Hello, everyone! My name is Joe Bonadonna, and I dwell in the Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders . . . Chicago, IL, USA.
So far I’ve published three books: the heroic fantasy collection, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, published by iUniverse; the space opera, Three Against The Stars, published by Airship 27 Productions; and Waters of Darkness, a sword and sorcery pirate adventure, written in collaboration with David C. Smith, and published by Damnation Books. I have stories appearing in Heathen Oracle’s Azieran: Artifacts and Relics; GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear, from author Milton C. Davis’ MVmedia; and Janet Morris’ Poets in Hell, from Perseid Press. I have also written a number of articles and book reviews for the online version of Black Gate Magazine.
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How do YOU define fantasy/science fiction/heroism?
I’m old school, so I’ve always defined science fiction as inhabiting a post-industrialized world, with theoretical and practical advances in fields such as technology, genetics, and even psychology at its core. You know, the usual . . . spaceships, time travel, cloning, aliens, and such, and usually set in the future, although that alone is not always a qualifier.
As for fantasy, there are all kinds: all fiction, one can say, is fantasy; someone dreamed up the story, imagined the world in which the story takes place, even if it takes place in the real world of here and now. But we’re talking Heroic Fantasy here, so I’ll go with that. Heroic Fantasy to me is always set in a pre-industrialized society — no electricity, no planes, trains or automobiles — and that covers a lot of territory, from the prehistoric to the 16th or 17th century. When it comes to Heroic Fantasy, I’m pretty set in my ways. It has to follow certain rules and guidelines, and follow the Homeric tradition; I don’t go in for a lot of cross-breeding with other genres of fiction, such as paranormal romances, horror stories, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural genres — although elements of each often play roles in HF. I do not consider pulp fiction characters such as The Shadow, The Phantom, Green Hornet and such to be Heroic Fantasy: heroic fiction, to be sure, but those characters and that genre or style belong in another discussion for another day. When I discuss Heroic Fantasy, I discuss fiction that is not set in the real or modern world. You may disagree, but I’m just saying, is all.
Heroic Fantasy is very specific, in my opinion, and does not need to be world-spanning, world-in-jeopardy in plot, which I consider to be Epic Fantasy. For instance, Game of Thrones I view as Epic Fantasy because of its multi-cultural approach and world-spanning events, but since I have not found many truly unselfish heroes in the Homeric tradition, I don’t consider it Heroic Fantasy. Lord of the Rings crosses into both epic and heroic fields by nature of its world-building and memorable characters. The characters in Janet and Chris Morris’ stories and novels of The Sacred Band are firmly rooted in the Homeric tradition of Heroic Fantasy, with the added touch of drawing upon myth, legend and history.
Some other novels I consider Heroic Fantasy are Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, H.R. Haggard’s The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, Parke Godwin’s The Last Rainbow, T.C. Rypel’s The Deathwind Trilogy, and novels by such authors as Evangeline Walton, David Eddings, and Guy Gavriel Kay, to name a few. However, these are just my opinions, based on my personal preferences, and in no way are absolutes. At one time, 30 and 40 years ago, the genres of “fantasy” and sword and sorcery were much smaller, more confined, and far more easily tagged with labels. Now, take the Harry Potter novels, for instance . . . they are fantasy, to be sure — but are they Epic? Heroic? I would say they lean more toward Heroic Fantasy because of the selflessness of Harry, his willingness to sacrifice himself to save his friends and destroy Voldemort. He stands up to evil, faces odds greater than he may be able to thwart, and goes about it with no ulterior motives, such as wealth and power. He is very much an Everyman, in spite of his magical powers.
And this brings us to your next question: How do I define Heroism?
Heroes to me are those who will stand up for what they believe is right, without thinking of themselves or their personal gain; and they could be good guys fighting on the wrong side, simply warriors fighting for their country. They fight for the underdog, the lost cause — and as I once heard in a film whose title I cannot remember, “Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” Heroism is about selflessness, doing right by others, fighting for a cause greater than oneself. True heroes are not concerned about wealth or power, their only concern is to help people, to defend those too weak to defend themselves. They strive to right an injustice, and fight for that in which they believe, with no selfish or personal motives other than to save the lives of family, friends and fellow countrymen: they fight for king and country. And what always struck me as truly heroic (and of course, fatalistic) are the actions of those who know they are fighting against overwhelming odds, who know they will die in the final battle.
