Friday, May 27, 2022

Alex Shvartsman Interview - The Middling Affliction

Photo Content from Alex Shvartsman

Alex Shvartsman is the author of The Middling Affliction (2022) and Eridani’s Crown (2019) fantasy novels. Over 120 of his stories have appeared in Analog, Nature, Strange Horizons, etc. He won the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction (2014) and was a two-time finalist (2015 & 2017) for the Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction.

His translations from Russian have appeared in F&SF, Clarkesworld,, Asimov’s, etc. Alex has edited over a dozen anthologies, including the long-running Unidentified Funny Objects series. He’s the editor-in-chief of Future Science Fiction Digest. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY. 


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I started making up stories at a very young age, and attempted to write them down in my early teens. Emigrating from Ukraine to the United States put a stop to that for a long while; I never suspected my English would become good enough to write publishable fiction. As a result, I waited until I was in my thirties to begin writing. I wish I had broken through this self-imposed barrier sooner!

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
This tends to change over time for me, but one of my perennial favorites is THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. This book invented the magical realism genre decades before Marquez and the others. I've read it half dozen times and it's overdue for another re-read.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
A reader recognized the cover of one of my lesser-known works (a humorous novella) at a convention. Their eyes lit up and they told me that they read this book the week their loved one passed away and it helped them cope with the grief. I was blown away. I don't think any award or sales accolade I've achieved can quite compete with the power of that.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
I have a weakness for binging TV shows when I should be writing instead! And with so much good TV out there, how does one get any work done? Breaking Bad is my overall favorite, so of course my current silver-screen show of choice is its prequel, Better Call Saul.

Can you tell us when you started THE MIDDLING AFFLICTION, how that came about?
This book started its life as a couple of short stories. Early in my writing career I wanted to experiment with writing humorous urban fantasy in the style of Simon R. Green. So I wrote "A Shard Glows in Brooklyn" and "Requiem for a Druid." The stories were a success – both sold to professional magazines and the latter qualified me to attend the prestigious Viable Paradise workshop. The world of magical NYC and the protagonist's snarky, bravado-laden voice really drew me in and what was meant to be a series of short stories became a series of novels!

Since I owe the idea to write this sort of a story to reading Simon R. Green's Nightside books, it was especially meaningful that he was kind enough to provide a blurb for The Middling Affliction!

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from THE MIDDLING AFFLICTION
Here's a bit where Conrad Brent, who protects the people of Brooklyn from magic and monsters, has to go to the city (which is what New Yorkers from all boroughs call Manhattan):

I don’t like venturing into Manhattan. It is the capital of Weird in the New World. Beings of immense power walk the streets beneath its gleaming skyscrapers. Terrible schemes are hatched behind closed doors in offices with prestigious addresses—and I’m not just talking about the Wall Street financiers. Dangerous humans and creatures of all kinds congregate there, and they make Brooklyn feel like a sleepy suburb. I tried to keep my visits into the Big Apple’s rotten core brief and infrequent. But sometimes, things couldn’t be helped.

And here's a bit from a fight scene (a tiny bit raunchier than the rest of the book):

We pushed toward the elevators, past the curses and spells flung at us like bullets fired from enemy trenches. I pointed toward the EXIT sign that hung above the staircase. There was no chance in hell we were getting into one of the elevators—they were too easy a trap, with or without magic. We were almost to the stairs when the floor indicator dinged and the door to one of the lifts opened.

Out spilled a menagerie of monsters that would have given Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau instant erections. Half a dozen of them strode toward us, ignoring the barrage of pernicious magic around them. They were each roughly five feet tall, with alligator heads and lithe muscular panther torsos. They stood upright on short but powerful hind legs that might or might not have come from gorillas. Catlike tails with scorpion stingers bobbed back and forth behind them.

“This may be a terrible time to pun,” I told Herc, “but I do believe they bear arms.”

The creatures had thick grizzly arms covered in brown fur. Black razor-sharp four-inch claws extended from their paws.

“Puntastic,” Herc muttered through clenched teeth.

Then the weaponized nature collages were upon us.

In no particular order:
  • 1. Conrad Brent is in charge of protecting Brooklyn from monsters and warlocks, but he has no magic of his own. In the secret world filled with superheroes and supervillains, he's the magical Batman: a grumpy and possibly somewhat unhinged vigilante with no special powers who relies on gadgets to keep up with the super-Joneses.
  • 2. Conrad works for the Watch, an organization that protects the mundanes – people without magic, from arcane threats. They won't interfere in any conflict between the magic users, known as the gifted.
  • 3. Much of the action takes place in South Brooklyn, where I've resided for the past 30+ years. There are lots of real NYC landmarks or ones that are close enough that New Yorkers might figure out exactly which real building or location it's based on.
  • 4. The Watch headquarters are located in the basement of the Manhattan Municipal Building. So of course, some wiseass had to name it The Watchtower.
  • 5. The book is pretty much guaranteed to subvert your expectations and really pull the rug from under where you thought things were going about half-way through.
  • 6. There's an Eastern European take on a very popular fantasy monster that's seldom (if ever) seen in the fantasy genre.
  • 7. There's an enormous troll that lives under the Verrazano Bridge. He's mentioned in book 1, but you'll have to wait until book 3 to meet him. The wait will be worth it.
  • 8. The book is filled with pop culture references: Star Wars and comic books, Ghostbusters and Hamilton. Seriously, if you don't like pop culture references, this book might not be for you.
  • 9. Some of the story takes place in my native Ukraine. This feels more poignant now, even though I wrote those chapters long before the war.
  • 10. You get a complete story. There are plenty of threads that will make you curious about book 2, but I'm not one of those authors who leaves you stuck with a cliffhanger.
Meet the Characters
Conrad Brent
is a grifter who uses bravado and bluffing to get out of most situations. Still, his heart is in the right place. He risks life and limb on the daily basis to protect others. He also carries a deadly secret – in a world of the gifted, he's a middling, a person who can perceive magic and use magical artifacts but has no magic of his own. "As best I could tell, while the gifted appeared roughly once among every thir­ty thousand humans, the odds of a middling were well north of one in a million. And the smart ones were hiding." While he carries on his duties for The Watch he's also constantly searching for the cure for his affliction.

