C. Robert Cargill: “The second novel is a killer”

Queen Of The Dark Things author C. Robert Cargill on why fairies shouldn’t be neutered

Cargill+C+Robert+CREDIT+Jessica+CargillC. Robert Cargill has made quite the impression on the genre scene over the last couple of years. Not only did he write the smash hit horror Sinister, he also penned his fantastic debut fantasy novel Dreams And Shadows.

Now the story of Colby Stephens continues in Queen Of The Dark Things, as the young wizard deals with the responsibility of being the most powerful creature in Austin (well, nearly). As if he wasn’t suffering enough from the loss of his best friend, he’s soon forced to engage with Hell’s most powerful demons as they have a problem tied to Colby’s past…

Cargill took the time to chat with SciFiNow about the difficulties of writing a second novel, getting to grips with the history of folklore, and why we should be scared of fairies.

Had you written Dreams And Shadows with the idea that the story could be continued?

Originally when I conceived it, it was a standalone. But as I was writing it, one of my good friends Ari Marmell, who’s also a fantasy writer, made a comment, he was like “Look, if this turns out good enough they’re going to ask you if there are any more of them.” And I hadn’t even thought about it, I just thought about it, and I was like “Wow, I really like this character and I like this universe, so yeah, yeah I could see what I could do with that.”

And just starting to think about that, the ideas blossomed and I got the idea for a trilogy arc. I wanted each of the books to stand on their own and be their own independent story that ultimately told this larger story, because I’m not a big fan of books that leave you with cliffhangers because when you’re going to make your audience wait a year, year and a half between them it’s a little uncool sometimes! So I conceived them to  be complete tales. But yeah, once that was mentioned to me the whole thing kind of unrolled and when I sat down in Harper Voyager’s offices in the US, they said “Are there any more?” And I was like “There could be two more,” and they were like “Alright, let’s sign you to a two-book deal.”

Was exploring the idea that Colby would actually have to deal with responsibility and consequences part of the appeal?

Oh absolutely. And the raising maturity level. Because it’s all about this kid who asks for something that he has no idea what he’s asking for and ultimately through the course of all the stories, getting it and arriving at the point of maturity to where he becomes what he was destined to, whether he wants to or not.

I think that’s the hallmark of great fairytales and that was something that I wanted this entire series to be about.

In the afterword you mention that writing this second book was difficult. Was it harder than Dreams And Shadows?

Absolutely. It was really tough. In fact it was very strange in that I wrote Queen Of The Dark Things and then immediately afterwards I wrote Sinister 2 so I had to do two sequels back to back, and sequels are the hardest thing in the world.

The tough part is finding the magic connected to, and it’s one of the weird things when you create any type of art, you put it out into the world, you’re often surprised by what really catches people’s attention. You’ll work on one aspect of a story or a movie or what have you and you’ll be like, “This is what everybody’s going to fall in love with.” And then everybody actually falls in love with something else, or likes something else, or hates something that you thought they would like.

Then it’s trying to figure out what made that work and doing that again without simply repeating yourself. And it’s a really tough kind of process to go through, but everyone I”ve talked to, every other writer, the second book is always the hardest. For some reason, that second published novel is just a killer, and it certainly was, but I’m really proud of how it came out.

I imagine writing a sequel to a book and writing a sequel to a movie are very different processes, is that right?

Yeah, there’s a lot more cooks in the kitchen on the movie and a lot more opinions on what the sequel needed to be. There’s a lot of people saying “Well, this is what a Sinister movie is,” and me saying “Well, that’s not what a Sinister movie is, I wrote the Sinister movie! I know what it is!” “No, no, no, this is what people want, this is what we want,” So you have a lot more of that and trying to tailor your story to that kind of environment. Whereas with the novel it really was me on my own but lacking any other guidance, anybody else going “Hey, you know what a Colby Stephens novel is.” Like “No, I don’t! Could you throw me a rope here? I think I know what it is but…” So they both have their upsides but they’re both challenging in their own right.

