WHAT IS IT?
A new full-cast, fully scored and sound designed audiobook of an original novel length epic fantasy poem by award-winning Canadian poet and voice-over artist Kyle Derek McDonald.
WHERE IS IT?
WHEN IS IT?
HOW MUCH IS IT?
$20, though the first 15 chapters are free.
In the fantastic and perilous land of Terravir – now all but conquered by an enigmatic warlord from an unknown realm, – there wells a deep mystery, at whose heart lies Virilus Magnus. Virilus, a great warrior forged by personal tragedy, has been summoned by the young Wizard and steward of Terravir, Sagir, to help drive out the invader and restore peace. What begins as a rebellion turns into something more tremendous than anyone could ever have imagined, and reaches all the way to the Gods themselves...
Ambitiously composed in Sesta Rima – 6 line stanzas – and with a compelling cast of unique characters, The Blessed offers a literary experience unlike anything else.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I was probably around 6 or 7, and I started writing adventure stories for school, and then in my free time.
Tell me a little about your journey as an artist and what lead you to writing.
I grew up around the Durham region outside of Toronto and there wasn’t really much of an artistic impulse out there, so I essentially just read and wrote on my own. As for what “led” me, I couldn’t really help it. I found the process very enjoyable, and still do (for the most part). I found that I would read or watch (or even listen) to something and then get inspired with ideas.
I’m also very lucky in that i) I’m often bombarded by meteor showers of ideas (sometimes with whole premises coming together in a few hours – sometimes while walking, waking up, or even in discussions arising after intimate exertions…) and ii) I tend to write quickly and can produce a lot of output in a short amount of time. I know some artists get dismayed about their output volume – there is some truth in that the faster you work, the easier it will be, but, as I always say: Mozart could belch out concerto, while Beethoven laboured and laboured: who’s better? There’s no answer to that question: both have left their indelible marks.
Why an Epic Poem?
My favourite works – for both content and style – are epic poems: The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Faery Queen. Reading The Iliad changed me (I was about 16). I didn’t mention it above, but I’m also a professional actor, and doing Shakespeare is my favourite, so I wanted to put it all together…
I find the Epic style to be raw, brutal, and beautiful, oscillating between the earth shaking furor of mortal (and divine) combat and the dulcet tremolo of the intimacy of love and loss. Nothing is held back.
The secret weapon of the Epic is metre (and sometimes rhyme). Metre has more or less disappeared from contemporary poetry (there’s an article in this, but I’ll leave that for another day), which is really unfortunate because with meter, poetry becomes music. Without it, it’s just prose really.
With my epic, I decided to use both metre and rhyme in the Sesta Rima style (called Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis style) which has 6 lines per stanza of Iambic Pentameter (5 clusters of 2 syllables with the rhythm unstressed-stressed), and with a rhyme scheme of ABABCC. Though, I’ve added my own little legacy to this arrangement, and made the last two lines Alexandrine (rhyming couplets with 12 syllables per line instead of 10). I was tempted to use the Spenserian/Byronic stanza of 9 lines, but I thought this would ask too much contortion in making the rhyme scheme work and therefore corrupt intelligibility (and strain audience patience).
Why rhythm and rhyme? If you read it (especially out loud), you’ll feel the pulse of the beat and the inherent delight of rhyme. And, of course, when you listen to it, you'll simply feel what I mean.
Here’s just the first stanza; you’ll see what I mean:
Roll thunder! Lightning strike! Empyrean weep!/
Let Nature’s fury ravage lands below,/
And keep all frightened souls from docile sleep,/
That they may view the welkin’s angry show!/
And there, beneath the grinding sky that roars and wails,/
A daring pilgrim through the raging water sails!
What is the topic and/or theme of The Blessed?
The setting is a fantasy world with a deep mystery at its core filled with Wizards, monsters, and Gods, wherein the Kingdoms of humans are under attack from an unknown tyrant who’s swept through the continent, taking everyone by surprise.
The story follows the heroes who rise up to resist the invading tyrant, and explores the themes of strength and weakness, regret and forgiveness, and liberty and submission. I think these are themes we very much need to revisit in contemporary dialogue as the world has turned out to be much more of a confusing and punishing place than we were led to believe in the late 20th and early 21st century. Our ancestors understood this very well, and I do find it more palatable to talk about these big concepts in big language.
How many years did your epic poem take to complete and tell us a little about that process & journey?
