Today’s guest on the metaphorical interview couch is author Alex Avrio, who’s written several fantasy/adventure novels along with a number of short stories. You can read my review of The Alchemist’s Box, the first novel in the “Merchant Blades” series, here. Book Two, Lose a Princess, Lose Your Head, is available on Amazon, and Book Three is in the works.
Here’s how our Q&A went down….
Q: What are you up to these days?
A: I’m on the final push to complete the final chapters of The Hidden Dragon, the third book in the “Merchant Blades” series. This one’s taken a bit longer than I expected, but I like to think that good things come to those who wait.
What are some outstanding books you’ve recently read?
I really enjoyed A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston – I’ll talk about this book some more later, as I thought it had a great strong female lead. I also stumbled across The House of War and Witness by Mike Carey in a local bookshop, and became an instant Mike Carey fan. The City of Silk and Steel, another of his books, is also definitely worth a read.
Let’s talk about the writing process. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m definitely a pantser at heart. When I started writing The Alchemist’s Box, I knew only the beginning, a key event in the middle, and something that happens to the main characters at the end. I find writing on the fly helps me keep the story fresh and interesting, and also motivates me to finish the book, as I have to write it to find out what happens!
Having said that, I find that each book has its own personality and its own way that it needs to be written, and the book will let you know what that way is as you go along. A little bit of plotting is needed in most books to ensure the essential foundations are in there early enough, and so don’t come in as a complete surprise to the reader. With The Hidden Dragon, I’ve tried plotting thoroughly what happens, but I found it didn’t work for me and I got bogged down and my writing slowed, so I’ve returned to pants writing and I’m making good progress again now.
I have another book in progress for which I’ve had to make myself an Excel spreadsheet, as it has a complex structure, weaving together events and characters in three timelines spanning around 15,000 years. It’s quite ambitious, and that one’s really needed some careful plotting out.
Of course, each writer is different and has to do what’s right for them, but when the book allows it, for me it’s pants all the way.
Which is more challenging to write, dialogue or narrative?
I think both are challenging in their own ways. Narrative has to flow and be well-paced to provide sufficient description of places and people while moving the plot forwards without dragging. If the narrative lags, the reader will get bored, and then you’ll lose them.
The issue with dialogue is that it must ring true, and sound like real people talking, not wooden and stilted. You also have to consider how those characters would be likely to speak: an educated noblewoman speaking differently from a field worker or a soldier, but you must take care not to slip into a caricature.
If I must choose between the two, I’d say that dialogue is more challenging because I like to use dialogue to move the plot forward. I’d rather have a character say something than info dump in the narrative, so I take quite a bit of time ensuring the right balance of dialogue and narrative, and trying to use dialogue whenever possible.
Are there any writing guidebooks/articles/videos/courses that have impacted your approach to writing?
I’ve read some excellent books about writing. I thought Stein on Writing by Sol Stein was a great book to explore the mechanics of writing. Another book I really found full of excellent advice was Stephen King’s On Writing. This book combines advice on how to write intertwined with details of Stephen King’s life, which kept it interesting
I’ve also found the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) writing courses I’ve attended over the past few years here in the North East of England have been immensely valuable. They’ve helped me to build my confidence in my writing, and have made me concentrate on perfecting each aspect of writing, such as dialogue, narrating, conveying emotions, etc. As an added bonus, I’ve also made some very good friends through the courses.
In the “Merchant Blades” novels, there are two main powers or kingdoms: the Merrovigian and the Eressian. Give us a primer on these two kingdoms, and some details about the war between them.
OK, let’s try a quick Eressian 101 and Merrovigia 101:
The Eressian Empire values military skills and warriors very highly. Most of the nobility serve in the military before assuming other positions (in government etc.). Eressians even have a special title, Kherr, which was given to the finest soldiers who fought against the Riders from the East when the Old Empire collapsed. This title is only passed from a parent to son or daughter once they have fought in a war defending the Motherland. It doesn’t come with land or money, but is rather prestigious.
Eressia itself it composed of princedoms, each governed by a local prince, but all owing allegiance to the Emperor. It’s a little like states ruled by a governor for the day to day matters, but all belonging to a central country ruled by a central figure of power, the Emperor.
Eressia has certain peculiarities in its laws, especially the inheritance laws, which is what gets our friend Jaeger into trouble.
Merrovigia is a different cup of tea. It is a powerful empire traditionally ruled by an Empress. Its greatest strength is trading. Merrovigia has a highly centralised government, unlike Eressian with its regional princes. Merrovigia consists of a continental mainland and a large island which were unified into a single empire through a long series of alliances and marriages.
