Future Shelves with William J Meyer!
Posted on May 19, 2013
Welcome to FUTURE SHELVES, a feature on unpublished writers whose books will one day grace the shelves of many a bookshop, and hopefully your bookshelf at home! Once a week, I am going to shine a spotlight on one writer who will speak about what they are working on. This is your chance to get on to the ground floor and discover some emerging talent. You can say you knew them before they made it! To see more from this series, click here.
I’m very excited this week to feature William J Meyer, an author who took an original twist on self-publishing. He has his story, FIRE ON THE MOUND available online in a series of podcasts! The sound quality is wonderful, and the soundtrack very atmospheric. The artwork above is from his series, too! It is a great testament to the level of commitment that Meyer has to his story that he put this amount of work into releasing it out into the world. I think, with Game of Thrones wrapping up soon, this will fill the gap nicely! When you’re finished reading the interview, check out his website and see the quality for yourself. Over to you, William!
Let’s get the tricky question out of the way first: what is your story about? Here’s the kicker – you only have 60 words to describe it with! GO!
FIRE ON THE MOUND is about a young boy reluctantly befriending his father’s killer, getting swept up in a supernatural war, and learning the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. I’ve taken the novel and made it into a serialized audiobook, with sound effects and original music. It’s read by Steve Rudolph, with a score by William Seegers.
Where did you get the idea for this story?
I grew up Catholic, and I always wondered what was the condition that allowed Moses to witness the burning bush? So there’s this theophany, a visitation from God, but is it like a natural phenomenon? Would a passerby see the theophany too, or was this only for Moses? In pop culture terms, at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI it seems only Luke can see the dead Jedi. Now I know the Jedi aren’t deities, but it’s a manifestation of something from beyond. No one else notices Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin. Can Luke see them because he has a sufficiently developed spiritual life? That could be it. But what’s the relationship there? So I started building a story around the idea of a monotheistic god, named Ura, visiting a world, engaging directly with some characters, but not with everyone, and seemingly regulating these visits to a time long ago. I wanted to see where the cultures and the psychologies would take the story from there, so I could explore these questions I had. Not necessarily find answers, but create a sandbox of ideas. So the religions that spring up in FIRE ON THE MOUND are voices crying in the wilderness. The people shout to Ura, “Hey! I’m here! Where are you?” Later I thought it would be interesting to contrast this concept with an intimate story of a young boy dealing with the death of his father. Something really grounded, something everyone will have to face, so even if the reader or listener never asks themselves, “Where’s my theophany?” they’re likely to ask at some point, “Why do my loved ones die?” I mean beyond the biological inevitability. Pekra, the young boy at the center of the book, he says at one point, “If I wrote the story my father would not have died. But I didn’t. Ura did.” I think that’s an interesting and valid statement of anger. Certainly for a kid. He’s talking about his life story, yes, but also the greater story of what it is to exist and to turn your thoughts on yourself and your mortality and the mortality of your loved ones. And many of us also experience that as adults, even if it’s not quite in the same mythological language of the novel. So my main idea was to try and balance the mythological with the intimate.
What is your favourite thing about this story?
I like the parent-child relationships. There are all sorts of expectations parents put on their children. But there’s also the expectations perceived from the children’s point-of-view, which may not actually have much to do with what the parent is actually trying to accomplish. For example, a child may think his father wants him to follow in his footsteps as a means of controlling the child, or as a means of dismissing the child’s dreams. Or a parent might want to prevent their child from making the same mistakes they made. Although their intentions come from love, in practice they might be fencing in their child and preventing them from growing into someone that can actually deal with making such mistakes. So when the mistakes arrive, as they will anyway, the kid crumbles. Or the parent might raise their child as though they were made of glass, instead of flesh and blood, and thereby be the very thing they fear their child will encounter in the real world, something that shatters them. A parent may say something in an off-handed way that sticks with the child for their whole life, like a subtle, cancerous growth that eats away inside, inexorably bringing the child down. Sometimes children cling to hurts and to pain because that’s all we have of our parents after they’re gone. It’s not even about holding a grudge, it’s about identifying ourselves against something, in contrast of something we perceive as punitive. They are this, and I am that. So in FIRE ON THE MOUND I have a number of parent-child relationship that I try to contrast against one another to see how the various children react and grow, or don’t grow, as the case may be. There’s the father Micah, and he hates his son Moroth. We think we know why right away in the first chapter, in the first episode, but later on in the book that understanding deepens, and we see what’s really going on. There’s King Kriah, and he puts these impossible demands on his daughter Princess Kirti. He wants her to start a revolution. In fact she’s been trained for that sole purpose, to murder the very prince she’s been betrothed to, a marriage under false pretenses. There are others like the brothers Dúme and Sújin, and we see how Sújin will do anything to make his parent’s proud, meanwhile Dúme rebels, but in the shadows, scheming against them to take over. It’s very much a case of itinerant parents, Dúme and Sújin’s mother and father can’t even be bothered to make an appearance in the book, much less take an active part in the lives of their sons! That goes back to the idea of a god who sets up all the rules and makes demands but then seems missing in action. And of course Pekra, whose parents expect him to become the next Fa, or healer, of their village, but he fantasizes about running away from home. Be careful what you wish for, Pekra.
