Chris Willrich is a novel and short story writer. His most recent book, The Chart of Tomorrows, completes the GAUNT AND BONE fantasy trilogy (here are my reviews). Recently, Chris took time to talk to me about writing, poetry, and being a librarian.
I’ve got a copy of The Chart of Tomorrows to send to one commenter with a U.S. address.
Marion Deeds: The GAUNT AND BONE series started, with The Scroll of Years, in a land very much like our China. In The Silk Map you introduced a nomadic people similar to the Mongols, who use hot-air balloons. In The Chart of Tomorrows, we have magic based on Scandinavian folklore… and even a bit of Celtic influence, I think. Do you just love folklore? I guess the more serious question out of this would be, how do you prepare to write a GAUNT AND BONE book? What are your favorite research resources?
Chris Willrich: I’m still new enough at book-length stories that I haven’t settled into a standard process. With The Scroll of Years I sort of meandered along and did research as I went, going back to revise as needed, a process that took years. (Though that’s not the only reason it took years; I was pretty busy with other stuff.) With The Silk Map and The Chart of Tomorrows I instead spent some months in preparation, researching inspirational material and then writing down lists of concepts and scenes I thought would be cool to explore. I love armchair travel, and research in general, so this was extremely fun. I also started sketching out maps, erasing and re-drawing sometimes.
Some books that have been very useful have been Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (for the GAUNT AND BONE story “Penultima Thule,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 2006), The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence (for The Scroll of Years), Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I. Beckwith (for The Silk Map), and the folktale collections of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe (for The Chart of Tomorrows.) (I haven’t read nearly all Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collected folktales, by the way, not by a long shot.) I’d like to give a special shout-out to the wonderful documentary series The Silk Road, a Japanese-Chinese project from the 1980s that you can read about here.
I should say that I’m under no illusion that a few months of reading, or even years of it, means that I’ve got any kind of expertise in the real-world regions that have inspired the stories. Hopefully the research leads to some fun tales, however.
Thanks for sharing those great suggestions. You mention on your blog that The Chart of Tomorrows “wraps up the trilogy” of Gaunt and Bone. Certainly it resolves the quest to reunite the family. You’ve published other work, most short fiction, set in this world. Do you have plans for more books in this universe? With these characters?
I’d love to do both, eventually. The three GAUNT AND BONE books make a clear trilogy, giving the characters the problem of starting a family, and then putting it back together after disaster strikes. But I’m fairly sure I’m not done with Gaunt and Bone. And every so often I have a short story idea that seems to fit their world but doesn’t fit their storyline. I have a daydream of having enough of those standalone stories for a collection someday.
Family – and family separated by war and other circumstances – is a big part of this trilogy. Did that theme emerge organically, or was it something you consciously chose to explore?
It came organically out of the original GAUNT AND BONE short pieces. I originally had no idea those two would want a family. It just seemed like a logical development after a while. By the time I got to The Scroll of Years, though, family was a more intentional theme. By then I’d decided that having Gaunt be pregnant and on the run was just too good a hook not to use. I think love and family — or the rejection or unattainability of these things — are on the minds of Scroll’s supporting cast as well.
After The Scroll of Years, I originally thought that Gaunt and Bone would do some unrelated adventuring for a while, with their son lost to them but clearly safe. However, once I started working out details for The Silk Map, it became clear the fallout from Scroll was just too much for them to put aside. These characters would turn over every rock in the world to find a way to get their son back. I hardly ever have those experiences some writers talk about, where their characters refuse to do what the author wants. But in a way, Gaunt and Bone refused to walk away from the problem of their missing child. And then, by the end of The Silk Map, it became clear that their son could not neatly and easily return to the family after all that had happened, and that suggested directions for the third book.
I noticed that while the books were packed with action and some violence, the language is accessible and the magic is not overly complicated. There is sexual banter, but the sexual content seems PG-rated. These books are great fun for adults but I think they could also be enjoyed by younger readers. When you sit down to write a story, do you have an ideal reader? If so, who is that person? If not, do you have a minimum age range for the GAUNT AND BONE series?
I guess I’m writing for me in my personal “golden age” of reading, which stretched from my early teens to my mid-twenties. That was when I discovered a lot of my favorites, like Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, and J.R.R. Tolkien. A lot of my reading, even as a young teen, was “adult,” but likely more restrained in depicting sex and violence than many books are today. I don’t mean that as a “get off my lawn” remark; styles change, is all. So although I’m not intentionally trying to tone anything down, my preferred mode is probably, as you say, PG-rated. I’m unlikely to write anything really gory, and while the characters certainly have sex lives, it’s more alluded to than described. I probably wouldn’t give the books to pre-teens without some explanations first, but I imagine teenagers would be okay with them (if they have a high tolerance for travel descriptions!)
There is almost always at least one poem by Persimmon Gaunt, and she seems very versatile. Did you ever want to be a songwriter? Do you enjoy creating the poems? Tell us a little bit about that process.
