May 3rd, 2010

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Benjamin Tate debuts tomorrow...

He dropped into this blog space to talk to me about the new book and his writing processes. Here's him at it:

1) On the face of it, substituting the fantasy-themed names of lands
and peoples, "Well of Sorrows" sounds almost as though your imaginary
world is echoing our own at the point of the white settlers moving
West across America. Was that deliberate? Are you taking us westwards
across the same continent but in a vastly different world...?

This was actually deliberate. I had this idea for the Well while writing a previous book, but the concept didn't work unless it was "discovered" in some fashion by people exploring a new land and who are unaware of the dangers of the Well in the first place. And the Well is certainly dangerous. I'd also been playing around with the idea of writing a "western" fantasy, based on America's settling of the Old West. So I ended up taking the two ideas and merging them. While separately they didn't quite form a solid novel, together they worked well enough to get a good book out of it. So in WELL OF SORROWS, we have a prosperous nation sailing across the vast ocean and discovering a new continent on the far side. They send settlers there to begin settling the new--and as far as they know, uninhabited--lands. But seething political intrigues at home bring discontent and so massive amounts of refugees flee across the ocean as war breaks out. The story starts with one of these families of refugees trying to survive in one of the settled towns in the new world. The overcrowding forces the refugees to start looking inland, toward the unexplored plains to the east. But when they head out onto those plains, they suddenly discover that this world isn't as uninhabited, or as perfect, as they originally imagined. So in my book, the refugees are crying, "Go EAST, young man!" They simply don't like what they find there much. *grin* It's definitely echoing our own exploration of the American West, although of course I twist the whole idea by introducing magical elements into that exploration.

2) Most "BIg Books" have a certain Big Idea attached - what would you
say the BIg Idea of "Well of Sorrows" is?

The "Big Idea" for this book--for this series actually--is the concept of time and the idea of immortality. The magical component of the book consists of power of time in some aspect. Not the power to go back and change things--it isn't a time travel book in that sense--but an exploration of how things change over time, how facts are distorted as people tell and retell stories, about misconceptions that arise about history, and also about how humans would react to their own world if they could live longer than usual. In this first book, one of the major components is that the three races--the humans exploring the plains and the two races they find in that exploration--are all at war with one another. There was a chance in the recent past for the war to end, but treachery kept that from happening. Certain misconceptions about what happened during that first potential peace that ended in hideous battle are what's driving the hatred at the moment and keeping these races at war. So in the book, the main character is trying to use his powers over time to correct those misconceptions and give peace a chance. In the later books, I want to explore more of how these powers affect the main character himself, how it drives him emotionally as he sees the world changing around him. At the same time, I want to use the changing world to explore the idea that we're not shaped by history, we're shaped by our PERCEPTION of history.

So time is the "Big Idea" I'm playing around with in this novel.

3) What is your biggest joy in writing fantasy?

The best thing about writing fantasy is creating your own world. I love sitting down at the computer and starting a story in which anything can happen, in which there are no limits with regards to what I can do. The coolest part of writing is having the characters traveling along and coming upon something or someone or someplace that couldn't possibly exist in this world
and having them either accept it as completely common, or having them feel as awestruck as we would feel if we'd seen something like that in our own world. One of the great aspects of WELL OF SORROWS is that initially it is all about exploring the unknown. The settlers have no idea what they will find when they travel inland. I'm totally captivated by the idea of exploration into the unknown. In our world, we already "know" in some sense what's out there. Sure we haven't necessarily "been" there and we certainly haven't explored every inch of the Earth yet, but some of the wonder is gone because we know the boundaries of the world. We know its edges. I loved the idea that these settlers HAD NO CLUE what was there. All they knew was what they could see on the horizon. Their maps simply stopped with a ragged coastline and vast empty space where the rest of the continent lay. Writing fantasy is a lot like this. When I sit down, I have a vast, empty world before me and the coolest part is that I GET TO EXPLORE IT. I guess I'm just an explorer at heart.

4) What's the hardest thing about writing good fantasy?

