We met Shawn Speakman back in Seattle in 2010. At the time, I learned that he was a writer, and I’ve been eager to find out more about his work ever since. In our interview, Shawn discusses writing about subjects that are relevant to our surroundings, but placed in fantasy, and how that juxtaposition can lead to a better understanding of the present reality. In the past few years, he’s published his book THE DARK THORN and a fantasy anthology he edited, UNFETTERED – and has recently been busy responding to requests for more literary work. We’re excited to have Shawn Speakman’s voice contributing to the Collective!
Every story that I write comes from a “what-if” seed that takes root and grows.
– Shawn Speakman
Leading off with some basics, where are you from? And where are you at?
SS: I grew up in the wilds of Washington State, near the southern base of the volcano Mt. St. Helens. It is a heavily conservative [area] and I fled, to Seattle, as soon as I was able. I have lived in the Emerald City ever since. Although I am just flippant to the second part of your question with, “I live in denial, as all writers do.”
What does Reflection and Response mean to you?
SS: I am a fiction writer. In order to write believable fiction, it takes reflection. It is important to write about subjects pertinent to our world — to put those subjects in a fantasy world, add a bit more pressure, and see what happens. In this way, I gain a better understanding of my world. It costs less than therapy, I assure you. And I hope when someone finishes one of my stories that it leaves them thinking.
How do THE DARK THORN and your other Annwn Cycle tales fit in with that definition?
SS: Every story that I write comes from a “what-if” seed that takes root and grows. For THE DARK THORN, I thought “What if the first Christian crusades were not against the Middle East but, instead, against very real Celtic fey creatures in Britain?” Most of my work is influenced by the dichotomy in my mind between religion and faith. They are very different, in my opinion, and I like to explore that in my writing. Answering the “what-if” question is my response. I took a look at the good and the evil inherent in the Catholic Church as well as the relationship between a broken man, his past, and the faith it requires to overcome such hardship.
What else have you been working on recently? What are you looking to work on next?
SS: Since the publication of THE DARK THORN and my fantasy anthology UNFETTERED, I’ve received a number of other short story anthology requests from other editors. I have written a short story and a novelette in the last month for those books. THE UNLOCKED TOME is the short story and its seed grew out of: “What lengths would a 10-year-old boy who has lost his family go to in order to assert some kind of power over his life?” It was a fun short story, featuring a character I will use again in a future novel. For the moment though, I am working on THE EVERWINTER WRAITH, the sequel to THE DARK THORN.
Who or what inspires you?
SS: I am inspired by two things: my readers and my writing. Every day on social media, my readers watch my progress and their excitement builds my own. It helps to put my ass in a chair where the writing takes place. And every day, when I sit down in that chair, the writing calls and I have to answer. I love writing. Every day I learn something new. It is not work for me; it is a great joy.
Is there anything else you would like the Collective to know?
SS: If you want to read short stories by some of the best fantasy writers working today, buy and read UNFETTERED edited by Shawn Speakman. It is the anthology I put together to help pay off my medical debt after undergoing treatment for cancer two years ago. Thanks to readers and UNFETTERED, that debt is gone. But I love people reading the book because they become introduced to some great writers and even better people.
Shout out to…?
SS: My mother, Kathy! Who believed!
Check out the following excerpt from Shawn Speakman’s THE TWILIGHT DRAGON:
Bishop Donato Javier Ramirez stepped from the new ’52 Silver Wraith onto a frozen layer of snow, the ruination of Glastonbury Abbey staring at him like a dead skull.
It took his failing eyes a few moments to gaze back.
The leaden sky spat periodic snow but Donato ignored it as he buttoned up his heavy winter long coat, his breath a cloud on the air before him. Two Swiss Guards joined his side from the glossy black car while four more emerged from the trailing automobile, their traditional yellow-and-purple uniforms replaced by fur-lined gray coats that concealed pistols and swords even as they warded off the winter. No one else was about. As per his instructions, the grounds had been cleared of visitors two days earlier and remained closed.
