Interview: Richard Knaak: Old Chicago, New Stories
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 03 March 2016
Links: Author's Website / Review of Black City Saint /
SFRevu: Mr. Knaak sat down with us recently to discuss his latest novel, Black City Saint, and his career.
First off, thank you for this interview! It's a pleasure. Now, to get the ball rolling...how would you describe BLACK CITY SAINT to a new reader?
Knaak: Nick Medea lives in Roaring Twenties Chicago, a time of Prohibition and mob wars. However, bootleggers are the least of Nick's troubles. His supposed profession is helping those who believe they are bring affected by the supernatural see that there is no such thing. However, his true task is now to guard the Gate, the path between the world of Feirie and ours. It's a task made more monumental by his past decision, including slaying the Dragon he didn't know was actually the guardian before him. Nick has to watch threats from both sides, all the while aware that even those who should be his allies may not be. At the same time, he also must try to keep the woman he loved from dying...again.
But those are only the beginning of Nick Medea's problems. There will always be the Dragon, who is now part of him. There will always be the ghosts that haunt him, including the very one that had him executed centuries ago.
There will always be the legacy of his own mistakes...
SFRevu: I consider you one of the forerunners of what we now call urban fantasy, with your City of Shadows trilogy: KING OF THE GREY, FROSTWING and DUTCHMAN. Did those stories have any bearing on you wanting to write BLACK CITY SAINT? Is urban fantasy a fair description, or do you have a different concept of those stories?
Knaak: For lack of a better word, I would consider them urban fantasy. I've enjoyed using Chicago as a background for stories, in part because of growing up in and around the Chicagoland area.
With each of the novels, I've tried to focus on a different direction, culminating in what I consider one of my best novels yet, Black City Saint. Myth is fact, fact is malleable. The shadows you see out of the corner of your eye are not just shadows (King of the Grey), dreams are reality and reality is a dream (Frostwing), and myth controls reality (Dutchman).
Black City Saint touches upon all of these and more. The past is inexorably intertwined with the present in a myriad number of ways. The vital decisions made long ago by Nick show that even the most honest, righteous decision will have its potential dark side.
SFRevu: You've had a long association with DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS as well. Are there any particular challenges to writing in a game setting, and does development of that world in the game affect the stories you write...or vice versa?
Knaak: While on the one hand, a well-established world gives me a tremendous amount of material from which to study, on the other, often that material is still in flux. It can mean having a story that turns out very three-dimensional, but it can also mean a story that ends up being even farther from what it started out as than even one of my own. New elements introduced during the writing period can truly make a major and often sudden shift the final novel. Whatever the case, I enjoy playing in other people's worlds as much as I enjoy playing in mine.
SFRevu: Most of your work is in high fantasy. What most appeals to you about this specific kind of storytelling? Are there any tropes you most like, or are there more "cool toys" to play with?
Knaak: I grew up with the stories of King Arthur and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, and such. I enjoy stretching the imagination. This is not to say I don't like straight science fiction. Robert Sawyer is one of my favorites and I've read Clarke, Asimov, and many others. I love dragons, obviously, and great magic. Still, I like to try to turn even the basics of high fantasy around a little, adding in elements that I hope make my stories interesting and unique.
SFRevu: I'd like to note for our readers that your epic Dragonrealms books have been revived on Kindle. What great news! How would you describe the continuation of the story, as we see the story of Nathan Bedlam and his allies and their own struggle against the threat of the dragons?
Knaak: Not just on the Kindle. On all major e-formats plus trade paperbacks!
The Turning War --- which consists of the novels Dragon Masters, The Gryphon Mage and the in-progress Horned Blade --- actually goes back two hundred years to the time of Cabe Bedlam's grandfather, Nathan. Elements of that story have been mentioned in the past novels, but now we see the truth about this very unorthodox rebellion called a war. There are battles, yes, but a lot of this deals with the intrigues behind the scenes, intrigues that will ultimately affect the current timeline.
SFRevu: As a fan, I'm very happy to hear about this.
Who was your biggest influence as a writer? What story first sparked your imagination when it comes to the fantastic? What feeds your imagination these days?
Knaak: Biggest influences include Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre Norton, Roger Zelazny, and Arthur Conan Doyle. First SF novel I read (other than the Swiss Family Robinson and various Jules Verne novels) was Storm Over Warlock by Andre Norton. Read everything I could after that. Still read whenever I can, with authors such as Glen Cook among my favorites. However, pretty much anything can feed my imagination. It just has to be that particular moment. Could be an object, an image, etc...
SFRevu: What advice would you give aspiring writers? What do you wish you knew then that you know now, found out the hard way or were told by a fellow author?
Knaak: Write. Keep writing. Keep writing after you get rejected. Keep reading, too. That's pretty much the answer to the second part, too.
SFRevu: What are you working on now?
Knaak: I'm working on a new novel for the Pathfinder world. Also finishing up The Horned Blade for the Dragonrealm. Beginning work on some short material and taking notes on projects I cannot mention that are long-term. Also considering material for the sequel to Black City Saint. SFRevu: Cool! Are there stories you would like to follow up, such as KING OF THE GREY or others, in similar fashion?
I wouldn't mind returning to King of the Grey or The Janus Mask. I think Frostwing and Dutchman are done. Naturally, I'm very keen about Black City Saint and where to go with that.
SFRevu: I'd love to read the sequel. Is there anything you'd like to say in closing?
Knaak: As ever, I thank my readers. Without them, I couldn't have gotten this far!
SFRevu: It's always a pleasure to discuss writing with a veteran storyteller, and I urge you to seek out and read Mr. Knaak's work. You'll be well rewarded.