Sunday, October 25, 2020

Interview with Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, authors of The Red Man and Others

Today at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, it gives us great pleasure to interview Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten, authors of The Red Man and Others

Welcome to the Speculative Fiction Showcase and thank you for answering our interview questions. To begin with, please you tell us about your story collection The Red Man and Others.

The Red Man and Others is second world fantasy with plucky outsiders who aim to survive in a world that underestimates them. We meet Kaila, a small but tough mercenary; Sebastien, a young con artist who's used to getting by on charm; and Ymke, a scribe who's escaped a childhood war to find love with Kaila. Together, they're out to take down a cult, the Brotherhood of the Wheel, and right some social wrongs while they're at it. 

Originally, we'd written The Red Man (Ymke's story) and Road to Starohrad (where Kaila and Sebastien meet) as unconnected stories. We planned for Kaila and Sebastien to be sort of a double act in The Return of the Uncomplaining Child. We found that we needed a third character, a scribe, and it immediately made sense that Ymke had wandered southward and established herself in the city on the rock. And before we knew it, she and Kaila were a couple, and poor Sebastien found himself sleeping on the bare wooden floor. 

You describe The Red Man and Others as a Sword and Sorcery collection. Why was it important for you to write in this genre, and how does the book differ from traditional Sword and Sorcery novels?

Sword and Sorcery is about living in a fundamentally dangerous world, but one where you can survive because you have your weapon and your wits. That's attractive when you live in a complex modern society (also a dangerous place for many of us), even when you agree with that society's consensus that we solve conflict through discussion rather than sword fights. 

Of course, that consensus is hugely flexible and tends to favour the wealthy and powerful - violence happens to someone, somewhere. So the genre also speaks to the part of us that hungers for justice, in whatever form. But Sword and Sorcery is more than just an unreconstructed guilty pleasure: it's about finding the autonomy and inner resources to survive. Escapism, but also nourishment. 

Depending on which audience we find ourselves speaking to, we confess to writing Sword & Sorcery, or call it Heroic Fantasy. While obviously we're fans of the genre, we're also aware of the stigma that is attached to it: 1980s VHS tapes, with guys so packed with muscles that they can hardly move, rescuing barely legal girls in strips of white silk; paperback covers in oil paint and oiled biceps and babes. From the late '60s onwards Conan readers were reassured in the intro that they wouldn't find any feminists or angry Black people in their comfort reading, and half a century later it's something that a contingent of fans still wants to cling to: Stories for and about manly white men who are manly and white, and women who know their place. 

We believe that the genre should be accessible to readers of all demographics. There's an active and pretty vocal group within S&S fandom who seek to drag it back or keep it chained to its roots in the '30s or resurgence in the '60s. They hang on to an idealisation of toxic masculinity that others are trying to leave behind. They think they are creating a safe haven, but what they get is a ghetto. Luckily, there are many, including white men, who do want to move on. 

Tell us about your protagonists - sell-sword Kaila, teenage con-artist Sebastien and Ymke, who lives with her father in the war-torn north of Cruoningha. Who are they and what drives them?

These three characters are none of them conventional Sword and Sorcery figures. While we did make use of familiar Fantasy tropes, we gave them a slant or inverted them. With Kaila and Sebastien, for example, we took the trope of the big guy travelling with an innocent young girl and turned that into a very small woman who travels with a young boy, who isn't quite innocent. In the titular story Ymke does meet her Big Strong Guy, but we've upended the trope in another way there. 

Kaila ran away from everything she knew at fifteen, because she saw no future in conforming to traditional roles. As a very small woman she will always be underestimated, and proving herself has made her brave and independent - to a fault. She surprises herself by taking Sebastien under her wing. He's a would-be ruthless kid with a heart, who is looking to belong. 

Ymke, meanwhile, has grown up in isolation, with her father teaching her to hide and be afraid, because she's disabled and lives in a war zone. She feels that a lot has been kept from her: knowledge of her late mother, a family secret, the chance to be part of the world.

