Interview with Justin Call
Hello everyone, this is TS from Novel Notions. It gives me great pleasure to host this interview with Justin Call following the release of his fantastic debut, Master of Sorrows. I was intrigued when I first saw the book’s tagline – what if you were destined to be a villain? To my utter delight as I read it, I also discovered that the story had a lot of influences from classic epic fantasy, but felt different and modern with a grittier and darker tone. It was like that breath of fresh air that carried a scent of nostalgia.
I should not ramble any further as you can read my review for Master of Sorrows on the blog. Our special guest had quite a lot to share with us, so let’s get the show on the road.
1. Hi Justin! Thank you for taking the time to be here. Please tell us a bit about yourself, and your new book and series.
Oh, boy. That’s like three open-ended questions, and since I’m an epic fantasy writer, I’m bound to give long answers. I’ll try to keep them short, though.
My name is Justin Travis Call. I’m 36, and I’ve been preparing to write fantasy novels since I was about 5 years old. That sounds like a joke, but I actually wrote a children’s book called Trick, the Good Bad Turkey, which my grandparents then had printed (only 5-6 hardbacks in existence, I believe). When I was 13, I made my first attempt at writing a fantasy novel. I wrote some screenplays and about ⅕ of a literary novel when I was 17, and four years later I began outlining the foundation for what would eventually become The Silent Gods series.
So yeah. I’ve been working on the mythology of this world for over fifteen years, and the interim time has also been focused on making myself a better writer by reading extensively, studying from others, and doing a lot of research. As such, the influences and inspirations for Master of Sorrows are varied, ranging from games of Dungeons & Dragons I had played as a tween all the way up to and including an analysis of intercalary writing in Latin American torture narratives (one of the essays I wrote while taking night classes at Harvard). I studied philosophy, history, languages, criminology, religion, sociology, psychology, and a bunch of other wacky stuff primarily so that I could be a better fantasy novelist. I think it (mostly) worked out, but I’ll let others be the final judge.
In 2011, I wrote the first draft of my ALM thesis, Mythopoeia and The Hero’s Journey in The Hand of Keos, which included an early first draft of what would eventually become Master of Sorrows, plus a critical essay explaining my influences, where the book fits in the genre, its themes, etc. Ironically, the thesis also outlines what I thought would be one book…but when I finished writing my thesis I’d only completed ⅓ of my outline – and, since I had imagined this as a 3-4 book series at the time, that meant I had actually outlined 12-16 books. (I’ll pause now while you laugh at my sweet naivete.) The consequence of all this is that I view The Silent Gods (books 1-4) as the first tetralogy in a larger series. Hopefully I get to tell the whole story but, if not, the first tetralogy still works very well as a stand alone.
2. That was a lot of planning and preparation! Can you please elaborate on your inspiration behind Master of Sorrows and The Silent Gods?
As for inspiration, I have dozens of sources – many of which I’ve previously mentioned in other interviews or even in my Harvard ALM thesis – but those are literary inspirations. The thematic inspiration for Master of Sorrows comes from one of my favorite subjects in any good story: the concept of evil. Unsurprisingly, this was the core theme I addressed in my ALM thesis, and it’s carried through to the final draft of my book (and will continue to be at the core of The Silent Gods series). The reason for this is that I’ve always been fascinated with villains, especially their motivation. I’ve always questioned the archetypal ‘moustache-twirling’ villain, and I’ve asked myself why the villain became so villainous. What’s in it for them? What do they get out of this? What is their motivation? If a villain had no clear answer, I became disinterested or else I made up a motivation for them. Likewise, when heroes were presented as being too noble – when they were so good that they felt inauthentic – then I became disengaged.
So that’s been important to me from the start. If a hero is going to be authentic, they need to be flawed. And if a villain is going to be engaging, they need to feel like a flawed human, too. Ultimately, that means people on both sides of the equation – the heroes and the villains – are flawed humans trying to be the heroes of their own story. That’s an intriguing concept for someone who likes villains so much, particularly when you realize that each character’s world paradigm makes their adversary appear to be the villain. This eventually led to more questions, such as: What would a traditional epic fantasy story be like if we read it from the perspective of the Dark Lord? What if, instead of knowing he was the bad guy from the start, we were actually led to believe he was the hero? What if we began rooting for the villain? What if, at the end of the protagonist’s story, we could acknowledge he or she had fulfilled a lot of the ‘Dark Lord tropes,’ but we still stuck with that character and found ourselves rooting for him or her to win? Would that protagonist still be a hero…or would we call him or her a villain?
