Mage versus Assassin

S.C. Butler -- Sam in noirish black and white

Two of my pals have books coming out this month: Joshua Palmatier and Sam Butler, who writes under the name S. C. Butler. Sam’s new book is Queen Ferris, and Joshua’s is The Vacant Throne, and both of them are high fantasy adventures.

I thought it would be enlightening to interview them head-to-head style. Dueling Fantasy Writers, if you will (and oh, you will. You will.).

Both men are fleeing the world of numbers for the wide open spaces of words. Sam describes himself as “a former Wall Street bond trader who always preferred Middle-earth to the Chicago Board of Trade.” And Joshua has a PhD in mathematics and teaches at State University of New York–Oneonta. (Okay, maybe fleeing is too strong a word. But as an English major, I always like to claim a few wins for the other side of the brain).

Joshua Palmatier -- in color, and stripes

Both are New Yorkers: Sam lives in the city ( he’s in Brooklyn with his wife and a whippet) and Joshua lives upstate. I met both of them the same year, at conventions. Sam befriended me at Confluence in Pittsburgh, and a few months later at Readercon he introduced me to Joshua. I’ll be signing with both of them at the end of January in Hackensack — see the posts a couple down from here.

Enough of the intro. Cue banjo!

What was your inspiration for writing your books?

Sam: Queen Ferris is the second book in my Stoneways trilogy, which includes Reiffen’s Choice, and the third book, The Magicians’ Daughter, due out in April.  The trilogy’s name says it all.  I always liked Dwarves more than Elves, so I decided to write a book that way.  With caves.

Joshua: Well, The Vacant Throne is the sequel to The Skewed Throne and The Cracked Throne, so part of the inspiration was to continue the story already begun.  But the main idea behind The Vacant Throne—that there’s a second magical throne out there, one that’s twin to the Skewed Throne seen in the first two books—actually came out of discussions between me and my editor while we were discussing the revisions to the first book.  I’d already written about the existence of a second throne at the end of the first book, and my editor began asking me about particulars regarding that throne:  Where is it?  What is it for?  How does it relate to the Skewed Throne? She got my mind working on the back story of the second throne, and that back story ended up giving me the setup for the plot behind The Vacant Throne. Both Sam and I obviously got caught up in the trilogy thing, which actually is what the editors asked for in my case.  I only presented them with The Skewed Throne initially.  It’s also interesting to note that all of our books can be read alone, without having read the previous books in the trilogy.  No cliffhanger endings here.  So obviously we think alike.

Who are your favorite authors and books now and when you were growing up?

Sam: Of course we think alike.  All great minds think alike.  I’m sure we like the same writers too.  My favorites are Heinlein, Trollope, Tolkien, Lewis, Austen, Flaubert, Van Vogt, Vonnegut, Niven…

Joshua: Ah, well, apparently we don’t think alike.  I’ve read Tolkien and Lewis out of that list, but that’s it.  My favorite authors while growing up were Andre Norton (who was my introduction to fantasy and science fiction), Terry Brooks, and Katherine Kurtz.  I didn’t have a particular book from any of them that I’d rate as a favorite.  I loved Brooks’ “Elfstones of Shannara” and the Camber books by Kurtz.  Currently, I’d say my favorite authors are Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Stephen King.  I think we can see a distinct *cough cough* age difference between Sam and I here.  Not that I’m the type of person to point these things out.

What is it about fantasy/science fiction that attracts you?

Sam:  I guess I’ll go first again.  Age before beauty, as Joshua was so intemperate as to point out in his last answer.  Fantasy and science fiction interest me for different reasons.  I read fantasy for the story and the characters – it’s not that much different from why I read any sort of book.  Science fiction is different, however.  Science fiction I read for cool ideas and a sense of Wow!.

Joshua: I agree.  I think it’s the boundlessness of it all.  In fantasy and science fiction, you can do anything.  There are no limits.  You can push and push the bounds of believability, and then you can push it some more.  Of course, you have to structure the fantasy or science fiction so that the reader is willing to push along with you or you won’t have any readers, but that’s part of the challenge.  I think that an excellent writer can craft any story, no matter how unbelievable, so that the majority of readers WILL take that trip with them, and I think that most writers in SF and F are trying to become such an excellent writer.  I know I am, and after talking with Sam on many occasions over drinks at cons, I believe he’s striving to be an excellent writer as well.

Sam, your main character Reffen is a mage, and Joshua, your main character is an assassin. Why those choices?

Sam: I agree with Joshua – I am striving for excellence as a writer.  I just hope I don’t have to strive as hard as Joshua’s and my main characters.  Their lives are miserable.  In the Stoneways I made Reiffen a mage because the story is about power, and what’s more powerful, in any tradition and at any time, than a magician?

