In the land of Branchwater, on the continent of Esrael, humans and their created guardians, Mantliks, have lived peacefully together for 700 years. Their centuries-old serenity is suddenly shattered one morning when they awake to find an invading army outside their castle town. The epic battle and heroic acts of camaraderie that follow are detailed with breathtaking finesse in Steven Maus' debut fantasy novel "Branchwater."
Interview with Steven Maus
Branchwater: A Novel
Reviewed by for Reader Views (12/07)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is happy to be joined by Steven Maus, who is here to talk about his new fantasy novel, “Branchwater.”
Steven Maus was born in Mesa, Arizona, on August 12, 1987. He was home-schooled until he was fifteen, at which point he began attending CGCC in Gilbert. In addition to his studies, he is a charter member of the Creative Writing Club, and an active performer/contributor to literary events on campus. He began writing when he was ten. “Branchwater,” a story of a tiny kingdom besieged by an immense enemy army, is his first novel, and he is neck deep in his second, “Madeline City.” In addition to novels, he also writes short stories and poetry, he journals a bit here and there, and is hard at work teaching himself screenwriting.
Tyler: Welcome, Steven. I’m glad you could join me today. I understand the land of Branchwater is one where the humans live in peace with their guardians, the Mantliks. Would you begin by explaining more about this “guardian” situation to us?
Steven: Thank you for having me, Tyler. Well, when the first humans landed on Esrael (the continent on which sits Branchwater) and began exploring, they encountered the race of underground creatures that are dealt with in the second half of the novel. This race of predators, and other dangers, are why the humans began practicing the art of creating life that had been given them by God. Right from the start the climate on Esrael was one of hostility, and so the humans acted accordingly, creating an alternate race of people who would, through their very creation, owe the humans their lives. That is the reason the Mantliks guard the humans so willingly.
Tyler: Steven, tell us a little bit about the religious background of the novel, the God, his council, and the creation of the Mantliks. What about a religious hierarchy fascinated you as opposed simply to focusing on a magical background?
Steven: I’m of a mind that magical abilities and properties are far too easy to debunk. Simply put, in my mind it goes something like this: “If magic can fix one problem, why can’t it fix them all?” Whenever magic is introduced in a story, the author needs to detail and explain every single aspect of it, or else it seems like anything can be accomplished through magical means. It simply isn’t something that my mind naturally gravitates towards; that is the reason that I shy away from focusing on magic. In further novels concerning the kingdom of Branchwater, each of the Anahalmist will make appearances, and each of them will display a specific and unique talent or skill, and in that way, I hope to preserve the credibility of magic in Branchwater. A side note concerning the religious hierarchy in Branchwater—before Almighty God was done away with his council numbered seven (a number of some biblical importance). When the leader of the Anahalmist (Lord Fortitude) replaced him, the council now numbered six, a number of biblical importance as well, though it is shown in the opposite light as the number seven.
Tyler: Your references to numbers in the Bible, and the name of Esrael, which sounds like Israel, make me have to ask, was the Bible an influence upon your creation of a fantasy world?
Steven: Well, I was raised on the Bible and so it influences me in many ways, including my writing, my stories, etc. There are plenty of great tales about war in the Bible, as well as tyrants being dethroned, whole peoples being wiped out. It really is great inspirational material.
Tyler: I like your comments about how magic should be able to solve everything if it is introduced—what other ingredients did you find important in creating a fantasy novel while maintaining the reader’s suspension of disbelief?
Steven: One of the most desperately necessary aspects that must be focused on in any novel is realistic dialogue; having characters speak and interact with each other in a believable way is one of the best ways to ensure an involving plot. Specific to a fantasy novel? Originality is very important, especially when fantasy is such a popular subject among all ages, and I have to admit that I consider Branchwater to be very clichéd in some ways, though I like to believe that the concept of the Anahalmist and their war against Esrael is my own conception. Vivid visual details are also very important; when characters behave believably, and when the reader is shown a world that is alive and breathing, then all that’s left is for the author to make sure that what the characters are doing, saying, etc., is interesting.
