Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: J.G. Follansbee is an award-winning writer of thrillers, fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories with climate change themes. An author of maritime history and travel guides, he has published articles in newspapers, regional and national magazines, and regional and national radio networks, including National Public Radio. He’s also worked in the high-tech and non-profit worlds. He lives in Seattle and blogs at https://jgfollansbee.com/blog/.
Scott’s Note: I met Joe via our first Writers Save the World anthology Fix the World when he submitted a delightful short story about nuns saving the world with flying drones, called Who Shall Reap the Grain of Heaven. I bought it, and his subsequent entry for Save the World called Chasing the Zephyr Prize. I’m thrilled to finally have him in my Author Spotlight hot seat. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I enjoyed his sci-fantasy book Fall of the Green Land.
Thanks so much, J.G., for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
J.G. Follansbee: My first professionally published work was probably stories in my college newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal, at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. I was always a pretty good writer in school, but I wanted a steady paycheck, and so I decided to go into the news business. After graduation, I got a job at a small newspaper in Ashland, Ore. From there, I spent the next twenty years or so in newspapers, radio, and free-lancing for magazines.
JSC: What is your writing Kryptonite?
JGF: Bad editors. I’m blessed that Scott is a good editor.
JSC: I have to give Ryane Chatman credit for that – she did the actual editing work. But thank you! Do you use a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
JGF: Yes and no. My full given name is Joseph Gale Follansbee, and I go by Joe. However, many of my leading characters are female. It looks weird in the 21st century for men to be writing female leads, so my byline is J.G. Follansbee. Better to obfuscate my gender. This is a common strategy for writers of all genders.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for this book?
JGF: I have always loved the Arthurian legends, and I wanted to write a retelling. I also wanted to work in science fiction elements, as well as climate change elements. I think it came out pretty well.
JSC: Tell us something we don’t know about your heroes. What makes them tick?
JGF: Sir Percival, the main protagonist, is a young man full of self-doubt. He doesn’t believe he can achieve anything significant, and doesn’t deserve the praise and accolades of his king and the people around him. Still, he manages to achieve the greatest of goals, finding The Grail and saving the nation. He discovers how to belief in himself.
JSC: Tell me one thing hardly anyone knows about you.
JGF: I spent two months as a guard in a minimum security prison. Much of my job entailed handing out loose tobacco and cigarette papers to inmates.
JSC: What fantasy realm would you choose to live in and why?
JGF: The hands-down winner is Star Trek: The Original Series. When I was a teenager in the 70s, I watched every episode at least a dozen times until I could recite the dialog by heart. (I still can, even in my 60s.) Admittedly, some of the show is dated by today’s standards, but the world of adventure in a culture that has solved some of humanity’s most intractable problems is enormously appealing.
JSC: Which of your own characters would you Kill? Fuck? Marry? And why?
JGF: In my Future History of the Grail series, Sir Percival’s sister, Dee (short for Dindrane) is really hot. Enough said.
JSC: What speculative fiction character would you like to spend an evening with, and why?
JGF: Captain Kirk. Because Captain Kirk.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
JGF: Though I still write short stories, I’ve shifted my writing focus to other forms and genres, especially film. I’ve written two draft screenplays, and I’m working on a third. I’ve become interested in film noir, with movies such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon providing inspiration. I’ll be submitting these screenplays to competitions, hoping to get some attention from producers.
And now for J.G.’s epic sci-fantasy series starter: Fall of the Green Land:
Sir Percival Rathkeale, the red-haired knight of Viridiae, the Green Land, seeks the lost Grail, a powerful device critical to the survival of his king, his country, and the planet. Merlin, the king’s chief science advisor, discovers new clues to the Grail’s location. The king appoints Sir Percival to a new expedition to find the Grail. With Sirs Galahad and Bors, and Dame Lancelot du Lac, the strongest warrior in the land, Percival sails for the island of Koda, where he faces dark forces determined to oppose his mission and usurp the king. Will Percival find the Grail, restore his country, and save the world?
