Interviewed by Jonathan Moeller


Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV: the Jonathan Shipley Interview
Posted November 12, 2010 on

Today we have an interview with Jonathan Shipley, who wrote “Homecoming” for Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I’m a speculative fiction writer in Fort Worth, Texas, who writes novels set in a vast story arc that includes fantasy, horror, and space opera. The same story arc is the setting for most of my short stories, which I’ve been writing and selling while waiting to that first novel to sell. I also teach creative writing, which eventually brought me face to face with the question that plagues all writers: How do I end my story?  I ended up inventing a formula for class to help my students convincingly land their stories.  I also play professionally as an orchestral musician, and music is thematic in many of my stories.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I’ve been a Darkover reader forever.  I was in college when Marion Zimmer Bradley began running the short story contests that later turned into the Friends of Darkover and Sword and Sorceress anthologies.  I failed miserably at the contests because back then I didn’t know how to write a short story (and got notes from MZB telling me so), but a few years later, she accepted one of my submissions for MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY’S FANTASY MAGAZINE and gave me my first short story sale.  I’ve been writing and selling ever since.  This appearance in Sword and Sorceress #25 brings me full circle.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

The list of things to avoid is extensive in fantasy, especially in High Fantasy, where bringing new life to the basic quest story can be a challenge.  Fantasy also has the challenge of magical systems, which have to be coherent for the story to work.  Coherent means rules and patterns and lack of contradictions.  The best way to check the validity of a created magical system would be to actually try out the magic, but for some reason, that’s never actually worked for me.  Overcoming the obstacles built into the genre is rewarding in its own right, so fantasy is both harder to write than other genres and more fulfilling.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story.

One summer in Germany, I visited the Externsteine, the German Stonehenge, during the solstice and was amazed at the disconnect in reality between the night of the solstice with its bonfires and rituals and the next morning with its mundane tourist tours.  My story “Homecoming” is a tale of that sort of disconnect on the night of the Winter Solstice when time stands still.   The protagonist Kathryn finds herself drawn back to her ancestral home after centuries of being dead and doesn’t know why.  But she has one night to walk among her descendants in order to find the problem and fix it, just as she used to do when she was the ruling Mistress of the Hall.  I call this my “dance story” because the central scene is derived from my own experiences with Scottish Country Dancing.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

A fanfare from the instruments interrupted her musings.  The Great Hall took on a different character as people cleared the center of the room to provide dancing space.  Two lines, male and female were already forming there.  By default, she and Bren were joining the dancers without moving a step.

‘It appears we’ve been coupled,’ he said with a lift of one eyebrow.  ‘I hope you can dance, Cousin.’  He made it into a challenge.

Kathryn replied with an ironic curtsy.  If he wanted to shift the challenge to the dance floor, she would follow that lead and dance him under the table.  ‘The Captain’s Reel,’ she said, recognizing the pattern.

The music picked up tempo as the fiddles and flutes joined in.  The lines of dancers whirled, crossed, and formed a corridor for the first couple to pass between.  Bren had been right, she noted.  The steps of the solo couple were much simplified from what she remembered.  The object in her day grace and complexity of movement.

The first pair reached the end of their solo and faded back into their respective rows.  The lines took up the beat, swaying and whirling in unison before settling to frame the progress of the second couple. Again Kathryn was disappointed.  She caught Bren’s eye across the corridor and wordlessly offered a temporary truce.  He took it.  They’d be at each other throats again later, but for now they would show the clan a true Captain’s Reel.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

I am a fan of the wonderful world-building that Robin Hobb brings to her novels, in particular ASSASSIN’S QUEST, the third book in the Farseer Trilogy.  In this book, she re-creates dragons, which are such a stock element of the fantasy genre that they tend to be clichés.  Hobb, however, sidesteps the reader’s expectations and presents an alternative rationale for the existence of dragons within the culture she has created.  I enjoyed being surprised.  Fantasy done well is rewarding for both the reader and the writer, and ASSASSIN’s QUEST is a great example of the craft.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

This had me completely stumped for a while, since I seldom read outside the genre, so I am going to the opposite extreme and citing John Obbard’s EARLY AMERICAN FURNITURE: A GUIDE TO WHO, WHEN, AND WHERE, a reference for deciphering antiques.  I am restoring a historic home and filling it with a collection of antiques assembled from serendipitous sources.  Last weekend, for example, I went to an estate sale and bought a very old wing chair.  By hitting the reference book, I found that the chair is not English as I’d assumed, but actually an 18th century Boston piece and therefore a very nice find.  The house restoration and collecting sometimes intersects my writing in unexpected ways, as in a recent humorous story about cursed antiques, entitled “Something Wicker This Way Comes.”

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