Tyler: The story begins when a foreign army is found encamped outside the city walls of Branchwater? Tell us more about this army and its threat to Branchwater.
Steven: The army hails from the First Continent and is as such referred to as the First Army. This is a way for the Anahalmist to show superiority, that they came first, that they will always be first in all things. The soldiers of the First Army are made up of the humans that the Anahalmist took for their captives, about six hundred years prior. While the Anahalmist have never been able to create life as the humans can, they are able to cheat death, and the ancestors of the citizens of Branchwater are forced to march against their descendants.
Tyler: I understand the Mantliks and humans must work together to defeat the enemy. Why did you choose to create these two races and have them work together?
Steven: I’ve always considered partnership to be an integral part of good stories. When there are more characters, more factions, more angles, that means the stakes are higher, and when the stakes are higher, people will go to more extreme ends to accomplish their goals. It also means that the moments of crisis, the low points, are that much more detrimental to your character’s well being. It’s basically an attempt to draw the reader in as much as possible.
Tyler: One of the most important characters in “Branchwater” is the child Desirae. Will you tell us a bit about her role in the novel?
Steven: Desirae is actually named after my own godchild. In the book, she is not quite accepted by her mother, Gwenith, due to her bubbly personality (Gwenith is, by nature, a grouch) and her lack of height. While the normal Mantlik stands around six foot tall, Desirae comes to a measly four. Gwenith is disappointed that she has failed to produce a ‘respectable’ child, and tends to take it out on Desirae. Desirae is much more drawn to her Aunt Greta than she is to her mother, and so she follows Greta to the castle hoping to help out anyway she can. At that point, I had some trouble presenting her power. Whenever I write about magic, I try my best to find flaws within my own system. I didn’t consider it possible that Desirae had had a magical power for so long and no one noticed, so I decided to link her power to that of the Anahalmist. The reason she kept her power secret was that she had come by it while playing in the temple in Mithildrin Forest, and it was forbidden for any to enter the temple. When Seriana and the First Army arrive her powers flex and grow, and when Seriana is driven out of Branchwater, her powers wane. In this way, she has been able to skate under the radar of those who would ask questions.
Tyler: Steven, where did you come up with the name of Branchwater? Is it in any way symbolic?
Steven: Over the years I spent developing this story the name of the kingdom changed quite a bit. At one point it was the Water Kingdom, I even considered the Kingdom of Fire and Ice, but I eventually settled on Branchwater since it was a single word, and still possessing quite a reference to nature. I’ve always seen Branchwater as a very lush, healthy landscape, no matter what the name, and I wanted to preserve that.
Tyler: You obviously spent a great deal of time creating the history and geography of your fantasy world. Tell us a little bit about how you kept track of everything and where your ideas came from?
Steven: I have a very large file labeled ‘Branchwater,’ and it’s bursting with notes, sketches, and printouts of all things Branchwater related. In the early stages of the book, I was working at Wendys, and I would print out a long stretch of blank receipt paper and take a pen to it. I have a large supply of handwritten portions of Branchwater, on receipt paper, on computer paper, on the backs of flyers even. I’m a very organized person (usually) and I take my stories very seriously, and so I’ve always kept my material at hand, easy to find and reach. As far as my ideas go, I frequently get ideas from books and movies, sometimes music; anything with a story in it has a chance to trigger something in my head. After I have enough to plan a story around, usually more elements come from brainstorming about the story itself.
Tyler: Have you been influenced by any previous writers of fantasy?
Steven: Yes, of course. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a hugely inspiring trilogy for many people, I know. Those three books (four, including “The Hobbit”) are not my favorites by any means, but they are the epitome of good fantasy, and much of what I’m interested in writing about now can be likened to Tolkien. Also, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman who write the Dragon Lance novels; their enormous, sprawling fantasy tales helped me expand what will be my second novel, “Madeline City.” The last in particular would be Patrick Carman who writes about the Land of Elyon.
Tyler: What do you feel sets “Branchwater” apart from other fantasy novels?
