Interview – Richard Milner, author of Vessel of Kali
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Richard Milner, author of Vessel of Kali. Welcome to our Showcase Lounge, Richard.
Richard Milner: Thank you so much for having me! I really appreciate the chance to talk.
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
RM: Sure. I’ll opt out of the chronological approach; we’d be awhile. I’m a writer of speculative fiction and its various offshoots, leaning towards the dark, the arcane, and the absurdist. I’ve taught English in the U.S. and in Japan, and I’m also a narrative designer in the video game industry. I’m an ardent, lifelong lover of the art of storytelling and the craftsmanship that goes into all of its incarnations: books, movies, shows, games, plays, operas, poetry – you name it. I chronically absorb pop and classic influences like a sponge, although it may be important to note that I was a teenager carrying Dostoyevsky under my arm for fun.
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
RM: My perfect writing conditions are completely fictional. I need to write like a monk by day, in a candlelit cell that mystically has wi-fi and a mini-fridge, and then leave the front door of my monastery to step into Seattle for dinner or a coffee. Can this be possible, please? Can I commission some highly ambitious time-travelers, IT guys, architects, and possibly wizards to synthesize this environment for me?
As to how often I write: I write every day in some form or the other. When I’m hammering out concrete drafts of a specific piece of work, I write militantly, face locked forward, headphones on, coffee by my side. When I’m editing, doing research, taking notes, or constructing top-down flow, things are a bit more pell-mell and freeform. Much of my creativity occurs at the high, conceptual phase when I’m building an overall piece of work. The implementation of the idea (the actual writing) employs more the approach of a craftsman, chiselling and sculpting bit by bit.
SPS: Can you put your finger on the moment that you decided that you wanted to publish your work?
RM: Yes, I can. I was reading the Dune series about 10 years ago, which I’d previously attempted to read as a teenager and didn’t really take to at the time. When I waited until I was a little older, I was floored by Frank Herbert’s work. It was stunning in its intellectual power and creativity. None of the characters could be defined in simplistic terms like, “a real go getter,” or “a teenager with daddy issues.”
One day when I was reading on lunch break, I realized from one moment to the next that I too could put my thoughts to paper, publicly. I’d always written, but mostly for the purpose of self-exploration. But in that moment, I came to believe that my experiences and perspective could have value to others, as well. From then on, I’ve felt that I had a duty to no longer keep my thoughts and writings to myself.
SPS: Why do you think it is that you decided to write your first novel in the genres that you did, and do you see yourself ever writing in other genres?
RM: Funny enough, my first novel – Vessel of Kali – started as another genre and story entirely. The former story was focused on many of the same themes as Vessel: abuses of power, the dangers of reactionary ideologies, cultural divides caused by socioeconomics, and so on. However, it was set in the modern day – in Baltimore, actually. The story was focused on a domestic terrorist cell operating out of a labour union of dock workers. I didn’t set out to write within any specific genre or period; this is just what came naturally. However, as I was writing, the setting became more and more disinteresting to me.
I grew up fascinated by the mythical and the macabre (Edgar Allen Poe was my first literary love). I’ve consumed more fantasy novels, RPGs, and comics than I can remember. So once I realized that I could actually employ the tools of the fantastic, my entire perspective on writing expanded. I never pre-select a genre to write within; I just don’t limit my options. It so happens that speculative fiction of the dark variety is the output I usually produce.
SPS: So, tell us about your debut novel, and where your inspiration came from?
RM: Sure thing. Vessel of Kali is a piece of dark fiction that draws on Hindu mythology and Zen traditions. It takes place in an alternate Earth, in a city called New Corinth, where the religious elite rule through the control of pleasure. The story features a rift in a secret order of goddess worshippers living under the city. A group of extremists has risen from their ranks and is looking to incite social upheaval through violent means. It’s part metaphysical journey, part psychological character study, and part political treatise. You can enjoy the story for those things, or you can just enjoy the top level narrative: dagger fights, chase scenes through underground catacombs, crazed religious zealots, apocalyptic visions, torture, perverse sex, political machinations, people engulfed in fire – You know, fun stuff.
The inspiration for Vessel of Kali came from a single piece of artwork, in a book of Hindu goddesses I received as a gift for my birthday one year. I was flipping through the book – it’s this massive, 3-foot tall hardcover containing gorgeous, intricate art – and I turned to the page featuring Kali. In the moment I saw the picture – and I’m not exaggerating when I say that – the story for Vessel of Kali ignited and swept through me like a firestorm. Key characters, specific plot events, the overall world of New Corinth, the overarching themes and motifs: All of it sparked alive. I was overwhelmed, and it felt like the writing process was me catching up to that initial vision.
