Interview with Jonathan Renshaw, author of Dawn of Wonder

Davis: Today, I get to interview Jonathan Renshaw, author of the fantastic Dawn of Wonder, the first volume of his planned Wakening series. This is the self-published novel that I recently reviewed and absolutely loved. I thought it was one of the finest self-published fantasy work since Anthony Ryan’s seminal Blood Song, and one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years.

But before we get to your book, Jonathan, let’s talk about what you’ve done in the past. There is an old wives’ tale, sometimes attributed to Stephen King, that in order to become proficient as a writer, you first have to practice, and that usually requires one million words of crap before you finally start getting it right. For me, that turned out to be the case.

Thus, my first question. Are there any deep, dark books that you’ve written? Novels so bad that the pages bleed? (fingers crossed: please say yes, please say yes, please say yes-us mere mortals hate it when demigods descend to show us up).

Jonathan: Deep and dark would be undue compliments to my early efforts. Shallow and combustible might be more accurate. The weird thing is that I can never really tell at any given stage if my writing is any good. It’s only when I look back that I get a bit of perspective – and wince. At the time, I thought those first few pages I wrote were going to shake the world with their brilliance. I did allow one or two people to read them and they were disturbingly silent afterwards. Sometimes the silence would be broken by questions like, “Have you thought about becoming an accountant?”

 Davis: Oh thank God! Now I don’t have to feel so inferior.

In your bio, you indicate that you originally grew up reading the classics, such as Dickens, Twain, Doyle, Austen, Stevenson, etc. and that you’re original fiction writing was informed in this way. I find that fascinating because while I read many of those authors, I didn’t study their writing. I read a few Jane Austen novels more recently and she’s still brilliantly funny, but those run on sentences! Sheesh! How did puzzling out the classics help with your own writing? Or did it?

Jonathan: Yes, there are some major differences in punctuation and style, which have to be overlooked, and I do share your frustrations but I find the gains are worth it.

I have a long list of things I’ve learned from the classics, but let me just pick out a few. The first would probably be the creative use of words, almost a playfulness. Things are often expressed in unexpected, even adventurous ways that would have taken a lot of thought and that result in a new dimension, a new layer to the reading experience. Another would be the depth of insight into characters’ thoughts, reactions and motivations. The subtle perceptions are often so revealing and so neatly expressed. Next on my list would be the descriptions of scenes. The passages tend to be far longer than most modern readers would tolerate, but the skill shown with the word-brush can still be appreciated. The scene painting is as much about the artistic use of words as about the resulting picture, not unlike poetry. Maybe the last point I would make is the sound. Any good writing can be “sounded”. There’s a rhythm to prose, more subtle than poetry, as well as a musicality – the way the tones interact with each other and with the meaning being conveyed.

 It’s not that I don’t think there are modern writers capable of these things, but so many of the classic writers did them well, and they were the ones to lay the foundations of good prose. Learning from them is like learning from the grand masters, the teacher’s teachers.

 Davis: That is very interesting. It makes me wish I’d actually taken some formal courses on the study of those authors and how they structured their sentences. I guess there’s no time like the present to learn what I overlooked. Recently, I’ve taken a look at poetic devices to see how I can better incorporate it into my writing.

Jonathan: Actually, that shows. The subtle poetic touches caught my attention within the first few pages of your writing. Thou art are no stranger to the word brush.

Davis: So after figuring out that writing like someone 200 years old might not be the best way to communicate with a modern audience, what did you do in terms of reading? Which of the more recent books made an impact on you? More specifically, which fantasy novels or authors do you enjoy?

Jonathan: My reading diet is rather broad. I try to read things from all ends of the spectrum from easy action thrillers to the heavy academic works in which nothing happens but that nothing is exquisitely presented. My favourite books are the ones where brilliant writing meets a satisfying story.

 Some of the more recent books I’ve enjoyed have been Chickenhawk (Mason), Shantaram (Roberts), The Abyss (Card), My Sister’s Keeper (Picoult), Words of Radiance (Sanderson), The Husband (Koontz), The Kite Runner (Huseini), Three Men in a Boat (Jerome), The Second Foundation (Asimov), The Testament (Grisham), Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams), The Book Thief (Zusak), The Eagle Has Landed (Higgins), The Caine Mutiny (Woulk).

 I have to admit that I’m not actually able to get my hands on much of the fantasy I want to read. Saving up and committing to full time writing have required me to live on a shoestring budget for several years, so most of my reading has had to come from the local libraries, which are kind of thin on fantasy. Gormenghast, for example, has been on my wish list for about five years.