Collectively, these stories are about interdependence, and we're very fond of using the word 'found family'; while bonds of blood can be strong, the bonds of friendship and love are stronger, as these are the people you choose to be rather than the ones fate, for better or worse, saddles you with. 

How easy - or difficult - was it for you to write a book together?

It helped that we'd spent years doing freelance arts journalism together, and also that we never envisaged quite how big the whole Red Man project would become. We had short story ideas which grew together, and we've been writing together for fifteen years, in one way or another, so we've evolved a process of doing drafts by turns which works for us.

Angeline: We have complementary strengths. Remco is brilliant at generating ideas, and at plotting, while I have an ear for dialogue and I like figuring out how relationships work, so the things one of us gets stuck on are usually not so opaque to the other. We don't tend to have major differences about story direction, and where we differ about character motivations, it's a matter of nuance rather than complete contrasts, so we're both steering the ship, but we agree on the bearings. Our writing styles don't differ too much, and have grown closer, and we're almost pastiching each other's tone at times. After several passes, when we're particularly happy with a certain bit of writing, we often can no longer make out which of us came up with it. 

Remco: The advantage is that we can both be critics, troubleshooters and editors while we're in the process, and can bounce ideas and drafts off each other. At WorldCon 2019 in Dublin, Peter Morwood and Diane Duane were in a panel about writing couples. They talked about writing Sword of Xanten, a Nibelungen film, and how they wrote a beginning scene of different rods of steel turned and welded together into a sword. That's a pretty good analogy for how we write. We each bring our skills, and then we forge and hammer until it's not two bars of steel, but a single sword. Sharp, we hope. 

Please tell us more about the original art for the book, some of which appears with the interview...

Remco: We'd both agreed for a long time that when we would write a book, I'd illustrate it. I've got a background in arts, studied at the art academy in Utrecht (The Netherlands) and had been illustrating for Dutch SFF magazines for many years, eventually experimenting with Photoshop, puppets and 3D set-ups. Drawing and painting has always been very personal for me – it's something I've done since I was very young, and “he does art” became part of who I was. 

About a decade ago, having emigrated to Northern Ireland, I painted a few portraits for an art magazine here, and was really hoping that this would be a reboot of my artistic endeavours. One, a portrait of Anne Rice, was for the cover, and the other was to be a full page spread. For some reason, the second portrait was printed over one column, right next to a photo of the same person in the same pose, and Anne Rice's portrait was bumped off the cover by Stephanie Meyer: the publisher had decided that readers want good looking young women. Anne Rice appeared postage stamp sized on the contents page. 

So, I hadn't really been doing any art since then, not seriously, and had to really awaken my drawing hand again. I started with small thumbnails on typing paper. With an old book on Prague next to me, the model for Starohrad, I made lots of doodles of buildings, cityscapes, and especially statues. Baroque sculpture is perfect for this sort of thing – they're very dramatic, and as I didn't want overly realistic drawings, the exaggerated poses invited me to push even further. Even so, when I did the first lot of final drawings I put them aside as they were weak and fiddly, and I felt they needed to be more dramatic. 

I usually draw with pencil on A3, and go over it with pen and ink. Then I usually get out the brush, a really beat up little thing, to 'mess it up' with some heavy black lines. This is where the drawing gets weight, and I push it away from becoming too mannered. I usually wash in grey with watered down ink, and then I bring in more detail with white paint and ink. When I've pulled all the chaos back to something appealing again, I scan it in, and do the last tweaks in Photoshop. 

Angeline, what influences have you brought to your writing? You mention your experience growing up disabled - what does that mean for you as a writer?

Angeline: I became chronically ill when I was nine, left traditional education early and, as we only learned recently, I'm autistic. I have Crohn's disease, Short Bowel Syndrome and Intestinal Failure, and I've relied on tube feeding of different kinds since my teens. My education was disrupted and finally derailed by a series of major operations that took up a lot of my late teens and my twenties, so I emerged as a freelance writer in 2008 with the qualifications of a 16-year-old and less confidence. I didn't know I was autistic or that it was making the interpersonal parts of freelancing – pitching by phone, interviewing people in person – tougher, and while I'm proud of what Remco and I achieved in our work then, in time it was a relief to focus on the fiction.  

