In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers.
This week, we spoke with Will Panzo, a former Marvel editor whose debut fantasy novel The Burning Isle combines the sensibilities of Game of Thrones and Red Rising.
You used to be an editor for Marvel Comics. How did that impact writing a fantasy novel?
Working at Marvel you get to work with a lot of creative types and read a lot of scripts. Comic book script writing is a bit different from novel writing, but the ideas are still the same. There’s certainly some lessons I pulled from there.
What kind of lessons?
Comic stories today are written in five- to six-issue arcs and meant to be collected for trade. But for most of its history, comics would tell a continuing story but each issue itself had to be a complete story so that anybody could hop right in and start reading. So you have to make sure that you identify who each character is, even if it’s Spider-Man who you think everybody should know. There’s always some nine-year-old picking up their first comic, so you want to make sure they get enough of his background to know why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s just good, clean storytelling. You want to make sure that you carry those into your stories as well.
So when you were conceptualizing The Burning Isle, what came first: the world or the characters?
The characters. My idea of Cassius was a guy who was very much obsessed with myths and legends and pictured himself as kind of a white knight in a land that was corrupt and lawless. And the idea that the reality of the situation maybe wouldn’t match what he had envisioned, and how he came to terms with that.
What was the most challenging part of your writing experience?
Just getting words on the page. In my younger, more foolish days I was under the impression that you had to be inspired to write. Then I realized writing is just a task that you have to do every day, whether you’re inspired or not. Once you’ve written a novel, then you can go back and polish it and dig deeper and start to mine whatever gems might be in there as opposed to just waiting for your pen to catch fire and carry you away.
Because the fantasy genre has had such a boom in recent years, are there any fantasy shows you’ve been following?
I love Game of Thrones, both the books and the TV show. I think they do a really excellent job there. In terms of movies, I certainly like the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies. It definitely seems like there’s this huge fantasy boom in the last few years, probably powered by peoples’ interest in Game of Thrones. It’s an exciting time to be producing fantasy stuff.
On that note, you had some interesting things to say about fantasy on Twitter.
Can you could expand on that?
It’s also something that dovetails with comics. In the ‘80s, there was this huge boom when mainstream American superhero comics were getting critical attention. So you had Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and you had hundreds of articles published like, “Comics, they’re not just for kids anymore.”
I think it was in the late ‘90s that Moore said while it was nice that comics had enjoyed this ascension in terms of finally being taken seriously as an art form, in doing that it lost some of its weird, dangerous edge. That’s something that’s only continued. I don’t read much mainstream comics now, but the stuff that I do read seems like it’s very careful, as opposed to stuff that was being done in the ‘60s and ‘70s where it almost feels like true outsider art. My cranky, contrarian viewpoint is that it seems like right now there’s a lot of eyes on fantasy and maybe their critical acceptance or interest is just right around the corner, and I just would hope that fantasy would stay true to its weird roots and not try to sacrifice that to become something more respectable.
If you were writing Westerns, you have the guy in the white hat, the guy in the black hat, they have a duel at high noon — that’s what the expectations of the genre are. But once every 50 years, you’ll get a Blood Meridian. And I think the fantasy audience is much more willing and eager for a book that defies genre expectations than one that’s deep into them.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.