Earlier this year I started hearing a few whispers about a new book called The Emperor's Knife. Quickly using my google-fu I hardly found any information on the author. Mazarkis Williams it seemed was a ghost. Some months later I found Mr. Williams on twitter and lucked into a review copy of The Emperor's Knife, which I've devoured. It is bloody good time and I recommend it to you all, especially if you're tired of Western set Fantasy. After reading it I couldn't pass up a chance to put Mazarkis to question.
MH: Thanks for taking the time out. To start things off can you tell me a bit about yourself? Info online is quite scant. So scant that I'm not entirely sure you're a real person. You are using an image of the invisible man as your twitter icon after all.
MAZARKIS: Yes. That avatar was created by someone at Jo Fletcher Books who never met me and didn't know anything about me, but needed a picture. Still, I am not completely invisible. As far as I know the information that is out there is accurate. And I can say a few more things about myself: I am a night owl. I read very fast but write very slow. I listen to Radiohead too much. I’m an old-fashioned table top/face-to-face gamer and I think I’m addicted to zero-calorie Vitamin Water.
MH: What's your barroom description of The Emperor's Knife to people just hearing about the book for the first time?
MAZARKIS: Barroom? I think I would babble (because, clearly, I would be drunk) about how there are these damaged people who have to pull it together and fight off this creepy menace, and how they find hope in the process, or redemption, depending on which character it is. Or if I started on that tack and their eyes began to wander, I’d say something about Arabian Nights and assassins and sorcerers, which is less accurate but sounds more exciting.
MH: The Emperor's Knife is part of Jo Fletcher's inaugural launch in the UK and part of Night Shade Books New Voices program. How has the attention been? How are you adapting to becoming an author?
MAZARKIS: Well I’ve been writing a long time, always struggling for every word, and that hasn’t changed. I hoped it might get easier, that being a published author would give me a confidence and a glibness I don’t really possess.
The attention to the book is just fine with me. I want to share the book with as many people as possible because I like the themes and the characters. I think they have something to offer and I hope readers agree.
As far as my personal space—there is this layer between me and my agent, and then my agent and the publishers, so I have a lot of privacy. Not that anybody would be knocking at my door trying to meet me.
MH: What came first in The Emperor's Knife? A character? Setting?
MAZARKIS: The character of Sarmin. I had just been reading about an Ottoman prince who’d been imprisoned in his room a long time, and it got me thinking about what it must be like to be stuck in this cushy place, counting out your days. Many people would perceive him to be very privileged, and he was by most measures, but it was a sad life, and it drove him crazy. So I was wondering what it was like to be that person.
That’s usually how it starts with me. The characters who interest me as a writer are the ones on the side lines. The people who delivered the orders instead of giving them, or the women who waited as opposed to the men who left. And for me the characters always come first. Who they are, what obstacles they face, what happens to change their situations. Without the characters, there is no story.
After the character of Sarmin came the setting. He’s pacing in a room, so the room has to be in a palace, and the palace has to be in an empire, so I went from there.
MH: Sarmin is quite a conflicted character. He's been trapped in a room for more than a decade with nothing to accompany him, but 5 books, which just begs the question what are your 5 books to be locked away with for 2 decades?
MAZARKIS: Anybody who knows me well is familiar with my inability to choose favorites. Also, I’m going to cheat and include two series in my list.
First, I am always a champion for The Great Gatsby—somehow I keep talking about that book, either online or with my family—so I will include it. I actually haven’t read it in a long time, but it had an impact on me in terms of structure and symbolism. Assuming I get to write in my locked-up room, then Gatsby would help me do that better.
I would have to take a history book with me, one that’s long and has a large scope so there’s always something new to read. Probably a big fat university textbook.
Then a poetry book, let’s say The Poems of Dylan Thomas.
Finally I would have to bring along my well-worn copies of Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy, since it contains some of my favorite characters in fiction. It would be like bringing some friends along with me.
Of course this is my list for today. I may change my mind tomorrow.
MH: How did your degree in History influence The Emperor's Knife? There are certainly Eastern and Middle Eastern elements throughout.
MAZARKIS: It seems you’ve just answered your own question, but I can elaborate a little bit.
I read as much European history as was required to get my degree, which was not much. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read about Europe on my own time; as a gaming geek, I’m almost required to do so. It was just never a focus of my studies.
This question is proving harder to answer than I expected.
I split my schooling years between England and Michigan, but mainly I was a victim and beneficiary of the Michigan public schools. One benefit is that Michigan had and continues to have a large Arab population, and that was reflected in our diverse student body. Also my history teacher was Egyptian, and that had a big influence on me.
I focused on Islamic history at university. I also tried to take Arabic, but ended up with a C and no memory of how to speak it. So to answer your question: when they say ‘write what you know,’ I chose the middle east. Though I don’t know it so well, I know it better than I know some other things.
But I want to emphasize that Cerana is not supposed to be any of the great Islamic empires. I took only elements, as you wrote, and then built something else around them. You can see similarities to the Ottomans, and also the Romans, but mostly you can tell it’s just made up. The most important difference is that the Cerani are polytheistic. You can’t take Islam out of the Ottoman empire, for example. It was central to their existence. It’s impossible to do, so I didn’t.
MH: Settu is a game mention in The Emperor's Knife, which reminded me of chess quite a bit. Is this a game you've actually developed?? Are you a gamer?
MAZARKIS: Yes, I'm a gamer, mostly face-to-face (F2F) tabletop roleplaying. (Shout-out to my gaming group, The Dysfunctional Party!)
Settu is something like a mix of chess and dominoes. I haven't really developed the game so that I can play it in real life, but I have a good idea how.
MH: I'm a big Pandemic fan as well. Now on to the important stuff. What is your favorite type of hat?
MAZARKIS: On a woman or on a man? I think my daughter looks cute in a cloche. On a man I like the look of a fedora. My step-father-in-law maintained the tradition of wearing a fedora whenever he went outside, and I thought he looked very classy. Also, trilbies are cool.
My son looks cute in an ordinary woolen hat.
What I'm not crazy about: baseball caps.
MH: What can we expect from the sequel Knife-Sworn? Are you still in the midst of writing it?
MAZARKIS: Yes, still writing it. Knife-Sworn deals with the fallout from The Emperor's Knife. While the main story line wrapped up, some threads were left open. I don't want to give too much away, but very little comes out of the blue in the second book.
What people can expect is more great characters and more strife. Also a little bit of romance, hopefully.
MH: Thanks for all your time. Is there anything you'd like to add to close us out?
MAZARKIS: Sure. I have a blog at Sarmin's Corner which I update when I can, but there is also a blog set up by Courtney Shafer (The Whitefire Crossing) and currently being transferred to Night Shade Books, called The Night Bazaar. It will feature posts from many of Night Shade's debut authors. There will be some interesting articles up there--actually there are interesting articles right now.
Jo Fletcher Books is currently doing a lot of great giveaways. You can follow them on twitter @jofletcherbooks or check out Jo's blog.
Night Shade Books is also having a big December. They are doing a holiday countdown that includes lots of free excerpts from their books. Check them out on twitter at @nightshadebooks.
Thanks for your time!
You Might Also Like:
REVIEW | The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
REVIEW | The Last Page by Anthony Huso
REVIEW | The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu
INTERVIEW | Douglas Hulick author of Among Thieves
INTERVIEW | Kameron Hurley author of God's War