The Sword Guy Podcast episode 66
Sebastien de Castell lives a life of music, adventure and swordplay. He is the author of the Greatcoats series, which is full of sword action, and the Spellslinger series, which features magic finger guns!
For all Sebastien’s books, see here: https://decastell.com/all-books/
In this episode we talk about how to write a great sword fight for stage, screen and literature, including these two classic scenes:
Sebastien’s ulterior motive for coming on the podcast was to ask Guy’s opinion on how a rapier might be modified to contain a pistol. Have a listen and see if you agree or have a better idea of how it could be done.
You can also support the show at Patreon.com/TheSwordGuy Patrons get access to the episode transcriptions as they are produced, the opportunity to suggest questions for upcoming guests, and even some outtakes from the interviews. Join us!
GW: I'm here today with Sebastien de Castell, author of the Greatcoats series, which is one of my favourite series involving swords of all time. You just have to read it. I'll put the links in the shownotes. I will, of course, discuss the books in the episode, but also the Spellslinger series which is sort of like a Wild West with magic. And what they have in common is there's an awful lot of violence in both these series and it always, always works really, really well, which is the main reason why I reached out to Sebastien to get him on the show, because getting good violence into a book is super hard. So without further ado, Sebastien, welcome to the show.
SC: Thanks so much for having me.
GW: Did I pronounce your name correctly?
SC: You pronounced it excellently. I'm honestly not sure how to pronounce it anymore because it's technically a French name. But my family is predominantly English. And so, yeah, I don't think there is a correct way to pronounce my name anymore. So people will sometimes ask me, because they are very concerned, you know, what is it? And I sort of think they're all good. I's like being reborn every time someone introduces me.
GW: OK, whereabouts in the world are you?
SC: I'm in Vancouver, British Columbia right now, which is a pretty decent place to spend the pandemic.
GW: I can imagine. Yeah, I’ve visited Vancouver several times and it is a lovely city.
SC: It is. We are really lucky. We have a we have an interesting mixture, especially in terms of something like a pandemic where we have pretty nice weather. People here tend to be sort of outdoorsy generally. So that can kind of help limit spread a little bit. But it also means that people don't go quite as stir crazy or get quite as much cabin fever from being trapped inside. We have an amazing provincial health officer who's a really smart, smart scientist and understands governance really well and a population that tends to be, I won't say servile, but we're not as prone to going, “I refuse to wear a mask! Now that now that I know there's a pandemic, I want to run around and breathe on everyone.” So we've actually had, as these things go, a reasonably mild experience with the pandemic, which isn't to say that it hasn't been tragic for loads of people, but it hasn't been so bad.
GW: Yeah, I've been to Vancouver in February and it's not nearly as cold as you would expect Canada to be in February. But I think we just have made the biggest problem in Vancouver slightly worse. Now that you've told everyone how lovely it is, house prices are only going to go further up.
SC: Oh, house prices are absolutely ridiculous here, it makes no sense at all, and we keep constantly expecting this bubble to burst and it never seems to burst. And I think it's because when people talk about housing markets… now, there is a topic for a sword show. Let's get deep into the housing markets, Guy. Let's talk mortgages. We're going to talk mortgages. We're going to talk, you know, balloon payments. But people will constantly sort of glibly say, well, it's an overheated market and it's going to burst. But the fundamentals don't alter. And the fundamentals are of a quite cosmopolitan city near the mountains and the ocean with a very temperate climate and pretty reasonable governance and relatively low for a city this size, relatively low amounts of violence and things like that. So it's just always going to be that way that people keep kind of coming here and wanting to buy houses here. My wife and I are very lucky because we bought our house 20 years ago. And so we got it when the prices were actually low. And every time we keep thinking like, look how well we did on this house, the value of the house has gone up six times. But if we were to sell it, we would never be able to afford any other house.
GW: Yeah, I mean, you could sell it and move somewhere like maybe Detroit, where the housing market has not done so well.
SC: Sure. Everybody wants to live in Detroit now. Actually, Detroit's an amazing city.
GW: Yeah, that's true. I mean, Detroit is actually a great place. I've been there several times and it has its dodgy areas and it's had a couple of decades or so of really, really bad luck. But again, the fundamentals, if we could just get some industry going there, it would be a great place. Anyone listening here from Detroit. We are entirely on your side.
SC: Absolutely. Detroit, Rock City. So much great rock and roll that came out of there.
GW: Exactly. OK, now, I think we probably better get a little more on topic. So it's pretty obvious from reading your books that you do have some fencing experience and the listeners can't see this. But behind Sebastien's shoulder, there is not only several shelves of his books, beautifully arranged, cover out so you can see his series, but also two swords and a pistol. Actually three swords, there’s another sword over the door. OK, so what's your background with the swords?
SC: So I used to fence épée fencing, or as we like to call it in front of sabre fencers, the only true form of sport fencing. My old fencing master used to refer to sabre fencing as fly-fishing because sport sabres are so flexible that you can whip the blade around someone's shoulder and hit them on the back. And I absolutely adored épée fencing, in terms of just as a as a pure athletic endeavour, I adored it. But from there I started getting asked to do what was called theatrical fencing, which is something that happens more in fencing clubs where it's more traditional swords, rapiers and small swords and long swords and Zweihanders and things like that, but done for the purposes of showing off the beauty of choreography. And so the club was doing a little bit of that. And then I started getting asked to actually choreograph plays. So I spent a couple of years choreographing sword fights for the theatre, which was an absolutely fantastic kind of gig to get.
GW: Yes, I've done a little bit of stage combat for the actors and it is good fun.
SC: Yeah. I mean, it's an amazing process, especially. I was really, really lucky that the first gig that I did that was of any sort of substance was a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses or, Dangerous Liaisons, which of course, there's a fabulous John Malkovich version of that of that film, which is based on the play. And I got to work with the actors, with two actors who are very keen to do a great job of it. And so we just spent, I don't know, probably a couple of hundred hours just practising various techniques and therefore building choreography out of their bodies and out of their characters instead of just me imposing it down on them. And so that was just a terrific experience. And I was doing the fight choreography for a production of a modern adaptation of Richard III in London. And that was, I say, modern, not in the sense of as if it was done in modern times, but modern in the sense of it's a different historical interpretation of Richard III, where he's not quite the villain that Shakespeare decided to make him. And that was just all kinds of crazy sword fights and it was just wonderful. There is a very big shift, though, that goes especially if you go from, let's say, modern sport fencing to kind of HEMA, you know, the historical European martial arts to more authentic historical forms to then choreography, because choreography has to be to some degree discernible to the audience. Which means that, of course, everything is more sort of grand. Things that should be lightning fast are actually slowed down. Things that should be somewhat slower are often sped up. So it probably turn it turns you into the world's worst actual fencer. The better your choreography, the worse you're likely be. You learn how to pretend to hit people really well.
GW: Yeah. I mean, there are lots of skills that cross over, like weapons handling and control of measure. The way I define the difference, because people always ask me, oh, you do swords do you? So you do swordfights for movies and things like that. OK, in historical martial arts, when you fight, nobody should see what happened and somebody should die. In stage combat, everyone should see what happened, but nobody should die, so they have massively overlapping skill sets, but fundamentally opposed goals.
