The time has finally come!
A year after the first outing in the world of skyports, pirates and schemers, the sequel is nearly here, introducing:
Book 2 in the Maynard Trigg Saga
Maynard Trigg and The City of Whispers centers on The Crucible, a great school of alchemy and learning, and the denizens who live there. When students start to go missing, Maynard must find the culprit before the white law closes in.
Ahead of the book's release, we sat down with the author, David McNeill. We wanted to see what we can expect from the exciting sequel to Maynard Trigg and The Creature Beneath The Veil.
It's a cold June morning.
We've met David at his new apartment, and on the balcony we're a few meters away from each other (he handed us sanitizer on the way in, doing his best, he explains).
He's swallowed by a long dark coat, and he has a new ring on which he fidgets with absently as we talk. He looks out at the sky - I can imagine him with a laptop or notebook in the afternoon, writing.
Q: Alright, tell us a little bit about The City of Whispers.
Straight to it?
It's the next chapter in Maynard's journey - and really it's about seeing this person who went through so much seek out his place in the world.
For me it's really the start of Maynard finding his feet by himself, but he's still in the shadow of everything that's happened. The ferry, the Seeker, his father: his past is right behind him.
It's far more about how Maynard deals with people his own age now that's he's been forced to grow up so quickly.
Q: For all the scheming and plotting, The Creature Beneath The Veil had an ambiguous conclusion as far as it's morality - without spoiling anything, it's left fairly grey as to whether or not Maynard and co did the right thing on The Ferry. Is that something you were looking to bring out in this story?
If book one is about Maynard finding his own morality in a crooked world, [The City of Whispers] is about him putting that morality into practice and seeing how it shakes out.
I think that's what I'm always curious about. People build up these codes and rules for themselves overtime, and it's not until they get challenged that we realise we're so entrenched in them.
That work of self-reflection and self-criticism is how you grow up.
Q: Has that happened to you?
Oh absolutely. I was living a particular way for a long time, and I met someone very important to me, and she admired what I was doing, but...
I think of it like you decorate your house without letting anyone come in, and you live there for years, and finally you let someone in and they walk around and go "Wow, you've been living like this? Why?"
So it's a bit like that.
She changed my life by asking those questions.
Q: That sounds like you've lifted that experience directly in some ways?
It's not one to one, but yeah, I think you always draw on those experiences to create story.
Q: On that note, can we expect which favourite characters to return?
Well, we pick up pretty much where book one ends, so you'll see the trio back in action. There are some returning faces, but you'll just have to wait and see who else shows up.
Q: What are you most excited about in book 2?
There's a lot in this story - mostly it's great to expand the world, and this book takes place in a total foreign skyport.
It's all brand new to Maynard. Bringing in these elements that were touched on in book one - like The Crucible and Detectors - that was really exciting to flesh out and bring to life.
In particular, I enjoyed creating The Crucible. It's a big, messy place with lots of moving parts. I love the process of developing a place that feels real and lived in.
The people who live there aren't like the folks on The Ferry. The Ferry was this waystation, I guess. The Crucible is an institution.
It's filled with lots of secrets and history.
Q: Tell me about that. Is history something you're interested in?
I suppose. I studied a lot of modern history in high school - the world wars, dictators, that sort of thing.
I think I'm less interested in history itself than how... what am I trying to say?
Q: It's not history, exactly?
Yeah, it's the way history is kind of titrated into stories. How you can go to a place and someone can tell you all these anecdotes about how this room was built, and that time Aunt Whoever put a dent in this wall, and so on.
It's part of why I find travel less interesting when it's for a purpose - going somewhere just to see it or experience the culture is just fine, but when it comes to writing I want to understand how and why people tell stories about places.
There's this house, near when I grew up.
It's on this really expensive street that I had to walk on my way back from the pub in my later years. And all the other houses are modern, kind of air-y looking things with high rooves and that.
But this one house is red brick. There's no fence, just a brick wall, and you can't really seen into any of the windows. It's this anachronism.
I used to make up stories about the house when I was walking past as a kid - who lived there, why had the place stayed the same for so long, why hadn't they sold it for the land value, that sort of thing.
Q: Changing gears for a moment, you mentioned a few times that you listen to hip hop and rap while you write - do you find the words distracting?
I don't think so?
I tend to listen to the same handful of albums on loop. I know most of the lyrics by heart, so it's like this pattern recognition happening in the other part of my brain, and frees my creativity up a little.
Q: Right, so the words keep your brain working without being like... another story, a TV show for instance?
Q: On that note, you have such a distinct voice on the page. I heard someone describe it this week as a mix between Stephen King's middle-American bluntness and Neil Gaiman's specific elegance.
I don't know about that, I would never compare myself to them.
Q: I was more thinking with your description.
Oh sure, yeah.
They're both a huge influence on my style, for sure.
Q: A lot of the reviews from the first book note how vivid and clear the description is - which is interesting given how minimalist your description is. What's your process for deciding what description to keep and what to cut?
There's a few factors that go into it.
Without getting too inside baseball, I have a few techniques that I employ: the inverted pyramid, and the red door test.