O boy…so, the first draft was an abysmal, not-quite-entirely-plagiarized rip off of Lord of the Rings, sprinkled with the Dungeons and Dragons campaigns my friends and I played…when I was 16. I wrote 300,000 words over that year and came out with…something…on the other end. While I have little use for the first draft outside of looking back, laughing, and rolling my eyes, (and blusing with embarrassment) I did emerge on the other side of it as a writer because my style improved, and I had developed the discipline to see things through. And while I believe idiom and story telling are the most important elements of writing, discipline is not very far behind.
I did an entire replotting (I kept the ‘feeling’ and the high story points) and two other redrafts of the original manuscript – in poetry – the first of them being blank verse (no rhyme), but, I wasn’t satisfied with it. It needed something more. So, along came the fourth draft, which I probably started 8 years ago, but, having done only about 20-30 pages, I got distracted, abandoned it, and there it sat until about 3 years ago, when I pulled it out again. I didn’t start really hammering it until 2 years ago, where I began to work on it nearly every day. I would be lying if the Covid lockdown didn’t accelerate my work schedule. A very slim personal silver lining.
Now completed, it clocks in at 125k words, 2536 stanzas, 15,216 lines of poetry, and it took over 1270 hours to compose.
What scares you the most about sharing your work?
That no one will consume it! Though, as a professional artist 90% of my life is rejection...
In this piece there isn’t really anything particularly intimate about me, per se, so that’s not a concern. One of my longform pieces is a little more personal and controversial (about masculinity), but, even then, I think the audience understands that it’s the writer’s job to portray things that are out of the ordinary, and, frankly, sometimes disturbing. What disturbs also interests, and, if anyone doubts that, have a look at how many shows and books there are about serial killers. A lot of artists worry that what they write will be reflected back on to them – I think in reality this seldom happens – most people are sophisticated enough to understand that the artist doesn’t endorse everything he or she writes. Moreover, a writer’s job is to become as familiar with as many “neurotypes” as possible, so, if you’re doing your job, you’ll have insight into all kinds of people.
Is writing different than being on screen how is it the same or different?
It is different – writing is solitary, and being onscreen involves having a room full of people around you; although…if you want to talk “flow state,” which is essentially being “in the zone,” then no, it’s not much different. The zone is the zone. Part of the point of discipline is to be able to turn on your flow state whenever you want. I believe this is the most difficult – and critical – skill for an artist to develop. All the pros can do it on a dime. Some people are naturally gifted and it just comes to them. The rest of us have to pound it out, and actively carve the neural pathways through repetition and grit.
What is it about writing that speaks to you most?
“The best words in the best order,” as Coleridge said (about poetry specifically in this case). I also happen to have the kind of neurology that responds very well to the written word, so it’s not as much of a hurtle for me to get through 700 pages and retain some of what I read. Eloquence also thrills me. Sometimes these things are just baked in!
What do you hope people think or feel when they read your work?
I hope they feel everything my characters feel, and I hope they get inspired. I hope they have to re-read passages they can’t believe happened. I hope they have to put the book down to catch their breath. I hope they think about it while they’re grocery shopping.
While the vocabulary and syntax in the poem are traditionally “intellectually challenging,” I’m really hoping to bypass that and allow for an immersive experience – hence the audio book.
What are you most proud of as a writer?
This poem. Absolutely.
AUDIOBOOK AND NARRATION
You narrated and played many of the characters in the audiobook. What was that like, and how did you go about doing it?
I believed this was going to be the most fun part of the process, and I could barely wait to get started – I began even before my edits were done, and I did the whole piece and all the different voices. I knew I would be brining in other actors to share some of the character load but I just wanted to try it out. I knew for certain that I would need to bring in other actors when I heard the female characters in my voice…even with a modulator to bend the pitch up, it would, without a doubt, have scuttled the whole thing.
Never the less, I did the whole book and ended up, over several months as I made changes and added actors, essentially re-recording all my parts. I will not do that again, but, the advantage was that I was able to get sense of the dramatic structure early so that I could properly direct my actors when it came time for them to record. I knew where everything needed to be, and where it needed to sit emotionally.
And this also allowed me to have the majority of the sound effects and music in place so the actors could really get the feel of a scene.
Why did you choose the actors you chose, and how was it to work with them?
I’ve known Luke and Andrea for years, and have worked with them on multiple occasions; I like their voices, and I knew they could deliver. And they did. Brianne came to me by recommendation since there was a minor roadblock with her predecessor who had to withdraw from the project for personal reasons: the real heartbreak here is that she was already fully recorded and mixed. Thus it goes. Brianne stepped in and learned an entirely new accent on very short notice.