As for my own work . . . I consider Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, to be Heroic Fantasy, due to the nature of Dorgo, my main character; there are elements of horror and the supernatural inherent in his adventures, which owe a great deal to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and film noir. My space opera, Three Against The Stars, features four main characters I consider to be heroes in the Homeric tradition: Marines defending their planet. Waters of Darkness, my collaboration with David C. Smith, is pure, old-school pulp fiction sword and sorcery, with a large element of horror as the centerpiece of this pirate novel, which is set in 17th century Madagascar. My short stories and novellas published in various anthologies range from Sword and Soul fantasy, to Heroic Fantasy, to straight horror.
I do not put comic book superheroes in the Heroic Fantasy genre. They are part of something else. I am not putting them down, because they belong in a class all their own. The motives of the superheroes may be pure, noble and unselfish, but they are superheroes — not the ordinary, Everyman that constitutes most of Heroic Fantasy. Due to their very nature, the origins on their becoming endowed with superpowers, I would class them more as Heroic Science Fiction, or even Science-Fantasy, to use a very old-school term. Technology, chemistry, genetics, scientific experiments gone awry — these are more often than not what gave superheroes their superpowers, in the first place.
And now, for the sub-genre of Sword and Sorcery:
In my eyes, Sword and Sorcery is to Heroic Fantasy what film noir is to murder mysteries and crime/detective stories. In S & S, the main character is not always heroic, in the Homeric tradition: he/she can be a rogue — a thief, a mercenary, an assassin — whose motives are often (but not always) self-centered, based on greed, revenge, power. The beauty of S & S lies in the use of the anti-hero, as in the best of film noir. Conan was not always the pure hero: his goals were not always selfless, not always altruistic. He was a rogue, a killer, a survivalist, and yet, as subtly written by Robert E. Howard, he often rose above his baser instincts to become a true Hero. That is the magic of Howard’s original concept, of his vision. He created Conan to be all things, to fit whatever role the nature of the story called for. While I prefer the characters of King Kull and Solomon Kane, Conan was truly a character written “for all seasons.”
Another difference I see between Sword and Sorcery, and Heroic Fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy, is that the stories, by tradition, are more intimate, more confined. I’m talking old-school S & S here — much of Howard, Leiber, Jakes, de Camp, and Fox — in their stories, their worlds were not often at stake, although cities and kingdoms were usually in jeopardy. These are like the western genre in films and books: small-scale stories set against a larger canvas, but not always integral to that canvas. The American Civil War may be going full throttle, but someone could be seeking a lost Spanish treasure the Arizona or California territories that will have no bearing on the war or its outcome. The best S & S tales to me were always the novellas of Howard, and the short, 60- and 70-K word novels of other writers. In my opinion, it was Michael Moorcock who took the genre into new territory, setting his Elric, Corum, and Dorian Hawkmoon stories and novels against a wider canvas and adding the world-in-jeopardy theme. His sword and sorcery tales gradually grew into more thoughtful, thematic and expansive Heroic Fantasy. I won’t go into titles and authors here, but I will say that there are many novels, many multi-volume sagas published nowadays and promoted as Heroic Fantasy that I consider more in the sub-genre of Sword and Sorcery. And quite a lot of comic books and science-fiction novels are being considered by fans and authors alike to be Heroic Fantasy; but I would say they are more Heroic Fiction. Semantics? Perhaps. The tomato and potato thing? Maybe. But like everything related to all forms of art . . . it’s all a matter of personal opinion and taste.
How pervasive do you think fantasy/sci-fi is in our society today? Why do you think this is?
