Some background first of all. If you visit Mike Fletcher's website for information you will find the famous fantasy author, Mark Lawrence, wrote his profile. That's quite a coup, to persuade someone of that ilk to write your profile.
Here's some of what he said: " Michael R Fletcher is Canadian, he was recently placed 2nd in possibly the most prestigious literary contest for fantasy, and his middle name is just the letter R. His debut book tops all the charts that rate books by grimdark content. Surprisingly, he has a wife and daughter! Mr. Fletcher is a real person. And his books contain not only a decent number of words but also all the letters."
He's the author of some superbly well written fantasy novels. The Obsidian Path (my favourite), the City of Sacrifice and Manifest Delusions series. There is also a standalone novel, Norylska Groans which was written in collaboration with Clayton W Snyder. I highly recommend that one too.
Mike's stories, as Mark Lawrence has already shown, are pure grimdark. That means they are grim and they are dark. (Clever wordplay, huh?) Grim in the way life is filled with pain, torment and a lack of hope. Dark in the type of characters you'll meet. People capable of violence, immoral acts and who you wouldn't want to meet at a dinner party. Yet, tucked away in a shadowy corner somewhere, is a guttering flame of hope and atonement. (Ah, that bit's well written, isn't it?)
After reading the ARC of his final instalment of City of Sacrifice, I interviewed Mike about his work. We've avoided anything likely to create spoilers.
1. Let’s start with a summary of the first two books in the City of Sacrifice that leads us into the final one. We have an intriguing location with the city of Bastion, with its concentric circles and walls dividing the population, according to their roles. Tell us what's happened so far.
Oh hell no. Summarize over two hundred thousand words?! Nuh uh.
Okay, maybe. Kinda.
Bastion is the last city on a dying world. The pantheon of gods has dwindled for thousands of generations, hiding away and becoming increasingly insane. The ghosts of demons and long-dead gods haunt the endless red desert, always seeking entrance to this last bastion of living souls.
2. The story is told from two perspectives. There’s Nuru, who is a ‘dirt’, from the Growers Ring and a woman filled with doubt and guilt, brought on by the loss of her friends. There’s Akachi, a temple-trained sorcerer who hunts Nuru, whom he believes to be a heretic. Tell us about them and their role in the story.
I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who might read the books. I will say I wanted to tell a story with no obvious villain. Everyone involved believes they are doing the right thing.
3. The pantheon of gods that dominate Bastion can be found in mesoAmerican cultures, such as the Aztecs and Mayans. Why did you choose this pantheon?
Each god is a blend of many gods and will have many names. One of the main gods, Smoking Mirror, is a perfect example. He’s also known as Father Discord, The Obsidian Lord, God of storms, God of Strife, Lord of the Night Sky, Enemy of Both Sides, We Are His Slaves, He by Whom We Live, Lord of the Near and Far, Father of the Night Wind, Lord of the Tenth Day, The Flayed One, The Jaguar God, Áłtsé Hashké, Father Cunning, Eingana, Mother Snake, Obsidian Butterfly, Mother of Birds and Butterflies, Seven Serpent, Mother Harvest, Grandfather Coyote, Lord of Tricksters, Lowyatar, or Mother Disease.
While the gods of Bastion primarily go by their ancient Aztec names, their other, older names hint at distant origins. The pantheon is now a small fraction of what it once was. The gods have warred, slain competing deities, and claimed their aspects for their own. Where once there were many trickster gods, only Smoking Mirror remains.
4. Magic systems are complex concepts that need to serve a variety of purposes in the narrative. The best ones are credible. A lot of the magic in these stories are derived from the use of drugs. From my limited research, this concept was common in mesoAmerican cultures too. How important was research in developing your ideas?
The magic system for this trilogy leans heavy on The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda. Originally marketed as an anthropological study of the Yaqui of Northern Mexico, the series is actually a stunning fantasy story. After that, my research mostly involved thinking back to my misspent youth and the various hallucinogens I experimented with. You can learn a lot from books, but you can learn even more by doing a bunch of really dangerous stupid shit.
5. These magic systems also facilitate transformations. Priests/Sorcerers can turn into animals, having first carved the likeness. Again, this concept is found in these cultures. Why did you employ this specific form of magic?
This all ties in with Carlos Castaneda’s work. His books are rife with people ingesting huge quantities of narcotics, accessing their spirit animals, and communicating with things beyond. The why is trickier. Sometimes an idea gets lodged in my skull and won’t leave me alone until I write it.
6. In my review I talked about how your world building could be interpreted as analogous to western society. Would you agree?
Oh hell yes. Bastion’s rings, the Growers, Crafters, Senators, Bankers, and Priests, were chosen with intent. As was the order of the rings. In our world the walls between castes are social/symbolic. In Bastion, they’re very real.
7. A central theme to the story is the tension between Faith and Doubt. It drives so much of the protagonists’ actions. They are buffeted by the blind faith of others. I’ve noticed this theme crop up in your other stories, is this an issue which you enjoy exploring?
