Dinner with the Yakuza and Magical Bloodlines: Highlights from Tom Doyle’s Reddit AMA

In Tom Doyle’s contemporary fantasy American Craft series, magician-soldiers and psychic spies change the course of history and freak out famous authors including Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. It’s no surprise, then, that Doyle’s Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit included commentary on which historical figure he’d like to meet (it’s always changing) and how genealogy interweaves with history. Yet he also answered questions about gaming and, as he put it, “the sometimes seedy expat life in Tokyo.”

Check out the highlights from the AMA, including discussion of the magic systems in The Left-Hand Way, which Doyle describes as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets ancient magic, with globe-spanning action,” and which is out now from Tor Books.


Before Sunrise… with the Yakuza

Redditor lady_saga confessed that she hadn’t yet read Doyle’s work, but she was curious if his travels had provided him with any fodder for his writing. Boy, did they ever, as Doyle recounted one particular tale:

Thanks for asking–the tale I most enjoy telling is the time I went drinking late in Tokyo on a work night with a Yakuza. The evening was surreal, like the “joy riding with Frank” sequence from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I was lost in Roppongi, and when I asked a mild mannered man for directions, he said, “You don’t want to go there. Come to this place.” We went into the club, and everyone stopped what they were doing and looked. The band stopped to take requests from him (and yes, he did ask for Roy Orbison, just like in Blue Velvet.) We went from club to club, and everywhere we were treated royally, but at no point did it seem safe for me to exit until dawn.

I’ve used the material from this episode three times. The first was in a mass e-mail, pre-blog era sort of account that ended up in a “true stories” ‘zine. The second time I took the material, put it through the mythopoetic wringer, and created the story “The Floating Otherworld”–my second pro sale. The third time I used it only indirectly for the Tokyo scenes in The Left-Hand Way.

I sometimes think that if I’d stayed in Tokyo longer, I’d be dead by now. But it was so much fun.


Blood Magic of a Different Sort

Citing minor spoilers for the American Craft series, StrangerMind wanted to know if Doyle planned that the craft would be isolated to bloodlines, or if that were just a happy accident. In his answer, Doyle provided a look into his worldbuilding process:

The idea of the craft running in families was partially inspired by long-running military families like the Truscotts–they seem to have a culture unto themselves. I also wanted a strong historical consciousness and connection to real colonial families in my present-day characters. Both of those required that the craft run along family lines. But it’s not quite a biological or breed-able thing, as the Left-Hand Mortons found out.

The requirement of service is present for all the families, but most families can get away with just some of the members serving some of the time (as you’ll see with certain new American characters in book 2). And, regarding freedom, most craftspeople want to serve–I don’t say this explicitly, but the craft for the Right-Hand families seems to go with an impulse to put it to a use that serves the land. Things are stricter with Dale because he’s the last Morton, and the Mortons went so very bad once upon a time.

The relationship with geography is going to get a new wrinkle in book 2 with the Oikumene–a international group that keeps an eye out for the Left Hand, but also limits the rise of any craftsperson with a truly transnational power–so I talk more about the usual relation between nation and craft there.

I wrote some very early notes about the early agreement with the U.S. and the split with England, and if there’s a book 4, some of that material may get developed (there may be a nod to it in book 3).

Doyle also talked about the “genealogy” of the Marlow family in The Left-Hand Way, and how some of that history has already been “written”:

The story goes global, and the family genealogy that I highlight gives British history and literature the same treatment that I gave to the U.S. in American Craftsmen. This time, it’s the family of the Marlows (instead of the Mortons) that ties things together. Grace Marlow’s family goes back to Christopher Marlowe on one side (they drop the “e”) and Tituba of Salem on the other. And there are a few good and bad Endicotts added to the mix as well.

One thing to keep in mind–the backstory I have both in my head and in extensive notes has to some extent already been written, but in a hidden form, by Poe and Hawthorne and all the other classic authors of the uncanny. So readers themselves can join the game of figuring out relationship of my “facts” with the classic fictions.


Art Imitating Life Even at Its Darkest

Things got a bit heavy when Ellber asked Doyle if his cancer diagnosis (the prognosis of which he addressed on his blog a few months ago) had informed his writing. Doyle responded:

Excellent question. This gets into a freaky, Grant Morrison-type of area (look up what happened to him writing The Invisibles, if you haven’t heard the story already). In a way, the cancer was influencing my writing before I even knew about it. If you look at book 2, there are all kinds of cancer metaphors creeping in, including a description of one person’s head and neck that was inspired by real-life horror stories I heard about head and neck cancers. Was I trying to tell myself something?

Fortunately, the dire prognosis of my cancer turned out to be an internet-fed misperception on my part. Yes, the treatment was one of most unpleasant things I’ve ever gone through, but I seem to be quite well now, and the prognosis is 85-90% complete cure rate. (Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan is now my canary in the coal mine–he had the same thing at the same time with the same treatment.)

My plans for book 3 always had some dark aspects, so I can’t be sure whether my “recent unpleasantness” is merely helping me write those, or extending them beyond what they would have been. Other changes are even harder to judge–I’ll be interested in what outsiders have to say.


An Afternoon with Alexander

Fitting considering the historical emphasis of Doyle’s books, JazzLaforge asked which historical figure, living or did, the author would like to meet:

Your question is surprisingly difficult for me, because in my fantasies of such meetings, I’m always interfering–and this isn’t a Doctor Who question! Today, I’d like to talk with Alexander the Great. I’d want to hear what his vision for the world was, if anything beyond conquest. He was well-educated and charismatic, so it should be an interesting conversation, unless it’s the later day Alexander and he got drunk and abruptly decided to kill me. (Also, a group called the Oikumene features in book 2, so the Hellenic world is on my mind.)

I was on a Alexander kick for a while and listened to one of the early histories of his life, among other things. Alexander may have created the first empire that was culturally hard to get outside of. This eventually leads to Gnostic sorts of belief, where the only escape is inside, and that’s another interest of mine (though probably not Alexander’s).


A Very Serious Consideration of Desert Island Libraries

While the “desert island” question gets asked a lot, Doyle had an answer that was interesting for how meticulously-thought-out it is:

OK, I’m not going to fight the hypo on this (e.g., list books about survival or raft building) or play three wishes sorts of games (the Harvard classics library). I’m going to take the premise very seriously–that I am isolated for the rest of my life, and my only company will be three books.

If I’m alone, I’m going to be spending a lot of time meditating. So a collected volume of the Buddhist sutras or the like will be one of the books.

Second, the words that I read are going to be echoing over and over in my head. That means nothing but the best, distilled language, which can perhaps be sung or recited to myself repeatedly. So I’ll want a large book of poems that I can memorize–perhaps the Oxford Book of English Verse, or the Collected Works of Shakespeare.

Finally, I’d want a very large volume of blank pages and (slight cheat) a pen to fill them with. Because if I’m alone, I’m going to need more interesting ways to talk to myself.

Funny how different that list is from my favorite three books.


You can read the rest of Doyle’s AMA here!


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