Autistic high fantasy author Christopher Bramley is one of an exciting new breed of talented writers who are championing neurodiversity in the arts, and bringing fresh perspectives and voices to literature.
With his first novel set in the magical World of Kuln, The Serpent Calls, just released, we caught up with Christopher to learn more about his gripping series, how his condition is central to his writing style, and why the fantasy genre is no longer a ‘male-only’ preserve.
Q. How would you sum up your debut novel, The Serpent Calls?
A. Outside the relatively loose term ‘speculative fiction’, it touches on a number of areas—predominantly fantasy, of course, but with sci-fi elements, and also humour and horror. It’s an exploration of a totally new world but it’s a very real place, and it holds up mirrors here and there to the world we live in—tropes are explored, sometimes inverted, and there’s a lot of emotion involved. I’d also be the first to admit it’s definitely not perfect. Readers love it but as the author, I must say that I think the sequel, Tides of Chaos, to be the better book in terms of writing and flow, although it’s also a bit different.
Q. Why did you decide to centre the first novel around a boy, Karland?
A. When I wrote what would become the first words, and my mind was nebulously viewing some sort of story, I was 13, so I’m sure this guided the decision. Later, it became much more about the idea of someone who was utterly average caught up in events. I know an awful lot about being a lonely 14-year-old boy who didn’t fit in, so there was a lot of experience there. And then I realised recently that I’d quite clearly written a neurodiverse character (which obviously makes sense now!) without meaning to. I didn’t encounter any real urge to change the main character because in some ways he was who I wished I could have been: someone who, despite his struggles and lack of understanding concerning the why of the world around him, finds his people, his true friends, and experiences the wonder and terror and magic of the greater world. I could have made the character female later on, but there are reasons I didn’t which actually become very clear in the third book.
Q. As an author, what is the main appeal of the fantasy genre?
A. I think it’s the sheer scope of the worlds that are possible, and also the reliance on needing to explore alternatives to what we know for events—magic, gods, spirits, demons; all of these are things that are less explainable. Sci-fi tends to operate on things we understand as possible, or delightfully adds in proto-possible concepts, but fantasy has always carried this Robert E. Howard-esque ‘time-that-was before the world changed’, ‘in the days of high adventure’ vibe about it. Of course, it’s really a genre that includes sci-fi and others as well, perhaps, and they’re all part of speculative fiction in general. I love the idea that you have to force an understanding of other ways to arrive at knowledge or capability than the ones we know, and for me fantasy offers this, in worlds we can’t imagine and which may break the bounds of what we believe possible. It’s an utterly freeing genre—as long as it’s not only about the ‘cool world’.
Q. Are there any tropes of fantasy fiction that you were keen to avoid?
A. I’ve deliberately stuck my tongue in my cheek at the ‘golden child’ hero arc, although this may change (read on to find out!). I’ve also very much steered away from the single gender/race hero—Karland isn’t the only main character, and he’s fairly dusky skinned where another of his party, and his love interest, Xhera is definitely very light-skinned. I also avoid the good/bad paradigm, although I’ll play with it. Both can be subjective, and I’m more interested in the interactions between order and chaos and how they affect what we see as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Elves are not light skinned on Kuln, they’re alabaster—their skin has nothing to do with human races. We’re very diverse as a species in terms of morphism while elves are pretty uniform. I also played with the orcs/orks tropes. The biggest trope I wanted to avoid was the ‘male gaze’ failure of the Bechdel test which many fantasy books have demonstrated in the past. All my characters are just people in circumstances. What’s interesting for me was initially seeming to allow tropes you’d expect—the warrior Rast, for example, is pretty awesome and untouchable, and Xhera is beautiful, and so on—until, as you progress through the books, you realise you’re seeing them through the eyes of a fairly autistic and idealistic young boy who is growing up and accepting realities, and how we know them changes as a result.
Q. There is a pervading stereotype of fantasy fiction being for men, not women. Is there any truth to this?
A. There definitely has been in the past, and even now there are more toxic elements of ‘girls in fantasy/gaming/role-playing games etc. are not real gamers/readers/blah’ around, but I think this is largely changing. Young adult fiction as a genre, especially, shows a huge number of amazing stories by and about women, and I know at least as many women who love fantasy in all forms as men. Half the Twitch streams by people I know are women, and they’re serious geeks and gamers. I’ve only had one male editor and most of my peer readers are women. I think the idea of it being a male domain is—thankfully!—becoming very much a myth of the past.