 Fantasy authors I enjoy – Sanderson, Pratchett, Rothfuss, Feist, LeGuin, Beagle, Lewis, and Tolkien (if these last two are admissible as modern authors). The fantasy books I’ve most recently read and loved would include both The Stormlight Archive books, The Name of the Wind, The Colour of Magic, and The Last Unicorn.

 Davis: That is an eclectic list. I think you’d love Gormenghast. Reading his descriptive prose is a joy in itself.

In terms of your writing schedule, how do you approach your books? Do you have to have the entire plot outlined? The major plot elements outlined? Or just wing it?

Jonathan: I’ve tried both the tightly structured and the no-plan launch. I can’t wing it for long without a plan because the ideas multiply and as I jot them down on bits of paper, phone, hand, whatever is available, I end up with a rough plot. I found the biggest problem with a tight structure is that characters aren’t permitted to surprise me and mess things up, and if they can’t do that, they aren’t real. I think Stephen King makes this point.

 For now, I work with a dynamic plan. There is a guideline at the start, but I find that if the structure is rigid and imposes on character choices, the story goes flat very quickly. I like stories that are driven by relationships. That requires real characters that act in ways that are unexpected and even frustrating for a writer who is trying to contain them within a plot. When I allow characters to behave in ways that are true to their natures and make choices that surprise each other and even me, it shifts things around and the plot needs to adapt.

 The depth of Aedan’s brokenness is an example. I could have written a much simpler story in which he gains personal confidence from his growing skills and overcomes his internal weakness after a few months, but the more I read on the fight/flight/freeze (and the lesser-known fawn) behaviours from psychologists and war biographers, the more I began to see a kind of trauma that exists on a very deep level that is almost always hidden, even from the individual in question – until some crisis causes it to surface.. I hadn’t planned for Aedan to have a crippling weakness. It spoiled my original plot but it was where the character was tugging. Liru is another example. She wasn’t a plotted character. She swept in from nowhere and made a large place for herself that resulted in several adaptations. I’m still not sure where her character came from. It just sort of appeared on the page and I decided to let her grow into the story as she seemed to want to do.

 So in short, I plot, but in pencil.

 Davis: I have a similar writing style, and I am similarly surprised and gratified. There is one character in particular who I absolutely love. He was initially supposed to be an Orc/Redshirt, but he decided to become so much more. It was just one line change in how this character perceived an event, and my entire story was upended. It ended up changing the entire dynamic.

Jonathan: I love that. It’s like these characters stand up from the page, kick the letters aside to make some space, refuse to do as they are told, and then start bossing us around. Those, for me, are the most enjoyable characters to write. The challenge is to then go back and breathe the same kind of life into all the others.

Davis: Now moving on to your book. Dawn of Wonder. How long have you been working on it?

Jonathan: The book itself took a little over a year and a half, but I spent about ten years before that building the world with different books that opened at various places on the map, with various characters. I’d get about a hundred pages in and then begin again with another angle, trying to do a better job each time. I also worked on other book ideas in different genres. After a decade of that, I knew where I wanted to start and what kind of story I wanted to write, partly because I had built up such a good sense of where and what I didn’t want to write.

Davis: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of worldbuilding going on, so hopefully, there are many more stories to come from this world.

Jonathan: I hope so. That’s the thing with fantasy, especially epic. The worlds authors build require so much work that it would be bitter indeed to have to abandon all that after a single book.

Davis: Dawn of Wonder starts out in a place that’s familiar to most fantasy fans. It’s the Shire, or Emond’s Field, or some small rustic village we all secretly wish we could live in. Again, back to your bio, how similar is Aeden’s childhood to what you experienced growing up?

Jonathan: My first home had a lot in common with the Mistyvales, including the mist. It was a place of farms, forests, grassy hills and a view of the mountains when the air was clear. I’d considered starting the story elsewhere, like in a city, because I knew some would call the countryside a fantasy trope, but I simply couldn’t start anywhere else. The Mistyvales was in my dreams long before I’d even heard of epic fantasy. It wasn’t just a place, it was a character that spoke into the relationships seen early on, much as my first home did for me. There’s a great deal I love about cities, but the Mistyvales is what my blood knows as home. The same, incidentally, can be said of the academy. Trope or not, I couldn’t keep it out of the story. Universities are special places to me, not just for the knowledge they contain, but also because of all the fascinating corridors, galleries and storage rooms that you aren’t supposed to explore. We were forever discovering security entrances that had been left unlocked … Perhaps I should stop here.

Davis: The characters you created are for the most part treated with great sympathy. Even Aeden’s father is given moments to reveal something other than the beast. You show the reality of the world, the gutter politics, the conniving, the deadly street gangs, and yet, Aeden and those who know him, maintain a moral core. Given the popular trend in fantasy toward gray heroes or even anti-heroes, was this a conscious decision? And, if so, why choose this route?

