An Interview with Steven Montano, Author of Blood Skies
It’s a Me and My Shovel first today: a by-god interview with a real person instead of with fictional characters. It is my pleasure today to interview Steven Montano, author of Blood Skies, an apocalyptic vampire urban fantasy military novel. Trust me, it all makes sense. After you finish reading the interview, go to www.bloodskies.com and read more about it, including Tales of a Blood Earth, a series of unrelated (OR ARE THEY???) short stories set in the Blood Skies world. I’ve read the book, I give it 5 stars, and I recommend it to you as well. It’s because I enjoyed it so much that I pressured Steven to talk to me at length. And I do mean At Length; this is Me and My Shovel, after all, so get yourself another tasty beverage and get comfy.
Now, when you read this, imagine my voice is all deep and Barry-White-esque, and Steven’s got like this Michael Caine accent thing going. Trust me, it’ll sound cool.
Here we go!
Me: You’re an accountant that works for a role-playing game company. You’ve written tabletop roleplaying supplements and adventures. You are clearly a huge nerd.
I have no question.
OK, I actually do. How has so-called “nerd culture” shaped your approach to writing and the things you write about?
Steven: First off, we need to differentiate between “nerd” and “geek”. Nerds are smart, usually tech people. They understand things like technology and media platforms. They can hook up a stereo with their eyes closed. “Geeks” like all of the same stuff that nerds do (RPGs, Sci-Fi Fantasy, 80s cartoons, manga, etc.) but they lack the technical skills. I categorize myself as a “geek”. Just so that’s clear. ;P
That beings said, being involved and writing RPG games certainly affects the way one writes, especially in the aspect of world building. While I think anyone with a good imagination can envision fantastic worlds, until you’ve had to try and actualize a setting for use by others do you really come to appreciate how much detail is really needed. With a fantasy world in a novel or short story, it is sometimes tempting to gloss over certain details, if the writer remembers to worry about them at all (where food comes from, what the temperature is like, how long the days are, what sort of crops grow, what plants are in abundance, how much things cost and how people buy them, etc.). When developing a story or setting for an RPG, you have to consider the fact that you’re not creating a world for your own characters, you’re creating it for someone else to actually experiment in, to interact with and test. Gamers love to test limits of their environs and see what they can get away with, and they like to ask questions about seemingly mundane details (what kind of stone is the building made out of? what sort of moss is by the doorway?) so as to better enmesh themselves with the setting.
Once you’ve written for and played in that type of world building environment, it completely changes your perspective. That’s not to say I map out the types of moss and varying colors of different pig species, or anything, but I do stay mindful of those sorts of little details. It also makes me want to use all of the five senses in my prose, since going beyond just visual description helps a role-player/reader better immerse themselves in the setting environment.
There, that a geeky enough answer? ;D
See, I’ve always switched them in my head. Geeks are the techs, nerds are the role-playahs. I pro-offer the tech group Geek Squad as evidence. Your honor, the defense rests. Also, for those scoring at home, Steven’s use of “actualize” and “environs” earns him one point apiece.
Since I am also a big tabletop veteran of (sigh) almost 3 decades, I like your comparison. For the most part (and especially for supplements), the “rules” and other core world-building information are already in place. In a novel, nothing can be assumed, unless it’s one of those awful Magic the Gathering or other Adapted Novels that have been shoveled out to the desperate masses over the years. In Blood Skies, you use a very unique and very cool system for magic which you obviously came up with on your own (unless you totally stole it from somewhere and I’m about to out you). If you would, give us a brief overview of how it works, and why you went that direction instead of the “carry around your spellbook and read it every day so you can create a magical light for 10 minutes twice a day”.
S: The magic system in “Blood Skies” — actually, most of the concept behind “Blood Skies”, period — comes from a very vivid dream I had a couple of years ago where I was looking into a beautiful forest glade where maidens were being run down by black unicorns. I never understood what the hell dream meant (except that I shouldn’t eat pastrami before bedtime, I guess), but I knew it was going to work its way into a novel. The biggest question, of course, was “who the hell are the women”, and answering that question sort of became the basis for both the novel and the concept of magic.
Warlocks and witches in “Blood Skies” are bonded with what they call a spirit, a free-roaming ghost that is tied to the mage by way of an incredibly powerful bond. A spirit is always of the opposite gender of the mage in question, and is very emotionally volatile. This spirit effectively acts as “fuel”, and the mage literally transforms their spirit into some physical manifestation that is what is called “magic”. Most of these manifestations are combat oriented, but there are a few miscellaneous applications, like using a spirit as a sort of scout to reconnoiter an area, etc. A spirit needs to recuperate after being expended in such a fashion; obviously, the more dramatic the effect, the longer the spirit needs. A spirit tends to be more powerful when in a highly emotional state, and subsequently a greater measure of control is needed to keep the spirit from injuring both itself and its bonded mage.