Fall of the Green Land, the first novel in the fantasy series The Future History of the Grail, re-imagines the King Arthur legends, placing them a thousand years in the future. The second and third books are War for the Green Land and Return to the Green Land.
Categories: Fantasy, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
The forest mocked Percival for his faith. Dry, low-hanging spruce branches scourged him. Hemlock boughs slapped him silly like a mob making fun of a drunk. Exposed roots tripped him for sport. Gaia gave life to the forest and everything else, and she took it from knights who lost their way. Belief in her was older than the Dissolution, when the world fell apart. The weight of the following millennium lay heavy on Percival’s shoulders, as it did on all the knights of the Round Table, after the Great Machine broke.
“Find the Grail,” Arturus had said, “or we are all lost.”
“I will find it, my lord,” Percival said to himself, alone in woods thick as his flaming-red hair. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”
The vermin in the knight’s beard grasped the hairs tightly as he stumbled. His clothes shed patches like molting fur. How many days had passed since he had last seen his human companions? How many weeks since his com had stopped working? The setting sun was his final beacon, dimming like approaching disappointment as it sank behind the Range of Needles.
“You must find it.” Arturus’ graying face had the intensity of sun at noon. “The man or woman who owns the Grail owns the nation.”
Percival thought of those words often, but the king’s meaning always escaped him. A glottal growl stopped his reflection cold. The sound was layered: half-bark, half-bellow. It awakened a memory. A time before—centuries ago, it seemed, long before his acceptance to the Round Table, back when he was a teenager—he’d found prints and spoor in the mountains on the edge of his mother’s land. He’d gone home empty-handed on that quest, too, though he’d captured the terrifying call. The sage-scientists declared it genuine. He was lucky to come back with a whole skin. As he stumbled forward in the forest twilight, somewhere east of Camelot, the growl had returned. Was Percival the wounded, sick prey predators preferred? Was he an easy meal? He reached for his javelin, his favorite weapon, but he had lost it weeks ago in a marsh.
The bestial voice rose into an anxious, restrained scream, coming from the direction of the dissipated sun. The western breeze carried Percival’s scent away, meaning the beast might not know he was near. Why the scream? Was it vocalizing fear? The earth trembled with the creature’s advance. Unwilling to chance becoming an appetizer for an artificial chimera, Percival pressed himself against the trunk of a monster fir. The ridges of bark dug into his spine. He thought the tree might vibrate in sympathy with his terror and give him away.
He wanted to live. He’d avoided the despair of a few of his companions, who’d wandered off into the desert or mountains one by one to end their drain on the expedition’s resources. It was a tacit admission of failure. Others died from disease. More died from attacks by two-footed predators. Only Percival remained. He lived because the expedition’s story was important. His death was a luxury Viridiae, the “Green Country,” his country, could not afford.
The slow thump-thump of the beast’s pace stopped. In the violet darkness, Percival heard a sharp inhalation through its nostrils, and he swallowed, certain it knew precisely where to bite and rip him into an evening snack. The creature halted behind Percival. The wide trunk of the tree hid the prey from predator. The beast barked, and Percival reflected that its call was less like the baying of a brace of hounds, and more like the plaintive cry of a chorus of mountain lions. The sound resonated in Percival’s heart, but it was discordant. The beast was pursued, not him. It was afraid. What could frighten a mutant heavier and longer than three horses lined up nose to tail?
Another sound penetrated the forest, bouncing between the rock walls of the narrow ravine trapping Percival and the chimera. Percival’s ears pricked at a human voice, distant and diffuse. The beast cried a second time, its pace quickened by anxiety. Confident he was safe from its jaws, Percival dared to peer around the fir trunk, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. Percival missed seeing the whole animal, but he caught the fleshy, arrowhead shape of its tail’s tip. It swished.