Jonathan: It’s true that Aedan and his friends are seen as having a moral core (though there are some fairly serious vices exhibited among them – kleptomania, racism, cruelty …). It wasn’t so much a decision on what kind of person I wanted to represent as what point of view I chose to use. You’ll know how a limited third person perspective is similar in many ways to the outlook of a first person. The way Aedan is seen is largely the way he sees himself. I thought the kind of boy I was writing about would most naturally think of himself as trying to do the right thing. In reality, his choices are not always morally right, but he would have given little weight to this, and the narrative perspective reflects that.

As to his friends, I don’t think that as a teenage boy he would be most likely to see his companions in sophisticated greys but rather in simple black and white – friend/likeable, enemy/unlikeable. He would also naturally give more emphasis to the good qualities in his friends and overlook their vices.

The same story told from Malik’s side would probably also be morally polarised, but the groups would be different and the events would interpreted from an entirely reversed perspective. Malik would be seen as troubled yet fundamentally good, and his flaws would be justified. Aedan’s virtues would be ignored and his character cast in the deepest suspicion using all the same plot elements in the existing story. Malik genuinely does think Aedan played him false at the festival and sees himself as the injured party.

I don’t mind the grey trend, but I don’t feel it should be used exclusively or by default. I’ve read writing coaches who say that people aren’t black and white, but grey, so they should be depicted as such. But what’s missing from that reasoning is not everyone sees people as grey. That really needs to be taken into account once the point of view has been chosen. My ten cents on the matter is that writers need to set aside the fact that they know people are grey in order to ask, “Does my POV allow me to use that knowledge”, and if using a limited perspective, “Does my POV character look at people that way?”

Davis: That, too, is an interesting approach and makes me wonder what you have planned for the later books.

Jonathan: As the POV character matures and becomes more perceptive, the slider will shift, but the shifts will be subtle.

Davis: There was a scene early on where Allisian, the dark-haired, beautiful princess notices Aeden and his friends. Does she play a further role in the later books—I have my fears about her? What about Thomas and some of Aeden’s friends from up north?

Jonathan: Allisian is definitely going to be back. To some extent she is someone to be feared, but also someone to be feared for. There are treasonous words being spoken in the palace and the walls that keep people out can also keep people in.

 Regarding the north, it’s not just the friends, it’s the whole of the north. In time the story will be going back to the Mistyvales. Those friends are not forgotten.

Davis: Glad to hear it!

There was a vivid scene following a lightning strike that I absolutely loved. And there were also some animals that were changed by the lightning strike. Where did that idea come from? When I read those scenes and descriptions, I kept picturing God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel and also the Nephilim.

Jonathan: The heart of this book was born from my faith, so yes, your reference to Michelangelo’s painting is appropriate. The encounter depicted there is similar to what was in my mind. I think God reaches down to people mostly in very quiet ways – a whisper in the soul – and very occasionally in a way like in that scene.

The animals – museums! I can still see those great beasts that awed me into silence as a five year old. The wonder that flooded me in museums never really left me.

Davis: You’ve mentioned that the tension gets ratcheted up even further with book 2? Any hints on what we can expect? I’m dying here, so even a blurb would be fine. When do you expect to have it out?

Jonathan: At the latest, a year between books, but if I can, I’ll get it out sooner. I’m certainly trying for sooner.

Ahh … I am so useless with hints and blurbs. It takes me forever to put together a spoiler-free anything. Well, the first book was largely about getting to know the characters and what they are capable of. In the second book, they need to actually use all the things they have been taught, and even the tiniest details of their training are going to be crucial. Book two is fast from the start and tense to the end. In the first book they spent a lot of time growing their skills at the academy. There’s no such hanging around any spot for any length of time in the second book. The Lekran Isles are too unsafe. The stakes are colossal, the time short, and the danger constant. And remember that ship being rebuilt beneath the academy? That scene wasn’t just for decoration – there’s something very important there. This whole paragraph probably sucks in the way of hints, but you were warned.

Davis: Arghhh! I hate waiting. Unless I’m the one doing the writing, and then it’s ok.

You’ve had an eclectic life in terms of your job. You’ve been deeply involved in music, and Jacob Cooper, who I interviewed here has a similar background, so I’ll ask you the same as I asked him. Why do you suppose there seems to be such a strong connection between music and writing?

Jonathan:  Maybe it’s because neither group wants to do any real work so they switch between these so called careers when the fancy strikes. Did you want a serious answer?

