Gary Wedlund’s new novel, The Queen’s Return, was released in September — it’s the latest in his Hidden Shaman fantasy series, about a remarkable character named Abi. He’s also a member of my critique group, so I’ve had the opportunity to read and enjoy this fascinating series.
I asked Gary a few questions about the new novel, and about his other work.
Tell us a little about Abi, whose story you tell in this series. What’s special about her?
Well, I’ll start by saying that The Shaman Within is the first fantasy novel I ever attempted (not the first novel). In fact, I started it a couple of times, and even the final version was subject to about 20 full edits. It took years, and I was ten times the writer by the end of it. I think it was very much a learning experience, and it only ended well because of what I studied as I edited it over and over again. Sometimes when I talk to other writers who are reluctant to edit, I think back…. Good writing is work. For example, I read ten books on fiction writing while going through the process. I shopped it twice, chapter by chapter in writers groups.
Trust me, I’m getting to the question.
I realized that I wanted to write fantasy, but didn’t know anything about the genre, so my first part of writing The Shaman Within was to read 100 fantasy novels in a year. The thought was: Okay, I’m going to do this, but I needed to know the playing field. Prior to that I wrote sci-fi and horror. I had no idea beyond Tolkien and Mary Stewart, both of whom are useless in today’s competitive arena.
Through my reading I came to realize that a lot of our fantasy heroes didn’t feel right to me. On one hand I was reading fantasy literature about young people leaving the comforts of their parent’s comfortable castle, cottage or farm, but on the other hand I researched how people actually lived in Medieval Europe. Peasants often only had one square of cloth that they cut holes into in order to make a kind of sack cloth. Shoes were rare and simple. Most never wandered more than five miles from the plot of land the noble overlord allowed them to sharecrop. A day’s wages would buy six minutes of lamp oil. Life expectancy was twenty-five years, if you’re lucky. Some people lived their whole lives never having touched a coin. They owned next to nothing, and I mean that as literally as imaginable.
Women were often treated like cattle. In some countries today, women are not allowed an education, or even medical care. Hundreds of years ago, that was the norm. They belonged in the house or fields and were defined by class and their husbands. Even in America, women have been allowed to vote or own land, only in the last hundred years. Certainly they had no place in the military or political structure. In fact, it is unlikely that most of them even knew to question any of this. Religion helped keep them focused.
In Eastern culture, there is this idea that if you live a perfect life, you can avoid reincarnation and find Nirvana. That means the suffering is finally over. I can only imagine that women felt this way a bit more than men, though nine out of ten individuals must have seen life as one misery after the other. Men didn’t have it easy, and most owned nothing but a share of a crop. As well, imagine the conflict. A perfect life meant they toed the line. An imperfect life would mean that they tried to make something better of themselves. Conflict is the lifeblood of any decent literature. Being a part of the fabric is the day-to-day easy thing, even today. That explains why so many of our social norms continue, even though they defy logic. We can see it in other cultures, but we rarely realize the exact same thing in ourselves; thus the power of fantasy literature.
Abi has a backstory. I chose to not put it into the Shaman Within because Abi is my point of view, and she is completely unaware of it. Like any peasant, she is unaware of a lot beyond farming and her illegal poaching. So, we start with her, move through the book with her, and end up in a different place, but still with her, eyes now wide open.
The backstory is that her captive and forcedly married mother used to be a member of a very different tribe, the Debricians (patterned after the very real Amazonian culture of Eastern Europe). The Goddess has told the fallen mother to never tell Abi about her true heritage. In exchange, the Goddess will set a hand upon Abi’s life. The mother lives for Abi and sees to her illegal education in both letters and fighting skill.
Once unleashed upon the world, Abi embarks upon a whole new world of discovery, ten miles from her abusive father’s plot of land. Everything is different, and she is utterly naïve, trapped between an upbringing of peasantry and book learning that is miles removed from anything real.
I simply put my head into that of a naïve peasant girl and moved through space, imagining how this culture shock might feel. The fact that she doesn’t fit anywhere drives the character. She is awkward, restless, constantly feeling like she’s living on borrowed time, and thus also quite heroic. After all, she might have been senselessly murdered for a dozen different things, already. There are worse things than death, such as living. Like many soldiers who’ve been shot at one too many times, courage becomes a means of enduring the inevitable. At the same time, she is aware that the Goddess has promised her glory. When she speaks of “God” (it’s illegal to believe in the Goddess) having something grand for her life, those around her imagine that she is insane. She is also extremely capable. Tangling with Abi is a huge mistake.
What challenges does Abi face in The Queen’s Return?
The whole thing is driven by basic human survival. She can’t do A, B, C or E, so she does D, which in the book amounts to her magically disguising herself as a man, so she can indenture herself to the local noblewoman’s guard and pay off her father’s missing taxes. Not that she cares about her father; she just doesn’t want her mother to also be put off the land. It is also convenient to avoid being discovered as a murderess. There is an ancient spirit within her, but she doesn’t understand any of it and is surprised when she succeeds at anything magical. For the most part, she’s all about sweat and toil, being no stranger to it. Magic is a minor part of the storyline, but not a minor part of her soul because a shaman hides within. This is a working class heroine. Readers identify and want to walk every step with her.
What inspired you to write this series?
I imagined a scene: The Debrecians had won a battle, but upon turning a wounded Abi over to kill her on the battlefield, they noticed a necklace that is considered sacred to the Debrecian tribe. Those who have exhumed Amazonian burial mounds have studied the importance of necklaces to their culture, and it is suggested that the more coins on the necklace, the greater the warrior. The question becomes, why is this enemy warrior wearing this necklace? Why was she fighting for the enemy? Why is she a woman at all, when the enemy only has male soldiers? I coupled that with the idea that nationalism had not yet been invented, but tribal loyalties are rigid. Thus, the peasant soldier was just a drone doing the bidding of the man who drove them forward. Mindless or not, this wounded warrior needed to be revived for questioning.
