Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga, a series of dark fantasy novels featuring the assassin Caim.The most recent is Shadow’s Son I recently spoke with Sprunk about the future of the saga, his fantasy pedigree and the challenges of creating a compelling anti-hero.
Tell us about the Shadow Saga. how did you come to conceive of this series?
The series came to me all at once. That never happened to me before, so I was a little surprised at the clarity of the ideas from the start. I knew the series would begin with a relatively modest location—one city—and expand beyond that to encompasses an entire nation and more distant lands. I had the guts of the story in my head, but I needed a strong character to carry the conflict through to the end.
How did Caim come about?
Caim is the most interesting piece of the puzzle to me. When I started filling in the blanks of the initial story idea, I thought the main character might be a roguish scoundrel along the lines of a Han Solo or Gray Mouser. But it didn’t quite fit the story I wanted to tell. Then I remembered a novel I had begun years before and never finished, about a lone assassin making his way in a treacherous world. The two ideas came together in my head, and after that there was no going back. I knew I had found my (sort of) hero.
How hard is it to make a compelling anti-hero? An assassin isn’t necessarily the most sympathetic of characters. Also, is it possible to have a compelling protagonist that people don’t necessarily like, yet still follow?
It wasn’t so difficult for me because I really enjoy those kinds of characters—people with troubled pasts and fewer scruples than a conventional hero. I always root for the underdog and the maligned. For Caim, I wasn’t necessarily trying to elicit sympathy, but just presenting him, warts and all. I knew it was a risk, but I think taking risks is an important element of writing. And the response has been positive.
What kind of historical analogues did you draw from in creating the setting of the Shadow Saga? Were there any particular real-life cities or nations that you used as a starting point?
The time period is roughly analogous to Earth’s Dark Ages, but I left it vague enough that readers could insert their own ideas into the text. The principle location is the city of Othir, the corrupted heart of a fallen empire. My wife and I had visited Italy the year before, and the sights and sounds and smells of old Rome were still in my head. That may be the strongest real-world influence, but I also borrowed some atmosphere from great fantasy settings like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar and Sanctuary from the Thieves’ World series. The history of Nimea as a whole has similarities to the Roman Empire, or how it might have looked if the Christian church had seized power from the emperors.
What’s next for Caim in Shadows Lure?
Shadow’s Lure takes Caim north to the land of his birth. He’s searching for his past, which readers of the first book know was quite murky, but he finds a lot more than he bargained for. Not only externally, but internally as well. He hasn’t fully exorcised the demons of his past.
Tell me a little bit about your fantasy pedigree. Who did you like to read growing up? Who do you read now? How did you become interested in the genre?
I’ve been reading fantasy and sci-fi almost from the start. Of course, I went through the typical juvenile adventure books of the 60’s and 70’s, and then got into heavier stuff like Tolkien, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. The weirder the tales, the better I liked them. And I’ve never really outgrown my taste for pulp. In a way, I’d like to bring some of that flavor back to contemporary fantasy, which I feel has moved too far toward fifteen-volume super sagas. These days, I try to read a bit of everything. I’m a big fan of Glen Cook’s The Black Company; I think it altered the entire fantasy landscape (for the better). I just finished R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold, both excellent novels, but quite different. It’s difficult, because when I read I’m constantly looking at what the author is doing and trying to see how I might have done it. Sometimes I’ll read a passage and be blown away. Like, how did he or she come up with that?
I understand that your journey to professional writer wasn’t an easy one. Can you talk about some of the things that stood in the way of your success and how you overcame them?
Well, the truest answer is: me. I stood in my own way. I had this crazy idea that the novel I wrote in college was the greatest piece of fantasy literature the world had ever known. I was shocked when the rejection letters piled up. So I put the dream on the back burner for a while. I got a job like everyone else and made a living. I’d still tinker with stories, but it was years before I made another serious attempt at a novel. Eventually, I did, though. And I shopped it around the New York houses, and again I got an impressive number of rejections. But this time, I didn’t let the dream die. I started right away on another novel, an entirely different story. Each time I got knocked down, I just went back to it with more passion than before. Shadow’s Son is the fourth full-length novel I’d written, and I can’t tell your how many aborted half-novels were tucked in there. But I never gave up, and that’s been all the difference.
Any advice for other aspiring fantasy writers?
Don’t give up and don’t stop learning. The minute you think you know it all about writing fiction, you’d better hang up your word processor because you’re done. I’ve been writing with an eye toward professional publication for a little more than twenty years and I’ve just scratched the surface. And sit your butt in the chair. That book or short story isn’t going to write itself. Treat writing like a profession, and maybe someone will treat you like a professional. I’ll probably have better advice in another twenty years.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank my wife for putting up with me. She’s my inspiration. Thanks to my agent, Eddie, for doing a damned fine job, and also to Lou Anders and everyone else at Pyr Books. And, last but certainly not least, thank you to my readers.