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Solomon Parker is down on his luck. Thanks to his penchant for gambling, Sol’s wracked up a considerable debt to the town’s criminal boss. When disaster strikes the mine where he works, Sol leads his crew to safety, all but the one man he most wanted to save. Enter Marked Face, a mystical medicine man with a proposition for Sol – toss the dice and win a chance to change the past.
In his second novel, The Trials of Solomon Parker, Eric Scott Fischl throws luck, magic, and bad decisions into the literary pot and gives it a vigorous stir. A perfect mix of macabre and magic, heartbreak and hope, Fischl has mastered the recipe for dark speculative fiction. (Eric’s a great cook, so I couldn’t help myself with the analogy!) I am so pleased to welcome Eric back to BCB today.
Tabitha Lord: The Trials of Solomon Parker features a couple of characters we’ve previously met in your debut novel, Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show, but you’ve chosen not to really reference the events of the first book. The only echo of it that I found was Sol’s willingness to accept the strange, mystical “magic” he seems to have walked into yet again. Can you talk about that choice?
Eric Scott Fischl: There’s actually a pretty mundane reason for that: I wrote The Trials of Solomon Parker while Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show was out on submission to hopefully be sold, so in all honesty, I was hedging my bets. By which I mean I didn’t want to write a sequel to a book that maybe wouldn’t find a home … luckily it did and brought the second book along with it. Thanks, Angry Robot! Anyway, when writing Solomon Parker, I wanted something related, then, but that was also its own standalone. I do like books that have related threads and characters that weave through them, though, (David Mitchell, maybe my favorite working writer, is a master of this) so going that route seemed like a good plan.
TL: The “magic” in this book deals with altered timelines, which easily could have become confusing for the reader but doesn’t. How did you keep track of your characters and the divergent plotlines?
ESF: I am an incredibly inefficient writer and an incessant drafter. I would save myself so much labor if I was an outliner from the get-go, but I’m just not because it doesn’t work for me; I do make an after-the-fact outline after a couple of drafts, which helps me keep track of what’s going on and more easily move things around, so there’s that, I guess. Anyway, there were about a dozen full drafts (and a few partials) in Solomon Parker , then, by the time it was finished, so most of the character and plot arcs really shook out during that process, and then by getting feedback from early readers and my editor about anything was unclear or confusing. That clarity did take some effort, as I know I was overindulging my own fondness for ambiguity and mystery, but that’s tough to pull off in this kind of story so I’m glad there were people to call me on it.
TL: I understand that you created the “native” stories incorporated into the book. How familiar are you with various native traditions and tales, and how did that influence this part of the book? Related, did you write this parallel story first, or did it evolve from Solomon and Billy’s story?
ESF: Having lived in the West almost all of my life, and being a pretty voracious reader, I’m fairly familiar with the native stories and traditions from this part of the world, having come across them in lots of places over the years. Solomon Parker’s original idea, though, came about after I read an article which theorized that Kennewick Man (the famous, and fought-over, prehistoric human remains found in the Columbia Gorge in 1996) could actually have come from Japan and be related to the Ainu, which would have upended a lot of what we think we know about how people arrived in North America (spoiler alert: he’s not from Japan). But that got me thinking about some things: the migration of early peoples, how stories and cosmologies get carried with them and grow, and then about myths in general and about the universality of a lot of these stories, all over the world. So I wasn’t really coming at this from the point of view of retelling Native American myths, but it was rather the fact that I wanted to use some of these universal kinds of legends to explore some ideas. They were framed as they were, then, because the book is set in the West, around where I live. I could have likely just as easily told a similar story using Greek legends as a starting point, or Aztec legends, what have you, had I set the story in those places. Eventually, gears shifted away from this Kennewick Man idea, although a few minor elements are still there, and I knew where the story wanted to wind up, so I started telling those “myth” parts towards that goal. I had some particular thematic ideas about the book as a whole, which is what originally tied those threads together with Billy and Sol’s story. It wasn’t until I’d done a few drafts that I realized how closely I’d actually tied them (actually it was pointed out to me by a very sharp early reader, my writer friend Tex Thompson, in what was a “whoa, you’re right” sort of moment for me), and then from there was some tweaking and fussing over some more drafts to meld it all a little closer together.
TL: One of my children, a screenwriter, is fond of saying that horror is the flip side of humor. I happen to know that you have a very witty sense of humor, and yet your stories cross straight into the macabre. Can you talk a little about where your ideas come from, and how you maintain personal levity while immersing yourself in some pretty dark storytelling?
