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Nessantico, Night and Day: an interview with S.L. Farrell by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner *Interview  
Date: 29 April 2010

Links: S.L. Farrell / Review: Magic of Dawn /

S.L. Farrell (aka Stephen Leigh) has written or contributed to literally dozens of books in his distinguished career. A founding member of the Wild Cards Consortium, he's also the author behind the Cloudmages series and the newly-completed Nessantico Cycle, a huge work of epic fantasy set in a world riven by changes political, social, religious, and philosophical.

SFRevu: Stephen sat down recently with SFRevu for a quick talk on wrapping the Nessantico Cycle and writing.

Steve, this is the last part of a really huge story. As a reviewer, I can say it's a challenge to summarize it, since there's so much going on; between dozens of characters, a number of subplots and an overarching narrative, it's hard to know where to begin! So let's put the burden on you, the writer. (heh heh).

Say you met someone at a convention who had not read the trilogy. How would you describe the story?

Steve: You mean after I berate them for not having bought the books? :-) I'd say that it's a story of political and religious intrigue, magic, romantic entanglements, and deception set in a quasi-Renaissance empire, a story that spans a half-century where empires rise, collide, and re-form. Or, more succinctly, it's a story about a pivotal moment in this world's history, where mythology and logic are on a collision course.

SFRevu: Okay, that was pretty good! As I said, this is a complex story, and the narrative is split among many protagonists. What does this allow you to do, as the writer, that other techniques might not?

Steve: It allowed me to utterly confuse myself during the writing. Seriously, using several POVs was a deliberate choice, and the only way to tell this story well, in my opinion. I knew that in structuring the novels this way I risked readers being upset by the numbers of voices, but to do otherwise would have injured the story.

I've been involved in the Wild Cards series for a long time, and what I've seen there -- especially in the 'mosaic novels' that generally end each triad of the series -- is that using several viewpoint characters can lend a richness and depth to a novel that (sometimes) a single POV lacks.

As I set up this world, I had simultaneous events unfolding in different lands, all of which had a tremendous impact on the plot. A single POV simply wouldn't have worked, and as a writer, I much prefer a tight, limited POV to an omniscient one that just wanders over the landscape. Therefore, the obvious choice was to use several POV characters, each of whom had their own unique and critical view of the events, and who would come together and interact in various combinations throughout the series.

SFRevu: This strikes me as your epic fantasy--was it daunting to launch into such a huge project?

Steve: Well, it's always daunting to start something new. It doesn't matter how many books you've written: you never know when you start the next one whether any of the stuff you've learned about writing is going to apply to this one.

Each new project has its own risks and its own requirements. The risk here -- to my mind -- was the use of multiple viewpoints, more than anything else. But hey, I love trying to do something I haven't done before.

SFRevu: Which character was the biggest challenge to write? Was there one in the bunch who surprised you or ended up working against your goals?

Steve: Sergei was the one who surprised me the most. In the beginning, way back in A Magic Of Twilight, I intended to use him as POV for one and only one scene -- because he had the best view of that particular scene (the torture of a failed assassin).

As I wrote that scene and as I started to put together a personality and a past that would match my needs for that scene -- in other words, as I started to make him a 'character' rather than just a 'role' -- I found that I was really interested in what would make someone like him tick. I started to see all the potential complexities beneath the surface -- he wasn't just a torturer, he was a deeply twisted but also deeply intelligent individual.

I found him fascinating as I moved through the chapter, as I gave him words to speak. By the time I finished the scene, I knew I had to use him again. And after that second scene, well, I knew Sergei had to be an integral part of the novel, and so I revamped things to make it so.

The biggest POV challenge in A Magic of Dawn was the character of Nico: since he appears in A Magic of Nightfall as a very sympathetic child, I wanted the reader to feel the same sympathy for him as an adult, when he was doing things that were, well, not overly sympathetic. Sympathetic may actually be the wrong word -- the reader doesn't have to be rooting for him, but I want them to feel that they can understand how he could be the way he is.

Hopefully, I managed that.

SFRevu: You note your trip to France as part of the research and inspiration for this story. What other inspirations would you cite?

Steve: I read lots of non-fiction, and most of the books that served as inspiration, large or small, for the Nessantico Cycle are listed in the acknowledgment pages of the three books; I'll leave it to the reader to check those. :-)

In general, I've always been fascinated by hinge moments in history, incidents and events that -- when we look back at them with the wisdom of time -- represent a change in direction, and that's what I wanted to examine with the Nessantico Cycle: the point where a culture's worldview starts to shift. I wanted the city of Nessantico to be as much of a character as any of the people inhabiting her.