That mentioned scene doesn’t happen in the book; I took it in a slightly different direction, but it served as my inspiration. Abi is fighting for the wrong side, and as the story progresses, and her naivety fades, she increasingly comes to know it. Why is the Goddess doing this to me? The result is a coming of age story.
The second book, Search for the Queen, has its own theme showing a selfish Abi’s maturation as a person who thinks on a wider scale. It’s not as much a search for the queen as it is a search for a sense of altruism. I liked to separate the three books into themes, giving each its own unity. I don’t like series that leave the reader feeling empty. This, too, was a learning process. By the end of this series I’d learned that lesson well. If you buy a book, you should get a story. It became increasingly the case, book to book, as I learned this talent. I also believe that the second book should be better than the first. I never write sequels just to write them. That’s cheating the reader.
The last book of the trilogy is The Queen’s Return. That one is all about proving a title. Queens are basically born to it, but what if that isn’t assumed? What if you have to prove your worth? In this case, the Debrecians don’t even know this imposter queen who is famous, to them, as an enemy. It starts with them kidnapping Abi, dragging her north to face a trial and execution for her insulting claim. If you like battles, this is the book to buy. While there are many battles within the series, this depicts the final war in a series of deadly conflicts.
What will your next project be?
The trilogy actually has two more books to it, though they depict new characters in the same world. I believe that the best fantasy book I ever wrote is book 4 (yet unpublished), Mad Mercy. The book defines mercy and why it matters. The main character is a girl who Abi stole at the end of book 2, Search for the Queen. The little witch, Sarah, steals the show, though. She can barely say six words in a row, but they’re always amazing. In fact, book 5 is Sarah’s Magic, which is just plain weird, traversing both time and space.
I actually have a bunch of recently written books I am trying to sell. I have been doing urban and paranormal fantasy, to include a lot of farce. I have the following novels finished, waiting for publishers: Succubus and My Sister, Succubus Conium, Succubus Wolf, Satan’s Daughter Goes to Pittsburgh, Satan’s Daughter Walks to Portugal and This Book Sucks. Then I have a very serious historic/post apocalyptic novel called Lia’s Scream. Last year I finished The Condotte the Gods forgot to Kill and Belladonna, both fantasies with a more sober tone. I self-published The Condotte’s Daughter, hoping to sell it cheaper, though I think it’s a great novel.
I also write in the horror genre. Open Casket published Zombies in Our Hometown, and the much better Atomic Zombies. I’m currently finishing up Eaterz, set in Nelsonville, Ohio, like Atomic Zombies and Belladonna were.
My next novel is forming in my head. I’ve been mulling over another witch novel. I’m imagining a girl who keeps trying to do evil spells to impress this moronic warlock for a boyfriend. Her culture is all about doing no evil, etc., in the modern Wicca context, so she’s swimming upstream, against momma’s will. When she actually manages a spell that doesn’t go foul on her, and something evil happens, she instantly realizes how stupid she’s been acting. The boyfriend dumps her anyway, and that doubles-down on the feeling that she’d been an idiot. She didn’t think anything really bad was going to happen. Now she has to fix it, and she’s still not all that good at the craft. The tone will be important, and I’m leaning toward outrageous farce. Voice is also an issue, given I vary that a lot, novel to novel.
I have no idea how that whole thing plays out, but that’s how novels are with me. I like to start with character, situation and tone, then let the story happen. Usually I have much better plots for it because they feel lived in and not forced. As well, I get to go along for the ride and enjoy the story. Sometimes I finish writing for the day by sitting back, smiling and saying, “Oh, so that’s what happened.” I don’t want to miss out on those moments.
You are also an artist. Tell us a little about your work?
I like to watercolor (therapy). My current focus is on portraits, usually kids (because they are so joyful) or people in costume. Years ago I had shows with nothing but abstracts in them. I love to work big, usually full sheet, 22 by 30. The fun thing about watercolor is you don’t need a lot of fuss. You need paper, palette and a tiny bit of paint. I’ve used the same three $1 brushes for years. By far and away, the biggest expense is frames. I paint five minutes then walk away, but I am very fast. This usually results in a painting every 10 days or so, and people say they’re professional. I’ve had several one-man shows in local galleries, and could probably do more with marketing it, but I consider my prime art to be writing.
In general, I believe that some people are just born with art in their souls. I used to play in a lot of headline local rock bands. I’ll jump on an art form then back off for a decade. It’s kind of weird, but I’ve come to understand it. The artistic expression just has to get out. It doesn’t matter, one bit, how. This makes me feel like the whole art community is a shared one. People who are not plagued by this curse have no idea what I just wrote. That’s okay. I just hope you like the work and can tolerate our being so weird.
Thanks, Gary! Here’s a little more information about the new novel, The Queen’s Return:
The Queen’s Return:
Convincing those in power to believe that Abi is a queen seems daunting. Then again, Abi has grown a good deal since leaving her father’s cabin as a naïve peasant seeking no more than the next day’s comfort. Mostly she has learned that the Goddess provides and has her own way of doing things, often not timely.
The details of royal recognition hardly matter. No, there is a noble marriage to arrange, a fiancé’s parents to coerce and an enormous Farstand army to stop from decimating her reluctant allies.
We shall start with a kidnapping and get bloody in a hurry.
The Queen’s Return is available from Amazon, here.