Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central University and the author of three books on Amazon: The Winged Turban, The Astrologer’s Portrait, and The Count of the Living Death. He is also a fellow member of the Fantasy and Science Fiction Network. Please welcome him here on No Wasted Ink.
Hello—my name is Joshua Grasso, and I’m currently an Associate Professor of English at East Central University, a small university in Oklahoma. My day job consists of teaching all those wonderful classes that are the genesis of every science fiction and fantasy book out there—British Literature, World Literature, Shakespeare, Gothic Literature, and every once in a while, a class on Superheroes as Lit. As a teacher, I try to do the same thing I do in my books: introduce students to a new, exciting world that has (seemingly) always existed, and invite them to start exploring themselves, using language, art, and logic as their guide. I think some of the greatest adventures in history actually started in the classroom, by a writer, or an explorer, or simply a dreamer who caught wind of something unique from a lecture, or a discussion, or a reading assignment. That’s where my journey began, anyway—as a first-year college student in a drafty classroom.
When and why did you begin writing?
As an English major in college, I was inspired by all the works I read, particularly the works set in ancient worlds and languages: Homer, Shakespeare, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc. These works seemed vitally alive to me, yet also quite incomplete; there were ‘holes’ and gaps in the narratives that seemed to invite a future writer to fill in. They provided the perfect introduction to my own world and ideas.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In 1995, I entered a one-act play writing contest at my college and surprisingly won (I had never won anything writing-wise, and I haven’t won much since!). The grand prize was a full production of my little play, but as luck would have it, this occurred just weeks before the Oklahoma City bombing (April 1995). Since we were in Oklahoma, that became the focus of everyone’s life and the production became largely forgotten—and was finally just half-performed for one evening. Still, it was a starting point, though I quickly realized my talent did not lie in writing plays (I typically just stuck my characters in a room and set them arguing at each other; I learned that you should probably change scenes once in a while).
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
My most recent book, The Winged Turban (2015), is a fantasy novel with a slight Gothic influence set in a Europe-that-never-was. A young woman is married into a strange family and packed away into an ancient estate, where she uncovers a strange old portrait that was never there before, and at least one person is fairly certain is a portrait of her (though it’s well over 200 years old).
What inspired you to write this book?
The cover of the book features a famous 15th century painting by Rogier Van der Weyden, The Woman with a Winged Turban. This is a painting I often use in my classes when teaching the late medieval period, and I’ve always been captivated by it: the painting and the woman. One day, while teaching, I began having a conversation with myself, wondering who she really was, and how I could build a story around it. Those rough ideas slowly blossomed into a full-fledged novel about a year later. The painting—slightly changed—is actually described in the book, so if you know it (or have memorized the cover) you’ll realize immediately what I’m talking about.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I think so, but that’s a dangerous thing to try to nail down. I used to be very verbose, flowery, and full of asides. I’ve tried to cut that down, but even today, I like sentences that flow from specific word use and sentence structures. I love long sentences, too, and I’m not afraid of using semicolons, colons, ellipses, or parenthesis (even though an agent once warned me that writers stopped using them ages ago!). I don’t like writing that is too obvious or clipped. I think writing should be like a ball of yarn: the more you read, the more tangled up you get in the narrative, and just when you think you’ve gotten loose—ah, another tangle! The writing should be clear and readable, but not easy or obvious. It should make you read, re-read, and think a little. That’s what I hope my style does—makes you re-read, not out of confusion (well, once or twice) but for the sheer enjoyment of a sentence or idea.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
Ha, this one was easy: I just stole it from the title of the painting. I loved the phrase “winged turban.” It’s just a style of medieval fashion, but it sounds so mysterious, and most people have no ideas what a winged turban is, anyway. You have to read to find out. And then you’re like, “oh, it’s just her headgear.”
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Messages are tricky: a good novel has more than one, and none of them are just bobbing on the surface. Though I would hate to spell any of them out (and there are probably some I’m not even aware of), I did want to stress the idea that the “villain” is rarely a true villain in the sense that we find in movies and old novels. A villain is often just the person who has different goals and desires than you, and is more driven in achieving them. The ‘villain’ in this book is not very evil at all, just desperate to do what she thinks is the ultimate right thing, even if some sacrifices need to be made. And most of the ‘heroes’ agree with her…up to a point.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
No, this is all from my own imagination, books I’ve read, and themes I enjoy reading about. That’s the beauty of writing for me: nothing is autobiographical (other than the ideas/aesthetics), and I can completely immerse myself in characters, worlds, and journeys that are a complete expansion or negation of my own. I don’t want to see myself anywhere in the book if I can help it!
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
The biggest influences on my writing are typically (with a few exceptions) British, very old, and usually mentioned as “classics”: Austen, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wilde, Mary Shelley, Voltaire, Tolkein, White, and the extensive works of “Anonymous” (particularly Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc). For me, a great story has to be coupled with powerful and beautiful language, and the pre-20th century world seemed more at peace with this. After WWI, beauty in writing seemed somewhat naive or improper, so writers adopted a more clipped, terse style of writing which gets to the point but (often) without flair or beauty. I think writing should be beautiful, so that you can fall in love with a single sentence, and only later understand how that sentence fits into the puzzle of the entire piece. I also like works where the narrator is him/herself a character, and writers like Chaucer, Austen, and Wilde were masters at this. After all, if someone is talking, why make him/her anonymous? Give him/her life and a voice, even if the ultimate identity remains mysterious.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
Since I’m also a professor, I learned the most from the writers I wrote about and ended up teaching, figures like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Jane Austen. Analyzing their works as a scholar, and then figuring out how to teach them to (largely) bored undergraduates, really makes you appreciate how they work as writers and as books. That has to rub off on you as a writer yourself, and I picked up a lot of Austenisms in my writing, some of which I edited out, but others I kept as a badge of pride. No shame in sounding like one of the greatest masters of prose in the English language!
Do you have any advice for other writers?
The only thing I’ve truly learned about writing is to be devoted to it. Don’t do it by halves. By that I mean make writing (not being a writer, or acting like a writer, but actually writing) your entire life. Write every day until it becomes second nature. Read every day without fail. Find the connections between different authors and try out their techniques. Set goals and come as close as you can to accomplishing them. But most of all, write. If you don’t like writing, there’s no reason to become a writer. And if you do, then get to it!
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Remember that I’m poor and I can’t afford to pay fancy editors to go over my work. It’s just me and some friends and students. So if you find a typo, tell me about it before you post a 1-star review! I promise to fix it! You can’t believe how hard it is to find every single typo or missing word in a 90 thousand-word manuscript even after reading it five or six times in several different mediums. But other than that, I hope you enjoy the book!
The Winged Turban