The Bandwagon reviewer James McStravick interviews grimdark and fantasy author Timandra Whitecastle.
Timandra is a self-confessed nerd with a passion. In the day, she’s an English and History teacher in a German public high school, and mother to two children. But at night, she whips our her cape and dagger and transforms into a grimdark fantasy writer with a mission to subvert epic fantasy tropes. Her debut novel Touch of Iron was released in May 2016 and is a ‘strong contender’ in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) hosted by Mark Lawrence. Tim has never bothered to get a life because she feels like she’s been trying to lead three different ones already – and, yes, she totally stole that line from Terry Pratchett.
What inspired you to start writing?
Frustration mainly. See, frustration is a great human motivator, it fuels art and invention like no other thing. There I was, reading, reading, reading, and I steadily got more and more frustrated that I wasn’t reading something that gave my pain, my anger, my life a voice. My voice. I read of a berserker character who messed up his own life repeatedly, whose story ended exactly the way it began, an ongoing cycle of running away only to be hounded and finally overtaken by the same old, vengeful spirits. The realization of a part of myself in that character made me come to a halt, turn around, and make the ghosts that haunt me come at me, face to face. And since then, I have wrestled with them, one at a time, and I have learned to make them dance.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Strike the ‘aspiring.’
To be a writer you need to do one thing: write. Write despite the doubts, the self loathing, the people who are puzzled why you would even want to make art, despite the late hours, the tough day job, the children demanding your attention, despite your bleeding fingers, and raw nerves. And keep your writing to yourself at first, because if you don’t – if you hastily proclaim yourself part of the multitude of ‘aspiring’ writers – you will find yourself drowning in that ocean of wannabe’s, those writers with the clever, unique idea – but who never show up with any work. The people who decide they have the right to critique every attempt you make, who tell you: ‘everyone and their dog thinks they can be a writer. I mean, seriously, how hard can it be? And your idea is not even original, dude.’ Stay away from that crowd. They’re poison.
You want to be a writer? Then write. The rest you’ll figure out while you’re putting one word after another.
What do you wish you had known about the publishing process?
There is no One True Way. Nobody has your answers for you. I’ve come to recognize the terrible beauty of those two words: publishing process. It’s a process, man, a journey. See, most writers need time to figure out how they in particular write. It takes hours of grinding the craft, years of training your skill, and practice to figure that one out. And publishing is exactly the same. Especially if you self publish.
Indie publishing has becomes a viable pathway to choose, for sure, but that does not mean it is an easy path, nor does it come with a map to follow. πάντα ρεί Panta Rhei, everything flows, in publishing as in life. Don’t be the rock that asks the river to flow around you. The water will steadily eat away at you, wearing you down. Instead, ride the current, and remember that you will go under, but always, always, always come back up again.
What are you currently reading?
Short stuff, mostly. I’m taking a break from epic fantasy tales (see question 6 below), so I’m reading Amy Hempel’s collected short stories, for instance. Rashomon. Grimm’s fairy tales.
What authors inspire you the most? Which of them would you love to meet?
With inspiration, I look to those writers whose books articulate who I am and how I see the world in a way I’ve never thought of before, but instantly recognize as soon as I read it. Then, on top of that, there’s another subdivision: some writers I like to read because I know their skill will make me pick up my own pen and write to hone my own craft. Others inspire me in a quieter way, by making me want to write against the dull ache of loneliness, to connect. Really, all writers write to connect. Strike that. All human effort is made in order to connect to each other.
That said, here’s a list – it’s streamlined to your question:
Terry Pratchett. Why? Because Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax. Because Tiffany Aching. Because Angua. Because I read him as one of the first fantasy writers I’ve ever read. Because his works are funny, action packed, but deadly profound at the same time.
Tolkien. Why? Because of The Silmarillion. I’d like to be the one to tell him that his life’s work was published even though he didn’t live to see it. That nothing compares to the scope of his world building. That it’s his best writing. I’d love to talk creative work with him, and ask him why he never collaborated with C.S. Lewis, him coming up with the ideas and Lewis penning them.
Chuck Palahniuk. Why? Chuck’s minimalist style packs a punch and makes me see the need to hone my own craft. Every. Damn. Time. But I also saw myself in Tyler Durden’s narration although I’m neither in Fight Club nor a man. (Also, bonus: Chuck’s still alive!)
Mark Lawrence. Why? You haven’t read The Broken Empire yet? It’s lyrical violence. I saw Jorg of Ancrath on the page and I heard his inner child’s cry of despair. What can I say? It resonated. (Also, bonus: Mark’s still alive, too.)
Joe Abercrombie. Why? Because of Logen Ninefingers, and the funniest, most memorable, most realistic sex scene I’ve ever read, and berserkerdom. Also I think Joe’d be a great guy to have a pint with, and talk about all sorts of stuff outside of writing.
