Back in November, I stumbled across some information about Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade on Jo Fletcher Books’ website. Naturally, I was very intrigued. Then, in January, an ARC of the book appeared, and I dove right in. To put it bluntly, I loved it: a perfect blend of action, intrigue, humour, and all-round great storytelling. This novel is going to cause a splash, as well it damn well should. Read on for an interview with de Castell…
Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Sebastien de Castell?
I guess you could say that I’m a professional wanderer. I love to take on challenges in new fields and learn everything I can. These days I write fantasy and mystery novels but in the past I’ve been a full-time musician, an interaction designer, teacher, project manager, fight choreographer, actor, and, well, lots of other things. (At least one of which I’m keeping secret until my deathbed!)
Your debut novel, Traitor’s Blade, is due to be published in March by Jo Fletcher Books. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader?
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The idea for the Greatcoats – the sword-fighting, travelling magistrates who play a central role in the novel – came from reading about the itinerant judges of the English Middle-Ages. These poor devils had to go out on a circuit that could take an entire year, travelling from town to town, hearing cases and trying to mete out the King’s justice. It sounded like an awfully dangerous job.
The idea for the coats themselves came from an actual greatcoat that my brother bought me one year. When I was working as an actor, I found I’d always bring this coat because no matter how cold it got or how long I had to wait before filming a scene, I could pretty much carry everything I needed in it and stay warm and ready to go. Alas, mine doesn’t have secret bone plates to protect from being hit by swords, nor does it have the various tricks, traps, and potions that the characters in Traitor’s Blade rely on.
My primary technique for inspiration is to simply try and write the book I most want to read. I think that if you stick with that, you’ll always end up with a story that you can believe in, and there will always be lots of people who share that with you.
There are a number of great sword-fights and duels in the novel. Are you a swordsman? If so, what is your weapon of choice?
I fenced for a few years (epee was always my favourite weapon). I also used to choreograph sword fights with everything from European broadswords and halberds to Japanese sai (those little three-pronged swords that Elektra uses in the comics). I’m not a committed historical recreationist or anything of that sort, and I make a point of not including references to historical fighting techniques in my books because they tend to feel like an author trying to show off their knowledge rather than telling the story of what’s happening to the characters as they fight for their lives.
In terms of a personal favourite weapon, it would really depend on the situation. I enjoy the rapier, but it’s not a fun weapon when you have to fight someone in armour (just ask poor Falcio val Mond, the main character in Traitor’s Blade, who ends up in such situations fairly frequently). If I did have to pick one weapon, though? I think it would be the Japanese katana – it’s fast, it adapts well to very different situations, and it has proven itself as the single best way to decapitate a zombie.
When I was little, my older sister read me The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I spent the rest of my childhood and no small amount of my adult life trying to find Narnia. I’m still looking.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Those are actually three very different questions!
Being a writer is wonderful – you get to tell stories for a living! It’s an unending challenge, though, because every chapter you write has to be the best chapter you have in you.
In terms of the publishing industry, I’ve been incredibly fortunate thus far because everyone I’ve been working with has been amazing. My agent, Heather Adams, is wonderfully supportive and positive. Jo Fletcher is one of the best editors in the business, and she can take a manuscript and find each and every area that needs to be revisited or polished. My editor in Canada, Adrienne Kerr, is someone you always feel like you can talk to, who knows the business and will answer questions with remarkable candour. I could go on and on. There are people I’ve never even met who have made the book better. I don’t even know the name of the person who designed the German cover (which became the basis for the U.K. cover), but they created a wonderful and incredibly original design that I love to look at. Recently I was in New York and got to meet some of the sales reps who are working with booksellers in the United States. I kind of expected them to be a bit disinterested since I’m a no-name author, which makes their job ten times harder. But they were incredibly supportive and enthusiastic (and had actually read the book!). I’m not saying all these nice things because it’s expected of me. I’m sure there are plenty of jerks in the publishing business – I just haven’t met any of them yet.
My major working practice on the creative side often comes from running. I’ll go for a long jog, listen to music, get incredibly bored and then an idea will come to me. Matching music to a story idea is something that helps me engage with it emotionally. If I can make myself cry while running, I know it’s a good idea (and other joggers think I’m insane).
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I found an old manuscript that my mother had written for a quite terrible romance novel. I never thought of her as a writer (she never sold any work). I got the idea in my head that everyone should write a book, so I did. It wasn’t great by any means, but it showed me that finishing a novel – a real, finished book, is one of the most unimaginably satisfying accomplishments you can achieve.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I don’t think I’m really qualified to assess the genre – I think that’s best done by the folks who read a hundred fantasy novels each year! I suppose as a reader I’ve become less enamoured of the propensity for so many books to be massively long. I’d love to see more books coming out that have the pacing and vibe of things like Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber and Steven Brust’s Jhereg.
What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
The second book in the Greatcoats series is with the publisher (though I’m doing a quick edit right now). I’m writing the third book over the next couple of months. My other fantasy series, Spellslinger, is with my agent right now. Finally, I’m writing a new mystery series that’s a bit of a “Nancy Drew meets Chinatown” thing (weird, I know, but I promise it’ll work).
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
For the past ten years I’ve been turning into a lousy and lazy reader – that’s why I’m so impressed when I see people on sites like Goodreads, and the fantasy bloggers I’ve met who read new books almost non-stop, and explore the world of fiction with such hunger. I started being more disciplined now, and I’ll finish any book I pick up and only allow myself to read one fiction and one non-fiction book at the same time. I alternate my fiction reading between literary novels and genre novels. I just finished reading The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper. His prose and characterization are amazing. I’ve just started reading “Labyrinths” – the collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Most people are surprised by my frequently odd jobs. Right now, in between writing, I’m learning songs because next week I’m flying out to Saskatchewan to play Bjorn in an Abba tribute. Life is weird, sometimes.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I spent a lot of time on this question because there’s so many fun things that go along with a book deal. You tend to celebrate every step — getting the offer, signing the contract, getting your edits back, seeing the cover, seeing the galleys, the first review…there’s a lot of stuff to get excited about.
But right now? At this moment? What excites me the most is the idea of going to a convention or two this year and meeting readers. You spend so much time writing a book largely in solitude, then you spend a good year interacting only with industry people… eventually the thing you want most in the world is to just get to say hello to someone who enjoyed the book purely on its own merits.
Traitor’s Blade is published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books on March 6th 2014, and in Canada by Penguin on March 4th 2014. For more on his novels and writing, be sure to check out Sebastien’s website and follow him on Twitter. Check back later this week for my review of Traitor’s Blade.