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Seven Questions with Chris Howard

I first discovered Chris through his artwork, chiefly because he illustrated a story for Shimmer (#10). It’s amazing how small the world sometimes seems, because here we are, rubbing shoulders at Masque, each of us having a book released from them this month!

Chris’s book is SALVAGE, part of his Seaborn series—which, going beyond a trilogy, is expanding into a role-playing game! You can also find oodles of comic books set in the same universe on his website! Now let me hush, while you listen to Chris.

salvageWhat inspired your Seaborn books, especially your most recent, Salvage?

Deep down I still remember, when I was about ten, wanting to be a marine biologist more than anything else, which drifted to the back of my mind sometime in high school when making computers do things with code became just as fascinating. I grew up an army brat, living all over, fortunately near an ocean in most cases—Europe when I was really young, both American coasts, and Japan.  So ultimately the inspiration for the Seaborn books came from a love of marine biology and memories of Cape Hatteras the day after Hurricane Agnes, sailing on the San Francisco Bay, and diving off Manazuru about 70 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.

I had this whole latent love of science and the sea that surfaced when my daughter Chloe—she was nine or ten—wanted me to write a book about mermaids.  That’s where Saltwater Witch and Kassandra’s story came from.  I told Chloe I was less interested in what folklore had to say about people who lived underwater, and more interested in how it could really work—tails are rare among the seaborn, but there’s the hint running through the books that the world’s mermaid myths come from their interaction with people on the surface.  What I really wanted to write about was the answer to: what if there really was an entire human civilization (human in most ways) that lived in the abyss?

That was more than enough to build out the world, magic, culture, and get me through three books, Saltwater Witch, Seaborn, and Sea Throne.  Then I went off to write several other books, Teller, Dryad, Nanowhere.  But I never really left the Seaborn world.  Kassandra has a few small parts in both Teller and Nanowhere.  Corina, one of the main characters in Seaborn, makes an appearance in Teller, and Kassandra’s daughter Poseidonis—Posey—has a small part in Dryad.

For me the next obvious step was to start up a new series about a marine salvage team that takes on the weird and mysterious jobs the big guys in the business don’t want to touch. Salvage is as much tech-thriller as it is contemporary fantasy—techno-fantasy?  The Salvage books (working on the second called Wreckage) are stand-alone, but they’re set in the same world with the Seaborn series, 10-20 years into the future.

If a soundtrack existed for Salvage, what would the first three tracks be?

Just the first three?  That’s not easy, but I’ll go with “This Ship Was Built To Last” by the Duke Spirit, “Haunted” by Gary Numan, and “From Nothing to Nowhere” by Pinback .  If I could pick an artist/band to do the whole soundtrack, I’d go with Plaid. I love the movie Tekkonkinkreet, and the Plaid soundtrack is one of my favorites. I do create playlists for books—going back to Seaborn. (On a really old iPod in a drawer somewhere there’s a playlist called “COMix” which stands for Captive Ocean Mix, for my working title for Seaborn).

You remixed Saltwater Witch with your daughter, Chloe, transforming it into a new book, The Wreath of Poseidon. Tell us what that writing experience was like.

It’s crazy to think that Chloe was nine or ten when I started writing Saltwater Witch, and now she’s in college.  Back then she wanted to know about process, how to tell a story, and the two of us spent hours every Saturday morning talking about it—mainly me explaining worldbuilding, character development, publishing, plotting, and points of view.  My first manuscript for Saltwater Witch—I called it The Wreath of Poseidon–was in 3rd person, had a lot of story and character influence from those Saturday morning writing talks—some from Chloe, and was quite a bit longer.  The final was first person, a bit shorter, with a quicker pace and the title it has today.  Chloe always liked the original, which had some characters I cut in the final—a doctor who thinks Kassandra is just plain alien, and who continuously prescribes antibiotics for ear infections and other alleged maladies.   A few years ago I dug up the original and Chloe went through it, using the changes to names and plotting in Saltwater Witch to make a new version that goes by the original title, The Wreath of Poseidon.

Your website speaks of friends who want to develop a role-playing environment based on your books. What do you think makes this universe ripe for gaming?

I’m going to post all the rules, characters, maps, modules, and a bunch of detailed scenarios developed by Lorena Lombardo, a friend of mine from Uruguay—she was living in Japan when she developed the rules and ran the game.  I have already posted some of the interesting stuff from a dozen very long emails on the Seaborn world I wrote for her in 2012.

Lorena went with BESM for the core rules, but they can be converted.  In Lorena’s words, “The universe of the Seaborn is so rich that it enables us to create a world,  that even if it is restricted by classes and rules, has a lot of margin for each player to toy with and create his/her own character. Also, the characters can borrow from cultural notes, biology essays, and even philosophies to make their backgrounds and stories sound real and help with immersion of the players.”

It’s also a big world that encompasses our world — 70% of ours is covered in ocean, which represents about 99% of the living space on the planet.  Room to roam and play is a big priority.  Many Seaborn readers may not know this, but all of the books are in the future—at least when I wrote them. We’re catching up quickly.  For role-playing the future means you’re not limited to abilities and technology we have today.  You have space to throw in advances we don’t presently have, like city-sized floating aquafarms in the middle of the Atlantic, and vast migrating ocean communities in the Pacific.

The seaborn culture is well-developed—actually a range of different cultures, some of them at odds, some with completely open views of “surfacers,” others who hate what people up here do and how we live.  I’ve written quite a bit on the magic system, origin stories, wars, feuds, histories of particular houses and families, Kassandra’s genealogy.  And then  there are the Seaborn books, which contain—woven throughout— a lot about Kassandra’s house, the Telkhines, armies of the drowned dead and the family that manages them, the Kirkelatides (descendants of Circe), and general Seaborn history.

You write, but also paint. What do these two mediums have in common? How do they differ, and is there one you prefer more than the other?

I think the visual and written go hand in hand.  Drawing has become part of my writing process. For me—in most cases—the visual art provides a way to stay in the story, or to jump back into it without reviewing the last few chapters.

There’s the common writing advice that tells writers to move forward and don’t look back. Just keep writing.  I don’t know if anyone follows this advice, but I don’t.  I like to re-read as I write.  It helps me pick up where I left off.  It helps me get back into the world.  I sketch or paint scenes, action, and characters for the same reason.  Fingers over the keys of a blank page and all I have to do is look at a character painting (Kassandra) to know what she would say next.  I have thousands of drawings and paintings for the Seaborn books, and much of the stuff I drew for Saltwater Witch ended up driving the pages of the comic (a page from chapter 13).

What’s next for you when it comes to writing?

Just finishing up a Seaborn short story for an anthology coming out next year.  I just plotted out the second Salvage book, called Wreckage, and I will probably begin writing it in October.  I also have two books going right now.  I’m finishing up a straight tech thriller which has some of the stuff introduced in Salvage—floating cities, small independent villages that roam the sea.  The Marcene, one of the ships from Salvage, makes a quick appearance, but only to tow a foundering ship to port. It’s in the same world as the Seaborn books, but there are no explicit fantastic elements.  Another I’m working on with the working title “Mermaid” is a murder mystery with a cool technology startup theme, and of course it’s near the Atlantic and yes, there’s a mermaid.

Now, the critical question: cake vs. pie. Which wins?

No question about it: I love cake, but pie has to win on versatility. Cake is primarily dessert, but pie can be an entree. Raspberry, pumpkin, chicken pot pie, and a thousand more.  Think of pie as a container that can hold anything you want to bake, including cake.

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