Bradley P. Beaulieu
The Winds of Khalakovo
Today's interview is with Bradley Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo.
The Winds of Khalakovo touches on a wide range of concepts: geography and windships, political intrigue, autistic savants, class conflicts, and a mysterious wasting disease. Which of these elements first sparked your interest in Khalakovo? Which one made you sit up and realize you were going to have to write the book?
The genesis of the book is actually from a series of postcards of fine art that I picked up in Edinburgh, Scotland. (I posted about it over at the Night Bazaar if you're curious to hear more about that.) I used that artwork to first generate and then crystallize my thoughts about the book. Initially, I tried not to let any one thing rule the brainstorming I would do from time to time. I didn't even know who the main characters were at first. I was quite taken by the picture of the three sisters, though, and I knew right away, the moment I laid eyes on the original in the National Gallery, that they would play a major part in the novel.
But in the end it was the picture of the boy with the flaming brand that kept leaping out at me, calling for attention. The artist is Godfried Schalcken, and the piece is called A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand to Light a Candle. This character eventually became Nasim, the autistic savant. As I was studying the characters, I began to realize that this boy was not going to be a point-of-view character, but he was going to be a prime mover. In the end, he embodies much of what Winds is about. The story truly does revolve around him and his unique powers.
The brand that he holds in the painting also came into play. I didn't know what the magic was going to be about. I hardly had a single preconception about the book going in. I just wanted the artwork to speak to me, to advise me as to what the story was going to be--from the characters to the world to the magic. The boy blowing on the brand got me to thinking about elemental magic, and I realized that Nasim was one who could do this without even thinking. It came as naturally to him as did breathing. That's a difficult place to put a character, however. As a writer, you have to be careful of all-powerful things, and so I needed something to balance Nasim's abilities. And this, of course, is where his disconnection from the world came from. Nasim, as written in the book, is often lost. He has difficulty relating to others in even the smallest of ways. This both limited his power and made him in some ways more dangerous and more scary than a calculating villain, simply because of the unpredictability.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention Rehada, who started out as a somewhat minor character but grew into the most complex and perhaps the most compelling of my three main characters. Rehada came from Andrew Geddes' Hagar. It's another beautiful painting, filled with emotion. I was drawn to the fact that she was crying. I wondered why. I spent a lot of time answering that one question. After knowing that her people were essentially pacifists, I realized that Rehada was not. She felt she had betrayed her people and their ways because she had taken to the path of violence. It was from this, from that one single tear, that the entirety of the Maharraht--the fanatical splinter group that came to embrace violence as a means to an end--was born.
Which aspect of the book did you find most challenging to write?
Keeping in mind my answer to question 4 below, I'm always trying to create tension in a book. Creating tension in combat scenes is easy because they're inherently filled with tension (though even here, you do want to be careful not to make it static or repetitive or it will lose tension). Dialogue scenes are also relatively easy to position in such a way that you can create tension. What's more difficult, however, are those parts of a book that deal with the metaphysical.
Winds deals a lot with death--where we go, where we come from--and in exploring this I created several types of magic in which the characters can interact with the world of elemental spirits--the world from which they came and to which one day they will return. When I wrote those sections, at least during the first few drafts of the book, I was always worried that, since it was very dreamlike, the reader wouldn't be invested in it. Even now I still think they're one of the bigger challenges in writing. After all, a book is already removed once from reality. By inserting dreams, or something like them, you're removing the story once more. The key for me was to make those sections matter. It is in those pages that I explore more of the deeper questions of life and death, and I try to make the answers deeply important to the characters. That, I hope, provides a conduit for the reader, a way to bring reference to those metaphysical sections.
I understand you're a software engineer by day. Has your training as a programmer affected your approach to writing?
In the early days of my writing, my professional background actually affected it negatively. In high school and college and beyond, we're told to explain things in a logical and stepwise fashion so that our ideas are easily digestible. Those writing techniques, however, are anathema to good fiction. Fiction is the successive posing of questions and the dramatic withholding of the answers. And when we do provide answers, it is often in such a way that more questions are posed.
It is natural, when introducing our characters and our worlds, to want to go back and explain what came before so that the reader understands. I'm convinced that this is the reason so many people fall into the trap of info-dumping when they first start writing. How could they not? It's been drilled into them for years--decades sometimes--to explain, explain, explain.
Learning that to draw a reader's interest one must withhold information, not present it, was one of the biggest keys to my becoming a better writer. Once I'd learned that it was simply a matter of how long to withhold it. There's no one single answer for that of course--it depends on the circumstances and how important the information is to the story--but at least I was finally on the right path and learning how to fine tune that balance as I continued to write.
That being said, programming has affected my writing in positive ways, too. It's probably from the plotting perspective that it's helped the most. Programming by definition is very logical. This leads to that or this happens. My mind has been tuned to that way of thinking, and I've used it (mostly unconsciously) in developing how a story unfolds. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where it feels completely arbitrary? Me too. And I hate it. I think approaching the plot from a logical perspective helps greatly with respect to the continuity and flow of a story.
After I've laid the bones down, then it's a matter of, as I've mentioned above, what to show the reader, and how soon. In other words: How do I present the story in such a way that it's satisfying from a dramatic perspective? The answer to that is precisely where these two disciplines meet. So even though my background in programming cause me a stumble or two early on, I'm quite grateful to have had it, because I think I've finally found that sweet spot.
Of the hoards of writing advice populating the blogosphere, which tidbits have you found most useful?
By far--by far--the most important writing advice I'd received is wrapped up in this one simple phrase: tension on every page. It comes from Don Maass's excellent Writing the Breakout Novel. The funny thing is that it isn't a very big part of the book. It's not a throwaway concept--he does talk about it for some pages--but it isn't even given a full chapter. Still, it seemed to me at the time that I read it, as it does now, to be an extremely important thing to internalize as a writer.
If you look at a generic thriller, it uses this concept constantly. It's not my favorite genre to read, but I have to admit that a Grisham or Clancy novel really does make me turn the pages. Well-selling mystery writers employ the technique successfully as well.
Now, I'm not a thriller writer by any means, but I still want to hit that goal, of having tension on every page, because if I don't, that's when the reader will begin to get bored; it's when they're likely to set the book down. Too many of those sorts of episodes, and the reader starts to lose interest overall, and pretty soon they've set your book aside for good.
Don't take this to mean that every book should be wall-to-wall action. There are plenty of types of tension with which to fill your pages. There is action. There's mystery. There's suspense. There's sexual tension. There's horror. There is tension that comes from religious differences, cultural differences, sexual differences. Differences in age, in education, in region, in language, in employment, in moral beliefs, and on and on and on. Believe me, there are tons of sources in any story that can lead to a fount of tension. What you as a writer have to do is to tap into those sources and use them to your advantage.
This is one of the reasons why I spend so much time working on the worldbuilding before I write. We are, after all, creatures of the world we live in--so it is for us, and so it is for our characters--and since I don't really care to write much in the real world, I spend a lot of time on culture and religion and magic. Out of that comes naturally a history of conflict and strife. I simply try to use it where I can to keep the story rich and interesting--and yes, full of tension.
Thanks for joining us, Brad. The Winds of Khalakovo will be appearing this April. Until then, you can learn more about Brad (and the book) here.
This concludes my hit-and-run presentation of the Codex Blog Tour -- although it does not conclude the tour itself. Go to the Blog Tour homepage to find more interviews and meet more authors!