I never imagined being a songwriter but in college I sometimes wanted to be a poet. I don’t think I have the technical chops to earn the title. But I do love poetry and so I’ve taken the risk of showing some of Gaunt’s work (I like to think we see Gaunt’s rough drafts, and that her final versions are much better than the stuff I can manage!) I’ll usually be working on scraps of poems while writing the narrative, imagining what Gaunt might be composing in her head during all this lunacy. Or sometimes I’ll write a poem independently that seems to fit.
I’ve loved stories and daydreaming as long as I can remember. There was a teacher in middle school who made a well-timed comment about how I might become a writer someday — just one of those offhand positive remarks that in hindsight turns out to be very powerful. And on a library trip in high school I found a how-to book on writing that actually covered the nitty-gritty of preparing stories for publication, how to format a manuscript, how the odds are against you but that with perseverance you can have a shot, that sort of thing. That one book made writing seem less like a mystical thing reserved for a Select Few and more like something that everyday people could do. I wish I could remember the title and authors, but even after some digging I can’t figure it out. Well, I bit the bullet and sent out my first story (rejected!) to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction right after high school. (I’ve told people before that my first submission was to Analog, but since then I’ve dug up that first rejection slip, and it was actually from F&SF. So now I’ve set the record straight.)
That’s a scoop, right here on FanLit! It’s interesting to me how often a “random” statement from a teacher gave someone the courage or inspiration to go forward in pursuit of a dream.
You were a children’s librarian in Mountain View, CA, which, for readers who don’t know California, is the nerve center of the Silicon Valley. What was that work like? And what do the youth of Silicon Valley read?
It was a huge amount of fun, though I have to make a small correction — although I live in Mountain View my job was in nearby Campbell. Although you can certainly say Campbell is a Silicon Valley city, it’s a bit off in the hills, and has more of a small-town feel than a lot of the neighboring area. So I think my day-to-day work experience was pretty much like that of most small-town librarians anywhere. What gave it a Silicon Valley spin is that Campbell Library is part of a bigger outfit, the Santa Clara County Library District, which early on enthusiastically adopted things like e-books and e-readers, an online catalog that could incorporate patron-created data like reader reviews, and other interesting new tools. Fun stuff. The library district was a great employer, and Campbell was a wonderful community to work in. (Mountain View Public Library is awesome too, by the way, speaking as a former volunteer and a patron!)
As for what’s popular in this area, I’m a few years out of date now, so I’ve checked in with colleagues for help. Big thanks to Campbell children’s librarians Lisa Hughes and Jennifer Weeks for these suggestions.
Ongoing favorites are the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID series by Jeff Kinney, the DORK DIARIES series by Rachel Renee Russell, the MIDDLE SCHOOL series by James Patterson, the GERONIMO STILTON series, the “Daisy Meadows” fairy books, “Lemony Snicket’s” books, and Rick Riordan’s myth-inspired adventure books including the PERCY JACKSON series. HARRY POTTER is still going strong. Series that are more new to me are the EVER AFTER HIGH books (I think these are by Shannon Hale and Suzanne Selfors), the SPIRIT ANIMALS series (various authors), the WINGS OF FIRE series by Tui T. Sutherland, and the LAND OF STORIES series by Chris Colfer.
Check out Santa Clara County Library District’s catalog for more suggestions! (You knew I had to plug the library, right?)
By the way, at our house, two current favorites are the SONG OF THE LIONESS books by Tamora Pierce and the new STAR WARS storybook by Tony DiTerlizzi, using the pre-production film artwork of Ralph McQuarrie.
If you hadn’t given the library a shout-out, we would have been very surprised.
I’m not a gaming person and I had to look up PATHFINDER TALES to figure out what it was. You have written at least one tie-in book for the game. Tell us what that what like.
It was a ton of fun. I had played lots of games similar to Pathfinder, so the setting assumptions were pretty familiar. It was interesting trying to match my story ideas to the existing details of the official Pathfinder world, Golarion. Researching the material felt like being let loose in a candy store. The most challenging thing for me was plotting in detail ahead of time; in the division between writers who plot everything out and writers who write by the seat of their pants, I’m more of a “pantser.” Paizo Publishing needs to know in detail what’s going to happen in their books, however, so they can head off possible conflicts with other projects. As a result a detailed plan was necessary. I think it was a very good experience for me, and it made me grow as a writer. Huge props to editor James Sutter for guiding me through the process.
I have just officially added “pantser” to my vocabulary. Lastly, our “new thing” here at Fantasy Literature is to ask our authors if they have a signature beverage or cocktail. The beverage can be nonalcoholic or alcoholic. Would you like to contribute one?
Unlike some of my characters I’m not a very adventurous drinker! I’ll have a beer now and then but I never settle down on anything in particular. But I’m pretty darn fond of Henry Weinhard’s root beer.
Chris, thanks for spending some time with us. You’ve added about six books to my “hunt them down and buy them” list, especially the collection of Scandinavian folktales!
Readers, now, tell us what you think! One commenter with a U.S. address will win a copy of The Chart of Tomorrows.