ESF: I think your screenwriting offspring is correct, as both horror and humor really have their genesis in uncertainty: it’s partly the fact that something is just … off … that can make something either funny or horrifying, depending. Sometimes both at once. In terms of ideas, I get a lot of them from reading history: I’ll read something and think hey now that’s interesting, and from that starting point, tweak or twist it somehow and go from there. It’s possible that maybe I’m just a horrible human being, but I don’t ever find myself getting so immersed in writing a dark story that it brings me down. I think it’s likely the fact that, as the writer, I’m having to pay attention to the story at so many levels as I build it that prevents any suspension of disbelief from kicking in. It’s labor as prophylaxis. I’m honestly a pretty cheerful person, as a general rule, and I don’t know that, for someone who enjoys writing darker stuff, I’m unusual in this, either: most other authors I’ve met who delve into the dark stuff tend to be pretty cheerful too. That’s a thing with dark material, as well: it can be cathartic, in that one’s own life, hopefully, shines that much brighter when you’re done reading.
TL: In The Trials of Solomon Parker, fire plays a recurring and insistent role in the story. You’ve been dealing with fires in the forest surrounding your home. I don’t think the timeline for these fires aligns with your writing of the book but did the threat of fire, or your experience with it, influence this story in any way?
ESF: Oh man, don’t start me on those damn fires; it was a pretty lousy summer here because of that. It’s funny you ask this question, though, because it’s been on my mind lately, as Solomon Parker has been getting closer to release. When I was writing this book a couple years or so ago, it was partly during another bad fire season. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this one was, or the fires as close to my house, but the air was still full of smoke, it was hot, and just otherwise really unpleasant. I like spending as much time as possible outside and, when I can’t, it makes me crabby. So, in particular, the scenes in Solomon Parker where Elizabeth is hot and sweaty and ready to lose her mind because of all the smoke, yes, that was directly from personal experience, if I was maybe not quite so fraught. The fires in the Butte mines: honestly that just scared the crap out of me when I was doing research and reading about them, the idea of being trapped hundreds of feet underground with the way out on fire. What a terrifying experience that must have been.
TL: How did writing a second book compare to writing the first in terms of your own confidence level and writing process?
ESF: The biggest change from one book to the next, on the confidence front, was being more willing to involve other people in the process, earlier. I wrote Dr. Potter essentially in a vacuum until it went off to the person who became my agent, and only then did I get any other readers involved. Which was dumb. With Solomon Parker, it was still fairly aggressively drafted by the time I had some people read it, but I was more confident about wanting people to tell me what wasn’t quite working than I’d been with Dr. Potter, where I’d naively assumed I already had the answers because I’d written the book a dozen times over. So with book #2, I was more confident about being less confident, I guess? One comment from my friend Tex and my editor at Angry Robot, Phil, really nailed a particular item that wasn’t quite working … they both mentioned the same thing, which was actually fairly minor, but it had a really outsize effect on the quality of the book, one that I couldn’t see myself. In terms of the writing process, this second book definitely codified some things that I’d learned while working on Dr. Potter, about ways of writing that work for me in particular, as well as adding a whole schwack of new things that I wanted to pay more attention to. Solomon Parker is a more complicated book, in terms of structure, story, and the ideas I wanted to explore, and I felt better about tackling them after having worked through Dr. Potter. Both in terms of what I felt I could pull off, or at least try to pull off, and, more importantly, the process to get it there. A lot of writing is just that: figuring out what works for oneself, and throwing away what doesn’t.
TL: What are you working on next?
ESF: I’ve got a few projects cooking. Two manuscripts are pretty close, far enough along in my draft-nerd process where they’ve seen readers and I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and the third is early days still. They’re all historical spec-fic, again, but entirely unrelated to Dr. Potter and Solomon Parker, although there may be some little threads between them. I’ll never tell, and you can’t make me! All pretty different kinds of stories; I like to set challenges for myself from project to project, try some new things. Anyway, one is set in the 1950’s, one has a couple stories wound together between the 1880’s and 1930’s, and one is a merciless twist of several stories and voices across a couple hundred years, which is making me want to stab chopsticks into my eyes as I try to figure it all out. You can guess from that which project is the early-days one. Here’s hoping they all find good homes someday.
Eric Scott Fischl writes novels of speculative historical fiction and the supernatural. He lives in Montana’s Bitterroot mountains and writes his author bios in the third person.