I got a chance to sit down (figuratively) with another of the authors in the SFWA Fantastic Beasts story bundle and ask him some questions. This isn’t just any writer, however—in addition to being the author of nautical fantasy, Dustin is the developmental editor on my Gryphon Insurrection series. If you enjoy the books, he definitely deserves some of the credit. Though if you think too many fisherfolk died at the start of Ashen Weald or too few at the end, you can lay blame at his feet for those. He’s been a guiding light for the series, and I appreciate all of the work he’s done helping me.

And… I love the nautical fantasy he writes. I grew up in Florida, and he did a great job of recapturing the feeling of the islands and marine life. I wasn’t surprised to see that the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America had picked Whalemoon as one of the picks for the Fantastic Beasts bundle. It’s a great match, and it was good to see a familiar face among the authors this year.

Hello, Dustin!

I’ve noticed how excited other interviewers (like Richard Parry in your interview from last week) have been to talk to you, and while I think you’re a very smart person and that sense of awe is earned, I also come from the place where, when we’re both not busy working on books, we often ramble to each other about the author business, editing, and books we love. Sure, you’re also an impressive writer, editor, and artist. I guess I wanted to say that, unlike your past interviewers, I’m not intimidated by you. =]

Having set that as the precedent, I just wanted to add that I love Whalemoon. I was in the middle of a 100 book reading challenge when I received my advanced reader copy, and I just happened to start reading it a little that evening when I didn’t have my usual e-reader on me. The moment I hit the shark selkie, I was in. (I refuse to say “hooked” when we’re talking nautical fantasy.) I knew I was going to drop everything to finish reading Whalemoon that night.

So my first question is this: how did you come up with the character of Mako? Listening to the audiobook, I suspect the narrator loves her as much as I do.

Oh, the narrator took that character in a completely different direction than expected.  We had a long conversation about how neither of us knew how to voice her. 

I just gave up and told Lynsey to go wild with it and see what she came up with. The result was instead of sounding like a crusty old sailor, she sounded like a know-it-all teacher’s pet. It added an entirely new dimension to her personality. Which informed some of the decisions I made while writing book two.

You just had to ask the selkie question. I’ve been dodging this question since you first mentioned it but I guess now I have to tell you. I had no idea what a selkie was until you told me that I had written one.

Ironically, Mako was inspired not by Scottish, but by Irish folklore. The story goes that Ireland was first settled by one man and 50 women. And the man I guess wasn’t up to the task so he jumped into a river, turned into a salmon and swam away. No explanation. This happens all the time in Irish folklore. While Mako’s transition is a little more detailed, the goal was the same. I wanted it to be something that people in the book just take for granted without needing to know how it’s possible. 

At the same time I was re-watching my old DVD of Jacques Cousteau’s river adventures. It was the episode where he journeyed up the Amazon and interviewed villagers about local folklore. The most interesting to me was the pink dolphins of the Amazon who turn into beautiful humans and cause all sorts of terrible mischief.

We weren’t given an explanation for why it happens, that’s just something that dolphins do. So that’s how it happened in my book. Flopping onto land and shaking off their shark skin to become human is just something that sharks do.

It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know about selkies or I might have written her as a seal instead of a shark. 

All right, I guess I should turn the question back on you. You have taken an even stricter no magic approach to your books than I did. Everything has a biological explanation. And it is treated in such a way that it all feels very magical. Is there an early draft of your first book that includes real magic, or did you know that you wanted to write a magic free story from the beginning? Why do weird animal adaptations feel so magical and awe inspiring?

Also, what is a serpentine whale, and is it really possible for a gryphon to train one?

That’s really interesting about the pink river dolphins. It seems like selkies are almost a kind of universal myth that exist in different forms in different cultures. I’d go so far as to say that selkies are much less interesting when they’re dolphins or seals. Those don’t capture my imagination the way Mako did. The eyes, the teeth—she’s a brilliant image even before you get to know her.

The lack of magic in Eyrie really sprang out of the origins of the gryphons themselves. There are many ways to write gryphons. Magic constructs, magical creations, genetic engineering gone awry—take your pick. I wanted to try something different and find an ecosystem that could support them. Once I’d made that decision, having mages or scientists didn’t make sense. And to help support the idea of an ecosystem with gryphons as the apex predators, I limited the land-based mammals to a few invasive rodents and made certain every other animal in the series was real, even if it was extinct in our world. The serpentine whale is based upon a real, serpent-shaped whale: the basilosaurus.

Genre is a funny thing. The same way a science fiction novel can throw science out the window and revert to knights fighting space wizards and laser dragons, fantasy can sometimes look very different from what Grandpa Tolkien read as a boy. You can strip away the magic, the humans, the swords, and still create something that’s undeniably fantasy. And I love that.

