Genre Chick Interview: Ken Scholes

I met Ken Scholes in 2006 at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin, Texas. My first impression was that of a pleasant man in an elbow-patched corduroy jacket; turns out he’s a great singer, storyteller, and someone I’ve since been honored to call friend. One year later, at the same convention in Saratoga Springs, we celebrated his rare and much-talked-about five-book deal with Tor Books.  His series, The Psalms of Isaak, was announced with much fanfare and glowing reviews at Book Expo America. The first book–Lamentation–will be released this winter, with the second book–Canticle–arriving fast on its heels.

You haven’t heard of Ken Scholes yet, but trust me–this time next year you won’t remember a bookstore or library without him.

Alethea Kontis: Would you consider this series to be science fiction or fantasy?

Ken Scholes: Well, it’s written as if it were fantasy because that’s the perception my characters are working with.  But truth be told, it’s really science fiction dressed up as fantasy.

AK: A certain character in Lamentation manipulates other characters in the story like pawns on a chessboard, bending their futures to play out his own endgame. I’m curious as to how this reflects your own standpoint on “nature versus nurture.” Are we who we’re born to be, or what our environment makes us?
KS: I think it’s a combination of both, really.  We come into the world with some soft-wiring that hardens as we’re nurtured through our earliest years.  And I think when our environment bends us against our nature it can create a lot of internal conflict that will play itself out until it is resolved.

AK: Pope Petronus often misses his peaceful life as a fisherman. Do you like to fish?
KS: I do.  I didn’t used to.  My father used to take me to Curlew Lake (in Northeastern Washington) for about one week every summer.  He had a vacation cabin there on the water and we would go out fishing for trout and bass.  I read Dune in the bottom of his boat on one of those trips.  At the time, it seemed boring, especially if we weren’t catching fish.  But my father would tell me, “Kenneth, fishing and catching are not the same thing.  Learn how to love fishing.”  Years later, I must’ve learned that trick.  For a brief while, I was back out there on the water as an adult.  I’ve not been fishing in several years now but every once in a while I remember the quiet, early morning waters and I feel that pull to go dig my rod and tackle box out of the garage and find a lake somewhere.

AK: The Gypsy King Rudolfo is quite the aficionado of peach wine and pear wine and cherry wine… where do all the affluent fruit grove owners live in your world?
KS: Well, there are orchards in the Ninefold Forest.  The first Rudolfo–my present protagonist’s namesake–arrived there some 2,000 years ago and planted orchards in Glimmerglam that are known now throughout the Named Lands.  I’m not sure how affluent the growers are but their fruit makes fine wine.

AK: There are several fascinating verbal, sub-verbal, and non-verbal coded languages throughout the book–did you send lots of secret messages to your friends when you were a kid?
KS: I remember doing some clever things with numbers and letters but it was short lived.  I wouldn’t have minded having a trained bird, though, to carry notes back and forth.

AK: What would Rufello, genius master of puzzling ciphers and lockboxes, have thought about the Rubik’s Cube?
KS: Considering his work researching and cataloging the devices of the Younger Gods, he’d have probably thought it a clever but simple plaything.  Of course, when you’re drawing up schematics for metal men with complex programming, a Rubik’s Cube would probably seem pretty easy to figure out.

AK: What book or author first got you interested in speculative fiction?
KS: Well, my first SF book was Trapped in Space by Jack Williamson.  I was hooked at that moment in the second grade when I sat in the crook of a weeping willow tree and read that book through.  But the first author to truly influence me to the point of wanting to write SF myself was Ray Bradbury.  I think I started with The Martian Chronicles and R is for Rocket.  Then, his essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” fell into my lap and after reading it, I knew I had to write speculative fiction.  Burroughs, Howard and Moorcock were also strong influences.

AK: Which of the characters in Lamentation do you think is the most like you?
KS: I’m not sure if any really constitute “most like me.”  I think I have a bit of Rudolfo’s knack for strategy and I’d love to have his charm.  I connect deeply with Petronus because, like him, I’ve walked away from a position of influence and power in favor of a simpler, truer life.  And I think the innocence that Isaak and Neb both lose as a result of the Desolation of Windwir–and the sense of calling that falls to them as a result of it–are also familiar aspects of my own life.

AK: What’s the scariest thing about being touted The Next Big Thing in SF?
KS: Of course, I have a hard time seeing myself as the next big thing in anything.  I think the fear that I’ll not meet the rising expectations is pretty strong. I try hard not to think about it.   I was very fortunate, hitting so well with this first novel of mine.  But each one after needs to keep the customer satisfied–and my readers (including my editor and publisher) are my customers, ultimately.  They’re putting down their money to take a ride through Ken’s Imagination and if I don’t deliver the experience they’re looking for, it’s going to be a short trip.  So far, I’ve heard nothing but good about Lamentation.  And I’m hearing that Canticle may be even better.  But there’s always that nagging thought:  What if I don’t land these well?  What if I take a corner too fast or too slow and lose my readers?  What if I don’t have the chops to fly a five book series?  Of course, I’m assured by the many good people around me that I’ll do just fine.  And I have high trust in those folks, so in the end, I just have to acknowledge the fear and get on with the work.  After all, it was simple fear of failure that kept me from writing a novel for so long.  I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson on that one.

AK: The first TWO books in your series (Lamentation and Canticle) are landing in 2009–what’s your writing schedule like? Which book are you on now?
KS: It’s a  crazy schedule.  I’m still a part-time writer with a full-time day job so everything just gets kind of jammed into the hours I have in my life.  I get up at about 3 a.m. to start my day.  I write for about two hours.  I leave for the day job around 6 a.m. and I bring my laptop so I can write on my lunch break (heck, I’m answering THIS question on my lunch break right now.)  Then, after I get home in the evening, I put in another hour or two if I need to.  I also work on writing on Saturdays, though I try to keep it to a handful of hours unless I’m behind.  And I try to take Sundays off though that’s not always possible.  I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have such a supportive partner.  Any time I’m up to my neck in a book, the Amazing Jen is there to help keep me focused on the work at hand.

Right now, I’m revising Canticle, the second book in the series.  By early July, I’ll be working on Antiphon and should have it turned in by Halloween.  I’m hoping to get Requiem finished by spring or summer 2009.  And the last volume, Hymn, is probably going to come together by early 2010.  That’s actually farther out than my Magic Eight Ball can predict.

AK: Of all the SF conventions you’ve attended, which is your favorite?
KS: I have different favorites for different reasons.  For local cons that are goodly sized, I like Norwescon.  For proximity, Orycon is nice–it’s the closest to me.  Worldcon is certainly amazing from the standpoint of attendance and variety but the business aspects of World Fantasy are not to be missed.

AK:  If you could be any superhero (or have any superpower) who/what would it be and why?
KS: Oh, I like the notion of a scarred psyche driving one to perfecting their skills and fine-tuning their vision so I’d have to go with Batman.  I’ve been a big Batman fan since I was a little boy.  I started with the Adam West show, had the Mego action figures, of course, and graduated into comic books at some point.   I remember when I was little, my Mom used to ask me which Bible story I wanted her to read  me from my children’s Bible.  I would always say “the one about Batman.”  Imagine my surprise when I learned the Dark Knight was not in the Bible at all.  And imagine my Mom’s surprise when she saw that I remedied the obvious oversight by drawing his picture into the book so that he was properly represented.