Interview with John Lawson

As promised, here is the excellent interview with author John Lawson, author of Witch Ember and The Raven, both of which would make excellent RIP Reads by the way! It’s just a day late :/ Enjoy! I apologize in advance for any annoying formatting errors…Wordpress is giving me one hell of a time trying to put in an interview format. But you know how this works…my questions are in bold, his answers are not.

How do you typically describe your books to people who ask what you write?

If they’re just being polite, I’ll tell them Fantasy. Although I’ve been told enough times that my work is really dark, so sometimes I say Dark Fantasy, but Dark Fantasy doesn’t tend to deal with swords and sorcery, so that might not be the right genre either. To be completely accurate, I think I would say Science Fiction that takes place in a pre-industrialized society.

Actually, I think I’ve accidentally slipped into the trendy new Steampunk genre, though I haven’t read of it to be sure.

What did you envision when you set off to write Witch Ember and was it what you ended up with?

The first words I wrote for Witch Ember were “Poor little witch girl.” That was back in 1999. It was a completely spur-of-the-moment action, and I’m not sure where it came from. But once I started writing, I found it difficult to stop.

I have no preconceived notions about how the books take shape, story-wise. I begin writing, and I see where the journey takes me. I take notes fastidiously, and usually by the time the second or third chapter is complete, I have a general outline for the entire book. For the most part, I do very little rewriting.

You create extremely complex worlds in the two books of yours that I’ve read including entire cultures, mythologies, and languages. How long have these books been stirring in your head?

I have included elements that have knocking around for 20 years or so, but most of the content is either gleaned from research or pulled out of thin air at the time of writing. Some of my ideas come from comic books I read as a child, or movies, or novels. Some of them come from conversations I’ve had with friends.

For the most part, the core elements of my cultures are based on real peoples and then given a twist or two to make them special. Some of my cultures are more transparent than others.

I’m no expert on mythology…how much of the mythology of your worlds was taken from traditional myth and how much was created by yourself?

I’ve been a fan of myth since I read my first Greek myth in grade school. I’ve read Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Chinese, Indian, Babylonian myths… you name it. Its all log jammed up there in my head.

When I started writing Witch Ember, I wanted it to have an Arthurian feel to it (I’m not sure if that actually came through though). I did a lot of research on the Arthurian romances, Chretien de Troyes, the Mabinogion, The Decameron, etc.

The Raven was obviously heavily influenced on Norse mythology, and I read every Saga and Edda I could find, which amounted to hundreds of pages of Norse fable and history.

For a prequel book I’ve been working on, I did a lot of reading of Brothers Grimm and other original fairy tales.

For the most part, I endeavor to make my myths and fables unique while still lending them an authentic flavor. I hope I was successful.

One criticism that I’ve seen of your books on some reviews is the language that you developed for the different cultures. I personally enjoyed this aspect, but some are frustrated by it. What made you decide to introduce an extensive vocabulary to your characters and add a glossary? (By the way, I’ve become a big fan of the word *boduus*)

Yäh, whenever I read those reviews, I have to mutter “Yä boduus ard-vitchoors…”

I include those languages because that’s the way the world is. I live and work in Silicon Valley, CA, one of the most integrated places in the world. At any one time on the street or in the workplace, I can overhear conversations being conducted in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Filipino, Eastern European, English, or more likely, a mishmash of multiple tongues.

The world of Witch Ember is multi-cultural, and Cliffs Reach in particular is a major trade center. Like the London or Shanghai of old, people from many countries travel there and settle there. Its natives will be multi-lingual. The aristocrats will be versed in the “cultured” tongues, while the working and lower classes will have a more functional pidgin tongue. To ignore or gloss it over would remove an important part of the characters’ lives.

Lemme give you a case-in-point. Some years ago, I picked up a book written by a very famous sci-fi/fantasy author. It had a unique, exciting premise, so I was eager to read it. The book was ultimately a disappointment on a number of levels, but one in particular really galled me. The main character began the story in a relatively obscure location and through events in the plot, ended up traveling across much of the world. He passed through many nations and kingdoms, met countless cultures, and everywhere he went, everyone spoke the same language. There was never any trouble communicating or understanding each other.

OK, fine, this was a fantasy world. That can be explained. Maybe this world hasn’t experienced any kind of “Tower of Babel” event or other mythic reason for the fragmentation of tongues. Fine, whatever.

Except for the fact that this main character had a sidekick. And that sidekick spoke everything with an accent. An accent of what??? Everyone spoke the same language!

I tell you, it made me nuts. So I resolved not to do the same thing when I wrote my books.

To those who experience difficulty and frustration while reading my books, I apologize, but I gotta do it.

There’s no denying that your books are dark and horrifying at times. Characters that we fall in love with go through extreme tortures. Esmeree, main character of Witch Ember, faces trial after trial from her days as a small child through adulthood. What do you hope your readers gleam from the trials that your characters face if anything?

Breaking the things you love certainly leaves an impression, doesn’t it?

I dunno, maybe I write Horror? Is there such a thing as Dark Horror Fantasy Steampunk?

I don’t necessarily feel the events are extreme when you consider the time and settings in which they take place. Cliffs Reach is much like 18th century London, and the events therein are in many ways pale caricatures of what really happened in our own world. If I was completely accurate, I think I would have stretched the limits of credence and come across as unnecessarily sadistic (actually, based on one review I’ve had, I was still too accurate and too sadistic–go me).

