For today’s interview, I’m very pleased to welcome Miles Cameron, author of the excellent new fantasy novel The Red Knight (my review).
Far Beyond Reality: Hi Miles, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Since The Red Knight is your first novel writing under this name, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What would you like the world to know about Miles Cameron?
Miles Cameron: Well—I’m from the US, and I’m an upstate New Yorker. I grew up on a farm and I love the Adirondack Mountains, which are, in every way, the Adnacrags. For those who don’t know, the Adirondack Park is the largest state park in the US and is over 6 MILLION acres of nature—red in tooth and claw. And more beautiful than I can describe. I love to camp there in every season—even in spring, with all the blackflies and mosquitoes. I’m a veteran amateur swordsman, and I’ve been swinging various swords—European and Asian—since I was eleven. I served in the United States Navy and I saw enough of conflict in the real world to gain some insight into the fictional, reenacting, and martial arts versions. I have a wife and a daughter, age nine, who, thank god, have a sense of humour about a fifty-year old husband and father fighting in armour.
Far Beyond Reality: In The Red Knight’s Afterword, you mention the influence of the “Alba” roleplaying campaign on the novel. Please tell us a bit about what those sessions were like.
Miles Cameron: Well—my first really good game master was Celia Friedman—that’s C.S. Friedman. Any fan of her work can immediately imagine what a high standard of role playing I got to see—right off the bat—in her worlds—the world of When True Night Falls. And she was play-testing novel plots while I was still one of her players. I think I could describe all that as formative—yes. Her world planning was meticulous, but most of all, her cosmology was very tight. Things happened for reasons. Causality functioned. I hope I learned a thing or two at her knee—about plotting, and about ‘keeping it real.’ I started my own campaign in University, and it was, at first, a glorified war gaming campaign, but very quickly it developed a role-playing side. Several of the early readers for Red Knight were players in that campaign, which, dare I say this? Ran on for years after we graduated. We met in very nice, clean room in Wilson Commons, the student union, and we played for ten to twelve hours at a stretch. At one point we even had people from the Drama Club coming in to do cameos.
As a side note, many years later, when I was a Lieutenant Commander in the USN doing an investigation on an aircraft carrier (long story) I happened upon six off-duty sailors gathered around a tiny table. On the table were dice and some pencils. They all stood up—at attention—and looked guilty, and one guy said, ‘We weren’t gambling!’ and another guy looked almost green… I gather that ship had some sort of anti-d+d regulation, and somehow I pretended NOT to know what the books peeping out of a backpack were, and continued with a casual ‘at ease.’ Since then, at cocktail parties and very serious academic gatherings and even high-level business meetings, I’ve discovered that role-playing is like a secret society.
It makes me laugh, because I’ve never been very secret about it.
Far Beyond Reality: Can you tell us about some scenes or characters from the book that were particularly or directly inspired by that campaign? And conversely, anything you completely changed from the way it was played out?
Miles Cameron: Oddly, the ‘campaign’ part of the book won’t start until you meet Morgan Mortirmir in book two The Fell Sword. But in my campaign, Mortirmir was four hundred years old, and in my books, right now he’s fifteen, so this is ‘early history.’ That said, a number of the larger and nastier characters from the campaign are already at work, although some readers have sensed their presence and some have not. The Red Knight is, in many ways, an introduction. There’s a big world out there.
I don’t think there’s anything ‘completely changed.’ Just saying that would make most of my players groan, because I ran my campaign while I got a degree in Medieval History, so the world literally changed every class, as I came to understand basic economics and even to understand how the Medieval mind THOUGHT economics worked. The same with philosophy and cosmology. When I learned something, I altered my fictional reality to match it—then, and now…
As an example, we started with orcs. Good old fashioned Tolkienesque orcs. Somewhere in mid-fourth year, I read my way through all of the ‘Making of Middle Earth’ books by Christopher Tolkien. In Morgoth’s Ring, I found that Tolkien later in life had serious doubts about the morality of the orcs being ‘evil.’ Would a good or just Eru Iluvatar have created beings doomed to sin? At the same time, my best friend decided he wanted to control the orcs—a proto-state called Gargencel. Orcs went through several iterations on their way to being irks—which are my goblin/orc/elves, elegant and artistic and fanged and cruel and deadly and long-lived and magical all in one package. Oh—and not cursed to evil or doomed to sin. See? All this could happen to anyone. 🙂
A second example—there was always a wall, and it is based on Hadrian’s Wall and reading Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. In early interactions of my campaign, no one asked what was on the other side, and eventually, what was on the other side were the ‘Horse Clans’ who grew to be ethnically diverse and not just vague Mongol clones, and then there were Native Americans and then… well, eventually the Outwallers were what you have now. And the wall used to be to the south of Alba and now it is to the north.
