An interview with CM Kerley: the writer fantasy fans have all been waiting for
All readers love a particular genre and will devour as many books within that genre as humanly possible. The only unfortunate truth about loving particular genres is the fact that one comes across the same story over and over again. However, at some point, that one new author who released their debut in that particular genre comes along and gives readers that new unique story that has never been told before; the one readers have been waiting for. The fantasy genre received that very author when CM Kerley released her debut fantasy novel The Hummingbird’s Tear in 2015. This was the first in her first fantasy series called The Barclan Series with the sequel The Giant’s Echo having just been released at the beginning of this year. Who is CM Kerley and where has she been hiding all of this time? The time has come to meet the amazing woman behind this new series every fantasy book lover will want to get their hands on.
“I’m originally from a small town in Zululand in South Africa,” Kerley said. “I moved to London about 20 years ago and have been here ever since. I work in the ICT industry, which I love and, I think, really enables creative thought because with technology, it’s all about the art of what is possible. I have a young family, so Lego is a big deal in my house, so is Star Wars and super heroes which suits me just fine as I love all that myself, especially comics. I love to travel, try and stay healthy with yoga and a bit of running when I get the time, [and] I read and write.”
For the readers who are unfamiliar with Kerley’s work, let us introduce the series thus far. The world was created from a quarrel between the Four Gods of All. As the Gods left their creation, all that remained were four gems containing immense power and a prophecy foretelling a tragic future. Hundreds of years later, the world must face arising hardships as the prophecy that has been predicted no longer can be stopped from becoming a reality. Trading routes have been disrupted, people are slowly starving to death due to dwindling rations, and villages are being attacked by trolls. Not to mention a powerful sorcerer holds three of the four stones from the Gods and is acquiring hundreds of followers by the day to aid him in a looming magical war. All that remains for him to start the war is the final gem: the gem that is being protected by the newly crowned King. The King must find a way to banish the evil threatening his kingdom, but with just a small group of close allies and a powerful sorcerer of his own who he can’t even completely trust, will it be enough to succeed?
For such a unique story that was created, readers will be incredibly curious where Kerley’s idea originated from. Kerley answered that she honestly could not say because there is no beginning and no end to her ideas. “I think sometimes it’s partially how you view the world and whether you notice the parts of the sum of the whole, or the whole. I see the parts before the whole and sometimes a tiny detail links to something else instead of where it should normally go and spins off into a story idea. With Barclan, that’s the idea that never went away. It started with a dream,” Kerley said. “In The Hummingbird’s Tear, there’s a scene where Calem dreams and sees his life in memories captured in shards of a broken mirror. I had that dream. Barclan grew from there. It’s all so vivid and developed in my mind it feels like memory instead of ideas, like I’ve been there and I know the characters as real people. I visit there and have chosen a few events to write down that I’ve turned into the books.”
Perhaps the first element that will captivate any reader is how the first book begins: “The world did not exist.” Who would not be intrigued to keep reading after an opening line like that? Readers are immediately introduced to Kerley’s creative mind as they begin The Hummingbird’s Tear and the unique mythology she created for her own series. “The creation of the Gods was a difficult and a backwards start. I’d written the first two books and was busy with the third before I was picked up by Calumet and actual editorial began on The Hummingbird’s Tear. There was a lot of to-and-fro conversations with my publisher to get an amateur manuscript into print shape and we got to a point with it where the story was solid, but I reread it and it felt lacking to me. So I halted everything and went back to chapter one which starts with Brennan, Calem, and Troy as children and asked myself ‘why’? Why did it happen, why would this happen, why is there magic in the world?” Kerley said.
“Since I knew the conclusion to the whole story across the multi-book arc, I also had to ask myself from a higher perspective if it would all make sense to a reader when it’s wrapped up, and it didn’t. So I started writing ‘something else’ to open the book. By the end of the night, I had the Four Gods of All, and I had a lot of rewrites to do which I put across to my editor and he was very supportive. It was the best decision for the book, but I seriously underestimated how much work it takes creating a mythology. It’s a complex task and one I haven’t finished,” Kerley said. “A mythology is a lot more than where a world comes from: it’s how beliefs are shaped, how cultures grow from creators, influences on the various races, and since it’s fantasy and I’ve got to create it all, a lot of the creative freedom of writing starts to feel like a job. Out of it has came a huge volume of written work I’ve done on the mythology to develop it, almost as much as the rest of the books. I’ve really invested in the mythology and I enjoy it as much as the main Barclan story. I’ve chosen to weave it more deeply into book two, not least by opening with more of it as I did in The Giant’s Echo, but by starting to subtly bring the Gods into the book.”