So I look at the social world as an outsider by both nature and experience. Ymke's perspective is therefore very grounded in mine: like me she has a parent she can't remember, she's missed a lot of the normal, formative social experiences, and she's hungry to absorb everything that she can of the world. 

I gravitate to outsiders as friends and as fictional subjects - all three of our protagonists are people who have never quite fitted wherever they were, but together, that becomes a thing they have in common and a source of strength, and that has been my experience of connecting with other disabled people, and other marginalised people in general. 

On a purely practical level, my productivity fluctuates enormously. When I have the energy and focus to write, I have to really go for it and not let other things get in the way. It's enormously frustrating, and figuring out how to get the most out of my time and energy is an ongoing project. 

Remco, you mention the importance of your heritage to your writing. Tell us about this, and how the place where you grew up influenced your creative imagination.

Remco: I'm from the north of the province of Groningen, hardly disguised in The Red Man as Cruoningha, from a village called Ulrum. Once it would have been close to the sea, but over the last few centuries the sea has been pushed back about 15 miles. It's still a very agricultural area, with a strong sense of identity and culture which is different from surrounding areas. Up till a couple of centuries ago, it really was the arse-end of nowhere, and to reach the city from Ulrum took half a day's travel by barge, as there were no decent roads. 

It's very quiet there, and when you stand outside of the village you can see the other villages on the horizon. The area has a bloody past, though: as the main waterway from the sea to Groningen led through it, it was of strategic importance, so any time the Netherlands was at war, with Germany, France, or Spain, the countryside suffered. Even 'friendly' soldiers in the deeper past weren't always a blessing – if they were not quartered with you, and eating your stores, they'd engage in a bit of plundering to supplement their mercenary's wages. Oh, and then there was the civil war that ran off and on from 1350 to 1500, in which the whole north was divided into factions, based on bonds of family, finances or fickleness. It was a bloody mess. 

Ymke shares more of my family's history than we'd originally planned. My grandmother died when my mom was 14, and very soon she was taken out of school, and sent to work as a maid at a local farm. It was the late '50s, during the last years of a sort of indentured servitude system; just a decade earlier girls as young as 12 would be sent to work and live at farms for small wages, with just Sunday afternoons off. She wasn't as badly off as those girls had been, and she did go home every day, though there she also had to do the housekeeping and cook for my grandfather. 

What Ymke also got from my mother is her bad leg. My mom was born with hip dysplasia, but rather than have her treated (my brother spent his baby years in leg braces) my grandfather thought she'd grow out of it. Of course, she didn't, and eventually she had her first hip replacement in her mid-thirties. I've only known her as walking badly, or worse. 

How much does the imaginary world you have created together bear the stamp of your lived experiences?

Our world has grown and sprawled with the ideas we've chosen to explore, from unusual people coming together in a big city, to rural loneliness and isolation. It's very obviously a world where people have learned to live on the margins. Religion is sometimes a benign influence interpersonally, but as part of the larger social structure, it's oppressive, and I grew up in a place with a decades-long armed conflict in which religion is a huge factor.

We've both experienced bullying in our lives, whether that's from individuals at school, or a government that makes propaganda against immigrants and disabled people. Ymke and Kaila take a stand against men who exploit women, because misogyny looms large in our world. The Brotherhood of the Wheel is every fundamentalist, bigoted, reactionary religious and political force that has shaped our lives. At different stages in the stories, we see it as a small localised phenomenon, and as a growing threat, and it's also very clear that such things must be opposed. 

Rogues in the House podcast called The Red Man and Others “New Wave Sword and Sorcery”. Is that true, and what is “New Wave Sword and Sorcery”?

