It was Marcel Proust who once said, “The Real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” It’s a fact of life that nonwriters could travel to the most exotic corners of the world and still be puzzled about where inspiration comes from. On the flip side, real writers can walk to the neighborhood market on any given day and come home eager to jot down a conversation overheard in the cookie aisle or an amusing exchange witnessed in the parking lot. Author Anthony St. Clair not only has a lot of globetrotting in his background but also possesses the wordsmith-worthy trait of always keeping his eyes open and forever pondering creative possibilities.
Interview: Christy Campbell
From 1998-2000 you lived and traveled abroad in Scotland and Ireland, and since then you’ve traveled extensively. How have your world travels influenced your life and writing?
Indie world travel changed my life. When I was 20 I lived abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of a student exchange during my senior year of college. It was my first time staying in hostels, the dorm-style cheap accommodation favored by backpackers; I’d never even heard of hostels before. It was also my first time seeing people who traveled the world, sometimes after high school or college, sometimes for vacation, sometimes as a lifestyle.
It completely changed the course of my life. I spent the next year between Scotland and Ireland before moving from Edinburgh to Eugene, Oregon. Since then I have also gone to places like India, Thailand, Tibet, and Australia. My wife and I went to Canada for our honeymoon, and in 2013 we took our son, then 15 months old, to Japan. We gave him a passport for his first birthday.
When it came time to figure out the stories I needed to tell, things began taking shape when I knew the stories would revolve around travel. But when I understood that travel was just a means to an end, that’s when my fiction really started coming together.
At heart, my writing is about inspiring people to live the world. If in some small way my stories help anyone find the courage and grit to do what excites them, but that they haven’t done yet, then every word I write is worthwhile.
You’ve released two novellas so far in your Rucksack Universe series. What’s next?
Forever the Road, the first novel-length work in the Rucksack Universe series, comes out later this year. Right now the manuscript is with my copy editor, and my designer is working on the cover.
This book is a tale of travel, destiny, and beer. Three travelers in India battle their hearts and their destinies as an awakened evil prepares to destroy all life. Set in the fictional city of Agamuskara—which means “smiling fire” in Hindi—the book tells us more of the story of Jay the traveler, Faddah Rucksack (the world’s only Himalayan-Irish sage), and the mysterious more-than-a-bartender Jade Agamuskara Bluegold.
Forever the Road takes our world to a pivotal moment of destruction or renewal. Yet at its heart, the story is about connection: our longing to connect with others, and what happens when we don’t.
In one form or another, I’ve been working on this story since 2003. One day on my way to the office, I had an idea that made me pull over and write it down (I couldn’t care less that it made me late to work). I am so excited to share Forever the Road with readers. It sets the tone for many tales to come.
What makes Rucksack Universe different from other fantasy series?
I call the Rucksack Universe “travel fantasy.” Travel fantasy revolves around indie travel—not the book-a-cruise kind, but the kind where you backpack Asia for a year, live in another country, ride the same buses the locals do, or have been so many places you have to get more pages added to your passport. There’s often a large backpack involved, and dorm-style rooms in hostels where you can meet people from all over the world. There’s street food, friends you haven’t met yet, and a world where you treasure everything you experience, if only because you know there is so much more in the world than you can ever, ever know.
These stories are all about people who don’t have roots, gave up their roots, or had to go somewhere else to put down roots. These folks aren’t tethered to where they came from but seek fuller lives elsewhere. They’re vagabonds, globetrotters. The world is home and home is the road.
While the Rucksack Universe has fantastical elements, it is also very much a similar version of our world, changed by a catastrophic event known as The Blast. The world has gods, powerful forces, not-exactly-human figures, and, of course, destiny-slinging bartenders. The fantastical is interwoven with the ordinary, yet the extranormal elements also happen on an unseen level, unknown and unobserved by most people. The characters and the reader get to scratch back the skin shrouding these things, and go on an adventure with the hidden world happening unnoticed all around.
You also write a lot about craft beer and homebrew, and the beers in your stories almost seem like characters in their own right. Why is beer important in your stories?