SC: Absolutely. I think even within that, I tended to see amongst people who were my superiors in all of these various arts, I tended to see two major approaches, which I would almost call two different instincts around stage combat. And one is we're going to take all of these moves and we're going to turn them into stage combat moves, if you will. So a thrust is no longer a thrust, it’s a stage combat thrust. And then we're going to put these together and we're going to construct this almost computer programme of safety because, of course, safety is the primary aim of stage combat. And we're going to put all this stuff so that it looks beautiful and it's its own little mini play within the play. There's the other approach or I think of as almost a choreographer's or a fight director's instinct, which is we're going to do everything basically for real. It's just that because we know what's coming, we can therefore have the actors be protected against it. And I think in some ways that's probably a better approach. That isn't, in fact, the approach that I used to take. I was very much more of the, “I'm here to choreograph a performance”. And so it's interesting because I remember sometimes when I'd work with another fight director, I got to spend a bunch of time with F. Braun McAsh, who is friend of mine who is the choreographer for the Highlander TV series. I never met anyone who could sort of come up with more obscure weaponry and suddenly compose a fight with it than Braun. But he would sometimes say to me when we were working on something together, why are you doing this move so slow? You know, seeing me fence in other contexts. And I would be like, oh, because I'm not actually lunging, I'm pretending to lunge. And so those two distinctions I always find them interesting when you're watching a piece of stage combat taking place.
GW: Yeah, I think you can usually see when the actors are going for it. Because it's just the body language is different.
SC: Yeah, yeah, it's true, and that's where you can sort of move into that very dangerous ground, not simply from safety, but I think one of the ways a few flight directors I knew used to describe it is that there's a difference between when the audience is afraid for the characters versus when they're afraid for the actors.
GW: That's a good distinction.
SC: And an audience needs no mastery or expertise in swordplay or choreography in order to experience that distinction, that they will suddenly feel because we're all physical beings, because our muscles twitch when we see other people's muscles twitch, that they will suddenly realise these actors are not in control of the fight. And when you see it and it's kind of soul crushing when you watch it because you're pulled out of the story and you're just suddenly afraid and you're like, oh, my God, what have we all done? We've just we're human beings. We're just taking these two poor people in the swordfight or however many are in the battle scene and we've put them in actual physical jeopardy. I have seen that happen once or twice when I was doing fight direction and you have to clamp down on it so hard. It's hard for the actors because their job is to be in the moment. Their job is not about just memorising things. It's about being there. They look for those moment of unexpected authenticity. Their entire actor's instincts are like, I know where he's going to parry, I think I'll stick the sword somewhere else this time. I still remember I was working with a wonderful actor, and this was in London. And there was a moment where he was carrying a battle axe, a double headed axe. It was not historical, but it looked great on stage. We had it custom made from aluminium and things like that. And he has this moment where he just spins this axe around and he gets this big battle yell going on and shakes it in front of the audience. And it ended up in the fourth row centre during dress rehearsal. Blessedly during dress rehearsal. You had to kind of work through exactly why did this happen, exactly what do we need to do. We had a moment that there was a moment right before the lights would go down during at the end of this big battle of Bosworth. Battle of Bosworth is, the only way to stage that is with these sudden explosions of choreography happening all over the place. When you're using the lights all the time to focus on two actors here, three actors there because you're trying to simulate hundreds of people at the edge of a battle. And we always ended it with there was a guy who had run straight down centre stage right towards the front of the stage with a spear and be pretending to throw it over the audience's head. And because and from day one, because we just knew that in the heat of all of that, because, you know, we had timpanis and drums, all the battle frenzy that builds up on the stage. So before that actor would go out on stage every time we had someone gaffer taping the spear to his hand. So every single time this poor guy had to have his hand taped up so much that if he if he tried to let go, he ended up falling over on his face. But he did a great job. He never he launched the spear into the audience. But yeah, those are the issues with that, which blessedly do not come up when you're writing fight scenes in a novel, you are allowed to throw the axe anywhere you want.
GW: Excellent. So you were doing stage combat in Vancouver. And then how did you get into the historical martial arts?
SC: I never did a ton of it, but I came across Devon Boorman, who I'm sure lots of folks know and Academie Duello. And so every once in a while, I'll sort of go down with those guys and do a little bit of rapier or longsword or things like that. Devon, I found to be an absolutely stellar teacher. A while back I did their week long instructor training programme.
GW: Pretty intense.
SC: Yeah, well, I was just doing it because I was going it's going to be mostly 20 year olds, you know, will I hold up well, in terms of endurance, because it was nine hours a day, basically. But it's so brilliantly put together. Devon has really thought through, just spent so much passion and energy trying to figure out how you construct curriculum for historical European martial arts. And I know lots of people around the world are engaged in that. I find it so impressive that you have something like historical European martial arts where you would naturally think of it if you were outside of it. You would assume that this was kind of, we're throwing this together and we're all just swinging swords and whatever and being poncy about it. And yet I'm always amazed by the levels of expertise, not just in the weapons or the use of the weapons, but in pedagogy that goes into it. Having spent 10 years working at Vancouver film school, often largely constructing pedagogy and curriculum and programmes, I was just so impressed with that, with how much is out there and just how open a lot of the historical European martial arts are or the ones that I've tended to encounter are towards different people in different bodies. I love that sort of inclusive spirit that I've seen that I've seen around.
GW: I couldn't agree more. We have people from all different cultures, all different sizes and shapes and ages. And the thing is historically, the martial arts of say, 15th century Italy were not you're supposed to be this height and this width and this level of fitness that it was constrained by class, but it wasn't constrained by body type, although there weren't very many women practising swordsmanship in the 15th century that we know of. We do know that some women did do it. It would be weird now if we required a particular body type to teach somebody, I mean in ballet, for instance, if you're past a certain weight, you're never going to be good at ballet. There are sports, like épée. You really want to be tall and slim to be a good épéeist. Whereas if you're punching people instead, you can be tall but you want a bit more weight. And if you're wrestling people, it's probably better to be short. You want the same weight, but you want it in a smaller package, but with swordfights, there is no one optimal body type, particularly when the weapons are sharp.
SC: Oh yeah. No, I agree. I always find this a kind of an interesting and interesting facet of just of our culture, which is that we have all of these assumptions about the past. And one of one of our key assumptions that we tend to apply to the past is that we are the most progressive, liberal, sophisticated society that has ever existed. And everybody before us were sort of Neanderthals and in fact, that's not true. We know that's not true. We know that the 1950s, especially in North America, was it was a time where there was a very intentional push to sort of define women as belonging in the homemaker roles, and that this had always been the case. Because they were trying to get women out of the workforce because after World War II, so that the men would suddenly have their jobs back, as was done to lots of other groups as well in North America, African-Americans were suddenly more systematically excluded from roles that they had been having before. And it's the same when it comes to things like swordplay, where we sort of retrofitted this notion of who was and wasn't a warrior or could and couldn't be a sword fighter. It's that thing where unless it's like unless you can prove it was 50/50. Half of all warriors were women, then people go, well, it wasn't half, so therefore it doesn't count. But of course, it's a silly proposition. And so we do kind of have that expectation in our heads. I run into this sometimes. I sometimes tell the story of I was doing a Reddit AMA. And for those who don't follow Reddit, Reddit is a place on the Internet where people go to talk about the things that they love most passionately and to talk about people they'd like to kill.
GW: And that's a fair description of Reddit.
SC: Reddit is in some ways the ultimate expression of the Internet. And I remember there was a guy who who posted something and he was posting about my second Greatcoats book, which is called Knight’s Shadow. And it features a character named Dariana, who is a very deadly swordswoman. And I think this guy was saying, I just wish these modern fantasy writers didn't always feel like they had to artificially construct these female warriors, because everyone knows that the female bodies don't work that way. They don't have the muscle mass. They don't have this and that. And I don't like to engage people in sort of negative forms. And so I just instead chose to write back and say, well, look, I can't speak to all of this. I'm not a I'm not a professional historian. But I will tell you that Dariana for me was partly inspired by Ella Hattan, who I don't know if you know, was an actress, and from Zanesville, Ohio, in the mid 19th century, when her acting career was coming apart, started studying studied swordplay with Colonel Monsteri, who was a renowned soldier of fortune stuff. And she started doing all of these prizefights, not just with sabre or knives, but on horseback and all these forms and was eventually going across the country, putting ads in the paper that she would duel anyone in an exhibition duel. And there was a famous I can't remember this poor guy's name. He was he was quite well known as another one of these, “I will face anyone with a sword” kind of guys, and he kept leaving the cities where she was chasing him across the country because the risk was just too high, she was just too good. Ella Hattan dubbed herself La Jaguarina.
