Interview with Michael Skeet, author of A Poisoned Prayer

Michael Skeet’s debut fantasy romance, A Poisoned Prayer, releases May 1, 2017.

Michael Skeet

Michael Skeet is an award-winning Canadian writer and broadcaster. Born in Calgary, Alberta, he began writing for radio before finishing college. He has sold short stories in the science fiction, dark fantasy and horror fields in addition to extensive publishing credits as a film and music critic. A two-time winner of Canada’s Prix Aurora Award for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Skeet lives in Toronto with his wife, Lorna Toolis.

Publisher, Lorina Stephens, talked to Michael about his forthcoming novel, and his journey.

LS: People generally think of a debut novel as something which happens relatively quickly, as though the writer had never penned anything previously—an overnight success, as it were. Does your debut novel, A Poisoned Prayer, fall into that category, or fall elsewhere? Was this something you worked on for some time, or come to you in a burst of creative energy?

MS: In my case, overnight means over thirty years. I sold my first short story in 1986, and for about a decade I concentrated on short stories, for two reasons: I figured writing short was the fastest way for me to learn the general craft of writing; and the idea of writing at novel-length scared the pants off me. (I am still mostly pants-less, as my friends are always complaining.)

I had actually written four novels before I started work on A Poisoned Prayer, so was a bit more comfortable with novel plotting and structure. Even so, it took me the better part of a decade to finish the novel to the point where I could start sending it out. This was mostly because I have never been able to write fiction full-time. I have always had to do other work in order to pay the bills. This work did involve writing, but that was its own problem: when you write technical manuals forty or fifty hours a week, it’s hard to come up with the energy needed to write fiction on weekends.

LS: How does a Calgary boy end up a Toronto man?

MS: It was love, pure and simple. That, and a once-in-a-lifetime job. I married Lorna in 1984, and a year and a bit later she applied for the position of head of what was then the Spaced Out Library in Toronto. She won the job and there was no question that we would move to T.O. in order for her to take it up. I was working as a freelance writer at the time, so I was happy to do so in a bigger market.

LS: What brought you to express yourself as a writer? Was your family so inclined, or was this something you pursued as a student? Or later?

MS: I was a long time becoming a writer. My father worked as a printer when I was a boy, and one of my early memories is of being given a bunch of letter-stamps, which I used to set headlines for pamphlets I wrote. My mother was, and is, an inveterate reader and we were all exposed to books from an early age (thank you, Calgary Public Library!) I did try writing a short story when I was about twelve, but it was terrible and I gave up after that one effort; it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started thinking again in terms of trying to write the sorts of things I liked to read. I’m not really sure why, or how that happened. One day I just started trying to figure out what made a story a story. At that point I think I was hooked.

LS: So why SF&F? Given your rather broad exposure to Canadian culture and experiences, why not history, or mystery, or any other avenue? What is it about SF&F that speaks to you?

MS: I’m afraid the answer to this question is rather prosaic. Or mercenary. At about the same time I started trying to write I got involved in SF fandom in Edmonton (which is where I first met Robert Runté), and met a number of people who were writing short fiction. I learned from them that there was a clearly defined path to publication in SF&F; at about the same time I discovered William Gibson, whose style really appealed to me. So I stopped trying to write the historical mysteries I’d been dabbling in, and set about learning what I could about writing SF&F.

LS: Whatever inspired you to write a fantasy loosely based on 17th century France, involving not only Catholic faith gone astray, but death magic, werewolves, and murder?

MS: I have been interested in French history for a very long time. I have a very clear memory of reading the novel Désirée as a boy, and I am a huge fan of Richard Lester’s version of The Three Musketeers. The novel was born from a series of conversations I’d had with Lorna about historical romances; the magic system just seems to have come to me from my subconscious. The first draft of the novel had a more generic fantasy-type religion (that seems to have owed more than a little to Lois Bujold’s Chalion books) but when somebody in the Cecil St writers’ group suggested I use Catholicism as the base for the magic, I thought it was a brilliant idea and was happy to adopt it.

Ever since I began reading fantasy I have wondered why it is that magic in fiction seems to exist only for exceptional, earth-shattering purposes. I wanted to write something in which magic had day-to-day purposes as well; my friend Karl Schroeder says I treat magic as if it were a utility, and I’m happy to plead guilty to that charge.

LS: Did your tenure with CBC as a writer and broadcaster inform your fiction writing?

MS: Only indirectly. I learned very quickly, when I began working in radio, that the rules governing writing to be spoken aloud are very different from those governing writing to be read to oneself. In my fiction I like to stretch out, to let a comfortable rhythm establish itself. I will never be a Hemingway, nor do I want to be.

One thing I did get from my tenure at CBC was exposure to plotting and character development. I reviewed movies for CBC Radio for two decades, and in that time I saw, and had to analyze, a lot of movies. I don’t think I deliberately tried to learn anything about screenwriting, but I do believe I unconsciously absorbed some very useful information about how to plot and to develop characters. I’m still learning, of course. I just think I’m better at it now than I used to be.

LS: Have other writers been inspiration or touchstones to you?

MS: The best way to learn to write is to read a lot. In that sense I have been inspired by pretty much everybody I’ve ever read. I do have a place in my heart for a number of writers, though:

For humour, P.G. Wodehouse (only the greatest stylist in the history of English comic writing) and Walter R. Brooks (a New Yorker writer best known for talking-animal stories involving a pig, Freddy).

For SF&F, William Gibson (his latest has affected me just as profoundly as did his first novel) and Lois McMaster Bujold (for both her Vorkosigan and her Chalion stories).

For both humour and SF&F, Connie Willis (who is just a genius and is to the modern organization what Wodehouse was to Edwardian society).

I’ll never reach the heights any of these people have reached, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?

LS: You’ve also gained a reputation as a film and music critic. How did that come to be?

MS: Well, I’ve always been critical. As for my critical career, I suppose both aspects of it go back to my first job in radio. In the mid-1970s I started work at CKUA, a public radio station in Edmonton. CKUA had two things that were just amazing to a twenty-year-old kid: a record library holding some fifty thousand discs, and a staff of the most eclectically experienced people you could ever hope to meet. People like Tony Dillon Davis and the late Bill Coull taught me how to listen to music, and a film critic named Bill Beard (now a professor of film studies at the University of Alberta) taught me how to think about what I was seeing when I watched movies. When I left CKUA it was to work as a music critic for the Edmonton Sun, and when I got out of the newspaper business I auditioned for and won the position of syndicated movie critic for CBC Radio. In both cases I think that what got me the jobs was the critical skill and vocabulary I learned from those early years at CKUA.

LS: You’ve won two Prix Aurora Awards. Tell us about that.

MS: My first Aurora was the result of one of only three tie awards in the long history of the award. I shared the 1992 award for English-language short story with Peter Watts (my story was Breaking Ball, his was A Niche). Peter has always been very good-natured about this.

The second award I shared with Lorna: it was in 1993 for Tesseracts4, the anthology we edited together. One could argue that this award also generated another, because it was Lorna and I who bought and published The Toy Mill by Dave Nickle and Karl Schroeder, which won that year’s Aurora for short fiction.

To tell the truth, my two fiction Auroras were actually the third and fourth for me. I also won Auroras in 1988 and 1989 for publishing a newsletter called MLR. Another little-known fact: “Aurora” is actually a name I suggested, when the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association decided to rename the awards (they were called the Caspers at the time; don’t ask).

A Poisoned Prayer releases May 1, 2017 in both print and digital, and is available directly through Five Rivers, as well as your favourite online bookseller.

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