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Today I had an absolute pleasure to chat with Jonathan, the brilliant author behind “The Night Sky Darker.” This novel combines science fiction and fantasy in a gritty, one-of-a-kind setting.
I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation as we delve into Jonathan’s creative process, his diverse background, and the profound social commentary that enriches his storytelling. ✨
The Night Sky Darker by Jonathan W Buchwalter
Your novel “The Night Sky Darker” combines elements of science fiction and fantasy in a gritty, grimdark setting. Can you tell us more about how you decided to blend these genres and create a unique world for your story?
I’ve loved science fiction for as long as I can remember.
Some of my earliest memories as a child were watching Star Wars on VHS with my mom, and I just adored those movies. I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction films and fantasy movies, and always wanted to see something that could blend the best elements of both in a believable way.
I play Warhammer 40K, a miniatures game with a very in-depth lore attached to the models and rules, and that setting came close to what I was after. “Dune” also got close, capturing the Arthurian feelings of classic fantasy with “space magic.” Still, I felt like I couldn’t find the setting I was looking for, and opted to make my own instead.
That’s really how this project started. I didn’t have characters or a plotline in mind at first. I hardly had more than a feeling of what I was after if I’m honest. I wanted elves and magic and all the beloved tropes of fantasy, and I wanted it on a starship.
The ‘grimdark’ came later, much inspired by Warhammer 40K and sci-fi horror settings such as “Paradise One” or “Deadspace.” I wanted the action to feel like it had high stakes attached, and grimdark settings do such a good job of maintaining a persistent level of pressure about them.
That creeping feeling that your favorite characters are never really safe from harm, and that some benevolent magic power isn’t coming to bail them out if they get in too deep.
As a Marine veteran and history teacher, your background is quite diverse. How do your experiences in these roles influence your storytelling and the themes you choose to explore in your writing?
My military background allows me to present the Federation’s military (my evil empire) in a realistic way. The characters with military backgrounds are crass and vulgar, but not in a way that reaches over the kind of talk that you’d hear at the chow hall or waiting in line at the armory.
I can bring subtler stuff along as well, such as how uniforms are maintained, and how different ranks in the hierarchy interact. More than just “yes sir, no sir” relationships across rank and grade come with a lot of quiet expectations and social norms, and I think there are a few moments where any veterans reading will be able to say “Oh, I get what’s happening here” in a way that’s unique to them.
As for my background in history, that’s where the real bulk of the setting comes in. I wanted a maximized version of the kinds of fascist dictatorships seen in the 1920s-1940s, and I wanted them presented in realistic ways. Toward that end, I drew on Dr. Richard Evans’s “Coming of the Third Reich,” and Dr. Hanna Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” to build the Federation into a believable government.
I used history as my guide to approaching the fantastic, and to me, that makes the fantastical elements like mages and elves feel more authentic and relatable.
For example, fascist movements create buzzwords that quickly expand in meaning to become a blanket criticism of anything they don’t like. In Germany it was “judeo-bolshevism,” a term that slandered German-Jews as secret communists working for Stalin. Then it became “art-bolshevism,” or “science-bolshevism,” or “music-bolshevism.”
Anything and everything the movement found distasteful was suddenly associated with the Soviet Union and accused of being part of an anti-German plot. The Federation uses a similar style of buzzword to convey its antagonism against things like relationships between humans and elves, abstract art, and unsanctioned use of magic.
Could you share with us a glimpse into your daily writing routine? How do you balance your work with your writing endeavors?
During the school year my routine is sporadic at best. I might be able to sneak in a paragraph or two while my students are doing a reading assignment, or I could stay after work for a bit to knock a page out. During the various breaks we get I write much more consistently.
My favorite method is to first get out of the house. I’m easily distracted, so getting away from home to go somewhere with few obligations or chores is a ‘must.’ I have a few local coffee shops I frequent, and I’ll rotate between them depending on my mood.
Once I’m sat down, I put on a playlist of music that I’ve found matches the tone of what I’m attempting to work on that day and get to it. I’ll write as long as the words flow, getting up and taking a break when needed, but without trying to force anything to come out of the keyboard.
This past summer, I was able to finish The Night Sky Darker while hosting my writing club up at the school. All my students in the club are working on novels of their own, so we’d sit together and write for hours at a time.
That dedicated time to pour into the work between June and July allowed me to finally finish the project that I had started September of the previous year.
What’s more, my students were expecting me to finish. They’d prod me to read them a paragraph here and there, or tell them about a character I was working on. With them pushing me, I knew that if I didn’t buckle down and finish it they’d never let me live it down.
Do you have any special routines or habits that you find particularly conducive to your writing process?
Like I said above, getting out of my house and putting on a playlist that matches the mood I am shooting for really was a game changer for me. I think if I had advice for any writer struggling to build an effective routine it would be that: go somewhere else and try writing there.