I am very pleased with their output, and am humbled by their generosity: believe it or not, they’ve been hired in a deferred payment contract – we only make money if we can sell the product, myself included.
It’s expected that the executive producer and creator are the last to be paid, but, that these creatives willingly went into the booth for several hours to voice many characters without the guarantee of a paycheque shows their dedication.
And they were wonderful to work with. Detailed, thorough, patient, and obsessed with quality, I can’t recommend them enough.
Were there any takeaways from this process?
I’ve been a professional performer for many years involved in many different kinds of projects – some of which are my own – so I had a good idea of what to expect. What I’ll say, though, is that I was reminded how important it is to allow your performers to do it their way.
I’ve directed short films, webseries episodes, plays, and operas, and I always want to be as invisible in the process as possible. This is why 90% of a director’s job - when it comes to performers - is hiring: the less you need to direct, the better off you’ll be. The verse and rhyme scheme of The Blessed has very specific and inflexible demands, so I was a little more hands on in this process than I usually am in directing. However, the performers picked it up quickly, and never failed to deliver, even though I had them screaming at the top of their lungs from time to time…for minutes on end…
I had my initial read as my guide, but I let much of that go when I heard my words in the mouths of my cast, because, quite simply, they did what I hired them to do: they did it better.
What about the sound design – the editing and the sound effects? Was that challenging?
It was enormous fun! Until around hour 10 in the audiobook…and then it was grueling. Tweaking the EQ, managing filters, correcting artifacts, balancing volumes, adjusting pan, recording and building sounds (many of which are my originals), it was all very involved. I’m pleased by the feedback that says it all sounds very professional, because it was definitely a learning experience. I’m very happy to be able to do it though, and I think it adds a truly gratifying layer to the experience.
Use as many tracks as needed to keep a relatively clean timeline in case you need to move things around, and group tracks together to apply effects wherever possible to keep the memory use low.
Some of my timelines get up to 60 tracks…but when I have to move something, or look for a specific spot, I sure am glad!
You also composed all the original music for this? Are you also a composer?
I did compose all the original music using digital orchestra instruments. I technically am a composer now, though, because I know classical composers who write directly into engraving programs like Finale or Sibelius (the equivalent of writing IN music notation), I adopt the more humble title of digital composer.
What were your inspirations for the music?
One of the first pieces I wrote was the Virilus Magnus movement, and there’s a section in that piece that is very directly influenced by Basil Poledouris’ music for the Conan films – a truly remarkable piece of music that is at once sonically sophisticated, but also exciting and aggressive. I honestly think it belongs to the catalogue of great orchestral works. My other influences are Wagner, Verdi, Holst, Puccini, Brahms, and John Williams. If anyone can detect these heavy-hitters in my work, I’ll be most flattered.
Did you learn anything while writing the music?
Many, many things about balance, and instrument colour and sensibility – nevermind all the technical details of mixing. There will still be more learning to do if and when I have any of these pieces performed live.
A positive lesson was that there’s a flavour in the music that’s definitively my own, which means I didn’t just make work that’s a derivative of others. I may not be one of the greats, but at least I’m my own!
You said it took you 24 years and four drafts to finishing writing The Blessed. What do you think has changed since you started?
This is my favourite question because I can actually trace the changes in my story-telling over the years, and I think I’m happy with the alterations. There were many personal and professional learning curves, but, for the sake of time, I’ll give some bullet points, and then one example.
-The first draft was about 300,000 words, in prose, and an amalgam of Lord of the Rings, D&D campaigns, and Greek myth. It was too close to Lord of the Rings for comfort…(or the law…). Because of the below points, the story underwent a radical transformation – because I actually worked out what was being said, and, with that “thesis” in mind, I was able to craft everything around it, coming out at 125,000 words instead, while saying a lot more.
-Having been through the remorseless schools of playwriting and screenwriting I learned economy, and since that time I’ve drastically reduced the amount of characters and “incidents” across all my work, The Blessed being no exception.
-As a human being I have improved my Theory of Mind, which has made me exponentially better at character development and psychological nuance; rather than every character being a reflection of some part of me (the way it was in the early days), I’m now able to fashion developed characters of entirely different temperaments and neurotypes.
-I’ve also abandoned the subtle-yet-ever-pervasive misanthropic trend that has infiltrated the “fine” arts over the last 50 years or so: I no longer wish to punish my audience, nor do I believe that suffering is required to appreciate art.
