From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Trailer Boy Makes Good: An Interview With Ken Scholes, Author of Canticle

Ken Scholes is a lyrical and funny writer who has published short stories across such august markets as Weird Tales and Tor.com. His first novel, Lamentation, volume one of the Psalms of Isaak, came out in hardback in February, and the second volume, Canticle, is being released in a few weeks. He is also a new father of twins, which seems appropriate for a guy starting his novel career with a five-book series.

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write.

Well, I’m originally from Washington.  I grew up at the foot of Mount Rainier in a trailer just outside a logging town.  I fell in love with Story at a young age, through TV at first, then later through movies, books, comics and games.

I started stapling little picture books together as early as first or second grade.  I don’t know if I was thinking I wanted to be a writer at that point.  But I know that when I was thirteen or fourteen, I read Ray Bradbury’s essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” and that’s when I knew I had to be a writer.  My Mom bought me a little blue manual typewriter and I started taking typing lessons as soon as I could.  By fifteen or so I was submitting short stories I’d pounded out on it and racking up my earliest rejections.

After some time away from it, I came back in my late twenties and sold my first short story in 2000.  It was followed by more and in 2004, I won the Writers of the Future Contest.  In 2006, I wrote my first novel and sold it (and the other four books in the series) to Tor.  Some of my early short fiction sales are collected in Long Walks, Last Flights And Other Strange Journeys.

The Psalms of Isaak is based on your short story, “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing With The Sunrise,” which originally appeared in the magazine Realms of Fantasy. Can you tell us about the initial germ of the story? What was the idea that spun off this whole world?

Sure.  I actually was cruising Ralan.com and saw that Lennox Avenue was had a call for stories for a special mechanical oddities issue they were putting together.  I like the challenge of writing for these kinds of opportunities.  I enjoy finding a story that lines up with a theme.  So I sat down to work something up and “Of Metal Men…” just sort of organically happened.  I really had no idea that there was more to the story or the world though I saw later in my working notes that I hoped to go back and do more with Rudolfo someday.

You’ve also said that the illustration for “Of Metal Men” helped you realize that there was far more to the story. Do you get a lot of ideas from visual cues?

I guess I must.  I definitely appreciate visual cues and especially art.  And today, in a staff meeting at the day job, my doodling netted me what I think might be a new universe and concept to play in for some short fiction.

The character I found most interesting in Lamentation was Petronus, who was a former Pope… and you yourself are a former minister. Can you tell us about what went into Petronus?

Petronus is one of my favorites as well.  I definitely drew from my background as a former (very former) minister.  In that life, I had a very clearly defined belief system that I loved dearly.  And eventually, through a long process, I came to see it as a backward dream of sorts, much as I describe Petronus’s “fall from grace.”  Of course, in the Psalms of Isaak, Petronus was the Pope of a secular order.

I also based Petronus on a co-worker — one of the J’s the book is dedicated to — named Jerry.  Over the years, he’s become one of my closest friends.  Jerry is a retired colonel, someone accustomed to a lot of responsibility and accustomed to command.  These days, he works in a cubicle with not nearly as much responsibility or authority.  He had that responsibility and authority for years and gave it up.  Instead, he chooses to influence quietly with the decades of experience he gained in the armed services. He’s an invaluable mentor, great friend, and avid fan of the series.

I think willingly laying aside power is not something we explore a lot in our society because it’s not a very common practice. Petronus’s reluctant return to power and then how he chooses to use it at the end of Lamentation and then later in the series has been interesting to write about.

Lamentation is one of the few fantasy books I’ve read lately where the characters are genuinely interested in creating a peace out of senseless violence. Would you consider yourself a pacifist or are there situations in which you believe violence is justified?

A great question. I think I’m somewhere in the middle.  I do not think most violence is justified but there are circumstances where I know I could not be a pacifist.  For instance, if someone were trying to harm my family and there was no other recourse I think I’d do whatever was necessary to protect them.  But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t grieve the use of violence to solve that dilemma.  I prefer peaceful problem solving whenever possible.

Your characters have varied philosophies, from Jin Li Tam’s pragmatic attitude toward assassination and arranged marriage to Petronus’s deep reluctance to deal with any political maneuvering. Are there any characters, besides the repulsive ones like Sethbert, whose philosophies you disagree with and why?

Well, part of writing for me is playing “what if” with the morality of the cultures and societies I’m writing about. In the Named Lands, the sense of what’s acceptable and unacceptable has been honed by a culture of survival.  Certainly, I personally eschew any philosophy that relies on exploiting or manipulating others as a part of its practice or belief (think House Li Tam.)  But by using empathy and digging into those characters, I can imagine and comprehend why members of that House might do what they do believing that it is necessary to keep humanity alive and moving forward — and then write the characters from that understanding.  Truth is I think that mindset actually exists in some philosophies in our own world, worked out in the midst of our own shades of gray. There are other philosophies presented in the book.  I do find Rudolfo’s hedonism more palatable personally than the Marsher’s mysticism and metaphysical leanings.  And the vigilant humanism of the Androfrancine Order’s scientists, scholars and archaeologists is dear to me though it’s strayed from its founder’s original intent over time.

I loved your short story collection, Long Walks, Last Flights And Other Strange Journeys, especially the Cain-and-Abel-retelling “East of Eden and Just A Bit South.” I noticed that the funny short stories have a kind of trickster quality to them. The characters in stories like “That Old-Time Religion” and “Soon We Shall All Be Saunders” are unpredictable and funny and often more clever, yet at the same time more stupid than the people around them, a la Loki, Coyote and Raven. Why so many tricksters?

I’m glad you enjoyed the collection.  It’s about a decade of work.   I’m not really sure where the tricksters come from.  There’s a voice I find that shows up in those stories that’s very different from my other work.  It doesn’t happen very often.  I sometimes wonder if I could sustain that voice through a novel.  Maybe one day I’ll take a stab at it.

In the sense of which sorts of characters you glom onto, who’s your favorite superhero and why?

Since age three or four — Batman, hands down.  He was the first hero I remember.  Why?  Because he took the trauma from losing his parents and let it shape and guide him.  Without any superpowers, he made himself into a force to be reckoned with by self-mastery.  And by day he’s a billionaire playboy.  What’s not to love?

A lamentation, canticle, antiphon and hymn can be considered the same thing. What’s the difference to you in real life and what’s the difference in the moods of the books?

I take the title sequence from a line in the first book “and he saw how a lamentation could become a hymn.”  These are all types of sacred music and each ties into its own book.  A lamentation is song of mourning.  A canticle is a non-metrical psalm.  An antiphon is a response to a canticle.  A requiem is played at a funeral and a hymn is a song of worship.  I’m finished through Antiphon now and I think the progression is working.  We’ll see how people respond to book two in a few weeks.  Early reviews are promising.

Finally, what can your fans expect from Canticle? And do we find out who the guy in the epilogue to Lamentation is? Because I’m dying to know.

Ha!  No, we don’t find out much more about that guy in the epilogue.  We learn a bit.  And then we learn a bit more in Antiphon.  By Requiem we’ll know exactly who it is.   But as to Canticle, it picks up about seven months after Lamentation.  All of the original cast are back plus we’ll get a lot closer to Vlad, Li Tam and Winters as they pick up recurring scenes. Lysias gets some time on stage in this one though he was a relatively minor character in Lamentation.  I introduce some new characters and take us out for a spin in the Churning Wastes.

And that’s Ken Scholes. Canticle, the second volume in the Psalms of Isaak, will be released on October 13th.

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