Queen-Of-The-Dark-ThingsIn Queen Of The Dark Things Austin plays a much bigger part, both the city and as a character herself. It feels like an underrepresented city in urban fantasy; was getting to write your Austin part of the appeal?

Well, it became part of it. When I was first working on it in very early drafts of Dreams and Shadows it was the nebulous  MetroCity, it could have been shot in Vancouver, maybe it’s Boston, maybe it’s Chicago, maybe it’s New York, it’s a big city, it doesn’t matter where it is. And it just felt so dry and flavourless and I was trying to figure out where to set it and then at some point it just kind of hit me. It’s like “Set it in Austin. Nobody writes books set in Austin and Austin has its own magic to it and its own culture and its own climate and weird things about it that are unlike any other major city and it’s perfect for the tale that you’re telling. So just go ahead and explore your own city.” It allowed me to write about everything I love about my city and everything I dislike about my city and kind of put it out there as one giant love letter wrapped in a fairytale.

Australian Dreamtime plays a big part in this story. What drew you to it?

Well that was something that I was interested in for quite a long time. I’m a big research guy, whatever project I’m doing, I do weeks or months of research on it and the Colby books are much more intensive than anything else I do. I spend three or four months before I sit down to work and I draft of just reading whatever I’m delving into and that was very much poring through books and watching lots of videos and lots of correspondence with Australian friends and just kind of getting my head wrapped around that. But Dreamtime was something that I’ve been interested in for quite a long time. So it was something I was already into and this was all about getting into the minutiae of it and getting into the obscure stories and the obscure myths and really digging deep into the stuff that I really wasn’t familiar with and just falling in love with that stuff, and then finding what stuff I fell in love with and incorporating that into the story that I had in my head.

It’s great reading the excerpts in your books that tell the history of these stories and fairytales; is that something you just find yourself drawn to?

Oh absolutely. Folklore is something that I’ve always been in love with but the stories behind the folklore and the reason behind the folklore I’ve always found even more interesting than the tales themselves. So that was something that really appealed to me.

One of the things I’ve always been kind of bothered by is how fairies got neutered in our culture. And how once upon a time, fairies weren’t all sweet and nice, a lot of them were really scary, a lot of them were very evil, a lot of them were dangerous. And we just kind of forgot those and left them aside. Here in America in particular the types of things that would in the past be attributed to fairies are attributed to this nebulous kind of notion of the supernatural, poltergeists, spirits of the dead. We kind of moved past fairies and all this stuff is now spirits of the dead, but all of those roles that we have in our folklore here in the States all had fairies behind them throughout Europe and I’ve been really fascinated by that.

I’m really interested in getting to those kinds of stories and it was a big inspiration for Dreams and Shadows, was just kind of like “What if we get back to the notion that fairies are scary? They’re alien and we don’t get them and they really are not these things that can be trusted or nice things, they are the things that go bump in the night but they have more agency than we attribute to the supernatural like ghosts and poltergeists and the like. So it makes them even scarier and so I really wanted to get deep back into that and that’s what these books have allowed me to do.

You’ve got a lot of scripts on the go as well as a third Colby Stephens book planned. Do you consider yourself a screenwriter or an author, or do you not think about it?

The answer changes from day to day depending on what I’m in the middle of doing. I’ve actually been asking myself that a lot recently and what I’ve kind of come down to is just this notion of just being kind of a writer for hire in all forms.

You get people asking you “Whose career do you want to have? Do you want to be Neil Gaiman, do you want to be Harlan Ellison?” I’ve really kind of come to the notion of Richard Matheson. He was a novelist and a short story writer and a screenwriter and wrote teleplays and just wrote. And just wrote straight genre, and I think that’s the best way to describe me, is I’m somebody who just writes genre and whatever genre they allow me to write in and whatever medium I’m allowed to tell my stories in, I’ll tell my stories. And sometimes they’ll fit best in novels and sometimes they’ll fit best in movies but I think of myself just chiefly as a genre writer trying to find the best ways to tell stories.

Queen Of The Dark Things is available now for £11.04 from Amazon.co.uk.