Michael Ventrella is the author of several books set in his fantasy world of Fortannis, and is now releasing his third anthology in that world, A Bard Day's Knight. I had the good fortune to be able to interview him, and the result is below!
1. Tell me a little about yourself – who you are, what you do both as an author and in your "day job".
Hello everybody! I’m Michael A. Ventrella. Like 99% of all authors, I have a day job because the writing stuff doesn’t pay the rent. In real life, I am a defense attorney, so you can all make jokes now about how I am writing fiction all the time.
At various points in my life, I’ve earned money as a magazine editor, college professor, campaign manager, political organizer, lobbyist, game designer, renaissance faire performer, newspaper columnist, artist, disc jockey, actor, puppeteer, record store clerk, hamburger cook, typist, and union representative.
As an author currently, I write when I can find time, which isn’t that often. Oh, if only some rich benefactor would make me independently wealthy so I could spend all my time writing.
My web page is www.michaelaventrella.com where I also interview other authors (including this guy named Ryk Spoor…). I also have a blog where I talk about politics, religion and other topics (www.VentrellaQuest.com).
2. How long have you been writing SF/F? What drew you to write in the field?
That’s what I like to read so clearly it’s what I like to write! All writers should be writing what they like, shouldn’t they? I can’t expect my readers to enjoy my books if I don’t.
I’ve been writing constantly as long as I can remember – I’d write stories for my parents and younger siblings when I was young. I wrote for the school newspaper and even wrote a musical comedy that my high school put on in my senior year. I’ve always been writing, and the more you write, the better you get at it, even if it isn’t fiction.
I founded and run one of the largest live action role-playing games in the US and Canada (www.AllianceLARP.com) and for many years I wrote for the game, including all the support materials. Then about ten years ago, I started backing away from it and letting others run the day-to-day operations of it, which freed me up to finally start writing some books for myself.
3. What was your first published story/novel?
Back in the early 80s, before I started that LARP game, I had submitted two short stories to Asimov’s and other magazines. I had no idea what I was doing though and in retrospect those stories were not very well written (even if I like the ideas behind them). They were rejected and rightly so.
Then, in 2007 or so, I started working on a novel which later became Arch Enemies. Once more, I had no idea how the publishing industry worked and I wrote a 120,000 word young adult novel when they’re all supposed to be under 70,000 words or so. Double Dragon bought it though, so in 2008, I saw my first book published.
4. Including this new collection, A Bard Day's Knight, how many books – novel and collection – have been set in Fortannis?
Arch Enemies and its sequel The Axes of Evil are the two novels that came first. They take place in the world of Fortannis, which is the same world as the game. I did that because I had spent twenty years building the history of the game so I knew that would give my fiction the full background it needed.
I mostly ignored the rules of the game, though and did what I needed to in order to make the plot move the way I wanted it to.
I’ve seen too much of fantasy novels that read like transcriptions of someone’s game. I hate reading novels where you say “Ah, here’s where the main character has gone up a level and learned a new skill.” Meh. I don’t want anyone reading my novels to think that they were based on a game, and so far, my readers have told me that they had no idea. (In fact, there have been a few players in my game who complained about the opposite – “Why didn’t your main character use X spell in chapter 5?” “Because it’s not a game and I didn’t want him to!”)
With the latest collection, there are now five Fortannis books; the two novels and three Tales of Fortannis anthologies.
5. Tell us something about Fortannis, the world of A Bard Day's Night. What kind of a world is it? What makes it different from other fantasy worlds in your view?
You don’t want to steer too far away from traditional fantasy fare so as not to alienate readers who, after all, want to read fantasy for cranky dwarves and elegant elves. Fortannis is different in a few significant ways, I believe.
First, there is a lack of gods and religion. No gods are going to come out and save the heroes or otherwise give them special powers to solve the plot. I hate that. (In fact, Arch Enemies was written specifically to twist that tired cliché of the “Chosen One” with special powers.)
This is tied in with the magic system, in which every spell depends on the health of the planet and the pulling in of power from the cycle of life (Yeah, I know it’s been done before). Everyone can learn magic although some are better at it than others, and every spell can either use the power of this natural cycle or you can instead tie into the power of entropy and decay and be a lot more powerful (as well as create undead minions, muahahaha!). That temptation is always there for casters.
There is also a race called the biata which, as one reviewer said, are “a feathered people who refreshingly aren’t just a recycling of the aforementioned genre archetypes.” Much of the plot of the first book revolve around them and their mysterious ways.
