An interview with Thiago Abdalla

Thiago Abdalla is author of the highly acclaimed dark epic fantasy series, the Ashes of Avarin, which kicks off with A Touch of Light, a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s 8th Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO8). The action continues with A Shade of Madness, the second book of the series. Abdalla has also published a prequel novella to the series, A Prelude to Ashes. The third volume, A Twist of Faith, will be released in late 2023 (you can check out a free excerpt here).

A Brazilian by birth, Abdalla grew up in the fantasy lands of Middle-earth, Azeroth, etc., which inspired him to create his own fantasy world. I recently had the pleasure of discussing with Thiago Abdalla about his fantasy world, literary inspirations, SPFBO8, and more.

[GdM] First, congratulations on A Touch of Light being selected as a finalist in SPFBO8, a very well-deserved recognition for your outstanding debut novel. Could you tell us about your experience as an SPFBO entrant and later as a finalist? I am always impressed with the sense of camaraderie that seems to develop among the finalists.

[TA] Thank you so much! It’s been such a crazy ride with this being my debut novel. So many new and rewarding experiences and probably most among them is SPFBO. Participating in SPFBO meant a lot to me firstly because it was created by Mark Lawrence, who, as you know, is my favorite author and someone I’ve been lucky enough to interact with. I admire Mark’s work on so many levels, so participating in “his” competition meant a lot.

The camaraderie, as you say, was the other big point from the competition. Fellow entrants, like Andrew Meredith, have become some of my closest friends.

Being a finalist was an incredible recognition for the first book I ever attempted writing. It took some time to sink in and I’m still not sure I believe it was all real.

[GdM] What recommendations would you have for other indie authors who are considering submitting their work to a future SPFBO?

[TA] The competition can be stressful as you wait for your book to be read and see others being cut. There’s also a fair share of luck involved. My recommendation would be to work on your book the best you can, and get professional editing if you can afford it. Be proud of what you’re submitting, then, and this might sound weird, forget about it. The competition is great, but only ten books out of three hundred get to the finals, your book isn’t bad if you’re cut (hence why my suggestion is to be proud of what you submit regardless). There are a ton of books that have been cut at every stage that still find massive success.

[GdM] A Touch of Light is noted for its Malazan-style worldbuilding which largely forgoes handholding for the reader. How did you decide to embrace this immersive style of worldbuilding?

[TA] I honestly wasn’t going for Malazan haha. I just really like being in the character’s skin and at moments I thought: well, the character knows this certain information already, they’re not going to explain it to themselves purely for the benefit of the reader. To me that feels like a professional swimmer thinking to himself how to perform the basic movements of a backstroke. It just doesn’t happen (or maybe it does, I’m a terrible swimmer and know nothing about professional swimming). I still find ways to show the reader the important stuff, but it’s heavily skewered toward showing rather than telling. With that said, I believe the important things are explained at the right time, so I’d suggest going with the flow and trusting that answers will come.

[GdM] The subject of death is taboo for one of the main religions in the Ashes of Avarin series. How did you develop this concept as one of the core beliefs of the Domain?

[TA] I’ve always had a particular view of death. I’ve had family members suffer like they’d lost a limb and I respect that, but my way of dealing with it was always different. I try to remember the good and tell myself I’ll meet the person again someday, even if we’re both spirits or something. It’s just a matter of time. This kind of thinking has always made me look a little cold I think. I’m never the person crying or caught in desperate grief and I’ve been judged by this reaction, or felt judged at least, as if I didn’t care for the person like everyone else who was crying. That sparked the idea, what if people couldn’t cry or grieve, or even talk about death? How would that affect a society? It all snowballed from there.

[GdM] For readers who are new to your series, do you recommend starting with A Touch of Light or your prequel novella, A Prelude to Ashes?

[TA] It depends on your reading style. If you don’t mind a big world, a large cast and a learn as you go type of storytelling, I’d recommend A Touch of Light. If you’d like to start with a more contained setting and be eased into some of the concepts of the world so that you have something to hold on to when the larger world of the novel engulfs you, then start with A Prelude to Ashes.

[GdM] Griffins feature prominently throughout the Ashes of Avarin series. What is it that has drawn you to griffins over more traditional dragons?

[TA] Everyone does dragons and I’m a hipster wannabe is the short answer. In seriousness, though, griffins are just damn cool and I really don’t know why more people don’t use them. I felt like so many people had already done dragons and I wasn’t confident I could add anything extremely original if I chose them.

[GdM] I love the emotion-based bonds that Sentinels such as Lynn form with their griffins. How did you develop this particular aspect of your magic system?

