Book Title: The Count of the Living Death
Genre: YA Adult Fantasy
Synopsis: Always in the back of Leopold’s mind, he could see it: the box. The one thing his father had forbidden him as a child. Besides the three strange locks—each with a mysterious inscription—it was nothing to look at: a simple, unremarkable box, or at best, an undersized chest. He first glimpsed it twelve years ago. Like a thief he stole after his father, who had come down to the armory on some errand. When his father opened the door—only quickly enough to catch a single glimpse—he saw it. That single image lived in his imagination until last night. The night it spoke to him.
Leopold…I’ve been waiting for you, Leopold. Come and unfasten my locks!
If he does so, the voice promises to fulfill his every desire, even offering him the hand of the forbidden—and forbiddingly named—Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti. However, before unfastening the third lock he catches a glimpse of something unspeakable inside, and turns to the only man who shared his father’s secret, the legendary Conjurer-Magician, Hildigrim Blackbeard. A man who, if the stories are true, will exact a terrible price in return for his service.
Publish date: October 2013
Kasper: Thanks so much for dropping by Joshua, make yourself at home. Great extract ... it leaves me wanting much more.
I hear you've been writing for many years and this is your first novel. What other writing have you done?
Joshua: To me, all writing is ‘creative,’ and I am just as fulfilled writing an article about literature as I am writing a chapter of a novel (just in different ways, perhaps). The irony of the writing profession is that success in one field doesn’t necessarily transfer to another. Despite a number of publications in academic journals and books, I have had very little interest in my novels from any agent or publisher (after all, how could an academic write for a mass audience?). I think the marketing world is too keen on seeing writing as geared to a single audience, though the reality is that most people read what interests them, and go from one ‘genre’ to another quite readily. That said, my academic work strongly influences my novels and other creative work, since all my ideas come from a response to a work, either while teaching it in the classroom or simply from re-reading a favourite passage. For example, I recently wrote a 40 page biographical introduction to the British ghost writer, M.R. James, who was once famous for his story collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Writing this article encouraged me to read everything he had written, while also researching his biography and educational career (he had a long distinguished career at Eton, and later at King’s). Getting so knee-deep into a writer’s complete works and life is extremely useful for a writer, since it shows you the thought process, the influences, and the creative struggles of your heroes. M.R. James is a major influence on my own work, and understanding how he approached his genre (the ghost story) and the wide variety of works that shaped his understanding of it, challenged my own understanding of fantasy and YA literature. In essence, it made me question the conventions of the genre as handed down to me, and made realize that those who ‘shape’ genres are often quite radical in their approach to them. My current novel, The Count of the Living Death, is something of a tribute to M.R. James, if not in content, at least in spirit, and is certainly the ‘child’ of my M.R. James article (which you can find in Scribner’s British Writers Supplement Series, Volume 7—check your local library!).
I chose Young Adult/Fantasy literature since, to me, it is a very nebulous and forgiving field. Everyone I know reads or has read Young Adult literature, whether my 9 year-old son or my 45 year-old colleague. To me, Young Adult is not an age group as much as a framework: it allows for a very generous suspension of disbelief, where you can indulge in fantastic flights of fancy, while still grounding it all in a work of literary merit. Straight fantasy seems to be a more entrenched genre, with very specific conventions and expectations. Young Adult fantasy, however, is still in flux. There are so many writers experimenting with this form that it’s difficult to say what it is and isn’t. By ostensibly writing to a ‘younger’ audience, it allows the writer to experiment more and invoke many traditions and genres. Indeed, I interpret YA Fantasy as a kind of bridge to other ideas and genres: my own work borrows quite liberally from classic literature, fantasy, the Gothic, comic literature, and the British satirical tradition. These all make sense in a work that claims to be nothing more than a book for “young adults,” while allowing readers to indulge in that part of themselves that can still read without worrying about what they are reading—or if they should be. As I said before, publishers try very hard to market works into very strict demographics, which in the end don’t hold water. YA is much harder to fit into this straitjacket, and YA Fantasy all the more so. In short, it allows me to take my raw ideas and shape them into whatever form I deem necessary, while other genres would force me to make more concessions to my audience.
Kasper: I love your thoughts on the YA fantasy scene. I just usually say, "Because I'm a big kid." LOL.
'The Count of the Living Dead' sounds facinating. What's your favourite scene from it and why?
