume. I watch MAD MAX and I want to write my version of Furiosa. I read James Clavell and I want to write daring pilots navigating ships to the far side of the world. Even music informs my writing – I’ve been listening to a ton of Bryan Ferry lately and I want to find words to capture the romance and softness in his songs. The hope is I combine enough different elements in what I steal to make it mine.
TQ: Describe Soul of the World in 140 characters or less.
David: French revolution alongside a magic-infused Iroquois Confederacy. Big, world-changing stakes. Layers to everything. Nothing as it seems.
TQ: Tell us something about Soul of the World that is not found in the book description.
Hmmm… how about some writing trivia? The most-rewritten chapter of the book is one of the interludes, the one given to The Nameless, aka Axerian. I rewrote it nineteen times from scratch. My wife is the only person to have read all nineteen versions of the chapter, some of which included spoilers and reveals for plot events that won’t happen until the third book of the trilogy. Partly as a result of this, Axerian is my wife’s favorite character by far. I’ll leave it to the readers to puzzle out why as they finish the trilogy!
TQ: What inspired you to write Soul of the World? What appeals to you about writing Epic Fantasy?
David: SOUL came about after my attempts to meticulously outline a fantasy western. As I mentioned above, that all went out the window as soon as I sat down to write the first scene. I was captivated by the idea of an artist sitting alone, sketching Louis XVI’s court at Versailles. I wrote that, and the rest flowed from there. 100% pure discovery writing.
Epic fantasy in general is just an amazing genre to be working in. As epic fantasy writers we get the space to create lavish worlds and magic systems, and we can explore just about any facet of history or culture that catches our attention, real or imaginary. I want to take my readers all over my world, I want the stakes to be big, I want powerful heroes making life-changing decisions and villains who are just as convinced their decisions are right, even if it sets them against the heroes. Epics have always been my favorite books to read; I can’t imagine writing anything else, at least for now.
TQ: Your bio states that you "...studied philosophy, politics and economics.." How did this help or hinder the creation of the world in your novel?
David: PPE gave me a foundation for understanding how the world works, or at least understanding a bit better than I did as a teenage kid growing up in Southern California. I’ve learned as much and more in the years since college, but my academic studies taught me to pick apart traditions and power structures and try to find the motivations behind why people and nations act the way they do. It’s part of why SOUL is as layered as it is – there’s plot, and metaplot, and meta-meta-plot that will all be revealed as the trilogy progresses. I think PPE helped me see that humans and human-created tribes tend to layer motivations on top of each other, often rationalizing and obscuring from themselves the truths that are there for the finding, if you dig a bit deeper. I’m an analytical person by nature and PPE honed that aspect of my personality to a sharp edge. It stands to reason those aspects of me would find their way into my stories.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Soul of the World?
David: I love the cover! It’s not depicting any specific scene, more evoking the sense of a lone girl standing against a threat she barely understands. It’s meant to convey mystery, danger, military, and defiance – all core themes of the book. I think it succeeds beautifully, and give full credit to the wonderful team at Orbit for putting it together.
TQ: In Soul of the World who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
David: The easiest character was probably Foot-Captain Marquand. He’s a side character in Erris’ arc who steals just about every scene he’s in. Something about him just clicks in my brain – whenever he’s on ‘screen’ so to speak, the words flow and I find his actions and dialogue without trying. Almost every Marquand scene is untouched from the first draft – something I can say about virtually none of the other characters in the book.
The hardest is Zi. Every word he says is dripping with meaning. I have to be careful not to trip up and reveal too much to readers inclined to parse the text close enough to catch me!
TQ: Which question about Soul of the World do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
David: How about: ‘why set the book in an era with gunpowder instead of more traditional (for fantasy) medieval weaponry and tactics?’
