I first met Christina Lay before the 2008 Abroad Writers workshops, when the two of us and our friend Marita rented a car to take us from the airport to a small town in the South of France. Christina had submitted some captivating, well-crafted stories. I was impressed. The instructor referred to them dismissively as what you find in The New Yorker or an MFA thesis. Marita and I were incredulous. Wasn’t that the quality of writing we were supposed to be aiming for?
Christina is now the author of five fantasy novels, two currently available on Amazon and a WordPress blog, Nutshells & Mosquito Wings (Link) She is also a regular contributor to ShadowSpinners.com (Link) ) We talked about her latest book, Symphony of Ruin: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, and particularly the writing and publishing project which gave birth to it. (Link)
Download a short story on Kindle (Link)
We talked via Skype while she was at home in Oregon State and I was in the Philippines.
A friend of mine, Matt Lowes, had developed a dungeon solitaire game using Tarot card and an artist in Germany, Joseph Vandel, did the art work for the cards. (Link)
Then another member of our writers’ group, Elizabeth Engstrom, edited Matt’s book about the game and started speculating about what would send a person into such a dangerous, underground maze. She suggested we all write novellas for a series. The resulting books are very different in setting and characters, but with most there’s clearly the underlying mythology of going into the underground–nature death—and coming out the other side.
I’d started my publishing company in order to do an anthology of stories with a lot of the same people who’d been gathering together for years. But then the Labyrinth of Souls took over. It’s really great to do this collaborative, author-friendly project. I have a friend who does the formatting for the print books and another friend who formats the e-books. Three of us take turns doing editing, but we all read every book. It’s been a great way to approach publishing, not like a solo activity where you’re on your own. This is much more doable and fun. It’s great to see what people come up with, especially the couple of people who hadn’t published a novel before but who rose to the occasion.
Taking on the role of editor has been an interesting challenge. Some of our authors have published a lot and are extremely professional, like Elizabeth Engstrom, who’s done mostly horror. I was wondering what editing suggestions I would have for her. I ended up working with her on a broader, more general scope, such as suggesting she add more to the setting— the People’s Republic of the Congo—to show us more about what is unique and amazing about that particular place. Then the last book released, Bayou’s Lament, is by a short story writer who’d never written in long form before. We delved more into the nitty gritty of novel writing.
One of the basic reasons for having an editor is the writer probably won’t see things like how the same word appears over and over or there are too many passive constructions or adjectives and adverbs. The work may need a lot of tightening and the story might need clarifying.
THE CARDS, THE STORIES AND LIFE
Everyone who decided to do a story picked a card from the Labyrinth of Souls deck the book cover, and that added another dimension to the whole story-writing process, which I thought was really cool. For instance, my card shows the tower being hit by lightning, an image which influenced the story. In my fantasy version of medieval Prague, the tower comes to symbolize the whole city and how it is being threatened.
I’d been to Prague a couple of times. My family is from the Czech Republic, and I have a fondness for medieval history. When we went there, I felt a really strong connection to it in a past-life sort of way. I started writing short stories based on this world. Over the years I studied maps of Prague and did a lot of research into its history and current politics.
Once I started writing I put that aside and created a fantasy version of the city. I like building a fantasy on reality—which is fascinating—instead of just working purely from my imagination. The medieval city center is like a perfect jewel, a fantasy writer’s wonderworld. Just outside the old city is post-revolutionary architecture, Stalin-era apartment housing complexes with no personality whatsoever. There’s a great contrast between the old world and the new world right up next to it. In my book I just call it “the City.”
Cheryl Owen-Wilson, whose Bayou’s Lament” came out in 2020, picked a card Matt invented for his deck called Elderwood. It’s perfect for her because mostof her stories are set in the swamps of the deep south, where she is from. This card looks like a dark swamp with an underground entrance in the trees. She wrote about a massive, fictional tree on an island off the coast of Louisiana. The tree is populated inside with strange, other-worldly creatures, magical and hidden in a mystery.
The protagonist’s daughter has been sucked into this fantasy world, drawing the mother back to a childhood home she swore never to return to. Many of the elements in the story are drawn from Cheryl’s personal experiences.
Matt Lowes has also put his own experience into his book, his spiritual quest. In literary fiction we accept that authors might build on personal experience, but fantasy is often dismissed as escapisms, as trivial, as having nothing to do with real life. I don’t believe that.
The spiritual aspect is pretty strong in all the books, but particularly in Matt’s. He is spiritually alive and has spent much of his life traveling the world and seeking—not exactly enlightenment—but answers to life’s bigger questions. His nonfiction book, That Which is Before You, deals with his Zen-like experience of sudden insight. What I like about his story most is that he tells what happened to him without claiming to have The Answer—or any religious affiliation, although what he says has a strong Buddhist/Taoist vibe. His Labyrinth novel, The End of All Things, is very much a spiritual journey, a chipping away of everything that is unnecessary, only set in a science fiction world.
Eric Witchey, who has several books out and is a very sought-after teacher, wrote a fascinating story based on our collective idea of hell. All of his characters are different manifestations of humanity’s idea of death—the Grim Reaper, gods from different cultures. The titular character, Littlest Death, hasn’t been given her form or allowed to harvest human souls, so she’s trying to rise up in the ranks. It’s fun and a fascinating world.
One of our authors, Stephen Vessel, got so wrapped up in his characters that he wrote two Labyrinth books. One is a sort of a mystery with a hard-boiled detective who tracks a stranger into a fantastical underground universe. The other is a unique type of love story, where he meets a woman, falls madly in love and gets sucked into the underground world that way.
