Please welcome N.S. Dolkart to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Silent Hall will be published on June 7th in North America and was published on June 2nd in the UK and in digital format.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
N.S. Dolkart: I think I started at age nine, because I admired the authors who wrote my favorite books. But at nine, I had all kinds of whacky ideas. I thought I might be a classical composer too, despite no skills or talents in that field. At eleven I took a creative writing class for home-schooled kids, and I was hooked. I wrote weird little comedic sci-fi shorts, and got enough positive reinforcement about them to keep me going. My brother is still laughing about one I wrote for that very first class, in which a man in the post-earth future falls in love with his robotic washing machine.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
NSD: Hybrid, but closer to pantser than plotter. I’ve always got an idea of where I’m going, but the devil is in the details and I leave a LOT of details to the actual drafting process. Sometimes, as in the opening chapters of Silent Hall, I know exactly what I’m going to write and what mood I want to evoke. Sometimes, as in the chapters that take place in the world of the fairies, I have to figure it all out as I go along and then smooth everything out later in revisions.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
NSD: Oof, word count. I write at night, when my kids are asleep, which means I usually don’t start until 10pm. I also don’t write for work on the Sabbath, so Friday nights are out as are Saturday mornings and afternoons. So it’s six days a week, trying to keep up a 500-words-per-day average and aiming for 15k per month. I usually fall a little bit short of that, though I do exceed it now and then.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
NSD: Oh, everything! I think writers take everything we’ve ever read or heard or thought about, everyone we’ve ever met, every trip we’ve ever gone on, and so forth, we mash them up in our brains and then try to make something new out of them. That’s how we end up with depth and subtext that we never even intended, and it’s how we end up with characters that surprise us.
But I’m afraid that’s not a very helpful answer for your question, so I’ll say this: my favorite writer growing up was Diana Wynne Jones, and for a time my favorite book of hers was Cart and Cwidder. That novel showed me how engaging a fantasy story could be without any big fight scenes, and how a book could build up from a very quiet personal story to a heart-pumping epic in no time.
I am also heavily influenced by the Hebrew text of the Torah, making my own meanings out of the gaps in the story rather than relying on the thousands of years of commentary that are such a main part of Jewish tradition. My mind often goes in a very different direction from where Rabbi Akiva and the like were headed, and while I appreciate that the religion I practice is built on the work of these sages…well, I can do whatever I like in a story.
TQ: Describe Silent Hall in 140 characters or less.
NSD: Malevolent gods. Refugees from a cursed island. Giant freaking ants.
Hey, that was almost a haiku!
TQ: Tell us something about Silent Hall that is not found in the book description.
NSD: It’s a Jewish allegory, so some of the most basic tropes of epic fantasy are treated in a fundamentally different way from what readers may be used to. I don’t want to give anything major away, but I will say that the sort of Christian dualism that views Satan as a serious rival to God has no place in Judaism. Silent Hall is not built on that dualist foundation, so in that regard, it stands opposite to Tolkien and Lewis.
TQ: What inspired you to write Silent Hall? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?
NSD: I wanted to write a story about a world in which the gods are as mysterious as they are deadly, where people have to basically guess what their gods want or risk being brutally punished. I wanted to evoke the climate of fear that I see as pervasive in both the Bible and in much of ancient mythology, whether it's Greek, Egyptian, or otherwise. Gods are dangerous – even the ones that are on your side. If you want biblical examples of this, I encourage you to look up Uzzah, as well as the better-known Nadav and Avihu. The God in these stories doesn’t give second chances: if you mess up, you get fried.
As for why I write fantasy, I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones and Lloyd Alexander, along with older fantasy novels like The Phoenix and the Carpet, and I honestly can't remember a time when fantasy didn't appeal to me as a genre. It's so...well, it's magical.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Silent Hall?
NSD: A lot of what made its way into Silent Hall wasn’t so much researched as it was present in my cultural psyche to begin with. I did read a few psychology books like The Dance of Anger that informed the way I wrote the character of Criton, but mostly it was little things like Googling the cedars of Lebanon and making sure they were as coniferous as I thought they were.
TQ: In Silent Hall who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
NSD: The easiest was Narky, because it was more or less done for me. I ran a D&D campaign to “game through” my world building ideas, and Narky is pretty much the same character my brother played in the game. Most of the others had to be fleshed out much more or were fundamentally changed from the game, but Narky and Bandu had very strong personalities, so all I had to do for them was figure out their internal monologues. That was a bit easier for Narky, because he’s a more familiar sort of character than Bandu is.
All three of the other main characters were tough, for completely different reasons. Phaedra was a brand new character, and it took me a long time to figure out who she really was. I originally had her as a pretty simple nerd, but that clearly didn’t do her justice. Eventually, I realized that she wasn’t really a nerd, she was the sort of person who gets all A’s and is ALSO captain of the lacrosse team. And prom queen. And edits the high school yearbook. She was raised to believe she could accomplish anything she set her mind to…and then she’s forced to prove it.
Hunter was tricky not because I didn’t know who he was but because he’s so quiet and repressed. It’s just not that easy to make someone like that pop off the page, and it took a lot of to get it just right.
