Welcome to T.C. Rypel—“Ted,” to all who’d admit to knowing me, as the “About the Author” page admits in the Wildside/Borgo Press re-issues of my heroic-fantasy Gonji series books. And it’s as “Ted Rypel” that folks can find me on Facebook, although the “Gonji Fictional Character” has his own FB page. How did he swing that—?
Where are you from and where do you live now? From the Northeast Ohio/Greater Cleveland area, where I’ve lived most of my practical life, although I’ve happily spent a great deal of that time dwelling in the darker regions of my imagination.
Please tell us a little about your writing – for example genre, title, etc. This is a complex request. I’m an old-timer, by the measure of most who’ll read this. I began writing professionally, mainly as a sideline, back in the 1970s. So over that long haul I’ve written, or at least dabbled, professionally in most every literary form you can think of: novels, short stories, essays, film criticism, poetry, ad copy, speeches, promo/publicity hype, and most recently screenplays.
I began with film reviews, which led to my writing/publishing the first indie mag dedicated to exploring in depth the production and artistry of the classic 1963-‘65 OUTER LIMITS TV series. That was in the late ‘70s. THE OUTER LIMITS: An Illustrated Review springboarded other commissioned review work and culminated much later in my only literary award, to date—the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award I shared with author David J. Schow for Best Book of 2014, for THE OUTER LIMITS AT 50. And I suppose all that film-review involvement served a functional role in my later screenplay efforts (a half-dozen completed horror/sf indie screenplays, none of which have been produced, though we had a close call with one recently; and two of ‘em ain’t dead yet, my friends…).
But the focus of our shared interest here, Alex, is of course the broad category of fantasy fiction, with all its studiously parsed heroic/dark/swords-and-sorcery sub-categories. And there I’m almost exclusively known for the GONJI series, an ongoing, epic-heroic fantasy sequence of books about an alt-history 16th-century son of a samurai warlord and a shipwrecked neo-Viking shieldmaiden. Compelled by fate and his conflicting parental natures (always battling for balance), master swordsman Gonji Sabatake is set on a quest, from his native Japan and thence into Europe, Africa and “interspheric worlds beyond” by multiple mysterious forces—apparently agencies of Destiny itself. He was born to be a “millennial course correction.” Even Destiny apparently needs a hand, now and then, in steering a cosmos that defies its wishes.
Gonji is mysteriously linked to, and eventually joined by, an immensely powerful but misanthropic werewolf-hero character, Simon Sardonis, on this quest—whose very parameters they have to learn by stages—in leading a rebellion against tyrannical superior beings (the Ianitori) who have quietly assumed power and terrorized multiple concentric worlds for millennia (like inter-dimensional nesting planets or “Rubik’s Spheres” with ever-shifting gateways, of which our historical Earth is one).
The series was first published by Zebra Books in the 1980s. Zebra virtually ignored the heavy fantasy/monster/sorcery elements and marketed the books as mainstream Historical, attempting to capitalize on that era’s embrace of Asian adventure blockbusters like SHOGUN. Gonji did remarkably well, as a weird by-product of being mis-categorized like that. But the books missed their intended fantasy audience (an oddly bittersweet experience I recount in the “GONJI Odyssey” essay in the coming DARK VENTURES).
Yes, my colleagues, even arguable sales “success” can bear curiously unexpected career consequences in this writing game we play.
There are five extant books in the recent authorized Wildside Press re-issue sequence: the series-opening trilogy RED BLADE FROM THE EAST, THE SOUL WITHIN THE STEEL and DEATHWIND OF VEDUN, and the subsequent novels FORTRESS OF LOST WORLDS and A HUNGERING OF WOLVES. DARK VENTURES is expected out at any time from Wildside (featuring shorter Gonji tales, the creation/publication history essay, plus a preview excerpt of the coming…). BORN OF FLAME AND STEEL will follow, this being the long-promised Gonji “origin” novel—the first book actually set in Japan, though some publishers’ cover art intentionally created other impressions with the earlier books.
Jeez…what a ramble. Sorry.
Where do you find inspiration? Everywhere, as do most other writers. Oddly, though, while most writers would reasonably be expected to cite books (of all categories) as their chief inspirations, I’ve probably drawn more from movies and music. Scenes and sounds run through my head constantly. Both from audio-visual artistic experience and from my own runaway narratives that can occupy my mind, very passionately, when I’m developing a story. Movies and music can evoke very emotional responses from me. Much of my fiction-writing concern has been the earnest attempt to replicate powerful feelings I’ve had in response to aesthetics—visual, dramatic, lyrical and melodic—and engender something like them in my readers.