Yes, France in general and Paris in particular were inspirations, but so also were Venice and Florence. I borrowed freely from the history of those cities. Nessantico is a very Italianate/French empire. And while there are tons of medieval fantasies out there, there weren't nearly as many that seemed to echo the world of the 1600s, which was to me another one of those eras where Things Changed.

SFRevu: What is the book that fired your imagination and got you interested in being a writer? Was there more than one?

Steve: I really can't say. I was a voracious reader as a kid; I read anything I could get my hands on, and my parents didn't care what book I picked off the shelves -- I guess they figured that if it was above my head, I'd either figure it out or stop reading. I read everything from comic books to literary novels, but science fiction and fantasy were my genres of choice; there was something giddy and exhilarating about discovering worlds and creatures and situations that were different and unique.

After awhile -- around seventh or eighth grade -- I found that there were stories I wanted to hear that weren't out there because they existed only in my head, so I started writing some of those down. They were really awful, amateur efforts and I couldn't make the words quite match the scenes in my head, but I kept at it. (There's another trait a writer needs to have: persistence!)

Probably the writer I most wanted to be when I was young was Ray Bradbury; I read everything he'd written, devouring his lavish and magical prose. I certainly imitated his style (badly) when I was starting to write down my own stories. I much preferred Bradbury to the more prosaic and workmanlike prose of Asimov or Clarke. Asimov was all about plot; Bradbury was all about characters and emotions, and that was my preference.

Then, and now.

SFRevu: This is not the first fantasy work you've written. Did writing the Cloudmages trilogy inform how you approached the Nessantico Cycle?

Steve: Honestly, not particularly. Mind you, I loved writing the Cloudmages series, loved that world and the family line I was exploring and the way in which magic works there -- and maybe someday I'll return because I still have stories to tell in that place. But those novels tended to have a very tight POV: Holder of Lightning has only one POV character for the entire novel; Mage of Clouds has mostly one, and while Heir of Stone ends up with three, they're all closely intertwined (two brothers and a sister). It's very much a generational saga, very much an ancient world, and very Celtic in orientation.

Again, having only a few POVs in the Cloudmages series was intentional -- the stories didn't need to have more. To have used the style I use in the Nessantico Cycle would have muddied the story.

The only thing that the Nessantico Cycle shares with the Cloudmages books is the intent to make each book stand alone as much as possible, and the idea that the story takes place over a long span of time, with years passing between each individual book -- generally more years in the case of the Cloudmages books than those of Nessantico.

But otherwise -- Nessantico, as already mentioned, is far more 'modern' a world, and has nothing Celtic in it, and while there are familial lines we follow in Nessantico, it's not truly a generational saga. Nessantico is a very different world from that of Jenna and her family, and their universes have a very different look and feel to me.

On the other hand, any time you write, you should be learning how to be a better writer, and hopefully I've taken those craft lessons from the Cloudmages books and put them in Nessantico.

SFRevu: What's the most important thing you've learned in your career as a writer?

Steve: For me, it was that writing needs to be a (bad) habit. When I started, I waited for the Muse to arrive before I would begin to write. Let me tell you, she's a pretty erratic guest, at least at my house. (Not to mention that she leaves her dirty dishes laying about everywhere.) I eventually realized that there was no Muse, that the key to being a writer was to write, and that just as a good musician plays his or her instrument every day, so a good writer sits down and writes something each and every day.

One gets better by doing, not by thinking about doing.

And I also had to learn that most important part of writing was revision: that a severe and critical polishing process is a vital component of a publishable work.

SFRevu: What's coming up next? A long vacation, hopefully!

Steve: I hope there's no vacation at all; I'm grouchy and bored if I'm not working.

As I write this in late April, I currently have a couple proposals out circulating. Hopefully I'll have Good News very soon. In the meantime, I've been doing some shorter work for Wild Cards and for a few anthologies.

SFRevu: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to mention?

Steve: For the readers out there who haven't read my books, if this sounds like the kind of fantasy you'd enjoy reading, I hope you'll decide to pick up the books! And I love hearing from people who have read my stuff; you can always contact me at

SFRevu: Thanks for the interview, Steve! Look for MAGIC OF DAWN, on sale now!

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