Criton existed in the game, but he had no history, no personal life, and really very little for me to go on, except that he was obsessed with finding dragons. So that required a huge amount of work to figure out who he was and why, and what his reactions would be to things. I found him in some ways the least predictable, and I was always changing his decisions and his dialogue because I couldn’t quite pin him down. He’s working against himself in a lot of ways; he’s got instincts, desires, and his upbringing all pointing him in different directions. So it was tricky deciding from scene to scene which part of him would win out.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Silent Hall?
NSD: Including them is an essential part of being a good writer, if you ask me. I’m not saying that all fiction must be ideological – that would be a dreadful bore – I’m just saying that authors have the power to subtly reinforce or erode societal assumptions, and we ought to take that seriously. The world isn't 85% white men, so if I just write traditional fantasy and ignore race and gender as issues, I’m being wildly implausible.
But in fantasy, people are often white by default. Those of us who are white don’t even think about it most of the time, and race didn’t play any part at all in the D&D campaign I ran. But if I had kept it that way when writing the novel, I would have just been adding to the enormous pile of fantasy novels that pretend people of color don’t exist. So at some point I read an article about the shameful dearth of non-white characters in fantasy literature, and I said, you know what, that is a problem, and it’s a problem I can do something about.
Sure, I’m deathly afraid of Getting It Wrong. But here’s the thing: I’m writing secondary world fantasy. I can address race and racism as things that exist without needing to perfectly depict the way they operate in our world. Hell, even in our world, American racism is a separate strain from English racism or French racism. So it’s not like I have to be exact, I just have to be thoughtful. I have to run it by readers who will tell me if I’ve screwed something up, or fallen into a trope I didn’t even know about.
Once I had decided that I wanted all five of my main characters to be black, it was just a matter of deciding how people in their world would react to that. In Silent Hall, the characters’ blackness operates mostly as an identifying marker when they’re wandering around a continent full of white people. When people see them, they know where they’re from. They can’t just walk into town and pretend they’re from the village next door. And once they have a reputation, they’re instantly identifiable by people who have never met them, because they’re the only five black kids who have been randomly crisscrossing the continent lately.
I think white authors get nervous because they think they're being asked to write about the "black experience." Nobody expects that of us; we're frankly unqualified. They just want us to acknowledge that people of color exist without relying on racial stereotypes. We're not being asked to Solve The Problem. We just need to stop exacerbating it. Same thing with men and sexism, with LGBTQI people and heteronormativity, and so on. Unfortunately I wasn't able to address LGBTQI elements in Silent Hall, but it's just the one book. Eventually, as I write more novels and grow as an author, I will have the skills to do a good job incorporating those aspects of reality into my writing.
TQ: Which question about Silent Hall do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
NSD: Hey man, I’m new to this! I’m excited just to have people asking me questions at all! But all right, how about this one: how has your day job informed your writing?
I work in a lovely Catholic skilled nursing facility, where I run activities for the elderly residents. I have learned so much from my work, about eldercare and dementia, and about Catholicism. The only character in Silent Hall who has dementia is a tree, but I think my work shines through in the way I depict elderly characters (of which there are several), neither as hags nor as universally kind mentors, but as real human beings who happen to have arthritis. Some are grumpy, some are witty, and none (I hope) are caricatures.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Silent Hall.
NSD: Psander lifted an eyebrow. “How brilliantly unscrupulous that would be of me. No, I’m sure I didn’t.”
TQ: What's next?
NSD: Oh, I’m hard at work on Silent Hall’s sequel. After that, who knows? I will always have more to say about these characters, but I need to have something more to say about theology too if I’m going to extend the series. There’s probably room for a third, if Angry Robot chooses to extend our contract. We’ll see.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
NSD: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.
Angry Robot Books, June 7, 2016
North American Print
Mass Market Paperback, 528 pages
Angry Robot Books, June 2, 2016
UK Print and eBook
Cover Ilustration: Andreas Rocha
Five bedraggled refugees and a sinister wizard awaken a dragon and defy the gods.
After their homeland is struck with a deadly plague, five refugees cross the continent searching for answers. Instead they find Psander, a wizard whose fortress is invisible to the gods, and who is willing to sacrifice anything – and anyone – to keep the knowledge of the wizards safe.
With Psander as their patron, the refugees cross the mountains, brave the territory of their sworn enemies, confront a hostile ocean and even traverse the world of the fairies in search of magic powerful enough to save themselves – and Psander’s library – from the wrath of the gods.
All they need to do is to rescue an imprisoned dragon and unleash a primordial monster upon the
How hard could it be?
File Under: Fantasy [ Ravens of Revenge / The Great Flood / Dragon Boy / You’re the Prophecy ]
N S Dolkart, otherwise known as Noah, was home-schooled until high school by his Israeli father and American mother, and is a graduate of the notorious Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He studied creative writing and Jewish studies there.
By day, he leads activities in a non-profit nursing home, where he also trains fellow staff in caring for dementia patients. He writes his tales of magic and Godhood late at night, and doesn’t sleep much.