Now, for an example:
When I first started writing, I had the same problem that afflicts our late Gen X and millennial creatives today: everything is too easy for the protagonist, who’s already perfect the way he/she is, and it’s only a matter of the rest of the world catching up with that fact. The source of conflict for this person is enduring a world that denies them their perfection, with only occasional bouts of structure-imposed self-reflection, which seem more rote than genuine. This – I’ll say it – delusion of perfection has so permeated our culture across all kinds of media and in so many properties, that it’s actually driven me away from most “new” things. I put new in quotations, because even the torrent of remakes suffer from this disastrous defect. Now we have drama driven by schoolyard-style misunderstandings and vanities, very young characters who defeat masters many years their senior with ease, and protagonists with chips on their shoulders despite everything going their way.
This Infallibility Syndrome is a symptom of a much larger problem that we’re dealing with, and there’s a lot of literature on the infantilization of contemporary adults. Perhaps arranging the entire apparatus of consumer culture towards the tastes of young people while treating reality itself as an oppressive force rather than a fact of life wasn’t such a good idea…
Suffice it to say, I too suffered from this Infallibility Syndrome, and it showed up in my early work. That has been corrected since, and the challenge with The Blessed was keeping a very powerful character, Virilus Magnus, without committing the sin of Infallibility.
Virilus Magnus in the first draft was called Achilles, and was modeled very closely on the fiery hero of the Iliad. I have much to say about what people generally think of the Achilles of the Iliad (they are frequently flagrantly mistaken), but that’s for another interview.
My original Achilles was in many ways modeled on the Achilles I saw at 16: unapologetic, ruthless, superb, with a hint of all-knowing circumspection. Mine was an extraordinarily powerful character that every man wanted to be, and every woman wanted to be around. He did everything, won everything, and one wonders why there were any other characters at all, aside from being pylons or admirers, of course. It was fun to write. But, it was like reading the homily sections of Paradise Lost: BORING. Very little personal conflict (lots of sword fights and feats of strength though), no development, and no improvement. Of course, now that I’m more developed as a person and an artist, I can see Homer’s deft hand, which actually makes Achilles a well-rounded, sympathetic character, and not a blow-hard.
I now know that one must create hurdles equal to the power of the protagonist, and that he/she must be stretched to the absolute ends of their abilities; these hurdles should also be emotional, not merely practical. Stress is stimulating for human beings (to a point), and even some near-death cancer survivors say it was the best thing that ever happened to them – it rearranged their priorities and eliminated pointless concerns.
So, how did I fix Achilles, and make him the Virilus he is today? Virilus, rather than giving unfettered vent to his rage, contains it, and is careful to never unleash upon his friends; rather than gloating or showboating, he seeks to elevate those around him; rather than being emotionally impervious, he’s haunted by a very painful event that was partially of his making, and, from a surfeit of honour, is unable to forgive himself for it. His flaw? Just that: his sense of duty is so immense that he actually believes that he alone is responsible for any ill that befalls the world. In the balance are his unrivaled combat skills, his enormous strength, and his relative maturity and emotional stability. He is neither petty, envious, nor irrational. He is, in fact, a role model. His greatest strength, hidden behind all the fancy trappings of a Hercules, is actually his ability to adapt to changing circumstances, as dictated by reality. He’s prepared to have his mind changed by new information.
These lessons also allowed me to create – and to enjoy writing – the other leads, Sagir, and Fré. The one is a very able young man who’s terrified of his abilities and who wants nothing more than to shirk his duty, while the other is a prankster who has difficulty owning up to her mistakes. Their story arcs force them to confront their shortcomings and to emerge as better, healthier people.
There’s in fact an overriding theme of stepping away from responsibility among many of the characters in The Blessed, which really only occurred to me after writing it. This is the difference between adults and children, I think. Adults accept their responsibility, while children try to escape it. Responsibility is a pain in the ass, but, it actually makes you a better person.
“You’re perfect the way you are” is really very harmful, I think. Even looking at my own life: I know that that attitude has cost me dearly. No one is perfect, if only because we must perforce deal with other people who have ideas and opinions all their own.
A lot of people have doubts about themselves as artists. Did you have any doubts about your artistic practices as you went through this process and if so, how did you get through them?
Again, I’m a bit of an anomaly – I never really had any doubt about my craft (which has cost me in other ways), though I’ve often had a lot of doubts about having my work being appreciated by the industry gate-keepers. It’s easy to get a chip on your shoulder – and this helps no one. I’ll just keep refining and keep swinging.
