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GUEST POST | Edward Lazellari on From Crusades To Awakenings

From Crusades To Awakenings

©2011 Edward Lazellari,
author of Awakenings

Although I can cite many influences for my writing, three books that were integral to my first novel, Awakenings, are Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

Awakenings began as a graphic novel concept called “Crusades” in the 1980s, when I was pursuing art as my main career with a focus on getting into Marvel or DC comics. At the time, I was a big fan of Brian Bolland’s Camelot 3000 and also a big gamer, playing 20-hour marathons of Dungeons & Dragons. During one game, I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we were all really from a fantasy universe on a secret mission instead of just playing this game.” A few years later, I read Amber and was inspired to write my story as a novel instead. It was around the early ‘90s when I was working for Marvel Comics that I began to transition to writing because I found it more satisfying than illustrating. (I believe I’m better at it too.) Taking stock of my talent level, I realized I needed more than my nascent skills at the time to become a good novelist. I put aside Crusades and went back to school to get my B.A. in English Literature for the sole purpose of becoming a writer. The English lit track is more about criticism and essays than writing fiction, but I focused on what made a story still readable a hundred, four hundred, or a thousand years later. If I understood why Dorian Gray and Hamlet were still relevant today, then I could apply that to my own stories (that’s the theory at least). So I read selfishly to absorb story telling and writing techniques and wrote my critical essays to placate the department requirements. (Occasionally, the two goals intertwined.) I graduated in 1999 and began working on the book again in 2000.

Nine Princes In Amber begins with the protagonist, Corwin, in a modern hospital and no memory of his identity or his past in another plane of reality. The amnesia was a great idea. The best books are journeys of discovery, and what more challenging journey is there than to discover your own lost self. You’re already in danger and at a disadvantage from the first page, and it puts the reader on the same journey as the character. As anyone who has read The Chronicles of Amber knows, Corwin is part of a larger, dysfunctional royal family that is at war with each other, and with other factions at the other end of time and space. Amber is filled with sorcerers and dark happenings. The details of Mr. Zelazny’s concept are pure brilliance, and I would urge anyone who loves fantasy (or just great stories) who has not read him to run out and get this series. Amber was the seed that started my story growing. It wasn’t until after college that I read Game of Thrones and Neverwhere and began pruning my bonsai. I changed the title of the book to “Lost Souls” during this period, which stuck until around 2008.

The concept of a dysfunctional family posing as warring nations also exists in Game of Thrones. But more importantly, from Mr. Martin, I found the voice I wanted to tell my story through. I had been writing Crusades from an omniscient third-person perspective and had never really been happy with it. I didn’t think a first-person account would work either. Game of Thrones, which is an ensemble piece, is written in third-person limited.

Each chapter is from the perspective of just one character. That doesn’t mean you can’t affect the fates of other characters in that chapter, only that it has to be viewed through the senses of the character you inhabit at the moment. I knew immediately after Game of Thrones that this was the narrative voice I wanted to use. Like Mr. Martin’s book, Awakenings is also an ensemble piece. What I also found fascinating about The Song of Ice and Fire series are the shades of gray in terms of the characters’ rectitude. Just when the reader is sure he or she knows who the villain is, Mr. Martin would write the story from that character’s perspective, and suddenly things were no longer black and white. Many of us hate Cersi, but she’s a product of her culture, shopped around like a cow so that her father can secure Lannister power. As sick and evil as she is, the bum deal she got in a lout like Robert Baratheon certainly pushed her over the edge. Mr. Martin is a master at the politics of interpersonal relations. The empire in Awakenings is the back story. Aandor is as Westeros might be a hundred years later if it fails to reunite under a new leader. This is the catalyst that commences my adventure. One of my protagonists, a boy named Daniel, represents the hope of unifying the empire according to the accord between these shattered nations. In that way, Daniel is a bit like Harry Potter in that he is a savior figure. Unlike Harry, though, Daniel has no support from the people who know
what he really is. He’s on his own.

Another thing I got from Mr. Martin’s writing is restraint. Although Westeros is a land of old gods, magic, and dragons, you don’t see spells cast every 10 seconds. Magic is rare and mysterious. Most things that people think are magical, like comets as portents, can be explained by science or trickery. Mr. Martin keeps magic close to the vest and lets the characters’ human wants and desires propel the story. If a fantasy story can hold up without the magic, it’s that much better a story because then you are relying on motivations that are more universally recognized.

From Neverwhere came the duality of a fantasy urban world existing within a modern world. You can argue that Amber did something similar, but Mr. Gaiman took it to a new place. (I imagine Neil admires Mr. Zelazny’s work.) There’s just something about Neverwhere that just clicked with me at a time when I was dusting off the remnants of my story after finishing school and beginning to write seriously again. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Gaiman’s work since he did Sandman for D.C. comics and believe he is one of the godparents of modern urban fiction. He has the uncanny ability to reach deep into myth, legend, fable, or Bible -- both the grand stuff and the quiet lesser known tales -- and weave entirely new stories that fit snuggly into pre-molded slots in your brain you didn’t even know where there. You never get the sense that he’s writing fiction, more that he’s transcribing actual events that we’ve had some vague sense of having heard of, but here he is now fleshing out the details. I’ve never been to London, but I reasonably expect to meet a girl called Door and find a floating market at Harrods, no less than I expect to run into a Leprechaun in Ireland.

There’s a certain amount of arrogance involved, to read Tolkien or Shakespeare and say, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” But Shakespeare, Tolkien, Louis Carroll, C.S. Lewis and so on were themselves inspired by others before them. There will always be new stories and someone’s got to create them until the computer program meant to replace writers is ready. T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow and great writers steal.” I don’t condone stealing, but all writers take something from their inspirations -- vocabulary, energy, tropes, pacing, poetry, prose -- it’s our favorite books that have instilled in us the desire to write our own stories.

Edward Lazellari has worked as an illustrator and graphic artist, doing projects for Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics, and Jim Henson Productions. His short story, “The Date,” won Playboy magazine’s prestigious college fiction contest in 1999. Lazellari lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. Awakenings is his first novel. He can be found online at his website or twitter: @EdwardLazellari.

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Author Jack Richards said...

I really enjoyed this post. It's always interesting to hear what influenced another writer's project.