Please welcome Joseph Brassey to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Skyfarer was published on September 5th by Angry Robot.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Joseph: Hi! Thanks for having me. I’ve been telling stories since I was 2 years old (My mother apparently has a hostage copy of my first one). I wrote a little in high school and more in college, which is where I figured out that this was something I wanted to do professionally. I had no idea how to do it, though, so I just experimented and pounded out stuff. I think a lot of authors go through that period where you’re literally just making things over and over until something emerges that works.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Joseph: Definitely a hybrid. I used to be a full on panster, but eventually outlines started emerging organically as a way to keep track of the lynchpin moments I had in my mind ahead of time. Nowadays I usually sketch out a series of key moments that I’m working towards and do a number of chapter files up in advance with titles suggesting the relevant plot points. Then I start working through them. I often write stuff out of chronological order, so that outline helps. The flip side is that as often as I stick to my outline, I also find myself throwing chunks of it out. When a story reaches a certain point it takes on a life of its own and then I have to start listening. I think a way people often kill their own ideas is by refusing to listen to the direction they’re pulling.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Have the challenges been different for your solo debut - Skyfarer?
Joseph: The hardest part about writing for me is always starting. There are times when the muse is flowing and times when you’re working by habit and discipline, but in both cases the hardest part is actually sitting your ass in the chair and getting the work done. With my last project, Mongoliad, I was one of seven authors operating in a fashion not unlike a TV writer’s room. When I started writing on my own again, the hardest part was finding my way out from that sort of box of expectations, accountability, and limits that you step into whenever you do a collaborative project. I was excited to be on my own again, but then I had to get used to being — well, on my own.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Joseph: Early on I read a bunch of Brian Jaques Redwall books and the usual Tolkien et all. In College I discovered George RR Martin and Robert E Howard. Those influences were all definitely formative, but when I really started to get into doing my own stuff, the authors that started to jump to the fore were people like Emma Bull, JK Rowling, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Rick Riordan. I’d spent so much time in a very serious, somber sort of fantasy territory that the bright colors were dizzying and intoxicating.
As an adult I’ve been hugely influenced by anime and the recent glut of solid western animation starting to come out of the works. In particular shows like Young Justice, the Netflix Voltron reboot, Avatar, The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra (I’m a big fan of Lauren Montgomery’s work), Fullmetal Alchemist (and Brotherhood), Star Wars Rebels, Samurai Champloo, Last Exile, Princess Tutu, and a bunch of others all moved me. Sixteen years of tabletop gaming (both as a GM and a player) have definitely pushed me in the direction of being someone who likes ensemble casts, and stories about The Team of characters who accomplish things together and function as a family-of-choice. Also lots of comic books and manga. Probably more than I can list.
TQ: Describe Skyfarer in 140 characters or less.
“STEM-Field Sorceress battles Hate-Cult Mercenaries for Truth and Justice.”
“Ragtag band of Academic misfits disrupt private military operation. Cause immense Property Damage.”
TQ: Tell us something about Skyfarer that is not found in the book description.
Joseph: As much as it’s about explosions, quests for truth, and skyships, Skyfarer is about toxic masculinity and war-profiteering. It’s about putting in the work and paying the price for knowledge and empowerment. It’s about identity and memory and perception of self. It’s also about how compassion and strength aren’t opposite virtues, or at least don’t need to be. It’s also about myth, the assumptions people make based on it, and what happens when that meets reality. It’s also about the family you choose.
TQ: What inspired you to write Skyfarer? What appeals to you about writing space fantasy?
Joseph: The Drifting Lands are basically an endless sky with a darkness called the abyss below and a sun, moon and stars in the sky above, and there in this sort of empyrean middle, skyships traverse the vast distances between land masses suspended in the air. You can breathe on deck, and there are prevailing trade winds, storms, and the usual weather effects of the open sky. The main difference between this setting and a standard SF space-opera is the fact that instead of space and planets and hyperdrives you have an endless sky, a bunch of floating land masses, and portals that jump ships between them.
It was the weirdness of that idea that really got its hooks into me. I’d just come off of writing alternate history and was jazzed for something that was in a completely alternate reality. I grabbed a bunch of Space-Opera tropes and started throwing them at the wall in a Fantasy setting, and the Drifting Lands—and Skyfarer—emerged from that. But really, beyond all that, it’s the human element that pulls me towards whatever I’m doing. In particular I like stories that examine vulnerability, and that take people to those places. Untouchable strength—except as a veneer for inner doubt—doesn’t interest me much. I also care a lot about what brings out people’s better natures. I think there’s an excess of the perceptions that hard times summon our worst selves, when really it’s as likely to do the opposite.
A thing that I like about venturing into an extremely fantastical sort of milieu is that the human element becomes even more important. When you’re dealing with things that work so fundamentally differently from our world, that people act like people, that they still behave as we do, want, chase, dream, fight, learn, stumble and rise, is the thing that grounds a story and makes it relatable and truthful.
TQ: What is 'space fantasy'?
Joseph: For me, anyway, it’s the mashup of SF tropes with the fantastical elements of a Fantasy setting. Skyfarer takes place in a world that is rooted—fundamentally—in the mystical rather than the strictly scientific, but where that gets fun is in the fact that science is a method more than anything else. So the people of the Drifting Lands treat Sorcery as a sort of science. The magic Aimee and Harkon practice works off of a sort of scientific set of rules called the three primes, but one of the distinctions is that rather than magic being a scientifically understandable force, it’s a purely mystical one that scientific methods have been devised to channel and make use of, and to be honest, it doesn’t always work as they think it should. Really in a lot of ways Skyfarer is a straight up fantasy story that’s taken a number of SF concepts and absorbed them. I think the result is pretty interesting.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Skyfarer?