You’d be surprised just how much difference a change in scenery can make.
Your readers have commented on the social commentary present in your work. Could you elaborate on the themes you feel most passionate about exploring through your writing?
The social commentary in my work is explicit and intentional. While The Federation might be a fictional state, and the Immortal Absolute a fictional dictator, everything else about them is pulled straight out of history.
Fascists hold power by pitting the population against the ‘small,’ those groups or persons that lack the numbers to represent themselves electorally. The fascist seizes on economic fears to blame all sorts of problems on ethnic minorities and immigrants.
He cuts special deals with the economic elite to garner their support, while undermining the rights of everyone else, even as he tells them he is acting in their best interest.
We see the ugly face of fascism in many nations around the world today, and it is so important that we recognize it so we can push back against it.
I want this work to be a safe place for readers to explore these ideas, and see them defeated. Perhaps that can make them better prepared to be their own hero in their own story one day.
Are there any authors or literary works that have had a significant impact on your writing style or the way you approach storytelling?
Brandon Sanderson might be the most important influence on my work. His freely available creative writing lectures were a constant companion for me, and I found myself doing countless revisions to make his advice come through in my own work.
His prose is simple and effective, and his settings are richly developed, and I wanted to attempt to embody both of those things in my own work as best I could. I also enjoy the way he usurps classic tropes with creative new twists, such as the “chosen one” turning evil and becoming the villain.
Your novel incorporates both science fiction and fantasy elements. Are there specific subgenres or themes within these genres that you’re particularly drawn to as a writer?
I’m a sucker for a good “chosen one” story, and the “dark lord” trope as an antagonist really gets me. Recently though, I’ve grown quite fond of redemption and damnation arcs, and I think the space of fantasy and science fiction has a lot of room to explore those in depth.
Aside from those story beats, my favorite part of both genres is the otherworldliness that can be explored. I like learning how this author’s spaceships work, or how that author’s elves are different from Tolkien’s. Give me dragons, lazers, magic, or starships in your fiction and I’ll find something to love about it.
Like many authors before me, I too found myself caught in “revision-Hell,” where I nitpicked each and every scene over and over. It made progress impossible, and left me stalled at around the 100 page mark for more than a month. Luckily, my wife was always there to help me look over it and encourage me if I was criticizing my own work too sharply.
Getting feedback from my friends was also a huge boon, as they helped me spot grammatical errors I missed and inconsistencies between scenes that I didn’t notice.
Shout out to Sophia for being so thorough in her proofreading for me. Simply getting different eyes on the problem was all I needed to unstick myself.
Your book covers complex themes like redemption, love, and loss. How do you approach character development to ensure that these themes are conveyed effectively to your readers?
We meet Liam at his lowest low, where he’s essentially a space-dumpster diver with a drinking problem. He’s running from the guilt and shame of a life spent in service to the Federation, and somewhere during that run he tripped and fell into rock-bottom.
For me, trauma connects the fantastic to the real, because we’ve all hit bottom at some point and felt stuck there. We’ve all carried guilt from yesterday’s mistakes, and we’re all trying to work through it. This ensures that your characters are relatable to people who’ve been there, and who might see their own path out in the path your characters show them.
As far as romance goes, I’m just so exhausted by the banal “fantasy characters fall in love” arc, and wanted something messier for my own work. I have two major romance plotlines, and neither are a straight line because that’s seldom how real love works.
It’s not the love of starry eyed kids, it’s the love of the trauma addled and damaged. The love of people who are clinging on to each other because it’s all they’ve got.
I enjoy physical fitness, and use my time in the gym to think through my stories and find new songs I can work into my writing playlist. I also play plenty of video games, with role playing games being my very favorite.
I’m already running some test drafts of an industrial fantasy story that’s been rattling around in my head for a while, and so far it’s going well. Think “the industrial revolution, but there’s dragons in it.” It’s a bit early to tell what exactly that story is going to become, but I have high hopes for it.
If you could collaborate with any author, living or deceased, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Brandon Sanderson, if by some miracle you see this, hit ya boy up. Sanderon’s style is so clean and easy to pick up on, and his commitment to deep world building is always my favorite part of his books.
I’d love a collaboration where my skills in history and his skills in fantasy could mix into a pretty cool story.
Write like it matters. Like some kid is sitting in their room, seeing themselves represented for the first time on your pages. Like someone going through hardship is feeling their pain right alongside your characters, and needs to see them climb out of it. Like the monsters in your story are real, and there are heroes out there that need to learn how to fight them. Because sometimes the monsters in your story are real and there are heroes who need to see themselves win.
Aside from all that, maybe like, find a nice coffee shop to write in and you’ll do fine.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jonathan! Happy reading! ❤️