Those questions were at the core of the story I wanted to tell, so I’ve been very careful about how I choose to characterize my protagonist – both for myself and in terms of public discussion and general marketing. Should I call Annev a villain or a hero? Is he an anti-hero, a tainted hero, a misunderstood villain . . . or something else entirely? I don’t think there is a clear answer (nor should there be), and I think calling Annev any of these things now would be hasty. He’s got a long character arc, and I want to give it time to develop. I also want to give readers time to empathize with him and watch him grow . . . and then we’ll see if they stick with him through the rest of his heroic (anti-heroic?) journey.
3. David Eddings’ The Belgariad was one of my childhood favourites. While I noticed that Master of Sorrows echoed quite a few of the tropes from this old school epic fantasy, it still felt fresh and modern. What do you think you did differently to avoid rehashing the same stories again?
I really love David Eddings. Domes of Fire was the first fantasy novel I ever read, and it sucked me wholeheartedly into the genre. I especially loved Eddings’ epic prologues, the interference of gods and goddesses (not to mention their quirky personalities), and the interactions of his more colorful characters. True, many of these same characters were carbon copies of each other (comparing the protagonists in the The Elenium and The Tamuli against those in The Belgariad and The Malloreon feels like you’re reading the same people doing different actions in a slightly different mythological setting) . . . but what he did, he did very well. I’ve tried to mimic those good things as much as possible (e.g., histories that feel like real ancient stories and scriptures, gods and goddesses that feel like real people). I’ve even got a grumpy old man – Sodar – who resonates with the template created for Sparhawk and Belgarath (who are basically the same character in a slightly different set of clothing). I don’t think Sodar is as cool or as powerful as either of those characters . . . but I do think he is more human. He’s flawed, frail, and less heroic than what we aspire to be (or what we imagine most epic fantasy heroes/mentors to be like), but that just makes him feel more like a real person. It also gives weight to Annev’s debate about whether or not to listen to his mentor.
And that’s something you won’t usually see in an Eddings novel. If Garion doesn’t want to listen to Belgarath, you often find yourself pulling out your hair because you know the uncouth farmboy needs to listen to the cranky old wizard if he’s ever going to become the hero he’s meant to become. In Master of Sorrows, though, there is a shade of doubt about Annev’s actions and Sodar’s ideology. It still follows the same tropes of the genre, but there is a lingering sense that maybe Sodar is actually wrong. Maybe Annev is not the hero of the story. Maybe the wise old wizard is really just wizened old fool.
For me, leaving that tiny bit of doubt makes the story and the characters feel more authentic. We’re still getting the archetypal characters and epic fantasy tropes we expect (and hope for), but everything is shaded in a more three-dimensional light. Heroes aren’t perfectly heroic. Mentors aren’t unquestionably wise. Villains aren’t totally villainous. That gritty dimensionality has become more popular in the era of modern fantasy because that’s how the real world actually is. You see it a lot with the grimdark genre especially, but it’s far less common to encounter in old school fantasy (like that written by Eddings). My hope then is to combine the things I love from traditional epic fantasy and add a dash of modernity – a gritty authenticity that resonates with modern readers without bowing to the nihilism that accompanies the grimdark genre. Since my series also plays heavily with the concept of good and evil (and whether being a villain precludes that character from being a hero), I feel I’m able to create more faceted characters and introduce more complex themes than the traditional epic fantasy novel allows. That’s not true in every instance (I still have two-dimensional supporting characters like Titus and Therin, for example), but I hope to eventually develop every major character in the series until they feel like a satisfying three-dimensional character. I feel Brandon Sanderson did an exquisite job of this in his Mistborn trilogy (I’m thinking specifically of the evolution of Elend and Spook), and it’s one of my inspirations for continual character development throughout the series.
4. That’s a great choice because I loved Spook’s character arc in Mistborn. Aside from Eddings and Sanderson, who else have inspired or influenced your writing?
Spook is great, though I admit I didn’t start to like him till Book 2, and by the last book in the trilogy he was competing for my favorite character of the series. His arc is just incredible. Hopefully readers will feel the same way about the supporting characters in my own series.