I’m not sure that being a musician indicates any gifting as a writer, but it does give you a lot of experience in how to work up a shoddy piece into a better one. Working with melodies is a lot like working with sentences. Tweaking the notes involves parallel processes of creative inspiration and critical evaluation. I imagine it’s the same across the arts. Maybe developing the type of concentration needed for this in one art form opens the door into another. One thing most musos know how to do is edit, and as Harry Shaw famously said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

I suppose the kind of brain process used to invent a melody could be related to that used to invent a story. Years ago I read a bit on the psychology of music – how music interacts with the emotions and so on. The explanations given were quite speculative but the observations were interesting and got me thinking about how there is possibly more direct intention behind the resulting emotional prompting of a tune than we realise. While any art form is emotionally engaging, music and stories would have to be two of the front runners in that department. Having an instinctive or learned feel for guiding emotions would possibly be useful for someone making the move from music to writing.

Davis: I’d never heard that quote from Harry Shaw, but I love it! A blank page can’t be edited is another one I like.

Jonathan: That’s great. I’d add to that – an unedited page can’t be read. To anyone out there holding onto the myth that there is something special in the first draft: the only thing special in a first draft is its potential. The one thing that all first drafts have in common is that they suck. Well at least all mine do. Davis, I certainly hope you are going to second me on this.

Davis: What kind of music or artists do you like to listen to when writing?

Jonathan: Having spent years working in the music world, my ears tend to get snagged on passing notes and that breaks my concentration. I’m thinking on so many levels when I write that I need every available nanowatt of brainpower. Birdsong drifting through the window is generally the limit for me.

Davis: So no AC/DC?  For me, it’s different. I can work in quiet or with music, but I can’t work with people talking around me. I’m too much a people watcher and terrible about listening in on the conversations of others. So I use music as white noise to shut out the world and the voices in my head. I kid. Mostly.

Jonathan: Actually I can relate. I did once use music to shut out a conversation two dogs were having outside the window. Reminded me a little of the way we sometimes argue as people, each party constantly making the same point over and over and neither listening to a word from the other. It wasn’t the best writing day.

Davis: You’ve taught English but are also proficient in woodworking. What kind of woodworking do you do? Cabinet building? Framing? Or fine arts, like marquetry? What’s your favorite wood to work?

Jonathan: Proficient you say? Hate to disagree with a compliment, but my woodwork is firmly on the rough side. My father got me going by building treehouses (high) and since then I’ve built a balcony, cupboards, a desk and various things for recording studios. The fun part of woodwork is making bows, atlatls, that kind of thing. If it’s at least slightly dangerous then it’s far more interesting. Here’s a link to a short vid of the bow made in the book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkZy_yN5eAI

I enjoy fir, maple and pine the most because they smell so good. That’s a terrible reason and all carpenters who read this will just have rolled their eyes. I worked with something that must have been stinkwood once. I shall not work with it again. Most of the great carpentry woods are out of my budget and anyway they’d be wasted on me. My carpentry is quick and functional. No fine arts or marquetry, whatever the heck that is. Okay, I just looked it up. Definitely no marquetry.

Davis: Marquetry is challenging. I haven’t tried it yet, but I love working with wood. I like measuring it, shaping it, smelling it, cutting it. The best wood I worked with was mahogany when I made a coffee table and a filing cabinet. If anyone reading this is interested, I can take some pictures sometime. I’d love to have the time to do more woodworking. If I can squeeze out a few moments, I’m building a grandfather clock out of some cherry and maple I have saved up.

Jonathan: Wow! That sounds impressive. I hope you intend to post pictures.

And finally, the most important question, which challenges your knowledge of simple physics and biology. Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?

Jonathan: From physics, Superman. From biology, Superman. It’s like putting Inspector Gadget up against the Hulk.

It eats me, though, because anyone who floats around in public wearing his bright red undies on the outside needs to have his bright red butt kicked. As long as Batman reinforces his toe caps with kryptonite, I’m gonna be rooting for him regardless of the odds. The other thing which weighs heavily against Superman is that he has no toys. And then just look at all those bat gadgets. He who has the most toys should win. It’s only fair.

Davis: As usual, another interesting answer. Thank you Jonathan for spending some time here in my little corner of the web!

Jonathan: My pleasure. It’s a very friendly corner. Thanks so much for having me over.

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2 Comments

  1. Travis Shoemaker

    To be “that guy” you are aware that in the comics Batman won against Superman, right? Physics and biology aside that fight has happened and the Dark Knight came out on top 😛

    • “It was tough work carrying two hundred and twenty pounds of sociopath to the top of Gotham Towers, the highest point in the city. The scream alone was worth it.”

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