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Interview with Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton’s Spellbreaker came out last month, but the life of a doctor-and-writer is a busy one, so we just caught up with each other now! Here’s a Q&A with Blake.

1) Most classic fantasy is centered on an external conflict. Many of the best authors add an internal conflict. For triple backflip, you’ve added autoimmune to the other two layers of conflict in Spellbreaker. Is there any farther down the rabbit hole you can go? Can you talk about some of the difficulties of dramatizing conflict that isn’t just character vs. themself but character vs. their own body?

It’s intensely gratifying when a reader picks up on a personally important theme as you just did. So thank you kindly for this question.

Although the charters of Spellbreaker wouldn’t recognize the term ‘autoimmunity,’ they would recognize the disease that the protagonist, Leandra, contends with as one of the parts of her heritage at war with each other. They would also recognize the themes of self-hatred and self-attack as important to their lives and the story unfolding around them. Casual perusal of the internet suggests one of the more popular scenes in the book is Francesca’s emphatic, hopefully humorous declamation on why there is no hatred worse than self-hatred–which you can read here <>.

My interest in these themes comes from my own struggle with my disability. I was often frustrated by my limitations, would often disparage the part of me that made me different. When I was younger, this lead to flares of hating and attacking myself or hating and attacking ‘normal’ people and the insensitive society they created. Escaping these flares was central to my struggle to become an adult. Anecdotally, I have noticed other friends and patients with disability get caught within or escape such flares. So you see, the conflict between a person and their own body or brain and the resultant secondary conflict with a society built by convenience around the fiction of ‘normalcy’ has been dramatized throughout my life.

For those interested in such things, the different characters in this series explore different aspects of this theme. In the first two books, Nicodemus was struggling with his doubt and self-hatred. The danger he faces is that of becoming the bitter and angry disabled person, who lashed out at the world. His nemesis in those books, James Berr, represents a shadowy reflection of who Nicodemus has the potential to become. Francesca, on the other hand, is a character who in the second and third books contends with regret. She has had to make difficult decisions–many of them the right ones, some of them wrong. She is haunted by her past, though she is not completely aware of her past. In the third book, her relationship with her daughter, Leandra, is fraught with regret; mother and daughter find themselves in cyclic flares of blaming themselves and then blaming each other. Trying to find a way out of that cycle, if there is one, is the central issue of their development in the book. Finally, Leandra has the most immediate and visceral relationship with the theme since she has a chronic disease that induces periodic, unpredictable, and agonizing flares. She has grown up with the sense that her own body has betrayed her, expecting that she will die young. There is a strong anti-heroic streak in Leandra, and the capriciousness and injustice of the world weighs heavily on her, makes her ruthless. Her overarching passion is to effect justice in a chaotic and prejudiced world. It gets her into trouble. Big trouble.
2) Many doctors get accused of having a God complex. You have several. Were there any divine complexes that got left out in the editing stages? Any fun combos of gods you’d have loved to include?

Wow. This question is amazing. I should get my answers out of the way of your questions. Yes, several god complexes. No, no developed complex was left on the cutting room floor. But I did toy with the idea of showing the creation of a new divinity complex. Perhaps, I thought, it would be fun to show the southern war gods–who show up as reinforcements toward the end of the book–on ‘shore leave’ as it were in Chandralu. Deities from different cultures intermingling.  I had some vague idea of dramatizing a kinda paper-rock-scissors love-triangle between deities of incompatible elements and ideologies: Something like an angel of light falls for, but would erase, a goddess of shadow who’s obsessed with, but useless to, a demon of prisms, glass, and illusion, who would of course perforce be enamored with the angel of light. But that was going to be too involved, and the book was already too long. So I put it in my back pocket, where it will likely stay.
3) Lupus, teratomas, and instant cancer curses: there’s a lot of medicine in this book compared to most fantasy. How much does your own practice inspire your work? How hard is it to keep the lines in the right places?

Medicine is the lens though which I see the world. As a physician in training, I don’t think I can escape it. When riding the muni around San Francisco, I can’t help but try to diagnose fellow passengers. When listening to the news, my mind jumps automatically to the implications on global or national health. And when I think about adventure, fantasy, magic that same lens stays with me. It may seem like a stretch to some. It certainly isn’t similar to the typical fantasy lens, which focuses on chainmail and horses and catapults and Feudal politics. I don’t know anything about chainmail. But maybe that’s okay. I think much of the innate human conception of health and sickness is connected to the spiritual and the magical. I would guess that many, if not most, of human prayers and rituals center around health and healing. So if magic were real and tied to manifestations of divinity, then maybe it isn’t so far a stretch to say that the world that created would be as much or more obsessed with medicine as with chainmail. I have wonderful beta-readers and editors who are good at slapping my hand when my medical speculations or technical language gets too far afield.

4) The islands involved in this book mean that sailing, kayaking, and other water transport take a major role in thisbook. What’s your favorite form of water transport, and do you get to take part in it, or is this all theory for you? What’s your personal favorite? (I have an ongoing love affair with Lake Superior and a recent fling with the Kemijoki in northern Finland, so I probably get more emotionally involved with water than most.)

Maybe it’s a little silly but each of the books in the Spellwright series are associated with an element, a phase of life, and a direction. Spellwright is a book rooted in the earth. It’s about digging down into one’s past, discovering all the things about one’s family and what lies underneath. The ghostly chthonic people are the best example of this. My hope was to convey a sense of mystery and exploration, something like discovering a magical cave. Its physical inspiration was all the pseudo-gothic buildings and libraries of Yale University, where I was a student when I first conceived of the idea for the series.

Spellbound is a book that’s oriented upwards, into the sky and air. The theme is romance and fluidity. This was, hopefully, manifested in all the airships and the mercurial evolution of Francesca’s understanding of herself and her feelings toward Nicodemus. It was a book that was supposed to capture a feeling of weightlessness, flight, possibility. Its physical inspiration were the windy mountains of savannahs of my native California with a splash of the majestic ridges and jewel-like cities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains–where I was fortunate enough to travel as a young man.

Spellbreaker’s element is water; its direction neither up or down, but all the innumerable points of the compass that the horizon represents to the sailor. The physical inspiration for Ixos is the leaward side of Kaui and my current home of San Francisco Bay. During my intern year, the America’s Cup came to San Francisco and during some of the rare days off, I would go down to watch the catamarans sailing out on the bay; the way the sail caught the wind, jumped up on to their hydrofoils, seems so magical to me I couldn’t help writing it in to Spellbreaker. I’m sure I made many, many nautical mistakes when writing the books, and I’d like to beg for forgiveness from any sailors who read the books.

To answer your question, I would have to say I’m partial to the traditional American ‘holiday on a lake’ activities of swimming, fishing, waterskiing. My grandparents had a humble cabin on Lake Nacimiento in the Central Coast region of California, and I group up splashing around in its green waters and then reading 1990s classic fantasy in the cabin at night. I am, however, very jealous of your access to Lake Superior, and after googling “Kemijoki” I might have to add “float down a Finish river” to my wanderlust bucket list.
5) It says that Spellbreaker is the final installment in this trilogy. Can we expect more in this world that’s separate from this trilogy, or will your future work be something completely different?

The next book will be something wholly different, something placed in this world but still a fantasy, heavily influenced by my medical training. The elevator pitch so far is “Neil Gaiman’s American Gods goes to Medical School.” But it’s a work in progress so we’ll see. There may well be a return to the world of Spellwright. I tried to plan a few seeds at the end of Spellbreaker; I’ll have to wait to see if they grow into anything.

Thanks for joining us, Blake!

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