Joshua: A more powerful magician.  Oh, but I suppose that question was rhetorical.  *grin*  The initial vision for The Skewed Throne had Varis on a boat in the harbor of the city of Amenkor, a common person, someone living the ordinary life, and suddenly this mysterious White Fire—obviously magical in nature—sweeps out of the west and touches her.  However, when I sat down to write the book, I’d started thinking about Varis, about her situation and where she came from, and realized that she needed to be in more dire straits if I was going to make her story believable.  At that point, she became someone trapped in the slums of Amenkor—like many others in the city—and fighting to survive, fighting to find a way out.  Her desperation to escape her situation is what drives her to become an assassin when given the chance, and it’s what pushes her to do things that she wouldn’t normally do, perhaps.  Her being an assassin was also a way to take a common person in the society and get them involved in the world events—the politics and maneuverings—that are going on at the same time.  Also, I’ve always wanted to write about an assassin; one that actually kills people during the course of the book.  I was tired of reading books about assassins who never actually hurt anybody.  *grin*

What sort of research did you do to write this book?

Sam:  And, boy, Varis does do her share of hurting.  I just hope Joshua didn’t have to research that part too vigorously.  Since Queen Ferris is a fantasy, I did very little research.  I checked out a few technologies to see if they were appropriate to the level of some of the cultures – in Queen Ferris, different cultures have different technological levels.  The Dwarves, for example, have gas filled airships for traveling beneath the bottom of the world.  The humans don’t.  In general, however, I don’t think fantasy requires a great deal of research.  As Joshua said earlier, one of the great things about fantasy is that there are no limits.  Historical fantasy is another matter entirely.

Joshua: And we’re back to agreeing.  I generally don’t do any research ahead of time for my novels… but that’s because I don’t know what I need to research yet.  The way I write novels is more or less by the seat of my pants.  When I start, I have a vague idea of what I think the book is going to be about.  This usually amounts to one or two scenes scattered throughout the book, including something near the end and a scene or two in between.  (I always have the initial scene in mind.)  Then I start writing.  I keep notes along the way, and write down things I need to research as I go.  Sometimes, if I hit something that’s important to the plot, I’ll pause in the writing and do research on that at the time, but most of the time I save the research until the book is finished and I’m getting ready to do the revisions.  So the amount of research varies with each book, and depends on where the book decides to take itself.  In The Vacant Throne, most of my research involved ships and in particular, how ships fought while at sea.  But overall I end up not doing much research at all, because, as Sam says, this is fantasy.  Strangely enough, it appears that most of the research done for a fantasy actually involves delving into technology instead.

What are you writing now?

Sam: A story in which one of the main characters from Queen Ferris comes to our world.  The working title is Avender in America.

Joshua: I’m looking forward to see seeing what you do with Avender in America, Sam.  You hint at something happening during his . . . incarceration in The Magicians’ Daughter. Plus, you’ve told me a little about what you intend to do with the new book.  *grin*  I’ve handed in the first book—called Well of Sorrows—of the start of a new trilogy set in the same world as the Throne of Amenkor books, but at a different time period and involving different characters.  The new series will eventually connect up with Varis’ storyline, although how it will connect up won’t be obvious in the first book.  So I’ve got the two sequels to that new series that I’m working on.  I’ve also started the first book in another fantasy trilogy that’s not associated to the Throne of Amenkor books and hope to have the proposal for that finished (and hopefully sold) in 2009.

Sam: Of course you’re looking forward to what I do with Avender in America, Josh: I already told you you’re in the rough draft!  Along with Gary K. Wolfe, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden and a few others…  (if I get their permissions.)

Did you always want to write? Or did you stumble into it?

Sam: I always wanted to write.  My earliest juvenilia dates back to when I was about ten years old.  (Boy, is that stuff awful.)  But it took me a long time to sell anything.  28 years from my first submission to my first sale.  Of course, that will happen when you only write novels and get busy with a job and family.  The job and my family were always my first priority.

Joshua: Like Sam, I’ve wanted to be a writer since early on, the eighth grade actually, when an English teacher wrote on a short story that the story was good and I should continue writing.  That was the first moment that I realized that all of those books I’d been reading were actually written by someone.  And that someone could be me!  From that point on, I started working on short stories and eventually started a novel.  And as Sam says, the first draft of that early novel was HORRIBLE, but it taught me how to be a writer and I hope that it will eventually see print (although in a completely revised form of course).  As to how I got to where I am now … lots of hard work, numerous drafts, lots of rejection, and a metric ton of persistence.  I didn’t have any family interfering with the process, but I did have graduate work and for part of the time a day job.  Counting only the years where I was actively attempting to get published (find an agent or editor), I’d say it took about 10 years.