GW: There’s an entry for her in Jason Porath’s book, Rejected Princesses, which is a fantastic book.
SC: That's right. And yeah. That’s why I always tell people, I think five years ago I said, if nobody writes a historical adventure story featuring Ella Hattan, then one day I'm going to do it because I don't think I'm in the best position to do it, but I keep wanting someone to do it. So one of these days, I may have to if no one else does, because she was like, what a fantastic figure. To go from a stage actress who's kind of struggling. She was she was like five foot. She was quite short. She's about one hundred and fifty pounds. But when you see the old photos of her, you can see someone whose body probably wasn't as adapted to being the most beautiful woman on the stage or something, but who was perfectly adapted for being an absolutely devastating sword fighter. One doesn't have to buy into the notion that she was the greatest duellist of the mid 19th century. But we certainly have to agree that she must have been pretty damn good.
GW: Right. She's certainly a contender. And the fact that we have a woman as a contender for that title, it just disproves the whole notion that women can't fight with swords.
SC: Yeah. And the fact that we don't the fact that she was so largely kind of ignored after the fact, I think there was there's been some movement to try to get her acknowledged now, for what you have to admit is just an absolutely amazing accomplishment, completely irrespective of gender, to just be this person in the mid eighteen hundreds who's going off and doing these exhibition in multiple weapons and multiple contests. I just I find her amazing. And so that was, that was my sort of reaction to it was to go, you know what, I can't speak to the historicity of everything, but this was a real figure. And she did this. And that's my inspiration for wanting to write, you know, Dariana in Knight’s Shadow. And that's often how it is for writers.
GW: And let's be strictly accurate. I mean, the Greatcoats is not a history.
SC: No, absolutely not.
GW: In fact, it’s a series of novels.
SC: Yeah, and they're fantasy novels. They're set in a different world. They're set in a world that on every different level is intended to be at least partially a historical, not the least of which is that it's based on the idea of an early modern society that hasn't broken past feudalism, which is ahistorical for any number of reasons. But because I wanted to show a society that was that was fundamentally in a form of decline, even as it was coming into what we would think of as an early modern period. So what happens if you divorce shifting governmental styles from all the other forms of development. I also sometimes make the claim when anyone brings it up, that also steel is a little bit different in this world, in that it's a very, very expensive to make very, very good steel. And so you can have excellent steel swords. But plate armour isn't as durable as it would be in our world.
GW: A very handy plot device.
SC: Yes, it gets you past lots of things. But it's funny. I remember when I was doing Traitor’s Blade, the first book in the series, when I was doing the final revisions to that book I went through and made sure to remove any type of reference to accurate historical sword fighting terminology, specifically because I didn't want people to get hung up on whether one move was accurately defined or not.
GW: And that's one of the critical things. A list of sword fighting techniques make a terrible fight in a book. And you have this thing where you make some sort of statement about how fights go. And then provide a counterexample and then you have the fight happen, and it's basically illustrating the principle that the character is going on, but in each case, the thing you're defining is made up. It’s totally internally consistent, but it doesn't it doesn't map to any historical fencing system or any particular martial art or whatever that we know of. So there aren't any of those logic problems that you get where, “Oh, but if his hand is in carte, then surely it would be palm up.” But you're not saying it’s in carte, you’re saying he’s hitting him like this.
SC: If you remember the TV show Friends, I think I use the Phoebe system of sword fighting. You know, she was she was the character who would play guitar quite poorly. But when she'd teach someone guitar, she tries to teach Joey guitar. At one point he says, I want to know how to play like an E chord or a G chord. And she's like, no, no, no, “dragon claw”. She just makes up all of these different terms for chords. And so I thought, well, that's a really, really good approach when you're writing a fantasy sword fighting system. One of the main reasons for that, though, is that and I'm sure you encounter this, is that historical European martial arts, sometimes some students of it will tend to try to kind of almost construct these Boolean logic rules around it. Well, you can't defeat this move with this move and you can't do this with this. And this doesn't pair with this. But in the context of the Greatcoats I'm writing about these sword fighting judges, these travelling judges who have a system.
GW: There is an element of Judge Dredd in there. Just the tiniest little whiff of Judge Dredd.
SC: I know, people tell me that. And I had never read Judge Dredd, so I completely missed the reference. I was I was basing them on the 12th century English Justices Itinerant.
GW: Oh OK.
SC: Because when we think of a legal court, the word “court” didn't come from some special legal court. It meant like the king's court, but the king's court couldn't be everywhere at once. And so you would have these justices itinerant who would do these circuits, which is where the term circuit court comes from in the United States. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was a circuit court lawyer travelling with another lawyer and a judge on horseback, sometimes from town to town on the circuit, and then hearing cases. And in the British context, you had these judges going around on a six month tour, for example. So if you had a legal dispute in one of these small villages or towns, especially mostly in the smaller villages, you have to wait several months before the judge came around to say that guy had killed my cow. I want restitution. And I always believed as well, if in what sparse records are, it always reads a little bit to me as if there was a secondary function to those justices itinerate, which was basically to keep an eye on where things were going in the kingdom for the king and report back. So with the Greatcoats I was writing, I was taking that to a somewhat more elaborate level, where you have a society that has an incredibly long tradition of trial by combat that never had the strong attempts to rein in duelling, but in fact, kind of elevates it. I have a document because of an upcoming book called Our Lady of Blades, which is set in a duelling court. And it's all the different kinds of judicial duels that I constructed for the world because I wanted the reader to enter, not just a world where someone goes right, I demand trial by combat, OK, if you win, you're innocent. If you lose, you're guilty. I wanted something that was way more elaborate so that you'd have things like sentencing duels where the judge says you're sentenced to 10 years and you would like to appeal. And so you're suddenly in a duel with a prosecuting fencer who every cut you score is a year off your sentence. And every cut done to you is a year added. So you could potentially walk out of court with a 25 or 30 year sentence or you could walk out with no sentence at all.
GW: That's a brilliant idea.
SC: Yeah. And in the context of Our Lady of Blades, when it's introduced, because it is absolutely illegal for someone to be killed in a sentencing duel, as soon as a wound is too grave, the duel is called off. So if you suddenly stab someone in the thigh and it's a wound that they can't continue, as was the case with a lot of sword duels in our own history when they can't continue, that's it. It's over. And so it's a tactic of the prosecuting of the prosecution censors at times yet to either go for it or to pretend that a wound is so serious that they can't continue and the judges tend to be biased towards the prosecutors. So they'll say, what should be just a tiny scratch, the prosecutor will be sort of like, oh, I can't continue. I'm losing too much blood. I love that intersection between violence and political machinations. And so there's a lot of that in the Greatcoats. But getting back to how that applies to fencing techniques, that means you have these judges who are constantly in these very strange, precarious situations. So their technique is neither built around the sort of elegant, formalised notion of fencing, nor is it built around the whatever is the most efficient way to kill someone. It's often built around I need to gain an unusual upper hand in this situation to produce one of these many different kinds of outcomes. And therefore, there's tons of tricks. Falcio is constantly pulling out one trick after another based on whoever is fencing, which I mean, in sport fencing, we see that. You don't try to use the same tricks on a on a beginner that you use on a more experienced fencer because the beginner will ignore them and just stab you, whereas a more experienced fencer will fall for some, but not others.
