Jon Sprunk burst onto the fantasy scene in 2010 with his well-received assassin novel Shadow’s Son: the first book in his now completed Shadow Saga trilogy. Not content to rest on his laurels, Jon unveiled The Book of the Black Earth fantasy saga in 2014. Heralded at the time as a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy story introduced Jon’s writing to epic fantasy fans who have been captivated not only by his world building but also his diverse characters and sword-and-sorcery action scenes. And with Storm and Steel, Jon has only ratcheted up the excitement with a story that is sure to satisfy longtime followers and first-time readers alike.
Hi Jon, welcome to Bookwraiths and thank you for taking your time to answer these few questions.
Hey, Wendell. Thanks for having me.
Who was your favorite fantasy author when you were growing up?
My favorite fantasy author growing up? Probably Robert E. Howard. His Conan series fired my imagination as a young boy and really cemented my love for the S&S genre.
Besides yourself, your favorite fantasy author now?
There are so many great authors writing right now, it’s difficult to choose. I’d have to say Glen Cook. The Black Company is what I call a game-changer in fantasy. So many wonderful characters (good, bad, and ugly). The way he played with theme and “gritty” realism from the grunts’ perspectives. Up till then, I’d been reading mostly about sword-swinging barbarians, nobles knights, kings, and archwizards. After reading Cook, I wanted to know more about the people who sweated and bled to create those empires.
Has your taste in fantasy changed very much over the years?
Yes and no. As time goes on and my library expands, I get a better grasp of the depth of great literature being written. Styles of writing that I didn’t really grasp years ago become more accessible as I mature. But I still go back and revisit Conan and Elric and Frodo from time to time. Those early stories will always be a part of me.
What is your favorite fantasy book/series of all times?
My top books are (in no particular order): The Black Company, A Stranger in a Strange Land, The Lord of the Rings, and Anna Karenina. Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen may be my favorite overall series.
The best book you have read this year is ______? Why did you love it?
The Crippled God. It was a great ending to a truly epic series.
Don’t quit your day job. Sorry, I couldn’t resist tossing in that little chestnut. (But, seriously, don’t.)
Here’s the lesson: the business of publishing has almost nothing to do with the art of writing. One feeds the other, but otherwise they are night and day. You have to understand that rejection isn’t necessarily a judgment of your writing as much as a failure of two parties to agree on a business partnership. Similarly, publication isn’t the validation you’ve been seeking all your life. Plenty of great writers get rejected, and plenty of shite writers get published.
What was the inspiration behind The Book of the Black Earth?
A huge combination of things. Learning about ancient and medieval histories in school (and on my own). Reading epic works ranging from Gilgamesh to The Wheel of Time. Wonderful characters like Raistlin, Thoth-Amon, Conan, the Gray Mouser, etc etc…
Pretty much everything I’ve seen, heard, read, or experienced in my brief forty-four years on this planet.
How long was the idea for book one, Blood and Iron, floating around in your head before you actually put it down onto paper?
Honestly, the kernel had been rattling around inside my skull for more than twenty years. My very first attempt at writing a novel included some of the initial glimmerings of this saga, in a pair of characters – I forget their names now. They were a young magician and a barbarian lad, both ensnared in the machinations of Great Powers they couldn’t comprehend. In some ways, Horace and Jirom grew out of that basic idea.
I’ve read that The Book of the Black Earth series is set in the same fantasy world as the Shadow Saga. How do they relate to each other? Why did you decide to return to the same fantasy world for your second series? And will the characters of the two series ever crossover in the future?
The two series occur in the same world, but in different regions. Horace’s home country of Arnos, for instance, is the eastern neighbor of Nimea, where Caim gets his start in Shadow’s Son. The Akeshian Empire is quite a bit east of them both.
The two series don’t really relate to each other in terms of story. I decided to use this same world because I had a lot of notes (and maps) for it. I’d been constructing this fictional world for decades, so I thought why not put all that work to good use. Also, there is an aspect of continuity that appeals to me. A world, after all, is more than just the events in one small corner.
