Lauren Scharhag, is co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. Her Partner, Coyote Kishpaugh, and herself are currently working on the fourth entry but she has taken a break to speak with us for this month’s Twelfth Night Interview.
First, though, let’s take a brief look at the series thus far.
Book I: The Order of the Four Sons - Since before recorded history, the Order of the Four Sons has existed. From their beginnings in ancient Egypt to the boardrooms of modern times, they have fought a covert war against the enemies of humankind. Theirs is a world of magic, mystical creatures, and immortality. But now, after 5,000 years, their greatest battle is about to begin.
Book II: Carcosa follows the team -- JD, Murphy, Doug and Kate -- as they pursue Bathory across the face of a hostile world known as Carcosa. Director Clayton Grabowski and the Oracle find themselves mired in the political intrigues of the Order's leadership, while back on Earth, Bill forges an uneasy alliance with a government agent.
Book Three: Where Flap the Tatters of the King sees the surviving members of the Order – Kate, JD, Murphy, Bill, Clayton and Alyssa – reunited in a world known as Corbenic. It’s definitely not a warm reunion. With the Corbenese king held hostage by Starry Wisdom, the land has been plunged into endless winter, and certain members of the team are less than thrilled that they have been joined by former MJ-12 Emily Hayes.
1.) You and your collaborator, Coyote Kishpaugh, are currently working on Book IV of The Order of the Four Sons series; what will you tell us about it?
Book IV, Going Forth by Day, is the final book of the O4S series. We anticipate it will be finished sometime in 2015, at the earliest. It’s taken us two years to finish each book, but we don’t want to rush the last one. We want to do the ending justice.
The series overall is sci-fi/fantasy, but it has a lot of other elements as well—adventure, mystery, horror, and even a little history thrown in. It’s about two ancient, rival secret societies, the Order of the Four Sons and Starry Wisdom. Both organizations trace their roots back to ancient Egypt. For centuries, they’ve battled for possession of an artifact called the Staff of Solomon. The story opens when a small team from the Order gets dispatched to a small town to investigate the disappearance of one of their field operatives. Of course, they discover a lot more than they bargained for. They find themselves getting sucked through a series of interdimensional gates and have to find their way back home again. Along the way, they have to save the universe from a bunch of evil stuff. In addition to interdimensional travel, there’s magic, immortality and fantastical creatures.
A universe this expansive, of course, requires a big cast: there are nine heroes and eight villains. Among the villains are Elizabeth Bathory and Jack the Ripper. Frank and Jesse James put in an appearance. We have all of human history to work with, so we had fun with it.
In Book IV, the heroes have entered a world called Cerulean, which is Starry Wisdom’s home world. The Starry Wisdom ruler has possession of all but one segment of the Staff of Solomon. It’s time for the big showdown.
2.) How do you and Coyote split the workload when collaborating?
It’s pretty organic. We meet up once a week, usually at my place, and write from the early evening into the wee hours. If one of us gets inspired on our own, we write independently. After nine years, we’re pretty in sync. We talk about everything so much, there’s not usually any surprises.
All of our friends and family know not to disturb us on writing night. Almost nothing intrudes on that time—we’ve written in restaurants, hospitals, over the phone, you name it. We’ve only cancelled a handful of times, only for major stuff—finals, funerals, surgeries, anniversaries, or if one of us was out of town. Coyote’s my best friend, and we talk and socialize outside of writing, but the conversation almost invariably leads back to the books.
3.) Do you find it easier to work with a partner or on your own and why?
I do a lot of my own writing independently and had already had a substantial body of work before I met Coyote, including two novels. I don’t know that I’d call it ‘easier.’ Solo projects have their own challenges, but I am fortunate in that I have not just Coyote, but plenty of writer friends and my wonderful husband to bounce ideas off of. I’m firmly of the opinion that art is not created in a vacuum. Writing alone does have its joys. It’s more meditative.
Writing with a partner is, in some ways, more fun. It’s like comedy improv. A few weeks ago, my husband came out into the living room to find us with sofa cushions and a pair of walking sticks, acting out a sword-fighting scene. That’s definitely not something I’d do by myself. And it’s just nice to have this world you’ve built with someone. We have all these in-jokes, all these references that only the other one understands. It’s like having our own secret language.