Steven: The Anahalmist, first off. As I said earlier, I like to hope that at least that concept is mine alone. They created three continents for the humans to live on, they return time and time again to conquer ‘the little people’ who always manage to find a way to survive (one of those clichéd elements I mentioned before), the lore behind the creation of the Mantliks also sets Branchwater apart, as do the Mantliks’ physical features—the shade of green that they all bear somewhere on their bodies.
Tyler: What is it about writing fantasy that appeals to you?
Steven: It’s exciting! In all good writing, there has to be trouble. This could mean a little boy who tripped and dropped his ice cream cone on the sidewalk, or it could mean World War III. In writing fantasy, there are so many new and different kinds of ways to express trouble, for trouble to manifest itself, for trouble to set in. And that gives you more angles, more vantage points. In the end, the stakes are higher, the action more intense, the pulses pounding like a million thoroughbreds, yada yada yada.
Tyler: Do you see yourself writing other types of fiction and non-fiction in the future?
Steven: Well, I have ideas for many, many books. And while at one point I thought they all seemed so different from one another, an honest assessment would be to say that they all deal with fictional lands, fictional people, magic, war, and large extravagant, tape-four-pieces-of-paper-together-and-scrawl-a-map-of-the-continent-on-them maps. Non-fiction though? It is interesting sometimes to write about the things that are, but I’ve found that inspiration comes to me more clearly and more fully while I’m daydreaming about far off lands and ancient traditions and magic rites, and such.
Tyler: I understand “Branchwater” will be followed by a sequel, “Edgewood.” Will you tell us a little bit about that book?
Steven: Certainly. “Edgewood” will continue 100 hundred years after “Branchwater” ends (as any who have read Branchwater’s epilogue might have guessed). The kingdom south of Branchwater, Murkland, has finally been reaching out to Branchwater, trading, establishing friendships and such, and the story kicks off with a tournament duel, just as Branchwater did, only this time Greta (the still undefeated champion of Branchwater) finds herself facing the best of the Murkland warriors. The Anahalmist will return and make a bid for the rule of the continent, arriving in dramatic fashion, true to their form. All of the Mantliks from Branchwater will make appearances, as well as a few new ones, and they will be joined by Kindersley, the hapless castle sentry from the first book.
Tyler: I also mentioned in the beginning you are working on a book called “Madeline City.” Is this part of the series?
Steven: No. “Madeline City” is actually a completely different story; it is a stand alone novel set in a different world. When I finished “Branchwater,” I decided to take a break from Esrael and the Anahalmist for a while, and to follow up on a different set of ideas that were becoming increasingly clearer in my head at the time. “Madeline City” is the story of a city once ruled by kings, overthrown by the Augsburg Church in an internal coup, the rebels that fight to reinstate the monarchs, and the civilians that get caught in between. If all goes according to my plans, it will be published in late 2008.
Tyler: How many more stories do you plan to write about Esrael? Do you have a name for the series itself?
Steven: You know, last year I had settled on a name for the series, but since then I’ve changed my mind and decided that the books will be linked only by their own individual names. There are three remaining books to be written about the continent of Esrael, and all of them will bear the name of a specific place as their title. Just as Branchwater is the name of the kingdom, Edgewood denotes a specific location on the continent.
Tyler: Steven, I congratulate you upon publishing your first novel at only age 20. Do you have any advice you would like to give to other young people who want to write?
Steven: Go to school. I wrote “Branchwater” without any sort of formal writing education, and now since I’ve begun going to college, I’ve realized just how much more I could have put into Branchwater if only I’d known. More effort, more feeling, more overall quality, and most important, more enjoyment for myself and my readers. Learn about writing, and learn about storytelling. If not, you’re cheating yourself. Big time.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Steven. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about “Branchwater” and your other upcoming books?
Steven: Well, thank you for having me, Tyler. My website is www.humansandmantliks.com, and is actually devoted to my first novel, “Branchwater.” On it you can find background information concerning the history of Branchwater, including that race of underground creatures I mentioned earlier. There’s a section for news concerning the book, and there are also excerpts from the book; a series of battle scenes, as well as the entire first chapter, and it’s all free! So head on over and check it out; the color scheme is really cool!
Tyler: Thank you, Steven. I wish you a long and prosperous writing career!