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A J Dalton on Metaphysical Fantasy.

January 5, 2013

Empire of the Saviours Book Cover

I met Adam Dalton (Writing as AJ Dalton) at a book shop signing. It was one of those chance meetings, where you have no idea who the author is, but once you start talking to them, you decide to buy the book and see what it’s about.

I went off fantasy for while and it has taken me some to get back in the saddle. For me it had become a money making bandwagon everyone had jumped onto and it showed in the writing. Magic was used at every opportunity as a ‘get out of jail free’ card and an enormous cast of two dimensional characters went through the numbers as they carried out the obligatory series of heroic deeds.

Empire of the Saviours cannot be accused of this. What unfolds is a complex psychological story of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, where nothing is clear cut. Even the overtly evil characters are more complex than they first appear. Adam even managed to inject some humour into the storyline without it seeming inappropriate or forced, while retaining an uncomfortable undercurrent of inescapable tension. Nobody, even the good guys are what they seem.

Why write fantasy?

I blame the parents. I was brought up reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I then graduated to reading the golden age scifi on my dad’s shelf. I read Feist’s Magician at 15 yrs old, and never looked back. All I tend to read these days is fantasy. Let’s face it, you can’t get a job as a philosopher in today’s world, so you have to write scifi and fantasy instead.

What is metaphysical fantasy?

My French grandparents were both writers. By bizarre coincidence, my grandfather wrote about metaphysics and spirituality. I only found that out after I’d coined the term ‘metaphysical fantasy’ to describe my first novel, Necromancer’s Gambit. What does it mean then? Well, it basically means fantasy that’s at the philosophical end of the spectrum (although that doesn’t replace the need for a decent plot, etc). If you’ve read the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, it’s that sort of vibe (the search for meaning). In a similar way, Asimov is at the smart end of scifi.

You have a large cast of characters, some with internal landscapes populated by a presence. What sort of measures did you have to take to ensure continuity, between all these different elements?

Er… I think I get what you mean. I don’t take any measures. I make it up as I go along. I manage to hold it all in my head – luckily. I also have some proofreaders who read each chapter as it’s completed – occasionally they’ll flag up some continuity point or other, but not much. As long as I’m writing day in, day out, continuity isn’t a problem. If I have to stop writing for a prolonged period of time (such as going out to teach to earn money to buy cat food, cos the writing really doesn’t pay!), then I have to reread everything I’ve previously written and try to recapture ethereal threads. Tricky.

Did you know when you started writing the novel it was going to be in three parts?

Actually, I conceived it as a five-book sequence. Gollancz battered me down to a trilogy. So I’m just making each of the three books that much bigger, so you get five-books-in-three… er… if you see, which makes one and two-thirds of a book in each book, except it’s one book. Yes.

As this is a series, how far ahead do you write the story arc?

I don’t write ‘ahead’. Gollancz required a one-page synopsis for book 2 (Gateway of the Saviours) and book 3 (Tithe of the Saviours), but I gave them very back-of-the-envelope stuff. The thing is I just don’t plan that much. I find a plan a bit of a straight-jacket to my creativity. I create the plot in the moment of writing – I don’t separate it into different processes.

It’s a world where the puppet masters plot in a way that looks very similar to political intrigue with deadly consequences if it goes wrong. Were you aware of how far you could go until the convolutions became so complex the reader might not be able to follow them anymore?

Politicians present a front to please the masses and do the real work behind the scenes where there’s no one to see what they really get up to. The character of the Peculiar is an example of that – he is impossible for humans to anticipate, because he is the smiling god of lies and mayhem. To allow my readers to ‘live’ the experience of trying to deal with the Peculiar, I had to put in plot twists that they would never have been able to see coming. How to do that? What? You expect me simply to tell you? I refer the honorable member to my previous answer.

Do you have a critical reader?

Depends what you mean by ‘critical’. I have a group of six proofreaders, most of whom insist upon commenting upon the plot and characterisation as well as spotting typos. And then my parents read my stuff as I’m doing it – their comments make it clear they don’t like everything I write. I have to take all such criticism with a pinch of salt – otherwise, it would sabotage everything. It’s only when a majority of the group say something similar that I have to pay attention and, perhaps, take corrective action. Then I have an editor at Gollancz, Marcus Gipps. He’s sensitive and sympathetic with his suggestions. Ultimately, though, an author has to place their gut instinct ahead of all feedback. Writing by committee is invariably a disaster.

Gollancz are a very prestigious publishers. Would you go through the process of how your manuscript became accepted by them?

Process? I don’t think it was as exact a science as that. It’s not something that can be explained in steps so that everyone else can then replicate it. There’s a large amount of luck involved – but you can make your own luck sometimes. I attended FantasyCon and pitched my book to a Gollancz editor face-to-face. I supplied sales stats of my self-published work, which I’m sure swayed them as much as any literary merit on my part. I was given a business card and then I sent my latest book to them. There are instructions on the Gollancz site about submitting work. So, the starting point is really being able to prove there’s a market for your work. What is proof? Well, often a number will do –the number of people who have bought stuff you’ve put on Kindle, the number of people who have read your work on a forum (that’s how it happened for 50 Shades), the number of people who visit your website, the number of short story competitions that you’ve entered and been shortlisted for. People who usually ask how to get published haven’t done any of the things I’ve mentioned. They haven’t begun to make their own luck.

AJ Dalton

AJ Dalton

Although you say there has been quite a bit of negotiation as regards the editing, is there anything about the way you write you have changed, or feel that you have learned through the professional editing process?

Not really. I’m an English language teacher, you see – that’s my day job. My writing style is the same, but I’ve learnt a fair bit about the Gollancz house style.

Gateway of the Saviours Book Cover

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3 Comments
  1. Like you, Elaine, I am not a natural follower of fantasy, but it is interesting to come across a writer whose work is psychologically complex and at the philosophical end of the spectrum. Adam refers also to politicians, which does suggest a deeper significance of something… what? Does his writing have a critical/satirical bent in relation to real life? You have both intrigued me. Thank you.

    • I think it’s more that there’s a flow of ideas from real life, but neither critical nor satirical. It felt more like the way the population has been controlled in the past through piling on religious fear or a medieval take on a Stalinist regime. What was interesting was the fact that for every domineering character wielding power, there was another more dormant character pulling the strings.

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