As a writer, I most enjoy doing ‘variations’ on favourite themes from literature, since writing is really about being part of a conversation. No one writes in a vacuum or is totally unique. We are all a composite of our influences—even works we claim to hate—and this spills out in our writing. The more conscious we are of these influences, the better, I think, our writing becomes. One of my favourite scenes in the book is an attempt to evoke a famous writer in the midst of a work she would never have dabbled in (despite her love of Gothic literature). The writer is Jane Austen, and the scene is in Chapter 6, which introduces us to our heroine, Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti (whose very name suggests we can’t take her—or any of the characters—entirely seriously). In this scene, the fantasy/Gothic elements shut off to introduce a young woman who is simply posing for her wedding portrait. She is annoyed and hot, and like many young people, begins daydreaming of love—and reflects on a conversation she had with the man she loves, wondering how much she should read into it. It’s a silly conversation where neither person can really say what they think, as much from society’s conventions as their own inexperience. Yet the drama of this scene, for her, is quite profound: does she model herself on her mother and remain silent, get married, and live out the rest of her respectable and wealthy life? Or should she strike her own pose, paint her own portrait, and pursue the tantalizing clues left behind by the Count? It’s one of my many “Jane Austen” moments in the work, which I hope reads as a kind of humorous composite of 19th century novel, Gothic suspense novel, fantasy novel, and satirical novel.
Kasper: I'm so glad to meet a fellow Austen fan. It sounds like such an interesting concept you have and I wonder how many of your readers will detected the subtle references.
Have you used any real events or places as inspiration for your writing?
In a way, yes. I don’t use real events or places, since my works aren’t supposed to be ‘real’ but very fantastic; if it read too much like a real person or place, to me, much of the fantasy and spirit of the work would be lost. However, what inspires me most that is ‘real’ are paintings and music—very specific works of both. In the scene above, Mary is sitting for her wedding portrait, much against her will. I modelled this scene on a portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Johnathan Richardson (c.1725) who might have been thinking the very same thoughts (a painting, I should add, I once used in a paper about literature!). Classical music, too, is always a place where I ‘stage’ my works, often going so far as to tie an actual passage with an actual piece. I would hate to tell this to a reader, since it might ruin the scene for them. For me, however, the writing is imbued with the spirit of that piece, and I can almost ‘hear’ it in the very intonation of the prose. For example, one of my favourite composers, Antonin Dvorak, wrote a long, sprawling piece called The Water Goblin, which recounts an old Czech legend about a water goblin who abducts women into his underwater lair. It’s a wonderfully evocative piece, both spirited and disturbing at the same time, and I used it in many scenes involving the ‘Death’
As I’ve suggested above, my real job and my true love is teaching. I earned my Ph.D. so I could teach at the college level, helping students read and appreciate the works of our collective past—particularly, British and World Literature pre-1800. Teaching in a way is a lot like writing; each class is a kind of ‘story,’ since it stresses different aspects/ideas of a work, and has its own beginning, middle, and end. Also, when teaching you are, in effect, the writer, since you have to communicate why things happen and how we might interpret them the way the author might have wished. This becomes very tricky in a work like The Illiad or Beowulf that has no known author, or certainly no author with a tangible biography. Teaching also instructs a would-be author about audience, since you learn how a younger generation responds to certain styles of writing, ideas, and characters; it also helps you understand how to make them see the merit of a difficult—or seemingly difficult—work. I rarely leave class without some fresh idea or insight, and teaching always helps me appreciate the books I teach anew. Indeed, I often teach works I want to re-read, or sometimes, that I have always meant to read since there is no better way to know a work than to teach it. This ‘down and dirty’ approach to literature always inspires my writing: I become more aware of how writers write, or construct their characters, or manage their themes. Sometimes, it’s as simple as “ooh, let me use that word in a story!”, but more often, it’s understanding how artfully a character can represent an individual and an idea. To teach is to breathe life into dead worlds, and writing is much the same; the two jobs complement one another, and I could never do one without the other.
Kasper: You sound very passionate about your work and I'm sure that rubs off on the students. What are you working on now?
