Interview with Debut Epic Fantasist Peter Orullian

2011 is shaping up to be an, shall we say, “epic” year for fantasy literature, with offerings from a diverse field of authors ranging from established stars to promising debuts. In April, Peter Orullian will make his entrée with The Unremembered, the first book in The Vault of Heaven series. Peter has already stirred up interest in the world of Unremembered with his online short story Sacrifice of the First Sheason. Interestingly, Peter brings his unique background as a musician to epic fantasy. Recently Peter and I chatted about writing, music, and The Vault of Heaven.

Welcome, Peter. Why don’t we open the interview by asking you about how you broke in to publishing. What’s the backstory of The Unremembered?

I wrote The Unremembered, then entitled The Ledge of Restoration, in about 2001. I had an agent at the time who was very prominent in the field of fantasy and science fiction. I sent it to him, and some months later, when he was in Seattle on business, we met over lunch to catch up. I asked him about the book—he’d not emailed me (I went months without hearing back from him)—and he showed me the first few pages of my book with his notes. Essentially he said I should shelve this book and move on to write other things. Specifically, he wanted me to write some of the thriller and suspense novels I’d talked to him about. It became clear that he was trying to build diversity into his agency and client list. He wanted more writers working in other genres. I could say that he was flattering me, because he liked my work with those other kinds of books. But the truth is, he never read any of these novels and his motivations weren’t focused on my work. He never once sent the fantasy out to an editor to try and sell it.

He and I later parted company (surprise) and I began to query other agents. The irony is that I queried my current agent with a thriller that I wrote while following the guidance of agent number one. That book wasn’t right for agent number two. (One cool aside here though; my current agent told me he found the thriller very Dickensian, and it led to a book proposal I wrote that he liked so well that he’s asked me to write the book for him.) Anyway, on with the story…I mentioned to him that I knew he’d represented a fantasy author and that I had a fantasy novel. He said to send it. I did. In a few weeks he offered me representation. A few weeks after that Tor made an offer on the first three books of the series.

I’ve gleaned several lessons from all this. I don’t need to spell them out for people. But needless to say, my slight bitterness at having sat on the book for all those years is more than made up for by the fact that I now have a great agent and a great publisher. Who knows, maybe the universe conspired for it all to come together now. I’m just not one to give the universe that much credit. Still, I’m very fortunate, and equally excited about what lay ahead.

I’m always curious about how authors describe their work. The synopses put out by publishing houses don’t always represent how an author thinks about a book. How would you describe The Unremembered?

You hit on something interesting there. I work in marketing and PR and product management, so I understand positioning and messaging and all that junk. As a company, like any company, a publisher has to think about how they talk about a book, and not just to a single audience. I mean, they have a sales force, book buyers (the ones for the book chains, e.g. B&N, etc), reviewers, readers, etc. What this all can mean is that a single synopsis may not perfectly suit each audience.

The Unremembered by Peter Orullian

My thing is that I can’t recall reading a good synopsis of any book—I usually just turn to the first page and start reading. To me, they’re tantamount to that question—one which most music listeners are guilty of—when hearing about a new band (you know what’s coming, don’t you?): “Who do they sound like?” What these folks are saying is that they want a taste before diving in. But the truth is—at least for me and how I like to enjoy any entertainment—you gotta try it for yourself. When folks ask me that about a band, I usually reply with something snarky like, “They sound like themselves,” or “They sound like music.”

So, what does that have to do with how I think about The Unremembered? Well, just this: I find it a huge challenge to distill the book down. My publisher wrote a synopsis; I took a hand at creating another. You can check those out here. But as I’ve said before, I think you can summarize to such a point that you miss the point. I’m not terribly good at synopses. That said, and because I’m not going to punk out on the question—though I was tempted to do as National Lampoon did when they summarized a Stephen King novel thusly: Plot, plot, boo!—I’d describe The Unremembered as a mix of the familiar and the strange.

I’d say I’m pretty firmly in the “epic fantasy” camp with The Vault of Heaven series; and that being the case, I definitely make use of some of the conventions or tropes (the familiar). But I did this deliberately to try and ground the reader in some things before I start leading them into what I think are new (or strange) places. (Would that be like turning the heat up on a pot of water in which the frog sits contentedly? Never mind.) But I took some risks in doing that. Not real risks, not firefighter or combat soldier risks. But the overarching story, which will play out across multiple volumes, let me tinker with some of those conventions. Meaning, what you see isn’t necessarily what you’re going to get. There’ll be a fair amount of turnabout with respect to the familiar stuff.

On the strange side, well, I can tell you I took time to craft my own races, that there are multiple magic systems—some not appearing until later books—and that I punish my characters in some rather unique ways.

Last thing I’ll say is that after the initial draft, I realized one of the themes that seemed to have grown out of the book organically were ones of choice and consequence. Once I saw this, I nourished it a bit. The topic fascinates me, actually. What and how someone decides something, and the repercussions that result for good or ill…love that stuff. And as it turns out, I’ve put my characters in some very difficult situations, between Scylla and Charybdis, so to speak. And while there are battles and bad guys and political agendas and torturous histories in the book, the parts that make my own blood race are those where there’s something important on the line and someone has a choice to make and the right choice is not clear.

