interview by Joe Vaz

From Issue 11 (July 2011)

Where is home?

Home is Tokyo. I’ve been here for nearly nine years, which seems a crazily long amount of time to be somewhere I only ever intended to stay for one year.

 

Where did the idea of “Sky Painter” come from?

I’m afraid I can’t remember this one. I have notebooks like many writers must, and I take notes of images and ideas that crop up, and when those notebooks get full (or I lose them) I move on to new notebooks. The “Sky Painter” idea must have been in an old notebook. Usually though my ideas come for one or two words juxtaposed oddly, that usually go on to be the story’s title- so doubtless “Sky Painter” came to me as that phrase alone, and everything else around it I just made up.

 

Your characters are often strange and unrecognisable beings, where does the inspiration for them come from?

Well, as above they sometimes come with the original idea, and other times they get made up to the needs of the story. In the case of the former, then anything can inspire me; cool bits of modern art, bad machine mistranslations, strange images, snippets heard or said or maybe dreamed. In the case of the latter, and for all the fleshing-out that goes on in any of my stories, I’m just pulling stuff out of my head as I go along; which is surely just a big mix of all my various influences and the things I think are cool, which will include authors like Orson Scott Card, David Gemmell, Haruki Murakami; movies like Indiana Jones, Fight Club, Never Ending Story; TV shows like “LOST” and “Star Trek TNG”; and probably lots of other stuff I’m not even aware of.

 

You’ve written other stories within the “Sky Painter” universe, most notably (for us) “Freemantle Mons: The Leviathan Smile” (where a Grammaton clock can stop the sun from rising), published in Something Wicked Issue 9, tell us more about this strange and wonderful universe.

Right, I’ve written about 8 short stories set in that world, which is really a medieval, zoomorphized (I borrowed that word from a critic), slightly steam-punkish fantasy city. There’s not exactly magic in play, but there are plenty of surreal things going on, lots of dark and chaotic mystery, with deep and vast undercurrents of mythic legend bubbling underneath. Each story picks up a character from a different caste and class, in a different quarter of the city, and follows them through whatever odd travails have come to test their soul. In the case of Freemantle, he’s at the epicenter when the sun won’t rise, and has to face an impossible choice to ensure the survival of all those he loves.

I love impossible choices; those moral moments when true character peeks through for a moment. Maybe that leads us into your next question.

 

How do these stories connect? Are you planning a novel within this universe?

The stories connect thematically- in that they’re all about what it takes to live a good life in maddening times, about struggling to figure out what a good life is, and how to be happy. They also connect in geography and time; they’re all played out across the same rough city canvas in roughly the same period, though each takes place within subsections of subsections of districts, and some of them have heard of each other as city myths and legends. When I set out I wanted to create a city of so many layers it would be like a labyrinth; with each story’s path taking us through sections of familiar terrain made unfamiliar by context, re-purposing major landmarks like the Grammaton clocktower for different emotional purposes, varying in the minds of each character.

For example- to Freemantle the clocktower is his life, his job, but also his bittersweet salvation. For another character, Killin Jack the Malakite, it is the last thing he sees before he finally completes his decade-long genocide of the Bunnymen. The same city, the same structure, but utterly different worlds crossing paths.

And a novel, yes, I’m currently working on one. It’s called Dawn Rising, and I expect it to be a pretty epic trilogy by the time it’s done- taking us deeper and wider into the city and its mythology than any of the stories so far, possibly tying together a number of them into a greater whole, spinning out a big character arc for a young boy called Dawn who is covered in mysterious scars.

 

Your stories have a grand sweeping, often quite classically epic, scale to them. They often read like fables. What inspires you?

Thank you, that seems a high compliment. I’m not wholly sure I know why I write like that. Perhaps part of it is that I was struck once by something David Gemmell, Britain’s king of heroic fantasy, did in some of his books, particularly LEGEND and its sequels- he referenced ancient heroes as inspiration to the characters in the here-and-now. In the case I’m thinking of he had one regiment of troops named after the legendary Karnak the One-Eyed. It was only a cool name to me at the time, but to the characters it had deep meaning. In a later book Gemmell went on to tell the story of Karnak, and how he lost his eye.

I just loved that; that feeling that there were all these other worlds brimming constantly underneath the world I knew, with all these other people who all had their own stories to tell.

In a sense, all these stories together make up a kind of tapestry narrative, which when we can briefly hold the whole of it in our minds, is just astounding in its complexity and beauty. That epic sense has always inspired me; whether it’s between the overlapping stories of Ender and Bean in Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, or across the many flashbacks of LOST, or the intensely-charged emotional interstices of the movie Magnolia. It’s a sense of depth I guess I try to bring to my own stories.

 

Has living in Japan influenced your work? There’s a definite Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away) feel to some of your characters.

I don’t know if I can claim Miyazaki as a direct influence, since I only saw his movies quiet recently. Probably more I could say the books of Haruki Murakami. His blend of surreal and banal, misery and fantasy really intrigues me. Also he has a very compelling writing voice. Beyond that I guess I don’t take on that much Japanese culture. Certainly though the ruins I explore, called ‘haikyo’ here, inspire me- providing these otherworldly backdrops that I’ve set several stories in, filled with characters I imagined I might run into while stalking through the shadows.

 

Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, I’m in the middle of two short stories at the moment, one called ‘Scarecrow Boat’ which is approaching novella-length, and another called ‘The Mud Girl’, which is supposed to be a romance- but we’ll see, I’ve never really written romance before. My novel Dawn Rising is on the back burner at the moment, while I mull over lots of feedback I got from readers.

 

Where might we be able to read more of your work?

I have a story coming up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in August, which is awesome and my first pro-rated sale. Everything else I’ve published can be found on the SF & Fantasy Stories page on my website, along with my ruins (haikyo) photography and ruminations on writing craft.

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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in December 2011.

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