[TA] Emotions are our magic powers in real life. How many times have you not seen someone taken by anger that seems to have super strength? Or so happy they believe nothing can go wrong and it doesn’t? I just thought it was a cool bridge to our reality. A kind of ‘what if’ for readers. Developing it was hard because I didn’t want to fall into the same descriptive patterns. Also, were not always conscious of our emotions and that they are affecting us in the heat of the moment, so it was a fine line to tread. I think people will have to read the books to decide if I succeeded.                                                                                                    

[GdM] You introduced a new point of view character in A Shade of Madness. Could you tell us more about Kadmus and how he came to be?

[TA] I had the concept for him since outlining the series, so he’s been simmering in my brain even before I started writing A Touch of Light. I just really liked the concept of a healer that’s not black and white. In fact, Kadmus is extremely selfish and has his own reasons for healing people. He’s cold and detached which hearkens back to how people have judged my reaction to death, but at the same time, there’s something extremely human driving Kadmus. That objective (no spoilers) trumps all and one might even say Kadmus isn’t really selfish, he’s just blindly determined to succeed and will pay any price for it.

[GdM] Your loyal fans are eager to know: what can we expect in A Twist of Faith, the third book of your series? A Shade of Madness is quite a bit darker than A Touch of Light. Will this trend continue with A Twist of Faith?

[TA] Yes. Yes, yes, yes. My characters are so screwed. A Twist of Faith will have characters facing their ultimate decisions and where they fall at the end will ultimately shape the events to come in the final book of the series. Their trials will require a lot though, and I’d say it gets pretty dark.

[GdM] How many books are you planning in total for the Ashes of Avarin series? Are there any additional novellas or short stories in the works?

[TA] Four books. I have ideas for novellas and I’d love to write them, but we’ll see how fast I can finish the main series first.

[GdM] You’ve recently released a line of merchandise featuring the four glyphs from your series. Could you tell us more about these symbols and what they represent?

[TA] Those are the four Signs of the Seraph: The Breath and the Body, the Blood and the Bone. The idea, besides the cool alliteration, is that each of these is a branch of the church. The Sentinels represent the Breath, the Bishops of the Bone represent… the Bone and are experts at intelligence, the Priests of the Blood represent the Blood and are magic users focused on healing. The Body is represented by the faithful who make up the body of the faith. I’m really happy with those symbols. The concept was mine, but a good friend of mine drew them and I just loved the result. I even used the Sign of the Blood on the cover of A Prelude to Ashes because the main character is Adrian and well, if you’ve read A Shade of Madness, you know what his relationship to blood is.

[GdM] You’ve commented that Mark Lawrence is one of your greatest literary influences. His novels are so diverse, covering everything from grimdark fantasy to traditional epic fantasy and time-traveling sci-fi. Could you tell us more about Mark Lawrence’s specific influences on your writing? Do you have a favorite among his large catalog of books?

[TA] I think first and foremost, the prose. I’m not comparing mine to his, I’ll always think his prose is unbeatable, but I think I’ve picked up a few things that helped shape my style of writing and just having prose as something I value and work on. I also really appreciate Mark’s character development and the relationships they have. His characters have a very well set core that will drive them to the ends of the Earth, but they’ll never waver from who they truly are, even of they evolve and grow (Nona comes to mind). I absolutely love that and think I based some characters off of this writing concept. The rest is probably subconscious since I’ve read so many of his books. My favorite(s) are without a doubt The Book That Wouldn’t Burn (his latest book, which is astoundingly good), and The Girl and the Moon, that is just a love letter to any Mark Lawrence fan.

[GdM] Who are some of your biggest literary influences beyond Mark Lawrence?

[TA] I’ve enjoyed a lot of Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, N. K. Jemisin, George R. R. Martin, among others. They’ve all definitely had an influence on my writing in one way or another.

[GdM] Your books are also known for their absolutely stunning covers. Could you describe your process for developing these covers together with the wonderfully talented Alejandro Colucci? Do you work closely together to get all the details just right?

[TA] Most of the work went into developing the concept for book 1. After that, Alejandro just nailed what a cover in this series should look like. Developing the concept is a lengthy process, though. I researched the fantasy cover market a ton to get to where I wanted. Your cover has to be unique, but still be within what a reader expects of a fantasy cover. I have a whole PowerPoint presentation I can share haha.

[GdM] I know we should not speak of the dead, but inquiring minds must ask. Why do you hate raisins, Thiago? Were they the source of some childhood trauma?

[TA] They are a pointless, wretched, twisted mockery of grapes and should not exist. I just really, really, really hate the taste, but what really drives up the hate factor is that people put them into stuff they just shouldn’t, and instead of something wonderful like chocolate chip, for example! Death to raisins!

This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #36.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.