I left the fantasy and science fiction scenes back in the mid-80s because I wanted to explore other genres of fiction, such as some 19th century literature, horror and crime novels, British mysteries, WWII thrillers, and the great writers who were published in Black Mask magazine. I also wanted to and did write screenplays, as well as needing a long and healthy break from fantasy and sci-fi. I never really returned to reading science fiction because what I liked to read was no longer fashionable. But I did return to fantasy around 2000, and found a whole new ball game, a whole new set of rules, and a publishing industry at the start of a sea change, with indie/self and small press publications. Besides the overwhelming number of books being published, and the ever-increasing number of authors, both films and television were jumping on the fantasy and science fiction bandwagons, inundating the market where their own brand of original stories or those based upon published novels. Graphic novels such as Sin City and Watchmen hit the theater screens, while The Walking Dead took the small screen by storm. DC Comics, and to a much greater degree and success, Marvel Comics, changed the course of films based on comic books. With the success of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia, fantasy is everywhere these days — films, and network and cable television. And science fiction in films, while somewhat lagging behind, is starting to make waves again with films like Interstellar. In short, the B- and C-grade films of the 1950s and 1960s became the A-list projects of today.
Are these genres seen in a more acceptable light than they used to be?
Short answer: yes, indeed so.
What makes a ‘hero’? Would you say this definition is different within literature to real life?
Not really. It all depends on the writer and the nature of the character and the story. In real life, as in fiction, there are all sorts of heroes. Take Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance: truly a heroic character because of his convictions and what he stands up for, fights for in his daily life. History and fiction, in both literature and films, are what have always inspired me. And more often than not, Heroes die fighting for what they believe in and stand for. The 300 Spartans, The Alamo, Spartacus, Wake Island, Bataan, Beau Geste, Masada, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Gunga Din . . . these are some of the historical events and fictional stories in books and cinema that have worked on my heart and soul. Most if not all the characters — both real and fictitious — die in these stories. That always affected me, especially since at the age of seven I was exposed to the death of 92 children in a grade school fire, and at the same time had already started becoming familiar with the above films, and then later, the novels and poems. So I have always connected with stories of this kind, no matter when or where they took place. And when people tell me that killing off main characters or the entire “cast” is the easy way out, I must disagree: history has shown us that this is quite often the case. And if the events in a story, the need to end the tale in the deaths of one or more characters demands it, then go for it. For instance: had Frodo fallen into the Crack of Doom with Gollum, had Harry Potter died in the final battle, the poignancy level for me would have been amped up by a factor of ten. Nothing hits me harder than the death of a beloved and memorable character: Sidney Carton, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, remains to this day my favorite of all heroic fictional characters. He was no warrior — he was a drunk who gave his life unselfishly for the woman he loved, to save her husband from the guillotine. A totally unselfish act. What is more heroic than that?
If you could pick a couple of characters from literature as ‘heroes’ who would it be and why?
You mean, pick them to write about? If that’s the case, I’d like to write Sidney Carton’s story before we meet him in A Tale of Two Cities. He is a tragic and heroic figure who really appeals to me. For Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell shared-universe, I have written about Victor and Adam Frankenstein, Galatea, Lemuel Gulliver, and Quasimodo — not that they were all very heroic characters, but I can give them that heroic gravitas. I’ve also had the opportunity to write about real, historic figures, like Mary Shelley, Aristotle, and da Vinci, and will hopefully be exploring even more real-life characters in the near future.
If you’re a writer how do you portray heroism in your books?
By the plot, the mystery to be solved, the people in jeopardy who must be saved, and by the villains that must be overcome and defeated. What are the stakes involved? What does the hero stand to gain or lose? Does he undertake the case, the quest, the mission for money? For love? For justice? For revenge? Dorgo the Dowser would like to profit from some of the cases he takes on, he hopes to make a profit, but more often than not, he doesn’t. And most of the time, his cases involve helping a friend, seeking justice, or he just gets embroiled in something because basically, he’s a good guy who always strives to do what’s right. Except for the pirates in Waters of Darkness, who are mercenary by nature but are also the good guys, my heroes are unselfish, and they will risk their lives doing what they believe is the right thing to do, and expect nothing in return, save the personal satisfaction of doing good.
It has been argued fantasy is full of ‘tropes’ – what are your views on this?