And the answer: until about midway through the first draft, SOUL *was* set in an era of high medieval military and weapons tech! Erris originally wore mail and Jiri wore barding. In fact, my wife even commissioned some art depicting the three main POV characters as a birthday present for me while I was writing the novel, where Erris is dressed in this style. I’d initially made the decision to juxtapose 18th century French fashions & politics with a more traditional medieval military setting, and opted to scrap it in favor of Napoleonic-era weapons since just about every reader would naturally expect it in a French-revolution inspired story.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Soul of the World.
David: Ooh fun! Here’s one, from the end of Alouen’s interlude:
“You get to be a hero now, Alouen,” Jeanette said. “I’ll tell stories about you.”
He felt numb. He didn’t want to be a hero anymore.
I’ve always loved Marie d’Oreste’s story. She’s a side character from Erris’ arc who gets almost no direct screen time and has no POV chapters in the book. But if you follow along between the lines, you’ll see her lose her son (Alouen, from the quote above) to the King’s orders, her and her husband Philippe captured as prisoners of war, and watch her strive for goodness in spite of witnessing so many horrors and losing almost everything in her life. I’m fascinated by heroes and I try to find their stories everywhere I can, even in side characters like Marie.
TQ: Will there be an Ascension Cycle pen and paper RPG? Do you have any favorite RPGs?
David: Oh my god. I had honestly never thought about it before you asked this, which is weird considering my background. Wow. Yes, please? Someone make this and I can die happy.
My favorite RPGs… AD&D 2nd edition was the start of everything for me, and I still love it, even with all the rough edges. I own just about every White Wolf core book, and especially adore Vampire, Mage, and Changeling. Palladium rulesets (Heroes Unlimited & TMNT) were huge favorites for me in junior high & high school. Iron Crown also had some great books. Shadowrun is amazing. I ran some great Mechwarrior campaigns alongside Battletech miniatures games. Even 4th edition D&D, for all the flak it gets, was a fantastic ruleset for me. I have a dozen Pathfinder books on my shelves that don’t see enough use for how wonderful a system it is...
TQ: What's next?
David: I’m two weeks away from turning in book two of the Ascension Cycle to my editor. Then on to first drafts of book three!
Other than that, I finished a completely unrelated novel while we were shopping SOUL OF THE WORLD that I’d love to come back to. You might get to see that one in 2020. After that… who knows! I’m constantly writing, constantly looking to explore new ideas. I did 40,000 words of exploratory writing for a re-telling of some of Robert E. Howard’s CONAN stories last year, and another 20,000 of a French/Celtic dark fantasy inspired by William of Normandy and Le Morte d’Arthur. This time next year I’ll be close to wrapped on the Ascension Cycle and I’ll pick one of these – or maybe something completely different! – to move on next.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
David: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.
Soul of the World
The Ascension Cycle 1
Orbit, June 27, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 656 pages
Three heroes must rise in a world on the brink of destruction in the first book of this epic fantasy trilogy that RT Book Reviews called "an impressive fantasy debut with... a unique magic system sure to capture a fantasy readers attention"!
It is a time of revolution. In the cities, food shortages stir citizens to riots against the crown. In the wilds, new magic threatens the dominance of the tribes. and on the battlefields, even the most brilliant commanders struggle in the shadow of total war. Three lines of magic must be mastered in order to usher in a new age, and three heroes must emerge.
Sarine is an artist on the streets of New Sarresant whose secret familiar helps her uncover bloodlust and madness where she expected only revolutionary fervor.
Arak'Jur wields the power of beasts to keep his people safe, but his strength cannot protect them from war amongst themselves.
Erris is a brilliant cavalry officer trying to defend New Sarresant from an enemy general armed with magic she barely understands.
Each must learn the secrets of their power in time to guide their people through ruin. But a greater evil may be trying to stop them.
Start reading this gripping, vibrant, and imaginative addition to the epic fantasy canon for readers of Brandon Sanderson, Brian McClellan, and Miles Cameron.
David Mealing grew up adoring all things fantasy. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford, where he taught himself to write by building worlds and stories for pen & paper RPGs. He lives in Washington state with his wife and three daughters, and aspires to one day own a ranch in the middle of nowhere.