4.) Do you plot out your series before you start; how many books and what occurs in each?
In the case of O4S, yes, we had plotted the out the entire series before we started. We tried to keep the outline very broad because we both believe that the best stories grow in the telling. But we knew basically what we wanted to happen in the series overall, and in each individual book. Since each book takes place in a different world, that made it easier. Each world kind of has its own set of rules.
Book I starts out on Earth, in 2005. The team goes to a small town called Excelsior Springs to investigate the disappearance of Fernando Rios, an Order operative who disappeared in 1985, but has just put in a frantic call for help. In the course of the investigation, they discover a segment of the Staff of Solomon. The individual segments can open interdimensional gates. Fully assembled, the Staff can tear open the fabric of existence, into what the ancient Egyptians called Isfet, which means “chaos,” “unmaking,” or “unnaming.” Unfortunately, when they discover the staff segment, they also discover that Elizabeth Bathory, a member of Starry Wisdom, is alive and well and has been hanging around the area, just waiting for it to turn up. Oops.
Book II takes place in the titular world of Carcosa. Coyote and I refer to Book II as the weird west. The team has been separated—JD, Murphy, Doug and Kate find themselves pursuing Bathory across an alien desert, while back on Earth, Bill forges an alliance with a government agent. It’s our homage to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.
Book III, Where Flap the Tatters of the King, takes place in a world called Corbenic. We refer to this book as the fairy tale. All the characters are reunited again in this world, which is under occupation by Starry Wisdom. The Corbenese king has been taken hostage, which has plunged the land into endless winter. Of course, the heroes can help save him, but at what cost?
Finally, Book IV, Going Forth by Day, sees the team enter Cerulean, Starry Wisdom’s home world. They’re taking the fight to the enemy. Coyote and I are calling this one the dystopia.
5.) What themes do you explore in this series?
Family is definitely one of the big themes—not just the families we’re born into, but the ones we make; how we are shaped by the people who raise us; and how we are shaped by the people we choose to let into our inner circles. Several of the main characters adopt, or are adopted. We show a lot of characters interacting with their birth parents. We have a lot of single or widowed parents in this story, and those parents, are, in turn, shaped by their relationships with their children. Still other characters meet and become good friends, or fall in love, and thereby become each other’s families. It seems that those ties are often stronger than blood. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s not. And of course, there’s nothing more devastating than the loss of someone we love. Related to the theme of family are the themes of choices—we can’t change our circumstances, only how we respond to them. Our choices, ultimately, define who we are.
Identity. The characters, both good and evil, struggle with who they are, both as individuals and within a group dynamic—who do they identify with? Who do they answer to? Have they chosen the right side? When some of them switch sides, does that make them disloyal, or did they do the right thing? Madness is closely related to the idea of identity. In Lovecraftian horror, madness is usually the great fear—and what is madness, but the total loss of identity? We have a character who’s an amnesiac who has had to try to forge a new life for herself, an Oracle whose powers nearly eclipse her identity. We have soldiers and scholars who believe in things greater than themselves. Names are also very important throughout the series—all the characters have names that mean something. In most world religions, names are powerful things. Remember, Isfet means to “unname,” something that goes beyond mere destruction. It is negative creation. It is oblivion.
Time is another big theme in these books. We have immortality and time travel, psychics and alternate worlds. Within that context, time becomes a lot more malleable, and not nearly so linear. Book I starts out in this world, in 2005. We imagine Carcosa to be a version of the Wild West, circa the 1870’s. Corbenic is based loosely on 1900 London. Finally, Cerulean will jump forward-- around 2030. All of those times are important to their respective worlds. Some characters are racing the clock, while others are outside of time entirely.
Feminism. Coyote and I are big feminists, so that plays a big role. A lot is being said these days about “strong female characters.” We try to write people—we hope all our characters, both male and female, are believable, with strengths and weaknesses, personalities and motives. That being said, we have some really cool female characters, both good and evil, who kick ass, take names, shoot guns, sling spells, have sex, and don’t apologize for any of it.
6.) What themes are you most passionate about and which of your works explore them?
