Charles Tan interviews Spanish author Rodolfo Martinez, whose novel The Queen’s Adept is now available for the Kindle in an English translation by Jordi Balcells.
An Interview with Rodolfo Martinez
By Charles Tan
Hi Rodolfo! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction?
I was very young, 9-10 years old. My father was an avid reader of science fiction and I was very curious about those books he read, with those striking covers of space ships and stars and nebula and so forth. Then one day I took one of his books and began to read it. It was a short stories compilation (from F&SF, if I recall correctly) and there was too much there I didn’t understand, but I was fascinated with the material. My father caught me reading, he smiled, and said he would give me something more suitable.
So he gave me The Early Asimov and shortly after that the Foundation Trilogy, both by Asimov, and The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke…
That was the beginning. And, after that first contact I became… well, a fan. We could almost say an addict.
That was a long time ago (before the Internet, but after The Beatles, we could say, paraphrasing William Goldman) and, as time went by, another literary universe and genres appeared for me to discover: fantasy, and noir novel, and 19th Century adventure novel, and historic novel, and the classics, both Spanish and abroad. And… well, almost everything. But genre literature (popular literature, as the one 19th English and American writers wrote: Conan Doyle, Stevenson, London, Twain…) was always my favorite. But my first love was science fiction and I never really left it, both as a reader and as a writer. We could say I sometimes visit other rooms of the same house but, sooner or later I go back to the SF room.
Who are some of your favorite authors or favorite books?
Well, it’s hard, there are so many. But, let’s try.
In science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, the first Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, Hart’s Hope, Wyrms… those first novels, I mean), Frank Herbert, Richard Morgan, Connie Willis…
In fantasy: Borges, Cortázar, John Crowley, Clive Barker, Tolkien, Lovecraft…
In other genres: Robert Graves, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré, García Márquez, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle…
As you can see, the list could be endless.
There a few books that mark in a special way some moments of my life: Watership Down, Cien años de soledad, I, Claudius, The Mote in God’s Eye, The Lord of the Rings, The End of Eternity, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy, At the Mountains of Madness, Little, Big…
And let’s not talk about comics because then I had to mention Watchmen and Swamp Thing and From Hell by Alan Moore, or Sandman by Gaiman, or Thor by Simonson or Fantastic Four by Byrne, or…
Well, I believe you can get an idea of my literary tastes, more or less.
How did you get involved with writing fiction?
I began to write when I was twelve, three years after having begun to read SF. It was 1977, the year the first Star Wars movie was released and, shortly after that, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. 2001: a Space Odyssey was re-released by that time in Spain, and there were a handful of American SF TV series as well on Spanish TV, so there was science fiction not only in books, but everywhere. And, when I began to write, I wrote SF, the genre I love reading and watching in movies and in TV (series like Star Trek, TOS and Space 1999, and U.F.O. and Thunderbirds…)
Why did I begin to write? I really don’t know. I remember when I was a kid I used to create (just for myself, never told anyone) new adventures of my favorite comic-book characters or my favorite TV series. And one day, I suppose, I just decided to put them on paper. So I wrote a… well, we can call it a hard space opera, I guess, or the idea a 12-year-old kid could have of what space opera and hard SF were.
And, once I began I just couldn’t stop. If I was an addict to reading I soon became an addict to writing.
As a writer, my first works where SF, but I soon began to write fantasy as well, and mystery stories and, in the end, what I was doing was a half-breed literature that had ingredients from every genre I love: SF, fantasy, mystery, adventure. My novels usually are a strange cocktail where things that, at a first glance, seem impossible to blend but go hand in hand. Though there always is some SF element in almost every one of them: a rationalist point of view that, in the same way, makes even my fantasy to be some kind of science fiction.
A good example is my four Sherlock Holmes novels, where the detective becomes a swivel upon which I create a universe where Lovecraft myths and pulp literature, and western and even superheroes, can exist. The first one, La sabiduría de los muertos (The Wisdom of Deadmen) was published in 1996 and the last one in 2007… a long and satisfactory journey for me as an author.
Could you tell us about your novel, the Queen’s Adept?
Like most of my work, it was born from the desire of blending two things that, at first glance, do not seem very much… “blendable”, so to say. One day I told myself: “What would a James Bond adventure be like in an epic fantasy scenario?” I began to play with the idea, and the more I did it, the more I liked it. So I designed the main character, the plot, the pseudo-historical setting (I took some Historical moments I liked, such as the Renaissance, the 19th Century, the Middle Ages and the 20th Century Cold War and put them all together). And I began to write.
And, as I was writing, the story grew, and so did the main character; everything began to be more complex and I soon realized I was creating a character and a scenario that I could not put in just one novel. In fact, there are now two novels about Yáxtor Brandan (the main character) and three short (or rather medium-large) stories; and a third novel is on the way.
In your acknowledgements, you mention the importance of maps. Could you elaborate on this?
Well, it’s more or less as I say in the acknowledgements. There were elements that I put in the map that, at first, had no more role than to give the lands a realistic aspect: some mountains and rivers and forests, for instance. But then I took a second look at the map, I saw those large woods I had created and thought: “Well, yes, menialbodies could be born there, why not?” From that thought, Darkwoods were created and became a pivotal element, not only for this novel but for the entire scenario and its development.
It was originally published in 2009. What made you decide to translate it into English?
I had been considering for some time the idea of trying the English/American market. Some years before, it had been very hard (you had to find a publisher interested in translating and publishing your work, a thing that, unless you were a big best-seller in your homeland, it was very unlikely to happen), but electronic publication and print on demand had eased things. In paper there is still the big issue of distribution, but in ebook you can reach almost the entire world with no effort.
