Woelf Dietrich writes dark fantasy and stories that deal in the supernatural, but has most recently tested the waters of science fiction with three new tales in These Broken Worlds, a story collection where he shares a universe with three other authors. He grew up in South Africa and has visited numerous other countries around the world, including Israel and Zimbabwe, but he currently resides in New Zealand. Dietrich is the author of the novella The Seals of Abgal and the short story “Bullies and Soggy Soup Bones.” He has a weekly blog column, “The Art of Fantasy,” where he brings attention to obscure and/or up-and-coming artists and their beautiful, awe-inspiring artworks. Dietrich is a co-founder of Kōsa Press.
In this interview, he sat down with the Kōsa Press Team and discussed the importance of “wonder” in storytelling, his military experience, flash fiction writing, what it’s like working in multiple genres, and more.
KPT: As an author and reader, I understand your focus is primarily fantasy. Had you ever written science fiction before your inclusion in These Broken Worlds and Interspecies? Did anything surprise you about writing in this genre?
WD: A long, long time ago, while still in high school, I wrote about post-apocalyptic gladiator arenas where people fought with edged weapons made from old car parts. Yep, this was the era of Mad Max and a whole slew of other SF movies sharing the same setting and mood. My stories were bloody and gruesome and very short on plot. With Interspecies and These Broken Worlds I enjoyed doing the research. The methodology remained the same, but instead of researching ancient history and weapons and terminology, this time around I ventured into the science of space travel–negative mass theory, etc. I studied the global impact a massive nuclear fallout would have on Earth and the duration thereof. I looked at the science behind railguns and plasma weapons and, of course, the appropriate terminology. The science surprised me and I learned a great deal. But then I have always been like that, I need to know things, how they work, so that I can get the imagery and tone right for the story. And as you know, 90% of research is never included in the stories, but it’s good to have a complete picture going in. So, yeah, the science really rocked my socks off, making it a really fun ride.
KPT: What advice would you give writers who take on multiple genres?
WD: People are the same and respond the same in whatever setting you place them, so your characterizations remain familiar. It’s of course different when you throw aliens into the mix. You have to make up a culture, traditions, mannerisms, and it’s fun to do but also illuminating. You end up viewing your own species holistically and objectively. You have a different tone with fantasy and modern supernatural stories than you would with science fiction. The tech is different, circumstances are different, even morality (because we know morality isn’t static), so you have to consider those. Language and terminology also varies. You can make up new slang in a science fiction story, but you won’t in a fantasy tale. These things apply to preparation and research, which does affect the writing process. However, once you’ve sorted them, the writing is the same as with any other project. It’s all about the story.
KPT: Can you tell us about your military experience? How did it inform your short story “The Last Devil”? And does it inform your writing process in general?
WD: Growing up in South Africa, I was taught to shoot before I even entered primary school. I grew up with guns and knives–even collected knives as a hobby–and hunting. At eighteen I was conscripted into the army where I spent a year at an infantry school. Although I haven’t touched a handgun in many years, I know how they feel and shoot and the army has taught me about physical endurance and discipline and a bunch of other stuff. When I wrote The Last Devil I made sure the military ranking system remained intact and accurate and that the weapons, which include a combination of older ballistic handguns and advanced energy-based assault rifles, complied with the science, or as close to as possible. With the action scenes, I tried to remain as close to reality as possible and capture the intensity of a firefight while still having a blast in the process (excuse the pun). As a reader, I enjoy a story that is grounded in reality, even if the world is fantasy or science fiction. It allows me to disappear into a story just a bit more. I think most readers are like that. In that sense, my stories have to be technically and historically accurate where applicable, and true to the created rules of the fictional worlds they take place in. Other than that, my military experience doesn’t inform the actual process of writing. Writing is mostly an internal thing, anyway.
KPT: One main component of the universe portrayed in These Broken Worlds and Interspecies is not a lot of the Earth is habitable anymore. Many of the aliens and humans live in Australia and New Zealand. How did being from this part of the world help with constructing your stories?
WD: It was really nice to have the stories take place here. I live in New Zealand so of course I made sure that a big part of my story took place here. Knowing your own country–its topography, cities and buildings, and so on–helps with setting and makes visualization much easier. You also discover a few new things you didn’t know. For instance, you’d think that with all the earthquakes here, underground tunnels wouldn’t even be considered practical, and yet, during the second World War a network of tunnels were dug beneath Auckland to serve as air raid shelters. They’ve since been sealed off, but the fact that they exist is amazing. And they were well made, too. So of course I had to use them in “The Last Devil.”
KPT: Kōsa Press employs a very collaborative approach to story collections. Can you describe the challenges or benefits this entails for a writer’s process?