GW: Yeah. And famously, this guy who wrote a book called Epee 2.0, which as an épéeist, you really should read it because it's fantastic. A guy called Johan Harmenberg. And he won the Olympic gold medal in both the team and the men's individual épée in 1980. And he knew that he was likely to fence one of his teammates in the final. And so for two years before the final, every time he fenced that teammate, he behaved a certain way. And when they got to the final, he fenced completely differently. At the end of it, when he'd won, his teammate said you didn’t fence like that in practise. He said, well, that wasn't practise. The stories in his book is that sort of things. You have to be able to adjust what you're doing to the absolute specifics of the situation, who and why and what the outcome is that you want.
SC: That's what makes it such a fascinating endeavour, it's almost like poker in a way, right? Everyone has their tells and everyone has their kind of preferred techniques and preferred approaches. And so the more you can understand what those are, the better advantage you have, which is one of the reasons why different body types, some very tall, very long limbed fencers struggle against shorter fencers because they'll just tend to have the tip of their épée go over the shoulder if that person ducks down so much as a half an inch and then suddenly they're inside and you're basically done.
GW: Now, the Greatcoats actually wear greatcoats. And I understand that there's an origin story there. Is that correct? What is the idea of the greatcoats come from?
SC: Well, the actual coats themselves, it was just that when I was acting, so I spent some time as an actor, not a good one. I think my brother watched a film I was in. It was an independent film where I was playing lead. And I think after I asked, what do you think? And he said, the good news is you weren't actually the worst part of that movie. And that was the highest praise I would ever receive from a family member on my acting skills. So I preface this that way. But he once gave me this this greatcoat, like a really long kind of wool greatcoat, which when he gave it to me, I thought, I can't see myself wearing this, but actors, often you're stuck on night shoots. And I was stuck on a whole pile of night shoots. And so you're constantly cold and you need something to throw on quickly. And so I would bring this coat and which was just fantastic because you could just bundle up in it after a scene and be protected. And it had these massive pockets all over it, and because it's such a big coat, like you could fit an entire hardback novel into one of the pockets. And so it just I found myself wearing it whenever I was out on set and feeling like, oh, you know, I feel totally safe when I have this coat and I can carry everything I need inside of it. And I thought, wouldn't it be great to have a coat that you travelled in that had every single thing you needed in it? And so when I was writing the Greatcoats, I wanted them to have some kind of an advantage. And so I sort of came up with this notion of these coats that that looked like long leather greatcoats, but had something like 100 hundred pockets and little slots and things hidden inside and these very slender bone plates from a fantastical bird that's very sort of durable but very slender and light sewn into the lining of the coats so that it's almost the equivalent of armour for them. And that was all based on what I refer to as my acting coat that my brother had given me. And it's interesting because to me, when you're writing these things, this is sort of the interesting peril of being a novelist. When you're writing these things, you think, oh, that's kind of a little detail. Like, that's just a fun little detail. And then all of a sudden that will become the thing that people really fixate on and so that people really fixate on those coats. I think everybody wants to buy one of those greatcoats.
GW: I really want one.
SC: Well as soon as we start manufacturing, I think I'm going to have to get vastly more famous for those to start getting manufactured. But they are a wonderful plot device to play with because every time I'm writing a Greatcoats duel of some kind, I need them to do something interesting here. Oh, there's a tiny one inch blade that's hidden in the cuff.
GW: You can just always add an extra pocket. It's not like that's the number of pockets is actually determined somewhere. You can add anything at anytime, that's really handy. And you have another series coming in that universe?
SC: I do. It’s called Court of Shadows, which takes place after the first four Greatcoats novels. So the first four Greatcoats novels are all basically told by Falcio Val Mond, who is the former First Cantor of the Greatcoats. And so the Cantors were because the Greatcoats, one of the things they do is they sing their verdicts because often they need their verdicts to be remembered in the small towns. Ass was somewhat the case with troubadour culture, where you're often building songs off of pre-existing melodies that everybody's familiar with, they would sometimes compose their verdicts that way so people would remember the underlying rationale and nobody could come along later and say, oh, that's not what that's not what the judge decided. And so the Cantors were sort of the leaders of that. And Falcio Val Mond was the First Cantor of the Greatcoats. But in one of the things that happened across that series is you start to introduce other orders of people because you want your universe to be interesting. And so there's orders like the Duchesne who in the context of the Greatcoats, the first series, everyone hates them. They're sort of these assassins who are kind of mysterious and largely despised. But we find out eventually are an order that was not so dissimilar from the Greatcoats before they were the order of spies. And one of their jobs was what happens if a judge deems, let's say, a powerful lord is guilty and has to be arrested or prosecuted, and that Lord just decides I'm just going to sit inside my walled castle. And unless you want a war where you're going to kill several hundred innocents, you can't get to me. And so there needed to be an order of people who could sneak into a castle and kill a lord once in a while for the good of the country and also the Bardadi who are sort of the troubadour and also the memory of the country. And so there's all these different orders that evolved. And so when it was time to write a second series, I didn't want to just write another extension of Falcio going off and trying to save the world, but instead introduce other characters from some of these other orders. And so this series, The Court of Shadows, is a bit different from a conventional fantasy series where in a typical fantasy series, you have the same sort of protagonists who carries forward book one, book two, books three, book four. And it's almost as if it's just one big book that's just been split into four in the way that Lord of the Rings was one book split into three. So here instead, it's a little bit more like the Marvel movies where the first four books introduce our origin stories that can sort of be told almost in any order, of these different main characters who will then come together in the fifth book climax to face the big hidden threat against poor benighted Tristia, the country.
GW: It’s a very unlucky country in many respects.
SC: It's a deeply unlucky country. And we start to find out in this new series why they're so unlucky – that’s it's not entirely their own fault. It's not entirely just because they're all so venal, that their society is constantly under threat.
GW: You don’t have to answer this question, of course. But have you actually planned all this out in depth, and detail first, or having written the first four Greatcoats books, did you then go I could do this other thing and that would explain these other things? Do you plan everything in advance?
SC: I wish I could say yes, because that would make life much easier. The thing about outlining and the world has some fantastic outliners in it. And sometimes I try to outline and it just gets me into trouble. But often what it with me, it tends to lead me to the next natural step and the next natural step. After the events of Tyrant’s Throne, after the final book in the Greatcoat series, the next natural step is to jump straight to the new First Cantor of the Greatcoats and what she's going through and all of that. And when I started writing that, I thought I'm doing the two most dangerous things you can do when you've written a character that people that has a fan base of people who really love them. There's a lot of people when they love the Greatcoats, what they love is Falcio. Some people love the greatcoats and hate Falcio, interestingly enough. But still the risk was you don't want to repeat yourself. You don't want to just go, right, it's the same three guys running around having adventures and with their banter. But when you put yourself in the situation where, OK, I'm writing about a new trio and it's a new First Cantor of the Greatcoats, then you're going to be running away from that and running away from that means instead of Chalmers being fantastic as a duellist and ingenious, she's clumsy at it and fails at it. And instead of there being this wonderful friendship between the trio, well, we'll make it three people who don't know each other and aren't getting along. And all of a sudden you're basically writing the exact book that nobody would ever want to read if they happened to love the first four books. And so for me, I have to kind of try to go, OK, I need to go off in a somewhat different direction. And so I started exploring other aspects of the world that weren't as well seen, because one of the problems when you're writing epic fantasy of any type is it tends to all take place largely at the same scale. So it's very difficult to spend three hundred pages in a tavern somewhere if the scale that you're working at is the country's about to be taken over. And so doing it the way that I'm doing it with Court of Shadows, I get to take these characters and tell swashbuckling stories in contexts that I haven't seen in other places. So Play of Shadows, for example, is about an actor who's discovering that he may be a what’s called the Bardadi Varistor, which is an actor who, when they play a historical figure on stage, is sometimes taken over by the spirit of that actual historical figure. And therefore it starts to change their lines because that historical figure didn't say those things that show up in the play. And this was informed for me by the Richard III play that I did in the whole point of that play was, was the story we've been given is not what really happened. Richard III wasn't the villain everybody wanted him to be. And so it allowed me to write a massive swashbuckling adventure set in the theatre, which I hadn't seen much of before. And so I that becomes more interesting for me and hopefully more compelling for the readership.
