SJ Hartland is the author of the Shadow Sword Series… and torturer of one, Kaell (but I’m not bitter at all). Ok she loves Angel…. FINE … but I don’t have to forgive EVERYTHING. Having already read and reviewed the first novel in the series, 19th Bladesman, I am desperately awaiting the sequel, Last Seer King. According to SJ Hartland, it will be ready, as soon as it is back from a haircut… wait… what?
1) Let’s talk about character arcs. When you are working on a book, or especially on a series- do you have a character’s arc planned out in your head or does it come to you as you go. I imagine you have an outline of the plot, etc- but do you definitely know where each character starts and ends as a person?
I love this question because I just love talking and thinking about characters! I wish I was more of a plotter. I think that would lead to less rewriting and rewriting and rewriting! I seem to start with a fragment of an idea and then see where it goes. In The 19th Bladesman, the initial idea was, what if you had to kill a stranger to save someone you love, but the person you had to kill protected the realm. It moved on from there Thus, character arcs for The 19th Bladesman were not planned—initially. Then… I was mentored by an amazing author, Dr Kathryn Heyman, and one of the first things she asked me to do was write out what each character had lost.
Many months later, we were half way through the first manuscript when she asked me to work out what Heath Damadar wanted. I shrugged and said he didn’t want anything because, unlike everyone else, the arrogant, sarcastic, too-clever Heath got what he wanted (in that draft). “No, no,” the clever Dr K said. “He still wants something.”
Once I figured that out, it was like a breakthrough moment. It certainly changed Heath’s character arc, and whenever I’m writing a character now the first thing I’m thinking about is what they want. Kathryn describes it as their “lack”. What they think they need to be whole. And yes, they need to have that “lack” over the course of a series. Do they get it, or is it a bitter end? I’ve got a new series I’ve started where I’m pretty sure the main character will get what she wants but doesn’t want it (him) anymore.
These days, I usually have a rough idea of each character’s arc, what the character thinks they want or what they have to learn, but also leave room for something unexpected to be revealed. Though, some characters are very clear; as an example in The Last Seer King, I introduce a new character called Dannon who is one of my favourites. I knew straight away what his arc would be through to the fifth book in the series (the lesson he had to learn.
2) Do you purposely go in saying… hmmm… I’m going to make this character(s) the one readers most sympathize with and then make the plot and the character interesting enough to create total reader buy-in so that you can torture the hell out of said character(s)? Or are you completely surprised when readers have that reaction? I’m just asking for a friend…
Ha ha, Susan. You’re still mad at me about Kaell. There does seem to be a bit of a pattern where I torture characters. I’m beginning to be a bit worried about myself! But out of conflict, when they claw their way out of whatever the nadir is, there can be something hopeful or even triumphant, just not what they expected. Some very dark things happen to Roaran in the third book, The Sword Brotherhood. But if they didn’t, Roaran would not have made the choices he eventually does. He’s a different person. Is he weaker or stronger, or just more human?
One of the reasons I started writing, apart from just wanting to share the stories in my head, was I wasn’t quite finding fantasy books that were as psychologically dark as I longed to read, that explored the disturbing places we sometimes go to, or the secrets we keep from ourselves.
I’m from a Methodist family on both sides going back generations. I’m deeply interested in guilt, shame, but also redemption and hope. Each doesn’t exist without the others. There’s always light, there’s always kindness, sacrifice, and love that pulls us out of the darkness. And kindness or even love might be found in unexpected places.
I like to explore characters facing a crucible where what they believe, who they are, is challenged, or even ripped apart, but in the end what emerges is someone perhaps more compassionate, perhaps empowered by pain and empathy. Perhaps broken, but ready to heal.
Which lends itself to theme. In The 19th Bladesman, there’s (I think, I hope) a strong theme of fatherhood. In The Last Seer King, it’s redemption found in friendship (that’s the goal, for the book at least). In the third in the series, The Sword Brotherhood, forgiveness is a big theme.
As for torturing Kaell…My beta reader was a big Kaell fan and is still a bit grumpy at me, though she hasn’t quite defriended me on Facebook yet!
3) There has been talk, and while I definitely have one opinion (and others share it and some don’t) that the Young Adult/Adult (not middle school – that is definitely its own thing) fence needs to come down. For the most part, young adult fantasy could stand right next to its adult fantasy counterparts and hold their own. Thoughts?
There’s some brilliant YA out there and sometimes it’s not clear why there is a distinction. Is it because YA characters are meant to be younger? Is the implication that YA fantasy isn’t quite as R-rated? (Do you have that rating in the US? Sorry, might be an Australian thing).
Some YA is pretty dark, but it seems like the boundaries blur. On the other hand, The 19th Bladesman is definitely adult. I wouldn’t like to think of someone maybe aged 17 or so reading it.
4) We’ve been emailing back and forth a bit about how the sequel to 19th Bladesman has been slowly driving you to an insane asylum. Care to explain what part of the creative process the Last Seer King is in, and what exactly is happening? Do these moments with a book make it (and you, as a writer) stronger in the end? Or are you just literally just questioning every life decision you ever made at the moment?