The entire relationship is a play on the notion of having a “soul mate”, since the spirit is conceived to be literally attached to the mage’s soul, but this relationship takes its toll on the mage, especially a warlock, who needs special implements to channel his spirit without injuring himself and, eventually, even to stay alive.
Magic in fantasy usually seems to fall into one of two camps: highly structured and over explained (such as you describe with the D&D method), or else an incredibly free floating “Oh, it’s magic” style where there are no rules whatsoever, and I think I was aiming for something in between, since my system has rules, but much of what can actually be accomplished it fairly fluid and open-ended.
I also knew from the start I wanted magic that actually held some sort of emotional core (since a bond between mage and spirit is so strong), as well as one that illustrated the destructive nature of magic in a manner I hadn’t seen done before.
That a nerdy enough answer for ya?
That’ll work. I give it an 8.5 on the Nerd Meter.
You mentioned the fact that, in your world, implements are necessary for a warlock or witch to eventually even just stay alive. I thought this was an awesome departure from the norm in fantasy, where the older you are, the more powerful you become. Your system inherently limits the potential hordes of grey-bearded wisdom-spouting busybodies that inhabit most fantasy realms. There is no question there, I just thought it was cool and wanted to say so.
Here’s a more off-the-wall question. I personally was drawn into the world of accounting because a) I had a knack for it, and b) I found that tabletop gaming growing up got me used to the idea of learning sets of rules, accepting them, and working within them, which basically is all accounting boils down to (although there is a notable dearth of natural 20s). Has being an accountant in any way, shape, or form affected how you write, or were you pulled into accounting for similar reasons to my own, or are the two things so totally seperate that your answer is pretty much “they have nothing to do with each other. Next question”?
S: In regards to the magic system: thanks. I think of all the stock fantasy cliches, the wizened old wizard is one of my least favorites, but I am coming up with ways to make use of them in a slightly different fashion in the later books. We’ll see how than pans out.
Unfortunately, accounting hasn’t done much for my writing save for making me appreciate how much I love writing. ;D
I didn’t get into Accounting on purpose. (“Shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque…”…holy crap, I spelled Albuquerque without using spell check…holy crap, I did it again!…) I was getting a Creative Writing degree with a History minor in college, which essentially meant I was bound to a) starve, or b) go back to school to earn a teaching certificate. My father took extremely ill shortly after I graduated, and since he’d been floating 99% of my bills, I had to do my part to help out in what was a very stressful family situation and find a job, fast. A temp service got me a job working as the mail clerk for the A/P Department at a healthcare company in Denver. An opening presented itself when one of their A/P clerks went on maternity leave, and I did such a good job filling in that even when she came back I was offered a full-time position. I worked my way up to A/P Specialist (doing advance payment runs, electronic A/P, crap like that), and eventually made me way into the Finance Department as a Fixed Assets specialist.
I’ve been doing Accounting for 14 years without a shred of Accounting school. Just my natural nerdy abilities, I guess.
OK, since we’ve managed to incapacitate everyone with our accounting discussion, let’s quickly change the subject. Who are some of the writers or stories that have influenced you, and why?
S: I think it was the works of Clive Barker and Tanith Lee who actually got me first interested in writing, albeit for very different reasons. Barker’s descriptions were always top-notch, and I’d never before read someone who had such pure, outlandish imagination. His capacity of world building was beyond impressive. Tanith Lee I liked for her very poetic prose, and her ability to impart so many details of a scene in so few words. I’ve always striven to attain that level of descriptive prowess.
Lately I’ve been a huge fan of John Meaney, for his top-notch world-building and sense of pace, which is simultaneously rapid-pace and yet never feels rushed or forced; China Mieville, for many of the same reasons as Clive Barker, only Mieville seems to write with the volume turned all of the way up; and, perhaps most importantly, J.V. Jones, who I think is one of the best and most unrecognized fantasy authors of our generation. She writes work as gritty as George R.R. Martin but on a smaller scale, and her storytelling, prose, description and character development are addicting to me. If I could travel back in time and replace any of these authors with myself…well, I’d probably just replace all of them, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be Jones, followed by a quick trip up the road to Mieville’s house.
On a side note, all of these authors are British. I have absolutely no idea what the hell that has to do with anything, just thought it was worth mentioning. ;D
WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! We got us an Anglophile here folks! Step back slowly!
I’m a huge fan of a lot of British works myself, from TV to books, especially comedies – their comedies can be more clever than typical American ones, and I find I prefer something like Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland. But anyway, this isn’t about me. It does, however, segue to something another British author did in an interview. J.K. Rowling, whom you already know wrote my FAVORITE character of all time (cough), once revealed something about a character that she knew, but never had a chance to work into the story. The protagonist of Blood Skies, Cross, is a bit of an engima, his past life told in brief flashes and much of the past focused on his time with his sister Snow. Tell us something Super SEEKRIT about Cross, that you may never have a chance to tell in the course of the story, or a different character that is sadly no longer with us.