Looking out over the snow-covered remains of what once had been one of the most powerful monasteries in the British Isles, Donato steeled himself for what was to come.
Rome suddenly felt very far away.
Tym Catherwood, the Vatican scribe accompanying Donato on the journey, joined him, the lad’s chiseled cheekbones as pale as milk.
“Nice to return home, Scribe?”
Tym pulled his coat close, its hood covering his long auburn hair. “It is a chilly welcome, Your Lordship.”
“My Spanish bones feel the same,” Donato said, waylaying a shiver. “I suppose it is a godsend though. Without this inclement weather, I doubt our discovery would have been kept a secret as long as it has.”
“Indeed. From ancient records I have seen, snow is fairly rare in lower England,” Tym said, wiping his freckled nose. “Of course, I could have told you that, having grown up here, Your Lordship.”
“It is dreary.”
“It is England, Your Lordship.”
Donato suppressed a smile. “I am pleased His Holiness asked that yeh accompany me, Tym Catherwood. The past has entered the present and become relevant once more. The focus of your Celtic studies makes yeh uniquely qualified for our charge.”
“The history of the Isles is a proud one,” Tym said, shrugging. “From kings and queens to wars and religion to invasion and occupiers. It is fascinating.”
“It will come quite in handy today, I think.”
“Sir, will you return to your diocese… once you have met the beast?”
Donato nodded despite his uncertainty. With the others in tow, he walked across the parking lot toward the ruins. In truth he didn’t know where his path would lead next. The bishop had been away from Spain for three weeks, his duty carrying him to Rome for meetings with the College of Bishops. But a night before returning Pope Pius XII requested a clandestine audience with him in the private Papal Suite of St. Peter’s Basilica. Once the bishop had been given his orders and having had his many questions answered, Donato left for England with all haste.
He still could not believe his errand. If it had not come from his pontiff, he would have questioned its validity—as well as his own sanity.
“I understand that yeh sent word to your family?”
Tym looked a bit nervously at Donato. “I hope to see them while here, if briefly.”
“The Lord has a way of bringing family together under the oddest of circumstances,” the bishop said. “Yeh sent yer missive once we crossed the Channel?”
“The moment we landed.”
“I hope yeh made no mention of why we are here.”
“Of course not, Your Lordship.”
Tym said nothing. Donato increased his pace across the trampled snow of the crocus-lined path toward Glastonbury Church. He had spent his journey studying the history of the abbey, the first traditional Christian church in England. Legend recounted its foundation by Joseph of Arimathea as he brought the Grail from the Holy Land to the Isles. From Pope Pius, Donato knew legend to be truth. For centuries the monastery grew in prestige and power—even publicizing that King Arthur and his wife were buried on the grounds—until King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539.
After four centuries of ransacking and degradation, the Church of England now preserved the ruins. Donato shook his head, thinking. It was a history connected to a secret so vast it was only known by a few in the Church, an ancient wizard, his portal knights, the Heliwr, and those who still remained in Annwn.
Did that past draw the beast?
Or was it coincidence?
A priest rushed from St. Patrick’s Chapel then, his feet uncertain on the ice, his desire to please flushing his cheeks and his eyes fixed on Donato. He was not alone. Beside him, striding with crisp steps, came a tall man with Scandinavian features, his broad shoulders dwarfing those of his companion.
“Welcome to Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop Ramirez,” the thin priest said, out of breath and bowing before Donato to kiss his ring. “I am Abbot Jonathan Whyting of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Trust. Long has my family cared for these grounds. With the Lord as witness, I am honored to meet you.”
“Thank yeh, kind abbot,” Donato said, annoyed by the pomp.
“This is a momentous day, Your Lordship.”
Donato glanced around. “How many of yer men know the reason for my visit, Abbot?”
“A handful, sir. Utmost secrecy has been kept, at your request.”
“Good.” The bishop turned to the blonde man. “Is the area secure, Captain?”