Q. As a male author, what is your approach to writing strong female characters?
A. There are multiple parallel approaches I take to writing my female characters. When I write a character, I try my best to write them as a person; a real person, with desires, drives, thoughts, emotions. I have things which happen to them try to make sense for their context, and I only later factor in how things might affect them differently as a man or woman—but that’s more a result of the book’s cultures, scene, players etc. A female character in Morland would be written markedly differently from one in Novin, for example, and it might depend on which character’s eyes we view scenes through as well. I also ensure that a range of male and female peer readers pay attention to the characters to make sure they’re appropriate and real, and I also make very sure the female characters are passing the aforementioned Bechdel test—there should be no significant female character who exists purely for a significant male character’s prominence. I think my first explanation is worth reiterating; I try to write female characters as people who happen to be female, and work from there!
Q. If a reader is new to the high fantasy genre, what one book would you recommend they read before approaching your novel, and why?
A. For different reasons I could pick Dune, Eye of the World, Pawn of Prophecy, Magician, and more – but I think I’ll go with Tad Williams’ superlative The DragonBone Chair. There are definitely huge influences on some of my writing from this book (and the others), although there are differences. I also love how he tells a tale of a normal youth, who is basically just a dumb boy like Karland (and I’ll readily admit also myself at that age!) and a bit lonely. There are some lovely hints at ‘Chosen One’ and broader topics that transcend humanity. I love his work in general. It’s also got a great mix of the humour, horror and just surreality that I have tried to bring to my own work. I’d say there are definite similarities.
Q. You credit your high-functioning autism with aiding your writing. Can you explain more?
A. I am atypically autistic, which affords some interesting strengths (and a number of inbuilt weaknesses). I’m able to context switch extremely rapidly, with extreme hyperfocus in some things for details but an ability to ‘scan the horizon’ in others. A downside of this is that I can be easily distracted by input or ideas, but my mind never stops generating thoughts or content which can be the genesis or development of new stories or scenes. My brain never stops processing everything! I never knew when I was younger why I was sometimes so tired; now, of course, it makes sense, and this constant seeking of patterns and linkages lets me combine things in lots of different ways. This inability to filter input, whilst exhausting, gives me depth and breadth of detail and very clear recall. I also experience extreme intensity of emotion and sensory input, so I can find nuances in what characters would be feeling. This means I’m very deeply empathic, almost to a disability at times— I can get overwhelmed with events – or even events in my books! – but it has its place with compassion and understanding to make my characters as human as possible, in both good and bad ways.
Q. Does autism present any barriers within the wider publishing industry?
A. Like any social disability, it if there is not a level of inclusiveness to allow for differences then there can be some definite challenges. The awkwardness of fitting in, socialising, massive levels of social anxiety or imposter syndrome all play a significant part. The difficulty with rejections which may be unexplained, chance, or arbitrary can be difficult as well, as can the levels of emotional response. It’s difficult for anyone, but being autistic can mean struggling just to get through a normal day in ways most people never even notice, so adding these requirements in—including the cognitive energy and load required to handle them and appear ‘normal’—can make the traditional industry very hard to deal with when you’re autistic. It’s also a point of debate as to whether being openly autistic can help or hinder you—it’s likely that this will depend on trends, requirements, genre, and more. I suspect a lot of other neurodiverse authors struggle, even if they are part of the industry.
Q. You have built up an entire world, Kuln, for your fantasy series. If you could move to one location, which would it be and why?
A. In a world of danger, it’s hard to pick, but Eordeland is pretty enlightened. It has its problems, of course; I’m also a fan of Morland, which seems quite decadent and loose but is only so because they’ve been through three empires and have learned to not take life so seriously. Perhaps the elven forests of the Leohtsholt. But the answer may be more transient than this; if I had a choice, much as I’d love to spend time with the characters I know and love, I’d probably want to spend time wherever The Green Warrior is. He doesn’t appear until book 2, but he’s an old, old friend.
Q. Your next novel, book two in the World of Kuln series—Tides of Chaos—comes out soon. Without spoilers, how does it take the story forward?
A. Book one introduces people and backdrop, and how personal things can be. Although it’s pretty epic in places, it’s still focused on the characters and the confusion around what’s happening. In book two, things become clearer, and although we get to know the characters much better, the scale of events expands; more than ever, you become aware of the significance of only a few people against the background of realms, war, and even gods and greater powers. We learn more about the world at large, and what’s really happening, and it expands the characters in breadth, depth, and number.
Q. What’s the one piece of writing advice you live by?
A. If the story is telling you how it should be written or what happens, and trying to use you as a conduit, listen to your muse. You might not use it then and there, but you probably will, and the results can take you totally by surprise. Let go of a little control!
The Serpent Calls by Christopher Bramley (Sanctum Publishing) is out now on Amazon in paperback, priced at £15.99, hardback priced £24.99, and as an eBook, priced £8.99. Tides of Chaos will be published later this year. For more information, visit www.christopherbramley.com.