Throughout history skirmishes have regularly erupted along their lengthy shared land border, and occasionally these boil over into all-out war. The recent war started as a minor skirmish, but turned into a bitter bloody conflict that lasted for five years. Atrocities committed during the war, and the hefty war reparations imposed by the victorious Merrovigians at the end of the conflict have led to significant lingering bitterness with citizens of both empires struggling to forgive and forget.
Personally, I think Regina Fitzwaters, the protagonist in the “Merchant Blades” novels, is a great female character – strong but not overbearing. How did you go about creating her character? What other novels have what you consider well-done female characters?
I’m glad you like Regina, I like her too. I’ve read many books where the strong female characters are also overbearing and snarky. I think a lot of authors confuse a strong woman with these traits, but I don’t think that needs to be the case. There are other ways that a woman can be strong. Many strong women don’t shout, but are strong in their own way.
I imagined Regina as a professional lady who knows how to do her job well, and who is confident in her own ability. She knows how to handle herself in various situations and how to get the respect of the people she works with. In a sense, she’s like many professional women I know, women who have to prove that they’re as good as or better than their male colleagues. I wanted Regina to have vulnerabilities, prejudices, and emotions, as does everybody, whether male or female. I don’t feel that these make her weak, but hopefully they make her more human.
I said I would come back to it, but I thought the lead character in A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston was similar. She knew when to keep quiet, when to bend with the flow, and how to think her way out of situations. Sometimes it might be necessary to keep quiet in the face of provocation in order to play a long game to win the day, and not rant and rave at the injustice of the situation. I thought this character played their hand well.
Maximillian Jaeger, Regina’s unwitting second-in-command in The Alchemist’s Box, is a capable soldier and fighter – but he’s an Eressian, and this puts him at odds with the other members of the team. If Jaeger was Merrovigian, how would this change his character?
Maximillian Jaeger’s troubles come from the war and from being Eressian. He got into debt because his family had to contribute a very large amount of money, as all Eressians had to, towards the war reparations to the victorious Merrovigians. He also ran into some other trouble in his military career, again, because of the war.
If he had been Merrovigian, and had been on the winning side in the war, I think Jaeger would be more of the gentleman officer he was at the start of the war, and would consequently have considerably less darkness and roughness to his character. I fear that scenario would make for a much less interesting character, and would make for a much duller book.
If you had total control over a “Merchant Blades” movie, who would you cast as Regina and Jaeger?
Regina and Jaeger are normal, everyday people who get scruffy and dirty on the job and don’t look beautiful under normal circumstances, though they scrub up quite well when the occasion demands it. Considering the above, I think Felicity Jones, from the Star Wars Rogue One movie would be a good Regina. I think Michael Fassbender might pull off the moody, rough and complex character of Jaeger.
You’re a fan of Neil Gaiman. What’s your favorite scene from The Sandman?
I think I’ll cheat and pick two. They’re not single scenes either (even more cheating) but they’ve influenced me a lot as a writer.
The first one is Season of Mists, the fourth graphic novel of The Sandman, collecting issues 21-28. The first time I read it, it blew my mind. I didn’t know up to then that you could do such things with stories and I decided that I’d like to do it as well.
The second one is issue 50, with art by P. Craig Russell. It’s a story about stories and again it blew my mind. I didn’t know that a story could create such an emotional response, and again I wanted to be able to do things like that. I first read these many years ago, and the fact that I these two Sandman tales stand out in my memory after all this time is proof of their effect. One more thing: I was so absorbed reading issue 50 that I burnt the dinner I was supposed to be minding. Such is the power of a great story.
If you could pick one person on Earth to read one of your books, who would it be?
I’d pick someone who could bring the books to a wider audience and could short-cut the whole process of marketing and self-promotion that’s required to become a successful independent author, and allow me to concentrate more just on the fun bit – the writing.
You once worked at a financial company. Let me toss a fun financial/business related question your way: if you could transport yourself to one of your fictional worlds (you get to pick), what would you invest in?
I think that if you wanted to make money in the “Merchant Blades” world you’d need to leave your morals at the door. That said, if I ended up in the world before Book 3, I’d invest in Eressian coal!
Finally, did Han Solo really fire first?
Han Solo is a rogue, a mercenary captain, a smuggler, a rapscallion. He helps Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi escape from Tatooine for a fee. He helps Leia escape from the Death Star lured by the promise of a reward. He’s asked to help with the attack on the Death Star but refuses. He then comes back to help because he has a change of heart and because he comes to understand the value of friendship and having a place in a team.
His character has development. He’s morally ambiguous and unapologetic about it. He’s a lovely character that works as he is. We have the knight in shining armour: Luke. Why try to change Han Solo by retro-fitting him as a squeaky clean good guy? Yes, he shot first.
Thanks to Alex for participating! If you want to learn more about Mrs. Avrio and her work, you can find her at the various e-locations below:
And for more super-exciting and edifying news, rants, and other sorts of information, be sure to follow this blog!