I’m writing two novels at the moment; one is actually finished, but since I finished it 3 years ago, certain parts haven’t aged as well as I hoped. I hope to finish revising it this summer and publish it around July or August. The work, which is still untitled, is about a prince who falls in love with a portrait, and is determined to learn the identity of the sitter. A magician assures him the woman is still alive, though this knowledge is frustrated when he eventually learns that the painting is 200 years old. Yet the woman is quite alive—and not a day over eighteen. Unfortunately, she only has eyes for the magician, who has appeared in her dreams every night, offering to ‘save’ her. And so on it goes. The other work, which is only 1/3 finished, is a kind of sequel to my first book, though very few of the characters remain. I always feel a little silly writing books when so few people really read them, but in the end, I believe we write for ourselves and if anyone else reads them, it’s gravy. You can’t spend months and years writing something if it isn’t a world you want to spend time in, even if you burn the manuscript at the end. For me, the writing is what I enjoy, not so much the shaping and marketing after.
Kasper: Yes, definitely keep going. Sometimes it takes a while to build your readership. I love the idea about the painting and can't wait to hear how it turns out.
Who are your favourite authors?
Predictably, my favourite authors are long dead and evoke worlds I can only visit in my dreams. Jane Austen’s novels are a great influence, both for her language and characters, as is Daniel Defoe, especially his epic myth of the marooned sailor, Robinson Crusoe. I’m a big fan of all the books and poems by “Anonymous,” especially The Illiad/Odyssey, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Icelandic sagas. These works balance fantasy and reality in such a delicate yet masterful way, and none of them are without odd touches of humor that make the works very ‘modern’ to my eyes. Among living authors, one of my favourite is Craig Thompson, a graphic novelist whose books, Good-bye, Chunky Rice and Blankets, are a big influence on my work. He’s a writer who is not afraid of sentiment and making things beautiful, and I try to indulge in both in my own novels, however much I fall short of the mark. I would also have to mention Rainbow Rowell, whose recent book, Eleanor & Park, might be the best YA book ever written. How can you write about love—and teenage love, at that—without resorting to the most tiresome cliches and treacly bombast? Well, she did it, and did it for 300 pages without breaking a sweat. I gulped the book down and just sat there after, dazed. It was a divine but humbling experience.
I'm loving this picture of you here at I discovered on Facebook. I'm betting there's a great story behind it. Is it hanging in art gallery somewhere?
Ha, the profile pic is actually done by my 8 year-old son! I love that picture, so please, use it.
Obviously as a parent I think his work is great art! He is on his way to being an art student one day, so he will be thrilled to see it used outside of my profile.
Kasper: He's very talented. Make sure to tell him that I thought it had been done by one of your students.
Do you have a blog and what do you write about?
Yes, it’s called “The Virtual Astrolabe,” which is a little silly and pretentious but it’s the best I could come up with. An astrolabe, as you probably know, was an old device used for navigating by the stars. So my blog is how I navigate between my ideas, thoughts, and pursuits virtually for all to see. The blog covers three basic topics: (a) reviews of books that I either read or teach, and what I think about them; (b) discussions on topics relating to books or education, usually about the difficulties of teaching classes few students want to take, making them read books they don’t (think) they want to read; and (c) discussions of classical music, which is my other great passion aside from writing. I use this blog as my ‘author page’ since it reflects all the ideas that go into my books, and if you like anything in my book, you can easily figure out my inspiration—and then find even better books to read and music to listen to! I’m a teacher in everything I do; I want to share, educate, and discuss things to as many people as are willing to listen. Teaching satisfies this desire to some extent, though certain ideas simply don’t fit into my classes; my novels and my blogs are outlets for those ideas that would otherwise die on the vine.
Kasper: Sounds great. I'll check it out.
What’s your dream job and do you think you’ll do it one day?
A boring answer, but I think I am doing it. At the end of the day, teaching is what I live for. Writing is a natural extension of teaching, and I wouldn’t want to do without it, but without teaching, I’m not sure I could write! It’s my true inspiration, and quite honestly, I’m probably a much better teacher than writer. Or maybe I’m bad at both?!
Kasper: Enjoying your work is the best job there is.
Joshua, thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your thoughts and writing with us today. I must say, you've brought some class to my humble chatroom. Best wishes with your future works and we'll be looking out for them.
In the meantime folks, let's share the love and check out Joshua's exciting new novel: ''The Count of the Living Death.'
Website and blog: hblackbeard.blogspot.com
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The Fantasy & Sci-Fi Network is a collection of authors, bloggers, and reviewers who are passionate about finding and creating quality fantasy/sci-fi books which are also teen safe (G, PG, or PG-13 rated). The FSF Network believes it is possible to create fantastic works of fantasy and science fiction without resorting to graphic violence, explicitly harsh language, or sex.
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