Joseph: I did some digging about governmental systems, and a bit of research about what the interiors of long range ocean-going vessels are like, and compared them with modern aircraft to sort of get a better sense for the spatial awareness of the interiors of Skyships and what they might be like. They’re more fantasy-spaceship than flying sailing vessel, so that feel had to be there. The other thing I read a lot about was childhood trauma, and how things that have happened to us when we’re very young can be suppressed, forgotten, and emerge again in adulthood. That was probably the most important thing that I felt like I had to get right. In no small part because I don’t want to do dishonor to people who have gone through it.
There are a lot of sword-fights in Skyfarer, but that’s something I do all year round in both a teaching and competitive capacity, so mostly that was a matter of just double-checking a few things and being aware of when I was diverging from reality and why.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Skyfarer?
Joseph: The cover was done by Ignacio Lazcano, and it’s straight up amazing. It’s been my phone background continuously since I first saw it. On the front left is Aimee de Laurent, the principle protagonist, and on the right is her mentor and teacher, the legendary Portalmage Harkon Bright. Behind them is the book’s antagonist and secondary PoV character, Lord Azrael, as well as the Skyship Elysium. I really couldn’t ask for a better capture of the story’s tone. It was the sort of thing I just had to stare at for a long time when I first saw it. There are a lot of horror stories about covers out there, and Angry Robot and Ignacio really knocked this thing out of the park. I feel very fortunate.
TQ: In Skyfarer who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Joseph: The book rapidly jumps back and forth between it’s two PoV characters, Aimee and Azrael. It wasn’t so much which of them was harder to write as when each of them was harder to write. They’re both very young, and this burning mixture of contrasting hunger to prove themselves that is at the same time riddled with powerful self-doubt pushes each of them forward. It was tricky to balance how those same issues rattled two similarly aged but very different people in different and sometimes similar ways.
Aimee is essentially a woman in her setting’s equivalent of a STEM field, which requires a sort of problem-solving intelligence that doesn’t come readily to me. Azrael is a highly trained killer and strategist with a number of dark points that are well beyond my experience. I grew up around academia, and I’ve been a dedicated martial artist for a good chunk of my life. Those things—and their shared youth—gave me some easy in-roads to the way they think, but generally the smarter and more damaged parts that each of them were showing, the more challenging each was to present in a way that felt correct.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Skyfarer?
Joseph: The oldest function of storytelling is to make ideas accessible. Fiction isn’t doing its job when it isn’t turning over something difficult in it’s hands and looking at its angles. I couldn’t tell an honest story, much less one that was worth reading, if it didn’t take people to places their minds might not have been to. Serious travel means getting out there and engaging. Any book I read, I want to do the same. The world is big, and it’s wrestling with things. Fiction that’s not interested in those conversations doesn’t interest me much.
TQ: Which question about Skyfarer do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Joseph: “What is your dream adaptation for Skyfarer and who would be in it?”
WELL SINCE YOU ASKED: I would love to see this book done animated in the style of some of the recent magnificent work of the last ten years, namely Legend of Korra and Netflix’s Voltron. I’d love to see someone like Lauren Montgomery adapt it, and if I got to choose a voice actress for Aimee, hands down, my first choice would be Laura Bailey. I’m a huge animation geek and I’m more likely to fanboy voice actors than traditional Hollywood types. Also Khary Payton would make a kickass Harkon, and I’d kill to see Josh Keaton or Travis Willingham do Azrael. Okay, I’ll stop now.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Skyfarer.
#1: “Skyfarers Remember.”
#2: “I once flew the Argathian gauntlet—a labyrinth of jutting rocks and jets of exploding gas—utterly shitfaced.”
TQ: What's next?
Joseph: Currently I’m neck deep in edits on Skyfarer’s sequel, Dragon Road, which takes the cast and puts them through a mashup of House of Cards meets Murder on The Orient Express on a Manhattan sized trade-ship. I have outlines for more Drifting Lands books after that, so we’ll see. I also have a contemporary fantasy on the back burner that takes place in my native Tacoma that I’m working on, called Glassblade.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Joseph: You’re very welcome! Thank you for having me here!
Drifting Lands 1
Angry Robot, September 5, 2017
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 352 pages
An apprentice sorceress is dragged into a vicious quest across an endless sky in this Star Wars-inspired space fantasy
The Axiom Diamond is a mythical relic, with the power to show its bearer any truth they desire. Men have sought for it across many continents for centuries, but in vain. When trainee sorceress Aimee de Laurent’s first ever portal-casting goes awry, she and her mentor are thrown into the race to find the gem, on the skyship Elysium. Opposing them are the infamous magic-wielding knights of the Eternal Order and their ruthless commander, Lord Azrael, who will destroy everything in their path…
File Under: Fantasy [ Diamond in the Sky | Quest for Truth | Knights Magical | Eternity & Beyond ]
Joseph has lived on both sides of the continental US, and has worked as a craft-store employee, paper-boy, factory worker, hospital kitchen gopher, martial arts instructor, singer, and stay-at-home Dad (the last is his favorite job, by far).
Joseph was enlisted as a robotic word-machine in 47North's Mongoliad series, and still trains in – and teaches – Liechtenauer's Kunst des Fechtens in his native Tacoma.