Ken Scholes is the author of the Psalms of Isaac series, comprised thus far of Lamentation, Canticle, and Antiphon, published by TOR. He has short stories set in this world, plus excerpts of the novels available to read at TOR.com: link here. These books are also available in audio, read by multiple voice actors.
The covers are hyperlinks to Better World Books.
1) Winters is probably the most true character I’ve met. She is absolutely a shy, adolescent girl going through puberty, dealing simultaneously with both the Destiny of her Peoples and despairing loneliness. I get the sense that a lot of readers resonate with this character. We’ve all been, and some days still are, Winters. (Us gals, anyway.) How does a writer hit a character so spot on?
I’m glad you enjoy Winters. She’s a result of me having a good partner. Jen was reading along as I wrote Lamentation and about halfway in, she noted that I really didn’t have much in the way of strong female characters apart from Jin Li Tam. Of course, she was right. I’d always been a bit nervous writing female characters, fearing I’d get them all wrong. But I think the trick is to put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine what they love, what they fear, what they long for and then stay true to that…and use empathy to extrapolate how they might feel or think in the areas where you’re different from your character.
I was so smitten when I created Winters in Lamentation that I just had to make her part of the ensemble for the rest of the series. And I tried within my ensemble to have at least one character that would resonate with every reader — largely from me bending the archetypal characters of the epic fantasy genre — the dashing pope, the secret king, the destined orphan, the deadly courtesan.
Over the last two years, I’ve had similar comments made about Petronus, about Jin, about Rudolfo — that they were characters who found deep resonance with a particular reader. So it sounds like my fiendish plot is working. [Insert maniacal laughter here.]
2) You mix engineering and magic in a delightful way, incorporating steam mechanisms without going over the Steampunk Deep Edge. Do you have a background in engineering, machining or similar works?
Nope. Zip, zilch, zero background. I’m intentionally not going into a lot of detail around those elements of the story – along with other bits of setting and worldbuilding detail – because I really just want enough of that “feel” to give the world a sense of being real. I want the inner lives of my characters — juxtaposed against the external conflicts they face — to be the focus of the story.
3) And of course, there are the prevalent Catholic themes that are drawn upon (and turned inside out!) in the books: “psalms”, the Pope and Antipope, the names of some of the characters, and so forth. How were you able to make these stories taste of Orthodoxy while still making the political and religious structures in The Psalms of Isaac unique?
I spent a great deal of my early years as a practicing Christian, including a period of time as a fundamentalist minister (I got better). I studied a lot of church history along with the impact (both positive and negative) of religion. The Pope and Antipope are definitely drawn from that study of history and much of the Androfrancines came about by my pondering the notion of a group of secular humanists establishing a religious hierarchy that made the light of human knowledge and accomplishment sacred as a means of protecting the survivors of repeated cataclysms.
4) Dreaming plays a huge part in the Psalms of Isaac. The characters meet, warn, prophesize, and give one another instructions in dream-land. It lends a sense of mysticism to some of the characters, but is handled in a way that it doesn’t get goofy. Additionally, only some of the characters have prophetic or conversational dreams, while others just have plain old dreams. How does this mechanism help you to tell the story?
Well, I set out to tell an otherworldly biblical epic…with a postapocalyptic twist. Prophesies, speaking in tongues, the dead speaking in dreams, dreams of a promised land, the birth of a promised child. These are all components of that epic, only instead of a monotheistic religion based on the blood sacrifice rituals of desert nomads, I have Wizard Kings from the moon who rule humanity as gods based on the mythos of that world. From there, I just try to stay true to the perspective of the characters, who are all convinced that what they’re experiencing is metaphysical.
5) We’ve talked about romance a little on Darkcargo before. What’s your take on all that kissy stuff in a novel with tough, post-apocalyptic scenes?
I’m a hopeless romantic and like a bit of that kissy stuff in my fiction. That said, there’s some romance in the series but not really a lot due to the characters all being separated for long periods of time. And I think that the dynamics of human romance and sexuality and relationship are pretty constant and important bits of our species that should be celebrated…even in a tough post-apocalyptic setting. Because I think we gravitate towards love even in the darkest of places.
6) Neb doesn’t talk for a long, long time after his traumatic experience. Is this an example of PTSD?
Well, I suppose it could’ve been. But more than that, it was his brain being overloaded and effected by the blood magicks unleashed on Windwir. We learn a bit more about his exposure to the blood magicks later in Antiphon.
7) Why is the throne wicker?
It seemed like a cool notion. Something temporary just as the Marshfolk saw their time in the Named Lands as temporary. Oh, and it’s a bit easier to haul wicker up the mountain.
8) When I first opened Lamentation, I thought about all the scrolls and papyrus that were lost in the Alexandria Library…the burning of the Mayan Codices, multiple sackings of Bablylon…. If you could visit a library of the past, where would you stop off for a library card?
If I had a working time machine, I’d hit them all. But Windwir’s fall and its library was definitely inspired by the library at Alexandria and the notion of everything lost there, mixed in with the greater sense of loss one might feel if it were the last gathered knowledge on a world made largely desolate by repeated cataclysms.
9) Books one through three of the Psalms of Isaac series have been published. When are books four and five coming around? Are you working on anything else besides this series right now?
I’m working on Requiem now and should be finished in a handful of months. I’ve had some big setbacks — I lost both of my parents and my nephew while working on Canticle and Antiphon and just as I finished the third volume, my twin daughters were born. Mix in some health struggles (I got better) and a need to re-learn how to write with toddlers in the house and it’s been quite a challenge.
But volume four should be out roughly a year after I finish the draft. And I’ll read the first four volumes with a notebook handy, then ideally start Hymn — the final volume — in late 2011 or early 2012.
10) What are you reading now?
Well, I don’t get to read much…when I do, it’s outside the genre. I recently finished Greg Iles’s Spandeau Phoenix and I’ve started Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer.