Crafting the Psalms of Isaak: An Interview with Ken Scholes

I met Ken Scholes several years ago during a workshop critiquing session. I liked him right away (and not just because he enjoyed my story) and was very happy when I first learned that he’d published a novel. I became happier still when I saw what a quality piece of work it is.

The last time I was in Seattle, Ken and I met again to discuss Lamentation and The Psalms of Isaak books in general. Ken’s a busy guy these days, working on the rest of the series as quickly as he can. He’s about to become a whole lot busier as he and his wife are expecting twins this August. We spoke of art, character building, concision, religion and the advantage of being married to someone who isn’t a spy.

Jason Henninger: First thing I wanted to say is that you won the lottery when it comes to covers.

Ken Scholes: Yes! I was really impressed. What I’ve heard, and I can’t confirm this, but I heard that when they got a hold of Lamentation, they wanted a cover that really resonated with the book and Irene Gallo knew that Greg Manchess could pull that off. I’m really fortunate in that Greg lives just outside of Portland. We live about 25 minutes away from each other. I was able to look him up and let him know how much I love his work on the cover. It has a Biblical epic feel to it. That’s what I wanted. That’s how I want the series to read. What would another world’s Biblical epic look like, based on their frame of reference, and history and mythology? He captured that in a very powerful way. The second cover features the women of the book, and that’s exciting. In Canticle, Winters becomes a point of view character, and we get to see her and Jin Li Tam riding to parlay in the woods on the cover.

Henninger: Is it difficult to add a POV character, as you’ve done with Winters?

Scholes: Not so far. No, she seemed to know what she was there for. Winters came about because my wife and I were talking when I was about half way through the first draft of the first book. She said, “You know, I don’t think you have enough strong female characters, and you’re at a point where you could fix that.” Winters was born from that, and has organically become a major part of the plot. It was logical for her to come to the forefront.

Henninger: I was wondering if any of the principle characters are based on people you know, or perhaps composites? I’m thinking in particular about Rudolfo. He’s probably my favorite character in the book. He’s an Aragorn sort of character. Someone who’s had it rough but isn’t cruel because of it, someone in charge but not arrogant about it.

Scholes: Rudolfo not so much. They’re all in a way based on me, because I’m pulling them out of my psyche, but some of them are based on people I know. For instance, my wife Jen. A lot of the core personality traits in Jim Li Tam are traits I’ve observed in my wife. Now, of course she’s not as good with a knife and doesn’t have an all-controlling spy network leader for a father.

Henninger: That’s probably for the best.

Scholes: I think so. It makes our marriage work more smoothly. Rudolfo I draw primarily from myself, and some aspects of Petronus, too since I was a member of a liturgical organization and then chose something different.

Henninger: I picked up on that. It felt too strong to be a coincidence. What is your religious background?

Scholes: I gravitated toward Fundamentalism as a young person and became licensed as a Baptist minister at 21. Ordained at 24 to pastor my first church while I was finishing my Batchelor of Arts in History at Western Washington University. I spent several years pursuing that belief system and then went through a very long, gradual, almost glacial change of mind. I moved from being a Fundamentalist Baptist to being an Episcopalian at one point to becoming an Agnostic to where I stand now, in the more Agnostic/Atheist camp. Sort of, “don’t really know, don’t really need to know.” I’m not preachy about that, but I know what it’s like to believe something very strongly and then change your mind. And so, Petronus ties into that part of me. He’s also based on one of my early readers—one of the J’s my book is dedicated to, Jerry—who was a very high ranking officer in the military who chose to retire and take a position of far less responsibility. Someone who quietly influences without the position and responsibility he used to have. And certainly Gregoric is based on my pal John Pitts. And in Canticle, we introduce a new character Esarov the Democrat. I’m told esarov means lake in Russian, so that’s a tribute to my buddy Jay Lake, who is largely responsible for me taking the dare to write these books. So there is this long-haired bespectacled Democrat on the Entrolusian Delta.

Henninger: Does he wear Hawaiian shirts?

Scholes: Not yet. I may write that into the third book.

Henninger: Internally speaking, where did the metal man come from?

Scholes: Me. And from all the metal men who have influenced me. The second science fiction book I ever read was The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey, with his robot, Rex. And the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Pinocchio is the first movie I remember seeing. C3PO. There have been metal men all along who have been fascinating to me. In the beginning, I just needed a mechanical oddity for a short story and I had no idea how important Isaak become in my life.

Henninger: And the whole story comes from him, in a way.

Scholes: It literally comes from him. These are his Psalms.

Henninger: How did it feel, as a former Baptist, writing such a Biblically inspired story?

Scholes: I wanted a mythology and a sense of history and time similar to a Biblical epic with a different frame of reference. Because I’m divorced from that point of view now, I am able to play with it. I’m able to produce glossolalia, which is not a commonly used word in our culture. I’m able to introduce elements that we have seen through our religious history in an otherworldly setting. It’s a familiar playground for me, and being able to play there as opposed to having to believe in it makes it a little nicer. I love books like Towing Jehovah and Lamb, books where the writer plays with these notions, and in my case I loved playing with my own history. They have their own world, their own Gospels. A lot of people talk about the religious nature of the book, but I wonder how many people pick up on the notion that the Androfrancines are a secular order. They worship human knowledge. They’re really humanists, trying to safeguard humanity from itself.

Henninger: I saw them as similar to Jesuits.

Scholes: And they were definitely the baseline, but I re-imagined them. Like, if you were a small band of survivors trying to keep the light alive, keep human knowledge alive on the planet, to what lengths would you go? What hierarchy would you create? So they look very much like the Roman Catholic Church to a lot of people. I have a cast of characters that looks very liturgical but they have their own liturgy. They’re not looking elsewhere for a savior; they’re trying to do it themselves.

Henninger: Pardon me if I’m deconstructing too much, but is the destruction of Windwir in any way a metaphor for your change in religious beliefs?

Scholes: It’s a metaphor, but not necessarily for that. Part of the reason I had gravitated toward that structured lifestyle is because I was raised by a mom who was chock full of mental illness. We didn’t know it; she’d not been diagnosed. We had no frame of reference for what life would be like otherwise. It was a pretty chaotic childhood. So in some ways, it’s more a metaphor for that, not just the destruction of Windwir, the seat of knowledge, but the whole society based on rising up out of cataclysm, using knowledge and strategy to weave a successful path to survival. I don’t intend metaphors like that. They just show up. I’m an organic writer. Whatever the soup of my subconscious is will show up on the page. I wouldn’t want anyone to spend too much time trying to figure it out; I don’t. I just hope it continues to give me good stories

Courtesy of Allen Douglas.
Courtesy of Allen Douglas.

Henninger: The book starts off with this horrific act of destruction and the impact never really leaves any of the characters. Did you at any point think of starting the story before that point, or did it always begin with the fall of Windwir?

Scholes: It always began with the fall of Windwir. The novel started out as a short story, which begins when Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts find the metal man at the impact crater. I didn’t have any high conceptions of what that was about. I needed a mechanical oddity for a short story market I wanted to break into, and I had no idea there was so much more story under the surface until I saw the art that Realms of Fantasy commissioned for it. I felt that what the story was really about is how cataclysm changes people. How it affects relationships and your place in the world and how you can build something from that. There’s a line at the end of my book about that. ‘And he saw how lamentation could become a hymn,’ which is how I came up with my title sequence. The last book in the series will be called Hymn. You know, I’ve heard people all my life say that they can tell you to the minute where they were when John Kennedy was shot. I think that our generation will be able to say exactly where they were when the Towers fell. I wanted to start the story on the day that Windwir fell and they saw that their world had changed. Jin Li Tam early on even says that some day people will ask “Where were you when Windwir fell?”

Henninger: As the story goes on, more and more is revealed about how much Vlad Li Tam was involved with everything. He goes from a sort of Moriarty to something far worse. But he has a sympathetic aspect to him as well. How did you manage that?

Scholes: I wish I knew how I did it! Lamentation was my first novel and so much of it was written on the fly, with me afraid of writing novels in the first place, since they’re so vast and I didn’t know if I could do a very good job of it. The strategy behind the dare to get me to write it was, “If we can get Ken to do this really, really fast, maybe we can keep him ahead of his fear.” And as a result of that, I didn’t really know how entrenched Vlad’s hand was in all this until I got to the end of Lamentation. There’s a key chapter where he and Rudolfo meet. That was a part of the revision process. I did not see that in the first draft. I tend to be someone who leaves stuff out and has to go back in and add, as opposed to someone who writes a huge book and trims it down. I write a sparse book and have to add a chapter or two. Vlad Li Tam is another character like Winters. He surprised me in such a way that I thought “Aha! This is his story too.”

Henninger: Let’s talk about the writing process versus revision. You’ve said you write very organically. How much revision does that involve?

Scholes: I typically don’t require a lot of revision. I write sparsely and my revision process generally involves me writing chapters that I didn’t at first know I needed. And not many of them. I’m a little surprised, really, at how clean my first drafts are.

Henninger: Do you think that’s a carry-over from writing short fiction?

Scholes: I think it is. I think it comes from having it drilled into me that you have to do more with less, that every sentence has to carry its weight. I write tight, and I’m structured. I’m pretty consistent in this. In Lamentation I have four scenes per chapter and each scene is about a thousand words, which is what makes it move pretty fast. You’re only in someone’s head a short time and then you move on. In Canticle I had to go to three scenes per chapter beefed up to about fifteen hundred words, since I have six point of view characters. I’m being told Canticle is a stronger book, but we’ll see how the public feels about that.

Henninger: I hope this doesn’t sound like a criticism of other authors, since that’s not how I mean it, but there are some fantasy stories that are rather verbose. Don’t get me wrong; I love them, but they’re big, fat novels. And then on the other side there are people like you and Brandon Sanderson—a fascinating choice for finishing The Wheel of Time—who are really concise. Are you in some sense writing in reaction to the Jordan or Martin style?

Scholes: No, I was just feeling grateful for making more than a hundred thousand words! Before Lamentation the longest thing I’d written was fifteen thousand words. What kept me from the novel for so long was the length of time invested and the fear that the learning curve would have me writing two or three practice novels before coming up with something viable. I was wrong, and I’m glad I was wrong. I like the big books, too. Some more than others. I really like Tad Williams. I’ve enjoyed several of Jordan’s books. I like that, I just don’t write that. I just don’t like books that bog down with a lot of exposition. I like to read books that move along pretty quickly. And I’ve been criticized by people who expected a more traditional fantasy because I don’t spend as much time setting the world up. It’s funny the criticisms that come my way. Some say I have too many fantasy tropes. Some criticize that I have a robot in it. But, you know, I like Elmore Leonard’s approach. I think of everything that isn’t story and take it out. And this story is where were these people when Windwir fell? Why did it fall? How did it change these lives? What’s happening to their world? And I’m going to run with that for another four books.

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