SPS: What did you find the most challenging aspect of creating a whole new world?
RM: In a way, the benefits of creating a whole new world also serve as detriments. On one hand, I have the opportunity to make the world into anything I want, whatsoever. On the other hand, I lose the ease of being able to reference known, real-world places and concepts like “The Panama Canal” or “Nathan’s Hot Dogs.” If I say those things, people know what they are, and I don’t have to delve much further. But if I say “Scion of Logos,” or “The Eighth Kana,” no one knows what those things are. So, I have to additionally go through the expository legwork of explaining those things while not losing too much forward momentum. The world’s history, social values, prevailing philosophies, religions, speech patterns, etc., have to be upheld.
SPS: What were the events that lead to the extremists turning to violence and fracturing the Kali’ka?
RM: Fallow – the leader of the Kali’ka extremists – has been working covertly for a while, gaining followers in secret, sowing dissent; that sort of thing. He has his own agenda, which is unknown to the reader at first. So when he reveals his coup, publicly, the reason for his timing is something known only to him. We see him provoking New Corinth, engaging in violent demonstrations in the streets, and attacking scions (clergymen).
As for the motivations behind causing the schism to begin with, I can’t say too much. All I’ll say is that the Kali’ka are so steeped in secrecy, and so used to maintaining facades when in the world above, that their order is unfortunately the perfect kind of environment for dissention and hidden agendas.
SPS: What can you tell us about your lead character, Elara Aeve?
RM: The best answer is: Elara is the only person in the story fully willing to change. In many ways, she represents the best and worst parts of us. She’s noble, but cruel. She’s altruistic, but highly selfish. She hates dealing with people, but feels the need to protect them. She believes she knows herself, but at every turn her preconceptions are shattered. This is her journey: to reconcile her vision of herself with who she really is, and to learn where her responsibility to others truly begins.
When Vessel of Kali starts, Elara has just been raised to ascendant in the Kali’ka, one of only a handful of leaders. To say Elara is independent and dogged is the biggest understatement I could make. She butts heads with everyone, and at the same time she’s being hunted by gruesome visions. Once the Kali’ka learn of the extremists in their order, Elara quickly becomes caught up in a conspiracy that risks her life, the lives of those around her, and even the lives of the family she left behind in New Corinth.
SPS: How does she deal with the dark power swelling inside her?
RM: Much like anything else, her first reaction is to fight. Her gut instinct, for any piece of adversity, is to grit her teeth and resist. She fears the power that’s growing inside of her, mostly because she can’t control it. The “dark power” represents a part of her she hasn’t yet come to terms with. She has to accept what’s inside, even if what’s inside is terrible, otherwise she’ll only bring harm to herself and those around her.
SPS: Are there any other characters we should be on the lookout for?
RM: Oh yeah, definitely. Keep an eye out for Jacobs Osgood, a high-ranking priest and second-in-command to His Holiness in New Corinth. Jacobs is a preening, self-absorbed aristocrat with a sadistic streak. When the story begins, he’s doing what he usually does: conspiring, planning power grabs, and subverting the advancement of upcoming clergy. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that Jacobs undergoes arguably the most radical transformation in the entire book.
I’d also watch for Elara Aeve’s younger sister, Charlotte. She was more or less raised by Elara, and the two of them share a close relationship that’s faded over time. Charlotte is the one character in the book who is completely faction-agnostic. She freely moves between places, making allies with anyone. She’s the one who represents the cleanest, most optimistic vision of hope for the future.
SPS: Do you plan to continue from Vessel of Kali onto further books involving the same characters or world?
RM: Yep. I’ve already completed the scene-by-scene structure for the follow-up to Vessel of Kali, called Body of Ash. Even though Vessel of Kali is a complete story in and of itself, the world of the story persists after the book is over. Body of Ash takes place 14 years after the events of Vessel, and features some of the same characters. Both books can be read independently of each other. I can’t go into too much detail, but the issue at hand is: What have the characters done with the choices they’ve been given? How has the world dealt with the occurrences in Vessel, and where is it headed? The focus is on generational curses, particularly within the context of motherhood.
SPS: How have you found reader reaction so far to your work?
