Friday, December 21, 2018

New interview with novelist Ted Neill

Novelist Ted Neill is back for a visit. We’re chatting about his epic fantasy collection, The Complete Elk Rider’s Series, today.

Globetrotter and writer Ted Neill has worked on five continents as an educator, health professional, and journalist. He is the founder and executive editor of Tenebray Press. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Recovery Today, and he has published a number of novels exploring issues related to science, religion, class, and social justice. His 2017 novel, The Selah Branch, attempts to confront issues of racism and the divided political environment of the US today and the 1950s. His debut novel, City on a Hill, examines the fault lines of religious conflict in the Middle East. His five-book series, Elk Riders, wrestles with issues of ethics, morality, and belief against an epic fantasy backdrop. He wrote his most recent young adult novel Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies after living and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in Kenya. His memoir about those years, Two Years of Wonder, is a number one new release on Amazon. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Welcome back to Reviews and Interviews, Ted. Please tell us about your newest release.
The Elk Riders Omnibus is the complete Elk Riders series, volumes one through five. It begins with the story of Gabriella Carlyle and her brother Dameon continuing through to the adventures of Prince Haille and his friends in the realm of Anthor. Adamantus, a magical elk, is the individual who connects all these characters. There are more stories to tell with these characters and this world beyond Elk Riders. I plan a follow up series, the Skyln Chronicles, in the coming years. But I wanted to provide fans with a way to have the complete Elk Riders cycle in one omnibus volume.

What inspired you to write this series?
It was really a simple love of the epic fantasy genre. I’ve heard some writers write with a specific audience in mind. I sort do and don’t. I guess I write books I would want to read! And I have been developing the world, characters, and themes in the Elk Riders series since I was an undergrad.

The excerpt below is from Elk Riders Volume Three: The Font of Jasmeen. This is from the pivotal chapter when Haille and Katlyn, having struck out on their own and in disguise, cross paths with Adamantus for the first time. They are at a carnival and in some trouble of their own as they try to flee local law enforcement.

