Surly Questions: Aaron Engler

headshot-1-e1346964344418Witness the triumphant return of Surly Questions! This time around, I’m interviewing Aaron Engler. Engler is the author of the upcoming fantasy novel Wizard and the Rat, currently in final editing. He blogs at, where he has an ongoing sci-fi series, Jovian Shadows, and you can find him on Google+. Thanks for the interview, Aaron! 


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

As soon as I realized I was too dumb for astrophysics.


I’ve always had a yearning for artistry, but introversion and circumstance conspired to keep me from acting or performance, outside of the occasional high school band outing. I had a social desire to be with the artsy types, the dancers, the poets, the writers, the artists- but I lived in a cowboy town and there wasn’t much of a scene for people my age. I would have made a great goth.


I think that I never really considered writing as a professional career until college, entertaining it as a distant possibility. The stark economics of Montana living quickly drained any sense of hope one has of the future, and those ideas sank with my dreams into the dark pit born from the struggles of getting by day to day. It would be another ten years or so before I actually put ‘pen to paper’ and started seriously writing a long-form novel.


Tell us about your book.

The Wizard and the Rat is a story featuring two people, each lost in their own ways. It is about a father and his regrets about raising a son who turned from him, and how he longs to find atonement in training other young wizards, trying to shape him into what he thought he son should be. It is also about a young man, thrown out by his family and forced to live on the streets, who finds himself alone, ready to give up on himself and the world. The two meet in the gritty streets of the dying city of Haven, and each must help the other overcome their internal losses so they can battle an enemy that threatens everything- a necromancer, trained by the wizard, now become a failure, like everyone the wizard trained before…


You’re a long-time player of tabletop RPGs. How has gaming informed your writing?

All of my novel ideas have come from the RPG worlds I’ve created in the past. The ideas for my fantasy novels first came to being way back in high school, in the old D&D days. They played around in my head and injected themselves in my games as I ran them over the years. Eventually other players added parts of their stories and they became intertwined with the mythos, eventually adding to it.


Eventually, I stopped role-playing entirely, and had no more outlet for my stories to be shared. By then, the world had become as crystallized as it was going to get, and it was time to put it down and share a canonical version with the world at large.


What has been the most (or least) rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

My social media engagement has been fairly limited so far. My story is just about ready for sale, but still needs a couple chapters of editing, so I don’t really have a book I can point at and say, “See! This is what I do!”


I’ve been able to get more of my name out there by entering and winning some writing contests, which is fun and a nice little validation of my skill, and have started reading other independently written work like that of Brooke Johnson  (The Clockwork Giant) and James Calbraith (Shadow of the Black Wings). I won a copy of The Clockwork Giant from a writing contest, and Shadow of the Black Wings was a free promotion. I was especially interested in the latter work, because it’s in the same genre that I write in, and wanted to find out what kind of things people are expecting from self-published work. Hopefully I’ll be able to take part in more communities and discussions once I’m self-published.


What do you like in a character?

For one thing, a character can be great and I might not like him or her. The characters in Steven R Donaldson’s GAP series were impossible for me to like, and that’s part of what kept me from reading much more of the series. They were great characters, but I wanted to have some redeeming quality in them, something heroic, something noble. Characters I like the most have the potential to transcend themselves, to step beyond the borders that are limiting them. A character has to be more than believable, he or she has to be someone I can believe in.


What do you think makes a great story?

There are many ways to tell a great story. What makes a story great, for me, is one that gives you a sense of immersion, one that feels like it’s asking you to be part of the story, part of the world. When you start reading, you enter into the world of the story, like you were watching from inside the spaceship, or on horseback with the mustering army. Or even that you know the characters, you’re friends with them, or family. You know them. These things are very personal, and I don’t think apply to everyone, but that’s what matters to me.


What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I have read a lot of writing advice. But I’ve never solicited any, because there’s only one piece of advice that matters. Write. If you have a story in you, and you want a book out of it, you have to write it. Even if it’s just a page a day. Find a spot that is yours for half an hour, and write your story. If you never do it, you never really had a book in you. That’s fine, just accept that and move on, don’t dwell and keep saying you’re going to write a novel eventually. In writing, it really is, as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”


Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

Writing and editing the second draft of the next book in the Voice of the Dragons series, “The Willow and the Flame” which is about a group of five young adults thrown into a world of magic and political intrigue and how their friendships grow and are tested along the way.


Right now, I’m writing a first draft of a science-fiction story, called “Jovian Shadows” which you can find at my website, I post each chapter as I finish it. Each part is about 1000 words or so, and is up to 32 as of now. I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and I think it’s a good, exciting story. I hope more people will read it and leave a comment or two, I always like seeing and replying to feedback.


What are your top five “desert island” books?

First, I have to confess to being not nearly as well read as I would like, and before my son arrived, destroying almost all my free time, I was reading a lot of non-fiction. That said, there are some books that have influenced me greatly, and expanded my understanding of not only what constitutes storytelling, but my understanding of the world, and of myself.