Do you have a favorite genre, if so do you have any favorite authors in it?
I love fiction, and read all kinds. My preferred genre, though, is Fantasy. Good Fantasy, like good Science Fiction, is a place to explore ideas about our world, to hold up a mirror to our own culture and challenge it, and our set ways of thinking, good and hard. As to favorite authors, 4 of the 5 mentioned above are fantasy authors. I can’t really tell with Chuck Palahniuk.
“Touch of Iron” has such a unique aspect of legendary artifacts and the powers they possess. Where did you get the idea for these?
The legends of King Arthur. And He-Man. Yes. Seriously. Bear with me a moment.
Touch of Iron is a subversion of the fantasy quest (which is why it must be told grimdark – that subversion of the epic fantasy genre). In particular, it’s a subversion of that Arthurian quest for a legendary sword that magically imbues the right to rule, that gives you the power. Obviously, if you’re depending on an artifact to choose your leader, chances are things can go horribly wrong. What if Arthur/Prince Adam were a total dick? What if having a powerful artifact in his hands made him incredibly dangerous? What if all that power corrupted him? What if with great power came great responsibility – the responsibility to give that power up?
Next to that train of thought was the very conscious choice of the sword as a phallic symbol, AND as a symbol of destruction/aggression that is commonly associated with male behavior. By the power of Grey Skull – didn’t you ever think why pink-shirted Adam becomes that muscle-packed hunk He-Man? And I mean, He. Man. Ugh. Come on. Enough with the 80’s macho-ism already. And check out one of my favorite blog posts ever on this subject (by my editor Harry Dewulf).
In the Arthurian tales the story of Excalibur is woven around the legend of the Grail. The sword and the stone/cup – depending on the translation of the corrupted Latin Ex Calix. It’s a double helix, a dichotomy. Male (sword) and Female (cup/stone). Death and Life. Destruction and Creation. The quest for the Grail never leads to attaining it, though, and all that remains at the end is the Sword returned to the Lady of the Lake, ready for the next Once and Future King. A cycle. In Touch of Iron, this same helix is spun the other way around: they search for the Sword, because the Grail (here Cauldron) has already been retrieved.
See, Touch of Iron is a quietly feminist book, not because it has a Strong Female Lead Character (it doesn’t. I’ll get to that below in question 9). Remember that Sci Fi is all about the question What if? Well, Fantasy is about setting. And the backdrop here is a male dominated world that is built around powerful hegemonies; structures most women unthinkingly comply with, even in repression against other women, while a few women seek to claim that male power for their own.
It’s a tale of gradual emancipation in a world where the bones and relics of dead gods (again, all phallic) stand symbol for the traditions passed down from generation to generation. Their siren song is one the discerning person will hear echoed in our own world: this is the way it has always been. Do not diverge from the pattern. Do not be angry at the way the world is. Tolerate. Embrace. Make personal choices. But do not seek true change. Rather, seek to remake the cycle again and again and again.
Well, f**k that. And f**k He-Man.
I noticed at the end of the book you hinted at certain easter eggs in the book, any chance you would be willing to tell us what they are?
Ha ha ha. No.
Is there a particular character(s) from “Touch of Iron” that you resonate with the most?
People say your first book is all about you. And it’s true in this case. You can see me all over these pages – who I am, what I fear, what I value, what I don’t. I have bled myself into these characters in the hopes that, like Hemingway said, “if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest,” a reader might see their story in my own.
Having said that, if you meet me in person, you’ll be surprised, if not to say put off, by the female lead character Nora. I am not like her, at all. On the other hand, however, Nora is very much me in her fight, through the (growing) pain she must endure, her building anger at the monstrosity of her world. She is the scalpel I take to my pain to dissect it, to find the reason why it hurts so much.
But Nora, a female character, is only the one half of the helix I mentioned above. The other, the male part, is not Owen, her twin. Though he is in temperament very much me: quiet and studious. A thinker, not a doer like his sister. And yet, Owen has a mind of steel, an unyielding core. He personifies the older sibling I always wanted to be.
No, the other part of the helix is Master Diaz. I know Diaz’s struggle like no other character in this book, and his is a very feminist struggle against the bonds that chain us: how to be born of two worlds, and not fit in either, how to choose your own path in life, and still realize it’s not enough to just follow a set of rules someone has given you, but that you must find your own code of conduct, to be challenged and hampered by the seemingly over-heavy weight of one’s own failings to meet that standard.
In this book, I am a trinity of characters.
Is there anything in particular we could expect to see or you can hint towards in the sequel for “Touch of Iron”?
They will find out whether the Living Blade is real or not. There will be more of Diaz’s past, there will be more suffering for Nora, and more sorrow also …
So, more frustration, I’m afraid. It must get worse before it can get better.
Read James’ review of Touch of Iron here.
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