This edition of the Cirsova Author Series features a Q&A with Kurt Magnuski, author of Othan, Liberator published in in Cirsova #3. Othan returns in Othan, Vandal, with the release of Cirsova #6
Before I get on topic I ask for tourist suggestions for visitors to Chicago but we quickly get to discussing Kurt’s work, especially his stories of Othan’s adventures. I’m looking forward to the next installment when #6 comes out but if your interest in Othan is piqued by this interview you don’t have to wait until then as you’ll find a link to Othan, Friend in the interview below.
Scott Cole: While searching for your stories online I came across the Italian Beef Crawl. I was wondering if I stumbled upon something freaky but looks like it was a good time. Any crawl for 2017 planned for our Chicagoland readers?
Kurt Magnuski: The Beef Crawl is a drunken revelry for devotees of a sandwich you can get only in Chicago. After running the crawl for a decade, I’ve passed the torch to the younger folks. If there is one this year, it’ll be in the fall, like a second Thanksgiving.
SC: Besides freezing in winter what do you do in Chicago?
KM: Chicago is the opposite of Alaska; we prep all winter long doing indoor activities and filling piggy banks so that when the weather breaks we can bask in the sun like lizards without consequence. Summers are a blast here. Non-stop festivals, celebrations and backyard bbqs. It’s hard to get any writing done from May to September.
SC: I spent a couple of years in the Chicago area. I remember when I first arrived I was told that in winter one should put additives in the gas tank to avoid problems and that traffic lights would freeze up. I was sure the people telling me this were pulling my leg. Sure enough, additives are to combat any water in the tank (though many claim they are a waste of money) and I’ve seen my fair share of stop lights freezing up the light not changing.
As for summer, have to agree with you. Blues festival was always good and we’d always go to Lake Michigan and sneak onto the Northwestern University beach without paying . It was a constant battle and always getting kicked out for bringing in coolers of beer.
KM: Any true denizen of the north coast has a bottle of fuel additive and a shovel in the trunk, just in case. A bag of rocks is another trick- it weighs down the car for better traction on the ice and slush. If it wasn’t for the great summers, nobody here would put up with the cold. But if it wasn’t for the cold, Chicago would be the size of Tokyo and as costly as San Francisco.
SC: What are the top five places you feel are essential for a tourist to visit but more or less off the tourist track?
KM: First of all, come between Memorial Day and Labor day so that things are open.
Garfield Park Conservatory if you’re into plants
Arlington Park racetrack – it’s in the suburbs, but it’s top five in the nation for horse racing
North Avenue Beach if it’s warm and sunny (beware of crowds)
Bucktown and Logan Square for dining and nightlife if you can tolerate hipsters
It is touristy, but the Chicago River Architectural tour is legit. You can see the city’s new and classic architecture from a boat with a bar on it.
SC: I miss Chicago style hot dogs. When travelling I always avoid paying for overpriced and mediocre food in airports but have been known to make an exception when I see a Chicago hot dog stand.
KM: For those that don’t know- Chicago style is an all-beef hot dog on a poppy-seed bun with mustard, celery salt, onions, tomato, a dill pickle spear, neon-green sweet relish and sport peppers. After age 17 no ketchup allowed! For some, the Chicago Style Hot Dog is the only source of vegetables in their diet.
SC: Now to get on topic: your Cirsova stories concern Othan and his adventures in the fantastic city of Dix and its surrounding environs. Please give the readers some background information on both Othan and his city.
KM: Dix is an eternal city- the spiritual naval of Othan’s world. Like Jerusalem, Dehli and to some extent Chicago. But not like Rome. Dix is an independent city-state that projects no political power abroad. I has it’s hands full already with a spiderweb of cults, gangs and cabals.
Othan is an orphan that learned young to fight and steal and to keep his mouth shut. Unlike his peers, he also learned to read. He claims allegiance to no one and works on both sides of the law. When he’s not gathering up treasure he’s usually spending it on booze.
Dix is geographically somewhat isolated and politically independent, and has its own hinterland for food, fodder and fuel. It can defend itself against neighbors, but finds it doesn’t have to because of the taboo associated with invading holy land. It’s the center of four of the five “Cults Major” that cover the known world. The only thing that would unite the normally fractious and petty cults and powers of the city would be an external threat. Othan and his employers are very cautious of outside groups trying to move into their turf.
SC: I’ve just finished reading Othan, Liberator and wondering if you could give Castalia House blog readers some background on how Dix became the “navel of the spiritual world” and of religion in Othan’s world? Two of the deities I picked out were Jwam and Thanus.
KM: Dix is a secular city in a very religious world. It is the center of four of the world’s five “Cults Major,” and is home to countless “cults minor” with churches as small as one. Jwam is a minor god unknown outside of his small town, but there are several theocracies in Othan’s world, the largest being the cult of Thanus, a warrior god. Religion is a major factor in the dramas that Othan gets sucked into, but he’s not a missionary, he’s a mercenary; in it just for the money.
SC: Despite living in the spiritual center of his world I take it that Othan isn’t very religious?
KM: That’s right. He’s seen the power of so many faiths he has no choice but to believe in all of them. He’s respectful of others’ faiths, and superstitious enough to wear a blessed anklet for protection. He would never pray to a god, but certainly invokes them aloud when cursing other people.
SC: I believe you have other Othan stories in print?
KM: Four other Othan stories have been published to date. Each deals with a particular role or characteristic of Othan. The story names start with “Othan,” and so far he’s been a vandal, liberator, friend, debtor, leader and victim. Slouth, savior and pawn are under construction.
You can find Othan, Friend for free at www.anotherealm.com in the 2009 archives.