Far Beyond Reality: I mentioned in my review how impressed I was with the novel’s combat scenes. They’re some of the most detailed, stirring fantasy combat I’ve ever read. How did your experience as a military veteran and medieval reenactor impact your writing of those parts of The Red Knight?
Miles Cameron: Well, well.
First, I do (martial arts) combat a great deal. And one of the things I’ve learned is that you get hurt a great deal, and there is a lot of pain. Not a lot of pain compared to say, what an old-fashioned farmer endured in a year, but a fairly high amount compared to what a modern city-dweller endures. You don’t need to be a martial artist to learn this lesson—every runner knows it, every athlete of any kind, really–but it is missing from too much fiction. So my characters have a little pain all the time. Ribs, joints, saddle sores, broken bones, small wounds.
Second, martial arts allow a novelist to dissect violence in a way that makes writing easy. I can describe how to break a man’s elbow joint because I can teach someone how to do it. But there’s an implied falsity to this approach through martial arts—because this style can give the uninitiated the notion that people in physical conflict reason through their actions. My experience suggests that except for a gifted or perhaps psychotic few, most people fight in a state of agitation that often looks like blind terror—when the fight is real. And that can be difficult to novelize, because it is entirely possible that the knight has no inner dialogue during the fight scene. Further, most of the truly devastating hand-to-hand fighters I’ve met, and no few of the really gifted archers, achieve a sort of trance state—situational awareness without confusing emotional input. Knowing this can make it hard to write, to really describe the inner man. And what if there is no inner man? One of my best characters (I beg leave to think) is Bad Tom, and Bad Tom represents not a remarkable kind of fighter—but a kind of norm.
Anyway, I can dissect a fight after it is over—sometimes—but I can’t recall even the high points of my best armoured duels two weeks later, so anything I recount around a campfire is—er—storytelling… Thanks to martial arts, I can imagine the course of a complex fight, and that’s important—the choreography, if you like. But how it feels to be inside the helmet? That’s really another thing.
And as for the ‘real thing,’ I’d like to say first that the ‘real thing’ has a thousand levels and I have experienced maybe level four. My grandfather in WWI and my uncle in WWII experienced a great deal more. It did not seem to have inspired them to tell a great many stories. But in as much as I’m a veteran, I learned a few salient lessons that I do want to share with readers. One is the relentlessness of the thing—war drives on, and you don’t get to stop. In this respect alone, war is utterly different from sports or martial arts. My first taste of war was the First Gulf War. I flew in the back seat of some very inglorious tanker aircraft, and I briefed and debriefed pilots and planned attack missions. I worked and flew, at the height of air operations, for about seven days without really going to sleep. And that is nothing. Later, on the ground in Africa, I realized that my time in the Gulf War had been—easy. After all, there was coffee. And toilets. And other stuff we needn’t mention here.
This relentless monster that forces you to work at peak inefficiency with nothing at stake but your survival is, I suspect, why farmers make such good soldiers. Because farming also goes on, as long as the crop is in the ground and the animals need to be fed. There is no break. No halftime. No moment to which you can look and say ‘oh, in two weeks, I’ll be on a beach.’ Even when there is, the experience is of so much intensity that there is nothing else.
And the other lesson is one learned in the ‘real’ military and in reenacting and from history. War is about food and sleep. Amateurs worry about ‘fighting skills.’ Professionals worry about food and sleep. Soldiers rarely discuss the best knife or the best gun—some do, in our modern consumer world, but not as many as you’d think and I never heard such a discussion in the field. Soldiers talk about sleeping, eating, and a few other topics…
Far Beyond Reality: One of the things I really wished for in The Red Knight was a map, both one of the entire realm and one of Lissen Carak specifically to help follow the events of the siege. Did you have a map while you were writing the novel (or playing the campaign), and is there any chance the readers will get something like it in future editions of the novel or on your website?
