Dark Fantasy Meets Real-Life Disease: What I Learned from Cancer about Writing, and Vice Versa

Today, we welcome Tom Doyle, the author of a contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil — and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. The final book of the trilogy, War and Craft, was just released September 26th. (It’s near the top of my TBR list.)

Tom Doyle writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website, or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon

One random commenter from North America wins a copy of War and Craft


Three years ago, I was certain that I was going to die, horribly, from something out of my childhood nightmares.

But let’s back up for a moment. Personal experience influences one’s writing, but this may sometimes work the other way around: my writing influenced my encounter with cancer. So here’s a recap of my writerly dance with the Grim Reaper with some thoughts on how cancer interacts with the creative process.

I. Writing as a Path to the Subconscious

The time leading up to my cancer diagnosis gets into a freaky, uncanny area, somewhat similar to how Grant Morrison has described his strange illness while writing The Invisibles — in sum, he felt that he may have written himself into sickness and then had to write himself out of it.

As a kid, I was raised on terminal disease tearjerkers such as Brian’s Song and Death Be Not Proud. Later as a teenager working summers at Michigan State’s Clinical Center, I heard stories about head and neck cancers and the ghastlier surgeries that went into their treatment. I tried not to think too much about these images, or what I saw happen to friends and family with the disease.

It’s no surprise then that when I wanted metaphors for an all-consuming evil in my second AMERICAN CRAFTSMEN novel, The Left-Hand Way, I dug up those buried cancer images. The villain, Roderick Morton, “is like a cancer — he’ll only grow.” At this level, such imagery isn’t uncanny or interesting — statistically, more people will get cancer than get married. But my descriptions were more focused than that. For example, here’s a magic-enhanced view of one person’s head and neck that’s been undermined by Roderick’s evil serum:War and Craft (American Craft Series) Kindle Edition by Tom Doyle

Plastic-like integuments varying from translucent to transparent covered some, but not all, of the remaining natural bones and muscle and the unnatural connective webs that strained to hold the remnant together. The brain that this academic spy had been so proud of was also dissolving away. A cutaway of his skull would show the same hollow pockets as the surface flesh, where neural tissue had dried and gone to dust.

My timing was also more focused. Within a month of turning in the manuscript of The Left-Hand Way to my editor, I noticed a lump on my neck. The eventual diagnosis confirmed throat cancer, and it had spread to my lymph nodes.

In retrospect, that cancer had been growing in me for at least the whole time that I’d been writing The Left-Hand Way. To make it even more meta, I’d been writing about characters who have forebodings of their own demise. Had some animal part of my psyche been trying to warn my conscious mind? In this specific instance, I can’t say, but ever since adolescence I’ve believed that writing is a way to tap into knowledge that we’re still processing on a subconscious level, whether it’s feelings about another person or life decisions that we’ve yet to make. In this way, writing dark fantasy might be like what the characters experience in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum — a deliberate creation of negative knowledge leading to bad results in the real world.

(Oh, and until writing this I’d forgotten: one of the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum gets cancer.)

But that’s as far as I want to take this idea. Despite creating fantasies, I’m not inclined to magical thinking. Sure, inspired by Grant Morrison, I wrote myself an optimistic view of the future in response to my diagnosis, but I didn’t believe in the efficacy of hope. Instead, I approached the disease with the same dogged attitude with which I approach writing on the conscious level. I followed the daily routine, endured the medieval unpleasantness, and much to my own surprise, I successfully completed the work — though instead of getting a novel, I got cured.

II. Lessons from Cancer and the Cold Equations

After the successful treatment and long recovery, I began writing book three, War and Craft. As the conclusion of my trilogy, it was already going to have dark aspects, and perhaps my recent unpleasantness made it darker. In describing how sensitive writers and artists had visions of the events of the novel, I put myself into the story: “another saw these battles in a confused series of dreams induced by the chemo and radiation treatment for cancer.”