Angeline: I think the New Wave has already been around for some time. Actually, the New Wave was the generation of Sword & Sorcery writers who first reacted against your standard barbarians like Conan, Thongor and Brak; writers like Moorcock, Charles R. Saunders and Tanith Lee come to mind. One thing that has worried us lately is the ease with which parts of the canon can slip out of readers' hands. When Sword and Soul trailblazer Charles R. Saunders died earlier this year, it took months for the news to spread through fandom. Through his hero Imaro, his other fiction and his non-fiction writing, Saunders expanded the tradition. Yet much of his short fiction remains uncollected, and fans are currently fundraising in order that he might have a headstone. Maintaining the canon is an ongoing work. There are stirrings of hope - Tanith Lee's work is finally becoming more available in ebook form, and we hope that will extend to books like Kill the Dead, in whose tradition our work rests. That book and others like it have had a huge influence on how we approach character, world building and atmosphere. So, we're not actually that bleeding edge, but since we still have the stubborn contingent of stalwarts and throwbacks, New Wave is a standard we will happily bear onwards. 

We don't live in a world that is just white, heterosexual and able-bodied. Kaila and Ymke come from very different cultural backgrounds, with Ymke a white farmer's daughter and Kaila from a Middle East analogue, having hauled herself over a mountain range and fought herself to where and when we meet her. Their love reflects the frustrations we've heard from so many friends about how LGBTQ characters get relegated to the gay but single best friend trope. But we're drawing on very old influences, too: ever since Robert E. Howard, the woman who rises up against male oppression has been an intrinsic part of the genre. We've just pushed it, and brought them to the foreground. 

You both have a substantial background in journalism. You have interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice, and your piece for Fortean Times about writer Robert E. Howard received a REH Foundation Award nomination. Tell us more about your work and how important it is to you both.

The main thing we've learned from interviewing people is that there's always a story that hasn't been told. Before meeting or sending questions to authors like the ones you've mentioned, we would usually over-prepare, reading through their recent and past interviews to see what fresh spin we could put on the questions. We would skip the questions that had been asked a thousand times already, and often that would be rewarded. 

There's a bit of magic that happens when you get a conversation going and people give you more than you asked for, and we were always very touched by the generosity of subjects who were sometimes talking about intensely personal matters. James Ellroy, for example, we found to be very friendly and not at all the character he plays on stage, and Neil Jordan intuited better than we what deeper themes could be explored in our interview with him. 

I think that extends to writing fiction - there's always more to people, and as an author you can feel like you're discovering, uncovering people as much as inventing them, because your own life experience and your intuition start to work, especially when you've got to know characters well. There's an interplay of familiarity and surprise, when you realise something about them that you didn't expect. 

What about the humour in the book, which is mentioned by several reviewers?

We write about some serious, painful and traumatic things, but they're happening to people, and the gap between perception and reality, whether it's someone's reputation or how they see themselves, is often a rich vein of comedy. We find ourselves pushing situations further and further, until they become absurd, and then we need to backpedal again, so as not to end up with shaggy dog stories and caricatures.

There's a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes strip where Bill Watterson has the characters discussing how strange it is that we have a physiological reaction to absurdity, and one of them says that since so much of life is absurd, without laughter, we would have no way of responding to it. I think it's fair to say that our life experiences have given us a great appreciation of the absurd, as well as the morbidly funny. 

We've always wanted to write like Robert E Howard, but we end up closer to Fritz Leiber. Humour comes to us naturally but unbidden, and we decided to see it as a feature, not a bug. The classic horror films are enjoyed best when you recognise the humour in them too. It's an old recipe, the sandwich formula that was used in Grand Guignol, to switch humour and horror. You'll see this really clearly in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, which you can only properly enjoy when you recognise it as an exercise in camp and irony. 

Angeline, you say of Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and The Return of the Uncomplaining Child: "Ymke's rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we're both surprised by what we're capable of doing when we really have to - and with the right person by our side.” How important are Ymke’s rebellions in the book?

Angeline: Over the course of The Red Man, Ymke learns to defy her father, and she does it repeatedly. They've been a team in this strange, lonely life, and until the Red Man comes into their lives she's trusted her father's view of the world completely: that it's a threatening place, and the only logical, safe response to that is hiding. 

