Interview with Ryan Dunlap

Ryan Dunlap is a filmmaker and novelist living in Nashville, TN. His first novel was a steampunk adventure called The Wind Merchant-the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign intended to fund the sound production of his still-unreleased feature film Greyscale. He has since released the Wind Merchant’s sequel–The Reclaimer–and rumour has it that there is one more to come. A few years ago I had the privilege to interview Ryan about his first novel, and ask a few question about the then upcoming sequel. Now The Reclaimer is out, and the interview is still interesting. You can read the original here, or follow Ryan on twitter, watch his short films on Vimeo, “like” him on Facebook, or just visit his website.

The Wind Merchant

The Interview

Ryan DunlapEveryone defines Steampunk a little differently. What does the genre mean to you?

Steampunk has moved from a very specific, niche genre to being adopted into mainstream styles, be it fashion, art, or entertainment. This has expanded the concept to allow others to be engaged by “Steampunk” in different permutations, letting people to interpret it differently.

The two things I draw from Steampunk are its sense of hope and its use of lasting materials. Steampunk emerged as a response to the gritty, dystopian Cyberpunk by placing the setting in an age of invention where anything was possible. I need hope to my stories, so I like the feel of the setting from the outset. Secondly, I like that the materials that are often associated with Steampunk are brass, wood, and leather, which are things that can last a lifetime if properly cared for. I like the concept of living efficiently and making do with long lasting materials that you only need to buy once and can pass down to the next generation. As a bonus, I love airships and the spirit of adventure that comes with them.

What was your main inspiration for The Wind Merchant?

I tend to come up with titles before the story fully blooms in my mind. The idea of buying and selling a free resource intrigued me, so once I created a reason behind why that would happen, the setting of the world started falling into place. But I wanted to delve into something I was struggling with personally, as I feel those produce more honest stories. I can’t delve too deeply into the main inspiration as it would spoil the crux of the story later on, but living with a father’s legacy and finding one’s own footing was something I wanted to explore.

What authors, works of fiction, or other sources do you draw from as a writer? What are some of your favourite books, movies, and TV shows?

Growing up, I devoured Star Wars novels. Most of my early writing was based in that universe via forum-based role-playing games. Lately I’ve been working through a lot of Brandon Sanderson’s novels (Mistborn Trilogy, The Way of Kings). I’ve always been drawn to adventure tales, so films like The Princess Bride, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Rocketeer were definitely building blocks. I spent a lot of time playing Final Fantasy games, so I see a lot of shared world-building when I write fantasy. As far as TV, Firefly, Lost, and Doctor Who are my favorites for their use of character. Generally I’m drawn to anything that gives me great characters, has adventure, but stays light enough to give me those great comedic beats in the midst of serious storytelling.

Recently I was trying to define Steampunk to a friend, and he asked if it was post-apocalyptic. I immediately answered no, but then remembered that The Wind Merchant is set after an apocalyptic event makes Earth unlivible. City of Ember is much the same way. What is your thoughts on the connection between the steampunk and post-apocalyptic genres?

The Wind Merchant was accidentally post-apocalyptic, if you’ll believe it. When I had built the floating-city world of Atmo, I needed a good reason beyond “floating cities are cool,” so I gave them a reason to launch… and then I realized I had created a mass exodus of humanity. Again, Steampunk often tends to have a sense of optimism about it, but every setting needs several layers of conflict, and the role of Energy in my world allowed me to provide both an element of environmental danger and allow a main character to turn a weakness into a unique attribute.

I think “post-apocalyptic” is a current trend, and I don’t know how long we’ll stay on it. Perhaps Steampunk gets more associated with post-apoc because how wood/brass/leather are basic and you probably aren’t going to have high tech gadgets after an apocalyptic event.

Planner or panster?

I have to have an outline. Knowing what happens in the next chapter gives me something to steer towards, and anticipating what I’m going to have to pay off later allows me to be more mindful of natural setups. But, about half of the time I’ll let characters surprise me with the directions they take, because I figure if the story takes turns that I don’t expect then the reader won’t find the story predictable either. If I feel like tormenting myself, I’ll sometimes paint my characters into corners and then beat my head against the desk until a clever solution arises that was more interesting than the initial escape from danger.

I heard rumours of a Wind Merchant sequel a while back, but there hasn’t been any news for some time. What’s the official story on that?

When I get quiet it usually means I’m working on something… I’m neck deep into the second draft of the sequel, The Reclaimer, and I’m also working on a short story to bridge the gap between The Wind Merchant and the sequel. The short story was actually 3 chapters from the first draft of The Reclaimer that overall wound up distracting from the main narrative, and I want to play around with one of my more colorful side characters in their own story instead of muddying the waters of The Reclaimer by having too many point-of-view characters.

