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Friday, 25 October 2013

An interview with Steve Holak author of a new fantasy trilogy - The Winds of Heaven and Earth

Steve Holak's The Winds of Heaven and Earth launches a new fantasy trilogy, blending epic and contemporary genres, and WWBB wants to get down and personal.

Hi Steve, let's start easy. How many unpublished books/stories do you have lurking under your bed?
I have a “trunk book” that will see the light of day after I finish the Keystone, Lodestone, Clarion series (I say series instead of trilogy because I have this horrible feeling that, as I write book two, ideas are emerging and the third book story is mutating and I’ll have to commit a Robert Jordan and expand the scope. We’ll see.)

How long has it been lurking?
It’s been banging around under there for 15 years.  It needs a complete re-write. The core story idea’s good, but I was too immature as a writer to pull it off: it suffers from the lack of a direct and strong antagonist, and the protagonist doesn’t have the “transformative journey arc” through the tale, things like that. That’s the book I want to be my Magnum Opus; I’m a stronger writer now, and understand the plumbing of fiction much better—and I’ll be even better by the time I’m ready to write it.  Probably 2015.

Anything else?
I have an outline for a space opera, and I’m researching the Roswell saucer-crash myth on the side: I want to give that a kick-ass literary treatment and bring all the Roswell mythology together the way Justine Cronin did for vampires in The Passage. I have enough to keep me busy for the next half-dozen years, at least.

You sound really busy. How do your juggle a writing schedule?
Like a chainsaw juggler. I have a (bill-paying) job that requires 24/7 availability. I’m away from home 13 hours each day—I leave at 5:30 am to drive to the train station, and get home at 6:30 pm. Fortunately, I get about 90 minutes of train time every day, and that’s where I do a good chunk of my work. We have an arrangement at home: I get Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings to write after dinner—so I usually manage an hour or two before I get tired--and a half-day on the weekends. During the summer, I teach scuba a few times a month, which eats up most of that weekend. Let me get up on a soapbox for a minute: Despite my schedule, I still manage 500 to 2,000 words a day, so I have no sympathy for aspiring writers who say they don’t have the time—make the time if writing’s important to you.

Well said! So, what's the best and worst part of being a writer?
It’s the coolest experience watching characters take over the keyboard from you and type their own behaviour and dialog. I spend time detailing and developing my characters on the side so that they each have a unique and recognizable voice. (I think that shows very clearly in WHE.) A side effect of this is that they’re on automatic when I start writing and it’s fun to watch. The worst part? Do I even have to say it? The marketing. The continual, shameless marketing. I’d love to just write and have a machine do that work for me. (Yeah, you know who you are.)

Print Edition
Do you start your projects writing with paper and pen or is it all on the computer?
I’m a digital guy. I do a “Snowflake“ process—write down the one-sentence blurb, expand that to three sentences describing the three-act structure with gating scenes, expand those to paragraphs, write a detailed outline of each, then break down to scene level in Scrivener. Describe each scene: POV, goal, conflict, purpose, outcome. Then write scene by scene. Once that draft is done I shuffle the scenes to their final order then finish up the final drafts in Word.

Do you set yourself goals when you sit down to write such as word count?
Absolutely. Usually 1000-2000 words a day, and about 10,000 words per week. I don’t always hit it, but the important thing is to set the bar and keep reaching for it until the story’s finished.

Do you have a critique/editor partner?
I have a wonderful editor, Rebecca Dickson. She does copy and content, and she’s sharp and brutally honest—she pushes me hard. I spent a long time looking for the right fit in a long-term editorial relationship; I wanted to preserve the tone and voice of my work over the course of a career. She was recommended to me by a client of hers—a fiction author who happens to be a professional editor!--that’s how much respect her peers have for her. She misses nothing from copy edit perspective, but also asks questions like “How can the sun reflect off their badges? I thought the sun was behind them. Just how far can a bowman shoot one of those arrows? Better research that.” She even called me out on the specs of a handgun.  She hunts down every cliché, semicolon and long sentence, but yet preserves my own unique voice. I self-edited The Winds of Heaven and Earth about eight times before I passed it off to her—I thought, “Ha! You won’t have much work to do on this one,” yet it took us about 10 weeks of back-and forth to polish it off. I call her “Bexter” because she kills prose that doesn’t deserve to live. The Winds of Heaven and Earth is a stronger work because of her, and I’m a better writer because of her. I wish she’d let a few semicolons slip by, though.