Of course, there’s nothing like being out in the natural world and encountering an unexpected Eureka! moment; the serendipity of seeing something occur that you would never have perceived quite the same way without direct experience and then incorporating it into your fiction. E.g., witnessing a helicopter crash firsthand, once, along with the bewildering chaos and suffering that ensued, put me more in tune with that uniquely horrible moment, that immediacy of human tragedy, than any news account might have.
Naturally that’s one example of inspiration I’m hoping colleagues aren’t able to take advantage of.
Are your characters based on real people? We all do this to an extent, as we’re trying to create verisimilitude. We mix and match traits and practical characteristics. I like taking the occasional archetypal or stereotypical character we recognize from mainstream life and turning expectation on its ear.
I spent a good deal of time and effort on the nuances of minor characters in the Gonji series. People who began as pretty standard “regular folks” we might encounter at work, or in the marketplace. Then I forced them to respond believably in extreme, or violent, or supernatural circumstances—sometimes one after the other. Having a sword or a spear or an unreliable wheel-lock pistol shoved into your hand…and then being told that your grandma was right—there are flying horrors that can dump flaming excrement on you…and here comes one of them now…would have a complex series of escalating effects on you if you were, say, a sundryman, just looking to make a modest living, in peace. You might think twice about hanging around to help the newly trained militia, if you survived that first monstrous encounter. But then, someone in your family says, “We must stay and help our neighbors—!” Umm…yeah, OK…
I found it to be quite a lot of work, dealing with unexpected and very individual responses to violent supernatural events. Especially when I’d read so many stories where, e.g., non-violent types suddenly just became “heroes,” out of necessity. Of course, we know that such brave souls emerge under fire. They’re the ones whose stories are celebrated. But what about those who can’t measure up and then have to live with themselves? Stage drama and mainstream literature are rife with them. But fantasy I’d read didn’t acknowledge them much—they didn’t seem to fit the “heroic” parameters. Yet I found them interesting and useful, in their perspectives on extreme circumstances. So I often found myself searching the “real” world for people who might enhance my “fantasy” realms with a more reality-based human drama. Some reviewers have remarked on my characters’ lasting resonance, over the years. So maybe I was on the right track with my occasional “real-people” observations.
And, by the way, I have sometimes violated one of the hard-and-fast rules of character creation: using actual people I know, though renamed and slightly altered, as homage characters in a couple of books (positive—always positive characters!). In every case, they loved it, as it was agreed to beforehand. But I don’t recommend it. In fact…don’t do anything I tell you to do.
Have you ever used a person you don’t/didn’t like as a character then killed them off? Oh, sure—haven’t you?! My long-time friend and mentor Joseph Stefano (OUTER LIMITS writer-producer, screenwriter of PSYCHO) and I once talked about the injection of, and thus dealing with, intense personal feelings in your storytelling; of how that could sometimes be better than professional therapy. In response to this very question you pose, Joe told me, “You can get over an awful lot by writing about it.” Which included, I inferred, disposing of perceived trolls in your life experience without paying for it yourself like a character out of Poe or Dostoyevsky.
Research can be important in world-building, how much do you need to do for your books? Do you enjoy this aspect of creating a novel and what are your favourite resources? World-building can be a fun aspect of creating fantasy fiction. Of course, with the Gonji series I was constrained to build a hybrid cosmos. It’s based on a fantastic version of recorded Earth history and most of the early books are spent there exclusively. But it expands sideways from that with a system of concentric worlds, out of phase with one another.
On Earth, the fantastic elements vanished from history due to banishment, changing principles of matter-energy manipulation (sub-atomic conversion gets supplanted by technology and instrumentality over time), and the push-and-tug of such fundamental power principles between worlds. Cosmic energy remains the same; its means of access can reflect shifting principles between worlds. (Most of this occurs more overtly in future planned books in the series.) So there’s an evanescent sense, as the series goes on, of sorcery and monsters and other supernatural presences sort of vanishing like condensation, to be absorbed into another world’s shifting matter-energy principles; of civilization remanding those marvels to the worlds of myth and folklore, to retain sanity, and avert chaos and entropy, and exercise an arrogant illusion of “control.” Much of this shifting is seen to be driven by concerted cultural belief.