So I began to translate some of my works. Short stories, at first, and one day I decided it was time for me to try a full novel. The Queen’s Adept series was my most recent work (and one of my best, at least that’s what I think) so I tried it.
What was the translation process like, since you translated it yourself? What was the role of Jordi Balcells?
It was hard, almost exhausting sometimes, but at the same time it was refreshing and fascinating. In some ways I was not translating myself, but writing again the same story from a new and fresh point of view. And I discovered I liked very much how my work sounded in English.
Jordi was an invaluable part of the process. Not matter how good my English was (if in fact was any good), I needed someone else to revise what I had done. My eyes were too close to the text, we could say. Jordi is a professional translator and he jumped aboard the project with enthusiasm: he translates from English to Spanish, so to revise and correct a translation from Spanish to English was a challenge for him, in a way.
What were the challenges, both in writing, publishing, and translating the book?
As I began to write as a very young boy, I was never aware that there was any challenge at all. I mean, at that age, you really don’t think about those things: you just want to do it, so you do it. As time went by, of course, things change and you begin to think about what you do and how you do it and why you do it. The main challenge, for me as a writer, is to be able to make things real to the reader: while he’s reading my book he must forget the world outside the pages he reads, he must feel he’s there, inside the book, and the characters seem real to him or her.
Above all, the thing that worries me most when I begin to write new material is: who is telling it? Who tells the tale? Seeking a narrator suitable for the story you want to tell is sometimes hard, but when you find him, when you feel the voice you have chosen to tell the tale, it’s the voice the tale is demanding, you know everything will be fine. In The Queen’s Adept it soon became obvious to me that third-person narrator wasn’t enough, I needed something more. From there arose the quotations that begin every chapter, and that helped me, in some ways, to feel that the material was more real, more plausible. It was a way of giving the novel a denser background.
I began to publish (first myself and then other people) three years ago, after having been publishing with others for fifteen years (my first novel was released in 1995, so do the math). It was something I wanted to do, specially because there was some material I could not find a publisher for. I’m talking about my SF written and published in the Nineties: short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels that had been published many years ago in many different places and were sold out. All of them shared a common scenario (my Drímar universe) and I wanted to bring all that material together and publish it in three of four chronologically ordered volumes. And I wanted to try electronic publication also. So, Sportula, my very-very-very-very small press, was born that way: it began with a couple of books in paper (printed in POD) and half a dozen ebooks. Things went well and the project began to grow and sometime later I found myself publishing other people.
It’s a work I enjoy, not only the, well, “intellectual” part of the process but the physical as well: composing the book, working with the illustrator and the designer, sometimes designing the cover myself, those things. The real challenge is to reach an audience, specially in paper publications and working without a professional distribution, but little by little, with patience and thinking long-term, we are getting it. Translating into English is just one step more in the same direction.
And about the translation, we can say my main fear is that I’m not really sure if it will be good enough for the potential readers. I mean: it’s those people’s language, for heaven’s sake! And there I am, daring to translate without being a native.
How would you describe your fiction?
The word that suits it the best is “half-breed”, “mestiza”, as we say in Spanish. I write a “mestiza” literature that picks from here and there, everything I like, and put all those things together fearless of the possible results. With a special predilection for popular genres: SF, mystery, fantasy, adventure… Though as I said, there is always, or almost, some SF element. The Queen’s Adept, for instance, can seem fantasy at first glance, but it could be SF too, just switching your point of view. The novel (and the entire scenario, in fact) is deliberately in a kind of no man’s land that can be F or SF depending on the reader’s choice.
Have you considered translating your other novels, novellas, and short stories?
Yes, of course I have. I’ve translated a couple of short stories and surely in the future I’ll translate a few more. Another novel? Hard to say: it takes time, it’s hard and… well I have to write new novels as well, and time is limited. When I can afford, I guess I will hire a professional translator for the second novel of The Queen’s Adept series. And, from there… well, we’ll see.
How would you describe the genre scene there?
In Spain, the SF market is a very tiny one. If your book sells 1,500 copies you’re doing good, and if it sells 5,000 you’re almost a best-seller. So Spanish science-fiction landscape is full of small and medium-size presses and a couple of big publishers. It’s very difficult to earn a living just writing SF.
On the other hand, there are certain writers that are successful writing SF (or novels that have SF elements) for the mainstream… but without saying that’s SF. People like José Carlos Somoza or Félix J. Palma, for instance.
It’s a perception problem, we could say. SF label is discredited and it’s hard to fight against prejudice. But if you’re smart enough you can disguise your SF as… well, tecno-thriller, cyber-fantasy… things like that, and you can get the mainstream reader to read your book.
There are a dozen authors that, like me, began to publish in the ’90s, and in time they had fled from pure SF to less “problematic” genres, like historical fantasy. Juan Miguel Aguilera, for instances, has done well there and, in fact, has succeeded beyond our borders and achieved success in France with his Historical fantasy.
New generations of writers prefer horror, dark fantasy or just fantasy and SF is maybe a little abandoned. In fact, I haven’t write pure SF since 2005, with my cyberpunk novel El sueño del Rey Rojo (Red King’s Dream). I’ve moved from there to that half-breed literature I mentioned before that contains elements of several genres. And many of my colleagues have done the same.
My experience says that the audience, the mainstream audience, likes certain kinds of SF… when they’re not aware they’re reading SF.
Anything else you want to plug?
Just thank you this chance to make a first contact with American audience. I hope you’ll enjoy The Queen’s Adept and I hope this will be just the first of my books published in English.