Sam: I should have added that, like Josh, it was the encouragement of an English teacher that also helped get me started.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? How long do you write, that sort of thing?

Sam: My typical writing day depends on what part of the wip I’m working on.  If it’s rough draft time, I try to write a minimum of 1200 words a day, which can take anything from two to ten hours, depending on my mood, how well I’ve imagined the scene, or whether I’ve burned myself out writing too much the day before.  Rewrites, however, tend to be more predictably productive, running about four to six hours of work.  I find writing to be exhausting.

Joshua: It is exhausting, especially on good days.  My schedule is slightly different, but that’s because I have to put up with working at a day job.  Some of us have to work for a living, you know.  My writing days fall into two categories:  days when I have to work (I teach mathematics at a local college), and days when I don’t.  On days when I teach, I usually only get an hour or two maximum to work on writing, if I get any time at all.  Basically, I sit down and write for that hour, usually brand new material, without looking at the old material, because my time is limited.  I can usually get around 750 words done on these days.  On days when I don’t have to teach, I start writing in the morning and reread the old material, making minor changes/revisions, and then get on with new stuff.  I break for lunch, and write after lunch until I have to head to the gym.  On these days, I get in about six hours of writing.  If I have errands to run or other writerly activities (such as answering interview questions, emails, talking to my agent, talking to my editor, etc) then I try to get at least four hours of writing in.  I can get anywhere from around 1200 words done, to 4000 on a really good day.  How do you write, Sam?  Do you use an outline?  I tend to go through the book in chronological order, without an outline, to see where things go, then worry about fixing things so they make more sense during revisions.

Sam:  I never outline. That would make the process too easy.  I find that I need to actually be working at a draft of the story before I  actually come up with any good ideas.  Outlining, I can go about two chapters before I run out of gas.

Where do you write?

Sam: At home at my desk, on my laptop, with anything from punk to classical on my boom box.  However I get many of my ideas while taking long walks, and often write a book’s songs and poetry while walking as well.

Joshua: I don’t do the long walks, but there are periods of blank staring in front of the computer while I work on ideas and such.  I write on my laptop at a desk with a notebook to one side for writing down any plot thoughts that strike me, as well as to keep track of names of characters, places, things, etc.  Like Sam, I also have a stack of CDs that are “writer friendly,” meaning I can play them without the music interrupting the writing flow.  Other than that and a glass of water, there’s not much else in my writer space.  Any snacks for you, Sam?  Favorite drink?

Sam: Of course there are no snacks, Josh.   If I permitted myself to snack while working then I wouldn’t have the handy-dandy excuse of going off to find them, thereby allowing myself to waste epic length amounts of time.

What is easiest and hardest for you as a writer?

Sam: It’s all hard.  The only easy part is being done.

Joshua: Notice Sam dodged the drink question.  *cough cough*  The hardest part of writing is just getting myself to sit down and write, damn it!  *grin*  Seriously.  Once I’m writing, the hardest part is to work in the emotions of the characters without those emotions sounding stilted or fake or over the top.  I also have to work very hard at the dialogue, since it has to sound real, and yet it can’t actually BE real, since if you listen to most conversations, they’re long and boring with lots of unnecessary wordage.  The easiest part of the writing for me is probably the world itself.  I can sink myself into the character and their situation enough that the descriptions take little effort, yet still get across the effect of having the reader there, living that particular scene.  But I agree with Sam that for the most part, the entire process is hard, because as a writer you’re always trying to improve, and that means working on EVERYTHING that pertains to the writing process.

Closing statements, gentlemen?

Sam: A lot of folks think the Stoneways is a story headed toward Reiffen regaining his father’s throne one day, but that’s not what the books are about at all.  As the dust jacket says on the last book (due out in April):

In Reiffen’s Choice we learn why Reiffen chose magic;
In Queen Ferris we learned what he did with his magic;
In The Magicians’ Daughter we learn what his magic did to him.

Joshua: To summarize, GO FORTH AND BUY THE VACANT THRONE!  *grin*  The entire “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy is now complete in paperback, so go check it out and see if it’s something you might like.  It’s full of assassins and thieves, murder and mayhem, cats and dogs living together . . . er, well you get the picture.  There’s blue people and magic and insane furniture.  But most of all it’s a series of rousing stories in a world full of danger where everyone is simply trying to survive, some at the expense of others.

Want more?

Book excerpts, purchase info, and all that stuff are online at the websites. Josh is at and Sam is at


One thought on “Mage versus Assassin

  1. All sorts of worlds, contemporary, historic, alternative, whatever, have been used as backgrounds for fantasy novels? Are there any with prehistoric American Indian backgrounds? Don’t know of any, and those were cultures of magic and mysticism.

    caleb fox

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