Wednesday, July 3, 2024

 #AuthorInterview with Ivan Obolensky

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Kathy Stickles is talking with Ivan Obolensky, author of Dark of the Earth: Book 3 of the Eye of the Moon series.

FQ: As always, I really adored this new book and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to read it and keep up with what is happening in the characters’ lives. You are simply a master at this type of storytelling I must say. Do you go through a lot of questioning yourself (and your characters) and rewriting things in the books or is this just a knack you have and it comes out on paper easily the first time?

OBOLENSKY: Thank you so much for the compliment. Having a reader really enjoy something one has written, after having put in so much time and effort, is the best reward for having written it.

Nothing is ever easy, and writing novels requires a special kind of skill. In the beginning, one has unlimited possibilities as to what to write and which direction to take. As the story is put down, the pathways available become fewer and fewer, like context. Context provides definition to what one is trying to communicate. The more context there is, the more defined and precise a fact or a situation becomes. It is the same with stories. At the beginning anything is possible. At the end, the choices are few, and the plot gathers its own inevitability from all that went before like a slow-moving avalanche.

Because I wish to convey a sense of realism, the stories I write are built moment by moment into scenes (chapters). I rarely have any idea where a story is going when I start. The only rule I follow is that there must be consistency and continuity once I begin. All the actions, every dialogue, and each description must contribute to forwarding the story and must be rooted in what went on before, so the plot develops organically and is continuous rather than discontinuous. For me, writing is like running a marathon on a road one has never seen. One plugs away step by step and word by word into a distance that is uncertain and undefined.

To begin, I require an interesting situation that has consequences. The middle needs brilliant language and clarity because middles can be confusing, but endings are where the writer really has to shine. A good ending is vital because it makes whatever the reader had to go through to get to it worth the effort they put in. Fail there, and all is lost. For me, a good ending must be surprising, suitably outrageous yet believable, and satisfying—all at the same time. If it is brilliantly executed, then so much the better. I worry a lot about endings. I wonder constantly how I will make what is inevitable a surprise. It’s what I think about most when I’m in the middle.

To answer your question, writing is relatively easy if one’s thoughts are clear. It is the thinking to gain that clarity (before, during, and after) that requires so much energy and effort. In addition, the writing is rarely right the first time. I will read what I have written hundreds of times to make it smoother, better, clearer, and, most of all, memorable.

FQ: Dark of the Earth, even though it includes all of the characters we have come to adore, really pushes Percy to the forefront and we see him transform into a very strong and determined man who is willing to do just about anything to help Johnny and to protect the entire family and business from those who might be trying to cause harm. Was it fun to show us this new “Percy” or was it extremely challenging to make him different and more of the real main character given Johnny’s not being around so much in the beginning of the story?

OBOLENSKY: To me, novels are long stories that ask and answer deep questions. How to prove oneself worthy in one’s own estimation is one of many grand themes that are woven through Dark of the Earth and the earlier books of the series. Accomplishing that task in the real world is difficult for everyone. One can fool others, and even oneself for a time, but in the end, it is one question we all must answer.

In ancient India, a man had to have produced a son who produced a son to be released from the obligations of family. He was then free to go off into the forest by himself in search of wisdom. Having garnered special knowledge, he could return and teach others what he had discovered. He became a guru.

In the West, we have the “hero’s journey”, where an individual leaves all that is known and ventures into the unknown to experience the world and discover who he really is. The hero then returns with that understanding and perhaps some treasure. This hero’s journey is handed down in different ways across a great many cultures, in the form of myths, legends, and ancient tales. It is almost universal as a theme. In modern culture, this yearning for the journey is still present, but given our modernity, how is that to be done?

In Percy, we see him discover who he really is in Eye of the Moon as he confronts and quiets the darkness and terrors that lie hidden within himself. In Shadow of the Son, Percy steps out from beneath the shadow of his father and his heritage to cast his own shadow. In Dark of the Earth, the circle expands, and he must confront the desperation of those who value wealth and winning above all else (the world of the modern corporate economy). Saddled with our natures, how does one live well and in harmony, given the incessant economic pressure, society’s demands for compliance and acquiescence, and the sociopathic tendencies of a few? Percy develops because he is without Johnny to rely on and has no choice. He must step up or be trodden under.