Careful, people may poach her! What is The Winds of Heaven and Earth about?
The heart of the story is a man searching for his missing pregnant wife, and struggling with the events he finds himself and family caught up in—and what he’s required to do to resolve them. It’s a mashup of contemporary and epic fantasy, with a leg in our familiar modern world, similar to what Stephen R. Donaldson did with Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Roger Zalazny’s Chronicles of Amber.  

Sure, there are elements of the magical and some nasty otherworldly creatures and events to deal with, but they augment and color the story; they don’t dominate it. And the magic has a plausible root in science and physics, as does the magical realm he eventually finds himself in.  The book has a heavy nautical theme—by design, but more than I expected when I began; probably 70% of it takes place on islands or on the sea. The trilogy has a planned transition in settings and themes, from sea and island in the first to mountain and forest in the second to a great deal of desert in the third. 

When I finished the first or second draft of the novel, I took a step back I saw how watery it actually was and began mining novels that had similar “man on quest with a nautical themes” for suitable epigraph materiel, and I came across the perfect fit: Moby Dick. The epigraph that opens the book is from that work, and the title is derived from it. And it’s thematically perfect: a soul being driven about without mercy by the whims of “the wildest winds of heaven and earth.” There are also some tensions and conflict between love and duty driving the story—and that is a conflict that does not close out until the last instalment.

Let’s talk about the main protagonist, Jordan Parish. Who is he exactly?
Jordan Parish is the core protagonist of the trilogy. (“Jordan” is homage, BTW, to the late Robert Jordan, who set the bar for the epic fantasy genre with his Wheel of Time series. RIP, Robert.) Jordan derives from a wealthy aristocratic North Carolina family, but he’s a bit of rebel. He doesn’t want to grow up to be his father, who he sees as meandering through life on the coattails of his inherited wealth. He disdains his family’s money and influence (though he’s quick to use it when he needs to), is a bit of a potty mouth and is about as impatient and quick to anger as one can get. He wants to make his own mark on the world, not be viewed as a rich kid that had everything handed to him. Jordan’s just as pissed off about finding out he was born with some special abilities as is he about being perceived as a Richie Rich. But he is spoiled: He’s used to getting his way, and is stubborn as a mule. When things go against him he lashes out at whatever’s around him and runs roughshod over everything and everyone, feelings be damned. But he’s persistent, and this stubborn doggedness and iron will are the traits that pulls him through the story. And, like all good protagonists, he has a character flaw to overcome in order to achieve his goal—his anger and impatience stands in the way of everything he’s trying to recover: his missing wife and child. 

How do other characters perceive him?
Jordan is quick to speak his mind—bluntly speak his mind--and will pee in the pool with no regard, shame or apology. There are several scenes early in the book where he’s trying to get information about his missing wife and he just runs roughshod over people who are actually trying to help him; he’s only interested in a narrow range of response that fits his needs. He’s not interested in your Auntie Nellie’s health and he’ll tell you that. His friends are mortified, and sort of give him WTF looks and try to clean up behind him. Jordan meets several people along the way who try to mentor him or give advice; it’s only as things really come crashing down before he gives them serious consideration and begins to modify his behaviour. The characters in the story fall into three categories when it comes to their outlook on Jordan: they either pity him, despise him, or want to use him. Unfortunately, Jordan tends to treat all three types the same. 