RM: I’ve been stunned at the positivity of the feedback, and humbled by how well readers “get” what I’m trying to say. I believed for a long time that my words would be better left unspoken, rather than spoken and misunderstood. Thankfully, I’ve been proven wrong. It’s strange, because as writers we take an absurd amount of time to write a fictional story that talks about a real-world idea in the most roundabout way possible. It’s like we want to be heard, but only through a precise type of encryption.
More often than not, readers have commented on my use of language, level of world detail, and disturbing portrayal of twisted religions and governments. All in all, that settles just fine with me! I’m honoured by the support, and I hope I can continue to deliver similarly powerful experiences.
SPS: Can you take a moment to tell us how you came up with the cover for Vessel of Kali?
RM: Totally. I worked with my artist because I had a very specific set of parameters in mind for the cover image. I knew it had to feature Elara, I knew we couldn’t show her eyes, and I knew we had to highlight her hair. I also knew it had to be simple, but evocative. It had to be elemental and coarse. Essentially, the cover had to convey Elara’s character. I asked friend and artist Brandon Blackwell because I knew he’d be able to get a handle on who Elara is. And honestly, he knocked it out of the park. I think the final version is as close to ideal as I could ask for.
SPS: It’s probably a good time to ask, what we can expect next from the pen of Richard Milner?
RM: Beyond Body of Ash, I’m always writing short fiction to help me exercise my creative muscles. I have a battery of short stories – all wildly different styles and genres – that I’m looking to finish. I might release it as a compilation, not sure. I also have a cluster of vignettes called The Kiln, which are set in the world of Vessel of Kali and chronicle Elara Aeve’s childhood and eventual initiation into the Kali’ka. And then there’s ongoing writing tasks, such as my blog. So yeah, lots of stuff!
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
RM: No, actually. For a long time, I was hung up on a romanticized vision of traditional publishing. I erroneously associated “being a writer” with the shared writers’ delusion of staying secreted away in a log cabin, passing along full manuscripts to my publisher, and quietly earning enough to make a living.
I tried my hand at the whole query/synopsis thing for a while, and then I realized that I was (rather ingloriously) begging for a scrap of attention from folks whose interests completely countermand my own. I was placing my future in the hands of ivory tower gatekeepers who safeguard an art-as-business philosophy. And then once I found out that major publishers don’t even budget marketing – and sometimes editing – for new writers, I said to hell with it and struck out on my own. I prefer doing it myself, anyway. It’s my creation, and I have the right to dictate exactly what it should be and how it’ll be presented to others.
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
RM: Yes and no. On the creative side of things, it’s an absolute joy. Crafting stories in the way I need, using the voice I want, being able to focus on expressing myself, not fretting about what an overlord thinks. I love being able to build a body of work from the ground up, and manage every phase of the project, all the way out to cover design and interior formatting. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
On the flipside, even though I was fully aware of the amount of work it would take to “get my name out there,” I didn’t really have a firm grasp on how to do that in concrete terms. The idea of supporting an independent artist is just that: supporting them so they can continue creating the art you love. So, when figuring out how to promote my work, I have this fear that I’ll digress into a salesman. I anticipated feeling this way, but it’s challenging nonetheless.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
RM: My highest piece of advice would be: treat your time to write with the respect due a shrine, and protect it with the ferocity of a soldier. Write what you want, in the exact way you want to write it. You, as a unique individual of insight and free will, are *owed* this capability, and owe it to yourself to not hedge the gift of free expression. Never start a piece of work by wondering what an agent will think, a publisher will think, or the most impatient reader will think.
Writing, like all the creative arts, needs to be a space of absolute safety and freedom. It needs to be a spot you can go to completely unshackle your thoughts and feelings. It does *not* need to be a place where you fret about market trends, genre conventions, and the opinions of literary professionals. For the power of relevant storytelling to persist, potential writers need to learn to not doubt themselves, or stuff themselves into prefab boxes of academia or industry.
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
RM: Yes! I recently finished a story called Deliberate Coincidence by writer-buddy Matt Liggins. Matt has a unique way of infusing real-world events with eerie supernatural overtones, and I really dig it. The novel features a number of parallel stories about different characters whose lives interweave, and who are all being manipulated by an outside force. The reality or non-reality of “luck” is the central motif in the book. I talked to Matt recently, and he’s already started work on the next book. Should be good!
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Richard, and all the best for the future.
RM: Absolutely! Thank you for a wonderful conversation.
SPS: For more information on Richard and his debut novel, please do visit his Showcase Author page here.