As the old saying goes, “write what you know”! As a homebrewer and craft beer writer, beer is a passion—all the easier in a state like Oregon, where Eugene alone has 11 breweries. But what really makes beer so important in my stories is that if beer didn’t exist, travelers would have to invent it.
Everywhere I’ve traveled so far, there’s nothing like a cold one (or warm one, depending on the country) to bring people together. Beer is important in my stories because it’s a common beverage in many societies, and especially among backpackers. Pretty much every country has some sort of beer culture. From my own past, many of my favorite times involve a malty beverage or two or, well, it gets a bit blurry after that. I’m a cheap date.
The main beer in the Rucksack Universe is Galway Pradesh Stout, or GPS. It has nothing whatsoever in common with Guinness. (No, really. Ahem.) GPS is the most popular, most widely drunk beer in the world, even in hot countries like India. It’s a common element throughout the stories too. One of my plans—and I recently did a test batch—is to develop a homebrew recipe for GPS that I can make available to fellow homebrewers.
There’s clearly a lot of “long game” in the series. Is there an ultimate goal or conclusion?
Yes. No. Head bob. There’s a common saying that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters, but my stories hold them as equally important. Every story supports far-ranging plot lines, in part because I want people to come back to the early tales and shout, “That son of a ————, he was already working this!”
I see some similarities with the story and character development in Doctor Who, where there’s short-term stuff and lots of big things that get built up to, sometimes over multiple seasons. It’ll be the same with all the Rucksack Universe stories. At the same time, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, each book stands on its own enough to where a reader can come to the series from any book and be right at home.
Home Sweet Road in particular sniffs at some of the long game afoot. Forever the Road will tell us more, especially when it comes to Faddah Rucksack, who we first met in The Martini of Destiny. He’s the world’s only Himalayan-Irish sage. Ultimately—for now, at least—his ongoing story is at the heart of everything happening in the Rucksack Universe.
Your stories embrace a sense of both interplay and conflict between decision and destiny. Do you think we make our own choices in life or are we governed by fate?
I believe that decision and destiny are intertwined. There as aspects of us that we have no control over, such as where we are born, who our parents are, etc. There are aspects of our personalities and bodies that are hard-wired. Sometimes things happen to us that we have no control over.
However, we always have the option to do what we can with what we’ve got, and that’s where decision comes in. We can choose what we do and see where that takes us. As we progress on a path, we can make new decisions. Eventually, you can look back and be amazed at the path you’ve taken, and how you never could have foreseen what you’ve done and where you’ve gone. But all that happens only if you take the first step.
Your latest novella, Home Sweet Road, is set in Clifden, Ireland. What about the plot and setting are based on your own travels in Ireland?
I lived in Ireland for a few months back in 2000, and I spent some fine days in Clifden. The hostel where I stayed was located a wee bit away from the city center. My first full day in the city, the proprietor drew me a map about “the eighth wonder of the world, Clifden.”
Years later, when I realized I had a story that needed to be set in Ireland, I drew hard on my time there, from the hostel to the Irish breakfasts to the pubs. I love the speech there too, from the bright patterns and flowing rhythms, to wonderful words like “feck” and “eejit.” Particularly in Aisling, the Awen of Ireland, I hope that love of language comes through.
There are other parts of Ireland that work in too. The Salt & Crane pub name is both a nod to Clifden being close to the sea, and to The Crane Bar in Galway, where I spent many an evening enjoying Guinness, good company, and the Irish music sessions.
Rucksack Universe stories so far have been set in Hong Kong and Ireland, and the first novel in the series is set in India. How do you write convincingly about these different locales?
Some of it is experiential. I’ve been to Hong Kong, Ireland, and India. Walking those streets with the folks who live and work there gives me a lot to draw on. I can write about India in part because I know how the cities smell, how the food tastes, and how you wouldn’t think it possible to pack so many different vibrant colors in one place. Same with Ireland; I know the feel of mist on my face, how a peat fire feels and smells, and what natural companions a pint of stout and a music session make.