This is the first time I’ve ever worked on a sequel to one of my works, and it’s been challenging. I’m planning on making this a trilogy, so I have to work on the character arcs over a grander scale, and I want to make sure the third book is close to fully fleshed out before I lock down The Reclaimer so everything stays as coherent as possible.

When I set out to write The Wind Merchant, I imagined it as both a standalone and a trilogy. With the initial creation of The Wind Merchant being based as a way to raise funds to complete my feature film, Greyscale, I wanted to see how well the novel turned out before I committed to two more endeavors of 1,000 hours apiece. If TWM had bombed, I would have cut my losses and saved myself the headache, but thankfully the book has been so well received that post-Kickstarter sales have done well enough to pay for all of the publishing costs of The Reclaimer, including an original oil painting to work as the cover from the artist whose work I licensed for The Wind Merchant’s cover art.

In addition to being a novelist you are also a filmmaker with, correct me if I’m wrong, two short films and a feature film that’s almost ready to release. How do these two crafts overlap? Which one is more difficult?

Understanding the flow of narrative structure serves both mediums incredibly well. With novels, you get to delve into a character’s head more-so than you can with a film, so getting to play with that new tool was a learning process for me. Starting out I found myself limiting the writing to just describing what you might see if you were watching a film. The later drafts were less dry and I was able to get to know the characters better.

Ultimately, writing a novel is so much easier than everything it takes to put together a feature film. I joke that The Wind Merchant is the movie I would make if I had no budgetary restrictions. I don’t have to worry about casting, locations, line delivery, editing, etc. If I want the best looking floating city in my story, I get to rely on the reader’s imagination instead of a post-production studio. Being able to independently publish the novel was a freeing experience, as recouping the costs of the book creation process is far easier than the budget of a feature film.

Don’t get me wrong, I love filmmaking, and in my current career I’m working on my third feature documentary film since I moved to Nashville three years ago, but taking on narrative indie filmmaking comes with a lot of costs and has a steep learning curve at every turn. It’s a great challenge, but one that’s far more difficult to make a living at.

What was the best thing about writing The Wind Merchant? What did you find the most rewarding?

The adoption of the story by others once it was released is definitely the most rewarding thing. When I write fantasy, it’s easy to feel like all I’m doing is coming up with silly stories in my office, but when someone else engages me and starts talking about grapple guns, airships, and Knacks seriously, it becomes a bit more real. I’ve had a 7th grade book report sent to me on the story, and an acquaintance said they hadn’t been that engrossed in a book for about a decade. Having people tell me they finished the book in one or two sittings and then start it over again later that week blows me away.

Overall it’s the validation that I connected with others, and that means the 1,000+ hours I put into the book weren’t a waste of time. As a bonus, my wife and I are expecting our first child in the fall, and with her leaving the workforce to stay at home and raise our daughter, I’m learning that self-publishing is a viable option to help supplement my income to support my family.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I definitely consider myself an aspiring writer as well, but here’s my short list of things that have helped me the most.

1) Get up early and write before you check any e-mail or social media. They say it can take up to 40 minutes to regain serious concentration after a distraction, and receiving a Facebook notification or having an e-mail chime in can derail me. It’s why I hand-write my first drafts. While it’s nice to have a physical copy of the first draft, it’s even better to not having the temptation at my fingertips to avoid writing.

2) People care about the characters, so put a lot of effort into them. I sent out a brief questionnaire to some of my trusted readers when I began writing the sequel to The Wind Merchant, asking what they would be most looking forward to in the continuation of the story. I had all of these world-building, historical, and plot reveals in The Reclaimer that I was excited to feature, but the number one response from every single reader was that they were interested in the love story between Ras and Callie. So, I’m taking that into consideration and making sure I’m not just geeking out about the world I’ve built and letting the story center around the characters who exist in that world.

3) Writing is rewriting, but you can’t rewrite what you haven’t written. A side benefit of writing longhand for the first draft is that I can’t self-edit before the first draft is finished. I know things will be rough, and there will be plenty of time to change things later. If I get bogged down in rewriting a chapter over and over again, I’ll never have a book to release.

4) I may set out to write about a particular theme, but usually the main idea behind the book isn’t revealed to me until after I’ve finished the first draft. I feel like this saves me from being pedantic about the “message of the story,” and lets me explore a story with fully-fleshed characters instead of 2D mouthpieces for certain ideals.

5) Plan what you can, but afterwards, just write. I can try and plan until my brain is numb, but after a certain point, the big idea revelations don’t strike me until I’m in the middle of the writing process.


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