Katlyn’s upper arm was exposed and on her bare flesh was a silver band, intricately carved to appear like a coiled, sleeping dragon.
“Blast it, if that is not contraband, I don’t know what is,” the younger Inquisitor said.
Madam Palas bent over, cupped the band in her hand and shook Katlyn so that her teeth clacked. “Where did you get this? Don’t you know these are forbidden?”
“Run,” Katlyn said.
“What is that?” the woman said.
Haille realized Katlyn wasn’t speaking to the woman, but warning him. What happened next came about too fast for Haille to react. Instead he stared, agog, as Katlyn reached beneath the flap of her tunic with her free hand, drew a knife, and whipped the blade across the woman’s cheek. Hot drops of blood landed on Haille’s face. The woman let out a terrible screech. The younger Inquisitor was struck dumb as Haille. Katlyn took advantage. She punched the knife into his thigh. He dropped to the ground, clutching his leg, while Katlyn grabbed Haille, her own torn clothes flapping wildly with her movement, and shouted once more, “Run!”
They sprinted between tents, ducking under and jumping over ropes. Haille tripped on a tent stake and as he scrambled up he looked backwards to see both Inquisitors following, a bright red gash weeping blood down the cheek of the woman and the young man limping along behind her. Haille and Katlyn had no plan. They shared no thought but the impulse to flee. The tents provided twists and turns enough that they were able to lose the Inquisitors for the space of a few breaths. But as soon as they stopped to rest, their hands on their knees, their chests heaving, Madam Palas came around a tent and cried out, “They’re here!”
They started off again, crossing the main thoroughfare and weaving between couples, families, and packs of children. For a few blessed moments they were hidden by the crowd but people were staring at them wide-eyed, especially at Katlyn, her hair disheveled, her tunic ripped, and a bloody knife clutched in her fist. Haille yanked her back between two tents just as Madam Palas emerged from a crowd of stunned onlookers.
“We need to hide,” Haille said between deep breaths. The air was foul. He wondered if they were near a stable or pig sty.
“Here,” Katlyn said, sheathing her knife, dropping to the ground, and rolling beneath the edge of the nearest tent. Haille followed, then froze on the other side, his sleeve to his nose, as footsteps passed just on the outside of the tent.
The stench was even worse now and Haille recognized it: the tent of animal wonders. It was already dark outside but the inside of the tent was even darker. All but one of the lanterns had been allowed to burn out. There was no one touring the inside. Haille imagined customers were turned away by the sight of the proprietor passed out in the entryway. Not to mention the stench. The cages were arranged in a circle along the outer walls. The exception was one large cage looming in the center of the room next to the tent pole. Madam Palas called out to her apprentice just on the opposite side of the canvas wall. Haille prepared to run for the entrance but her footsteps receded, followed by the grunts and uneven footfalls of her limping apprentice.
Albino bats, two-headed turtles, and three-legged goats stared back at him from cages with the wary look of animals often beaten. Haille was wondering how long they could hide there when he thought he heard a new voice behind him. He turned but only saw Katlyn staring into the largest cage.
“What did you say?” Haille whispered.
Katlyn did not answer, but something, something big, moved in the cage. It looked to be the size of a horse but was a gaunt horse if that. Haille came alongside Katlyn.
“This is terrible,” she said, not taking her eyes from the creature within. Closer, Haille could see it was no horse but an elk. Its fur was missing in patches as if from mange and in places its skin was healing from lashes of a whip. Its knees were red and weeping from ducking down in a cage too short for it. The upper bars were nicked and scratched from antlers that gleamed like metal rather than the boney substance most antlers were made from.
“Come on, we have to hide,” Haille said.
“No,” Katlyn said. “We need to free these animals.”
“You just stabbed an Inquisitor. Are you crazy? What is that thing on your arm?”
She yanked her upper arm out of his grasp and ignored him. Instead she darted to the entrance of the tent and started to drag something across the ground. “Come on, help me.”
Haille came to her side and realized she was pulling at the arm of the passed out animal master. He grunted and stirred in his stupor. Haille cursed under his breath, went to the man’s belt, and found a ring of keys before ducking back into the fetid darkness of the tent. “Here, but—” was all he said before Katlyn swiped the keys and set about trying them in all the locks. She tried the center cage first, the elk rising up behind the door, its hooves and its antlers banging against the bars.
“Katlyn, are you sure this is a good idea?”
Katlyn dashed to the other cages where she met with immediate success, turning the key and setting free a sleek black fox with red eyes. A barn owl followed, next a cage full of ferrets, then the two-headed turtle. The three-legged goat needed help out of it cage. After lifting it, Katlyn shook the cage of the albino bats so that they fluttered out and circled in the air at the apex of the tent. Haille stood staring at the growing chaos, the fox slipping past his feet. The elk slammed against the bars of its cage, its eyes gleaming at Haille like two radiant moons. The cage still held.
“This ought to do it,” Katlyn said from beside him, heaving up a hammer for driving tent stakes into the ground. Before Haille could protest, she brought it down on the lock holding the elk in its cage. Sparks flew in the darkness, incandescent as if from a blacksmith’s hammer. A woman screamed outside as the bats shot out through the main flap of the tent. Katlyn struck the lock again while the elk rocked the cage and raked its antlers against the bars. More sparks rained down. The beast huffed, grunted, and bellowed. Katlyn took two steps backwards, ran at the cage with a cry, throwing her entire body into the swing, her ripped tunic opening and the strange band on her arm catching the little light left, almost as if it were glowing.
This time the lock swung sideways and opened like a broken jaw. The door exploded outward, just missing Katlyn’s head. She tottered backwards, crashing into Haille. He grabbed hold of her but they both fell to the floor. Drawn by the commotion, Madam Palas appeared at the entrance just in time for the elk to leap into her and knock her flat on her back. More screams followed from outside. Haille pulled Katlyn to her feet and they scrambled for the far side of the tent where they had entered. Haille lifted the flap to roll under the tent again but a hand grabbed his wrist and a voice called out, “Got you.”
The apprentice dragged him out from under the edge of the tent and started calling to Madam Palas inside.
“The other one is in here,” she answered back. Haille struggled but the apprentice was much bigger and, even wounded, he was stronger. Haille thought to kick him in his thigh where he was still bleeding but he didn’t need to. The apprentice’s eyes grew wide and Haille heard the approach of hoof beats. The elk rounded the corner and made a charge directly at the apprentice. The young man let go of Haille and dove aside. Katlyn rolled under the tent next and then the elk did something else queer: it lowered its rack of antlers to the nearest line holding up the tent and snapped it with one of the sharp edges. The side of the tent collapsed with a rush of air and a flutter of canvas. The elk did the same to the next rope and the next until the tent was completely deflating, with Madam Palas struggling beneath. Even the apprentice was too dumbstruck to act. The elk shook its head, dropped its antlers down, and snapped the lines to the next tent. There were screams erupting all around them as bystanders fled and tents crumpled. Chaos was good cover and Haille and Katlyn quickly scanned for the nearest path out.
“That is one smart animal,” Katlyn said.
“Then he is smart enough to fend for himself. Let’s get out of here,” Haille said.