Another part is research. I’ll read about places to answer questions or round out holes in my knowledge. I’ll look through Google Earth and study images. Each of my stories has its own board on Pinterest, where I’ll pin images that evoke or expand an aspect of the story.
My cover designer might also add that my writing style is visually rich and evocative. She says it actually makes her job easier—there’s so much imagery and sensory detail in the story, it helps her do different, more original things with the covers.
What drove your decision to be an indie author?
Until 2011, I held a “Real Job” as a web editor with a sales company. It was decent, honest work, but I had nowhere to go, and after 7 years there felt my career had stagnated. My wife and I spent a long time discussing my options, and more and more it was clear I needed to make a go of being a full-time writer. The year 2011 was still a time where the industry was pivoting. I spent about 6 months researching the publishing industry, what was going on, what was changing, how things might look once the future became the present.
Ultimately, I decided to go the indie route. It would let me move to market more quickly. I retained control over my work. Being indie gave me the opportunity—not the guarantee, but the opportunity—to make more money, and I didn’t have to hand over my rights for a pittance. Yet if the right publisher and the right deal came along later, I still had options. Starting out, I much preferred getting work to market than trying to get work to an agent and publisher, and then spend another couple of years getting to market.
Not every author wants to be indie, and that’s okay. I love being an author today, because we have more viable options that ever. For my skills and goals, being an indie author is a good match. I’m running my own business, and it’s in my blood—there are entrepreneurs and businesspeople throughout my family, right down to my wife, so if anything, indie is a natural fit.
How has parenthood impacted your writing and traveling?
This is where cultural cliches would have me talk about how it’s so hard to get anything done because I’m a parent, and how we never go anywhere anymore. But writing is an integral part of my life, and it is the center of my career. Travel is a passion for both me and my wife.
I’m going to defer to my grandma on this one. She was widowed and raised two daughters mostly on her own. I once asked her if that kept her from doing things she wanted to do. “No,” she told me. “My children were a reason to do things I wanted to do.”
That sealed it for me. Grandma never saw the girls as an impediment to life. She saw them as a reason to live all the fuller, and to share her interests with her kids. Both as a person and a parent, she figured out how to do the things she cared about, so her girls could see how important it was to make time for what matters to their lives. And that’s what my wife and I do with our child and our careers.
We talked hard about the impact starting a family would have on our careers, especially since 2011 not only is when we became parents, it’s also when I left my job, after years of planning. We figured out how to balance career and parenting, though in many ways that’s easier for us because we are both self-employed.
Over 2 years in to our parenting journey, we’ve made it work. As I said earlier, in 2013, when our son was 15 months old, we went to Japan for 3 weeks. My wife was going to a convention, and I was taking notes for future Rucksack Universe stories. It was an amazing trip, and it taught us much about how we work together as a family. Our son loved it, and I can’t wait until he’s older to tell him stories of when he was eating octopus in Osaka.
As for writing, Virginia Woolf nailed this years ago when she talked about having a room of one’s own with a lock. It’s true. There is lots of work I can do with my son around, such as some client work, or administrative tasks and such, and I want him to see his mom and dad engaged in work they care about. Heck, half the time I was red-pen editing the Forever the Road manuscript, my son was laughing and hanging on my arm.
With writing my stories, I have a home office that locks. My wife and I take turns with who’s watching our son. I watch him while she’s at her studio teaching violin, and she watches him while I work. Since he was born in 2011, I’ve published two books, have a third on the way, and am planning more.
If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?
If it’s meant to be, make it be.
Where an we learn more about you and the Rucksack Universe?
I also write about craft beer [http://www.anthonystclair.com/craft-beer-writing] and provide online copywriting and marketing help for various organizations [http://www.anthonystclair.com/copywriting].
Readers can discover more about my books at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20643039-home-sweet-road
I’ll be announcing the release date of Forever the Road soon, and folks can keep tabs on that and other things through my free email list [http://www.anthonystclair.com/blog/subscribe].