S: Oooooo…that’s a tough one. There’s a lot that I don’t know about Cross, and what little I do I’ve been hoarding up for a rainy day (or for the rest of the series). ;D
Would you settle for something dorky? And I mean REALLY dorky, here…
I tend to recycle characters, or at least upgrade them. Cross was originally a villain in my first D&D campaign, a large mercenary soldier with a nasty temper and a proclivity to beat the shit out of my player’s characters after he stole their magic items. (Which, as you surely know, is the worst thing you can do to a PC…). Cross wound up falling to his death after a pretty nifty battle on the belly of a dead dragon whose corpse was dangling from chains that hung down from this flying tower…anyways, it was cool.
Now, I’m also a big fan of NBA Basketball. (Yes, everyone has a deep, dark secret. That, unfortunately, is mine. That and the fact that I think that “E.T” song by Katy Perry is actually kinda cool.) One of the fun things you can do with the “NBA2k[insert year]” games is create your own players, complete with fully customized physical appearances. And though I’m a fan of the Spurs, I never want to jinx them with my crappy video game skills (though as it turns out they’re perfectly capable of jinxing themselves…) so I decided to make my own team instead, the Las Vegas Vipers. (Anyone whose already read “Blood Skies” can probably see where I’m going with this…) As I populated my team (you need a minimum of 12 players), I came up with a number of interesting looking cats, including Abraham Stone, Samuel Graves, David Morgan, Jamal Dillon, Mike Kane and Eric Cross (my starting point guard). Cross the basketball player was a younger, not so beefy distant cousin to Cross the D&D Villain, but their resemblance was downright uncanny!
And, yes, Viper Squad in “Blood Skies”, and most of its members, was first conceived as an imaginary NBA team in an XBOX 260 console. And if THAT isn’t the lamest thing you’ve ever heard, I’ll eat my Adidas Men’s Commander Lite TD basketball shoes!
(Oh, as an added WGAF tidbit of trivia, Jamal Dillon and Mike Kane make their first appearances in “Black Scars”. The whole basketball team should be accounted for by then.)
That is seriously the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. I feel like a journalist! SCOOP! Pageboy, fetch me my fedora with the PRESS thing stuck in the hatband! I wish I had something nearly that cool to say about something in my book. The best I can do is point out that Lord Aravan was an NPC in a tabletop game I ran. You win this round!
Now, we look to the Dark Side. What books or authors do you hate, despise, and otherwise hold in ill-regard despite their soul-crushing success? Feel free to curse and froth at the mouth.
S: Ok. you asked for it. ;D
The list is shorter than you might think, but long enough. ;D
Anne Rice. I despise what you did to vampires. All of the Stephanie Meyers in the world only exist because of your foul presence. Lestat is a pussy. Louis is worse. Die.
Terry Brooks. Thank you for keeping fantasy relevant only so long as it has fucking elves, dwarves, and all of that other retread, cliched, overused fantasy horseshit. The world of Shannarra can eat me. Die.
John Grisham. Lawyers? Seriously? Lawyers? And not one book, but twenty, all about lawyers! Lawyers saving children. Lawyers saving babies. Lawyers curing herpes. Lawyers saving the universe. Die.
Terry Goodkind. Sure, write two good books and live off the coattails of their success while you foist an otherwise abomination of a series on us. And soft porn has no place in high fantasy. Hate to tell you. Eat shit and die.
Dean Koontz. Way to prove that even the most fantastic book teaser can be transformed into a ridiculous, aneurysm-inducing tirade of shitty plotting, mundane characters, and laughably predictable outcomes. Even your good books suck. Die.
There, that outta cover the major ones. I’m sure there are more. Thanks for helping me get that out of my system. ;D
[Editor’s Note, which should really just say “Alan’s Note”, since I have no Editor (yeah, duh) but sounds way more official and cool: When Steven sent this response, it came through in like 48 font. It was like opening your email and getting screamed at out of nowhere. It combined with the venomous answer very well.]
Wow, now I know how the Emperor felt. YES! FEEEEEED ON YOUR ANGER. IT’LL MAKE YOUR BONES STRONG LIKE CALCIUM! OK, so I would have made a lousy Emperor.
Visualization is huge for me when I write. Do you picture certain people or actors in your head when you’re writing about Cross and Snow and Red and the others, or are they made of pure Imaginarium with no real-world analogues?
S: I used to read a lot of comic books. Near the end of my comic book collecting career, I wasn’t really reading them, but buying them for the artwork. My earlier D&D campaigns rarely had a villain or character who wasn’t inspired by a character (usually obscure characters, because people tend to groan when you tell them their arch-nemesis actually looks like Spider-Man…).
