Interview with Chris Willrich, Author of The Silk Map
We’re thrilled to have Chris Willrich, author of the Gaunt and Bone novels join us for an interview today! Published by Pyr Books, The Silk Map is the sequel to The Scroll of Years, out in stores now. Be sure to check out my review of the book and see why I love this series. Fun, adventurous, and set in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient China, it’s one of the most unique sword-and-sorcery books I’ve ever read.
And now without further ado, I present the awesome Chris Willrich. Happy reading!
Mogsy: Hello, Chris! Welcome to the BiblioSanctum and thanks for joining us today!
Chris Willrich: Thanks very much for having me.
M: The characters Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone first appeared in your short stories before bursting onto the novel scene with The Scroll of Years and now The Silk Map. How would you describe the books to someone new to your work?
CW: Gaunt and Bone, a poet and a thief who love adventure and each other, criss-cross a fantasy world, facing strange villains and bizarre dangers, on the most arduous quest they’ve ever undertaken — to settle down and raise a family.
I also enjoy Pyr editor Lou Anders’ description of The Scroll of Years — “It’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, except that they’re lovers and Fafhrd is pregnant.”
M: Was there anything that prompted you to go from the short fiction format to longer works with Gaunt and Bone? Did the writing process feel all that different, or did you find any particular advantages or challenges to the novel format?
CW: The Scroll of Years began as a novella that got out of hand. It reached the awkward length where it was probably too long to see magazine publication, but too short to see book publication. I looked for ways to expand it, and the best approach seemed to be to enhance the roles of some of the supporting characters. My agent at the time, Joe Monti (now editor for Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint), also had the great suggestion to add an action-packed prologue. Luckily all the parts clicked.
I’d written other, unpublished, novels before, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory. And I’d played a bit with important supporting characters in the earlier Gaunt and Bone stories, especially the wizard in “A Wizard of the Old School” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2007.) But there were still some surprises moving Gaunt and Bone to a longer format. I think in the shorter works the two leads are a little more archetypal, a little more emblematic of the “poet” and “thief” titles. In the books you start to see their hair come down a little more. There’s more time to watch them daydreaming, shooting the breeze, and thinking about food. That’s fun, but it’s a slightly different flavor. The trick is to make Gaunt and Bone definitely the same two characters for any readers who (bless them) read all of this stuff the whole way through. Another angle is that with more space, I can develop an entertaining supporting cast, some of whom I’ve gotten very fond of. They bring lots of different perspectives to the situation. All the above has an impact on pacing, which is something I’m very interested in. The Scroll of Years and The Silk Map each have a different rhythm, I think. Scroll to me is more of a meander. Silk is more of a gallop.
|Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction, June 2000
I should fess up that although I’m having a blast, moving into novels isn’t entirely an artistic consideration — it’s only by working on novels that I’m finally able to justify my writing as a “job,” something that brings in money for the family. Before that it had to be sidelined, for practical reasons.
M: Gaunt and Bone are an incredible and also very unique couple, and I don’t often see a pair of lovers married and about to start a family in Book One of a fantasy series. Was this an interesting dynamic to write as their relationship evolved over the course of events in the novels?
CW: Yes, I’ve really enjoyed letting their relationship develop organically across the stories and books. For example, their desire to have children wasn’t obvious at first, but it kind of dawned on them (and me) as things went along. (Small correction: They don’t officially tie the knot until between the two novels, though they certainly seem married a long time before that. Someday it might be fun to write the story of the wedding.) Another surprise was their “refusal” to go on an unrelated adventure until they’d fixed the unresolved stuff from The Scroll of Years. I was originally going to leave things hanging for longer.
When I was first starting the stories, I’d noticed that a lot of romantic sagas end at exactly the point when the relationship’s on a strong footing — all the tension is built into the question of “Will they get together?” But there are interesting stories to tell about established relationships too, and I found that’s where I wanted to go with these two.
M: I was so excited to read how The Silk Map was partly inspired by the Wu Cheng’en classic Journey to the West (as a child, I was fascinated with the tales about the Monkey King!) It’s awesome to meet another fan of Chinese myths and Asian-themed fantasy, how much would you say your interest inspired the setting for these books?
CW: A huge amount! Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (“a novel of an ancient China that never was”) blew my mind in college. I’d been interested in myths and fantasy from all over, including China, before that, but that book encouraged me to take Chinese language and art appreciation classes (hooray for electives.) The language classes didn’t stick; it turns out I’m terrible at learning new languages. But the interest stuck. Marrying into a partly Chinese-American family had a big impact too. It was probably inevitable I’d want to write something Asian-themed eventually, and it was a happy circumstance that I could work that interest into the Gaunt and Bone series.