For a moment, silence cloaked the forest. The final wisp of breeze had dropped away, but Percival’s breathing quickened again. What if the beast had slunk into a position better for an attack on him? Unlike animals formed by natural selection, the beasts were descendants of animals designed for the pleasure of people, and therefore, like people, unpredictable. It might circle back. It was an ambush predator, like a cat.
Percival was foolish to think he could hide from a beast on its own ground. The lost knight fell to his haunches, the remnants of his hope for survival evaporating. He couldn’t call for help. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t ask for mercy. His mouth was drier than the eastern desert. His stomach was a pit of emptiness. He was too exhausted to shed tears.
Nothing happened. Don’t toy with me! Percival deserved to die with a little dignity. He was a knight, a favorite of Arturus. He started to laugh. What a useless thought! The beast hates knights, who pursue it with the relentlessness of a rising tide. Why shouldn’t it torture human prey as revenge for living a life of fear?
Another thump came through the spongy ground, but this sound was different. It didn’t belong to the beast. Again, Percival pressed against the tree. A jingle of metal mixed with the panting of a horse ridden hard. The rider called out.
Percival knew her voice.
Relief flooded him. He never expected rescue. The expedition lost touch with Camelot nearly a year previously. Batteries for its com equipment wouldn’t charge, and the survivors were left with navigating by the sun and stars. They had no idea where to go, except west. By pure accident, a beast-hunting knight had found Percival.
Or was the rider searching for the expedition and not the beast? The thought gave Percival pause. Everyone wanted to find the Grail, but the competition was fierce, especially among the knights at Court. Not only would the winner save the nation and repair the Great Machine, he or she would enjoy fame forever. Animated light paintings and sculpted monuments would seal the memories. The material rewards would be pretty good, too.
Percival understood the covetousness and jealousy of his peers when it came to glory. The betrayal of his expedition was his evidence. Hearing the clink of the dame knight’s armor and the heavy hoofs of her warhorse, was she his enemy, not the beast?
Percival debated what to do. Arturus needed to know what happened. The king himself might be in danger. Even thousands of kilometers from home, the expedition heard rumors of incipient coups and revolts. Percival could not risk capture by a rebellious cabal. He had to survive, not only to inform the king, but to keep the search for the Grail alive.
The drumbeat of hooves forced Percival’s hand. He reached into his last reserves and bolted. He ran like a rabbit, dodging the starlit, lichen-encrusted rocks. He jumped ankle-breaking holes while scanning for an overhang or a cleft big enough to conceal him. He glanced over his shoulder. The mounted knight bore down on him, the polished steel of her breastplate reflecting the running man’s panic. Percival whimpered; he’d never outrun the horse. He kept going, until a low-hanging branch caught him in the chest like a tournament lance, throwing him to the ground. He rolled onto his back, stars orbiting on the edges of his vision.
The knight dismounted. The point of her sword touched Percival’s throat. A millimeter more and he’d bleed to death.
“Why are you running?” she said. In the pitch darkness, Percival couldn’t see her face, but the familiar voice calmed him. She wouldn’t kill him.
“Answer me or Dame Lancelot du Lac will slice you in two.”
The threat puzzled Percival. Didn’t Lancelot recognize him? The sword pressed further into Percival’s neck. He felt a trickle on his throat. It might be sweat or blood.
“Did you see it?” Lancelot said.
“The beast, damn you.”
Percival swallowed, but not too hard. The sword point hadn’t moved. “Yes, I think so.”
An electric torch blinded Percival. “Which way? I have to know!”
Percival glanced in the way he had come. The beam of light followed his gaze. Lancelot jumped on the pawing horse.
“Wait!” Percival cried.
Lancelot ignored Percival, wheeling the horse around to continue her chase.
“Please! I’m Percival Rathkeale.”
The armored warrior reigned in her horse, confusing the animal. It wanted to run, but Lancelot paused, as if considering the information. “Not possible. He died weeks, maybe months ago.”
