Michael Pryor is the author of THE LAWS OF MAGIC, a young adult series which begins with Blaze of Glory and ends with the just completed but not yet released Hour of Need. He has written over two dozen novels and now that THE LAWS OF MAGIC is completed, is working on the start of a new historical fantasy. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia and graciously took some time to answer some questions about THE LAWS OF MAGIC and writing in general. We’ll be giving away a book from our stacks to one commenter.
Bill Capossere: I enjoyed reading THE LAWS OF MAGIC and I’m wondering how the storyline came about?
Michael Pryor: I’d written nearly twenty books by the time I was considering the project that became THE LAWS OF MAGIC. I’d just finished writing a series that was traditional high fantasy — full of castles, knights, battles and so on. I wanted to write a fantasy set in a different historical period and the Edwardian period just before the First World War appealed to me as a time of great political ferment and significant social change. Add a little magic, I thought, and I’d have the perfect setting for some rip-roaring adventures.
Bill: How much of it was plotted in advance?
Michael Pryor: I wrote Blaze of Glory as a standalone adventure, but with an eye on a series. I did plot it out completely, so I knew where it was going to end, but I knew that the setting would support more books. When the chance came to extend into a second book, and then four more, I sat down and planned the overarching series arc, plus the individual adventures that would make up each book.
Michael Pryor: I don’t mind the cliffhanger type of series, but I firmly wanted to write a different sort of series, a novel sequence, if you will. Each book has its own story which is resolved at the end but, as you point out, the overarching narrative involves looming war and the master magician who is doing much to bring this about. I wanted standalone books as I think it lets readers begin midstream much more easily, providing multiple access points for people to join in.
Bill: There are lots of books out there dealing with young people learning magic, lots of alternate history books, steampunk books. What makes THE LAWS OF MAGIC stand out amidst the crowd?
Michael Pryor: The approach to magic in THE LAWS OF MAGIC is different. I wanted magic as a rational, intellectual pursuit, and I use the history of science and the scientific method of inquiry as a parallel. I wanted to stay well away from vague mysticism and instead have magic as something that could yield to careful experimentation, documentation and cerebration. With this, THE LAWS OF MAGIC is different, but I will add that the combination of romance, comedy, fantasy and political thriller has rarely been attempted in an Edwardian historical context …
Bill: In my reviews, I called the books “charmingly old-fashioned” — reminiscent of old-time romance adventures and older YA like Tom Swift or The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew — and said Aubrey was a bit of a mix of a young Sherlock Holmes, Tom Swift, and Hermione Granger. Any comment?
Michael Pryor: Spot on. Part of my writing (and any author’s writing) is a tribute to their influences. The tradition of brave adventures, bold comrades working together, was very much part of my reading as a youngster and I was sorry that the whole notion of heroism was seen as out of date. Young people need heroes — we all need heroes — and to read about young people doing their best to do the right thing in extraordinary circumstances is both entertaining and useful.
Aubrey’s friend George Doyle has a surname that is a deliberate nod to Sherlock Holmes’s creator. I’d always enjoyed Holmes’s adventures, and in preparation for writing THE LAWS OF MAGIC I reread the entire collection of stories. Not just for their cleverness, but for details of setting, language and manners. Invaluable.
Bill: Did anything catch you by surprise as you wrote?
Michael Pryor: What did take me by surprise was the romance. I didn’t plan to write a story with a romantic element, but two characters insisted on liking each other. At first, I prised them apart because such a thing wasn’t in my planning, but everything they did and said pointed toward a developing relationship. In the end, I listened to them instead of sticking blindly to my plan, and I was glad I did.
Bill: One of the things I truly enjoyed about the series was the way you took time to develop Caroline and Aubrey’s relationship, unlike a lot of books and films that throw a pair of strangers together, toss in a stressful situation, and end up with “love.”
Michael Pryor: Part of their cautious attraction is historical. In fact, the way they talk and meet without a chaperone would have been considered almost improper. But this circumspect hesitancy is wonderful to work with, for a writer. The manners and morals of the time allowed me to have misunderstandings, uncertainties, longings and yearnings, quite a bit of pining, all of which are aspects of relationships that are often hastened through in today’s more abrupt world. I felt it added a certain sweetness, and respect, that showed a sign of young relationships that is important.
Very early on, I did know that that it wouldn’t be a relationship that was rushed into. Caroline was far too sensible for that.
Bill: How do you balance story, pace, and historical detail? How obsessive a researcher are you? What percentage would you guess of your research/notes actually makes it into the books?
Michael Pryor: I love my research, and it’s easy to get lost in its seductiveness. I have to control myself, sometimes, and tear myself away from the details of history.
I do remind myself, constantly, that just because I found a really cool bit of history, it doesn’t have to make it into the story. I have read historical novels where the overriding intention of the author seems to be to show us every single thing he or she dug up while researching. The result is that characters and narrative are swamped, dragged down by detail. I aim to use historical detail mostly as incidental, background stuff that adds to the texture and tone, rather than making a big deal of it. At a rough estimate, probably about 20% of my research makes it into a book.
Bill: For various reasons, such as pacing, increased tension and humor, etc., I felt the books improved as they went on with Heart of Gold a bit of a step up and then the series really finding a strong footing in Word of Honour (feel free to disagree with the premise). Did you think the books improved as you went, were there aspects you wanted to work on after Blaze of Glory, or do you want to just thumb your many-times published nose at me and move on to the next question?
