Today I team up again with Leticia Lara for a very special interview with Christopher Kastensmidt, author of the wonderful stories of The Elephant and Macaw Banner. You can read the translation into Spanish at Fantástica Ficción. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Leticia Lara & Odo: You currently live in Brazil and your Elephant and Macaw Banner stories are, in fact, set in that country. How has your living abroad influenced your writing? What can you tell us about Brazilian science fiction and fantasy?
Christopher Kastensmidt: Living abroad influences everything. It gives a person a different outlook on life, a way of looking at things from different angles. In the case of The Elephant and Macaw Banner, it also provided me with material I would probably never have seen while living in the U.S.
Brazilian science fiction and fantasy has been riding a ten-year boom. In the twentieth-century, very little speculative fiction was published, and next-to-nothing by national authors. All that changed with the turn of the century, when lower publishing costs allowed smaller publishers to emerge. The number of SF books published per year grew 500% from 2005 to 2010. Even with those numbers, there is still plenty of room for growth.
LL&O: Classic Sword and Sorcery is not one of the most popular genres these days (especially with all the grim/dark and gritty fantasy out there). Why did you decide to write his kind of story? What authors have influenced your writing?
CK: With writing, it’s pointless to run after market trends, because they change all the time. I write S&S because I enjoy it personally, and from my experience, a lot of younger readers do as well. To them, it’s something new, for the exact reason that few people have been publishing it.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories were a direct influence on The Elephant and Macaw Banner, as were the adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas and the old Robin Hood tales.
LL&O: The Elephant and Macaw Banner universe has been expanded into comic books and board games, and soon, a pen-and-paper RPG. How was this experience for you? Is there some feedback between your writing and the process of creating the games and the graphic novels?
CK: I spent fifteen years in the video game industry, so I’m accustomed to working with different media. There is an enormous amount of feedback between the products. Since they all reside in the same world, I’m constantly pulling ideas from one to the other. I even make changes to stories that have already been published.
For example, the graphic novel adaptation of “The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost” has entire scenes which weren’t in the original publication (Realms of Fantasy Magazine, 2010), and some of those have fed back into the republication of that story I launched last month! The process is very organic. I’m not afraid of changing my own stories if I think I can improve them, and I most certainly change them to fit the medium.
LL&O: Grim Fandango is one of the best adventures I have played. Can you tell us about your involvement in the development of this game? Do you think that telling a story in a videogame is similar to writing narrative?
CK: Grim Fandango is one of the best I’ve played as well; I’m glad I had the chance to see that project in development.
At the time it was being developed, I was still working on the technical side of things. I was an Intel employee, visiting lots of video game companies to train them and provide programming support. I didn’t do as much in Grim Fandango as I did in other LucasArts projects (like Indiana Jones and the Internal Machine, which I worked on for months), but I did provide some technical training to the team and perform a bit of coding for them.
That being said, I have written for several video games, and I even teach a university course on scriptwriting for games. The short answer is that there are certain narrative elements that need to be taken into account across all media: character, setting, and conflict, for example. Video games, however, are unique because of their interactivity. The player must have some say in how the story plays out, and the author needs to take that into account.
LL&O: Why did you decide to set your stories in the sixteenth century? Were you exploring something unknown to you or is this a historical period that you really like? I’ve read that you research profusely for your writing. How do you know when to stop researching and begin writing?
CK: It’s a historical period that I really like. I started studying Brazilian history for my own amusement in the late 90s, at the same time I began to study Portuguese, so by the time I began writing The Elephant and Macaw Banner, I already knew quite a bit. The sixteenth-century is great because it really was a period of exploration and adventure, perfect for this kind of story. The true-life story of Hans Staden, a German mercenary who made two long trips to Brazil at the time, was also a great influence, perhaps even the inspiration for the stories.
I never stop researching! I pause the writing sometimes when I need to study an entirely new subject, but the real key is learning how to research and write at the same time.
LL&O: Your Elephant and Macaw Banner tales have an interesting publication story, some of them were first available only in Portuguese and only now have been published in English. What can you tell us about this process? Are new stories of Gerard van Oost and Oludara coming soon? Will they be published simultaneously in Portuguese and English?
CK: There is a reason behind that. The first story came out in 2010, and the magazine which published it went out of business, so I had to find a new publisher. Another magazine accepted the second story in the series, but kept it “in the drawer”, awaiting publication, for four years.
I had originally decided to wait for English publication before publishing other stories in other languages, but there were so many people wanting to read more stories, I went ahead and published two more stories in other languages. Those have been published in Brazil, The Czech Republic, Romania, and The Netherlands.
So, after four long years, I decided to pull the story from the magazine and publish the stories myself (I didn’t feel like submitting to magazines and possibly waiting another four years). For now, they’re exclusive to Kindle, but I hope to have them out in other formats by the end of the year.
My publication plans in Portuguese and English are divergent at this point. I’m going to publish a novel in Brazil, joining many of the tales, but in English, I’m publishing the stories as a series of novelettes, to see where that goes. It is highly likely that I’ll publish stories in one language that I won’t publish in the other. As I said, the process is organic.
LL&O: What can you tell us about the possibility of publishing your stories in Spanish? What do you think about reading translations? Do you think the translator needs to be guided/helped by the author?
CK: I would love to publish them in Spanish, but no one has come asking for those rights yet, so I may go ahead and launch those myself, as I did in English.
The translator needs to feel comfortable asking the author questions. I’ve read bad translations of my own work before, where the translator didn’t ask me a single question, and I thought, “Why didn’t he just ask me to explain this part?” Resolving any doubts up front will save both sides a lot of embarrassment.
LL&O: You have worked as a computer programmer. What is similar and what is different between writing code and writing fiction?
CK: I would say that they are almost opposites. Computer programming is about creating a series of logical steps that will always provide the same result. Fiction is about feeling, emotion. It will never provide the same result. An infinite number of readers will have an infinite number of reactions.
LL&O: Are social networks important for you relationships with other authors and with your readers?
They are fundamental. The greater part of my writing career has occurred online: writing forums, critique groups, fiction submissions. Face-to-face relationships are still important to me. I tend to go to a couple of events each year (and even organize one), but that is very little compared to the time spent interacting online.
LL&O: What are you working on right now? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
CK: I’ve been writing narratives for just about everything these days: comics, TV shows, movies, video games, children’s books. Most of those projects are still unannounced, so there’s not much to say. I can at least mention Starlit Adventures, by Rockhead Games. That will be coming out a few weeks from now. I wrote part of the story, but my participation there will go far beyond the game itself—we’ll have some exciting news to announce shortly after launch. I also have some great new news about The Elephant and Macaw Banner that I can’t share just yet, unfortunately.
LL&O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
CK: The best place to go is http://www.eamb.org/. That’s the only place with my complete bibliography (including games), and has a lot of information about the series.
LL&O: Any other thing you’d like to add?
LL&O: Thank you for your answers and your time!