GW: OK, so you’re taking the opportunity to take little parts of the world and just go into them and expand them and work at that scale. That's a great idea because there's lots and lots and lots of little details in the first four books. And then, of course, the story takes you somewhere else. OK, and a little birdie tells me that there's some black powder and blades coming together.
SC: Oh, I yeah, my secret reason for actually wanting to come on the podcast was so that I could quiz you a little bit because I had wanted to write and I've taken two stabs at it so far and abandoned both and but I'm determined to make this work. I had wanted to write a kind of a young adult Greatcoats novel. And because this is such a big readership for the Spellslinger series, and I get these letters from people going, well, I'm 14 years old and I just finished the six Spellslinger books, should I read Traitor’s Blade? It’s just a little too dark in places. Some of the themes are a little too adult. Lots of 14 year olds, lots of 12 year olds can read all that stuff, no problem, but not everyone can. And I never know. And I always feel like there's no real bridge. And so I thought I'd like to write kind of a young adult Greatcoat series that allowed me to deal with what it's like to become a Greatcoat for the first time.
GW: Oh, my God. So you're going to have like training montages and stuff exactly like that. That is my favourite kind of martial arts thing, that's why Empire Strikes Back is the best of the original movies. Because you see how Yoda trains Luke. Those training montages are like my favourite thing in movies. OK, so you're going to be doing training montage in your book.
SC: In the YA series. Yeah. So I wanted to do something where a different trio of younger people come up and that we start where it's set off in the north a little bit where there aren't any Greatcoats around. And so the first book is sort of building to them deciding to be greatcoats. And I came up with this idea that I really quite love, which is that the way this comes about is we have a young man who's 17 years old. He was training to be a clockmaker, which to him is the clockmaker is the highest level of art and craft and science, because everything has to be perfect and precise and all these kinds of things, whose father basically forces him to come north, abandon his training and join him in his weaponsmith shop because his father's hands get burned in a fire accident. So he doesn't have the dexterity anymore. And so his son is the one who's making all of these very expensive weapons for rich people. And one of the things he's asked to do that sort of sets off the story is someone comes in and says, I want a perfect replica of this duelling rapier made. And the rapiers in Tristia, it's as if you have an extended period of what we think of as transition rapiers. So a little lighter, a little narrower than the conventional rapier, but not quite at the not at the stage of small swords yet. And so he's told I need a replica of this rapier, but I need to be able to fire a bullet, fire a lead ball. And so that's hence the title of this first book, The Black Powder Blade. And so I was wrestling with I had this memory which must be false because I've never seen it since. And my research hasn't turned it up. I swear that I had seen a rapier, a 16th century rapier, in a museum, that had a pistol built into it. But I can never find evidence of those now because they tend to be more like hunting sabres or hunting swords and things like that with a pistol built in. So I need you to come up with this for me on the spot. How does this work?
GW: All right. Well. Firstly. Yeah, you can have a sword with a pistol attached to it, which makes it a less good sword because the handling isn't that great and of course, is a less good pistol because the barrel isn't as big and you have less space to work in. The combination weapon is never as good at either job, but it is certainly doable. The issue of making it a rapier is that the blade is so thin you don't have a space to put the mechanism. So if the blade rapier blade is maybe an inch wide where it meets the hilt, that is not enough space to put an ordinary flintlock wheel mechanism. They tend to be bigger. So when you described that, my immediate thought was why not bulk up the handle a little bit, make it hollow, and you put the point over your shoulder and it shoots out of the pommel.
SC: Oh, what a great idea.
GW: That is not historical, it's just I was thinking of this genius clockmaker person and the problem is you're not going to make it invisible. You can't make the rapier absolutely like a beautiful, perfect looking rapier and have a gun stuck on the side of it, where it has to be, because you can't have the blade and the barrel being the same thing because barrels and blades just work completely differently. So but you have like a bit of extra space in the handle, maybe a slightly chunkier handle than you would normally want. And you have the barrel coming out of the pommel.
SC: Oh, that's interesting because I have been trying to come up with a way in my head where the ball could be coming down the fluting of a slightly wider rapier blade which would give it more accuracy.
GW: That would work. It wouldn't give it more accuracy though, because the way a barrel works is the expanding gases pushing the ball forward out of the barrel. They rely on the barrel to basically to direct them in the direction where you want the ball to go. So the barrel is there to basically compress the gases and direct them in a particular direction. And those gases push the ball in that direction. If you have rifling that forces the ball to spin as it goes down the barrel and because it's spinning, it's more accurate. If you extend the blade right out of the barrel, I may be wrong, but my guess is when the gases come out of the end of the barrel. And they hit the blade, they're going to bounce off and they're going to send your ball off to the right.
SC: Yeah, I was worried that might be the case.
GW: That would be my feeling. I may be wrong. We have bayonets, but the bayonet is always offset from the barrel. So there's a space for the gases to kind of expand out. And then there isn't like a flat plate that the bullet kind of travels along. It's always it's always free to leave the muzzle.
SC: I was also wondering whether if you had a kind of a bizarrely thick quillon on either side, there'd be some way to rig it that way. I mean, with rapier, you never really want one of those goofy vertical, hard vertical parries for obvious reasons. But you can get into one, at which point your quillon can be basically directed point blank functionally at your target. Is that viable? This is why I have to change the physics in my world, in my world. Physics are such that don't gasses don’t…
GW: OK, so with this dagger you can see the crossguard, or the quillons, are in line with the edges. And if you parry, you are parrying with the edge. If you parry with the flat, it's going to bend down. So at that point, the bullet’s going straight up or straight down.
SC: Right, but if you parry early in the cut, so the blade’s let's say coming vertically down towards you, you parry early edge to edge, you can get a horizontal on that from the quillon, right?
GW: I wouldn't say so because, you're going to need it pointing at the person for the bullet to do any good at the moment, even if it's close to horizontal, the true edge is likely to be up and you're either going to be shooting yourself or you'll be shooting over their head.
SC: Yeah, well, I like your idea of it being in the grip itself, because it's an unexpected manoeuvre. It's a trickier shot you have to practise for the shot clearly. You have to make sure you line it up exactly right.
GW: There's a sword in the Wallace collection, which is this fairly ordinary looking sword in a fairly chunky scabbard. And obviously you wear it like an ordinary person and it’s fine, it’s a sword. But it has a spring-loaded blade that comes out of the pommel. So it doesn't have a regular blade at all. You can't draw it. You push the button and the blade comes out of the pommel. And so you and I are having a chat and I have my hand resting on my sword so I don't accidentally trip up the ladies. And I press the button and this three foot steel blade goes into you and there you have it. I mean, it is there in the Wallace Collection, I've actually handled it. So the notion of weapons coming out of pommels, I've never seen it with black powder. And I can't imagine how you would make it a real flintlock type mechanism work inside a rapier. I think there's going to have to be some fictional magic going on there. But the notion of having the dangerous bit come out of the pommel is actually historical.
SC: Yeah. No, that makes sense. In the Greatcoats world I only ever have wheel locks. They haven't invented the flintlock. I've never understood the relationship between flintlocks and wheellocks very well because it seems like the flintlock is a vastly simpler mechanism. Why would you have to go through wheellocks to get to it? But there are certain advantages with the wheellock. It's just that it's so expensive to make. But that's the beauty of a fantasy world. You can make it as expensive as you want.
GW: Yeah, and I'm very much outside my area of expertise when I start talking about historical firearms. But my feeling is also the wheellock. It requires a tool to span it. So you have like a spanning key whereas a flintlock you can just put it back with your thumb.