Lisa Alber is a mystery writer who has set her other mystery novels in Ireland, where Immortal’s Penance also takes place. Her protagonist is an archeologist who gets sucked into the underground and has to deal with Irish mythological creatures. It’s definitely a journey of the soul where he gets to find out more about himself than he ever wanted to know.
The first book that came out, by Elizabeth Engstrom, Benediction Denied, takes place in Africa. The protagonist is an engineer working on water systems. He’s shrunk down to the size of a mouse and gets lost in the underground tunnels. I don’t know if I should say this, but he is the only main character who does not get transformed and come out the other side.
For the most part the books end up hands-down positive. Most of the characters do survive and come out better people.
John Reed is a thriller writer who we lured over into the realm of fantasy. When I asked him how he felt about the fantasy genre now that he’d written one, he said ” It is not, as I once foolishly thought, like ‘playing tennis without a net.’ It is more like playing jai alai with gorillas. The interior logic must be maintained, wherever the shots come from.” Like Stephen, he also wrote two books for the series, so I guess he enjoyed playing with gorillas after all. His books are Mountain of Ashes, a wild Orpheus inspired tale, and The Mole Train, a thriller meets urban fantasy involving a mystery train running beneath the streets of Manhattan.
Mary E. Lowd is a very prolific, award-winning writer of furry fiction. I love that our series embraces all facets of fantasy, and furry is another genre that tends to get short shrift from those who don’t understand it. In her book, The Snake’s Song, Mary once again proves how character is character, no matter the form or shape. She tells a harrowing tale of a squirrel who is lured into the underground world by the siren song of a snake. The sequel, The Bee’s Waltz, will be coming out this fall.
With fantasy you have to do your homework. JK Rolling planned out all of her eight books in advance, with meticulous notes. She must have huge files. It’s like the more fantastic your world is, the more grounded you have to be. If you’re using magic or some sort of magical system, you have to be consistent about how it works, why it works, why it doesn’t work. There has to be a cost for using magic, because it’s very boring if there are no consequences. This is especially true if it’s a completely made-up setting, you have to build it and take notes and make sure that if you’re doing something wild that there is some sort of grounding or people lose interest.
You can give your characters magical powers, but I don’t think character development is much different in fantasy than in any other kind of fiction. They still have to be fully-realized. Their flaws have to make sense. You need to know what they want and what’s keeping them from getting it. Probably in fantasy you’re more likely to get the obvious conflict—the big dragon, the more out-there challenges. Or a love story when things are falling apart and you’re trying to save it or not. The action is more dramatic. The difference from realistic fiction is not so much the characters themselves as what you put them through.
In creating a character who is a type of magical creature, you can use the existing lore, which may vary with the culture. For example, the word “dwarf” refers to a magical creature like we saw in The Lord of the Rings, and readers will have certain expectations—a human-like person who works underground, maybe small or with a distorted body shape. You can depart from the image your readers have in mind, but then you have to make the change clear to the reader.
If you look back over the years you find Fairies are all over the place, from things that look like butterflies to tall, fully human sized fairies. The old stories are a great inspiration.
Sometimes people look at fantasy, and they say, “Oh, well, if your character is a fairy or rides on a dragon, then the story doesn’t mean anything.” What they fail to see is the underlying character struggle is still the same. The challenge might look fantastic on the surface, but really the dragon always represents something else. The characters have to overcome their weaknesses. Harry Potter has to learn to rely on his friends. His stories are all about coming to trust, which is powerful. Having a lot of fantastical elements doesn’t make it any less real. It’s all about what the characters go through. The fantasy is the fun part, getting to use your imagination fully, but you still deal with real issues. If you don’t, your work is not going to sustain you.
FOREBODING AND EVIL
The old fairy tales were a lot about teaching lessons and giving warnings: don’t go into the woods, don’t trust strangers, don’t try to act above your station. They might be pretty heavy-handed. Even all the wonderful fantasy elements taught people not to mess around with any of it. But then I think people came to embrace fantasy more. The magical creatures became less evil and intent on destroying humans. Now dragons can be friends you can ride around on. The wicked witch in the woods becomes a fairy godmother who’s helpful, if not exactly friendly.
I think the amount of foreshadowing used depends on the author and the type of fantasy. You really want your readers to be nervous about what’s happening, but the imminent doom doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If everything is all black and white and the whole universe is at stake, it can just be too much. There’s not enough complexity.
If a story grips the popular imagination for some reason and keeps getting retold and embellished, it’s going to change over time and maybe get gutted. Nowadays Jane Austen is getting rewritten, but at a cost. Her female characters may be put in a position to make money, a power position. It’s fun, people enjoy seeing them have the upper hand, but that removes the original conflict, the fact that the women had no way of supporting themselves in that society.
It seems like ten or twenty years ago you started to see stories being told from the point of view of the bad guy and showing that he’s not actually that bad and has reasons for doing what he does or that he was judged without examining all the facts. . I kind of enjoy that. There’s a television show with Lucifer as a charming bad boy, silly but entertaining. Years ago it would have been offensive to so many people to show that god is kind of a jerk, punishing people who don’t deserve it. Now it’s not shocking at all.
Now we have twelve titles in the series, ranging from about 35,000 to 46,000 words, each different in setting and genre type. And we have two more that are going to come out this year, maybe two more after that.
Of course, the virus and the shutdowns kind of pushed things back because we wanted to go to writing conferences as a vendor. I tried one virtual conference, World Fantasy, it was in Salt Lake City. and for me it fell flat. They had a vendors’ page, but I didn’t see any indication that sales had increased, and I didn’t find it satisfying. I mean, it’s good to go and listen to interesting people talk, but you don’t get that face-to-face interaction from running into somebody who can help you—you had no idea—or you can help them. That’s what I consider the main benefit. Keeping my fingers crossed that we can all meet in person soon.