An Interview with Anthony St. Clair
Why don’t you begin by sharing a little about yourself.
I love the world, its vastness, how much more there is to see, do, and learn than we could ever accomplish in one life.
Always a traveler as a kid and a college student, when I was 20 I went on my first international trip—from Virginia to Edinburgh, Scotland. It completely changed how I see the world and what I understood to be the possible paths open to a person. In addition to my original semester-long university exchange, I wound up being in Scotland on and off for the next year, along with a few months in Ireland. Since then I've traveled throughout India, Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet, China, Nepal, and Australia.
My wife and I live in Oregon, where we love to cook, listen to classical and Celtic music, and enjoy our friends and home. We also still love to travel; we gave our son a passport for his first birthday, and he was 15 months old when we all went to Japan for 3 weeks in 2013.
Your latest book is the third in your fantasy series, The Rucksack Universe. Can you tell us about the series, and its latest book addition, Forever the Road?
The Rucksack Universe [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe] is an ongoing series of fantasy books based all around globetrotters, vagabonds, and wanderers on various world and personal journeys. All the stories combine fantastical elements, a dash of alternate history, a pinch of romance, and dollops of wit, adventure, and beer. Each book is interconnected yet stands alone. Readers can first come to the series from any book and be immersed in a rich world that is similar to ours, but different in key ways that unfold story by story.
In Forever the Road [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe/the-stories/forever-the-road], the third and most recent book, three travelers in India battle their hearts and their destinies as an awakened evil prepares to destroy all life. Readers of the first two books will learn more about some characters they've met before, we’ll meet some new folks, and we’ll get to know someone who was only hinted at in the first book.
While Rucksack stories are based solidly in fantasy, there are no vampires, werewolves, demons, mystical swords, fairies, leather pants, or other cliched fantasy tropes (or when there are, they're rarely what they seem). But there are travelers, lots of beer, one misguided leap from a train, mysteries, a strange little object in a big backpack, Indian food, destiny-slinging bartenders, a night getting lucky that turns pretty yucky, and, above all, a whole lot of consideration of what makes life worth living and people worth connecting with.
Your books fall into the urban fantasy genre. What appeals to you about urban fantasy, as opposed to say epic, or more otherworldly, fantasy?
Ever since I was a kid, I've been obsessed with other worlds, and I've also been obsessed with the idea that beneath all the hardship and difficulty of our own world, there is something grand and shining, beautiful and full of love, beneath it all.
What appeals to me about urban fantasy is how it is at once both different and recognizable. Urban fantasy stories say that we typically exist within and notice only a sliver of the full depth and breadth of our world. And sometimes, if we let ourselves be open to it—or if we’re just in the right (or wrong!) place at the right/wrong time, we can go to a different world.
But here’s the thing: ultimately that world is our world, and really where we’re traveling and questing and struggling is within ourselves. We’re learning more about our lives, how we can live more fully. We can see how we can do more of the things we want to do, and how to live with and move beyond the things that may have hindered or harmed us in the past.
Travel is a big part of your narratives, and you've had your own travel adventures. How much of what went into your books is from firsthand experience, and how much is from other research?
A reader who reviewed my Ireland-set second book, Home Sweet Road [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe/the-stories/home-sweet-road], said “You can smell the smoke of peat fires and the briny sea and the rich green grass.” And that’s my hope: I want to transport readers. I want to immerse them in different cultures and places, in sensations and experiences, just like what happens when you not just visit a different place, but truly put yourself out there in the day-to-day world of Somewhere Else.
I use my boots-on-the-ground travel experiences to bring depth and verisimilitude to everything I write, while steering clear of the autobiographical. Of course, there are elements of my travels and person in my stories and characters—there’s a reason black coffee and stout beer are two of the four most important drinks in the Rucksack Universe! (Hmm. Suddenly, I’m thirsty.)
Forever the Road [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe/the-stories/forever-the-road] is set in India, in the fictional city of Agamuskara, which was founded by the first people to settle in the subcontinent. The city—and its river of the same name—is reminiscent of Varanasi with its dirty-yet-holy river, crowds, fascinating and diverse people, narrow streets, and heat.
Faddah Rucksack, one of my world’s main characters, says that “The only thing you can expect about India is that it will be itself.” And it’s true. India is a very in-your-face-with-everything-there-is-in-the-world country. It is intense, and pretty much every extreme of humanity and life co-exists there, often side by side.