SC: Yeah, but one of the one of the reasons with this that I was envisioning a wheellock mechanism because you only need to get it prepped the one time. It's meant as a murder weapon in the context of a duel. I love the barrel in the in the grip notion. So I'm going to figure out how to make that work. That's great. So there you go. Yeah, I've gotten what I came for. The deception has succeeded.
GW: OK, that we sort of covered this indirectly from various directions already. But one of my patrons for the show on Patreon actually sent me a question for you. And he says he would love to hear about how you approach fight scenes in your writing. And he actually says “the amount of personality and character development that come through his fight scenes is spectacular”, which I thought you'd like to hear. You have a fight coming up. How do you approach it?
SC: So my first priority, I mean, setting aside the preamble as much as possible of the fact that a fight scene is meant to expose character and advance story. So it can't just be a scene of two people fighting back and forth over and over again for the sake of spectacle. Books don't do spectacle very well. Movies do spectacle very well, which is why you can sometimes get away with the two perfect martial artists going back and forth at high speed because you're sort of watching a gymnastics exhibition. In that sense, you can't really do that in a novel. So it has to be first and foremost about showing the character, showing emotion and despair and anger and all of these things through the movements themselves. But that always sounds a little bit not froufrou, but a little bit distilled from what someone would think if they were trying to actually sit down and write a fight scene. So the way that I generally look at it is this. The more I want to be able to cover character and story, the less I can afford to cover detailed movements. If you describe every single movement of a one minute fight, which is in a duel would be a long time if you were to describe every single one of those movements, you have no room for anything else. So what I try to do is I try to use the first part of the fight, which, although it's not universally true, quite often, if two people are coming to blows, the first part of the fight is much more hesitant. There's much more testing going on. You want to test the other person's reflexes and find their timing and find where their exposed points are. That's a perfect place to teach the reader how these weapons work right there and so forth. So Falcio does this all the time. The first part of a Falcio fight, he's basically telling the reader how the weapons work and how things work, which then allows you to move into a phase where it's about dialogue and characterisation and emotion and drama while the reader continues to choreograph the fight scene. So if you look at a lot of my fight scenes during the middle of the fight, there's almost no description of what the swords are doing because you don't really need it. I always use this analogy that your job as a writer is to make the reader the choreographer. Their choreography will always be more interesting than yours.
GW: Now that you say that is obviously true for all the good fencing matches that have ever been written. Most of the actual blade work happens in your head. It's not actually on the page at all.
SC: Absolutely, and in fact, when I was teaching, whenever I was asked to teach like a masterclass on writing swordfights or something, at fantasy conventions, I would always show people that what I think of as two nicely iconic swordfights, the one being the fight between Westley and Inigo in The Princess Bride duel, “I see you're using Benetti against me”, which is an almost archetypal representation of the Hollywood style swashbuckling. And it's absolutely beautiful. And then I would counter that with the opening duel from Ridley Scott's first film, The Duellists.
GW: When you said and I would counteract this with the one that popped into my head was Harvey Keitel butchering that poor bloke.
SC: Yeah, I think in fact that is Bill Hobbs, the fight choreographer, in that scene with him. I believe so. My friend C.C. Humphries told me that because he trained with Bill Hobbs at a couple of points in his career. And so Ridley Scott had told the fight choreographer at the time, I want you to make sure that none of this looks like any of that Hollywood crap. I want it to look ugly and brutal and cruel and you get that. And there's very few exchanges in that fight scene from The Duellist that opening fight. It is exactly what it's meant to be. And it conveys that sense of almost clumsy cruelty to it and desperation. And it does it beautifully. But I tend love the more swashbuckling, the Bob Anderson. I love his sort of style. But if you look at that fight scene with Inigo and Westley, which you can see on YouTube for anybody that wants to watch it, and it is beautiful, even there, what you'll see rhythmically is that the first few exchanges, even though they're not slow, they're not done poorly, but you'll see an exchange of two movements and it stops and they'll move around. Two movements and it stops. And that's because he is teaching you how the swords work so that once it moves in the next phase where everything's moving too fast and they're talking over it, you can't follow all of it. You understand what's happening. And so you as the audience will fill in the gaps of how the muscles are working and what feels desperate and what doesn't, you'll fill those gaps in yourself. And so in the context of a novel, that's what I try to do, is go, I'm going to have the reader see in some detail in these first exchanges how these weapons work so that they can then fill in the rest of the choreography until I have a moment where I need to show them the way the swords can work differently, which is often how a sword fight ends. The sword fight typically going to end because either somebody gets clumsy or somebody gets distracted or in in a fantasy situation or a swashbuckling story, especially where you want it to be swashbuckling is all about cleverness. That's the sort of underlying essence, this daring cleverness. And so there you want to be able to then have the character go as it seems like there's no way to win. But I had this idea, and then you'll sort of elaborate that I will sometimes choose very intentionally. One of the things that a lot of writers I don't think play with enough, is tempo. And I don't mean tempo in the classic fencing sense. I mean, literally controlling the speed of the camera, so to speak. And so I will often try, especially in that last moment, it's the most natural place to put it. I always tell people, if you're writing your first swordfight, do it this way for the last blow, crank the camera down and play that last moment in absolute slow motion. So I will sometimes describe, and I think I do it in at least one of the Greatcoats fights, there are so many fight scenes across the books. But where I'll describe a lunge in terms of how it begins in the back foot and how the energy's travelling up the calf and and up the leg and through the thigh and into the torso and then along the shoulder and the arm and transforming the character from a human being into this sort of perfect line, until the tip of the sword breaks through the other person's flesh, and that is something that you can do in a fight scene, is play with the speed of time elapsing, because that that keeps it from all being a kind of a rat a tat tat tat kind of event. And again, one of the beauties of that Princess Bride fight is actually if you watch how tempo works in that and there it's mostly done through the notion of staccato moments. And the only good reason for coeur à coeur ever is to give the characters time to deliver a line of dialogue.
GW: Well, actually, as a medieval martial artist, I would say that the reason you do a coeur à coeur is because you're going to break their arm and throw them on the back of their head. Not in a rapier fight, certainly. No.
SC: Throwing a little armizare in there. I'm probably mispronouncing it.
GW: Bang on. OK, so all right, now I do have to ask. Because I've read your whole Spellslinger series and I got the first one I think off Amazon and I got the rest from my local bookshop and when I went looking for them they were in the young adult section and I hadn't twigged they were supposed to be young adult, they suited me just fine. Maybe I have a childish outlook on life, but I've almost finished the latest one, The Way of the Argosi. And am I pronouncing that correctly? Oh, fantastic. OK, so but the main character in the Spellslinger series is this kid who is a mage, but his only working spell is basically is a quickdraw move. He literally has to take magic powders out of his pocket and flick them in the air and go, pow. What the hell?