WD: This is my first collaboration and I love it. Brainstorming and seeing a seed of an idea grow and bloom is something to behold. When everyone contributes to the development of a story things happen quickly. Deciding what direction to take a project, making decisions on cover art and marketing suddenly become a hive thing with various ideas being exchanged and roles allocated. The only possible challenge is when decisions are needed quickly and not everyone is available at that moment. You learn a lot from working with other writers, but you also learn a lot about yourself. We created a substantial story bible and all of us had to submit a detailed outline for our stories. As someone who is normally a pantser, i.e. someone who writes from an idea without an outline, this was an interesting learning experience. There is definitely some merit to designing a story this way. And, of course, it makes it more practical to test for consistency across everyone’s submissions.
KPT: These Broken Worlds is mainly flash fiction. What can you tell readers about writing in the flash medium? How was the experience different or similar to writing longer form stories?
WD: Wow. I’m not that experienced with flash fiction. This was a totally new thing for me. Flash is a powerful medium, though. You have to say so much with so little, and there lies the challenge. With a short story you have more time to set up a hook and deliver the goods, and with a novel you can invest time in your character’s development. You don’t have that with a flash piece. You have to paint an image, generate emotion, get the reader invested and then deliver–all of that in a span of 500 to a 1000 words. That is not an easy thing to do. What I can tell you, though, is that it forces you to write in active voice. And when you do it a couple times, it becomes addictive. You can test scenes this way, explore an idea, even help with unpacking complicated concepts. It’s good writing practice.
KPT: Your work embodies an insatiable quality of wonder. How key are “wonder” and “awe” to science fiction? Is it the same for fantasy?
WD: I have always been fascinated with the stars and planets and the question of life out there in the galaxy. When I was a kid I wished for superpowers that would allow me to fly in space and explore the universe. I still feel like that. That sense of curiosity and awe is important in science fiction and is the reason why readers are so fascinated by this genre. When I write a story I include the things that excite me. Sometimes I try to answer my own questions. Whether I succeed or not is beside the point. It’s about the process of exploring, about having the questions, doing the research and answering them according to your own understanding. Maybe my natural curiosity shines through in my writing. Fantasy possesses those same elements of wonder, but my fantasy worlds usually have strong ties to the supernatural side of things. I mean magic has to come from somewhere, right? And that unknowing fuels me.
KPT: You have a great blog series titled “The Art of Fantasy,” where you feature an artist’s work every week. Many of the pieces are awe- and wonder-inspiring. Tell us why you started this series, where you see it going, and why you love this art?
WD: Along with ordinary books, I also read comic books for many years as a kid. At one stage in school I wanted to become a comic artist. Visual things inspire me and a well painted cover fires up my imagination. Frazetta covers awed me as a teenager, and they still do. I love art because, like words, it has the ability to reach deep within you and affect you emotionally. I began my Art of Fantasy series because I enjoy art and I wanted to share that enjoyment with my readers. I wanted to show them what inspired me as a kid and what still inspires me today. It was also an opportunity to aim a spotlight on less known artists. I have no idea where this series is heading. It’s already 26 posts deep and I may consider compiling something in the future, but not right now. Right now I’m all about generating more words.
KPT: Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy series? If so, what kind would it be?
WD: I have. I started one a couple of years ago and I’m about thirty thousand words in. The series is called Land of Giants and the first book is titled The Spirit Bow. The story takes place in an antediluvian Sumer and chronicles the adventures of Ashur, son of a temple prostitute and a Gutean barbarian. Ashur falls in love with a Sumerian princess and wishes to marry her, but because of his lowly status as a mere commoner he will need to perform an act of great bravery and courage to prove to her father, the Lugal of Eridu, that he is a worthy suitor. So Ashur sets forth on an epic quest to the Mountains of the Gods in search of the Spirit Tree. He intends to cut and fashion a magnificent bow from the Spirit Tree and present it to the Lugal in the hopes that such a godly gift would impress the king enough for him to allow the union between a commoner and member of the royal house. But Ashur will come to discover that finding the Spirit Tree is only the beginning of his journey.
Interestingly enough, the Guardians of the Seals series is a bi-product of the research I did for Land of Giants. I have another fantasy concept called The Dead God, which I created for a game proposal that was never accepted. I have written an outline for it already and this one delves into Slavic lore.
KPT: If you were stranded on a rogue planet with only a reading light and your favorite five books, what would those five books be?
WD: Damn you! How does one answer such a question?! I’ve read so many great books over the years that to pinpoint only five is almost impossible. At least, unlike other interviewers, you didn’t ask me for my favourite book. *Sigh* From the top of my head and in no particular order: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (the collected, unabridged stories–see what I did there?), The Beach by Alex Garland, and By the Rivers of Babylon by Nelson DeMille. Of course there are many more I would have liked to include.