What’s the next writing project?
I have two new releases on the way. Finding St. Lo, which is a collection of memoirs from my grandfather, Robert L. Fowler and one of the medics, Gordon E. Cross, who served alongside him in his infantry regiment, the 134th, in WWII. It will come out next year, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.

The second new release will, set for spring 2019, will be a post-apocalyptic novel called Reaper Moon. The premise is that a virus has decimated the world’s population. Immunity to the virus is carried on the same gene that carries the sickle cell trait. As a result, the ethnic profile of the survivors in what is left of the US has been inverted. People of color are the majority and everything associated with health, wealth, and survival, is linked to blackness, while crime, the collapse of families, and violence are associated with whiteness. Many white survivors are fine with this, but those who are not are members of white supremacist groups, who declare war on people of color and their white allies. Reaper Moon plays forward many of the conflicts riling our country right now into a “what-if” scenario that serves as a stage to examine these divisions, their history, and the prejudice/irrationality that underlies them.

What is your biggest challenge when writing a new book? (or the biggest challenge with this book)
It’s different with every book. With the Elk Riders series, it was finding the time, as when I was writing the story I was not yet a full time writer, I had a “day” job that was paying the bills. For Finding St. Lo, being a good steward of other people’s stories was a challenge, as was trying to balance the needs of surviving relatives and how disclosure of personal stories of their parents might affect them. For Reaper Moon, it has been the challenge of the material. Racism, violence, prejudice, are tough to write about day in and day out. I’ll be glad when it’s finished and I don’t have to step into that world any longer.

If your novels require research – please talk about the process. Do you do the research first and then write, while you’re writing, after the novel is complete and you need to fill in the gaps?
Both. For Elk Riders there was early research and ongoing research on medieval living and settings, not to mention technical terms for equestrian equipment, swords, armor and shields. Finding St. Lo required deep research into original personnel lists, after action reports, and WWII era maps—many of which have been graciously maintained and made available on the web by families of men who served. Reaper Moon was the hardest book I’ve ever researched/written. After the first few drafts, I realized the antagonists—mainly white nationalists and supremacists—all were coming off as cartoon villains, caricatures. They weren’t real. These issues, this material, deserved a more nuanced depiction of the hate driving people. And the story needed—if not sympathetic villains—at least three-dimensional villains. So before I did a rewrite, I spent a month visiting really vile white supremacist, neo-nazi, and white nationalist websites and blogs. It was a bit like submerging my head in an unflushed toilet. But when I used those voices for the villains in the novel, it took on a new life and new depth.

What’s your writing space like? Do you have a particular spot to write where the muse is more active? Please tell us about it.
I write my best stuff in the early morning hours (sometimes the muse has showed up in the evening but most frequently we have breakfast dates not dinner). My desk is set in front of some floor to ceiling windows. I live in Seattle, so getting light is really important. That said, I often will have some candles burning nearby when I am writing new stuff. I also listen to music, soundtracks mainly, that match the tone/mood of the book I’m writing.

What authors do you enjoy reading within or outside of your genre?
I don’t write mystery, don’t know if I ever will (although I have some ideas), however, one of my favorite authors by far is James Lee Burke. I’ve read everything he’s ever written.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers today?
Oh lordy, I’ve probably yammered on enough! Thanks for the opportunity to share.

Thank you for coming back to Reviews and Interviews!