SC: What the hell? So YA, by the way, doesn't mean doesn't need to mean simpler prose or less dramatic moments or things like that. Sometimes it does, because one of the problems with the young adult market right now is that it's often read by 30 year olds. And, you know, I love 30 year olds. I liked being one. But sometimes there's this tendency to go, I just want something that feels safe. And so I'm going to impose the notion of wanting to feel safe on teenagers who don't really want to feel safe when they're reading. They want to read things that are that reflect the fears and concerns and aspirations that they have. And in fact, if you think back to high school, most of us were more sophisticated readers in high school than we are after leaving high school. We had to contend with Dickens and and Shakespeare and Samuel Hawthorne and now hopefully a more diverse material. And you know that rather than just the classic, the wonderful, old white dude stories, hopefully there's more diverse stuff there now. But we were sophisticated readers then. And often when we leave, men especially, after men leave college, men over 40 tend to almost exclusively read non-fiction because it gets just very difficult. Try picking up a Salman Rushdie book. You know, my wife reads very sophisticated material and I'll sit there and try and read it and I'll be like, oh my God. I would need to work at this. I don't want to work. I don't want to work at anything. So there's no reason for Y.A. to be less sophisticated. It's that it's mostly dealing with first experiences. And so in the case of Spellslinger and with Kellen, I wanted to write something that reflected what it felt like to me when I was 16, which was which was the opposite of what Harry Potter experiences. Harry Potter goes from, I live in this terrible, mundane world and everything's drab and boring. And my guardians, you know, my aunt and uncle don't really care about me that much. And I'm poor and I live under the closet. Nobody thinks I'm important and then discovers, with Hagrid’s classic line, “You're a wizard, Harry”. Oh, you've actually got this secret power. But not only that, you're like the most talented of all of them. And actually, it turns out that you have this amazing destiny ahead of you. But not only that, it turns out that your parents actually loved you more than all other parents. And you’re rich, which is always my favourite one, it's always and you're rich. I remember I think when I saw the Percy Jackson movie, it was the same sequence. You seem like you're boring. Turns out you're really important. Turns out you've got this destiny. Turns out your parents really love you. Turns out you're super rich. Alas, none of those things happened to me. At 16, I had the opposite experience, which was of being inside my high school in front of my locker before first period and watching all these people stream into the hallway and thinking, I'm not the smartest person in my school, I'm not the strongest person. I'm certainly not the best looking person. I'm not the most talented. I'm not the most interesting. I'm not even the nicest like I don’t even have the best personality. Even my personality is bland compared to some of these people. And I remember talking to my family about it. And, you know, when you talk to your family about not feeling special, their first reaction is to say to you, don't be silly. Of course you're special. You're the most special boy in the whole world.
GW: Which is true to them. Speaking as a parent, it’s true to them.
SC: You would think it was true to them. In my case, they looked at me thoughtfully after I made the statement that I don't think I'm special and then said, yeah, I guess you're right, you're not that special. But then blessedly offered the most important question any teenager can be asked upon such a statement, which was, so what do you want to do about it? And that's been kind of a crucial element in my entire life, is, so what do you want to do about it? And in high school, everybody goes through this experience and some people decide that, you know what, nobody special. We're all crap. They kind of go into that cynical phase. And then some people just kind of retreat often into fantasy novels and just wait for the day that it will happen for them. Keep waiting for someone to tell them there's about. But I tried to figure out how what to do, and it's taken me a lifetime, but eventually found enough interesting things about myself to sort of develop. And that's what happens to Kellen. Kellen comes from a society where magic is everything, where it's a wondrous place to live. His parents are renowned mages. His younger sister is the most talented mage of their generation. And he's coming up to his mage’s trials and his magic fades, starts to fade away. And all he's left with, he's this kid who always wanted to be the best mage. So his magic in the Jan’Tep world, which is the country where Kellen lives, his people are the Jan’Tep. It's built on all of these very scientific elements of the movements of your precise somatic gestures with your hands and precise articulation of key words. Along with this esoteric geometry. You have to form these images in your head just perfectly. And he's good at every single part of magic. He's almost the best at every part of magic except the actual magic part. And of the six fundamental forms of magic that they're trained in, the only one he manages to spark, as they call it, is breath magic, which is considered the weakest of all. And breath magic is about channelling things. And so eventually he figures out, well, if I take these exploding powders and I throw them in the air so that at the moment of explosion, I then use this channelling spell, I can actually amplify that explosion and direct it. And so he becomes the Spellslinger. He becomes a bit of a gunslinger with that. And I decided when I was deciding on the somatic shapes that would be inherent in that, that it would be index and middle finger aimed forward to sort of channel the direction, ring and little finger pressed into the palm for restraint and a thumb aimed upwards as a prayer to the ancestors to not blow your hands off. And so that sort of became the finger guns gag. He does actually have another couple of spells that he sometimes manages to work. There's one that's a sort of a fire fan kind of spell. But that's his big one. The Korath spell is the one that he sort of survives on a lot of the time.
GW: Yeah, it's basically Wild West. There's a lot of stranger comes to town, stuff kicks off because the strangers come to town and literally every single time you put your character who you have come to like into the worst possible situation, it gets worse for a while, then it pauses for a moment and then suddenly it gets catastrophically worse.
SC: That's what it feels like to be a teenager, man, that's what it's like. Teenagers to me are in some ways the most interesting of humans, because before you're a teenager, you think the world is basically a fair place. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Parents are trying to love you. They're a bit clueless, but they're basically good. You become a teenager and you discover that the world is unfair and you rebel against the unfairness in various ways. Later, as we become older, we cynically accept that the world is unfair. And so you don't see a lot of 40 year olds shouting, the world is completely unfair. Everything about this is unfair, because we just sort of cynically go, oh, well, that's just how it is, you know, and because it's an excuse not to do anything about it. But teenagers actually rebel against the unfairness of the world. And that's what makes them interesting to me. And so Kellen has to experience all of that unfairness to its maximum degree. But he is a fun character to write. For anyone trying to write a novel here, novels are built around drama and drama is about characters in conflict. The simplest way I can think of to create conflict is just make everything bad for your character as often as possible and then ask yourself how you would get out of that. Even down to, when I used to love reading fantasy novels about the young mage and they get a familiar and the familiar is this animal companion who psychically speaks to them, who would do anything for them and loves them more than anything in the world. And I was like, that doesn't reflect my experience with the animals at all. They mostly view me as a kind of a lazy servant who's not very good at his job.
GW: You have cats, obviously.
CS: I do. And so with Kellen, instead of a familiar, I gave him a business partner who's a murderous, thieving squirrel cat who's basically constantly robbing Kellen most of the time. But their friendship has to be earned. It's not given to them. And I think that's the essence of that series for me. It's about going through life and having to earn all of those things that make you special rather than being born with them.
GW: That is that is the one thing I really hate about Star Wars. You’re either born a Skywalker or you’re not. You either have the force within you or you die. And that just flies against absolutely everything I believe in. And when I'm training my students, some of the best students I've ever had, after the first year of their training, I'm amazed they don't quit because they so roundly suck at it. But then eventually they pick it up and then they become really good. And it's just that they didn’t find the early bits easy and the later bits hard, they found the early bits hard and the later bits easier.
SC: It's absolutely that's and that's my experience. I used to say that my one of my few talents in life is I'm really good at being bad at things, which means I can take something up and I can be super bad at it and not mind. To me like that's one of the one of the hidden superpowers that people can give themselves. If you can be the person who doesn't get discouraged by being bad at something, then you have an infinitely better chance than most other people at becoming great at it, or at least becoming good enough at it that you get out of it what you want. It's the people who look at the next person on the piano who started at the same time as them. And that person's playing the piano really well. And they go, oh, well, clearly I'm not meant for this and give it up. Those are the people that really tend to lose out. But the Jedi is an interesting parallel as well, because the Jedi was one of the things I was kind of rebelling against myself when I was writing the Argosi, because I have two problems with the Jedi. The first is this notion of being born with it. I see all these people, they take Jedi classes and things in places like New York, or they used to anyway. And I'd be like, you probably wouldn't be treated as one. This sort of fascination you have is with a group that probably wouldn't want to include you.
GW: But that's the same for almost everybody training historical martial arts today. I'm sorry, but if you're not noble born, what the hell are you doing here? We’ve moved past that.
SC: Yeah, exactly. But the second thing that always bugs me about the Jedi not to not to drift too far into that. And you know, I've loved Star Wars like most people. But it's the notion it's their notion that you have to abandon everything about your own humanity. And this was sort of George Lucas's interpretation of Japanese culture in some ways. Was this notion of abandon all emotion, abandon everything human. You're not allowed to fall in love. You're not allowed to this and that. And so when I was writing in the Spellslinger world and I wanted to write about the Argosi, about this sort of order, that's my equivalent of the Jedi. I wanted people that were explicitly human, that were elevating everything that is human above everything that is magical. And so there are seven talents, which are things like eloquence. I mean, I think eloquence is this incredible human invention, the fact that we can learn to communicate on all of these different levels and that you can become good at it or even swagger or you know, the art of defence, this notion, human bodies are so fundamentally ungainly from a from a violence perspective. And yet you'll see martial artists in Eastern and Western do things that elevate the human body through its humanity, through the way that it moves into something absolutely amazing. And so that's what was the basis of the Argosi for me, was trying to construct an order of these wandering, gambling philosophers where everything was based on being as human as you possibly can.