“I swear I’m Percival. I’m the son of Eleanor Rathkeale. My sister is—“
“Shut up.” Lancelot shifted. Her distressed animal bellowed, as if arguing with its master. It was trained to kill, and it smelled a victory.
“I’m the only one left,” Percival said. The torch beam danced on him. He lifted his hands to his eyes to block its painful brightness. “What are you doing? Don’t you believe me?”
The beam narrowed on Percival’s face as Lancelot drew nearer. “I thought you might be a troll, but your beard is its own ecosystem of moss and bugs. Trolls don’t have facial hair.”
Percival shuddered at the mention of the creatures. “They killed three of the expedition.”
“The last Grail Expedition. The one King Arturus III sent out in the spring.”
“Twenty knights and squires went on that jaunt. Where are the rest of them?”
“Don’t lie. Arondight is thirsty tonight.”
Percival glanced at Lancelot’s blade. “You know me. I wouldn’t harm anyone, except Viridiae’s enemies. I swear I’m the only survivor. The last one besides me died a week ago, and I’m lost. What is this place? Am I close to Camelot?”
“In a word, no. Judging by your scrawny state, you’d never have made it.”
Lancelot backed away a step and sheathed her blade, evidently believing Percival’s claims. “Gaia’s blood, you are Percival. You have the man’s guileless face.”
The prone knight sat up, and the standing knight switched off the torch. The darkness enveloped Percival, like a glimpse of death, though ill-defined shapes appeared as his eyes adjusted. Percival, Lancelot, and the horse were in a small clearing.
Lancelot drew close to Percival. He could smell the dame knight’s sweaty leather jacket. “What did it look like?”
“Well, that, of course. But I mean the beast.”
Percival related his encounter.
“Damn, I knew it was close. I was within meters! And now you…” Lancelot cursed in frustration. Percival had interrupted a hunter’s pursuit, and the quarry escaped. Lancelot leaned against a rock that stood like a threatened bear. “You’re lucky, Percival. Virtually no one alive has seen a questing beast. Heard them plenty, but rarely seen one.”
“I remember. You told me this when I was a squire.”
Lancelot seemed not to hear. “Not even the sage-scientists, with their fancy cameras and recorders, have gotten a good look. I’ve wanted to capture one since I was five. I’ve only found bones.”
Lancelot removed gear from her horse’s pannier. In a moment, an electric fire glowed, and Percival edged nearer. He was grateful Lancelot had chosen to stay with him, instead of continuing her hunt, but he was unsure of Lancelot’s mood.
Percival had eaten nothing but grubs and roots for days. He offered a restrained nod. He gnawed on a length of jerky.
“You said you saw it?”
“The beast? Just a glimpse, like I said—“
Lancelot chuckled. “No, the Grail.”
Percival shook his head. “I saw its resting place, but it was gone. It was like knowing your lover had just been in the room, but had left before you got there.” He’d reflected on that feeling for weeks.
“So near, and as far away as the moon. I know what you mean.” Lancelot looked at the ground.
Lancelot gave Percival a wool blanket. Removing her horse’s saddle, she laid the saddle blanket on the ground for herself, propped her sword on a boulder, and drew her cloak tighter. She sat cross-legged in front of the warm, glowing fire. Percival studied her round face, wide-set eyes, and the brown-black hair gathered in a tight braid that fell down her left shoulder.
“Sir Percival, are you afraid of failure?”
Percival did not know the answer. Was Lancelot, one of the greatest knights of the Round Table, speaking of herself, or him, or someone else?
“You’re lucky,” Lancelot repeated without waiting for Percival’s response. “You saw the questing beast. And you’ve missed the changes.”
“Better to see for yourself. Tomorrow.” Lancelot stretched out, laying her head on the saddle as a pillow.