6. The titles of these collections – A Bard's-Eye View, A Bard in the Hand, etc. – are mildly comedic, reminiscent of Asprin's Myth Adventures Unlike those, however, the Fortannis collections seem to be (mostly) serious, if sometimes quirky, adventures. Any particular reason you've chosen this sort of title?
To grab attention mostly. I think people will stop at an intriguing title, especially one that’s not a standard cliché.
Plus I can’t help it; I love puns, as you can see from the two novels in the series (Arch Enemies involves a magical arch, by the way.) I don’t know, maybe that’s not the best way to promote this series, but it’s kind of a tradition now.
7. If I'm correct, you've had experience with both traditional publication and self-publication markets. How have you found your experiences with both? Do you prefer one approach over the other?
I’ve only used self-publication for the Rule Book for my LARP game (unless you’re counting Animato!, the magazine I founded in the mid 80s).
I think traditional publication is the way to go for starting writers, for a few reasons. First, you’ll get a professional editor (not a proofreader!) who can make your work much better. Second, you’ll get a professional cover done. Third, you won’t have to worry about getting the book listed everywhere and in formats for e-books and kindle and all that other stuff. And hopefully, your publisher will also do a bit of promotion for you.
Also, I think you get more respect from your fellow authors. Although this is changing, I have found that I get invitations to speak at conventions and otherwise take the stage that authors who are self-published are often denied.
If you can’t grab the attention of the Big Publishers, keep in mind that there are lots of small publishers out there who are always looking for new work. There has to be one for you. And if you can’t get a small publisher to accept your story, then maybe it’s not ready for publication yet. Maybe you need to work on it some more.
The only way a starting writer should look into self-publication is if they have experience already in this sort of thing and want to create their own small publishing house. They also have to be willing to spend money on an editor and a professional cover and then learning how to do the business end of things, including paying taxes and all the sorts of things a business needs to do.
I do not suggest using Amazon or Lulu or the other vanity press things. You’ll just be another book out there in a field of thousands.
Now of course you will find exceptions – that one-in-a-million success story. I personally don’t like to play the odds.
8. You've written books other than those related to Fortannis; tell us about a few.
Well, so far, only one: Bloodsuckers: A Vampire Runs for President. But I’m currently working on a steampunk novel featuring Teddy Roosevelt…
9. Bloodsuckers featured vampires as an unsuspected but powerful force in the world, and involved them in legal issues and ultimately politics. Were you able to use any of your own experiences in the legal and political world in building the plot and action of Bloodsuckers?
Absolutely. My undergraduate degree is in political science, and I’ve worked on campaigns and otherwise have been involved in politics all my adult life. I made sure the story was accurate and believable politically, even going so far as to specifically plan out exactly which states the candidate would have to win in order to prevail in the electoral college.
All fiction needs to be as true to its “facts” as possible – while there is a suspension of disbelief inherent in all stories, you never want a reader to be pulled out of the story by screwing up the real facts.
10. There must be a lot of work involved in assembling an anthology of stories from multiple people, all set in your own world. What's the hardest part of that work?
Rejecting stories from my friends.
Well, no. Rejecting stories in general. I hate getting rejection letters and I hate sending them. But some stories just don’t make the cut. I always try to let people know why, though. Sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, this will require more editing than I am willing to do in order to make this work.” Sometimes people just don’t send the right kind of story.
I had a bunch of submissions last time from people writing the wrong kind of fantasy stories, and I got three (!) separate submissions with stories about a court jester who was secretly in love with the Princess. I try to explain to people that we’re closer in feel to Lord of the Rings than Grimm’s Fairy Tales …
I’m currently working on an anthology series about “Alternate Sherlocks” and I’m enjoying reading the submissions. A few didn’t make the cut but that was mostly because they were not very well written, and one just wasn’t “alternate” enough for the theme.
11. For people writing in Fortannis, obviously you need to make sure their stories fit the universe. Do you have a story "bible" you send to prospective authors, or do you just check the individual stories, or do you have some other or additional methods that you use to ensure that these stories from disparate people still dovetail with the universe?
Mostly I encourage people to read my novels and the previous collections. I do ask for contributors to send me an outline for their story first so I can cut them off at the pass if they try to write something that doesn’t fit.
12. Anything else you'd like to talk about, mention, recommend, remind us of?
Please visit my website! www.MichaelAVentrella.com