David Dalglish is a highly prolific author, with over fifteen self-published and twelve traditionally published epic fantasy novels to his name. Dalglish’s fantasy series include The Half-Orcs (self-published), Shadowdance (Orbit Books), The Paladins (self-published), The Breaking World (47North), The Seraphim Trilogy (Orbit Books), and The Keepers (Orbit Books). His latest series is The Vagrant Gods, also published by Orbit. The first book of the series, The Bladed Faith, was released in 2022, and the next entry, The Sapphire Altar, drops on January 10, 2023.
[GdM] Your upcoming novel, The Sapphire Altar, is the second entry in your new series, The Vagrant Gods. Could you tell us more about The Vagrant Gods? What excites you most about this latest series and where we are in the story?
[DD] The Vagrant Gods, at its core, is about a group of found family rebels fighting against the overwhelming force of the Everlorn Empire. The prince of a conquered island, Cyrus, watches his parents slaughtered, his kingdom broken, and the two gods he’s been taught to worship killed before his eyes. Believed dead, he’s instead smuggled to the Ahlai family, who travel realm to realm, funneling wealth, arms, and training in to foster rebellions against the Everlorn Empire. Their hope is to turn Cyrus into a folklore hero, a sort of Robin Hood if you will, for the people to rally around. And so Cyrus becomes the Vagrant in disguise, and trains with the Ahlai family to become a killer capable of defeating an army known for killing gods.
With The Sapphire Altar, we’ve reached the folk hero stage. The Vagrant’s legacy has begun, and he’s had some epic fights to lend credibility to his claims. But the task before him is immense, and the bloody burdens of being the Vagrant are starting to wear on him, especially the idea of where Cyrus ends and the Vagrant begins. Worse, many who love him are starting to doubt victory is possible, and have begun searching for other solutions…including turning to foreign gods, or bringing back slain gods in forms far more vicious and cruel.
[GdM] How did you conceive the protagonist of The Vagrant Gods, Cyrus?
[DD] Funnily enough, he wasn’t the main protagonist originally. Much of the Vagrant Gods was salvaged from an initial rejected pitch titled Garden of the Bone Gods. One of the characters, the Vagrant, was originally introduced “fully formed” in a sense, to what Cyrus will eventually become in the Vagrant Gods. He was a mysterious assassin with an unknown past, and over time, you’d learn of how he was a prince of the conquered nation in disguise, seeking to avenge his slaughtered family and gods. So after the pitch was rejected, I went through Garden and yanked out a lot of the minor characters that I loved and reworked their backstories to fit them into this new idea. With Cyrus, I realized he could be the focal point, and instead of starting much later after the invasion, the book could follow his entire journey, now with a much greater emphasis on his personal revenge.
[GdM] In The Vagrant Gods, Cyrus is helped and propelled forward by supporting characters that are in depth and rounded as he is. Anyone of them could move forward have their own series easily. For example, the characters Stasia and Mari are complicated, flawed and compelling. What was their creation like? Did their characters evolve through the writing process, or did you have a solid idea of who they were from the start?
[DD] With this new trilogy I did something I’d never done before. While the story was still just bouncing around in my head, I focused pretty heavily on who the main cast would be, as well as what signature moment I’d include to introduce them. I fell in love with Stasia and Mari in particular, so much so that while I was still writing the third Keepers book, Voidbreaker, I took a few days off to write one chapter for each character, because I was determined not to lose that feeling of who they were. With Mari Ahlai, it was the introduction of her as a god-whisperer, a person who can commune with dead gods and petition them for their power. For Stasia, I had a single scene in my head, that of her pounding her ax into the bloody corpse of an imperial soldier, and it is in that mad, almost feral state, she is found by her stunned lover. When I came back to VG months later, I started with those scenes and began fleshing out the story around them, and getting a real feel for who they were. Stasia would be brash, crude, and immensely cocky. Mari would be a sweetheart, empathetic, and loathe battle…but still accept the responsibility of her role as a god-whisperer, and tear into battle just as fearsome as her older sister.
[GdM] You take on some very heavy themes in this story, especially the idea of colonialism and imperialism. Did you do any research into the effects of this kind of conquering, and the systematic destruction of culture and religion in preparation for writing this series?