What is your story’s X meets Y?
BEN-HUR meets PRINCESS MONONOKE.
You’re stuck in a lift with only one of your characters. Who do you pick and why?
Princess Kirti, the last daughter of the Rtari. She’s beautiful. She’s deadly. She’s losing her mind. An exciting few minutes until the elevator stops, to be sure.
Imagine your book is being made into a film. Who is in your dreamcast?
There’s a pretty big cast, in two parallel plot lines separated by one-thousand years of love and death, so I’ll choose just four of the major characters, and try not to go over budget.
The sorcerer Mtilan! It would be awesome if he was played by Kenneth Branagh. Mtilan’s face changes depending on the fear of those around him, and he can reach into people’s minds and channel their anxieties, manipulating his appearance into a very personal sort of dread. So Branagh would essentially be acting multiple roles, playing different facets of everyone he meets. Of course the fun question is, what is Mtilan afraid of, and what if his power were used against him? Ever since I saw Branagh in HENRY V I’ve fantasized about casting him in something. He has the charisma, but also the power of unpredictability. It’s fun to watch villains take delight in their power, isn’t it?
Zhang Ziyi would be the perfect Princess Kirti. Granted, she’d have to cover most of her face in some kind of prosthetic since Kirti is a Gaewyn, a deer-like species, but I’m sure her beauty would still shine through. And of course both Kirti and Zhang Ziyi are incredible fighters. If you’ve seen HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, then you know she is capable of both grace and bloodshed. In the novel, Kirti wears her love for Prince Sújin around her neck like an albatross. It’s really destroying her, because her father ordered her to murder Sújin, and she takes her duty quite seriously. But what does she do instead? She falls in love with him at first sight. Soon thereafter, when Mtilan kills Sújin on the battlefield, Kirti goes through all these twisted emotions, but she has no real outlet. Nothing other than revenge. But Kirti is not only hunting Mtilan, she is also, in a very real sense, hunting herself. Zhang Ziyi also struggles with an impossible love in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. I think she can clearly give life to a passion that smacks against a wall, reflects back, and becomes self-destructive.
Patrick Stewart would be a wonderful Mushin. I even modeled the character concept art after him a bit, which you can see on the FIRE ON THE MOUND Facebook page. Certainly Patrick Stewart has that gravitas that a mysterious, wise, old man would need. If you’ve seen his Shakespeare, or some of the more poignant episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, there’s no doubt. But I also think there’s a certain mischievousness that Stewart could summon and let loose, as Mushin is something of a Falstaff-type character, even blatantly having earned the nickname “Fool.” Mushin holds his cards close to his chest. What’s his agenda? What I tried to create in Mushin is an antagonist for Pekra, yeah, but also a mentor. It’s a conflicted relationship. It was Mushin’s poison that killed Pekra’s father, but once Pekra leaves home, it is Mushin who becomes something of a proxy father, out there in the wilderness. He teaches Pekra about himself, not through direct instruction, but more because he’s a foil that prods Pekra to speak his mind and counter the old codger with his own beliefs. I think Stewart might have fun with that ambivalence.