Besides, to my mind, it’s not what my characters overcome, but how. And perhaps why.

Esmeree can overcome circumstances that would kill or crush a normal person through her talent, ingenuity, and intellect. And in doing so, she grows stronger, either through experience, magical power, or influence with other people. By virtue of her character, she draws others to her. Enemies become allies. She is a unifier, and perhaps through that unity, she can bring about change.

Besides, all that turmoil gives her street cred. Representin’, yo.

(Maybe it’s me, I dunno. Recently I shared one of my future projects with my wife. I told her I thought this story was really uplifting, and she replied, “Oh my god, it was the most depressing thing I’ve ever read!” Obviously she is not part of my demographic.)

I’m currently reading a book that has a setting somewhat similar to Witch Ember. It takes place in a large city and revolves around the lives of some homeless youths. But this book is like Mr Rodgers Neighborhood compared to Witch Ember, and I’m having a really difficult time getting any sense of danger or tension from the narrative. How hard can life be when the only punishment for an orphan arrested for theft is adoption? It’s like the cast of “Annie” meets “Camelot”. (A hard knock life, indeed.)

But hey, this book’s been published by a major publisher, one of a series I believe, and I’m still struggling. So there ya go.

Some of the creatures and beings that you created for your novels are just mind blowing! Are these creatures that have been with you for a while? How do you come up with them?

I don’t think there’s an answer for that question that doesn’t make me sound nuts.

Generally speaking, I try to take stock fantasy beasties, and I try to make them more, well, realistic… if that’s the right word for it. My elves aren’t androgynous she-males that prance through forest glades. My dwarves aren’t short, cranky Scotsmen with axe fetishes.

For example, take the therm from The Raven. They were based on centaurs. I recall reading once that the legend of the centaur possibly originated back when Greeks saw a band of Persian cavalry. From a distance, they couldn’t discern the riders’ torsos from the horses’ heads, and so they thought they saw creatures with a horse’s body mounted by a man’s torso.

I just took the concept in the other direction. What kind of animal would give the same impression? And then, how would such a creature behave? How would it live? What would it believe?

What can we look forward to for the future of the series? I’m hoping for more! Do you have a plan for how many books will be included in the complete series?

Presently, I have a book coming out around the end of this year through Drollerie Press. It’s not a sequel, but it does take place in the Witch Ember/The Raven “world.”

(For those who objected to both my languages and my book length, this book was written to address those concerns. It’s essentially the first part of my standard 3-part format, so it’s short, and it takes place in a relatively insulated location, which means not so many funny words.)

I’m also in negotiations to publish a Witch Ember prequel. (Which isn’t really a negotiation. I told him I couldn’t accept his contract unless he made a change, and he’s hasn’t responed, which probably means “no.”) And currently I’m writing a true sequel to Witch Ember, picking up Esmeree’s story once again.

Of course we all want to know what inspires you. This can be anything…art, books, music, pancakes…

History inspires me. Literature inspires me. And so one can extrapolate that historical fiction and historical literature inspires me. I read fables or myths, and I think, “OK, let’s pretend that really happened. How could it have happened?” or “What would that creature really look like? How would it live?” and then I begin to work it over in my head.

I’m not too visually stimulated. Art or multi-media don’t do much for me. Neither does music. But reading, wow. It’s like adding gasoline to a bonfire.

And since this is a book blog, we also all want to know what your favorite books are! What are you currently reading? What would you say your top 5 6 favorite books are?

The Uplift War series

Catch 22

Foucault’s Pendulum


Mythago Wood

Waiting for Godot

I’m currently reading two books that I’m not really enjoying right now, so I’m not going to name them. (I don’t know why I do this to myself other than the fact that they were gifts from my wife, so I feel obliged to finish them.)

Top 5 favorite films?


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Nate and Hayes




10 Responses

  1. Hey, that was fun! Let’s do it again sometime!

  2. More anxious than ever to get my hands on these. And I didn’t think that was possible.

  3. Very fun review. Thanks Chris for great questions and John for well-reasoned, open answers. Just the kind of interview I like to read.

    And kudos for the Nate and Hayes mention. I haven’t thought of that film in decades!!!

  4. To all those “Pirates of the Caribbean” fans, I say, there would BE no Jack Sparrow if it wasn’t for Bully Hayes…

  5. “For the most part, the core elements of my cultures are based on real peoples and then given a twist or two to make them special.”

    I think this was a great part of what made Witch Ember so interesting to me.

    Also, I just love this approach:

    “I read fables or myths, and I think, “OK, let’s pretend that really happened. How could it have happened?” or “What would that creature really look like? How would it live?” and then I begin to work it over in my head.”

    Thanks for the great interview 🙂 And you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it but the books would be perfect for RIP. I want to read The Raven soon, and it’s great that I can count it towards the challenge. One more for my pool!

  6. What a great interview, Chris! I can’t wait to read these books!!!

  7. Great interview! I haven’t really heard too much about these books but they sound real intriguing!

  8. Very cool. Great interview!! I think I already have too many books in my pool already for the RIP, but maybe next year!!

  9. Nice interview, John. I’m looking forward to reading Witch Ember.

  10. Ohhhh. sequel. Hurry up already! 😀

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