Today an interview with Dean Barkley Briggs who has worked in radio, marketing, and new product development. He also pastored for eleven years. After losing his wife at age 36, Briggs decided to create a heroic journey that his four sons could relate to. Thus was born a new and paradoxical genre: semi-autobiographical fantasy. The Song of Unmaking is the third of five books set in the Hidden Lands of Karac Tor. Briggs has since remarried a beautiful widow named Jeanie and now has eight amazing kids.
Sally: Thanks for stopping by, Dean. Tell me about your latest release.
D. Barkley Briggs: The Song of Unmaking is book three in my five book series, The Legends of Karac Tor. The crisis in the land has sort of reached critical mass. The sense of doom is heavy (there’s a reason book four is called The Ravaged Realm!) But there’s also these little glimmers of hope. The Barlow brothers are gaining more and more power and confidence. Old Champions are stirring. A king has returned. And, in spite of heavy losses, or perhaps because of them, a greater music is discovered, even greater than the Song of Unmaking. By the end, many, many things will have changed forever in The Hidden Lands. This is the book after which there is truly no going back. It’s like the old Dodge Ram commercials: This changes everything.
Sally: Speaking of things that change everything, let me back up a minute. What happened to cause such a long space between books one and two of your Legends of Karac Tor series?
D. Barkley Briggs:I signed with Navpress for a three book fantasy series. The first book, The Book of Names, hit the market right as the economy was collapsing. A few months later, Navpress cancelled their entire fiction line. I had no choice but to let the series die, and no time, and no agent to help me resurrect it. Two years later, AMG picked up my original vision, which included five books, not three, and committed to an aggressive release schedule. So the first three books all released in 2011, within about a 7 month span. I’m now hard at work on The Ravaged Realm which should release mid-2012.
Sally: So you had five book in mind all along. Did you set out to write the series with an overarching theme in mind?
D. Barkley Briggs:I definitely have a trail of themes that are meaningful to me both personally, and also as father to eight kids (ranging from 11 to age 21). Those themes include: identity, finding your place and mission in the world, the glories and pains of friendship, overcoming despair, living with courage in spite of great obstacles, perseverance, sacrifice. In varying degrees, those things are very alive to me at this stage of my life. But I want to wrap up all the sober and “real” stuff in this great, distracting fantasy adventure. Hopefully, I pull it off!
Sally: I’m eager to see you pull it off. I loved the Barlow brother after I read the first book and I’m looking forward to catching up with them and seeing where you take them. But back to the themes for a minute. You have these themes in mind, but what about your Christian faith? Do you weave in Christian pictures on purpose or do you let your faith seep into you stories?
D. Barkley Briggs:I love how Donita K. Paul recently put it: the story’s on top, with my faith moving like still waters deep underneath. Sometimes it’s more explicit than that, but I really think preachiness cheapens a story, and actually makes it far less “effective”—if such a crude term could be used—in reflecting the King I serve. My faith is hardly hidden, but remember, the series is a fantasy story, not a Bible tract.
Sally: Name one YA book that you think all children should read, besides one you’ve written, and why do you think all children should read it?
D. Barkley Briggs: I absolutely love The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. It’s not Christian, per se, but it has clear Good vs. Evil, and such high and noble themes, and such well-developed writing, with teens given a set of clear and ancient redemptive missions. It deeply affected my sense of self as a young Christian.
Sally: High and noble themes are important if we want our books to last, I think. But how do we break in to begin with? What advice can you give to unpublished writers that will help them understand what elements make an editor fall for a story?
D. Barkley Briggs: In the end, it’s kind of like what matters most in real estate. Only three things: location, location, location. In writing, it’s: perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. But that’s really on the writer’s side, and your question was on the editor’s side. In that case, I would place most of my emphasis on two things: 1) Timing (see perseverance, above). 2) Quality of writing. And here, I distinguish quality of writing from things like plotting, genre, trendiness, mechanical proficiency, etc. If you persevere, you’ll finally find your moment, and when you do, the quality of writing must somehow sing to the editor’s heart. It should capture them. Editors are readers who love the written word, but they get a slush pile of swill all day. Give them wine and they’ll beg for more.
Sally: Ooh. Wine as opposed to slush pile swill. I like that. But if I can press you a bit more: What do you think is most important–conflict, characters, or voice/prose? What should we work on first, or can they not be separated?
D. Barkley Briggs: Wonderful question! But I think the answer is going to vary greatly based on the writer, their genre and many other factors. And frankly, I would not trust someone who claimed to have a universal answer to that question. There is definitely methodology and sequence, much as there is for a person hoping to draw water from a well. But the particular order of events is a matter of the priorities and personality of that author, not that formula. In the end, what we want is a refreshing drink, not a lesson on water drawing. So whatever most moves the author to give me the drink, to draw it out of themselves, is really all I care about. For me, it’s voice/prose first, then character, then conflict.
Sally: And I would also have said that voice/prose was first for you. You have a lovely way of giving descriptions in your books–a poetic bent. Where did that come from?
D. Barkley Briggs: First of all, thank you. In formula driven markets, it would be easy to resort to a “Git ‘R Done” mentality in writing, but far and away my greatest joy is weaving a sense of lyricism into my stories. I used to paint, so maybe it’s a crossover thing. I try to bring a painterly approach to my writing.
Sally: And you take those pains even in the books you give children. Thanks for that. The children deserve that, I think. Why did you move from writing for adults to children?
D. Barkley Briggs: I wrote two medical thrillers in 1999 and 2001 that I’m quite proud of, though they’re out of print now. But as a genre, fantasy has always been my first love. When I have time, that’s what I read. Beyond that, really, I challenge the notion that I’ve written YA fiction. These may be useful marketing terms, but I think they’re sometimes a bit arbitrary and unhelpful, not to mention inaccurate, since I probably have as many adults who enjoy my series as teens. I don’t like the idea of “dumbing down” for the youth market. I simply have young protagonists. It’s fantasy fiction, period…packaged as YA.
Sally: Ah, I see. I think that I thought you’d written them for your sons so I assumed they were written for children. But many children are reading Lord of the Rings at the age of twelve, of course. I hadn’t thought about that. Thanks for clearing that up.
O.K. tell me one thing you know now that you wish you still didn’t know?
D. Barkley Briggs: If you haven’t lost anyone dear to you, this may sound maudlin. But I truly wish I didn’t know that stricken, helpless look in my children’s eyes, to learn that death had entered their family.
Sally: I’m sorry for your loss. And for your children’s pain. My children were twelve and thirteen when they lost their father, so understand that it’s not an easy time. Thank God that he is willing to carry us through these hard, hard times. Speaking of your children, do they read your books? Do they offer critique? Do they give you fodder for the books (with or without knowing it)?