[DD] I looked at it from two angles. For the Everlorn Empire, well, I grew up in a very conservative, religious area, with a lot of people (due to literature like the Left Behind series) convinced the end times are approaching and a religious war will soon be fought across the Earth. Death will be everywhere, and there’s a chilling excitement toward this believed eventuality of millions upon millions of people all across the globe dying in horrific ways to plagues, curses, and the like. It’s not hard to take those sermons, that ideology, and rework it on an extravagant, fantasy scale. There is the God-Incarnate, and there are the heathen gods to be slaughtered and their people saved. There is a war to be fought, and it will be fought with prayer and blood sacrifice. I touched on this a little bit in Bladed Faith, but there’s a lot more of it in Sapphire Altar, especially through the POV of a former imperial paragon-turned-heretic, Arn Bastell.
As for the methods of the conquest, that I did research, as well as have some lengthy chats on the phone with multiple sensitivity readers. Almost everything in the book is a near one to one example of something previously done by, say, the British Empire in India or the US government to Native Americans. Honestly, a lot of what is in VG is toned down compared to some of the truly horrifying examples out there.
[GdM] I would love to know more about Cyrus’s religion, it is so creative. What was its inception? It is very different then the religious pantheons presented in today’s fantasy novels.
[DD] All of my novels have divine beings involved in some way. The Half-Orcs, for example, had jealous brother gods warring against each other, with humanity effectively serving as playing pieces on a board in their game to prove whose methods were superior in creating a lasting society. With VG, I wanted make these gods actively present in the day to day lives of those who worshiped them. And so it became more of a mutual trust, like children with a parent, for most of these gods…and at the same time, the beliefs of the people directly empower their gods, which means the gods are as much a reflection of the societies birthing them as they are shapers of those societies. Endarius the Winged Lion exemplifies strength, and gives that strength to those who love him. He attends feasts given in his name, and breathes upon the blind to restore their sight. He loves, and is loved, and is considered protector of his island, and effectively rules alongside the royal family he himself appointed.
And then comes the Everlorn Empire, who see these gods not as parents or guides but ruling monsters. Belief is literal power in VG, and if that belief is not given to the God-Incarnate, then it is dangerous, and must be captured at all costs.
[GdM] Your fight scenes are brutal. Many authors use different techniques when creating realistic and enthralling action sequences. How do you craft a believable fight scene? Do you storyboard, play it in your head, pants it, or another technique?
[DD] A good fight scene has an emotional flow to it, and I am extremely focused on that aspect above all else. A lot of the nitty gritty details are in service to what emotion I want to convey. Things going well? The hero is nimbly parrying every thrust, slashing and carving through his enemies with a grim smile. Am I trying to really push how horrible battles can be? Then we’re seeing the broken bones, we’re hearing the gasps and pained cries as swords slash open flesh and the dying crawl along the floor. Am I trying to keep things tense in a character specific duel? That’s when the heavy details come out. I’m describing the individual movements of every weapon, laying out their positions, what the POV character is hoping to do, what they see, the tells from a twist of an ankle or the pulling back of a parrying dagger. Details become clearer. The sound of steel hitting steel, the strain to hold back a brutal hit, the pain, the wrenching of muscles, all to slow down time and force you to stay in that moment as the battle commences until I’m ready to guide the emotional flow into the next release, be it victory or heartbreaking defeat.
[GdM] You have extensive experience as both a self-published and traditionally published author. What do you see as some of the pros and cons of these alternative routes to publication?
[DD] The best part of self-publishing is that you’re going it alone, unlike trade publishing, where you work with a team.
The worst part of self-publishing is that you’re going it alone, unlike trade publishing, where you work with a team.
If you are willing to be a marketer, a cover designer, to study trends, to set up Facebook ads, do book promos, do the formatting, and all the while also write the bloody book in the first place? Self-publishing can be amazing. It can also burn you out, and have you scrambling to wear a lot of different hats, some of which may simply not suit you no matter how hard you try.
[GdM] Over the course of your career, how have you seen indie publishing evolve? Do you see self-publication primarily as a pathway toward getting a traditional book deal, or do you think authors can establish and sustain a sizeable audience through self-publishing alone?