But I wasn’t writing a cancer novel. How did my experience enter into the plot? Here’s a sample of ways:

  • First, I learned a little bit of what PTSD feels like. I’d been writing about military characters with posttraumatic symptoms; now, I had more empathy with them. Head and neck cancers have a higher rate of posttraumatic symptoms than most (one small factor being the mask a patient has to wear during radiation). For me, the manifestations were light and eventually faded. But for the first few months, construction noises were like the demons building a coffin in Goethe’s Faust.
  • Second, I learned about sensory deprivation. For a few months, I lost most of my sense of taste due to the radiation treatment. Though warned, this experience still shocked and dismayed me — I had nothing where sweetness had been, with no certainty that I’d get it back. This idea of sensory gaps plays a role at a crucial point in the plot.
  • Finally, I learned about facing death (and what one form of dying feels like). In each AMERICAN CRAFTSMEN book, my military characters put themselves in potentially fatal situations — that’s one of the main drivers of the action-oriented plot. But in War and Craft, I leave more room for the characters to consider what their deaths and their mortal choices would mean.

Despite the helpful lessons that I received, I continue to recommend research versus personal experience in these areas. Besides, if the statistics are correct, you may have your own writers’ workshop with cancer all too soon.


The final book in Tom Doyle’s trilogy, War and Craft, is on sale now (AmazonBarnes & NoblePowell’s).

America, land of the free and home of the warlocks — magical families who have sworn to use their power to protect our republic. In this triumphant conclusion to Tom Doyle’s imaginative alternate historical America, we start with a bloody wedding-night brawl with assassins in Tokyo. Our American magical shock troops go to India, where a descendant of legendary heroes has the occult mission for which they’ve been waiting. It all comes to a head on a plateau hidden high in the mountains of Kashmir. Our craftspeople will battle against their fellow countrymen, some of the vilest monsters of the Left Hand way. It’s Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.

One random commenter from North America wins a copy of War and Craft


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JOHN HULET (on FanLit’s staff July 2007 — March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years.

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22 comments

  1. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Tom in DC at the Escape Velocity convention. He’s very candid about his experiences. I haven’t had the opportunity to read his series yet (I just bought a copy of American Craftsmen), but I look forward to learning how his own lived experiences play a role in his writing.

    A lot of times that kind of trauma is hard to connect to in such an intimate way. In my own life, I have struggled to take my own traumatic experiences and convert them to literature. In a lot of ways I hope Tom can show me how to do it right.

  2. John Smith /

    I’m going to have to look into what plastic-like integuments are!

  3. I have the first two books. It would be great to win the final book.
    Thank you.

  4. This is a thought-provoking column. I am glad your treatments were successful! I have wondered before if subconscious imagery that appears during writing, especially physically or health related, are the organism’s way of trying to bring information into our consciousness.

    • Thank you for reading it! This sort of thing certainly happens in other physical/health areas. One reason that I’m uncertain in the case of cancer is that it’s so subtle at the beginning that the body itself is being fooled.

  5. Chris First /

    Recently I had the pleasure of reading the first book in the trilogy and I must say I really enjoyed it. I may be a bit biased since we went to high school together, but even then his great intellect and great personality shone through. I’m really glad he has pulled through and conquered the great evil of our time. May you continue your writing career for many, many more books. Congrats on all your success!

    • Great to hear from you, Chris, and thank you for your kind words! Hope all is well with you. I’ve recently had an opportunity to learn just a little about auto engineering–fascinating stuff! If you’re ever in DC, please stop by for one of my jam nights–it would be a complete hoot.

  6. mary henaghen /

    This series look totally amazing. Its bumped everything else on my TBR pile. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  7. I’ve seen the Craft series and this interview makes me interested enough to go check out.

  8. Bruce Simon /

    Loved the first two books in the series and am excited about the third. My dad’s dealing with pancreatic cancer and close friends with thyroid. So uncanny. Will definitely reread the series with different eyes!

    • Thank you very much for your support of my work, Bruce–it means a lot to me coming from an English professor and Hawthornist like yourself.

  9. Sethia /

    You know I’ve seen this series around and while interested, I haven’t accualy picked it up. That changes today. Not because I’m more interested in the books then before, but because I am interested to get to know Tom.

  10. Mary Henaghen, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of WAR AND CRAFT!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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