Let’s go back to when you first started working on the book. Did the idea for it come to you as a sudden “aha!” moment? Or did it come when connecting several ideas? Something more unusual?

I don’t think there was an “aha!” until I figured out the ending. I love the genre, and I knew I wanted to write something epic, which to me meant that I needed to spend some time developing a world, and that the stakes had to be high. (And not just that the world was in peril—though that can’t hurt—but that personal character stakes had to be high, too.) I spent a long time drawing maps, creating glossaries, writing historical scenes, creating back story, etc, before I sat to write. All that pre-work gave me a kind of license to go off the reservation, if you take my meaning. Plenty of the stuff I planned made it into the book. But once I set foot into the world I’d created, more came. Sweet! There were some fundamental things for me, though; I started with characters. It sounds cliché, maybe, but I began by thinking about the people.

Sacrifice of the First Sheason by Peter Orullian

The first time I met my editor, he took me on a tour of the Tor offices, and then we went to lunch. I’ll never forget our conversation, particularly on the way back to the Flatiron Building. As we crossed 23rd street, he said to me, “What is it with you? You torture your characters so.” I’m not sure if he understood that I took that as high praise. I didn’t say it out loud, of course, since I kinda get how that could sound. But what it also indicated to my warped mind was that perhaps I’d succeeded in what I set out to do when I first began thinking about the characters in my story.

The other choices I made early on were that I wanted to create, as I mentioned, my own races and societies, with their own troubled histories; I wanted it to be gritty and emotionally taut—my world’s a rough place for kids (not to mention the rest of the folks); I knew I wanted some semblances of good and evil, but I worked to create a kind of construct that would help me later blur those lines. I’m not one for spoilers, so I won’t go any deeper there; but I’m kind of echoing my answer to your first question, in that things aren’t always as they seem. There are clues to some of this in book one.

But, as I mentioned, I did have an “aha!” moment. I was halfway through the first draft of book one, and the ending of the whole shebang (the whole series) hit me like a load of bricks. I was listening to a Dream Theater song and BAM! It unfolded in my mind like nothing ever has. It was like watching a movie, no lie. I’ve never taken a hit of acid, but you know, now I don’t think I need to. I was high for days after that little episode. Once my agent sold the book, and I’d gotten underway with my editor, it took him several weeks to pry that ending out of me. He said he had to know. I finally let him in on it. If something happened and he let it slip, I’m pretty sure I’d go all Jack Bauer on him.

You are, of course, also a musician. Which art form—literature or music—fascinated you first? How do you feel your practice of one art informs the other?

Wow, yeah. Impossible to say. My whole family is pretty musical. Bedtime as a kid was stories and songs. Songs tell stories, and language (to me) is musical. So it’s kind of like the two halves of me. Though, early on, I did a ton of athletics, too, played all through high school, and walked on during my vaunted university days. I felt sure I would be at the plate in the fall classic at some point with the score tied and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. I had to let that one go. And it’s a good thing MMA wasn’t widely known when I was a younger man; I’ve enough hind-brain in me to know I’d have probably given that a go.

But back to your question. I was making up stories extemporaneously and telling them to my little sister when I was like six. And I remember likewise making up songs to sing to myself while I weeded the garden at the same tender age. I never got serious about either until later on—college timeframe, when reality starts to stare back. What’s fun for me is to trace my tastes (and dare I say, growth) over time. That’d make this reply way too long. But what’s relevant is that the one has always influenced the other. I mean, as an eleven-year-old, I was putting on Mannheim Steamroller and going into what can only be described as writing fugues. How’s that for geeky? Besides Chip Davis’s blinding awesomeness, his tunes have virtually no lyrics—great for writing to. And then—hold on to your hat—when I heard “Pull Me Under” by Dream Theater, yowza!, I was hearing medieval war machines, their wooden axles turning as they were pushed to some final confrontation. Music is very visual for me. I see things. It really is transportive. That sounded kind of lamey. But what the heck.

And more materially, in The Unremembered, I’ve shown the first bits of a magic system based on music. Music as magic isn’t a brand new thing, but I think my take on it offers something unique. What I didn’t do, though, was force the full revelation of how the magic works into the first book, just to get it in there. While I may not always succeed, I try to have these kinds of worldbuilding things come out naturally in the story, which means that much of the nitty-gritty for how this music magic system works is something readers will get much more of in book two, when it makes sense.

