EC Barber’s dark fantasy, Elisha Barber, just came out early this month, and she was kind enough to stop by to chat about the new novel, and more!
The first book in your Dark Apostle series, ELISHA BARBER, just came out this month! Will you tell us a bit about it and your barber¬-surgeon, Elisha?
Here’s the short blurb: England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague, witchcraft and necromancy. Where the barber-surgeon Elisha seeks redemption as a medic on the front lines of an unjust war, and is drawn into the perilous world of sorcery by a beautiful young witch. In the crucible of combat, at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal…
Elisha starts out with a streak of arrogance: he’s a good surgeon, a compassionate man who works hard for his patients, and to protect himself from becoming too attached. On the other hand, he’s also a peasant—illiterate, uneducated in so many ways—working among the poor, the prostitutes and the lower classes of London. I wanted to create a protagonist who is a mature member of society, who feels that he knows his place and his work, and does it well—then is torn from all that he understands to confront a whole new set of problems.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your background?
Well, at one point, I wanted to become a genetic engineer. . . given my bent toward the darker side, we should all be thankful that didn’t happen! But yes, I always planned to be a writer, just figured it was a matter of time and hard work. But I’m also a restless soul. Most ordinary jobs don’t hold my interest, and I realized early on that, if I wanted to be a writer, it wouldn’t matter what degree I had or what else I did, what mattered was actually writing.
As a result I’m a college drop-out who’s worked a variety of odd jobs, from the assistant to the buyer at a philatelic company, choosing postage stamps for collectors, to my current “day job” as an adventure guide. I’m incredibly lucky to get paid to do several things I love. Given the pay scale for dream jobs like this, I am also fortunate to have a spouse who can pay the bills.
Your novel takes place in 14th century England. Is there any particular reason why you chose that time period?
When I started the book, I hadn’t pinned down the time period, but as I began to do more research, and get to know Elisha better, I wanted to get more specific. Interestingly, the 14th century came up because of a historical figure I learned about and wanted to write into the story—Queen Joanna of Naples, who was accused of killing one of her several husbands, and sold Avignon to the popes. I don’t think she’s going to appear in the current version of the series, but I hope to write about her in the future. Once I discovered Joanna, it was a matter of learning more about the corresponding period in England, where most of my prior research had focused, though the series will be going abroad later.
It’s still an alternate history, not only because of the fantasy elements, but also because I have co-opted the British crown and given it to Hugh DeSpenser, a real historical figure, and a rather nasty piece of work.
As a bonus, I get to take business trips to England for research!
When you started work on the novel, did you already have in mind how many books you’d like to write in the series, or did you just decide to see where the narrative took you?
When I wrote the first book, it was clear that the world and the character had greater potential, but I didn’t have a clear picture of what that might mean. I discovered that the work had some intriguing hints buried inside, as if I subconsciously knew what came next, but it was very much seat-of-the-pants. The succeeding volumes have been approached more deliberately, especially as I work more with historical figures and events. I’ll have certain moments I’m working toward and use those as a springboard to develop more plot ideas.
What do you enjoy most about writing fantasy?
Exploring what’s possible for a given character, under his or her constraints—I like to push people to the limits and see what they do. They often surprise me.
Are there any writers or novels that have particularly influenced your writing?
For the current work, I’d have to say Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This is a book that establishes an intense relationship with a character who undergoes both great joys, and great sorrows. Many writers are inspired when the read a lousy book and think “I could do better than that!” For me, it was reaching the end of that book and thinking, “This is what a great book can do—I want to do that!”
It’s always hard for the writer to know who is influencing the work. I grew up on Ray Bradbury and Tolkein, and the book I often thought of in comparison to Elisha Barber is R. A. MacAvoy’s Damiano’s Lute. People will probably relate my books to Carol Berg, whom I didn’t read until after I’d written them. At the time, I’d just discovered Tim Powers—but was he an influence? I’ll be curious to hear what readers think.
What do you like to see in a good book?
I want to get fully invested in a character, then saddle up beside him or her for an incredible ride—the kind where I’m constantly wide-eyed with excitement. One book I read recently that really did it for me was Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. I’ve got the sequel to read on my next trip.
Is there anything that would make you put down a book, unfinished?
Oooh—plenty! I start many more books than I finish. I have a reader friend who pointed out that life’s just too short to read bad books. So what makes a book fall apart for me? Usually, it’s the failure to make me care. I need to care about what happens to the character, and to feel worried about what is at stake. You can make a lovely world, and fill it with interesting places and creatures, but if you don’t give me someone to root for and something to fear, then I’m moving on pretty quickly.
What’s next for you (and Elisha Barber!)?
I have a YA fantasy novel I’m tweaking up based on reptile biology and reincarnation. As for Elisha, I’m certainly not done with him. The next book has an offer of marriage, duels with sword and spell, and a discovery that will make Elisha doubt himself to the very core. Don’t get me wrong—Elisha’s like the brother I never had. I love him. . . but I’m not so sure he’d say the same for me. If readers at least once feel they’d like to throw themselves between me and Elisha to prevent me from doing whatever comes next, I’ll be proud.
About Elisha Barber:
England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague witchcraft and necromancy.
As a child, Elisha witnessed the burning of a witch outside of London, and saw her transformed into an angel at the moment of her death, though all around him denied this vision. He swore that the next time he might have the chance to bind an angel’s wounds, he would be ready. And so he became a barber surgeon, at the lowest ranks of the medical profession, following the only healer’s path available to a peasant’s son.
Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: come serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.
Between tending to the wounded soldiers and protecting them from the physicians’ experiments, Elisha works night and day. Even so, he soon discovers that he has an affinity for magic, drawn into the world of sorcery by Brigit, a beautiful young witch who reminds him uncannily of the angel he saw burn.
In the crucible of combat, utterly at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal.