Sunday, November 14, 2021

Interview with James Priest, author of Kirins: The Seer of Serone

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview James Priest, author of Kirins: The Seer of Serone.

For those not familiar with the kirins, who are they and where do they live? 

Kirins are a tiny, magical, humanoid race dwelling secretly in every country on Earth. They live in elaborate forest treetop villages and mysterious underground sanctuaries. At maturity, kirins are one foot tall. Invisible to humans, they have long, sinewy feet that propel them to lengths and depths otherwise unimaginable. Wherever they live, they collaborate with the birds and animals of the region, employing them for transportation on short excursions or extremely long expeditions. In the trilogy that precedes The Seer of Serone, a party of five daring kirins, led by the wise magician Speckarin, traverses half the United States and the entire Atlantic Ocean on birds. Arriving at Stonehenge in England, they confront the evil magician Elamare and his misguided consorts, who are ardently in the throes of destroying the kirin race.

Kirins: The Seer of Serone is a stand-alone novel that follows on from your trilogy about the Kirins. How are things for the Kirins after the end of the trilogy? 

Having defeated the evil at Stonehenge, Speckarin and his party return triumphantly to the peace and quiet of their home trees—but not for long. In The Seer of Serone, one of Elamare’s acolytes escapes prison and wreaks havoc by momentarily disrupting the global spell that keeps kirins invisible to humans. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious kirin messenger from Alaska arrives at Speckarin’s door to persuade the heroes—who were renowned to have experience with human beings—to help rescue a kirin lad who disappeared after being temporarily rendered visible to humans.

Why do Kirins hide themselves from humans? 

In the distant past, kirins and humans lived together in cooperation and harmony. But as time passed, humans became excessively aggressive, abusing kirins and sometimes even consuming them as a delicacy. For protection, kirins have long cast a spell rendering themselves invisible to humans worldwide.

In this story, a human, Jeremy Bailey, captures a Kirin named Till. What is Bailey’s motivation and what sort of man is he? 

Bailey is a bearded, burly, rugged fishing boat captain who trolls Alaskan waters for fish and crab with the sole motivation of making money. Thus, when he is informed about a unique miniature being who can communicate with fish, Bailey seizes the opportunity and through treachery captures Till, even though the kirin is invisible. Bailey imprisons his prize catch in a box, concealing it from his crew. For months the captain is relentless in clandestinely bullying Till with threats and torture, pervading the small box with smoke from his ever-present cigar. The coercion works. Till views the fish as his friends, and thus it is with deep reluctance that the hopeless and helpless kirin summons fish to the boat, enabling Bailey and his crew to catch fish at record rates.

Bailey faces trial by the Seer of Serone, a powerful Kirin wizard who can see into his mind. What will decide the outcome of the trial? 

Bailey attacks Speckarin as the magician and his party attempt to protect Till. In defense, Speckarin transmits an ancient spell to Bailey, rendering him kirin-sized. Bailey is thus forced to walk in the kirins’ shoes, as it were. But he lacks their ability to thrive in nature, so the world into which he is dispatched as a miniature being is menacing, full of “giant” rats, cats, and other carnivorous beasts. The kirins ultimately imprison Bailey to await judgment from a wise and renowned kirin magician, the Seer of Serone—the only one with the power to restore him to his full size. Bailey escapes prison with the aid of Tarek, a kirin possessing an unusual fascination with humans, but Bailey suffers a life-threatening injury during their escape. Tarek saves Bailey’s life and nurses him back to health before both are eventually recaptured and presented to the Seer for trial. The Seer can restore Bailey’s size only if she detects upon reading his mind a sincere change of heart and regret for his heinous conduct. Whether Bailey’s experience with Tarek has changed Bailey will determine the outcome of Bailey’s trial.

You emphasize the importance of forgiveness and empathy as crucial to the story. Why is this important to you when many fantasies offer retributive justice to “evil” characters? 

Bailey was not facing a death sentence, only one that would keep him small, which would likely prevent him from wreaking havoc against kirins, beings his own size. I have never believed in violent retribution as a solution. As an army surgeon during the Vietnam War, I saw the destructive effects of violence every day, and of course that violence solved nothing. Our greatest gift and hope as humans is our capacity for empathy and forgiveness. In my story, the kirins, who are largely peaceful beings, remind us of this.

You are also a physician and consultant in orthopedics and have written numerous academic articles. How do you combine your practice with writing creatively? 

During the four years I wrote the trilogy, I worked the regular hours of a physician and surgeon, and spent the remainder (weekends, holidays, early mornings, late evenings) of my time writing. I was elated doing both at the same time, and they were the happiest years of my life.

How has your experience as a medic, particularly working in the army, affected your imagination and the way you created the world of your stories? 