Aside from Eddings and Sanderson, there are a handful of other authors who significantly influenced me and my writing. R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan, and Gary Gygax influenced my early readership. Within the past decade I’ve been influenced by Patrick Rothfuss, Edward W. Robertson, Robin Hobb, and Peter V. Brett. The most recent author whose writing has been really inspiring is Mark Lawrence. I’ve described my own writing as similar to Brandon Sanderson, for example, but darker and grittier. In Mark Lawrence’s case, the roles would be reversed: our stories might be similar, but his is certainly darker and more gritty than my own (which is to be expected given that he writes true Grimdark literature).
Sanderson and Eddings are still at my core, though. I’ve learned lessons from all of those authors, but Eddings is at my foundation and probably will never fully disappear as an influence. Sanderson, on the other hand, has done a lot of what I would like to do and there exists a lot of overlap between how we write our stories. There are also plenty of differences, but the similarities seem to be greater.
It will be interesting to see what fans think, though, since our perception of self is never the same as someone else looking in. I’ve been compared, for example, to Trudi Canavan and Brent Weeks (in addition to Rothfuss, Sanderson, and Eddings). Folks have also compared Master of Sorrows to The Poppy War and The Name of the Wind (probably due to each book having a large chunk take place at a school for magic); I like those comparisons because I admire all of those authors and their books, and it’s inspiring to be placed in their company.
5. The characterisation of Annev in his coming-of-age tale was spot on for a teenage boy who was determined to prove himself and win the girl. Which aspect of the story did you find the most challenging to write?
Getting Myjun’s character right was probably the hardest part because she carries a lot of baggage and has some obvious prejudices, but she’s also serving as Annev’s love interest so she has to be compelling enough that a reader can understand why Annev likes her. Illustrating those nuances without turning the reader off to Myjun can be difficult (to say the least), but it gets harder when you also consider the ultimate trajectory of Myjun’s final character arc. She needed to seem competent, but not overly competent. She needs to be nice, but not too nice. She needs to be attractive while also being a bit repellant. She needs to appear flawed while also seeming redeemable. She’s not a prize to be won or sought after – she’s her own woman – but Annev is still essentially competing for the right to court her. It’s a very delicate balance, and I got it wrong several times before I feel I finally got it right. I’m very pleased with how the book ends, though, and I’m excited to reveal Myjun’s future character development, particularly as it relates to Annev and the larger narrative.
6. Speaking of how the book ends, that Epilogue gave me the chills. What are your plans for the rest of the series? And most importantly, when will the sequel be ready?
Mmm. Spoilers. Haha.
The Silent Gods series is a four-book tetralogy culminating in the answer to the question: “What if you were destined to be a villain?” During the course of the series, my goal is to give the reader a coming-of-age story that feels familiar yet different, because it may ultimately be told from the villain’s perspective. That’s the promise of my premise, but it will take me at least four books to get there.
Having said that, I’ve already mentioned that I have outlined at least two more follow-up tetralogies (assuming readers like the first tetralogy enough to warrant sharing more of Annev’s tale). If we get that far, then books 5-8 would further explore the Dark Lord tropes we’ve come to know and love while also showing them from an empathetic perspective. I don’t want to spoil anything this far out . . . but there are some exciting possibilities I’d like to explore. For some, this tetralogy could be their favourite part of the Lore of Luquatra series.
So the first tetralogy is a coming-of-age story (Act I), and the second tetralogy is the fun-and-games part of a movie (Act 2). The last tetralogy I have in mind deals with some things I’m setting in motion right now with Master of Sorrows. Its purpose would be to give some finality to the overarching series (Act 3) while also answering some questions I’m deliberately postponing. If I stick to my outline, it would also feature a bit of a rogue’s gallery composed of anti-heroes and antagonists from the previous books, which is another trope I’m fond of exploring.
Now, as to the sequel to Master of Sorrows, the working title for book 2 is Master of the Forge, and the projected publication date is February of 2020. I’m optimistic about reaching that date, but this is also my first time writing a sequel under a deadline. I’m also very particular about my writing process (I wrote 15 different outlines for book 2 before I felt confident enough to sit down and start drafting), and I’m discovering that what worked for me during book 1 might not work this second time around . . . or it might be exactly what I need. Time will tell, but I’ll say that I’m currently very optimistic about having a second book for folks to read by Spring of 2020.
That sounds really exciting, and I will be looking forward to see how Annev’s story continues. Many thanks again for doing this interview. Congratulations on your debut release and I wish you all the best.
You can buy a copy of the book from Amazon UK | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide).