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Novelist C.W. Briar on Water Spirits, the Horror Genre, and Christians in the Arts

MIKE: Thanks for visiting CW! You’ve just released your second book, Whispers from the Depths, which you published with Janeen Ippolito, a mutual friend. I love what she’s doing over there at Uncommon Universes Press. Can you share with us a bit about how this story found a home there and what your experience with UUP has been like?

CW: I was there when UUP’s announced their formation at Realm Makers. I liked their vision, and we have similar tastes. My favorite books are dark but hopeful, and sprinkling in some humor and wonder doesn’t hurt. I like creepy, mature stories that aren’t simply character torture. If you read UUP’s mission on their website, you’ll see a lot of overlap.

They caught my interest, but small presses come and go. I watched as they grew during their first couple years, and I saw professionalism on their part, so I felt good about submitting Whispers From The Depths.

I’ve enjoyed working with them, and I’ve tried to not be too much of a headache. Janeen was an excellent coach with the initial edit of Whispers, and she deserves credit for the positive response the book has received. Overall, the team is working hard to match the quality of the big dogs (more so than some small presses, if I’m being honest).

UUP is ambitious but sensible. They still have room to grow, but they’re headed in the right direction. It will be exciting to see where they are five years from now.

MIKE: I’ve got to ask you about your cover. It’s quite beautiful. Did you have any input on the design? And does the amulet or symbols pictured there have any specific orientation to your story’s fictional world?

CW: I pitched a cover concept, the publisher thanked me for my brilliant ideas, then promptly used none of them.

All right, I’m exaggerating. Julia Busko (the design consultant) did listen to me, and she genuinely understood the tone and heart of the story before reaching out to artists. That’s what really matters. I’m not a cover artist, and neither are most authors, so it’s wise to not get overly attached to our design concepts. The artists bring in additional inspiration, and there’s a good chance it’s better than what we’ll conjure.

UUP went with Jenny Zemanek of Seedlings Design Studio, which was awesome. Her covers have caught my eye at bookstores on multiple occasions. They proposed the runic design, and I suggested a few tweaks to the final art.

Jenny and Julia chose the sigil based on the book’s Beowulf/Viking influence. It’s the Vegvísir symbol, which supposedly has Viking connections (that authenticity is debated, by the way).  It’s a runic compass meant to give sailors protection. That synced well with my world, where water spirits are a constant threat to ships. Also, runes are used as magical seals in the book, including one that’s similar to Vegvísir.

MIKE: You’ve recently been on a book tour. In fact, you were in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy this weekend for a book signing. Writers typically have a love/hate relationship with book signings. While we love to meet fans and introduce readers to our works, hawking books can have tremendous ups and downs. What’s your experience been so far? Anything you’re learning about authorship, good or bad, from your current tour?

CW: I really enjoy the face-to-face interactions, whether it’s at a signing or a convention. I’m more of an introvert, but I still have fun engaging with readers. The only downside is that those events eat into family time, but the personal connections are special, so I’ll definitely keep doing them.

Unfortunately, the sober reality is that signings are an inefficient way to grow a large fan base. Signings are only lucrative to big name authors, and everyone else is happy if direct sales are enough to afford coffee after table costs. Marketing, networking, and writing new books tend to be a bigger influence on career growth.

These last few months have been a big leap in regards to marketing. I’ll be doing more signings, especially in New York and PA.  I’m still very much a small fish in a giant pond, and I’m working out the best ways to be noticed by readers. Anonymity is an author’s true competition, and it’s a hard fight to overcome it.

MIKE: Whispers From the Depths surrounds water spirits and a people who command them. The mythologies and folklore regarding water spirits are fairly rich. Where did your research take you regarding the subject? Did you learn anything new or unusual? And what kind of twists did you add to the fables?

CW: Water is unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Ancient cultures had stories to explain the ships that vanished. In the Bible, water is symbolic of chaos, whether you’re talking about God separating land from sea, or Jonah being thrown overboard, or the calm sea of glass in Heaven.

I’ve seen for myself how destructive water can be. Search online for the 2011 flood in Binghamton and Owego to see what my community has dealt with.

At some point, storms make water untamable. There’s a sense of helplessness against a determined storm, and that challenge is ripe for mythic representation. In Whispers, you don’t see the spirits, but you see their violent handiwork, and you feel their frigid presence. The fluidity of water gave me a lot of creative freedom in depicting the spirits’ wrath. I joked with my publisher that I found new ways to kill people with water.

I can’t say the spirits came from a specific fable or story. They’re an amalgamation of cultural creations, taking on the flavor of Nordic and Mediterranean legends rather than direct representation. If you look at the reactions to the spirits, though, you’ll find real world parallels in the book. The Whisperers subdue the chaos without ever really controlling it. The Resk cult is more fearful of the chaos, and various followers try to either crush it, appease it, or ignore it. If you want some cultural depths to plumb, look to the contrasting worldviews and reactions among the characters.

MIKE: We first met at Realm Makers, the spec-fic conference for people of faith. Can you tell me how faith meshes with genres of dark fantasy and horror? (Whispers From the Depths is categorized as Dark Fantasy / Horror). When you scan the horizon of religious fiction, it includes lots of sentimentalized women’s literature – Romance, Historical, Amish fiction, etc. As a result, many Christian readers tend to see stories containing dark and evil subject matter as verboten. So how do you, as a person of faith, approach horror / dark fantasy in a way that doesn’t contradict your religious or biblical convictions?

CW: Modern American Christianity’s relationship with horror fiction is complex, as you’re well aware, Mike. I mention “modern American Christianity” because we’ve not always had this stigma with horror, and it’s not a universal reaction. In the grand scheme of things, it really is a niche view, but it’s one with an oversized impact on genre writers. Fellow Christians from past generations recognized horror’s value as an entertaining and safe way to learn hard lessons (“safe” as in fiction being a gentler teacher than real life). The original fairy tales for children were more Coraline than Disney.

The modern aversion to horror comes from several factors, one of which is personal taste. It’s perfectly acceptable for individuals to say “I don’t like scary stuff.” I’m fine with that. I do think it’s beneficial for comfy-cozy readers to occasionally challenge themselves with a harder story, just as I think horror readers should balance their intake with some lighter fare, but there’s nothing objectively wrong with liking bonnet romance.

It’s a very different thing, however, to say that no one should read horror, and that’s the line between personal taste and genre ignorance. That’s also the point where I have to speak up in defense of my work. The ignorance is due to outsiders stereotyping all horror as a masochistic torture-fest with gratuitous sex scenes. Sometimes it is that, but horror is diverse. Those black-and-white Godzilla films we now show kids are still technically a genre of horror.

Horror can be an instructive genre, one that warns about the consequences of evil actions and ideas. It provides a thrilling experience, much like a roller coaster. It also allows us to be inspired by characters who overcome the direst of situations.

Some will concede those points but argue that horror desensitizes us to the death and suffering (that’s debatable), I’d argue that tidy, predictable shows like CSI do the same thing in a different sort of way. Is making every TV death bloodless and unfelt beneficial to our perspective of reality?

American Christianity has other quirks. People will invite missionaries into their churches and be inspired by their real-life horror stories, then cry foul when fiction depicts the same horrors. Churchgoers will watch dark movies about surviving war or Mother Nature, then get into a tizzy over horror movies depicting the same struggle in a fictional setting.

Which brings me to the other factor at play: shallow theological application. I was one of those kids warned about Dungeons & Dragons by people who knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons. There are some Bible verses that warn us against unwise interactions with the supernatural. Some preachers who had no interest in understanding the nuances of horror and fantasy have applied those verses pell-mell to anything fantastical or scary. Parishioners have echoed that teaching to varying degrees, often without really grasping the target of their scorn.

Bottom line: I think scripture warns us about engaging with real spiritual forces, not observing phony creations in phony worlds. Worse still, crying wolf over exaggerated threats probably makes the jaded public more susceptible to real threats.