The most influential book would be The Lord of the Rings. There’s no question that the book is a cornerstone of not only modern fantasy, but of modern myth-building. With its realized languages, in depth history and unique cultures, it’s a completely engrossing experience that never failed to take me away from whatever mundane concerns of this world I had. I read the entire three volumes ten times before I was 14. It made me long for a world where there were real heroes to follow, real men of honesty whose purpose to was forge a just world, facing off against a dark evil so powerful, it’s very essence could corrupt the land itself. It let me imagine I could be at Aragorn’s side in the final battle with Sauron’s legions, or be a member of the Istari, and confer with Gandalf on the fate of the world.


The Lord of the rings also served as an entree into social circles of other fantasy fans and gamers, which led to a long history of connecting with people, some of whom would become friends for the rest of my life.


My science-fiction education began early, but no book in that genre captured my imagination like Dune. Like Lord of the Rings, Dune had a compelling, complex world, and yet had an unambiguous sense of good versus evil locked in an epic conflict. Unlike Lord of the Rings, Dune centered on the story of one boy coming of age and into his unexpected inheritance as a Christ figure, one claimed by a sect he wants nothing to do with. As a young man stuck in a small town, reading about someone my age growing into a powerful leader with the universe hanging on his every move was very appealing.


My father introduced me to sci-fi at a young age, and although I was hesitant at first, the stories of Issac Asimov were the ones that sparked my interest. Something from Foundation, or a collection of stories like I Robot would have to be with me, but I can’t choose off the top of my head. The study of man and machine, and what it means to be human, are themes that are close to my imagination and themes that have informed and influenced sci-fi ever since. And he wrote all of that before the invention of the modern computer.


I mentioned I had read a lot of non-fiction, and the book that had the most impact would probably be A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. History is passed down to us like religion, seemingly set in stone. We learn about the great men and battles that changed the world, but rarely do we hear about the conquered or vanquished. Rarely do we hear from the voices of the losing side, or from those who fought against the status quo.


Writing fantasy, it’s easy to keep in mind the heroes and villains of the time, but what about those whom the villains conquer, or what about those who follow the hero? Do they follow out of a sense of loyalty, or do they have no choice? When you take in to account that history isn’t just leaders and armies, but whole populations of people who might have stood in the way of those leaders, things become complex and messy. And that’s where a whole wealth of stories can come from.


My last book would be a good dictionary. If I have a lot of time by myself with nothing to do on an island (there’s always stuff to do on an island, but never mind that,) I would want to start reading, page by page, learning new words every day. Learning more words opens up more avenues of thought and the capacity to contemplate more nuanced ideas.
Those works would be the only ones I would need to create an infinite catalog of stories and novels. Those would be the ingredients for a witch’s brew of wonderment.


Carl Sagan said it best about writing: “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

Why I Gender-Flipped My Protagonist

Cover art by Tracy McCusker.

Hey, everybody. Today, I want to talk about my upcoming novel, Orison. I’m finally in a position where I have something to blog about. Namely, a completed draft in the hands of the editor. I didn’t see much point in talking about the process until I was certain I’d actually learned something along the way. Turns out I did. This is the first of what will be a series of posts on what I learned from my book.

I’m slightly apprehensive that what follows might be considered controversial, although I see no reason for it to be. It’s about my decisions about my own creative work, and what led me there. There is no chastisement or polemic intended, although if you choose to take it that way, I certainly can’t stop you.

That said, let me tell you about Randoval.

Randoval’s been with me for decades. He first appeared as a protagonist in my first and never-to-be-published space opera, Free Enterprise, a novel about a lovable but slightly bumbling thief who ends up involved in a sprawling galactic war when he steals a vital piece of military intelligence. Yes, it was a slightly warmed-over version of Star Wars, and this guy was a slightly warmed-over Han Solo. No two ways about it. He even had the brown hair and sarcastic demeanor. There was even a princess. And they hated each other and then fell in love. It’s embarrassing to think about now. What can I say, except I was around nineteen when I wrote it.

All the same, I liked Randoval. I have a real fondness for slightly hapless characters who get in more trouble than they can handle.  I found Randoval charming and rooted for him when he got in way over his head. Even though Free Enterprise turned out to be an unholy mess that I’d never inflict on an unsuspecting world, he as a character always stuck with me. He would crop up in other works of fiction, sometimes subtly (or not-so-subtly) renamed. My old friend Aaron Engler even played him in an RPG campaign I ran, because, you know, nerds.

So years later, when I penned the first draft of Orison, I decided to port Randoval over to a fantasy world and put him in the same situation: a common thief unwittingly steals something earth-shattering, and gets in way over his head. That draft was really only my second foray into a novel-length tale, and I aimed low, going for a wahoo, “medieval heist” adventure. On that level, I think I succeeded, and I think Randoval fit right into his assigned role.

Then there was a long interlude where I worked on some other things for awhile (read: years), then abandoned them, then came back to Orison. After a long period of agonizing, I decided I wanted Orison to be my first published novel — once it had undergone a serious overhaul.