Sometimes characters are just, as you put it, “pure Imaginarium”, but some take on an archetype or two from comic book templates and types. Cristena is a Coda sister from the early 90s comic book “Wild C.A.T.s”, for example. Kray was based on the “Deathblow” character from Image comics (whose name was also Kray…that’s plagiarism Lite). But Cross, Stone, Graves, etc. are all based on the characters I created for my XBOX, who were based on the character building parameters I had to work with. The monsters are based on how much coffee I drank before I wrote them. (No, seriously. The more coffee, the more vivid the monsters.)
I tend to start “actor” casting during re-writes, as that helps me flesh out descriptions and character voice (since I read most of my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like something that would actually be said). That said, I actually plan to write a blog post on casting BLOOD SKIES, so I’m going to keep my actor and actress choices to myself for the time being. [raspberries] ;D
NO! WE MUST HAVE ALL YOUR SECRETS NOW!
Fine, then. I’ll just have to keep picturing them as pixilated basketball players, with Cross dishing it to Graves on a two-on-one for an easy layup.
OK, last question, before this entire interview continues to grow and mutate into its own gravity-generating Blog Post of Monstrousness +3.
After you “finish” the Blood Skies series in its totality, do you have any plans for stories outside that world? Or are you instead planning on focusing on different, independent stories in the same world? Or is the idea of thinking about what to do after all of the work you have planned right this second so overwhelming that even trying to conceive of what you might do afterwards is like gazing into the crazed and jagged maw of a Cthulhuoid beast?
S: You’re assuming I have a “plan” at all. LOL.
Right now, the “Blood Skies” series should eat up my writing “talents” for the foreseeable future, especially with how easily the writing is coming to me at the moment. That hasn’t happened in a loooooooooong time, and I plan to ride this sick puppy all the way to the piggy bank. (Note to Self: work on witty analogies.)
I have tentative plans for a 6-book series, but that could easily grow to more if the books continue to sell (or if they begin to sell; that statement depends on my mood), if feedback remains positive, and so long as the books don’t start to suck. If I can keep the series going longer, I will, since I’ve always sort of envisioned the series as something in the vein of Glen Cook’s “The Black Company”: the continued stories of a military force in a dark fantasy environment. (Or, if you prefer, you can think of “Blood Skies”, the series, as “The A-Team” for the Vampire Postapocalyptic age). BLACK SCARS, the 2nd book, is actually something of an origin story for the shape that the rest of the series will take, whereas BLOOD SKIES is in its way an origin story for Cross, who shall remain the main character in the series until he pisses me off.
Beyond “Blood Skies”, I have an older, more traditional fantasy series called “Darker Sunset” (that title is now my publishing imprint, because “Steve’s Awesome Books” didn’t have quite the same jingle to it), for which I’ve written 2 and 3/4 books. That was planned to be a 4-book series, but it’s been so long since I worked on it I forgot what it’s actually about, so we’ll have to see.
I’ve also written 2/3 of a horror trilogy. It sucks some pretty serious ass in its current form, but with a few thousand re-writes it may become something readable.
Oh, and the Cthulhu statement also applies. I used to plan four or five books down the line with detailed, chapter-by-chapter rundowns. Now I’m focused just on writing the next page and actually finishing a cup of coffee before it gets cold and nasty. My detailed descriptions of Books 3-6 of the “Blood Skies” series are literally a paragraph each. And we’re talking short paragraphs.
Ooops! I almost forgot to thank you and give you a chance to heap effusive praise upon me, since this is all about me, after all.
In all seriousness, thank you, Steve, for patiently wading through and answering every sporadic email that I sent you. It’s been a pleasure to pick your brain and hear more about the mix of Man and Story.
S: Dude — the pleasure has been all mine. Well, okay, maybe not ALL mine, but a significant percentage, for sure. 😀
In all seriousness, thanks for taking the time for the interview. I really appreciate it.
Now, about that buddy movie… ;D
[Editor’s Note: The Buddy Movie will be epic.]
Find Steven and Stalk Him
Blog/Book Info: www.bloodskies.com
Facebook: Blood Skies
Humanity is threatened by one of its own.
Eric Cross, an enlisted warlock in the Southern Claw military, is part of an elite team of soldiers and mages in pursuit of a woman known as Red — a witch whose stolen knowledge threatens the future of the human race. The members of Viper Squad will traverse haunted forests and blighted tundra in their search for the traitor, a journey that ultimately leads them to the necropolis of Koth.
There, in that haven of renegade undead, Cross will discover the dark origins of magic, and the true meaning of sacrifice.
Experience a dark and deadly new world in the debut novel of the “Blood Skies” series.
Paperback Edition: 10.99 (USD)
Kindle/E-Book Editions: 0.99 (USD)