Robert VS Redick burst onto the scene last year, with the amazing Red Wolf Conspiracy. An equally awesome sequel, The Rats and the Ruling Sea, and an elaborate, world-building website promise that this rising star is more than just a comet. He’s here to stay, promising to shed a new light on a sometimes stagnant genre. I’m a big fan of Redick, and was thrilled to have the chance to email back and forth with him over the last few months. Here’s what we talked about!
1. How did you research The Red Wolf Conspiracy?
That’s a great question for both Red Wolf and the sequel, The Rats and the Ruling Sea. It’s funny: I was a research machine for years—as a grad student doing work on & in Argentina, and later for a novel about the so-called “Dirty War” in that country. When it came time to choose my next project, I had two burning ideas: an epic fantasy and a literary novel set in 19th-century Virginia. And I told myself: “Say, with the fantasy I won’t have to spend a year in the library, or 5000 eye-straining hours on the web. I’ll just invent.” That might have been the case if I’d stuck to castles and mountain passes and the like. But what did I do? I chose to set my series on a sailing ship. And instantly, there was my homework. Sailing architecture, navigation, meteorology, physics, the mechanics of naval warfare—and above all, how human beings live, work and stand each other during months at sea.
All this gets tougher in Rats, with its ship-to-ship battles, epic storms, intriques in the lower depths, etc. Those old ships were just insanely complicated instruments. And I complain about my broken-down Volvo.
2. Who are your favorite “go to” novelists for inspiration?
I go book by book, rather than author by author. Sometimes I simply have to pick up Chekhov. Other days it’s Invisible Cities or A Passage to India or A Wizard of Earthsea or more recently Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin. It doesn’t matter if it’s fantasy or SF or something else entirely. It just matters that it transport me, mind and heart, to a place or state I’m longing for.
3. What other types of media do you go to for inspiration?
Something thrillingly good in any medium can give me the urge to get back to writing. But other narrative forms, especially theater and cinema, are my favorites.
I don’t do video games, but always hope I’ll encounter one that deeply satisfies. One of my best friends is a high-powered and incredibly creative game programmer, and through his eyes I sometimes catch glimpses of what might be starting to happen in the gaming world. The trouble as I see it is that while the creation-costs of a novel are relatively low, a sophisticated video game still demands a huge outlay for networked hardware, and a vast amoung of coding, error checking, playtesting, platform support work, revision, etc.—to say nothing of the delivery and marketing challenges. All that is quite distinct from, but sometimes limits the scope of, any actual storytelling. The singularity of vision I can insist on as a novelist has no real equivalent in that environment.
4. How do you plan out such a large world-building project?
The short answer is, little by little. I grew up absolutely immersed in fantasy role-playing games, frequently as the game ref (I prefer the old honorific, “Dungeon Master”). In that capacity you have to practice world-building, and to subject it to the most immediate and merciless critique: whether or not it entrances your friends. There’s no alternative, unless you just go by adventures off the shelf. And using such modules gets really old—kind of like serving takeout every time you invite folks over for dinner.
So I knew what I was getting into, and just started sculpting. It is, of course, a labor of love. Nobody who finds the prospect tedious should put themselves through it. And like any other kind of storytelling, it’s important to dig deep into your imagination, and be honest about what you find. You may not always like it. There will be veins and impurities in the stone, and sure, you’re free to chisel them away. But cut too much in pursuit of some idea you started with, and you’ll have nothing left but gravel. In other words, you have to respect the integrity of what you build, even if—especially if—it complicates your plan. Half the fun at least is in those complications.
5. What factoid did you find in your research that you love, but haven’t yet find a way to write in?
Oh, that’s easy: the fact that rats can squeeze through any opening the size of their skull.
6. Structurally, I find it interesting that RWC is an archival story, being collected and shared by an unknown editor, and framed by these evocative newspaper clippings. Why did you go with that kind of structure?
That would be telling, no [a maniacal grin spreads over his face]? But suffice it to say that the editor we encounter briefly in Red Wolf grows more assertive in The Rats and the Ruling Sea. You get the feeling that this person is a little unhinged, and driven by something very personal. You also know that he or she is both intimately connected and physically removed from the action—a survivor of the adventure, or a descendant of survivors. I can’t elaborate without ruining the read, but I can say that it’s wonderful to have this sidekick, this eager interloper, helping me tell the tale.
7. How do your politics inform your writing?
Subtly, I pray. This goes back to honoring your act of imagination—or put another way, honoring complexity. The short-story writer Etgar Kerret talks about how he lets his young son go wild in a bookstore, reading anything and everything—with one exception: books with morales. These, he says, are insults to the fictional form. And I agree: there is no one morale to history, or to honest narrative. Le Guin, in an appreciation of Tolkien, writes: “Of course it’s an allegory, of course Frodo is Christ – or is Gollum Christ?” To give a final answer would be an act of violence against the story.