Favorite sword and sorcery movie ever? Why?
Conan the Barbarian, because Arnold.
The Akeshian Empire is where the main events of the series have taken place so far, and this place exudes ancientness. How difficult is it to integrate that sort of epic vastness of history, culture, et cetera into the narrative without your story turning into the “The Council of Elrond” chapter in Fellowship of the Ring? (Not that I don’t personally love that chapter, but other readers seem to be turned off by that type of info dumping.)
Well, it’s not easy. That balance is hard to get right because it’s a little different for each of us. Some people want more historical details – info dumps be damned – while others want it sprinkled in with a light touch. I just do what seems right to me.
But it requires a decent amount of study and research. About ten years ago I researched the Crusades for another project, never dreaming I would use that knowledge in this book. But that’s how it sometimes works out. Pieces of information and insight get stored in the back of your mind until they are needed.
As a kid I was more interested in old atlases and histories of ancient empires than the sports page. Soaking up that feel for ancient things and places couldn’t help but get passed along into my writing. At least, I hope so.
This series has lots of magic, and the Akeshians seem to almost worship it as a physical manifestation of the divine in the world. Are you a magic system builder who plans out every nuance of where the power comes from, how it is used, et cetera? If so how long did it take you to conceive and build the magic system here?
Not until this series. As I’m sure you noticed, the magic was much more undefined in the Shadow Saga. Part of that was deliberate, part of it was inexperience.
But with The Book of the Black Earth series, I knew I needed to dig deeper. I had the idea for magic as a central tenet of religion—which tied in nicely with my Babylonian/Egyptian-styled setting—but I didn’t have a good handle on the actual system until I went back and looked at some old martial arts books that I’d read growing up. They talked about the five primal elements (air, earth, water, fire, and the emptiness) in a way that hit home for me. I knew that I’d found the basis for my system.
After that, writing the magical scenes was pretty painless. I had found my “true North.”
Favorite NFL football team? Most hated team? Did Deflate-gate matter to you?
Steelers. Ravens. Nope.
Is it true that Horace was intentionally portrayed in the “Unsuspecting-Naive-Man-Turns-Into-Uber-Powerful-Wizard” archetype (Rand from WoT, Pug from Midkemia, Quick from Malazan come to mind) so you could explore that theme? And if so, how have tried to add a new twist to this familiar theme?
Yes, he sure was. To an extent. Horace is half a man, figuratively. He represents the intellect (or the super-ego) and the moral compass. Jirom is the other half, representing masculine power and instincts. Each of them is extraordinarily (even super-heroically) dominant in a certain area, but woefully weak in others.
I find human personality a fascinating subject. By breaking one heroic character in two “parts,” I could play with each of them independently. I don’t think this is especially unique or revolutionary, but it works for me.
Beyond that, I’d rather not show what tricks are up my sleeves. I think readers like a bit of mystery. They like figuring out things for themselves. I know I do.
Reading the first two books, I felt that you were exploring the morality issues regarding power – both temporal, magical, and religious? Did I just imagine that, or do I get a star for reading closely?
Power is another subject that fascinates me. This setting gave me a ripe opportunity to explore precisely those three types of power, because Akeshia is a place where the temporal, magical, and religious are so closely intertwined. In a realm where magic (and those who can wield it) are worshipped as divine, what are their temporal limits? What role do the priests play? That friction between palace and temple has been really delicious to write about.
Coolest trip you have ever taken? Coolest place you’ve visited?
My wife and I took a tour of Italy and Greece a few years ago. It was spectacular. Being able to walk the streets of Pompeii, the stadium at Olympia, and the Roman Forum is something I’ll never forget.
One of the main characters in the series is a very powerful man involved in a committed same-sex relationship. Was this something that you planned before hand, or did it develop creatively once you began writing? Have you felt any added pressure to portray this character’s relationship accurately (i.e. no stereotypes)?