I am passionate about all the ones that I’ve mentioned, and I hope we’ve reflected them in the series overall. More than anything else, I am passionate about people. All of my works are character-driven. Those are the type of stories I most like to read, so of course, they are the stories I most want to tell. I want to hear about individuals and their struggles; I want to see people who love and work and talk and fight. The proper study of mankind, after all, is man. The red beating heart of this series is its characters. It’s them that I will carry around with me for the rest of my days, even after the last book is written.
7.) What other projects are on your radar for the near future?
Coyote and I have ideas for books that are related to the series that are not part of the principal story. We have started a series of shorts called From the O4S Files that cover some of the characters’ lives before the main storyline that we hope to publish in pairs. We’ve also done some work on an untitled piece that will explore some of the characters’ lives after the main storyline is over. I know Coyote has some ideas for other spinoffs that he wants to pursue later on.
I’m also working on a solo project, a literary novel called Black Antler Farm. I’m hoping to have a first draft done in a few months.
8.) Which authors do you feel have had the most influence on you and on this series?
There are so many. Stephen King definitely tops the list—as I mentioned, Book II was our homage to his Dark Tower series, and we actually dedicated Book II to him. There’s at least one King reference in each book. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers are another big influence—one of the series’ main bad guys is the King in Yellow, and we deal in a lot of existential horror like you’d find in the Cthulhu mythos, the idea of terrible, sanity-crushing beings slithering around in the spaces between worlds, just waiting to gobble your soul.
We dedicated Book III to Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, and other fairy tale writers and compilers. There are a lot of fairy tale elements in that book—a handsome prince, a magic castle, fairies, mermaids. There’s a lot of Greek mythology and Arthurian legends mixed in as well, particularly the Fisher King.
We also owe quite a bit to Jim Henson, Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino. We draw upon Henson for inspiration for fantastic beasts; Whedon and Tarantino for their dialogue. Some readers find our books too chatty, but that was a deliberate stylistic choice on our part. Besides, when you have 17 principal characters, there’s going to be a lot of talking.
9.) What is your favorite book written by yourself and by someone else and why?
By me, I’d have to say Where Flap the Tatters of the King, Book III of the series. Maybe it’s just because it’s the last book I finished and the afterglow hasn’t worn off yet, but if I never write another thing, I will always be proud of that book.
By someone else—it’s an eternal tie between Lolita by Nabokov, and Watership Down by Richard Adams. Those two books are my gold standard for good prose. I love Lolita for its wit and lyricism, and the bravery in tackling such a subject. I love Watership Down because of how Adams created such a perfectly realized fantasy world, with rabbits. I have a tattoo of El-ahrairah on my right shoulder. I bet I’ve read both of those books at least forty times. At any time, I can pick either of them up, open them to a random page, and just start reading. I find something new and delightful every time.
10.) Is there a question that you wish someone had asked you and what is your answer to it?
Yes. People ask us why we have to kill characters that people like. In the last book, we killed a very popular character that got us a bunch of backlash. My mother actually cried all night when she read it and still hasn’t quite forgiven me for killing that person off.
We kill a major character in each book. We decided when we started to write the series that these characters were going to die, and why. Part of the reason is logistical—some of them end up in situations where death is unavoidable. More importantly, we want to convey to the reader that no one is safe. The fate of the very universe is at stake here. There’s no way the heroes can get through this without causalities. If it’s any consolation, villains die, too, and that too, was predetermined.
11.) What do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to remember me as a great prose stylist, as someone unafraid to write about difficult subjects. I also want to be remembered as a chameleon, a mimic—I like to think that I give all of my characters unique voices. I try to make the writing suit the character and the setting.
12.) Where can readers find you on the internet?
Two Short Bios:
Lauren Scharhag is the author of Under Julia, The Ice Dragon, The Winter Prince, and West Side Girl & Other Poems. Her work has appeared most recently in The SNReview, The Rockhurst Review, Infectus, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. She is the recipient of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Award for poetry and a fellowship from Rockhurst University for fiction. A lifelong resident of Kansas City, MO, she currently lives in the Waldo area with her husband and three cats.
Coyote Kishpaugh has been writing prose and poetry most of his life, and alternately entertains and terrifies his children by telling them stories late at night. Currently, he is pursuing his degree in psychology at Rockhurst University. He lives in Kansas City, KS.