Lancelot’s desire for sleep last only a second or two. Her horse let out a gurgling scream followed by a sickening crunch of bone. Thunder coursed through the ground as its broken body fell. A barking growl supplanted the pounding of the questing beast’s feet. The knights scrambled away, surprise driving them into the dark. Percival caught a glimpse of the beast’s intelligent eyes reflecting the electric fire’s fading glow. Like a cornered animal, it had attacked, rather than wait for the inevitable. By killing the horse, it had evened the chances it might prevail. If it slashed the air to the left with its razor teeth, it would kill Percival. If it moved the opposite way, Lancelot would die.
Lancelot’s stifled cry focused Percival’s attention on the weapon, still propped on the rock, but below the beast’s bobbing chin. It sniffed, knowing its enemy was near. Was its eyesight poor? Was the light too little for it to see its mortal enemies? What about its hearing?
Percival and Lancelot were separated by several meters, the beast between them. Every fiber of Percival begged him to run, but he held still. The beast paused, as if working out a decision.
“It can’t kill us both,” Lancelot whispered.
Percival disagreed, but stayed silent. The beast wasn’t malevolent, but it was also terrified, and it would destroy the threat to its life, if it could. But Lancelot was right about one thing. Two warriors, one beast. The chances for one to survive were decent. For two?
“I’m going after my sword, but around the beast’s flank,” Lancelot said. “Stay put.”
Two seconds passed. Four seconds. A snap from Percival’s left. The beast had what it needed. It charged in Lancelot’s direction, passing near enough to Percival for him to smell its scaly skin. The fire’s light glowed with the power of a near-dead candle. The sword waited. Percival ignored Lancelot’s advice and ran the ten paces, grabbed the scabbard, and drew the sword. It was as heavy as his javelin, but the weight was more concentrated. In his weakened state, he feared he couldn’t swing it properly.
The beast screamed, perhaps frustrated, perhaps triumphant, and Lancelot appeared, taking the empty scabbard in her hands. Shock transformed her face, and the beast snapped its jaws. The strike missed, and Lancelot scrambled away, crashing into the the broad trunk of a tree. She fell, holding her wrist, and the beast snapped at her again. Lancelot dodged.
“Percival!” She was angry, as well as fearful.
The emaciated knight lunged from his hiding spot, using his weight to drive the point of Arondight into the beast’s flank. The sword traveled only a few centimeters into the tough hide, but the pain distracted the creature. Percival let go of the hilt. The point of the blade stuck in the beast’s skin like a thorn. The beast’s head flailed as it reached for the steel. It lost its balance and crashed to the ground. Lancelot had a half-second to get out of its way. The crash knocked the sword out of the beast’s body. The creature scrambled to its feet and thundered off. The fight was done.
Lancelot gasped for breath in the thin mountain air. She collapsed at the base of the tree. Percival joined her.
“Thank Gaia it’s not my sword hand.” Lancelot worked her injured wrist. Her fingers opened and closed. “Just a light sprain.”
Percival fought back tears of relief. He’d seen slow deaths for weeks and nearly met his own quick death. Neither kind was noble.
“It’s like fighting the whole damned Lucian army,” Lancelot said. Her face was streaked with dirt and the remnants of her terror, as if waking up from a nightmare. Then she turned on Percival. “What the fuck were you doing? How dare you take my weapon. I had it all worked out!”
Percival edged away. “But the beast spotted you. Another meter and it—“
“How many times did I tell you and the other cretinous squires at The Keep never to touch Arondight? She was made for me, and no one else.” Lancelot slid her sword gently into the scabbard, highlighted with inlaid oyster shell.
Lancelot sighed. “I might never see a questing beast again. Damn the luck.” Her temper cooled, as if the chill air absorbed it. She folded her arms. “I suppose I owe you one.”
“Just get me back to Camelot. That’s enough for me.”
Percival doubted the beast would return. The knights would not pursue it, at least not now. Percival’s breath came out in shudders as his beating heart calmed. He would live a while longer.