Casting Pekra, the young Gaewyn protagonist, is tough. You want a kid young enough to capture the innocence and the vulnerability, but someone that can mature before your very eyes and convey a certain level of insight. I think Bill Milner could do both. He was hilarious and emotionally resonant as Will Proudfoot in SON OF RAMBOW. Granted, that was a few years ago. But his age now might be all the better. One of the surprises writing FIRE ON THE MOUND is when I realized, after shaping the narrative and wanting it to be a certain way, that at the end of the day I needed Pekra to be true to his childhood. He is still just a boy, no matter what fantastic journey he has taken, no matter what power he may or may not have discovered within himself. And I think staying true to the emotional development of just being a boy is very important for the character of Pekra. Milner could act like an adult as Pekra progresses, much as Pekra begins to use a more adult mode of thinking, but sometimes with kids you don’t know how much is play-acting and how much is genuine maturation. Milner could still allow the audience to glimpse the child within, and keep that emotional center anchored in childhood, even as he faces some pretty terrible things.
What is your story’s theme song?
This is an interesting question as William Seegers and I have actually discussed creating a ballad for the series. I’ve written something from Pekra’s point-of-view, an internal dialogue with his father, so we’ll see if that comes to pass. Until then, and more from the point-of-view of the adult characters, I would choose something like Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” Thematically it captures the existential terror many of the villains face in FIRE ON THE MOUND. “Voices calling! Voices crying! Some are born! Some are dying!” It’s pandemonium by the end of the book, and the song has an eschatological flavor I quite like. All these characters in FIRE ON THE MOUND are saying, “How do I live in the face of these divine powers? Do I believe, maybe I don’t — but what bearing will it have either way on my personal reality? And what do these powers want from me, anyway?” Many of the characters, but not all, come to the conclusion that they will be completely wiped out. That there is no room for them in a world where these celestial creatures exist, wielding powers beyond anything they could imagine. Even the characters that do believe, they misconstrue the nature of the supernatural forces at work. Still others say, why wait for them to destroy us? We should destroy them first. Let’s not wait to die. We have this new technology, these firearms, and we’re betting we can bring them down. I think it’s the Tao Te Ching that says, “How do I know the world? By what is within myself.” I take that to mean, the kind and the meek look for kindness in the world and find it, while the villainous expect everyone else to be just as treacherous and cruel as they are. And they find it, too. We find what we seek.
What have you learned about yourself and about writing while working on this story?
Oh man, that’s a tough question. I suppose I learned how much the story means to me, since I stuck with it all these years, having started writing it back in 2000 or so, and finishing around 2006. Then I sought the traditional publishing routes before a friend at work suggested I turn it into a podcast. That was about three years ago. What have I learned about writing? Narrative is malleable. Like taffy. And that’s a good thing. That’s what I learned. Still learning. That for me, any value the work may have appears in the rewriting, and in the reshaping, that I could rewrite anything I’ve ever done ad nauseam, adding here, subtracting there. But at the end of the day, never truly get it right, but that’s okay. Like Jean Renoir said, “A filmmaker spends his whole life making the same film over and over again.” Trying and failing to get it just right.
What is your writing method? Do you plan it out or just write?
Generally I think about a story for a period of time before I start to actively work on it. I have a little whiteboard with titles on it and I look at the titles and say, “Oh yeah, there’s such-and-such novel or such-and-such script, what are those characters up to?” I go for walks and think, “This will happen, then this, then this guy says blah blah blah.” Or while doing the dishes or the laundry. And I just let it run ‘round my head for awhile. Scraps of dialogue come to me, and I might jot those down, and slowly an outline forms, but I don’t let it get too specific, because I like to discover the details and the dispositions of the characters while I’m writing. But I plan the milestones, and I let the title remind me of what theme I hope to find. Eventually, I’m ready to write and then I buy a new notebook. The worst part is typing it up, but I like to write long-hand. I can doodle in the margins to help me get a handle on geography, or what a character looks like. No one can read my handwriting, otherwise, believe me, someone else would be typing this stuff up!
Do you have another story in the works?
I have a few feature screenplays. A Western, a sci-fi, a wedding comedy, a romantic comedy, an existential horror piece about a failing marriage. I like writing in different genres. I have a second novel, unrelated to the world of FIRE ON THE MOUND, about our relationship with technology, and about that technology not being physically connected to us, but being socially and culturally connected to us, replacing elements of our more tribal associations. It’s sci-fi, but with a lot of pulp elements, a lot of action, and a forbidden romance. There’s always a forbidden romance. Ha-ha.
William J. Meyer is a filmmaker and author. He wrote and directed the short film The House That Jack Built, an award-winning fairy tale romance. He is also the author of Fire on the Mound, a fantasy-adventure podcast novel. He lives in Los Angeles.