One other interesting thing I’m working through right now as a writer is what I might call the musicality of language. I’ve got a great, hands-on editor. He’s a stickler for information flow and word choice. Good things, to be sure, but sometimes proper syntax and forgoing colloquial uses of words has me reworking a sentence to try and get back the music I heard in it when I first put it down but got a bit of the other stuff wrong. Ah well, there are worse things. Anyway, my editor and I have had long conversations around those bits, which are absolutely important, reconciling what is most logical with a use of the language that has—to my mind—better rhythm and pace and tone. I’m actually writing an article series on my website about the relationship between music and fiction to work through and lay out these distinctions, which has been a lot of fun. I’m also writing a concept album to go with the novel. It’s not one of those lame retellings of the story. I don’t get a lot out of those, personally. Rather, there is this thing in my world called the Song of Suffering, and this became the leap point for a recording project I’ve become really excited about. So, yeah, music and fiction. Can’t choose.

Interesting. You mentioned other magic systems based off of music. Were there any that inspired you? Any that, though unrelated to your work, do a great job of it?

Well, the idea itself predates most of the fantasy novels I can think of. Creation through music was an essential part of Pythagorean philosophy, which suggested the universe was created and bound together by a music known as the “harmony of the spheres.” This was all related to the Greek notion of Logos—the Word—which interestingly is another magic system in my series, and which also has a long, rich tradition in the genre—and one, specifically, in which you and I both are sharing.

But as to music magic systems, I can recall a little of Scott Card’s Songmaster, Modesitt’s Spellsong Cycle, and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series—which is cool for the fact that Jon-Tom can do magic by playing rock music. Love that! However, I think I’m most partial to Terry Brook’s Wishsong of Shannara; I have fond memories of reading that book.

All of these do a pretty good job, I think, of finding a way to make the combination of music and magic interesting. But they’re definitely different from what I’m doing. I think I’ve taken it as a more central part of one of the plot threads, which ladders up to have a grand-scale impact in the series. That, and as The Vault of Heaven progresses (like in book two, which I’m almost done writing), I get into some of the real specifics of how this magic system works. There’s a place where those who have this ability can study, and many of my favorite scenes are those where instruction is taking place. I was able to call on these two sides of myself to do something which I think is pretty original. At the very least, it’s been a lot of fun to write!

Have you a favorite novel that describes music or musicians? Inside or outside of SFF?

You know, I don’t. But it is, for me, what I call a “reader cookie,” like cookies on a web browser. There are just certain things that if a writer does, I’m in! Or at least I’ll give that writer more leeway, because I’m always eager to see where they’ll take it. Music is one of these reader cookies for me.

But I will say that not long ago a really cool volume on Frank Sinatra called The Sinatra Treasures was released by Bulfinch Press. All kinds of correspondence and mementos and old photos and playbills and tickets and set lists and things. Because I love Frank, it was really cool to walk through his life in that way.

Let’s change gears a bit and talk about the rest of the series. Do you have a set number of books in mind? Or do you plan to let the story evolve and see where it ends?

Ahhhh, that question. I can practically hear a few fantasy-readers’ neck muscles tightening, as they cringe to think about yet another endless investment of time. Well, here’s the deal. I know pretty solidly what’s happening in books two and three—that’s how many Tor bought. And I have the whole ending in my head. Then, I know the broad strokes between book three and that ending. My sense is that it’s six to eight books.

And I guess your query gets a little at the question of am I more an Architect or Gardener type of writer (to borrow George R. R. Martin’s metaphors)—architects being those writers who plan it all out meticulously in advance vs. gardeners who plant something and watch it grow, perhaps shaping a bit. I’m pretty firmly in the middle. I definitely do a lot of worldbuilding up front. And then when I get ready to write a book—at least with these fantasy novels—I do some outlining (kind of a chapter by chapter sketch—mind you, sometimes this “sketch” is a single word). That part of the process is for me very creative. I’m creating story much as one might who has fingers on the keyboard. Then once I have something of a blueprint, I get rolling. The cool thing is that while a great deal of the story I create in the initial stage makes it into the book, the blueprint itself gives me a kind of license that’s hard to explain. What it means, though, is that quite a lot of new story stuff happens along the way—coloring outside the lines, so to speak. It actually never ceases to surprise and delight me. (Okay, delight is a pretty “dandy” word, but I guess I’ll stick with it.)

The uber point, I suppose, is that I’m not planning to pad it out. Sure, some folks will feel like some of it is, in fact, padding. All I can say is that I try to take a critical eye to every scene and make it answer at least three questions. I don’t always succeed, but I can tell you if it hits just one, and usually even two of those questions, it’s out. I tend to think that given this approach, the books will remain tight.

The series will end when the story’s over—how’s that for a politician’s answer? But really, if I get to book four or five and its winding down, I’ll finish it. Because I already have three other big projects waiting to be written, and I’m just as excited about those as I am The Vault of Heaven. In fact, ideally, if things pan out, I’ll start one of the other projects and write it concurrent with VoH. Right now, though, that’d be suicide, as I work 12 hours a day in the games and entertainment division at Xbox.

Thanks so much for the chat, Peter. I enjoyed it greatly and will look for The Unremembered on the shelves in April.

Blake Charlton has had short stories published in several fantasy anthologies. Spellwright was his first novel. The sequel, Spellbound, is due out in Summer 2011.


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