Winner of the Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for Best Self-Published Book
Jennifer Bresnick’s enchanting Tolkien-esque epic fantasy The Last Death of Tev Chrisini captivated our judges from page one and held us in thrall through its conclusion 467 pages later. We fell in love with the story and its characters and with Bresnick’s assured literary tale-spinning. We talked to the 26-year-old author about her debut novel.
Tev Chrisini is a soldier who can’t die, caught in the middle of a war that won’t end. When a temporary truce is called, he is chosen to guide an envoy to the peace talks. But when a young woman in his care flees with a wanted murderer, Tev’s mission suddenly changes course, setting him on a race against dark forces to recover a legendary book: one that holds the secrets of his past—and the keys to his future. —Jennifer Bresnick
Shelf Unbound: How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Jennifer Bresnick: It started out as an act of desperation five minutes after midnight on November 1, 2009. I had finally worked up the courage to participate in my very first National Novel Writing Month, but I was completely stuck for ideas. I’d never written a novel before—I’d never written any fiction longer than a ten-page short story for a college class—and I was entirely convinced I couldn’t do it.
I was about to forget the idea all together, actually, when I started browsing my bookshelf for inspiration, and opened up to a random page in a book about military history. The phrase “there was always a war” jumped out at me, and all of a sudden there was a vision in my head of the world I wanted to create, as well as the basic premise of the book. That phrase became the first line of my novel, and the story followed from there. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night (or many nights after).
Shelf: Who are your literary influences?
Bresnick: I’ve been a die-hard Tolkien fan since the third grade and I’ve worn through more than one copy of The Silmarillion, which probably says a lot about me. My other fantasy influences include Terry Pratchett, with his wickedly sharp sense of humor, and Tad Williams for his epic world-building and perfect sense of character. If you notice a bit of Regency flair in some of my work, it’s because Jane Austen and especially Patrick O’Brian are some of my all-time favorite authors. I love history, and I try to infuse as much historical and sociological realism as possible into my made-up worlds. But I can only ever hope to be a fraction as adept as O’Brian when it comes to weaving meticulously researched details, humor, action, and heart into my work.
Shelf Unbound: I’m sort of stunned by how perfectly you structured the ebb and flow of the plot, given that this is a long book AND your first one. How did you go about creating this somewhat complicated, multi-story plot, and was there a lot of editing of the story sequences?
Bresnick: I love stories with a lot of different plot threads, because they’re usually so good at creating suspense and turning any story into a bit of a mystery. When everything comes together and you get that “Aha! I knew that’s what the grandmother’s necklace would be for!” moment near the end, it’s really satisfying both as a reader and a writer.
The most challenging part of having multiple plots was making sure the timing worked out, considering most of my story involved journeys. Everyone was traveling to different places at different rates, and it did get a bit confusing. I ended up drawing a big calendar on a couple of pieces of paper awkwardly stapled together, and plotted each character’s timeline in a different color to keep track of it all.
Then I discovered that there’s some really great storyboard software out there, and I felt a bit silly for getting my colored pencils out. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for scribbling on paper. The whole construction of the book was a learning process for me, and it was only with many rounds of editing that I got it into the shape that I wanted.
Shelf: Why did you decide to self-publish?
Bresnick: Originally, I only published a Kindle version of The Last Death because I wanted an easy way to allow some of my friends to read it. I used to be very, very shy about sharing my work, and it was a big step for me to make the book public. I had no expectations that anyone would be interested. But then I started getting some positive responses from family, former teachers—even strangers. My downloads picked up, and I began to get some comments on my blog. Suddenly, readers out there in the wild were enjoying and embracing something that was deeply personal to me. It became a way to connect with people on a level I had never experienced before, which was both surprising and gratifying.
I began to learn more about book promotion and how easy it was to publish in print—easy if the fickle formatting gods are on your side, at least. I decided to produce a paperback with CreateSpace, and I’m very happy with the results. Even if it never becomes anything more than a hobby, I’ve never been happier.
Shelf: What are you working on now?
Bresnick: Right now, I’m working on a prequel to The Last Death, called The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun. It’s set in the last days of the Empire when everything is starting to fall apart and the problems that Tev encounters are just starting to take shape. You’ll get to learn a lot more about where Tev comes from, and he does make a couple of cameos. I hope it will be available in the spring of 2013.
I may come up with a few additional stories about Tev’s adventures during his long life. Some of the characters Tev encounters get a similar treatment in a companion novella I wrote, called Treason’s Choices.
Read an Excerpt:
There was always a war.
The teams sometimes rearranged themselves, and land would change hands when one player’s fortunes dipped particularly low, but somewhere, for some reason, there was always a war.
After close to seven hundred years, most of the participants were finding it hard to keep up. The great empire of Zanuth-Karun had fallen, Umre and Agan were no more; Gidan had long since claimed neutrality, roundly denounced as a cop-out by all sides.
Untold thousands of kings, generals, and heroes had gained the dubious immortality that comes from being killed in interesting ways. The original grievances were all but forgotten, wearing down the fervent patriotism of centuries ago into a comfortable, familiar antagonism: a predetermined set of countries to be steadily and continuously despised.
Somewhere north of the Schism Line, just past the edge of the clearing in the dense pine forest where his regiment was camped, a soldier named Tev Chrisini reluctantly pushed the dice across the makeshift yasho table and let Neidril take his turn.
“Are you sure, sir?” Neidril asked. “If I get more than a ten, there isn’t a way you can make it up.”
“Just finish the round,” Tev replied, gesturing for him to continue. “I can cover it. Don’t worry,” he added when the man looked at him doubtfully.
“You didn’t last time.”
“Yes I did. And I would have sooner, if she had just listened to me,” Tev replied, smiling a little as he remembered the incident in a little border town a few months prior. The innkeeper’s wife had chased him out of the building, screaming and throwing a chicken at him — a live, squawking, terrified chicken — when she thought he was about to run out on a large debt to her husband.
He had no intention of doing so, of course, but she had been so furious over the possibility that his explanations were worthless to her. It hadn’t been his proudest moment, trapped in a corner, fighting to get control of the livid, flailing bird as the woman searched for more poultry, but it had been pretty funny.
But he wasn’t surprised that he was losing again, and badly. In fact, he thought, he ought to be used to it by now, since he was fighting for Kialdar again, and Kialdar wasn’t doing quite as well as it could have hoped.
From The Last Death of Tev Chrisini by Jennifer Bresnick. Excerpted with permission. All rights reserved.