So, much of the off-world-building necessary to complete what would be Gonji’s finished life narrative has yet to be shown. But much of the research has been done and the narrative arc has completely been worked out, years ago. I outline and diagram and cross-reference with cue cards obsessively. Always allowing for the amazing organic serendipities that occur with any story development, of course. I await those with eager interest, to see where they leap out from betwixt the cracks in my careful planning to make happy trouble for me!
But for the details of the 16th-17th-century Europe/Asia/Africa that Gonji mainly operates in, I did quite a lot of research on practical aspects of life and culture in those times—and then attacked them with monsters and off-world sorcery. E.g., I recall that I referred to seven different books on medieval castle construction, daily life, and heraldry just for the Deathwind Trilogy’s “Castle Lenska.” (Trivia for Gonji fans: Its general layout became that of Harlech Castle in Wales.) I wanted it to feel right. Not to mention so that I wouldn’t bang my head against an ill-placed ashlar wall while rushing to relieve myself in the garderobe!
But you can get mired in the details of something like…the precise carving techniques of various meat entrees, on a typical medieval banquet table, if you don’t rein yourself in. You have to pull back, see that you’ve created a complete physical and atmospheric setting, and swallow back all the additional research you’ve done, which will best serve as the tacit confidence that you’ve done your job on behalf of your readers. It will show, without your needing to shovel it in.
My favorite resources are still books: I’ve accumulated a respectable library of good-ol’-fashioned paper research books (with fabulous illustrations) on a variety of topics, over the years. But in this era, of course, it’s puckishly easy to flit through the cyber-verse and supplement that with legitimate info sites on practically anything you might adapt to your world-building needs. A magical do-it-yourself store in every keyboard.
Is there a message conveyed within your writing? Do you feel this is important in a book? Yes, hopefully it’s “Read more of my books!” We have a duty to readers to keep them turning pages… and taking deep breaths to regulate their elevated pulse rates, and eagerly awaiting confrontations and reckonings and dramatic outcomes and beloved character resolutions, stemming from spiraling, complicating plots and escalating battles—long before they sit back and contemplate how they just now realized that little moral, ethical, universal or cosmic resonance from the finished story that’s revealed itself in satisfyingly haunting fashion, some insight they’ll always remember…
Sort these into order of importance: Great characters; great world-building; solid plot; technically perfect. Can you explain why you chose this order? (Yes I know they all are important…)
In this order:
Characters. Plot. Believable civilization, atmosphere and milieu (world-building). Technical “perfection”—which is as debatable and elusive an element as you’ll find in any Bore’s-Head ale hall swarming with drunken, bruise-knuckled, debating writers. They’ll all be potentially wrong. Or right. (Yes, I once invented a brutal tavern called “The Bore’s Head,” on whose shingle was mounted the stuffed head of a legendary blowhard who finally told one too many phony tales of personal valor. It was a tough crowd…)
Character is always number one with me. If your players aren’t engaging on a human level, then I couldn’t give a shit with what savage fury, sinewy might, or clanging steel they uphold their token warrior-maid’s honor and wrest the sac of enchanted sardonyx from the squid-lord’s underside before rescuing the grateful gaggle of undifferentiated innocents from irredeemably and irrationally evil Lord Pestilence.
There’s probably a bottom-feeder gamer-notion in that, with a high enough corpse count, but I don’t want to read it.
In what formats are your books available? (E-books, print, large print audio) Are you intending to expand these and if not, what is the reason? The Gonji series is available in paper and Kindle from Amazon—and publisher Wildside Press, of course, whose compact is mainly to reprint o.p. sf/fantasy books with copyrights that have reverted to the authors; but they’ve given me a pass on new Gonji books. They’re also on audio, from Audible, read by award-winning voice actor Brian Holsopple. And, if you prefer to read them in German, they’re in handsome translated editions from Bastei Lubbe. There’s supposed to be a French edition in the planning, as well.