I also use research to round out my knowledge or check details. However, one of the benefits of writing fiction is I can also make things up to fit the story, while also making the story fit the world. However, if I’m setting a story somewhere, I want to have traveled there too, because there are things you only learn from experience.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas originate? Do you have a certain writing routine?
My process is to write like I travel. I need to have some idea of where I want to go, but then give myself total freedom within that journey to change.
I can't just sit down and go from zero on a story. I need to know why the story needs to exist. I ask myself this question: "If I was telling my best friend why she should read this book, what would I say?" Once I can answer that question as both one word and one sentence, I plot out the story, including the action and emotion, scene by scene, all the way through.
Sometimes too, a story’s idea starts with the end in mind. A character is at a particular point in his or her journey—and then I work backwards. How did they get there? What happened along the way? What did it set up for what happens next?
As far as routine goes, writing is not just my passion, but my profession. And professionals get up and go to work, day in and day out, no excuses.
I set goals for what I need to do. And that varies project by project, since in addition to my books I write articles and do copywriting and content management for clients too. So my goal for the day might be to draft an 800-word article, or a blog post, or a scene in the next book. Once I've hit my goal I move on to other tasks for my business, or maybe read a book to my son, whatever. No matter what, I know I've done my creative work for the day and have pushed a project closer to done.
What is your greatest challenge as a writer? Did anything surprise you about the process of writing your books?
I’d say my greatest challenge was in learning and understanding the process I needed to follow to go from starting stories but fizzling out, to turning out completed projects and published works.
Working on my fiction was nigh impossible until I sat down and worked through what I needed to do to write a story. I don't mean the discipline or the time or the mechanics of writing; I mean the "why" of the story, the reason that I needed to write the tale instead of, say, repairing my back fence or organizing the garage.
Figuring out my process was probably harder than actually writing a book. Now that I know my process, I can crank through my planning and manuscript writing at a strong pace.
Probably the thing that now surprises me the most, is just how deep the creative well goes. I know sometimes people are afraid to write or publish something, because they fear they won’t have anything else to say. In my experience, the opposite has happened. The more I delve into my world and share its stories, the more ideas come.
Who has inspired you as an author?
In terms of other authors, Tom Robbins, Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman are big inspirations. Some inspire me for their work ethic, some for the amazing literary and popular quality of their works, and some just because they’re neat people.
But probably my biggest inspiration is my Grandma Denise. She’s the most vivacious person I know, always living life to the fullest and making time for the experiences and people she cares about. She’s had her hardships in life, but it made her all the more determined to focus on what mattered to her. That’s an attitude and outlook I work hard every day to maintain, and I hope I’m instilling that same sense of focus, decision, and passion in my son.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I once heard that writers need to have something to do with their hands that isn't writing. For me, that’s cooking. Good, simple, honest, from-scratch food is important to me and my family. If I’m not writing, there’s a good chance I’m in the kitchen. My wife and I often cook and bake together. Every since my son was a baby, I've been putting bacon under his nose, explaining how to do a parallel cut with a chef’s knife, and spotting him while he pours flour into a bowl.
What’s next for you?
2014 has been such an amazing year. Home Sweet Road [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe/the-stories/home-sweet-road] came out in January, and I recently put out a new cover for the first book, The Martini of Destiny [http://www.anthonystclair.com/rucksack-universe/the-stories/the-martini-of-destiny]. I’m hard at work on the next 2 Rucksack Universe books, due out in 2015. I’m also figuring out the best way forward to bring all 3 current books to audiobook format, and am looking at translations too.
Beyond all that? My wife and I are expecting our second child, codenamed Marvellous Kiddo, in November. Writing and publishing books is really cool, but nothing is more exciting than meeting this new person.
Anthony St. Clair has walked with hairy coos in the Scottish Highlands, choked on seafood in Australia, and watched the full moon rise over Mt. Everest in Tibet. Anthony’s travels have also taken him around the sights and beers of Thailand, Japan, India, Canada, Ireland, the USA, Cambodia, China and Nepal. He and his wife live in Oregon and gave their son a passport for his first birthday. Learn more at www.anthonystclair.com.
Thanks to Anthony for such a great interview, and be sure to pop back tomorrow for a feature spotlight on the third book in the Rucksack Series, Forever the Road, to be released Sept. 8th.