When it comes to fantasy novels, the names that came up as influences are usually J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and others with multiple letters. But in the following email interview about his new “grindark” fantasy novel The Blacktongue Thief (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Christopher Buehlman credits a playwright / screenwriter with no initials in his name.
To begin, what is The Blacktongue Thief about, and what kind of world does it take place in?
The Blacktongue Thief is a young man’s journey through a grimdark fantasy world as he tries to get right with his Thieves’ Guild and / or discover where his real allegiances lie. The world is pretty grim — goblin wars decimated a generation of mankind, and an equine plague called The Stumbles killed all the horses — but our narrator has a brand of black humor that makes it all okay somehow.
Where did you get the idea for The Blacktongue Thief, and how, if at all, did that initial idea change as you wrote this novel?
I’ve always enjoyed thief characters in both fantasy literature and role-playing games, so I put my guy on a road waiting to rob passers-by and decided to have his gang’s leader target the wrong wanderer. From the thief grew a guild, from the guild grew a city, from the city a world.
Now, you just said that the world where The Blacktongue Thief takes place is a grimdark one, but you also mentioned it having black humor. So, how do you describe it, genre-wise?
It’s not exactly grimdark, though you’d think so from the way the world has fallen to hell, and it probably would be without the narrator’s wiseassery. Is it okay if I coin the word “grindark?”
You just did. Congratulations. Anyway, who do you see as being the big influences on The Blacktongue Thief?
Joe Abercrombie is a big influence, as far as fantasy goes. But I think there’s something of playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh here, too. If you enjoyed the film In Bruges, I think you’ll have a good time in Kinch’s company.
And how about non-literary influences; was The Blacktongue Thief influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a teenager, like pretty much every card-carrying Gen X nerd.
Lastly for the influence questions — no matter how nicely you ask: Who had a bigger influence on The Blacktongue Thief: your ninjutsu-proficient cat Jane Mansfield or your dog Duck? Which is a very Steven Wright-ish thing to name a dog, by the way.
The biggest furry influence on The Blacktongue Thief was actually the cat we had before Jane, a blind grey tabby named Luther. He was the chief model for Bully Boy, the blind cat our protagonist scoops up on his journey. Luther was unwell, and we only got three years with him, but he cast a long shadow. He seemed like something more than just a cat, maybe you know what I mean. If you haven’t had an animal companion like that, one who felt like “other,” I can’t explain it to you.
Aside from writing novels, you’ve also written plays, poems, and even an episode of the recently rebooted Creepshow. Why did you decide to write The Blacktongue Thief as a novel as opposed to as a play or epic poem or TV show?
It had too much to say to fit into a play, and I didn’t make it a long poem because I was hoping to have more than a few dozen readers in highly specialized doctorate programs. The novel is really the best fit for epic fantasy.
Fantasy novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is The Blacktongue Thief?
It’s the first of a trilogy. The smaller story I wanted to tell — the specific quest of our protagonists — ends when you close this book, but the larger story is only beginning. I personally don’t (usually) enjoy twelve hundred page epics. Any book that might land you in the hospital if flung at you is too damned long.
Do you know yet when the others will be out and what they’ll be called?
We don’t have titles for 2 and 3 yet, though I’ve got a few ideas.
Earlier I asked if The Blacktongue Thief had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games, and why you didn’t write it as a screenplay. But I want to flip things around and ask you if you think The Blacktongue Thief could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
I could see a television show, definitely. But let me finish the series first!
As far as games go, there is a card game played in Manreach (our human world); it’s called Towers, and it really works. I’m developing it now. Hopefully you’ll be able to get your hands on it before too long.
If someone wanted to adapt The Blacktongue Thief into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Kinch and Galva and why them?
Sibel Kikelli, who so brilliantly played Shae in Game Of Thrones, would make a fine Galva. We haven’t talked about Galva yet in this interview, but she’s the “wrong mark” Kinch tries to rob early on. A veteran of the Goblin Wars, Galva worships Dalgatha, The Skinny Woman, a goddess of death. Think Kalimeets Santa Muerte. She also travels with a war corvid, one of the deer-sized flightless ravens bred to confront the goblin invaders. It was only fair, after they brewed up the horse-killing plague to dismount us, demoralize us, bring us closer to the ground. It’s especially sweet that we sicked huge corvids on them since goblins are petrified of birds, even small ones. Revenge is best served black as night.
And would you want to write the script or scripts for the show?
I would love to write the script. I really enjoy adapting my material. I’m currently working on a podcast version of my fourth novel, The Lesser Dead, for a company called Echoverse.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Blacktongue Thief, which of your other novels would you suggest they read while waiting for The Blacktongue Thief II: Electric Boogaloo? Or, y’know, whatever the second book is going to be called.
I think Between Two Fires would be a natural next choice for someone interested in grimdark. It’s kind of a hybrid, mashing up horror, historical fiction, and fantasy. It takes place in 1348, and imagines that the Black Death was the first volley in a new war between Heaven and Hell; as though the Revelation of Saint John actually happened then. You’ve got angels versus devils, though both sides are terrifying; a prophetic child trying to get to Avignon; an excommunicated knight on the knife edge between redemption and infamy. It was probably my favorite novel to write. Until now.