Note that Othan stories are not for young adult readers – They’re no worse than the evening news, but adult situations arise.
SC: Please give Cirsova readers what to expect with Othan, Vandal in Cirsova #6.
KM: Othan isn’t always proud of the things that he does to pay the rent and stock his larder. And sometimes his actions come back to haunt him.
SC: What influences your work?
KM: My favorite genre is definitely sword-and-sorcery, and my Othan stories could be classified as such. My heroes don’t save the world, and they’re not trying to win a popularity contest.
In my other fiction writing, I like to focus on culture and try to touch on topics or themes that are timeless but not worn out by other authors. Topics include:
how societies interact with the physical landscape
unconventional economies and social change
rebellion, refugees and the movement of peoples
mythology and the depth of history.
SC: Please expand on the role of the physical landscape on society? This must be influenced by your work as an urban planner.
KM: Definitely, though not all of my settings are cities. I feel that a lot of fantasy takes place in the archetypal medieval town or manor and only slightly modifies that trope to serve their plot. In contrast I like to start with a setting – for example, two mountainside villages connected by a precarious bridge – and think about the beliefs or institutions that could result from that setting.
SC: From your career do you have an example of how the local environment affected modern beliefs or institutions?
KM: Unfortunately, today’s sterile world of televised consumerism has homogenized environments and societies, especially here in the US of A. The only difference between a strip mall in Tuscon and Toledo is the stucco. Hopefully my readers will appreciate a fantastic diversion to a far away world where folks have a little more flavor and anything is possible.
SC: Are there similarities between small village economies and modern urban civilization? Would you say your fiction written about village economies no longer working is also a thought experiment on what would happen to a modern city when facing different events?
KM: Othan’s neighborhood in the city of Dix certainly has an economy that a village would recognize, in that most residents also work/hustle and shop in the neighborhood and know little about the rest of the city. But it’s still far more connected to its neighbors than a rural counterpart. Othan’s adventures in the city take him to a variety of neighborhoods that are influenced by the places I’ve been or studied as an urban planner. Othan spends a good deal of time in neighborhoods generously described as “downtrodden.”
My exploration of village economies has more to do with the unconventional. For example, a town is dependent on a steady flow of religious pilgrims, and one day they stop showing up… That’s more fun for me to imagine than a young prince coming of age while overcoming, with the help of a talking cat and dwarf, the evil mage that overran his bucolic feudal realm.
SC: What do you like to read?
KM: I like to mix sci-fi/fantasy with literary fiction and the classics. My favorite speculative authors, in alphabetical order, are R.E.Howard, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and Roger Zelazny, though I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. Vance’s Dying Earth series and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun hit me like a cannonball.
I also enjoy the classic English language authors of the late 1800’s. I re-read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson the other day and was thoroughly impressed.
SC: Where do you come down on the enjoyment factor for the anti-hero Cugel? (note I have to improve this question and dig up some Jeffro and Mollison links). Some are put off by the narcissism and ruthless selfishness of Cugel and his counterparts.
KM: Cugel encounters outrageous and fascinating societies in his travels, so as long as Cugel hasn’t made it home, I could read a hundred books about that rogue, that scamp. His peers are just a bad as he, and anyway, he always seems to get what he deserves. I think if Othan were to meet Cugel they’d get along at first. But Othan wouldn’t put up with getting scammed… he would resort to violence fast.
SC: And some fortuitous happenstance would allow Cugel to escape (but not without a significant setback) making for a long running feud. I do like how others get what they deserve through Cugel’s actions. The Dying Earth universe is chiefly inhabited by those cursed to exist and help power a never ending spiral of bad karma.
KM: That makes for a great world to write in. When you start with such an interesting background you don’t have to overwhelm the reader with the other tools – plot, characters and settings. Even thinking about Vance is like going to writing school.
SC: Do you think Vance was trying to make a point with death of empathy and trust at at the end of the world or do you think these stories were a writing experiment of his, exploring a thought he must of had on how people would react when faced with imminent extinction?
KM: Based on the way I create stories, it looks to me like an experiment that got a lot of traction and turned into a theme. I see that world as having many extremes – wealth, power, lust and despair. Maybe he came up with one extremely selfish and rakish character, then thought with smile, “What if they’re all like that!”
SC: You mentioned R.E. Howard as a major influence and I figure Othan’s emergence was due in part to your love of Howard’s writing. Where is Othan similar and different to Conan (or was Kull more of an influence)?
KM: Conan is certainly an influence. Othan is an urban barbarian of sorts that draws much of his behaviors and “nature” from his upbringing as a street urchin. However, I did try to distance Othan from Conan in many ways. Othan isn’t particularly strong or brave, and isn’t seduced by power. And while Conan doesn’t hang out in Cimmeria, Othan is always homesick for his neighborhood.
SC: Of course, Robert Howard wrote more than the Conan stories he is famous for. Do you have a favorite non-Conan story to recommend?
KM: Anything about Solomon Kane! I’d rather take my chances against Conan than that old crusader. (Ed: True that).
SC: How did you come across Cirsova?
KM: I periodically comb through Ralan.com for new markets. I recommend your readers check it out.
SC: Do you have any advice to give to young authors or those thinking seriously about writing?
KM: I would strongly recommend starting out with short stories, because they force you to write a strong beginning and a conclusive ending. Word limits also make your writing more concise, clear and uncluttered.
I would also encourage writers to write stories outside of their comfort zone, and not limit themselves to one genre, plotline or world. Even if those pieces never make it anywhere, your skills will grow. And do not fear a crappy first draft! Nobody has to read anything unless you’re ready to share it.
SC: Kurt thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I’ve enjoy your Othan stories and look forward to reading your latest in Cirsova #6.