“The best I can make it, Your Lordship,” Captain of the Swiss Guard Nicolas Rohr said, eyeing Tym with suspicion. “My men
surround the perimeter of all 36 acres. No one will intrude upon the Abbey.” He paused. “It is fully chained and no one has approached it since it awoke a few hours ago.”
“It slumbered when yeh drugged it, yes?”
“For three nights it retired here, unmolested,” Captain Rohr said. “The last night, I used a powerful elephant sedative and trapped it.”
“Yeh have done yer job well, Captain,” Donato commended. “Ensure yer soldiers hold their posts until I notify yeh. This should not take long. Did the surgery go as planned?”
Distaste came over the Captain’s face but it vanished quickly. “It did. I performed it myself, being the most… capable.”
“I hope it went well. If not, we will die quickly.”
“The ignition gland was where the Vatican book recounted it to be,” Captain Rohr assured. “You will be safe.”
Donato nodded, hoping the captain was right. One poorly made step would mean their ruin. The Swiss Guards had secured the grounds at his command; Captain Rohr and his soldiers defended him with their lives. Tym Catherwood offered his expertise.
Donato quelled his fear. He hoped he had done enough.
The abbot fumbled for words at his sleeve. “Is it true, Your Lordship?”
“Is what true?”
“That Annwn sent the beast for our destruction?”
Donato nearly struck the abbot. The idea was preposterous. Loose tongues and roguish rumors could wound the Church as surely as the truth.
“I suggest yeh leave such nonsense to me, Abbot Whyting,” he chastised.
The abbot wilted and went silent.
“Take me to him now, Abbot.”
“Yes, Your Lordship.”
Donato and his retinue followed the abbot as he shuffled over the snow toward the Great Church. Despite his failing eyesight, the bishop looked for the Glastonbury Thorn. It didn’t take him long to find it. The hawthorn tree stood just to the east, its leaves dark green and its white blooms bright against the gray sky. Donato felt a deep, sudden awe. Almost two thousand years earlier, Joseph had jammed the staff given him by God into this very ground and from it sprouted the Holy Thorn. The faithful visited an offspring from that miracle tree year round, drawn by its prestige, paying homage to its origin, and praying for God’s entrance into their lives.
Donato knew the Holy Thorn to be much more than that. The Heliwr carried a staff from its branches, Joseph’s power now commanded by the Unfettered Knight, to keep the fey world of Annwn separate from this one.
The bishop kept his mind on the present.
He would pay his respects to the tree once he had finished his interrogation.
Having passed the Lady Chapel, the group entered what once had been the nave of the Great Church, winter intruding on the sacred ground by way of the long-vanished roof. What remained was beautiful even in its decayed state. Tall fractured walls gave evidence to the former Gothic scale of the abbey, their lancet arches carved with eroded scrollwork and the colored glass long since vanished. Remnants of stone now littered the area, history and design brought low. Donato took it all in. It was a peaceful setting where once, many centuries earlier, a bustling community of worship had existed.
When he stepped through the transept crossing into what had been the High Altar and Choir though, Donato was not prepared for the sheer grandeur of what he saw.
Not at all.
The dragon lay in the middle of the cloistered area, the bulk of its body barely contained by the shattered walls around it. It was old, scales lacking the beautiful luster reported in the secret Vatican archives, its claws yellowed and worn. Ancient scars covered its gray-blue hide and plated armor gave rise along the ridge of its back like a serrated knife, ending at the end of its powerful tail. Each slow breath of the beast vibrated the air.
Even in the chill of the winter, Donato smelled the pungent and wild odor of Annwn emanating from fey myth made real.
Hundreds of chains criss-crossed the dragon’s back, its limbs and wings shackled by links of steel.
“Priest,” the beast growled low, his azure eyes stabbing Donato at the bishop’s approach. “I have no wish to speak to thee. Leave me to misery or be done with it.”
Keep up with Shawn’s work at the following links:
- Website: http://shawnspeakman.com/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/scspeakman
- Grim Oak Press: http://grimoakpress.com/product/the-dark-thorn-by-shawn-speakman/
Reflection and Response.