I should say, to be clear, none of the above makes me an expert on Chinese or Asian culture, folklore, or anything. I have no special insight or claim on the material; I’m just a fan.
M: I love how the books are sprinkled with mini-stories and poems here and there – you don’t just say the characters tell a story or recite a poem … you actually include them in the book! What’s your approach to writing these; where you get the ideas and then how do the tales/poems grow out from them?
CW: Thanks! Three books in particular got me interested in this kind of thing — The Thousand and One Nights, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars. The first has its tales-within-tales. The other two are entirely made up of descriptive entries that also manage to be miniature stories. A lot of Lord Dunsany has the same flavor. Come to think of it, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun has tales-within-tales too. Catherynne M. Valente’s Orphan’s Tales series does this in spades. And there’s Chaucer!
Anyway, a lot depends on what purpose the inserts are serving in the overall story. In The Scroll of Years some of the background on the country of Qiangguo came through that way, so the narrative wouldn’t get bogged down. In The Silk Map, some of the inserts were meant to convey the vastness of the region, where the same event could be transformed into very different legends. There are also a couple that are meant to fill in some backstory on the character of Haytham, the inventor. They can add a little levity sometimes, too. And they also have the nice effect of conveying a world where oral storytelling is an everyday part of life.
As for how to develop mini-stories like this, well, I’m still trying to get the hang of it. I think, for me, the trick is to find some very specific images that can provoke a sense of wonder in the reader, and then hang the narrative around those. Unlike in a longer piece, you can’t really count on character identification carrying the reader along, or long descriptive passages creating a sense of place. Instead you toss out some imagery that can capture a reader’s attention in just a few words. If readers get into the groove of it, they’ll supply the rest of the setting out of their own imaginations. Of course, if it doesn’t work, it falls very flat!
M: Do you like to travel? Reading The Silk Map reminded me that my parents once did a tour of the Silk Road, and I am still seething with jealousy of them.
CW: Me too! 🙂
I do like to travel, but we’ve got young kids so our trips are usually close to home.
M: If you could visit any of the locations that inspired the places in these novels, real or imaginary, where would you go?
CW: It’s not exactly the most original idea, but I’d really like to visit the Great Wall. And of course Beijing and the Forbidden City. The terra cotta army, for sure. The city of Xi’an. Guilin. The Dunhuang area. Hong Kong, although I’ve been there before. The Gobi. Lhasa. The Mongolian steppe.
M: I also see from your author profile that you recently wrote a Pathfinder roleplaying game tie-in novel called The Dagger of Trust. I actually just started playing the RPG with a group of friends and I love it! Might I ask, do you play too? Or in general what are some of your other hobbies holding your interest these days?
CW: I don’t get a lot of RPGing in these days, but it’s one of my favorite hobbies and I’ve done a lot in the past. I’ve run Pathfinder for family and friends, and I like it a lot, along with the whole lineage of D&D-type games. I’ve liked most versions; I’m a pretty easy audience for this kind of thing. Other games I’ve enjoyed are GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui (the Hong Kong action movie RPG), and Star Trek (the out-of-print Last Unicorn Games version.)
In theory one of my other favorite hobbies is hiking, but that’s also hard to find time for. Reading, though, I can still wedge in there.
M: What does the future hold for Gaunt and Bone? Do you have any more books or short stories planned for these two partners in love and in crime?
CW: There will definitely be a Gaunt and Bone Book 3, The Chart of Tomorrows, in which the big plot threads from the previous two books get resolved. And I’ll probably write some more Gaunt and Bone short stories, since I have a couple partially written. (They’re set earlier in the timeline.) Beyond that I’m not 100% sure, but I’ve had so many Gaunt and Bone ideas, there’s a good chance I’ll return to them.
M: And how about for you? What does the future hold for Chris Willrich? Are there any other projects on your plate you’re excited about that you can share, currently or in the near future, either writing or non-writing related?
CW: Aside from The Chart of Tomorrows there’s nothing in the works right now. That’s plenty! I’m a stay-at-home dad and fairly involved in our kids’ schools, so I’ve got my hands full. 🙂
M: On behalf of the BiblioSanctum team I would like to say once more how thrilled we are that you could join us today. And that’s the end of the interview, thank you so much for your time!
CW: Thanks for the opportunity!