At the same time, I absolutely consider all writing to be political. A novel that studiously avoids touching on issues that divide us is still political: its politics is simply one of detachment or denial. And there’s a hell of a lot of denial in fantasy. It’s easier not to think about how men savage women, how the battle ends in gangrene, how the lovely ruling family gets to sit down to a lovely meal while their subjects eat roots and grubs. For myself, I like characters who are sensible to more than the cultural equivalents of their navels. I want them to care, to seek, to feel uneasy in the slots they were born into. Even in fantasy I want much more than escape.
8. How did the structure of the novel impact your discussion of structural inequities? Here I’m asking you to breakdown the techne of writing anti-racist/classist works.
Narrative structure, like theme and character and voice, can be thought of as “choices,” but they are also discoveries, in any book that comes alive. One quick example from The Chathrand Voyage books: I didn’t consciously “choose” to write books that would contain ten or twelve points of view, and move from letters to journal entries to footnotes to omniscient-third-person storytelling. I marched blind into the town of Sorrophran at sunrise, dragging my chest full of hopes and fears and wild dreams down the cobbles behind me. And on one corner I saw a red cat, and in an alley I heard the whispering of the ixchel, and through it all I began to sense the anxiety and earnestness of Pazel Pathkendle. What I wanted to tell led me to the structure, not the other way around.
You have something urgent to share, and you hunt for the right form through which to share it. Inevitably this becomes a question of honesty: with the reader, and even before that, with yourself as a writer. You only know so much. You’re human, and thus a receptacle for both the sublime and the obscene; you have viciousness and love within you, selfishness and generosity, intelligence and instinct, and in that deep thicket you search for some clearing where a rite can be performed, and you call that rite your story.
Honesty too is at stake when you confront (or evade) the issues that divide you from others—and yes, structural racism and classism are two great examples. If I don’t care about those in my daily life, what of consequence am I going to say about them in my book, and why should anyone believe me? But if I try to think about those difficult subjects with as much honesty as possible, they will find expression in my fiction—not in a preachy, doctrinaire way, but as a natural part of it—when and where and how they should.
9. What do you want from your fantasy novels?
Sometimes I think the real question is, what do they want with me? I’m only half kidding. I want things, but I dissect that wanting, and try always to be opening up to worlds beyond my supposedly clever self. I have a motto, actually: “Be never clever, and mute before cute.” Unfortunately that motto itself is a little cute, so I’ve usually kept quite about it. But I can say this: I turn to reading to help me feel the infinite wonder of creation—and to feel it at a level of intimacy no CGI marvel can ever convey. If I can ever give some of that wonder back I’ll be a happy man.
10. How do you “get to know” your characters? Where did they find their beginnings?
To tell you the truth it’s just the same process as above. You go there, by whatever mental process you need (with me it involves insomnia, physical exhaustion, a darkened room…) and then you listen and take notes. You’re listening quite a bit to yourself, but “yourself” is kind of like the corridors of some giant metro station, full of figures hurrying by and rubbing shoulders with you. The people are there, if you look for them.
11. What has been the greatest surprise in your journey to becoming a professional writer?
How desperately I need contact with other people, in addition to working solitude. It’s a catch-22 in some ways. I’m convinced more than ever that I’m hard-wired for social connection, but also realize that the work only gets done when I’m alone.
12. What do you do when not writing?
Lately? Worry about the fact. The pressure I feel to get the sequels done quickly is extremely intense. When it’s really possible to take a break, I go running, hike with my dog, cook a little Indian food, go catch a music act, dance when there’s music worth dancing to.
I used to travel a lot—it’s what I still dream of doing. These days, with the climate in free-fall, I’m trying to be more thoughtful and selective about how often, and how. Who knows? Maybe big sailing ships will be the 747’s of the future.
13. What future projects are you working on?
Only, and constantly, Book III (The River of Shadows). After that it will be the fourth and final volume (The Night of the Swarm). And then it’s decision time. I have no shortage of books I dream of writing. But which one I’ll tackle first I can’t imagine.
14. When did you begin writing?
I believe I wrote a sequel to a Hardy Boy’s novel when I was eleven. In my version Frank and Joe find the stolen goods on page four, and everyone’s content; the novel ends on page five. I might have stopped there and had a fulfilling career as a veterinarian. Alas, sometimes one thing really does lead to another.
15. Do you see this project becoming a RPG?
That would be a dream come true. Does that sort of thing really happen to anyone besides Tolkien and Lovecraft?
16. WHY IS YOUR WEBSITE SO SWEET? I love the soundtrack.
It was a labour of love. I mixed the sound effects from public-domain sound effect samples. I spent way, way too long mixing those sound effects. But if you listen close on the Editor’s Greeting page you might catch an audible easter-egg or two. As for the site itself, the credit goes to my talented friend Amber at Zavada Design. She outdid herself. Thanks a bunch.
17. What is the epic tale yearning inside you?
Hopefully, the one I’m writing. If this isn’t epic, I’m out of luck, because the stories I can tell don’t come any bigger.
The Rats and the Ruling Sea is out now!