Exclusive Interview: “The Winter Knight” Author Jes Battis
There’s been a number of novels that have retold or put a different spin on the legends of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table. And there’s been plenty of stories about supernatural and paranormal detectives. But forgive my ignorance if I’m wrong, but I believe that Jes Battis’ urban fantasy mystery novel The Winter Knight (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) is the first time anyone’s done both, and more, in the same story. In the following email interview, Battis discusses what inspired and influenced his modern medieval mystery.
To start, what is The Winter Knight about, and when and where does it take place?
The Winter Knight is an urban fantasy mystery set in Vancouver. In the book’s world, the knights of the round table have been reincarnated, and when one of them is murdered, it’s up to Wayne (Sir Gawain) and Hildie (a cranky Valkyrie detective) to investigate the case.
So, did you set out to put your own spin on King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table, and The Winter Knight is what you came up with, or did you come up with the story first and then realize it would work really well if it was about King Arthur and his BFFs?
The manuscript went through several versions involving a detective-like character who was supernatural. While I was teaching Arthurian literature in a university English class, I started to think about what sorts of trouble those knights would get up to in a contemporary city.
I also wanted to talk about how European myths are a tool of colonization, which is why readers tend to know more about King Arthur than they do about local Indigenous stories and traditions.
So why did you want to put your own spin on the Arthurian legends, and what then inspired the plot of The Winter Knight?
Arthur is technically the central character of a group of stories going back to the sixth century, but he’s not necessarily the most interesting character, or the one who’s always driving those stories. I wanted to explore some of the knights who were often forgotten or ignored by the late-medieval authors who collected these stories. There are disabled knights (Sir Bedivere) and trans knights (Sir Grisandolus) and Muslim knights (Sir Palamades) and Black knights (Sir Moriaen) and queer knights (Galehaut, a prince who falls in love with Lancelot), and I wanted to see what kind of adventures they might have if they were the focus of the story.
As you said, The Winter Knight is set in modern day Vancouver. Obviously, this story wouldn’t work if it was set during the time of the Arthurian legends, since they’re set 1500 years before Vancouver was established in 1870, but is there a reason why you set it now as opposed to, say, 1970 or 2070?
Vancouver is a kind of a mythical city in its own way. It has the feel of Los Angeles, and while it’s a diverse and global city, it’s become financially unlivable for most people who aren’t millionaires. I wanted to show that version of Vancouver, where nobody can afford to live but everyone’s posting photos of the cherry blossoms on Instagram and talking about how beautiful the city is. A place where many of my friends are terrified of being evicted from their apartments, or having their co-ops lose funding. The city has an unreal quality that made it work as the setting for mythic characters.
Similarly, why did you decide to set it in Vancouver as opposed to England?
This was partly so that I could update the myths and remove them a bit from their European context, but also to show how Britain has used King Arthur as a tool of colonization.
Also, is there a reason you didn’t get cheeky with the names, like having King Arthur be reincarnated as Arty, and Sir Gawain be Iain or Gwen? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you didn’t, but I am curious why.
I wanted the characters to stay fairly recognizable. I tweaked some names (like Vera, or Dr. Hadley as Galahad), but mostly I wanted the names to signal who they were, so the reader could enjoy the story without having to do too much research.
As you said, The Winter Knight is a mix of urban fantasy and mystery. Are there any other genres in the mix?
It does cross several genres, and I think the myths do that, as well (thinking about how something like the Morte Darthur has magic, murder, spirituality, romance). I tend to describe it as an urban fantasy mystery novel, though the mystery itself (and the romance) are both slow burns. I like that the story gives you some breathing room to live with the characters and get to know them. There are stakes to the mystery, but the characters also have their own side-quests.
The Winter Knight is your ninth novel after the five in the Occult Special Investigator series and the three in the Parallel Parks series. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Winter Knight but not anything else you’ve written?
Once And Future by Amy Capetta and Cory McCarthy was a big influence; that book is basically “King Arthur in space,” and I loved how Merlin had a queer romance. Nicole Griffith’s medieval books (Hild and Spear) were also influential, especially in the way that she used lesser-known early medieval myths and histories.
You also write poetry. Which suggests you read poetry. How do you think writing and reading poetry influenced how you wrote The Winter Knight?
With poetry, I usually start with a first line and a central idea, and then the trick is to weave the poem around that. I think I did sometimes shift between poetry / prose writing experiences while working on the book — some of the text-message exchanges resembled miniature poems, and the dream sequences have a non-linear quality that mirrors some of the poems I’ve written. The ending of the book also does some POV-shifting as it builds towards a climax, and some of those very brief sections probably borrowed from my experience of writing poetry, where you’re drilling down to an idea and the shape of the poem or scene comes to reflect that idea.
And then how about non-literary influences; do you think The Winter Knight was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I played several action RPGs while writing the book, including Diablo, Torchlight, and reboots of older games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The bright colors have Torchlight probably reminded me that magic can be fun, and the non-linear storyline in Hades may also have been an influence.
I haven’t actually watched a lot of fantasy TV lately, because I feel like I need a lot of time to absorb the world-building in those types of shows. But Schitt’s Creek definitely influenced the dialogue, and Fleabag offered some dark humor as well.
As I mentioned a moment ago, your previous novels were all part of two different series. Is The Winter Knight part of a series as well?
I initially thought of The Winter Knight as a duology, but I’m actually content to have it be a stand-alone novel. I think the ending suggests a future for the main characters, but it’s also self-contained. Both Wayne and Hildie have some specific things to learn over the course of the story, and by the end, there are multiple transformations that signal the close of one chapter and the start of another. The world is probably quite adaptable, but I like the idea of showing these characters at a particular time in their lives, and then letting them move on (even Arthur has to die in the stories — there’s always an ending).
A moment ago I asked if The Winter Knight had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Winter Knight would work as a movie, show, or game?
I do think it would work well as a TV show (hit me up, CBC!). There’s a mix of humor, character development, and action that would work, and it would be nice to see a show filmed in Vancouver that’s actually set in Vancouver.
I hadn’t thought about a game, but it would actually work really well as an action RPG; imagine the fire magic that Kai could have.
And if someone wanted to adapt The Winter Knight into a show, who would you want them to cast as Wayne, Burt, and the other main characters?
There aren’t a huge number of autistic actors who could play Wayne, but Buck Andrews is a possibility. He’s an autistic actor who appeared on Ryan O’Connell’s show Special. Burt is a bigger guy who’s very confident; it might be fun to see [What We Do In The Shadows‘] Harvey Guillén in the role.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Winter Knight?
There’s also an audiobook version, released by Penguin-Random House, that features, queer, trans, and disabled voice actors.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Winter Knight, which of your other novels would you recommend they check out?
If you like the noir fairy tale aspect of The Winter Knight, then you might enjoy Night Child, the first novel in my Occult Special Investigator series (also featuring a queer found family). If it’s the fantasy / world-building aspect that appeals, then Pile Of Bones could scratch that itch.