Where the hell, though, is the Japanese translation, after all these years? It seems like a natural. I mean, Zebra used to tout Gonji as a “fitting successor to SHOGUN,” because of the simple fact of the reversed main-character situation between these two obviously disparate narrative approaches: mainstream vs. fantasy. My agent—yes, I’ve had the same agent for decades, though we rarely interact anymore—gave up on repping anything like the Gonji style of adventure-fantasy ages ago (a low-earning genre, in purely commercial terms), though she initially sold it to Zebra and much later brokered the German translation deal. But no Japanese contract. There’s a story for another time in agent relationships…
Do you self-edit? If so why is that the case? Do you believe a book suffers without being professionally edited? I do now, to an extent, with the new Gonji titles coming out, but I don’t recommend it. The original Gonji novels were edited by traditional publisher Zebra Books, back in the day. I did some tweaking and restoration of excised text (arbitrarily cut for length, to fit the paperback-original “signatures” requirements in the ‘80s: 32 book pages-per-signature-sheet) for the Wildside re-issues. But they’re substantially the original, professionally edited texts. And Wildside thus considers me “pre-vetted” for the new Gonji books.
However, these new texts have been vetted by some beta readers—professional colleagues I trust. And I was a pro editor for several years myself, for a magazine company, as well as an editor/proofer for the pulp-adapter Radio Archives, along with the numerous freelance editing gigs I’ve handled.
I would strongly advise self-publishers to seek reliable editorial guidance. I’ve read some horrible junk out there in the vast Flotsam Sea. And don’t get me started on the slow and painful death of even common proofing these days.
Do you think indie/self-published authors are viewed differently to traditionally published authors? Why do you think this might be? I think they must be viewed differently, for the important editorial reasons I cite above. I might read a masterpiece in either traditional or self-published material, to be sure. But the grim fact is that so much ill-advised trash is pumped into that great populist literary effluence today—along with a lot of well-crafted and entertaining content that has to fight to keep its head above the morass—that you have to exercise a lot more scrutiny before selecting titles to spend precious discretionary time on (not to mention pay for).
Indie writers who are serious about the craft owe it to themselves, as well as their readers, to make every effort to produce good work. There’s junk produced at every stratum of the publishing world, no doubt. But it simply stands to reason that carefully planned and written, professionally edited and designed books will have a far better chance of leaving a good impression and advancing their authors’ career hopes, whether modest or ambitious. A truism that won’t change, despite the most calculated, persuasive promotional efforts by clever social networkers.
Do you read work by self-published authors? Yes. There are some fine authors and storytellers working in indie publishing, even in my limited, old-schooler experience of this vast field. There are lots of reasons why many authors are self-publishing now—not the least of these being that there are worthy categories and sub-genres that are under-served or altogether ignored by mainstream publishing, alienating large segments of special-taste readerships.
What experiences can a book provide that a movie or video game cannot? That rich and rewarding nexus of emotional and intellectual engagement that delves deeper than a movie’s level of immersion—you’re looking at somebody else’s vision, “reading” through someone else’s eyes, if you will—and far more thoughtfully, more humanly, than the more coldly calculating, quick-twitch reaction levels that most games seem capable of.
You’re in the book. Engaged with it, entranced by it… You’re a complex participant in a book’s infinite possible outcome algorithms. That’s amazing, when you stop to truly ponder that intense author-reader communication.
I’ve had the experience of writing books, original screenplays, screenplay adaptations of someone else’s books, and finally—an experiment I really learned from—writing a novelization of my own original screenplay. Not a typical, bare-bones, fill-in-the-gaps, post-release novelization, but rather my conception of what the full-blown novel might have been like that I’d adapted my screenplay from. I had known of no other such experiment.
And all that flipping of creative hats one day smacked me with the epiphany that, when reading a book, we become a sort of co-director with the author through our melding imaginations. We engage in a communication between just the two of us, in which we bring that story into a singular, unique artistic completion of delivery and realization that will never be perceived the same way by any other reader/viewer/co-director in the universe!
That’s a tall order for any movie or video game to try to stack up against, with their arm’s-length presentations of someone else’s very specific, pre-interpreted—and therefore delimiting—pictures, sounds and impressions.
As a participatory art form, books rule.
And I think any further comments by me at this juncture of the interview would be breaking some kind of “rules,” at this point, at least rules of welcome—I’ve been going on interminably. So let me conclude by thanking you, Alex Butcher, for this kind, gracious, wonderful opportunity to spew some of my personal history and insights into this craft we share with our friends and colleagues here. Maybe we can pick it up again sometime. Best of luck with all your literary endeavors, everybody!