He doesn’t sound very nice. Does he have any redeeming qualities?
Perhaps I was a little harsh in pointing out his flaws. He might have a bit of tunnel vision and tramples the flowerbed at times—but after all, wouldn’t you be pretty sharply focused if you were following a metaphoric thread through a maze to find your family? You have to acknowledge that he has a fire under his arse. His wife vanishes two days after they announce their pregnancy—that’s at her six week mark.  

(The next few sentences might be considered very vague plot spoilers, so readers may or may or may not want to avert their eyes.)  

By the time he picks up her trail he realizes that it’s close to her due date—and if she’s alive she’s giving birth in a pretty treacherous environment—while some dangerously powerful people are jockeying for dibs on his kid. And there’s a *lot* of shocks as he digs into the past of the wife and family he thought he knew.  Melanie wasn’t some woman he met as an adult, fell in love with and married; Jordan and Melanie grew up together on adjacent properties. He knew her from the time her family adopted her at eight years of age. Thought he knew her.  So to uncover rocks and shine lights in cracks and find things wiggling there as he frantically searches for her . . . yeah, he’s a little edgy. Mix that with his temper . . .
(End of potential mild spoiler section.)

Love and loyalty drives him; and those are admirable qualities. Blunt dogged loyalty that seems to invoke the same in others.  He collects a supporting cast of some pretty heavy hitters in the course of his travels, people who wake up one day to scratch their heads and smile and find that they have been drawn along in his wake by his persistent dogged loyalty and the way he keeps picking himself up and dusting himself off each time he’s knocked down. He inspires the same loyalty in others that he displays for his family.  I should have categorized the three types of outlooks on Jordan as: his friends who are mortified by his behaviour at times but understand it, the enemies who oppose him, and those who want to use him.

What would be his biggest wish or desire?
At the beginning of the story, to find his pregnant wife Melanie. But before she went missing, it was simply to carve out a spot of his own in life with his smarts and the sweat of his brow, settle down with Melanie and raise kids. By the end of the story . . . well, some of those wishes and desires change, and I can’t give away spoilers. But the bar moves around a bit.

What would he change about himself if he could wave a magic wand?
Jordan clearly realizes that his temper and impatience handicaps him. It’s established early on in the story that a martial arts teacher helped him construct a place in his head he calls “The White Room”—a place of calm and serenity he pulls himself into when he needs to drop his baggage and focus. But he has to really want to go there. Jordan actually does sort of have a magic wand: at first he doesn’t know how to use it, then he doesn’t want to know how to use it—but by the second book of the series he’s generating concern that he’s treating the shiny new hammer a bit cavalierly and without regard to its consequences.


The Winds of Heaven and Earth 

(Keystone, Lodestone, Clarion)

Print Edition
When Jordan Parish's wife Melanie disappears a few days after the couple announces their pregnancy, everyone assumes the motive is ransom. But six months pass with no demand, and when the FBI discovers the only clue to her disappearance, a missing family heirloom worn by Melanie on the day she vanished--with Jordan's blood on it--the investigation turns to the temperamental and volatile Jordan.

Desperate to find his wife and clear his name, Jordan mounts an investigation of his own.  What he discovers about the adopted Melanie's hidden past plunges him into the world of mystery and magic surrounding their families.  And when Jordan and Melanie's brother Chase pursue strange assailants into a mysterious storm, Jordan is cast into a realm where he finds his child at the center of a struggle for power surrounding the culmination of a centuries-old Prophecy.

The Winds of Heaven and Earth launches a new fantasy trilogy, blending epic and contemporary genres in the tradition of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Roger Zalazny's Chronicles of Amber. 

FREE Book sample! (download from Steve Holak's website) 

Stephen M Holak

Stephen M Holak lives, works and writes in the rural western suburbs of Philadelphia

He enjoys reading and writing science fiction and fantasy, managing teams of software engineers for a major telecommunications company, and teaches scuba diving in his infinite spare time.


  1. I found your great blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect!

  2. Thanks J. Rose. Hope you enjoyed the interview.