Willodean is an amiable schoolteacher from South Carolina who is new to the world of magic, so the reader gets to learn a lot of the interesting facts about the secret world of magic through her. When events beyond the characters' control bring them to Europe, she's both curious and a bit overwhelmed: “Vampires, morgues, and nuclear power plants. This isn’t the tour of Europe I’d dreamed about taking someday.”

Moira O'Leary is a rogue necromancer with no moral compass. She carries a cutlass she named Kindness and sometimes wears a T-shirt that reads All the Best Things in Life Are Free with a picture of a treasure chest filled with gold coins and jewels, signed Level 20 rogue.

Whereas Moira is what Conrad might've been without a conscience, Herc is the opposite of that. He's always the good guy, someone friends love and enemies respect. Here's how Conrad describes him:

"Herc had been a prospect when I’d first met him. He had man­ifested young, a nineteen year old from Newark who dressed and talked like he was on The Wire. Once you got to know him even a little and peeked past his camouflage, he was this really smart, really sweet kid. He was a quick study and possibly the most powerful natural practitioner I’ve ever met, save Mose himself."

Herc naturally grows into a leadership role, even though he's only in his mid-twenties.

Your Journey to Publication
I had every reason not to become a writer. English is my third language. I have no formal training or writing experience. I have a demanding and fulfilling day job. Still, I couldn't help it! I've loved reading science fiction and fantasy ever since I was about ten years old, and I had stories of my own to share with the world.

I started out by writing short stories. My theory was that, once I was able to write them well enough to place them in professional magazines, I'd know I was ready to write a novel. Except, writing short stories is like popcorn. You can't stop at just a dozen. In fact, I'd sold over 100 shot stories and had two short story collections out before my first novel was published!

Writing Behind the Scenes
I'm a relatively slow writer and I follow a certain pattern, whether I'm writing a flash fiction piece or a novel. I must know how the story ends. Once I know that, I can explore and go on tangents, which is how some of the best bits of the story get added. But every scene, ever chapter I write must in some way advance the story toward that ending.

What event in your life would make a good movie?
Before I began writing books, I was a professional card player! I played a strategy game called Magic the Gathering, was at one point ranked third in the world, and got to play it all over the world. I was the first foreigner to win a Grand Prix championship in Japan and held the overall record for the most Grand Prix top 8 finishes for many years, even after I quit playing competitively. My adventures and travels could probably make for a pretty cool movie.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
I've had a lot of interesting ones, as I've traveled to over 30 countries! But the most bizarre and unusual of them by far, was me getting kicked out of Malaysia! I was coming in from Singapore and they literally made me walk back across a long bridge with my suitcases, all because of a passport mishap. You can read about it in greater detail HERE

What is the first job you have had?
Selling books! I grew up in Odesa, Ukraine, and my dad was a huge book collector (at the time you couldn't simply walk into the store and buy what you wanted, everything had to be obtained on the gray market and books were expensive. So around the age of 12 I was buying and selling books. I'd buy one, read it, then sell it for slightly more. This allowed me to keep about one book in ten for my own collection. I've written about some of those experiences, as well as about the immigration experience in this fantasy STORY

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep?
This is when I come up with my best story ideas! In those moments as I'm drifting off to sleep and my mind is at its most creative. The tricky part is to remember them the following morning.

What would you do if you lost everything that mattered to you, as well as all means to protect yourself and others, but still had to save the day? Conrad Brent is about to find out.

Conrad Brent protects the people of Brooklyn from monsters and magical threats. The snarky, wisecracking guardian also has a dangerous secret: he’s one in a million – literally.

Magical ability comes to about one in every 30,000 and can manifest at any age. Conrad is rarer than this, however. He’s a middling, one of the half-gifted and totally despised. Most of the gifted community feels that middlings should be instantly killed. The few who don’t flat out hate them still aren’t excited to be around middlings. Meaning Conrad can’t tell anyone, not even his best friends, what he really is.

Conrad hides in plain sight by being a part of the volunteer Watch, those magically gifted who protect their cities from dangerous, arcane threats. And, to pay the bills, Conrad moonlights as a private detective and monster hunter for the gifted community. Which helps him keep up his personal fiction – that he’s a magical version of Batman. Conrad does both jobs thanks to charms, artifacts, and his wits, along with copious amounts of coffee. But little does he know that events are about to change his life…forever.

When Conrad discovers the Traveling Fair auction house has another middling who’s just manifested her so-called powers on the auction block, he’s determined to save her, regardless of risk. But what he finds out while doing so is even worse – the winning bidder works for a company that’s just created the most dangerous chemical weapon to ever hit the magical community.

Before Conrad can convince anyone at the Watch of the danger, he’s exposed for what he really is. Now, stripped of rank, magical objects, friends and allies, Conrad has to try to save the world with only his wits. Thankfully though, no one’s taken away his coffee.

You can purchase The Middling Affliction at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ALEX SHVARTSMAN for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a $10 Amazon Gift Card.