Ha! I laughed at the questioning every life decision. It’s always nerve-racking releasing any book. I feel a bit like I’ve taken a couple of risks and readers might hate them. I want to put The Last Seer King out there, then hide under the bed until it’s safe to come out.
The Last Seer King is having its second proofread. That is a lovely passive sentence that sounds a bit like it is off getting a haircut or off getting its nails done. But there is a strange sense of the book being absent and I’m waiting for it to “return”.
It really should be out in the first week of July. The only frustration was I had expected to release it by now. Totally my fault. I was tinkering. Sigh. I struggle to let something go. I want to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Then rewrite again.
I remember my mentor saying very gently not so long ago, when I seemed set on rewriting the whole series for the next 20 years (and friends asked if I would leave them the publishing rights in my will), something like, I think they’re ready, Susan.
5) The major reason why I stopped reading adult fantasy books is because of what I often refer to as the “20 pages to describe a tree syndrome”. Truth be told, I barely got through the Lord of the Rings trilogy… I’ll say Tolkien takes 10 pages. I loved Game of Thrones (arguments about the last season aside) but I would never read those books. Couldn’t. There isn’t enough of my ADD medication in the world. Anyhow, I have recently found you and Ben Galley. Both of you are the first two adult fantasy writers that have managed not to fall down this rabbit hole. I don’t expect you to speak for him, but as far as you go- what gives?
Oh, I love this interesting question. My answer, though, is probably going to sound a bit weird. My first drafts of the whole series (I wrote the first three together) were pretty much minus adjectives. I’m a journalist. Worse, I’m what’s called a “wire service” journalist, though now in newspapers. We write really tightly. No adjectives allowed. Goes back to the days when wire service journalists would file from trouble spots via telegram and you had to pay for each word; thus the tight writing. Something like that.
The first 100 pages I ever sent to my mentor included just one adjective-loaded description. I wasn’t sure I would get away with it. I thought it was “flowery” like all adjectives and had to go! But Kathryn said, “oh, I love that”.
There was this click in my brain. It was like, “oh, maybe adjectives aren’t so bad.” Then another click. “I might be able to come up with some descriptions. I’ll have a go.”This sounds seriously stupid looking back. But you can’t take the “wire service” journalist out of the girl.
Now I think that a monster was released and I occasionally go overboard with physical descriptions, though it’s part of my writing voice. I see things in pictures and try to describe them. However, if I were to rewrite The 19th Bladesman, I’d probably cut some of the description in the first few chapters. That said, overall, I’m always impatient to get onto the action. My brain goes: Right, set the scene, then the fun stuff. Sword fights, tension, dialogue. (and torture another character, ha ha).
6) Without spoiling anything… what are the biggest differences we can expect in The Last Seer King?
Let’s just say fate isn’t quite done with Kaell yet. (risk one. Ah, don’t throw things at me, Susan). At least half is set in the Icelands, where the sorceress Myranthe Damadar plays out a dangerous game with Val. What she calls a “tournament of shadows”, because she’s obsessed with Roaran, or at least the “idea” of Roaran. It’s very psychological (risk two). The Icelands is a cauldron of schemes and tension; not a safe place to be, even if you’re a Damadar.
Heath and Val’s character arcs are the most pronounced. There’s a very dark passage which I hope I balance with something very tender afterwards. And I introduce a character who has a lot of work to do for the next four books, Dannon. I’m really fond of him.
My lovely niece Jenna (I wrote an evil character based on her for the fourth book– she wanted to be evil) said she was hanging out for the eventual fight between Heath and Val… there may well be a sword fight. Or two. Or three. I’m a fencer, so I love a good sword fight.
7) Here’s your chance- if there’s anything you’ve been wanting to say that you’ve never had a chance to express to anyone about anything- maybe you haven’t been asked the right question or you just haven’t had the opportunity- here it is.. the floor is yours… take your shot….
I am so impatient to ALSO finish the first book in this crazy second series I’ve started (as well as books three, four and five in The Shadow Sword series). It has an insane concept that I hope I can bring off. Watch this space. Hopefully next year.
And just a thank you to Susan and Novellives for her great work supporting authors and putting interesting reviews and interviews out there.
Random facts about the author:
SJ Hartland is a journalist and foil fencer (Cyrano club in Sydney), cricket and medieval tragic who watches too much TV. She is originally from Townsville, lived in Sydney for many years and now calls the Darling Downs, Queensland, home.
Random stuff, right?
If you want more…
She loves (in no particular order): Dogs, rain, blue-grey seas beneath storm clouds, summer, lavender, Song of Achilles, the Captive Prince series, CS Pacat, Storm and Grace, Kathryn Heyman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sam and Dean Winchester, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and all things DC, Jessica Jones and all things Marvel, Hercule Poirot, The Count of Monte Cristo, coffee, collective nouns, Rhinegold by Stephan Grundy, Krak des Chevaliers, semi-colons, the old ship wrecks at Woody Point, Simon Templar, the Saint on Castle Hill, dusk, Angel, Sherlock Holmes, dangling modifiers, pressure attacks on the blade, Luke Kennedy, Keith Harkin, the Scorpions, Dune, Michael Moorcock’s Elric (gotta love that soul-sucking sword), the world of Narnia and Blake’s 7.
She hates: tailgaters, winter