[DD] Well, when I first started, self-publishing was seen as something you did when you gave up ever having a trade deal. That, obviously, has now changed. But absolutely you can build a sizeable, sustainable income through self-publishing. People were doing that back when I started in 2010. There’s a staggering amount of money going to indies, but because of that, the market is absolutely ruthless now, infinitely more difficult and cutthroat than when I started. I consider myself beyond fortunate I started when I did. If I tried to launch an indie career now, I honestly do not know I’d have achieved even a fraction of the success I’ve had.
[GdM] You earned a degree in mathematics from Missouri Southern State University. How have you balanced your love of math with your passion for writing? What advice do you have for students who wish to pursue a dual career in English and a STEM field such as mathematics?
[DD] Hahahahaha there is no balance, no jobs, I spent like five years working for Pizza Hut after graduating with that degree and escaped only because my writing took off. My advice would be to do ANYTHING ELSE.
[GdM] How did you initially fall in love with fantasy? When were you first inspired to become a writer?
[DD] I grew up in a small town with a small library with an even smaller fantasy section, so while growing up, I didn’t read too much fantasy. I had the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and a stack of comic books. What I did have, though, were games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Legend of Zelda. I adored their medieval aesthetics, and then one Christmas my parents bought a word processor. So began The Crystals of Power, my 60 page shameless FFIV rip-off, followed by a handwritten Chrono Trigger fanfic called Second Death. I had a folder I kept in my room full of story synopses, all planned to take place in a shared world. So I was already writing fantasy, and then a friend of mine loaned me the Dark Elf Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore. I read it once a year, every year, throughout high school. If I know how to write a fight scene, it’s because of Drizzt. From there, I grabbed whatever D&D novels I could find. To cap that off, my senior year, I had a Creative Writing class where the teacher just booked the computer lab, brought us there five days a week, and gave us the singular instruction of ‘write something’. Anything. Have a project, work on it, and she’d grade it depending on what it was (be it poems, short stories, or in my case, a 20k word novella). A lot of the early Half-Orcs world-building I did in that class, including the creation of multiple characters like the Paladin, Lathaar, or the Daughter of Balance, Mira.
[GdM] Could you tell us about your approach to writing? Do you develop a detailed outline before diving into the writing itself?
[DD] Everything starts with me daydreaming while I go on walks listening to music. I usually start very wide in terms of scope, pondering world-building aspects I think will allow me to do a lot of neat stuff. For Soulkeeper, as an example, I wanted a world where magic and monsters all appeared in a singular instant. Spells and healing prayers and fantastical creatures, going from stories and rumors to very real in the blink of an eye. From there, I brainstorm basic questions and answers. What creatures appear? What magic? How does it work now? Why is it appearing now? Who are the gods, and how are they involved now? When I start to lock down those big picture things, I then start pondering characters. First would be how they are involved in the grander picture (in Soulkeeper, I made the main POV hero someone who would be responsible for defending humanity from the sudden arrival of the unknown).
All of this I do in my head, and generally while I’m busy writing a different book. Things change drastically over the course of a few months as I toss ideas I don’t like and wonder how different things might work. A cast of three or four main characters bubbles up, and eventually, when it comes time to write, I have enough of a picture that I can write out a few initial chapters, establishing a narrative flow, some of the stakes, and the overall vibe of the story. After that? That’s when I start writing out an extensive outline, building on the things I’ve already decided and the goals I want to accomplish and try to figure out how to accomplish it all.
[GdM] You are under 40 years old and have already published over twenty-seven novels. What is your advice for achieving such a high level of productivity?
[DD] Ok so start really young, like, in your early twenties. Then get to be a professional writer as your full-time career from the age of twenty-six. Finally, crank out two books or so a year for twelve years straight, and you’ll hit that number. It’s just that easy.
I’m only being mildly sarcastic, honestly. I’ve been stupidly blessed with how my career path has worked, first through self-publishing, then traditional publishing with Orbit. I can hit this level of productivity because writing is my day job, and I try to do around 3k or so words a day, five days a week. Sometimes I hit it, plenty of times I don’t, but just the sheer amount of time dedicated to putting my butt in a chair and writing means twice a year, on average, I’ll have myself a finished novel that is hopefully something someone will want to read.
[GdM] You have created highly complex fantasy worlds. How do you keep everything straight and make sure there are no inconsistencies in your worldbuilding?
[DD] Well, first you launch your career writing nearly twenty novels set in the exact same world where you absolutely screw up and have inconsistencies in your world-building and even forget you killed off a character at one point…and THEN you start keeping an actual notebook like a smart person, full of character descriptions, family trees, timelines, and other things that can be hard to remember or impossible to find when you actually need it. For the Keepers Trilogy, for example, I have this tiny leather notebook just full of scribbles, lists showing what magical creature was created by which dragon, what the power structure for the Keeping Church is, etc. All things I desperately wish I had for the Half-Orcs, as I come back to it after several years to try to write its ninth book…
[GdM] Do you have a favorite book or series among your published works, or one that you feel especially proud of?
[DD] I think, without question, The Sapphire Altar is the best book I’ve even written. In terms of favorite, I still cherish the fourth Paladins novel, The Broken Pieces, just because the final few chapters are about the most emotionally impactful writing I’ve ever done and years later I still get the occasional email from readers heartbroken and devastated and wanting to either thank me or yell angrily at me. Or both.
[GdM] Your series, The Breaking World, is coauthored with Robert J. Duperre. What is the experience like working together with a coauthor vs writing solo?
[DD] Rob deserves so much credit for that whole trilogy. It wasn’t a true co-authorship like some friends I know, in which each of us wrote equal amounts in the original draft. With Breaking World, I kinda let Rob go nuts in my own world. He’d been with me from the very beginning of my career, and was who I went to with phone calls whenever I got stuck on a story idea. So he wrote the vast majority of the rough draft. After every chapter, I’d immediately tear into it that day or the next, rewriting portions, melding the voice to something more of a mixture of mine, and overall making sure it matched my earlier books in Dezrel. And then we’d have more phone calls, arguments about the fates of various characters, or sometimes I’d just ax an entire chapter because I hated where it was going. I was an awful tyrant, sometimes. How he’s still my friend, I don’t know.
[GdM] What are some of your biggest inspirations? Any influences that would surprise your readers?
[DD] Plenty of them people can guess, I’d say. Trigun massively influenced how I write heroes. JRPGs in general have me creating little found family groups for almost every novel of mine. You can hear the rolling of dice from D&D in the Half-Orcs and the Keepers Trilogy. Probably the most random influence would be a phase I went through in college where I read nearly every single Stephen King novel and short story collection I could find. I’d say it, combined with R.A. Salvatore’s influence, have made my writing pretty accessible.
[GdM] Which book or series do you recommend as the best entry point for readers new to David Dalglish?
[DD] This has actually become a difficult question to answer because what I tried to do with each major series varies over the course of these last twelve years. In the end, I usually try to guide people to the type of fantasy they like. If you want assassins and breakneck pacing in a relatively low fantasy setting, start with A Dance of Cloaks. Are magical creatures, unique world-building, and kind-hearted heroes your thing? Soulkeeper. Just want the best written book, with the strongest, most diverse cast of characters? The Bladed Faith.
That said, each series of mine is meant to stand alone, so you can also dive into The Half-Orcs or The Paladins, but I’m always a little hesitant to lead people to those first since they’re some of my oldest writing and, well, it can be a little rough and weird over there.
[GdM] What are your upcoming plans after finishing The Vagrant Gods series?
[DD] Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m usually plotting out the basics of the next story while finishing out the old, and I did the same with book three of Vagrant Gods. Not only am I about halfway done with the rough draft of the ninth Half-Orc novel, Legacy of the Watcher, but I’ve got about four chapters done on a pitch for a brand new world, one that hews a bit closer to the mysterious world building of Soulkeeper, but with a more low fantasy setting and overall darker vibe. We’ll see if it goes anywhere!
David Dalglish graduated from Missouri Southern State University in 2006 with a degree in Mathematics. He’s self-published over fifteen novels, as well as had twelve books traditionally published through Orbit Books and 47North.
He also has a lovely wife and three beautiful daughters, with all four being far better than he deserves.
Interview Conducted by John Mauro and Beth Tabler