What was challenging about showing this new Percy was portraying his development (the hero’s journey) in a modern context and in a story that does not devolve into the all-too-familiar dystopian drama, where evil is met with greater evil and victory goes to the stronger, the most expedient, and the more mercenary. There are no dragons to slay, or so it seems, but that is hardly true, even today. They have simply assumed different guises, and down deep, we all thirst for adventure, even if we must create it ourselves.

How to illustrate the hero’s journey using a single location was certainly a challenge. Percy surprised me nonetheless, and as in real life and in my novels, surprise is always just around the corner and never to be underestimated. It was Lenin, of all people, who said, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” I prefer to have those decades happen in days. My novels would be too long otherwise.

Author Ivan Obolensky

FQ: I liked seeing more of Johnny and Percy’s past through the flashbacks and stories that Percy told to Johnny and to the family. Will we see more of that in the next book or was it more of a tool used just because of the situation in this story?

OBOLENSKY: Oddly, the book I started was originally supposed to be a collection of short stories as a stopgap before I wrote the next in the series. I had written several stories about Johnny’s and Percy’s earlier adventures and thought to myself, “What could be easier?” That didn’t go as planned. I was rereading Boccaccio at the time and thought of using an overarching story—the accident in this case—as a literary device to showcase them. I patted myself on the back and merrily began, only to have that self-satisfied feeling rapidly disappear.

I began to wonder if Johnny’s accident had really been an accident. Suppose it had been deliberate? By the time I had gotten to the middle, I still wasn’t sure. The Cushmans had a plan and were up to something, but what? It was a puzzle. Added to that was the conundrum of how Johnny was to recover. It took two years and a great deal of thought, writing, and rewriting to solve.

In truth, the stories were an idea that spun completely out of control, and there was nothing I could do but follow along. I am certainly glad I did. What I find amusing is that the stories are microcosms of what happens in the big story and add nuances that could not have existed without them.

FQ: I simply adore the way you give readers little bits and pieces of the secondary characters in each book so that we learn more about them as the stories move forward. I loved seeing Angus again and having him be a part of the story and the weekend. In addition, Raymond became more a part of this story and seems to be a very interesting character with quite a past. Will they both be returning the next book?

OBOLENSKY: I’m sure they will. When I write, I feel like one of those jugglers who spin plates on top of canes and other pointy objects. They get twenty going and have to run back to the first one to spin it again before it falls and breaks. Depending on how the plot develops and how each character can forward it determines how much we get to know about them, but each is a story in its own right and worthy of exposition. Both Angus and Raymond have dark histories but then so do all the other characters. Only the elegant environment of Rhinebeck and the civilizing influence of tradition keep them in check and playing nice with everyone else.

FQ: Lord Bromley, who was so much a part of the last book, gone and was only mentioned in passing in this book. He was without a doubt one of those characters that readers just love to hate but he definitely had many layers and I don’t think we touched on them all. Will there be any more about him going forward?

OBOLENSKY: That is difficult to say at this point. I have no idea how the fourth will develop. As an author, I still want to know more about the relationship between him and Alice and what is happening with them now, wherever that is. I rather think I will have to do some digging to find out. The dead are never really dead. They influence us, but what that influence will be, I can’t answer at this time. I suspect I will, so stay tuned.

FQ: I know that you are thinking four books will be it for this series so can you tell us a bit about the final installment? Will we see a baby and a wedding? Is Johnny going to get an “end” to the story like Percy or is there the possibility of more books in the series in the future?

OBOLENSKY: I never say never, but the idea was four—like the acts of a play. At some point, one must draw the curtain and let the audience go home to consider the experience and perhaps revisit it. Len Deighton wrote nine in his spy series, so anything is possible. I suppose if I get lonely for their company, I might add another because I’ve lived with the characters for years, and they are never completely silent. For sure, there is the wedding, and what if Bruni has twins in the middle of the ceremony among the pews and kneelers? One question I have is: How will Percy convince the baron to acquiesce to Johnny’s demand that the wedding take place at Rhinebeck? Dagmar’s cooking may be the deciding factor, but then there is the von Hofmanstal castle, where nannies have dropped like flies, and the dungeon waits underneath. Surely, that will enter in at some point. It’s all a giant swirl. To entangle it starts with a single word—but only when I sit down to write it, and I’m not there yet.

