Matthew Sturges on Midwinter, The Office of Shadow

The Office of Shadow

Novelist and comics writer Matthew Sturges recently spared some time to discuss his 2009 novel, Midwinter (2009) and its sequel, The Office of Shadow, which was released in June by Pyr. The Office of Shadows is “a group of covert operatives given the tasks that can’t be done in the light of day … The new leader of the ‘Shadows’ is Silverdun. He’s the nobleman who fought alongside Mauritane at Sylvan and who helped complete a critical mission for the Seelie Queen Titania. His operatives include a beautiful but naïve sorceress who possesses awesome powers that she must restrain in order to survive and a soldier turned scholar whose research into new ways of magic could save the world, or end it.” Discussing the mechanics of Sturges’ approach to his novels made this interview quite enlightening for me.

Tim O’Shea: Do you still get a kick out of reading the Library Journal review of last year’s release, Midwinter, which included the line: “Joining Neil Gaiman in making the crossover from comics to prose fiction, Sturges represents a strong, new voice in fantasy.”?

Matthew Sturges: I’ll take any review that puts my name along with Neil Gaiman’s in the same sentence. I realize that it doesn’t create an actual equivalency, but it’s definitely a nice thing to read. It’s true, though, that there aren’t many writers who do both prose and comics. As far as being a “strong new voice in fantasy,” again I’ll take it, but it’s hard to feel “new” when I’m three months shy of forty.

O’Shea: When constructing a strong lead like Mauritaine, do you draw upon any historical or fictional for inspiration?

Sturges: It’s been so long since I actually came up with him that I have a hard time remembering. I think I first conceived of Midwinter in around 1999, so much of the thought process around it is lost to the ages. The central theme of the novel was always this notion that trust, loyalty, and faith were all points along a continuum, and we all live our lives committed to things at different levels. Mauritane was meant to be an exemplar of loyalty, a guy who had thrown in his lot with the notion of Queen and country and was utterly unshakeable in that commitment. And then, of course, the whole plot of the novel is setting him up to have that loyalty tested to its breaking point. So really the primary inspiration for him was this notion of exploring the tensile strength of human loyalty, and everything else came from that.

O’Shea: At the time you committed to write Midwinter, was it with the assumption that it would be the first in a series–or merely with the hope of more installments, depending on how well Midwinter performed?

Sturges: When I first wrote it, I was just excited at the idea of completing a novel. The idea that anyone would ever read it, let alone publish it, didn’t even enter seriously into the equation. But I definitely left a big hook in the end of that novel, with a basic knowledge of what that hook was connected to, so that if I ever did get the chance to write
more books in that world that I’d have an idea of what happened next. And of course, by the time I actually sat down to write The Office of Shadow, the whole world revolved around that hook and nothing that I thought I knew about what would come next actually came to pass. But that hook remains; the ending of the series is implicit in it. (If you’re curious, it’s the comment that Titania makes to Silverdun regarding the girl Faella.)

O’Shea: How long did it take you to construct the core Fae mythology and what were some of the more challenging aspects of its planning?

Sturges: Interestingly, Midwinter was conceived when I was in the Clockwork Storybook group with Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson, and Mark Finn. That was a shared world, and it was very common for us to share ideas, characters, and concepts with each other. So some of the ideas that you see in Midwinter are actually things that Bill Willingham came up with. I think the main ones are the victory braids—the braids that elves tie in their hair after they’ve killed an opponent in battle—and the notion of Mab and Titania as opposing sovereigns. This was an idea that he’d put forth somewhere in something that he’d written and I thought it was interesting, so I ran with it.

When it came time to write The Office of Shadow, I felt like it was proper to take as many of Willingham’s ideas out of it as I could without messing up the continuity. Not because he asked me to; he was very gracious about it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Anyway, all of the world-building aspects just sort of sprang up as I went. I seem to recall taking a very, very long time to write the book so there was plenty of time for it to simmer. I’d also written a number of short stories for Clockwork Storybook that were set in the same world; all the stuff about the Western Valley and the Gossamer Rebellion, the dragon Achera and Uvenchaud, these were all stories that I’d told elsewhere, and they became backstory for Midwinter.

O’Shea: In an interview about Midwinter with Lou Anders you said:
“As the world grows I’m getting more and more interested in how magic evolves in a fantasy world, how old assumptions are questioned and paradigms challenged and changed. I think there’s a lot of great fodder for storytelling there.”
How has the magic evolved between Midwinter and The Office of Shadow?

Sturges: There’s an enormous progression in the understanding about what magic is that forms the backbone of The Office of Shadow. It’s very much a story about the evolution of ideas, and about overthrowing paradigms. I came at the idea kind of obliquely, wondering what would happen if an Einstein-like character appeared in a fantasy world; someone who didn’t just advance magic, but actually advanced the understanding of what magic meant. I was totally fascinated by this guy, but in the end he actually doesn’t even make it into Office of Shadow except by reputation.

One of the things I play with a lot in these books is the notion of magic as an analogue of science. In the past there was a Newton of sorts, a fellow named Alpaurle, who set the rules for how magic “works” that went unquestioned for many, many years. Until something came along that contradicted him.

Overall, I definitely spent some time honing the magic system in the world when writing the second book, now that I knew someone was actually going to read it. I won’t say that I made up Midwinter as I went along, but it was definitely written more…organically than I would write now.

O’Shea: Of the characters in Midwinter, were there certain ones you were happy to utilize more in The Office of Shadow?