I think I’m also lucky in that I’m able to detach myself from my work, so when I go back again and listen, or read, or watch it, I can spot all the little defects, like little holes in a hull, and I can patch them (which I did just before releasing the audiobook - I re-recorded 30% of the narration). Even a year after completing all the major elements of the audiobook, I’ve gone back and tweaked a few sections of the text, of the audiobook, and I’ve done some re-composition on the music. In all likelihood, no one would have noticed these little aberrations, but I know that if I don’t patch them up, I’ll just lose sleep over them. In ten years, I’m sure I’ll hear things that I would like to fix as well, but I believe I’ll hear a lot more that I’ll be proud of.
As for getting through doubt, there’s only one way: deal with it later. Slop the paint on the canvas; vomit the words on the page; spill the notes into the air. Then, walk away for a few months and come back. You’ll be amazed by two things: i) how much better it is than you remember it, and ii) how much worse it is than you remember it. Now fix it.
If you could give other hopeful artists advice, what would it be?
As for advice… this one always comes with tough love for me. It’s fair to say that the world is very different than it was in the late 20thC – there isn’t really a streamlined practice of spotting talent and developing it. Everyone expects the “finished product” which means you have to hustle, you have to keep producing, and you have to get lucky. There are more authors being published than ever before, but every person 40 and under wants to be a writer. Or an actor. Or a musician. Or, polling at #1 on the top ten careers (young) millennials and iGen want: a social media influencer. Instant Gratification is a thing, and it has murdered expertise. This is at once a tragedy and an opportunity. It’s time for “out of the box” thinking – which is also frightening because it’s frequently the hardest thing to do. In a world where someone becomes a millionaire for erotic fan-fiction online, who the hell can make heads from tails of anything?
And I’ll say here what I say to all young and emerging artists: have another job. It’s also not sexy, but you can’t get up to any good if you’re worried about rent. Even if you get a book published, it can make for a good year, but there are so many titles that it’ll get swallowed up in 18 months, and then you’re back at it again – we hear about the G.R.R. Martins, but they’re the exception. So, have a job to keep yourself fed, to get yourself a family, and to cultivate some good memories; write because you have to. Do your due diligence and look for representation; visit the forums; post online; share your work; find a way to become a hub yourself. But waiting for that magical “day” that it lands and you “arrive” is a mistake, and there are heartbreaking tales from around the western world of people who are waking up and realizing that they have nothing. And I don’t mean televisions or iPads.
Additionally, humans want to read about, watch, and listen to stories about things that matter to humans. Honour. Love. Liberty. Family. Shame. Faith. Sorrow. Iniquity. Absolution. Triumph. These aren’t things you’re going to cultivate authentically in a vacuum. Live, by Jove!
Quick-Fire tips for writing:
1. PLOT thoroughly before you start serious writing. Nothing kills a project faster than aimless wandering. -> Super tip: think of the climax of your story, and work backwards from there: what has to happen before to give it the most impact?
2. SET yourself a word limit that you must reach every work day. I recommend 2000. But 500 is still better than 0.
3. THINK about your project in your off-time: before bed, after waking up, running errands. DON’T crash your car or walk into traffic.
4. TALK about it with friends. A lot of people like to keep things close to the chest: I think this is a mistake for developing writers. It works like therapy: you talk, and you tend to solve your own problems.
5. READ more than you write. Read great authors from the past, and read non-fiction about things you don’t know a damned thing about. You’d be amazed where inspiration can come from. I recently read “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, and his insights into what happened to Easter Island have provided me with the inciting incident for my next prose novel.
6. JOIN groups where you can read each other’s work out loud. That’s the fun bit. This will also offer opportunities for receiving constructive criticism to help you get better and to learn how to take knocks, because if you do get your work into the real world, there will always be edits and suggestions from your team, nevermind the inevitable trolls and detractors. Learn now how to take the suggestions, and which of them to keep and which to reject. This happens with time and practice.
7. SCREENWRITING or playwriting are great exercises in efficient plot and dialogue. Give ‘em a shot. This will also help you develop your PITCH – a brief sentence or two that succinctly tells people what your book is about.
What do you want the world to know about Kyle?
When I was younger, I wanted the world to know a lot more ha ha! These days, I want people to know me as someone who can be trusted to deliver on artistic endeavours that no one else is quite satisfying – whatever that may be! Not particularly sexy, but, I’ll let each person decide for his or herself what else to believe.