The inverted pyramid is simple. It's the basic flow of the description, where it should start broad and grow more precise. This is one of Aron's (the editor of the series) biggest tips as we work on the line by line edits.
The second is the red door test.
I don't know who came up with this - but it's an exercise when describing an object where you start with the most basic description.
"He opened a red door" right?
Then you add another detailed.
"He opened a red door by turning the silver handle."
And you keep adding detail until you end with something like: "The old man in the blue jacket, slouching, turned the handle and shoved the crimson door with chipped paint and rusted hinges until it swung open," or whatever.
Once you have every possible detail on the page, you can strike off things that are superfluous or that don't service the scene.
Eventually, you end up with something minimal includes only the detail that's needed or is effective.
It's more involved than that - I also think about who is narrating and what they would notice, how'd they'd notice it and so on. Is it significantly unique? Is it interesting? It is arresting in its specificity? Does it matter? Does it tell us something that dialogue cannot?
You ask all these questions of each piece of description.
I feel like I just kept talking there.
Q: No that was great - any tips for other writers when it comes to description you wish you knew earlier?
What I said before: does the description matter and what about it will the reader care about?
You have to have so much respect for your reader's attention. They're choosing to take on the words you've put on the page, so make sure that whatever those words are, they tell the best possible version of the story.
Respect, brevity, and no adverbs.
Q: What is it King says, "-LY" words are evil?
"-LY" words are evil, and should be used in limited quantities and carefully.
Q: On the writing process, you do a great job of injecting a sense of playfulness. It makes your work a joy to read - particularly in short bursts, particularly when the story gets dark or grim. What's your process for doing this?
That's a great question, for the most part it's a balancing act. The key is that the characters have to take the danger and situations they're in seriously, but that doesn't mean the book has to.
I'm a big believer in being self-aware and recognising that sometimes we get ourselves into absurd situations - Maynard definitely acknowledges this a lot, but he's never curt or surly.
Q: Do you worry about that? Coming across as too sarcastic?
My accent and voice sound sarcastic
Editor's Note: David talks with a certain cadence that can come across as facetious even when he's serious. We hypothesise for a moment that this is because he takes things seriously, but not himself.
Where were we?
Q: Maynard sounding too sarcastic.
It's always a concern if you go too far in one direction you can have these characters who are self-deprecating and nihilistic. And that's not super fun to read, and it can feel like a cop-out: this character knows they're reacting to an absurd situation... it takes away some of the authenticity, it's like a cheap way out.
Think about that person at a bar who makes them of themselves every few sentences - it's a mechanism of insecurity I think.
As if you're saying "you can't make fun of me, I beat you to it" and that's fine in real life, but on the page that stuff is much bigger.
Louder, I guess.
I read this series of books by Brent Weeks when I was a bit younger - they're about this fantasy assassin.
There's a lot of swearing in those books, it's part of the style, yes, but I remember how large the cusses were. They sort of ate the air out of the prose. He makes it work but that's not my style.
Q: Is there anything about it writing a sequel that surprised you?
I think how much I enjoyed how different the type of story is. It's still Maynard's story and it'll feel really familiar, but the themes and ideas I got to explore are new.
Where The Creature Beneath The Veil was about Maynard coming to terms with his new reality and his father's past, The City of Whispers forces Maynard to work out what he wants moving forward.
You know, he has these skills and this little bit of worldliness he's picked up on the ferry, so how does he deal with a new city and new allies and new threats.
Q: Speaking of, Maynard seems to be a character pulled in many directions internally, where did the inspiration come from?
It really comes from book one, and probably my experiences.
His father vanishes, his mother is absent, and all these new allies all want different things.
That's really the difference between being a kid and an adult - as an adult you have to manage all of these competing demands on your time and attention and skills, and where you put your energy and action eventually defines you.
It seems to me the people I admire the most have those priorities sorted out. So Maynard working through those is kind of cathartic, I guess.
Q: If only it were that easy in real life.
I'm not jealous at all!
But to answer your original point: the thing that most surprised me about writing a sequel is how many great opportunities there have been to flesh out the world-building and universe.
Q: On that note, the skyports are vivid and strange but very familiar. There's all this old world technology that's ancient, and the white law and the Detectors and so on. But it feels like the pirates are at the core of the stories, why is that?
Pirates represent an antithesis to the white law.
Most governments need a bad guy to target and other, and these pirates who lost a revolution are such a rich vein to tap - this kind of war they've been through that they all refuse to talk about is something I want to explore more.
Q: Okay, moreover, why sky pirates?
I don't know if I have a good answer to that, but I was asked this the other day.
I think it's mostly from The Edge Chronicles. I read them as a kid, and a handful of those books are, at least adjacently, about sky pirates.
But really, it was all based on this short story. I was writing in between shifts when I was a short order cook.
It wasn't much of a story - just a series of passages about this older general-type walking through a shipyard. The ships were all falling apart and ancient, and parts of the wreckage floated. I think I just really like the imagery of this debris frozen in statis, hanging there.
And then he picks a ship and has it rebuilt, and it just made sense it would be a skyship.
From there, everything sort of flowed outward.