No, it actually came as a surprise to me. Jirom was originally heterosexual, because… well, because that’s the default mode in most fantasy lit, right? But a funny thing happened after I had written the first draft. Jirom was powerful and virile, but he was rather asexual. And that didn’t ring true to me. So I started prying deeper into his personality.
Eventually, I discovered that he was a closeted gay man. After that realization, so many pieces fell into place. I knew he and Emanon would be attracted to each other, but they were comrades-in-arms so how would that work? Another delicious friction to explore!
I feel pressure to portray all my characters accurately, as if they were real people. Love is love—gay, straight, bi, pan, or whatever. The difficulty came in trying to portray a real love affair, which isn’t my forte. Their sex had nothing to do with it.
What are your plans for the series? Two more books? Three? A follow up series?
The plan is for the series to run four books. I don’t have any plans for a follow-up series, but you never know.
Favorite fantasy character ever?
I can’t name just one. Conan, Anomander, Raistlin, Shadowspawn, Croaker, Tyrion, Elric, Strider, Wolverine.
Any desire to write more novels or series about the epic things that have obviously occurred in this fantasy world’s past?
Not at this time. I’m not a big fan of writers going back to write “prequels” set into their secondary worlds. For me, part of the lure of a well-made setting are the hints of big things and events behind the curtain that we never quite see in full focus. When those events are later trotted out and explored in depth, it usually seems to diminish them.
I had the basics of the Akeshian Empire from years ago, but I drew a fresh map with more detail during the planning stage of Blood and Iron. It changed a bit during the various drafts, but I like to have a map before I start writing.
Is there anything you now kick yourself for having cut or changed in either of the first two novels prior to publication?
I originally wrote some scenes in Blood and Iron from Lord Isiratu’s point-of-view, but I cut them during the revision process. I think those cuts made the book tighter, but I also think those scenes added depth to the story world, especially the culture of Akeshia.
Other than that, not really.
Which one of the characters in the series is most like you?
All of them and none of them. There’s a little piece of me in every character I write, but I’m not interested in creating a “heroic” image of myself in prose. Putting too much of myself in them would skew my perception of who and what they are.
Do you love, hate, or feel indifferent to the major role social media seems to play in the success of novels in this era?
I guess I’m indifferent. I’m also not sure how much of a role social media (or any media) plays in influencing the tastes of the readership. I don’t see an uptick in sales whenever I make a particularly pithy comment on Twitter or post a super-cute kitten photo on Facebook. Perhaps I’m missing something.
Have you felt pressure (either directly or indirectly) to spend more time on social media to sell your books?
I think publishers are always looking for ways to reach a bigger audience, as they should. Personally, I try not to be constantly “selling” my work on social media. It gets old, and people tune you out. With me, less is more.
How do you define success as a writer? Sales? Adoration? Creative satisfaction?
All the above. My main goal is to provide for my family while staying artistically true to myself. But really it’s about finding and nurturing an audience, and allowing them to nurture you as well. There will be ups and downs, but getting that occasional email from a true fan is priceless.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring fantasy authors – besides writing as much as possible?
If you’re going for publication, you’d better have a skin thicker than rhino hide. Because the opinions of agents and editors is downright tame compared to the unfettered criticism you’ll receive online once your work is out there. Go check out your favorite book on Amazon and read through the 1-star reviews. If you can’t stand being criticized, then you might want to reconsider.
Read, read, read. All you need to know about writing is held between the covers of great books. Enjoy it, absorb it, and then give yourself permission to fail until you succeed.
Oh, and try to marry a very patient spouse. It takes a special person to live with a writer.
Conventions: love them or leave them?
DragonCon. See it at least once, and preferably many times.
Weirdest thing a fan of your books has asked you to sign? Did you actually sign it?
The cover of their Kindle. Of course I did!
Jon Sprunk is the author of the Book of the Black Earth epic fantasy series as well as the Shadow Saga trilogy. His first book, Shadow’s Son, was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award, as well as a nominee for the David Gemmell Award for Best Debut Novel and Best Fantasy Novel.