When she goes out into the world, she starts by trying to play by its rules, and she quickly realises that it's absurd (that word again!) trying to make a living in a way that exploits her labour at every turn - forced to grind away doing poorly paid work for greedy bosses in order to gain a scribe's certification, she forges the thing herself. Sometimes an unfair system deserves to be undermined, and that finds its fullest expression when she, Kaila and Sebastien give the Brotherhood of the Wheel what they think they want: the Return of the Uncomplaining Child.

Remco, you talk of discovering the Conan series by Robert E. Howard as a teenager. How have your feelings about the books developed over time?

Remco: I read the first Conan stories when I was 15, and for me they literally were escapism. I was having a rough time at school, and this was a world for me to flee into. These weren't even the best of Conan stories; the collection was a translation of Conan the Wanderer, a mix of pastiche and rewritten non-Conan tales. It stuck with me though, first through the Dutch version of the Marvel comics with Windsor Smith and Buscema as artist, more paperbacks, and as I moved out to study, the Savage Sword of Conan magazines. 

I also found a stack of fanzines from the '70s and got a bit more fundamentalist: Howard – good; DeCamp and Carter – bad! I've mellowed since, and am perfectly happy for people to enjoy their DeCamp and Carter. I do like DeCamp's own books, but he's not a great fit for Conan, while Lin Carter is a great editor. As for Howard – I've read his Conan stories again in my late 20s and, without interference, were better than I remembered them to be. Since then I've dipped into the stories here and there, and knowing more about Howard himself, I can see how his own life and personality are present in the best of them. 

Tell us more about The Return of the Uncomplaining Child...

That story came about when on holiday in Kent. We bought a book on Joan of Arc, and there was a chapter on the Joan of Arc imposters, including Claude des Armoises who convinced many, including Joan's brothers. We got intrigued by the idea of historical usurpers and imposters, like the Anastasia claimants, and the mechanics of how they managed to get away with their deceit, and why people who knew the originals believed in them. 

We'd already introduced the idea of the Uncomplaining Child in Road to Starohrad, and we got talking about the idea of what would happen if the dead saint appeared to come back to life: how would people react to him; what would it reveal about their better (or worse) natures? It was an obvious job for Sebastien, which meant Kaila would also get involved, and it hit us that Ymke really needed to meet those two. Together, they would cook up a scam, the women would fall in love, and we would make satirical hay with the whole thing. 

There's a lot of personal frustrations in Ymke's experiences as a scribe, but the larger problem of a bullying cult throwing their weight about comes from the fact that we both grew up in societies that have their share of religious intolerance. Places where there are shibboleths to identify which tradition of Christianity someone grew up in, or where hanging laundry on a Sunday means your neighbour's child will throw mud at it to punish you for your Sabbath labour. In both places, religious hatred has often kindled into violence. 

At the same time, faith is a tremendous source of strength to people in both communities. Sebastien's extended performance as the Uncomplaining Child has unexpected effects on him and his friends, as well as the wider community. What happens when you give people something to believe in, and it's fake, but the goodwill that grows up around it is real? Do you puncture the illusion? Is the good you've done real, or is it compromised by the deception?  

We also had fun with the city of Otasring here; it's city of tall buildings and small windows, perched on top of a giant rock, in a forest with massive trees. This city is an amalgam of Brunhild's rock-perched fortress and the city of Worms as they appear in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films. You've also got Kaila and Ymke bonding over the people's dramatic style of clothing, all long gowns and large geometric patterns, and they suspect that the forest with the giant trees from which the Otasringar come has engraved itself on their psyche. We like to tell stories within our stories, and create bits of mythology and legend. 

What books are you reading at the moment and have you got any favourites?

Angeline: I'm reading Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong, which collects personal stories of disability, resistance and resilience, as well as The Interior Life by Katherine Blake, a fantasy novel in which we learn that you underestimate the wives and housekeepers of the world at your peril. 