To my mind, every genre has its tropes, and the job of the writer is to use these in new and different ways, to turn them inside-out, to turn them on their heads, or avoid them altogether. Dragons, elves, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, zombies, the king returning to claim his rightful crown, the evil sorcerer . . . all these and more have been used for decades. The trick is, if you’re going to use them, add a twist to their story, and put a new spin on these characters. Avoid the cliché and make them your own. In my stories of Dorgo the Dowser, I use mythical creatures, mostly from Greek mythology. What I try to do is give them each their own culture, society, and religion, with personalities that run the gamut of human qualities. One of the things I’ve done is to portray certain mythological creatures — I call them “Muthologians” — as characters in 1930s Warner Brothers’ gangster films.
Fantasy and science fiction used to be seen as very male-oriented, do you think this is still the case. Do you have any experience of this?
No, I see it changing. Quickly changing. When I was cutting my teeth on sci-fi and fantasy, most writers were male. I grew up with Catherine (C.L.) Moore, Leigh Brackett, Mary (Andre) Norton, Anne McCaffrey, and later Janet Morris, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. Leguin, C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Evangeline Walton, and many others. Now I’ve met many female authors, such as you, Alex Butcher, as well as Diana Wicker, Catherine Stovall, Deborah Koren, Nancy Asire, Beth Patterson, and Valjeanne Jeffers. . . And let’s not forget Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Myers, and Laurel K. Hamilton.
How important are ‘facts’ in fantasy/science fiction – does something need to be plausible to be believable?
If I wrote hard science fiction, I’d make sure to get my facts straight. In my space opera, in my sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy and horror stories, I strive to make elements and plot points as plausible as I can.
How has science fiction changed from the days of Mary Shelley and Jules Verne?
Of course. SF has changed simply by virtue of the advances in biology, psychology, medicine, technology, etc. In the days of Shelley, Welles and Verne, things like quantum physics and wormholes and strong-theory were unknown. We are pretty much living today in the science fiction they imagined.
What science fiction/fantasy has influenced you most? What would you say the most influential writers/film-makers?
Since I do not write real science fiction, I’ll forego that part, although my space opera was influenced by E.R. Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Edmund Hamilton, Alex Raymond, and Marian Zimmer Bradley. My first influences in fantasy and sword & sorcery were Greek mythology, Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and R.E. Howard’s Solomon Kane and King Kull; later I encountered Janet and Chris Morris, Tanith Lee, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles Saunders, and Ted (T.C.) Rypel.
As far as film-makers go . . . I grew up on writers Curt Siodmak, Rod Serling, Joseph Stefano and his original The Outer Limits, and director Jack Arnold. My cinematic influences are mostly non-genre writers and directors: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Michael Curtiz, and John Ford.
Fairy-tales, anthropomorphic personifications, mythical beasts and cultural fantastical persons are all about us – such as Santa Claus, St George, dragons and fairies – how vital are these for our identity? Are we who we are because of the myths our cultures hold?
I say very important. Our myths and legends and folklore define us, shape us, and even influence us on so many levels. Religion does the same thing. You can learn a lot about a country and its people, about a nationality by studying their myths and religions, as well as their history, which may be the most important factor in learning about other cultures.
What are some in YOUR society/cultural identity, how are they perceived and why are they important? Why have they endured?
I come from a predominantly Sicilian-Irish, Catholic background. So right there we have the Roman versions of the original Greek myths, as well as the ancient Celtic lore and Gaelic legends. Throw in the Catholicism in which I was raised and taught for nine years, and that also sums up a lot of what I write. For instance, the main religion in Dorgo’s world is monotheistic; Judeo-Christian in tradition — but it’s not the only religion. I have a number of others that are polytheistic and pagan in origin. I use these to give depth to many of my characters: some live and breathe and act by their religious convictions. And not all “priests” are holy men, and not all rogues are irreligious. I strive to make my characters as real as possible, and as relatable to our own world as I can make them. What endures is because in all religions, in all cultures, there is a common thread, a common element of truth. And truth, in real life as well as in fiction, will always endure. When you write for and from the heart, it’s the most honest writing you can do.
Thank you for having me, Alex. It has been a pleasure.