Sturges: I knew very early on that Silverdun was going to be the protagonist of Office of Shadow, because this book was about faith, about how you become what you believe in. Silverdun’s struggle with faith was something I always really liked about him. So many of us struggle with faith in real life, but you very rarely see protagonists in stories who really struggle with that sort of thing outside of religious fiction. Really, just between you and me, everything in the Midwinter books is about religion if you know where to look. So Silverdun seemed like the guy to deal with that.

He’s also an unlikely fantasy hero in that he’s not really certain exactly who he is or what he wants. Unlike Mauritane, who’s totally driven by very clear priorities, Silverdun at the beginning of Office of Shadow has just realized that he’s made a huge career mistake, and has no idea what to do next. Others make that choice for him, and then he has to decide whether to embrace it.

I also knew that Faella would be coming back, and playing an important part in the story. She was deliberately created to seem like a minor character, when in actuality she’s probably the most important person in the whole world. But that comes later…

O’Shea: Back in late January, you tweeted:
“I am doing the final final revisions on the new novel THE OFFICE OF SHADOW as we speak. Then I guess I’ll start the next one.”
From this tweet, I have a few questions. What kind of bugs are you working out of the book when you’re in the final final revision stage–and is there a final final final round of revisions? Is it more exhilarating or overwhelming to realize when you start one novel and fully realize it’s time to start a new one?

Sturges: At that point, I was at the stage where I’d done all of the big changes that my editor Lou Anders had asked for, and I’d gotten back the final notes from the proofreader. A good proofreader is one who’ll catch all the weird little continuity errors and nonsensical questions and contradictions that nobody else notices, and ours, Deanna Hoak is definitely ones of those. In a big fantasy novel written by a sloppy writer like me, there tend to be bits where the spellings of characters names maybe change spellings over the course of a book, that kind of stuff. Fortunately there wasn’t anything huge to fix at that point.

There is, in fact, a final final final revision stage—it’s the one you go through after the book has already been published and you realize things that you ought to have fixed but didn’t realize until you saw it in print.

As far as starting the new one, I think you get to this place with a novel where you’re just so fucking sick of it by the time you’re done that the idea of doing anything even remotely like it makes you want to throw up. It was months before I even entertained the notion of writing a third book.

O’Shea: What can you tell me about Silverdun and his operatives?

Sturges: The notion was that they were going to be The Sandbaggers in fairyland; realistic, tough, pragmatic people who had a job to do and damn well did it. I didn’t want to do James Bond-type spy stories, but something more along the line of James Le Carre. That was the idea, but then you start writing and it takes off in its own peculiar direction.

Silverdun is sort of in charge of this trio of operatives whose job it is to gather intelligence and do sneaky things in order to stop the Unseelie Empire from using the Einswrath weapon, which is the Faerie equivalent of a nuke,  essentially. Silverdun’s closest comrade is Ironfoot, who’s a military grunt who, through an odd set of circumstances, became a university professor. His boss is a fellow named Paet, who’s the guy who’s been there and seen and done everything and nearly got himself killed doing it. And then there’s Sela. Sela is my favorite character in the book, the one who was such a pleasant surprise of a character in that I wasn’t quite sure who she was when I started writing, but she really grew into someone interesting. She has a very special set of talents that make her an excellent spy, but everything about her is just so sad.

O’Shea: Chris McGrath did the covers to both of your PYR novels, did he consult with you in developing them?

Sturges: I think all I really did was describe the characters and the setting, and he did everything else. I was just grateful that he did it, because they’re such beautiful covers.

O’Shea: How much more comfortable were you with exploring the nuances of the Fae dynamics in your new book, The Office of Shadow, compared to Midwinter?

Sturges: For me it was really a question of experience. I’m a much more confident writer than I was ten years ago, when I started writing Midwinter. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started that book, and only had slightly more of a clue by the time I finished it. Now, after having been a full-time writer for a few years I’ve got a
few more tricks up my sleeve and I know how to avoid the obvious mistakes. In some ways that made it much more difficult, because my standards are a lot higher now, but that’s as it should be, probably. As far as exploring the nuances, I realized early on in writing the second book that I had some work to do in terms of filling out the world and making sense of some things. That was fun—it was like filling in the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And going back into the world and remembering the little bits that I’d forgotten, finding all of my old notes and the Fae-English dictionary and all that stuff, that was great. There were a couple of continuity errors in Midwinter that I sweated buckets over when I went to write the sequel, specifically a geographical gaffe that I made. I spent an entire day redrawing the map of The Seelie Kingdom to explain how the River Ebe could possibly have its headwaters at the city of Estacana and still be a river that you would cross on the way to Estacana. And then I realized that I was the only person on earth that cared and drew a dogleg on the map.

O’Shea: When juggling the demands of comics and prose writing at the same time, how do you divvy up your work schedule? Do you split your workday between comics and prose–or are certain days of the week spent on comics, and other days on prose?

Sturges: I tend to write in big chunks of one versus the other, because the switching costs in terms of mental approach are so big. If I’m in a prose-writing frame of mind, I can’t think in comics, and vice-versa. It’s very uncomfortable to me to switch between the two, so what I tend to do is spend a long stretch of time working on a prose project and let all of my comics work get backed up, and then apologize profusely to my comic book editors and then spend a good stretch of time doing comics. It’s really just a question of apologizing to the right editors at the right times.  Fortunately, most editors are so used to hearing excuses from writers that they tend to handle it well.

O’Shea: Is there anything about the novels you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Sturges: Only that the real stars of these books are the message sprites. I think those gals alone are worth the cost of the books. Not that they could support a book on their own, but I really do love those little things.