Geeky & Genki recently got a chance to interview author, game designer and composer Leif Chappelle about the upcoming release of his first novel, City of Tigers.
G&G: Thanks for chatting with us! So, the list of excellent game and music projects you’ve been involved in is about as long as my arm. Is writing fiction something you’ve also been doing over the years, or is it more recent?
LC: To be truthful, City of Tigers may have been one of the first major writing projects I started on. It’s been something I’ve worked on during the course of many transitions over the past five years.
I started working on the ideas and characters for the book around 2009. At that time, I was working as a certification tester at a little company called Nintendo. When I had free time, I’d scribble away on sticky notes about what became the basis for projeksjon. I went on to become a game designer at ArenaNet, which develops Guild Wars 2, an online fantasy MMORPG. I became involved in designing for the story side of things, and am still working there as my day job.
My college degree is in music composition, and I’ve managed to write some pieces for the game and several indie projects. I’ve also written for dance choreography, chamber ensembles, and now an actual orchestra thanks to my involvement with ArenaNet.
G&G: The Guild Wars 2 music you’ve done is fantastic. Okay… Say we’re in an elevator (and the music in here is terrible). I’m someone who likes reading, and I’m looking for a new book. Pitch City of Tigers to me. Ready-go!
LC: Well I’d probably trip on my words at least five times, so I’d need a really long elevator ride.
G&G: No worries. This imaginary building has like 300 floors.
LC: How about this:
Sigurd is a busker that gets through life by creating music from thin air. It’s magic, but this kind isn’t giant explosions and dragons, it’s a way of life. But it’s starting to go away, so enter machina: machines that perform the same tasks this magic used to. This technology can replace the magic that’s going away, but there’s still people who rely on it to get by, like Sigurd. So when his way of life is threatened, he rebels, and ends up getting wrapped up in a conflict far larger than he could’ve imagined.
G&G: Music plays a huge part in the story and overall feel of City of Tigers. How did your background in music composition affect the way you wrote music into the book?
LC: Describing music is a tricky thing. In a college course I took, they challenged us to describe music as we listened to it. We had to put into words what we heard so that we could not only analyze the notes on the page, but what we heard–thematically, tonally. There were some people that described music as the drama, the story that played out in their head. There was at least one synesthetic in the class, describing music as colors.
To me, describing music is a lot like explaining a dream. You hear something, and if you get drawn in, your subconscious goes to work lucidly. Sometimes you might interpret it as pure emotions, other times there’s a story, but it’s never just one thing. It’s constantly shifting.
So when I’m describing music, it’s less about the composition, and more about trying to describe the feeling of experiencing music. When Sigurd performs in the book, it’s less about the notes he’s playing, and more about converting that experience from his head into his audience’s ears.
G&G: The world in City of Tigers is really rich. Several cultures peek through as influences, but the one that really shines in terms of language and names – and even down to the spelling of things, is Nordic. Can you talk a bit about your Nordic roots in relation to how you developed the environment for the story? Was that aspect part of the original idea, or did it make its way into the book as you worked?
LC: The world for City of Tigers began its life as an alternate-present day Earth, with the city being an interpretation of Oslo, Norway. As I wrote and developed, I realized that I couldn’t just rely on the setting as an alternate Earth. So I instead began to develop everything into its own world: Verda. My initial thinking was hey, Earth exists, and I can draw from it as necessary. But it turned out to be more shackles than wings. Creating my own world was freeing. It also let me experiment with what a Nordic-centric world might be like without relying on Vikings and Norse mythology.
And I suppose my name gives it away, but I grew up in a very Scandinavian household, so I have a deep fondness for my heritage and culture. There’s several family names I’ve snuck in as references, but the characters themselves are quite different from the people!
G&G: You’ve mentioned the type of magic in City of Tigers – projeksjon. How does projeksjon differ from the magic that’s often seen in the fantasy genre
LC: From the outset, I wanted to design a system of magic that was not only believable in its function, but also in its use by the people. I began with the interactions between user and element, and determined that I wanted this magic to exist within the confines of the world. That meant every interaction had to be a modification of an existing base: no water or fire conjured from nothing.
A big inspiration for me was the concept of “bending” from the Avatar animated series, but I wanted to take it even further away from a combat-centric art. With a cold, Nordic setting, survival was the first concept for how projeksjon was used. So in introducing the reader to the magic, it’s not through a bombastic fight, but through daily village life: lighting the dark winter months, drawing water from the lake, warming the air.
G&G: Certain major events are lynchpins for the story, and the other action of the book is very clearly on a timeline before or after those events. For example: “Gamlebyn district – Ten months before the fire.” So the reader knows up front that this thing is going to happen, but without any specifics. The tension leading up to it is part of what made reading it so much fun. Was that approach inspired by anything in other media, or was it something that just seemed to click as the story came together for you?
LC: The idea of counting down to major events was something that just formed naturally while writing and revising the story. I originally wrote them for my benefit, so I could keep track of when & where everything was happening! But when I started letting people read the manuscript, the reaction to those chapter headings was really positive, so I knew I was on to something.
G&G: Anything else that people should know about City of Tigers?
LC: The most important thing in my eyes, which hasn’t come up because the book’s not out yet, is that this is a world with characters from all walks of life. Fantasy is an amazing genre, but it can also be insular and limited in its representation. In the story there are powerful women, there are openly gay individuals, and people all across the spectrum, because everyone deserves to identify with someone in the story. But these aren’t aspects that define and limit the characters, they’re simply a part of who they are. I’ve tried my best to present complex characters that are ultimately human, and that hopefully makes them all the more interesting to read about.
Lastly, thank you so much for featuring me! I’m not a big name, and we don’t have a huge marketing budget, so getting the word out is really important! Grassroots promotion has become supercharged thanks to the social aspect of the Internet, so if anyone has friends or family that might be interested in City of Tigers, please help spread the word!
City of Tigers is available for preorder through Amazon and will be released on July 1st, 2014. More information about the world and excerpts from the project can be found at the City of Tigers website.