In the midst of my rewrite, though, something began to feel wrong. Staid. Boring. Randoval as a protagonist just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. There was nothing wrong with him, he was still the same charming guy, but something had been sticking in my craw ever since I’d written it. I had exactly two female characters. One was little more than a sexualized cameo, and the other, to quote a good friend and reader, was “a bit of a tight leather corset.” And he was right. It was all white guys, doing white guy things, chasing other white guys around. The girls were mostly there to look hot, and occasionally kick ass, but mostly to look hot.

Now, is there anything inherently wrong with that? Not necessarily. But I didn’t like that my only female characters were basically love interests. That’s precisely the kind of thing I don’t like in the fiction I consume, so why was I writing it? I realized my fiction was pulling stunts I occasionally tended to razz other authors for: lingering on the female’s clothes, putting them in situations the male character’s wouldn’t be in, adding sexualized nuances that the male characters didn’t have.

I’d see stuff like this in other people’s fiction and think, why don’t writers just treat the female characters with the same set of dramatic standards? Why can’t we have a female character who doesn’t have to be captured or rescued by a man, whose life doesn’t center on her romantic interest in a male? How about some damn variety?

And then it hit me. I could stop griping and just put my money where my mouth was. If I wanted to make a female character who didn’t get marginalized for being female, why not just make my protagonist female?

Suddenly, it all clicked. Exit Randoval Sarvas, enter Story Kai Tann, so named because she makes her career as a “second-story girl”. And then I gave her brown skin instead of white. (Why? Well, why the hell not?  Where’s the inherent virtue in leaving all our fiction switches on the default settings?)

new-front-coverIt wasn’t actually that easy, of course. The fantasy world in which the novel is set remains rather patriarchal, and I had neither the ambition nor the inclination to try to challenge that my first time out. A few details had to be changed, but Story was still every bit as in-charge as Randoval had been. And it made the story better. Where Randoval often came off as just another Han Solo wannabe, Story felt fresh to me. She challenged my perspective. And because I’d originally written her as a guy, she did things she probably wouldn’t have done if I had originally written her as a woman. In short, she taught me things.

To be honest, I questioned this decision. I had readers who loved and identified Randoval. I questioned whether this was born of some sort of male guilt, or a need to be (get ready for one of my least favorite phrases) politically correct. But I realized I had a lot of very good reasons for doing this:

It got me out of my comfort zone. Rewriting the protagonist from a female perspective forced me to confront a few assumptions about my own fiction. It broadened up my horizons a little. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I learned a Valuable Lesson About Life (cue The More You Know music), because that’s not what I mean. But it did shake up the ride a little, and I enjoyed it all the more for that.

Most of my readers are actually female. The ones I engage with, anyway. A couple weeks before I made this decision, Brianna Sheldon made a thread on Google+ about good, capable female protagonists in fantasy fiction, and maybe I’m just not finding the right books, but my short list was really short. Aside from Tristan Tarwater‘s protagonist in Thieves at Heart, I was hard-pressed to come up with much of anything in what I’d read recently. I know tons of awesome female writers and readers. Why not put someone in the book they can relate to? I don’t mean that to sound pandering — it just seems like basic marketing to me.

It just worked. Neither of the above reasons would have mattered if changing the gender of the main character had somehow diminished the narrative, or if it had seemed dishonest or smarmy. But it did work. I liked Randoval a lot, but I love Story, and I love what she did for the novel. It changed Orison from a book I thought was merely okay to one I’m really quite proud of. Even my editor said, rather emphatically, “Story could never be a man! Story as a man = boring. Story as a woman = awesome.” While I think the character would be just great either way, I’m glad she’s as enthusiastic about the change as I am.

I want to linger over that last part a bit, because in writing this, I realize it might come across like I made my protagonist female out of some desire to get Magic Feminism Cookies or whatever. That’s not the case. The dearth of good female characters in fantasy fiction has bothered me for decades. The next novel I wrote (now in a sorry state of abandonment) was written in part to address that lack.

I’m not trying to teach the world to sing, or anything like that, I’m just writing the kind of book I’d like to read myself. I don’t for one instant consider Orison to be some sort of Important Feminist Work; it most emphatically is not. It’s just a good fantasy yarn, which happens to have a female protagonist who doesn’t get by on her bare midriff and her sexuality. And if that makes my novel out of the ordinary somehow, well, all I can say is, it shouldn’t. I think it should be both common and unremarkable.

Finally, I think there is a greater writing lesson here, entirely divorced from gender. It’s about questioning your own assumptions about why your book is or isn’t working, and the value of breaking away from your routine. They say you should write fiction that scares you or challenges you, but I think that’s often more difficult than it looks, because we don’t always know what we should challenge or why. I feel fortunate that in the case of Orison, my desire to shake things up and my long-standing gripes with fantasy fiction intersected, and I was able to make something cool from the result.

Still, I do want to find a home for Randoval one day, because I think he’s a good guy and a good character. I hope someday to meet him again. But I’m really hope that when Orison drops, some of you will take a chance and meet Story. Because I like her a lot.