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.”