Before I attended medical school, I studied English and journalism. Although I chose medicine as a profession, my desire to write never left. When I ultimately decided to write a book, I initially considered writing about my experiences as an army doctor caring for wounded soldiers coming out of Vietnam, but reliving those memories was too painful. Writing fantasy, by contrast, was a release, a catharsis. Creating a fantastical world, I exercised my imagination in a way that I could not, of course, do in my medical practice. At the same time, my medical training also appears in my stories. In The Seer of Serone, Bailey suffers a catastrophic injury. The detailed description of the injury, how it was treated, and how it healed with the help of Tarek, came directly out of my medical practice. As an orthopedic surgeon in the army, I treated many wounds similar to Bailey’s.

What gave you the idea for the stories in the first place, and how long have you been working on the idea? 

As a child I was always fascinated by miniature things, and I loved weaving stories for my friends.  Thus, when I chose to begin writing, I settled on writing about small beings—kirins. But although they’re small in stature, they’re not small in courage or integrity. I began writing in the mid-1980s, and it took four years to complete the trilogy. I’ve worked on The Seer of Serone and parts of other kirins stories over the years since. Looking back, it’s humbling yet stimulating, how much travail and soul-searching one goes through to complete a body of work such as this.

How difficult was it to weave a fantasy novel with magical characters into a modern, real-world setting? 

Because most fantasies are set in a mythical world or another time period, I wanted the challenge of writing a fantasy set in today’s world. In my stories, present-day human society and all its adjuncts—from automobiles, trains, and airplanes to fishing trawlers and college dorms—exist side-by-side with kirins’ elaborate, sylvan tree dwellings, vast underground sanctuaries, and the wide array of animals and birds under the kirins’ magical influence. The story follows kirins through many locales familiar to humans but seen through kirin eyes. The trilogy is set in North America, the Atlantic Ocean, and Great Britain. For The Seer of Serone, I wanted to challenge myself again by choosing a very different setting: Alaska.

Creating an elaborate fantasy world that plausibly coexists with present-day human civilization was difficult. Making kirins invisible to humans (but not to other creatures) was the most obvious means of explaining human beings’ ignorance of the kirins’ omnipresent, global civilization. But this device serendipitously gave rise to a central theme in the stories: the ultimate clash of kirin and human civilizations and the possibility that a desire for reconciliation by some individuals can overcome a vast cultural divide born of fear.

Tell us something about your characters. We’ve mentioned the human Jeremy Bailey and the Seer of Serone. Who else do we meet in this book? 

The Seer of Serone is chock-full of rich characters, human, kirin, and otherwise. The glossary at the end of the book lists nearly one hundred characters and creatures featured in the book. I mentioned Speckarin earlier. He is a central hero in the series. However, he is also something of an antihero—an ordinary kirin clan magician thrust by circumstances into the role of leader and savior. He has the wisdom, integrity, and bravery to rise to the moment, but he is also humble and a bit reluctant—he never believes he has all the answers, and he would probably rather be doing just about anything other than being a hero. There is also Eric Anthony, a human college student who befriends Till and is instrumental in Till’s rescue. Readers will also meet Till’s close friend and fellow clan member, Suri. She has a rare magical gift that brings her into conflict with Lowenval, the powerful clan leader who vehemently opposes Till’s association with the human, Eric. There are many other fascinating characters along the way, from Paskal Parady, the Empress of the Moon and guardian of all kirin magic, to Karlok, a quirky kirin telepath, to the many kirin “ilon”—creatures under kirins’ magical influence—including ravens, grizzly bears, otters, swans, and Elflor, the introspective moose (this is Alaska, after all).

Will you be writing more books about the Kirins, or a different subject? 

At age 83, my writing days might be over—although you never know! But more importantly, many story lines in my books are left open, and it has crossed my mind numerous times that I would happily welcome other authors to take up the mantle and produce further tales based on my work, taking kirins to heights and depths they, and I, have never dreamed of. Writing this tale has truly been a labor of love.

What do you like to read and have any authors influenced you? 

In my earlier days I was an avid reader of J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, and C.S. Lewis. Perhaps they influenced me to write a story set in today’s world.

If Kirins could be made into a film, would you prefer live action or animation, and who would direct it? 

I’m not much of a movie buff, but my son thinks either live action or animation would work well. Live action, perhaps with life-like, computer-generated kirins, would emphasize that the story takes place in today’s world and bring vivid realism to the kirins’ astounding civilization just beyond our human senses. Animation would work well, too, since the story is great for kids and young adults and is a good vehicle for creative stylistic interpretation. As for directors, Peter Jackson would be incredible, of course, because of his ability to bring weight and pathos to fantasy films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in addition to his breathtaking visuals, masterful storytelling, and riveting action scenes. If it were an animation, the vision and artistry of a company like Laika—which has made wonderful stop-motion films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo—would be perfect for the kirins.

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About James Priest:

James D. Priest, M.D., majored in English at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He studied English in the masters program and received a Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Minnesota. He spent three years in Japan as a physician in the Army of the United States caring for casualties from Vietnam, and four years in orthopedic residency at Stanford University. He practiced orthopedics in Minneapolis for twenty-one years. He has authored or co-authored approximately thirty medical articles, and received the Minnesota Medicine Outstanding Writing Award.

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