Miles Cameron: I have a piece of paper to show that the very first thing I did when I got off the phone with Gillian Redfern at Gollanz after discussing what turned into The Red Knight was to make a map. Then I listed names down the side. I have it—when I’m famous I’ll auction it off.
The reasons you don’t have much more of a map are all complicated. Some have to do with the publishing process, and some have to do with my belief in keeping my world ‘real.’ Look at some medieval maps. They are startlingly inaccurate, and most of them are centered on Jerusalem, because every Christian assumed the Jerusalem was the center of the world. (A round world, a globe, by the way.). Look at Sir John de Mandeville’s travels.
And they don’t really show you ‘how’ to get somewhere. Nor do they suggest how hard it is. Accurate mapping is really for a different age. If I provide an accurate map–Who made that map? The Alban Satellite mapping service? Why should you have better maps then the main characters? (Gosh, I hope you know I’m smiling when I say these things).
OK, despite these pious mouthings, the next book will have a map. But I won’t guarantee its accuracy. I’ll only guarantee that the various nations will be, for the most part, in the correct relation to each other. Perhaps eventually I’ll release a truly accurate map, but probably only when the whole series is over.
Far Beyond Reality: In addition to a reenactor and a veteran, you’re also a medieval historian. Is there any specific research you did to prepare for this novel? Any non-fiction sources you’d recommend for readers who want to dig deeper into that period?
Miles Cameron: Well—the period… what period is that?
Little historical joke there, this being a FANTASY novel.
The Middle Ages is a great big sweep of multi-culturalhistory, and there is no one book that can epitomize all the stuff I’m borrowing. If people are interested in the fighting, I strongly recommend that they look at Guy Windsor’s books on Fiore and his fighting system—or Robert Charette’s Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare.
If the reader wants to see the fourteenth century—in the broadest canvas—there’s nothing yet to beat Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.
If the reader wants to have a real look at how memory palaces really work and how magic ought to have worked, they should have a look at Yates’s The Art of Memory.
And finally, if they want to understand Neo-Platonic cosmology… no, really, I’m serious—my favorite is John Marenbon’s Medieval Philosophy. There’s a lot to understand, and really, an amazing amount of it is still in our lives today. Like astrology.
And to get outside of Europe—and believe me, my world is bigger than Medieval Europe—I recommend The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf and John Julius Norwich’s three volume history Byzantium.
Far Beyond Reality: It gradually becomes clear that past events in your fantasy world cast a long shadow over the present story you’re telling. So far, you’ve mostly explored your world’s and characters’ pasts indirectly, through dialogue rather than flashbacks. Is there any chance future novels in the Traitor Son Cycle will go back in time to fill in some of the gaps?
Miles Cameron: From the very first conversation, I think we (Orbit/Gollanz and I) have planned that eventually we’d see the young Gabriel Muriens from childhood until the moment that he takes command of the Company. If the series works, and people like it, I’m pretty sure I’ll do that one. But before that? Well, eventually, I’ll do one on the Empress Livia… but the readers don’t know who she is yet… This world has nine thousand years of history. Let me say, for the record, that it is not our world. This world is very ancient, and people and irks have lived there a long time. And the world has many stories to—hide. And many to tell. Who knows? Eventually perhaps we’ll cover the Wall, or even the origins of human hermetic magic.
Far Beyond Reality: How far along are you on the next book in the series? When can your many eager new readers expect to find it on the shelves?
Miles Cameron: The Fell Sword (Traitor Son Two) is done and handed in. The third book is tentatively titled Tournament of Fools and I’ll start it around August 30th, 2013 after I hold a tournament myself. 🙂
Far Beyond Reality: Thank you very much for this interview!
If that hasn’t motivated you to check out The Red Knight, I don’t know what will! Well, except for my review, maybe.
Well—my first really good game master was Celia Friedman—that’s C.S. Friedman. Any fan of her work can immediately imagine what a high standard of role playing I got to see—right off the bat—in her worlds
Wow! I’m impressed!
Yeah, neat, isn’t it? I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those sessions!
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