OK, I mentioned in my previous answer that I loved the fact that you can do anything you want when writing fantasy and that that's the best part. Well . . . that's not exactly true. Sure, you can create anything that you want in fantasy, but the hardest part about it is that whatever you create still has to come across as believable. You still want the reader to be able to suspend their disbelief enough that they can sink themselves into the story and the world and really enjoy themselves. So creating whatever you want doesn't really work. You have to have a bit of realism in there as well. If you add in TOO many fantastical elements, readers won't be able to understand or participate in the world at all. I think that's the hardest part: finding a balance between the fantastical and the real while writing. If you do it well, the fantasy would be what I'd call a "good" fantasy. If you don't, it just become shlock. If you look at the concept of WELL OF SORROWS, I took something completely realistic and easy to associate with--the exploration of a new world based on our own exploration of the American West--and then added in fantastic elements from there. So I provided a good solid realistic base and then threw in the "fantasy" from there. And in all of my writing, I try to keep the fantasy elements... subdued, I guess. It isn't "in your face" fantasy. I like my fantasy to be subtler. This helps keep that balance between the real and the unreal.

5) What comes first for you, the characters who then go on to shape a
world, or the world in which then characters begin to wander? Why?

Oh, I'm a completely organic writer, meaning that I never have a firm grasp of my world before I sit down and write. So the characters come first. I usually start with a visual of a character in a particular situation. For WELL OF SORROWS, it was my main character, Colin, getting beat up in the heart of the town by bullies because he was a refugee. From there, I used Colin to explore the town, the coast, the refugee camp, extending the story to his parents and the other refugees. And then of course they begin exploring the inland as they forge out onto the plains. I only had a vague idea of what they would find on the plains, so I used their experiences as they traveled to expand my world. So I'm definitely character driven when I write, building the world around them.

As to why . . . I have no idea. I really think that having the world set in stone before you even start writing is...confining in some way. I think my nature would be to break the "rules" I'd written beforehand as soon as possible, which means all that pre-planning for the world would be wasted. So I just leave the world as an open space and fill it in as the characters begin moving. Less breakage that way.

6) Are there things you would want to sit and talk about with your
protagonist? If the two of you met in the street somewhere in world
neither his nor your own, what do you suppose you would have to say to
one another?

Ha! I'm not sure I'd want to be alone in a room or street with my own characters. I don't think I'd survive the experience. *grin*. But let's see, if Colin and I sat down to chat at a coffee house or something it would probably be about his experiences with this magic. I think all writers write about things that they'd like to experience themselves, but will never have the chance to in the real world. So we try to live that life by writing about other characters living that life. So for this book, I'd want to know what it was like having the power to go back and see events in the past, to experience them first hand in some sense, and yet not be able to change anything. I can see how such a power could be enlightening in one sense, but also emotionally straining, especially if you became obsessed with one particular horrific event that completely changed your life. I explored both sides of this through Colin, so in one sense I have lived that life... but not really. I'd like to see what Colin had to say about that life in person.

7) How many books in this series? How advanced is #2?

There are three books in this series--WELL OF SORROWS, followed by LEAVES OF FLAME and BREATH OF HEAVEN. I'm currently working on LEAVES OF FLAME, with the expectation that it will be finished this year and come out sometime next year. I'm about a quarter of the way through the second book, but expect to really begin work on it once the current semester ends and I have
all day to work on it, instead of spending most of the day at my day job.

8)If you could go back and give the young writer who was once you a
single piece of good advice, what would that be?

I think my advice would be: "Don't stress about the little things. Just have fun." Initially, I worried about word counts and chapter length and whether this sentence was perfect or that paragraph was too rough... all before the book had ever been finished. I feel like I wasted a lot of time stressing over these things that at the time didn't matter. What mattered was getting the story down on paper and having fun while you wrote it. All of those other things are dealt with after the fact. You can go back and fix that sentence or that paragraph. If a chapter is too long or too short, you can mend that later. And if the story seems to be running long, let it. You can find things to cut after it's all done. If I'd known this earlier, I think I would have gotten a lot more written during that earlier period, and it would have been better material as well. Not that I don't stress about stupid things now though. They're just other stupid things, like deadlines and such.


Benjamin Tate was born in North-Central Pennsylvania and is currently a
professor living near Endicott, NY, teaching at a local college. He began
writing seriously in graduate school, using the fantasy world of “Well of
Sorrows” as an escape from the stress. In addition to writing epic fantasy,
he teaches spin classes at the local gym, collects crackle glass, and has a
roof garden threatening to take over the roof. His goals in life are to
travel Europe, sail the Mediterranean, visit Australia, and preside over a
small kingdom from a castle on a hill while occasionally bombarding the
villagers below with catapult fire. “Well of Sorrows” is his first novel.
You can learn more about Benjamin Tate's books at _www.benjamintate.com_
( .