Musical literature: An interview with Michael Young

As I was saying in my previous article, Kingdoms in boxes and worlds in globes, one of the best literary experiences I had in 2014 was reading the Canticle series by Michael Young. I liked the play between different types of storytelling, the complexity of the stories – and, overall, I wish I’d read the stories as a kid, when I’m sure I would have spent hours playing “Canticle” and pretending to be sucked into fantastical worlds.

Michael Young seems to be one of those people whom you’d enjoy being: he traveled the world in his childhood, he has degrees in German, Music and Instructional Design, he composes music, writes books and acts in the local theater. Art all the way!

And, lucky person that I am, he agreed to answer a few questions for me – mostly about the Canticle series, since although he has a delightful-sounding The Last Archangel series, I’ve yet to read it – but soon, soon I’ll get to it.

1. You’re a very artistic person: acting, composing and playing music, writing. Does your work in one artistic direction influence your work in the others? Or do you feel that they’re mostly separate endeavors?

I really feel that all the different artistic areas of my life flow together. I find that what I’m singing or the music that I’m writing influences my novels and short stories. Things that I see on stage often show up influencing characters I write. I hope that my artistic endeavors will influence others to create as well.

For example, I wrote a piano song that was an original composition about the same time I was writing “The Canticle Kingdom”. I didn’t consciously make it sound like a music box, but that’s how it turned out. I ended up including the sheet music at the end of “The Canticle Prelude”, because to me, that is what the music coming from the box sounds like.

Canticle sheet
From the Canticle Prelude

 

2. I usually hate asking authors if anything they wrote is based on real life, but I’ve been dying to know this: is there a real music box that inspired the one from the Canticle series? Do you have pictures? 

There was not a single box, but more of the result of living in Germany for a while and seeing the many beautiful boxes and other bits or woodwork. They sure do that well there! I did a painting a few years back that, while not a masterpiece, will give you an idea of what I imagined the box to look like.

[Note: Of course he paints. I am not jealous, not a single little bit, not a little, that he can paint. Nope.]

3. And while we’re on that “I hate to ask, but I’m dying to know” trail of thought: I’ve read that you traveled the world in your childhood and that you studied German in university – also, a part of the Canticle series is set in Germany. Was the passion for German born during your travels? Are specific details described in The Frozen Globe based on personal experience?

Indeed, my travels always inspire new things to write about. I lived for two years in Germany, and loved exploring the castles, ruins, and old villages. The village of Idar Oberstein, where the Karsten and Jorgen are from, is a real place where I lived for a while. There really is a church built into the side of the mountain there as well.

The church mentioned in the Canticle Prelude. I thought it was made up, so I never thought to Google it.

 

I love to weave little bits of history into my fantasy, as well as the local lore. For example, I included bits about the Berlin Airlift in the Frozen Globe. I’ve been to Berlin and even to the airport where the Airlift was taking place. I once had dinner with the man known as the “Candy Bomber” and affectionately included him in my story. Germany has so much to draw from, and so I’ve always found it a great source to help me with my writing.

4. You’ve switched between publishing the whole book at once and episodic writing – how do you prefer to work? Which is more fun? Which is more demanding?

They are both a lot of fun. I have particularly liked doing episodic work, because you get more writing to the reader more quickly. It is easy to tell a ready to come along from week to week rather than saying “watch for the next installment—next year!” I guess it depends on the story. For longer stuff, it is harder to break things into episodes, but with shorter things, I think it has been the way to go. Episodic can be quite demanding, especially how I’ve been doing it, writing and recording audio for each episode. The deadlines come much faster, but so does the payoff. It’s an interesting balance, and a process I hope to continue.

5. I think my favorite part is right at the beginning of The Canticle Prelude: it has the air of a tragic fairy tale, and a sort of mythical rhythm. Is it a story you’ve had in mind since you started writing The Canticle Kingdom, or did the idea of how the kingdom came to be come to you later?

I had a vague idea of what had come before in the brothers’ lives when I started writing “The Canticle Kingdom”, but I really didn’t flesh it out until later when I stared working on “Prelude”. I felt it would help the rest of the story to know the brothers better, and to have sympathy, even for the one who had gone astray. I thought telling it in a fairytale style would fit the setting well. It is the backyard of the Brothers Grimm after all. And if anyone reads the originals of those tales, you know that just because a tale begins with “Once upon a time…” doesn’t mean that it gets a happy ending, at least not for everyone. I was very happy exploring these characters more myself, as I think in “The Canticle Kingdom”, you could sense that there was quite a bit that had happened before.

6. The Canticle series is full of intertwining plots and characters in different worlds, all interacting with each other. Is it ever hard to bring it all together, or does it work out like magic?

That’s intertwining magic is a big part of the fun for me. I’ve been making up imaginary worlds since I was in grade school, so the process doesn’t seem to difficult anymore. I spend a lot of time when I’m not actually writing puzzling out my plots in my mind so that I know where I’m going to go once I get the chance to write again. I always sit down and have a general idea of where I’m going before I get started with a story, but along the way, I’m able to make all sorts of new connections I hadn’t planned for, and that’s a great feeling, because it feels like the story has taken on a life of its own.

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