Of course, fantasy thrives on sense of wonder, but nature handles that nicely. There’s nothing I love more than learning about new cats and birds to base gryphons off of. I had no idea there were so many water-loving cats to pair with cranes and diving petrels, but coastal gryphons are a joy to write. Then there’s gryphons based entirely on extinct species like the Haast’s eagle and saber-toothed tigers. And that’s before we even start looking at green beard altruism, oilbirds, microraptors, sandgrouse, or pumpkins for inspiration.

So the answer to why nature feels magical is that, well, it is. Maybe not in the hocus-pocus, “I cast fireball” sense of the term, but I’m always impressed by the world we live in. We say dragons aren’t real, but is a wyvern really that different from Hatzegopteryx, a pterosaur that weighed 850lbs, could fly, and preyed upon dinosaurs? Or we talk about magical shapeshifting spells, then read about parasitic plants that use horizontal gene transfer to borrow the DNA from their prey. Doppelgangers, demons, and changelings are the stuff of legend, but several types of spiders kidnap ant children, steal their scent, then hide in ant hives, preying upon any ants who find themselves alone away from the hive.

Pulling myself back from listing off more strange animal facts, something I really appreciated from Whalemoon was the focus on storytelling. I suppose all authors are storytellers at their core, but you really seem to love not just the story on a novel level, but the stories that the characters inside the novel tell themselves and others. A high school student could fill an essay with peeling back the stories in sea shanties, the stories of past whalepike owners, those told in jewelry, those told by the sharkling, and those told by her enemies.

In a way, Whalemoon is a story about storytellers. Where does your love of storytellers come from? Why the emphasis on the stories we tell each other?

I don’t know. Maybe because I have a short attention span and I like big stories stitched together from little stories (Moby Dick, Dracula, Canterbury Tales). But also, stories are how we learn. I can read an entire novel without bothering to learn the main character’s name. But I will remember an interesting moth on the third page of the second chapter, because it taught me the the character is observant. And because I’m interested in bug and where to find them.

As a poet, I learned that rhymes were created to help storytellers remember long epics. If an ancient bard couldn’t remember the next line of a story, she could at least guess what the next rhyme would be and go from there. I don’t know if you noticed, but there is no writing in Whalemoon. It doesn’t exist. Even on maps and drawings, nobody has invented language. This is particularly important when the legends surrounding a magic sword are the only thing that gives it power. So, where you have stripped magic out of your fantasy and replaced it with biology, I stripped it out and replaced it with stories and superstition. 

There is a small glitch in the magic system that happens when blood interacts with steel. Swords that spill blood for a purpose develop a memory of their own and will twist fate to make it happen again. That is the closest I come to real rules of magic.

It might not be apparent in book one, but Phehl’s people are unique in that they have invented pictographs. In a world where oral storytelling can change the course of history, the ability to carve a story into bone and make it permanent is actually very dangerous. And there are some clues, in the confusing wording or the opening poem that more history has taken place on Phehl’s little Atoll than anyone realizes. That’s second problem with writing down stories instead of memorizing them, you can change what is written nobody will remember it differently.

Sorry, I sort of dodged your original question by talking about my magic system instead. Too late now.

Here’s a follow-up if you’re interested. Do you have any arbitrary rules that you follow in lieu of magic. For example:  MacGyver doesn’t have high tech gadgets, but if you give him a paperclip and some chewing gum he can invent his way out of a problem. Another example: One of my old characters always had a knife in his pocket. No matter the circumstances, or how unlikely it seemed. He was literally impossible to tie up or to catch unarmed.

Do you have any fun rules that you impose on yourself as a writer? Like: Owl gryphons do not lose fights at night. Or: Cherine will always be captured. And where do you draw the line between things that only you think are clever and things the readers will actually pick up on and enjoy?

That’s a good question. You came close to it with your comment on Cherine always being captured. I think the actual (subconscious) rule is that no prison can hold Cherine. He’s the one character who never tries to fight no matter the circumstances. He’s a scholar and an observer, and even though he’s a lanky golden eagle opinicus, there’s no meat on his bones. So he’s every easy to capture, but karma has a way of opening the doors to his cells.

I suppose I do have one more. In one of my books, Lei comments, “Nothing bad ever happens when Zeph is around.” I would counter that if Zeph shows up, either something has already gone wrong and you don’t know it yet, or something is about to go horribly awry at any moment. He never just shows up for a preen and a scream; he’s always chasing trouble.

Okay, that’s my interview with Dustin Porta! If you enjoy shark selkies, stories about stories, or sea shanties involving sea gnomes with whisker lances riding flying fish into battle against sea gulls, pick up his book from the SFWA Fantastic Beasts story bundle.