Remco: I've finished a Gardner Fox Kothar paperback recently, and enjoyed it quite a bit: it knew what it wanted to be, and did it well. At least its female anti-hero had agency. Now I'm in Mary Renault's first Theseus novel, The King Must Die. We've got our own Minotaur tale to tell one day, and Renault set the bar for historical fiction pretty high, even 60 years ago. Hers is not a retelling of Theseus' story,  but a telling of the story how it could have been before it became myth. I love this texturing with truth, story and myth, and the truth in myth. That's why you'll often find snippets, whether true or not, of a deeper history in our stories and characters. Mary Renault changed the Theseus from legend into a wiry teenager who gradually finds out about his past while he confronts, and shapes, his history. What he reveals about himself to others, and what he chooses to believe about himself, are not objectively true. We all create our own personal myth, out of necessity or expediency, and we're definitely allowing our characters to do the same. 

Please tell your readers something about your blog, Turnip Lanterns, and your interest in folklore.

Angeline: The blog is a collection of passions of ours, many of which inform the world of The Red Man and Others: we explore our interests in folklore and history, and we dig deep into things we love and that have been a big influence on our work, from comics to films to books. From a marketing perspective, it's not the best way to run a blog: the advice is to stick to a subject and an easily recognised theme, but we like to cast our net wider. We're of a generation whose formative entertainment, made in the 70s and 80s, was very much imbued with the historical, folkloric and supernatural, and The Red Man in particular fits into that tradition, which is now being explored and reflected on more and more in pop culture and through commentary online, like The Haunted Generation of Folk Horror Revival. By a fluke, we both grew up very influenced by living history museums: my father was Dialect archivist at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and Remco worked at Verhildersum Museum in Leens in his late teens, so the past is very much alive for us, but also subject to interrogation and reflection. 

The format gives us the freedom to explore and bring together topics like genre fiction and issues of identity. Recently we highlighted the female readership of Weird Tales throughout its history. We spoke out about the resistance in some parts of Sword and Sorcery to the diverse readership (and authorship!) we enjoy today, and we've written about the significance of speculative fiction to autistic fans. 

What are you planning next?

Angeline: We've got plenty more stories and a novella for the Red Man world, at varying stages of completion. They're ambitious, and we hope unexpected - we're trying to give readers more of what they've told us they love about these characters and their world, while stretching the boundaries. We wanted to meet the characters at very different points in their lifetimes and see how they've influenced each other - and changed their world. 

We have other projects on the back burner, too - there's a historical novel set in that northern Groninger village of Ulrum in the mid-19th century. It will be about a writer who lived there who was also a folklorist, colonial administrator and, as a result, an abolitionist. His legacy has largely fallen by the wayside, partly because he was a fierce critic of a local preacher who schismed off the Dutch Reformed church and still has a large flock in the village, and partly because he's primarily seen as “a failed farmer”. We think it's time his story was told. 

Lastly, we have another fantasy project coalescing in the background: it features vampires, steampunk, and a pair of lovers who are not what they seem…

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Angeline and Remco are running an art giveaway promo here on their blog for the rest of the month.

About Angeline Adams and Remco van Straten:

Over the past decade Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten have been mainly active in journalism, working for various local and national publications. They wrote about film, theatre and books, and interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice. The biographical piece on Robert E. Howard they wrote for Fortean Times received a REH Foundation Award nomination.

Now they are focusing on telling their own tales, instead writing about those of others. These stories are firmly rooted in the green hills of Northern Ireland where Angeline grew up, and the heavy clay of the Dutch coast from which Remco came. They are steeped in their shared love for history and folklore, not shying away from treasured genres and format, yet are infused with modern sensibilities and a healthy dose of black humour.

Angeline Adams is involved in disability activism and wrote about disability for various online magazines like The Toast and Disability in Kidlit.

On Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, she says: "Ymke's rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we're both surprised by what we're capable of doing when we really have to - and with the right person by our side.”

Remco co-created Waen Sinne, an anthology which had a lasting impact on Dutch SFF publishing, and was a jury member for the Paul Harland Award, Holland's leading contest for speculative fiction. "I spent a lot of my childhood and teens reading, and discovering Robert E. Howard's Conan stories was a watershed moment. I have always wanted to emulate him, and indeed the title of this collection is a hat-tip to his collection, The Dark Man and Others."

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