The elements that will capture the reader’s attention with and after her mythology is Kerley’s writing style and how she can focus on so many characters, yet not confuse the readers on who is who. She has an incredible talent of giving each of her characters the perfect amount of time in the spotlight and, what is even more captivating about Kerley’s writing style, is the fact that she is self-taught. “The writing style is my own, untaught, and the character jumping is the most natural thing in the world to me. I don’t do it consciously I just write it and it works. I think it mirrors how I think which is why it flows well when I write it,” Kerley said. “But it isn’t ‘correct’. Something I never knew and never noticed in anything I had ever written until my publisher pointed it out was that most writing is done from a single character point of view and that chapters are structured from one point of view. That is considered the ‘correct’ way to do it, and is the norm; apparently a convention to make it easier on the reader to follow the story.”
“Having had no ‘professional’ training to write and so no knowledge of this, I developed my own style which is closest to the omniscient point of view where the writer knows everything and is narrating it to the reader. At first, the publisher wanted the books rewritten using a single character point of view, but that would have meant rewriting the entire books form page one. Which I tried to do and it was an utter failure. The whole story fell apart and was awful, so we talked about it and the publisher agreed I’d stick to my own style which works well in these books,” Kerley said. “I think the reason it works so well with a cast of a lot of characters is because I do a lot of prep work on the characters, so as I’m writing and picturing what they’re saying, how they’re saying it and what they are doing, it flows naturally and is easy to follow because the characters are defined and distinct so the reader knows who is who.”
Speaking of many characters, readers may be curious as to which of the many characters Kerley created is her favorite. “The very first scene I wrote was Calem in the dream with the mirror shards. Then Brennan was added. And even though the story is fundamentally about the two of them and the different facets of them and their journey representing all the themes of the books, I have to admit they aren’t my favorite,” Kerley said. “My favorite character is Cotta. The Hummingbird’s Tear set her up as an important powerful figure in the ruling council of Kraner with influence and reach across Barclan, but in The Giant’s Echo, I really delved deeper into who she is. You’ll never see the content in the books, but with Cotta (as with the others), I created a back story for her: where she’s from, who her parents are, their linage, a family home and relationships, some good and bad events in her past, and decided how those shaped her. I thought about how she would behave with those closest to her as well as enemies, and decided there’d be little difference.”
“I gave her sensuality and sexuality and, I hope, gave her the ability to be cruel and kind with motive. I wanted a woman who was strong in her own right, who had the respect of her peers and no small amount of fear from competitors, but above all, a woman who knows her own mind, knows what she wants and isn’t seeking approval or validation from anyone else. I gave her very intimate scenes of desire, friendship, loyalty, anger and resolve to bring out her personality and to use other characters reactions to her to give insight into who she is. To me, she is a deeply layered and fascinating character and it was an absolute joy to bring her into the forefront of The Giant’s Echo. She is key, her relationships are key, and what happens to her and Brennan going forward into book three is going to shape the world — although whether for good or bad, I’m not saying at this stage,” Kerley said.
Along with her characters come scenes Kerley enjoyed writing from both of her books thus far. “In The Hummingbird’s Tear, one of my favorite scenes is when Calem creates the fire disc and lowers Orren and himself to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve the gem. It was difficult on many levels, not least of which is how do you get a society without submarines and remote vehicles to pick something tiny up off the sea floor? So I had to get creative and flex the boundaries of what imagery I could create and craft to give the reader the experience the scene deserved,” Kerley said.
“In The Giant’s Echo, there are two I enjoyed in particular, for the same reasons. The first is the opener with Travis and Homen in Homen’s living room when he is talking about the cracked goblet. Up to this point, readers only know Homen as a tactician and Travis as a patriot, both good men in bad times, but we don’t know anything about them personally and the story didn’t lend itself to much development of them as characters because they were so essential to the plot and I was wary of over-writing. So I added a small short scene to show them as two people: two friends who are well aware of what they are sacrificing and why, accepting that sacrifice but allowing themselves to regret it. Because outside of that scene, no sacrifice is too large, and it sets them up in my mind both as heroes just for being the men they are.”