GW: I'd never thought of it like that. That's really, really interesting.
SC: I think that's why I get tons of letters from readers who say, I want to know, tell me how to become an Argosi. It’s the first time I've seen philosophy that I think I could follow.
GW: Yeah. Because I you know, I'm near the end of The Way of the Argosi. And there's this brilliant picture in it which has the seven arts of the Argosi. It’s this back of a playing card style picture. I must say, your artist is superb. Whoever does that art for you, they really know their job.
SC: That’s Sally Taylor, who does the interiors for the series. She's amazing and she puts incredible amounts of work in because those cards, especially in Way of the Argosi, for those for those who haven't seen it, the interior art, we use cards as the act breaks in in the Spellslinger books and in the Argosi books. And they are always cards from a different deck. And in this deck they're what are called path cards, which are these training cards that they Argosi use with their with their students to show how a path, when pursued too far can become its opposite. So the path of a knight is a wonderful path, to want to protect people and to be physically capable and all of these things. But when you pursue it too rigidly, you tend to become the conqueror. And so she had to kind of design all these elements into these cards that look like tarot cards, except that they have their own reverse built into them. So, yeah, I love the artwork, but sorry, you were talking about the Argosi card, which is the last one in the book.
GW: When I saw it, I had this immediate my brain makes these weird connections. Have you come across a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey?
SC: I've heard the title, but not come across the book.
GW: It is absolute genius, and I don't care about tennis at all, but it's one of the most important pedagogical books I've ever read. And it completely changed the way I teach sportsmanship. The edition I’ve got was published 20 years after the first edition. And he mentions in his forward to this edition that people would show up at his house and offer to sweep his tennis court if he would just teach them The Way. And he's like, I'm just a tennis coach. I'll teach you how to play tennis, here are my rates. But I don't do that mentoring kind of spiritual guide stuff. And when I saw that picture, the way I felt, I thought I bet you anything you like, Sebastien has people showing up at his house, if they can find the address, or emailing him online, which is the modern equivalent, saying, teach me the way of the Argosi.
SC: Yeah, I get a lot of that, and I think it's because the world that we live in now. I mean, this gets a little bit strange and it starts to delve in economics. But we live in a world where almost no one will have the same career across their working life, where, in fact, most stages of our career we won't have one job, we’ll have several jobs. We're moving towards a sort of a gig economy. And yet we still live with this notion of your identity being defined by your vocation. And it should be a single word. It should be “I am a lawyer”. Most lawyers aren't lawyers across their whole lives anymore. And those kinds of jobs are tending to disappear. And so a lot of the sort of the philosophical precepts around identity that we have are around this notion of a perpetually stable identity as well, which we also know is not true. Well, I won't delve into science because I'm not qualified. But it's highly unlikely that we have a single stable identity. And so, in a way, the world that we find ourselves in, in the 21st century and especially the world that, let's say, 16 year old finds themselves in, is one in which a lot of our talk around career and identity and purpose is very singular, but there's almost no opportunities for that. And I was kind of lucky because when I was 16, I was off camping by myself on an island in British Columbia. And I was waiting for a ferry. And I got there four hours in the wrong direction either way. So I had a four hour wait ahead of me. And I picked up this book by an Australian author named Keith Taylor. And the book was called Bard. And Keith Taylor is a wonderful author. And I loved this book, because it was about this this daring guy who was travelling all over and he sang songs and played music and wrote stories and went on adventures and fought with swords. And I was like, that's it. That's the life for me. That's what I want. I want to be a bard. So after consulting the Help Wanted section of my local newspaper, I discovered there were precious few such job titles. There is no university major that you can take in being a bard who swings a sword and does all these things. There is no such path available. And so I spent most of my life sort of flipping around from various things. And what I ended up doing was I became a touring musician for a while and I started travelling a lot and I picked up fencing and then sword choreography and then writing songs and then writing novels. And so I had to construct this this vocation from bits and pieces, which is what I think all of us has to do. And so the Argosi is partly a reflection of that. Every Argosi chooses a path name, Ferius Parfax is the path of the wild daisy. And it's a completely winding path. And it's only your path. And it's not meant to be this fixed thing. The fixed part is your pursuit, not where you land or what you end up with. And so I think that that's why I get so many people writing to me going, I want to be an Argosi. Tell me how to be an Argosi. Because I think people are hungry for a way to have a sense of purpose and mission for themselves that isn't dependent on a singular career outcome or a singular talent or any of those things. So, yeah, that's the Argosi, and that's what I kind of love about them and so that's why I wrote Way of the Argosi, because in part, people keep asking the question, I wonder how do you become an Argosi? What does it involve?
GW: Well, I have a suspicion that there's going to be an awful lot of people using it as an instructional manual.
SC: Yeah, well, hopefully they won't have to go through the things Ferius goes through.
GW: And again, you do horrible things to good people in your books. I guess it's something you have to do to get the drama there but it’s like, Sebastien, you’re a sadist.
SC: Yeah. You know, it's funny because you don't have to do it that way. I'm reading a terrific book. I don't know if you know, Miles Cameron. Also known as Christian Cameron, who's a historical writer, but also a fantasy writer. And I'm reading his first science fiction book called Artefact Space. And it's absolutely wonderful. And one of the things I adore about it is his main character, Marca gets into trouble and then gets out of trouble through her skills. It's very Horatio Hornblower in that sense. I'm reading this book and I'm going I'm loving this book. It's such a great science fiction book. And I'm going, God, I got to learn to do what he does where you don't have to just constantly pile on worse and worse until the end. So I will learn from him and then I'll be less cruel to my characters.
GW: There are many worse people you could learn from indeed that. Well, Sebastien, thank you very much indeed for joining me today is me. I do have one more question for you. If you have the time, which is what is the best idea you've never acted on?
SC: What is the best idea I have never acted on? Well, I'm actually going to say archaeology. Because I because I have a degree in archaeology and then went on my first dig, hated it so much that four hours later I basically quit for life and never gave it the chance that it kind of deserved. I basically went off and became a rock musician, which is probably not as uncommon a tale of archaeology as one would think. But it's never so much a here's an idea, I'm not even going to try it. It's the ideas we don't give enough time to, as I'm sure you sometimes see with students of swordplay where they sort of try it, but they just don't give it enough time. You know, they hit their first plateau and then they're like, oh, I guess that's it. And so with archaeology, I should have really given it at least eight hours.
GW: That’s an interesting response. I'm very glad you didn't become an archaeologist because you probably wouldn't have gotten around to writing all those books.
SC: No, and I would have had back problems and I would have gotten too many sunburns and archaeology is basically camping but harder.
GW: Yeah. And, you know, we were talking about coats. You can see the coat hanging on the door behind me. That is made from the factory owned by Peter Botwright, who made the Indiana Jones jackets. And that is the same jacket from the same factory as the Indiana Jones jacket. So in my head, every archaeologist and of course, there are actually bullwhips hanging up on the door behind, every archaeologist is Indiana Jones. And I think where archaeologists go wrong if they don't put enough bullwhip practise.
SC: Oh, I agree 100 percent, when I went to university and I was taking my archaeology course, I asked when the bullwhips seminar would be and when we would do competitive fedora wearing. And when I found out it wasn't there, I was ready to sue for my tuition back.
GW: I think you would have had a case.
GW: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Sebastien. It's been a delight getting to know you.
SC: Thanks so much. I've enjoyed it a lot.