Michael Pryor: A fair, and perceptive, comment! Looking back, that’s how I see the books working, too. Blaze was written with some hesitancy – I hadn’t been signed up to write it. It also had to do a lot of work that the other books don’t. For Heart of Gold and onwards, the world had been set up, the scenario put in place, the characters formed and working – all thanks to Blaze. The tone was perhaps less confident in Blaze, too. Aubrey’s whimsical, intelligent diction really takes flight in Heart of Gold.
Bill: You have a concluding book for the series that you’re working on (or finished?). What are your feelings as you bring such a long-running series to an end?
Michael Pryor: It’s sad, coming to the end of a long series. Those characters, the ones I’ve worked with for eight years, are now going on with their lives without me … The final chapter of Hour of Need, the final book of the series, was immensely difficult to write. As well as the usual pressure to write a satisfying, complete conclusion, I had the overwhelming need to write an ending that would be right for Aubrey, Caroline and George. They deserved it.
Bill: And now that it’s over, if you could ask two of the characters from THE LAWS OF MAGIC one question each, what would the question (s) be and whom would you ask them of?
Michael Pryor: I’d ask Aubrey how he prefers to tie his tie — full Windsor knot or the four-in-hand knot.
I’d ask Caroline about the best way to disable an armed attacker while not having a hair fall out of place.
Bill: A lot of YA minimizes the adult presence. Sometimes it just ignores them, sometimes it kills them off, sometimes it makes the adults simply too insignificant or too dumb/oblivious to matter. The parents of your main character as well as Caroline’s parents are highly important figures and clearly smart in their own right — a Prime Minister, a naturalist, an artist — and while they play relatively small roles in terms of page count, their actions are significant to the plot. How did you envision the adult role in a series centered on young adult characters?
Michael Pryor: I was determined to avoid the missing parent syndrome that is, as you point out, rife in YA books. For all the lip service to writing ‘realistic’ fiction, so many of these books have no adults, which simply isn’t realistic as all. To this end, I wanted a story where the main characters not only like their parents (shock!) but the parents do appear in the stories and have roles of their own. And not just as wise Obi-Wan counselors, but with lives of their own, ambitions and desires of their own. This was a very important aim for the series.
Bill: Another aspect I really liked was how magic isn’t simply based on in-born talent. Aubrey is not a great magician because he’s got lots of “talent,” but because he studies it constantly; he’s always thinking about it, always looking for connections and cross-applications, always learning, even from the villain of the series. I also liked the use of Laws and languages and the way it works almost like math, with equations and substitutions, an interior logic, and the like. How did you approach the magic? Did you have it fully in your mind or fine-tune it as you went along?
Michael Pryor: When approaching a new Fantasy book (or series) the question of magic is one of the foremost in my mind. How’s it going to work? What are its limitations? How can I make it different and refreshing? I’ve always been interested in Science — the history and philosophy of science and the scientific method. I’ve also been concerned at the contemporary trend to decry, suspect or condemn science, mostly through lack of understanding of what science is. Part of my aim in THE LAWS OF MAGIC was to address this. Like mathematical ability, some people in this world do have innate talent — but this isn’t enough. Hard work, training, and study are needed to make the most of it.
The general idea of the magical system was well worked out before I began. Spells would be like mathematical formulae. They could be worked out by careful experimentation and observation. The actual number of spells and their effects, however, did grow as the series went along…
Bill: What would you say distinguishes YA literature, if anything? As a follow-up, what distinguishes good YA from bad YA? I won’t ask you to name bad YA writers or books, but could you tell us a few you’d recommend?
Michael Pryor: Some YA literature is easily distinguished, but some isn’t. I have many adult readers for THE LAWS OF MAGIC — it has crossover appeal. Some people say it’s the age of the main characters, but I think it’s more than that. I like to believe that YA literature pays more attention to narrative than some adult, literary fiction. Story still matters to Young Adults.
Distinguishing between good and bad YA, to me, is the same as distinguishing between good and bad books in any sphere. Firstly, the story must engage. There’s a million ways to do this, and a million ways to write something that fails this first test. Character is vital. Interesting, well rounded, believable characters are important, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be outrageous, outlandish or extraordinary. A real narrative is crucial, too. If nothing happens, you don’t have a story. You might have a lovely piece of writing, but you don’t have a story.
I’d recommend any of Garth’s Nix’s books, but especially Sabriel and its companion volumes. Alison Goodman’s Eon is a ripper, and I’ll give a plug to fellow steampunker Richard Harland with his Worldshaker.
Bill: Can you recall for us one or two of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or two — those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again
Michael Pryor: I still remember reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS for the first time. I had many, many moments of pure stupefaction, but in particular I remember the tension and the terror when Frodo and his friends were fleeing Hobbiton, trying to get to Bree, chased by the Black Riders. Brrr.
Sometimes when I read, I simply cheer out loud at particularly rousing points of the story or when I’m mightily impressed with the writer’s craft. The last time I did this was recently, when I re-read Neal Stephenson’s BAROQUE trilogy. What a writer.
Bill: What sort of projects do you have in hand or in mind in the near future?
Michael Pryor: I’m working on a new historical fantasy set in London in 1908 — the year of the first London Olympics.
Bill: I will look forward to that! Thanks for joining us!
Readers, we’ll give away a book from our stacks to one commenter.