After that, there is a half-finished novel that I started years ago called “Songs of Rebellion”. It is about what it’s like for a mortal to meet a god. That never ends well, by the way. I’ve left it in a drawer on my hard drive until I develop the writing chops necessary to finish it. I’m close. I have improved, but that one will require a great deal of skill—skills I’m still working on and developing.

FQ: Do you have any idea what might be next for you as an author when this series is finished and the pages close on Rhinebeck?

OBOLENSKY: I mentioned “Songs of Rebellion”. There is also a nonfiction project that I plan to complete called “Challenges” likely before number four is completed. It is about success, failure, and their similarities—other than the endings—and has its roots in the many previous articles I wrote between 2011 and 2018. I want to use the skills I developed writing novels to create a nonfiction book that readers will find useful, thought-provoking, as well as entertaining.

FQ: I am guessing that deciding to write novels takes a whole lot of time and very hard work so you must have an excellent support system behind you. How much does your family support you and how does that help in your writing?

OBOLENSKY: I do. It is one of the hallmarks of those who are successful. Successful people, who last, have one thing in common: an emotional infrastructure that supports them when they wobble, dusts them off, and puts them back in play. The number of sports figures who went south after a parent died and were no longer there to fulfill that need is worth noting. Behind most successful men (or women) are partners of extraordinary worth who are blessed with mental and financial acuity. You don’t see them, but they are there if one looks closely.

My wife, Mary Jo, is one, and she is also my first reader. That task and responsibility is not as easy as it might appear. There is the constant waiting between chapters and should the chapter end on the edge of a cliff, I suggest you proceed immediately to the next, and then deliver both. A first reader is important and must be treasured and cared for. I note every expression. I listen to the cadence and the rhythm when she reads a chapter aloud, and that helps me make refinements. She also lets me know when she’s enchanted, and her encouragement helps me continue.

There is also Joanna, my stepdaughter, a stickler for details once the work is done. I may dismiss four out of five things that she suggests, but it is that fifth that makes all the difference. Disagreement is always as important as agreement when building anything.

I have also come to writing late in life. I never had to write to live. I can’t conceive how hard that must be.

I think it is also hard for many to appreciate how strongly our infrastructure (personal, economic, familial, and global) supports us as much as restrains us in our efforts to succeed. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum, even though we might wish it was up to us to either win or lose. Alone, the chances of success are minimal. Supported, the odds of succeeding are better.

In the end, it is also up to the writer to take advantage of the years of literature that has been written in the past, to be conversant with it all, and to know how the greats succeeded and why. Commercial success is often dependent on embracing social issues, and that has been the case for the last two hundred years. I don’t particularly subscribe to that line, but I know it works. The research says so. I prefer to do something altogether different, and that is a lonely road to travel, but the one I have chosen. I thank the stars for having those in my life who believe in me. If I didn’t, I would be alone, and nothing would come of all my efforts—absolutely nothing.

FQ: What authors and/or types of stories have had a huge influence on you and your writing? Any authors that you are really partial to?

OBOLENSKY: I read everything and anything. I read escapism to escape, textbooks for knowledge, and writers of all types to discover what they did to move me either negatively or positively. I want to know why I felt the way I felt. I want to know how they managed to enchant me or do the opposite. I read because I enjoy reading. I read as often as I can. When I find myself staying up late, I note the reason. What did the author do? Can I do that? Should I do a Faulkner in my next book and put the last chapter first? Not likely, but I could because I’ve seen it done. Could I start in the middle? Absolutely. I also use film and play direction and directing techniques. I try to get into a scene late and get out early à la David Mamet. His insights on directing are gold. I also try to appeal to the reader’s imagination and intelligence to stay with me. I study plays. I study history. I study mathematics. All of it is useful and comes out in my writing.

Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Frank Herbert, Edith Wharton, P. G. Wodehouse, Booth Tarkington, O. Henry, Homer, Euripides, Ovid, Roald Dahl, and a thousand others have made their contributions, and I have gladly accepted their examples and been inspired by their brilliance. To me, a really good book is a rare and glorious treasure to be savored, marveled at, and revered. To write one of those is what I strive for.

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