Faith and doubt are definitely on my list of obsessions, as is identity and the need for purpose. They’re all connected. Some folks want their faith to define them. Others are driven by a need to matter. Writing such characters is a chance to pick apart what makes people tick, to break them down to see how they handle the catastrophic fallout of utter failure.
8. On social media you made no secret of your own doubt about this trilogy. You talked about burn-out and struggle to bring coherence to the story. Every writer I know has experienced it. Tell us how you overcame the problem.
I started this book a couple of times, getting thirty thousand words or more in before deciding it was crap. Finishing stories is tricky. There’s what the writer wants to say and what the readers wants to read, and they’re not always the same thing.
Oddly, the trick was walking away from the project and deciding I’d write it whenever I damned well felt like it. When I finally knew what I wanted from the ending, I returned to the desk to smash it out. That’s not to say there weren’t still doubts. There are always doubts.
9. In my introduction I talked about the scale of your world building. It largely centres on one city but its social structures, its religions, history and economy play a crucial role in the story. Bastion is another character. Tell us how you approach world building for your stories.
It changes for each book. Sometimes, as with the Manifest Delusions books, I do very little world-building. Most of the work for that series was working out the magic system. I wanted it to be insane and yet remain logical within the framework of its madness.
If I was to spell out my approach to world-building, it would be this:
The magic system comes first. Once you know the details of how magic works, you can begin thinking about how it will shape the world. For example, a world where you take narcotics to do magic will be very different from one where only the insane can alter reality.
Characters are next because they are shaped by both the magic system and the world they live in.
Oddly, for someone planning to write a story, plot is the last thing I work on. I can’t know the story until I know the world and the characters. Even when I think I know the plot, it often changes. It’s more important to me to be true to the characters than to make whatever storyline I dreamed up work. If a plot point doesn’t make sense for the character, it gets dropped. I rarely plot more than three chapters in advance, though I do like having some idea how things will end (even if I’m wrong).
10. I described you as a writer of dark fantasy. What drives you to create such shadowy tales? Why do people suffer so much? Why is society so corrupt? Is it a reflection of the world in which we live? Is it about providing what readers want? Tell us about the darkness.
Oof. Tricky question. I suspect I’m less about society and more about my perception of it. And yeah, those two things are different.
It’s often about themes. Every novel must have an underlying theme, even if it isn’t blindingly obvious. Themes are like the secret glue to a story and contribute to how well what is effectively a brainbarf of words sticks together.
Back when I wrote Beyond Redemption I was in a particularly dark place. One of that novel’s themes was my perception that, despite what they claim, people are largely incapable of changing. They don’t learn. They don’t see the error in their ways. Instead, they rationalize and blunder onwards.
The City of Sacrifice series is a poke at organized religion and unquestioning faith. Societal structures (the odd fact that the people who actually produce things are on the bottom) is another theme.
I put very little thought into what the reader wants. I don’t know what they want, and I don’t think they do either. The big publishers think they want the same books over and over with just enough change to keep it interesting. I’d much rather write a book that causes a reader to think, Well, fuck, I haven’t read anything quite like that before! I want to take something they recognize, then twist it.
11. Finally, you and I have talked about the challenges that come from writing collaborations. Give us some insights into how you go about this process.
Clayton and I have now co-written two books. Norylska Groans, and the final Manifest Delusions novel, A War to End All. It was much easier than I anticipated. It started with setting two simple rules.
1. There is no deadline. The book will be finished whenever it’s finished. If you need to set the project aside to focus on other things, no stress. We then smashed out the first draft of NG in under three months.
2. You can quit any time you want with no hard feelings and no repercussions. If we’re not having fun, fuck it.
Next, we divided up the characters. For A War to End All, with it’s sizeable cast, it was like picking people for dodge ball. “I want Wichtig.” “Cool. In that case I’m taking Steheln.” “Damn! Okay, I’ll take Gehirn next.” And on and on until they were all picked. Clayton wrote all his characters scenes and I wrote all mine.
We did the plotting much as I mentioned above. We had a vague idea for an ending and then would plot in three chapter chunks. Plot three and then write them. Take stock, plot the next three and then write them. Rinse and repeat.
To help keep things smooth, Clayton would edit my chapters and I edited his. Then, at the end, I did a few editing passes trying to catch any little plot points we lost or fucked up.
I'm grateful to Mike for such a great insight into his thinking processes and writing experiences. If you're not familiar with his books then I hope this interviewed has whetted your appetite. While Grimdark fantasy isn't for everyone, Mike's books capture a great deal about humanity and our Western society while showing us how we can change. In doing that, he writes stories that you cannot put down. With every one of his stories, I've raced through them, desperate to find out what happens next. That combination, of thought provocation AND excitement, is a rare commodity. Mike nails it every single time. Go check out his books. You will not be sorry.