“The other scene was Cotta and An’eris in the bath. Again, two people, this time two women who are close friends sharing an intimate moment, being vulnerable with each other without sexualizing it. There is a lot going on in the story and a lot to get through and taking time out in the middle of the book to take a breather and explore these two characters outside of what they are doing for the story was, I think, an important part of what makes them so powerful as characters and sets up what happens at the end so well,” Kerley said. “The scenes with Troy were the easiest to write. I don’t mind imagining gore and violence, it doesn’t bother me to focus my mind on those types of scenes if they [are] essential to the plot and character. I’m pleased when people are uncomfortable with them because they are very hard to write and that’s the experience I’m trying to put across. Troy’s lust for violence and the joy he takes from cruelty makes him in many respects a very simple character, the complexity with him is normalizing his violence as it and the spell-casting escalate. The scene in The Giant’s Echo in Ravi’s tent took about half an hour to write and I never rewrote it even once. The way he keeps Ravi’s head with him and interacts with it like a very childish lover I think might be worse to read than it was to write. To me, that’s just Troy.”
With Kerley’s stories containing so much detail, readers may be curious as to how long it took for her to write her stories. Kerley admitted that it was hard to say. “With The Hummingbird’s Tear, I wrote sporadically, usually in winter (no idea why) and it went through so many versions over the years that there is no single version of ‘it’ to put a time on,” Kerley said. “The Giant’s Echo was a rewrite of a manuscript and I was working on it for about two hours a night and sometimes four or five hours a day, if I took time off work. With book three, I’m spending at least two hours a day on the prep, a lot of which is going over The Giant’s Echo to pull out details for continuity, but I’m expecting the actual writing of the book to take about seven months. How many edits it’ll take with Calumet, I can’t predict.”
“As for support, my husband is brilliant. He sees a lot of the back of my head and completely understands. He gives me the time and the space to write and that makes a big difference when you are juggling a home, kids, friends, family, and a day job,” Kerley said. “The other main supporter I have is my best friend Maddy. She has read everything I’ve ever written over the last 20 odd years and is as interested and supportive today as she was on day one. We have the same interests and sense of humor and she gets me, she gets the writing, she gets what I’m trying to do and has a bottomless barrel of prods and pokes to keep me at it.”
Readers will be satisfied with being able to read two books from Kerley, but once one completes The Giant’s Echo, it becomes a difficult process to wait for the third book in The Barclan Series. Luckily, Kerley said that she knows exactly where the story is going, has set up all of the chapters, and is prepping and writing as quickly as she can. “As for where the story goes, the first thing I’d say is the story matures. The Hummingbird’s Tear was light: there were a few dire scenes, but it was, on the whole, a feisty adventure. The Giant’s Echo took things darker very quickly, to more mature themes of the personal cost of conflict. I had the opportunity and ability to write far more disturbing graphic scenes and use the magic in a more classical manner not because I wanted to include violence for the sake of it, but because it was right for the story and right for the characters. I also really ramped up the use of the magic and developed rules for its use and outcomes for using it. Magic is really hard to write because it is utterly impossible, so to add more of it and outdo yourself each time takes a lot of thought,” Kerley said. “In book three, expect more maturing of the story to the ugly truth of the consequences of our actions. I’m taking more of the story out of Kraner and across the kingdom on a much bigger scale. We’ll be waving goodbye to some characters and saying hello to a few new ones. The Druids and other kingdoms are coming into play and we’re going to actually go to war. And of course, there’s still a world to save. Or is there?”
Readers looking for that new unique story, especially within the fantasy genre, need look no further than Kerley and her The Barclan Series. Both The Hummingbird’s Tear and The Giant’s Echo provide an amazingly unique and intriguing story that fans of fantasy have been waiting for for a long time. When asked what she would say to another who wishes to write, Kerley said. “Write for the reader. Reread your work out loud. I’m plagued by self-doubt and imposter syndrome, so that’s hard. I remind myself that writing is a skill and a craft that takes practice, development and patience. I think of the writer I want to be and the quality of stories I want to be telling in 10 years’ time and I’m working toward that; it’s a journey. So I write my books, I hope someone likes the story, and I keep writing.”
Originally published at rolloutreviews.com on May 31, 2018.