How do I approach dark fantasy and horror in a way that doesn’t contradict my faith? I keep in mind the Imago Dei, the inherent value of people, as I write my characters. I keep in mind that evil is really evil. I recognize that evil is scary, but not everything scary is evil, and scary can be fun. I use the weightiness of dark fiction as a backdrop for inspiring character stories. Edgier content is purposeful rather than an opportunity to simply throw blood or sex on a page.

MIKE: As you probably know, I’m very interested in the subject of Christians in the arts and spend a lot of time discussing the intersections of theology and culture. My experience is that Christian creatives tend to struggle with their place in both the world and the church. I mean, what is the place of novelists, artists, screenwriters, or filmmakers in the Body of Christ? Are we simply to make art that mimics and appeals to Christian culture? Oftentimes, the church-goer who likes cosplay, enjoys sci-fi or horror films, or develops video games, has difficulty finding a fit in the Church. This is obviously a huge subject, but what advice would you give to a fellow Christian creative who is seeking to utilize their creative bent to God’s glory, in the local church and/or the world?

CW: First, a lot of the Church’s artistic members don’t feel fully embraced, and that’s a problem. I’ve been more fortunate. My current church has fostered artistic growth without constricting what we said with our art. Other churches are oblivious or even antagonistic to the needs to Christian creatives who don’t fit in standard molds. That’s an area where we, the Church, can be more attentive and supportive.

For us Christian artists, we have absurd numbers of debates about conveying message through art. Should our creations be overt and direct in their Christian themes, or should our faith be merely our personal foundation as we create? Should we write for Christians, or everyone else? Should Jesus be on the page, or should the things that Jesus said were good (love, forgiveness, etc.) be on the page. To that I say “All of the above.”

We’re overthinking this. There are thousands of Christian creatives in the world. Choose the path that’s right for you, and let other creatives worry about other audience demographics. I write for the general market, which means people who have zero interest in church should still be able to enjoy my work. I’m drawn to monster stories. I’m not the person to write your clean religious fiction. Others are welcome to saturate that market, and they will.

One bit of advice for Christians trying to enter the general fiction market is this: there’s a major hurdle, and it’s self-inflicted. It’s our language. If you’ve been in church for a while, there’s a solid chance you sound alien to everyone else. I’ve seen it over and over.

It’s like this one church sign I pass during my daily commute. The people in that church put half of the message on the front of the sign, half on the back. That means I get half of a message in the morning, then the other half nine hours later, after I’ve forgotten the rest.

Drivers like me never get the whole message because no one in that church is seeing it through our eyes. Many Christian writers do the same thing, not accounting for the audience’s point-of-view. As a result, characters have motivations and use phrases that sound alien to someone who only enters churches for weddings. Audience perspective also has to be accounted for in the themes we chose and how we address them.

Someone will probably say that means “becoming like the world” (speaking of churchy phrases…). That’s not it at all. What I mean is that I’ve seen plenty of Christian authors struggle to gain traction in the general market, and they lament reviews calling their books preachy or unrelatable. That problem is often because they don’t recognize their own “churchy” accent after decades as a Christian. And they’re upset at the drivers for not reading a sign they can’t read.

Mike: Thanks for visiting. CW. And please make sure to check out the author’s latest release, a Publisher’s Weekly starred review item, Whispers From the Depths.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Steve Rzasa March 18, 2019, 10:34 AM

    Great interview. I especially liked the note at the end about Christians being stuck in their own language or “churchy” accent: “As a result, characters have motivations and use phrases that sound alien to someone who only enters churches for weddings. Audience perspective also has to be accounted for in the themes we chose and how we address them.”

    Of course, the best way to address them is to have friends – or at least, acquaintances – who aren’t Christian. And to watch/read media that is what they watch or read. That’s really the only way to know what the rest of the world thinks. Especially the talking with others part.

  • Cindy M. Jones March 19, 2019, 9:21 AM

    Really enjoyed this!

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