Christopher Barili has been writing since his teenage years, and wrote his first full-length novel longhand before transcribing into type using an old IBM Selectric II typewriter. That novel—which shall never see the light of day again—won him literary student of the year in his high school graduating class. Chris continued to write through his undergraduate studies, but met with little publishing luck until he enrolled in Western Colorado University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. That’s where a crafty professor forced him to write a western short story, a genre he’d never written in before. That story, “Yellow,” became Chris’s first fiction sale, and was followed by a dozen more short fiction sales. With the appearance of his noir story “Eighteen and Two” in the inaugural print edition of Toe Six Magazine, Chris has now published fiction in all the major genres: fantasy, science fiction, romance, western, and crime.
Chris also became the first student out of Western’s MFA program to sell his thesis for publication. His supernatural romance novel, Smothered, came out (under pen name B.T. Clearwater) from Permuted Press in 2016, one of two stories selected to trailblaze Permuted’s supernatural romance lineup. WordFire Press will release Chris’s second novel, a contemporary fantasy called Shadow Blade (the first in a trilogy) on June 26th of this year. It’s available for pre-order through the link at the bottom of this post. He is currently working on Book Two in that series, as well as revising a Supernatural Romance novel, and writing at least one short story.
I asked him to describe Shadow Blade and he handed me this:
Ashai Larish is an assassin from the brutal Denari Lai order. Religious zealots, Denari Lai train from childhood, and are kept loyal through an addiction to the same magic that makes them unstoppable. They have become the main weapon for the tiny, theocratic nation of Nishi’iti. They kill from inside their targets’ inner circle, they never kill innocents, and in a hundred years, they’ve never failed.
Until now. Ashai just has to kill the tyrannical Pushtani King Abadas Damar and his daughter/heir, Markari. He infiltrates the king’s inner circle, putting him in the perfect place to strike. He wins over Abadas so completely, that the king gives him Makari’s hand in marriage. Only the venerable Captain Bauti of the Royal Guard, whose love for Makari is well-known in the palace, suspects Ashai of anything.
Except Ashai has fallen for Makari and cannot complete the hit. When a second Denari Lai strikes, Ashai finds himself fighting for Makari’s life instead of taking it. To make matters worse, the order cuts him off from his magic, leaving him weakened and in a kind of magical withdrawal. In order to be able to fight the second assassin, Ashai is forced to turn to “back alley magic,” pills and potions that provide a power similar to his, but at a significant price to the user.
Meanwhile, far north, in the Pushtani mines that border Nishi’iti, a slave named Pachat learns that his love, a hand-slave to Makari, has been killed. His grief ignites a rebellion, with him as the leader of the other miners. Urged on by Nishi’iti special forces, the rebellion sweeps across the borderlands, threatening to erupt into all-out war. Yet all Pachat wants is to avenge his beloved’s death, so he walks away from the rebellion to seek his lover’s killer.
As Pachat makes off for Dar Tallus, Ashai is forced to rely on the capitol city’s organized crime gang. Despite his best efforts to hide it, Makari discovers Ashai’s true identity, and suddenly, he finds himself without her love, without his faith, and without the Denari Lai. He is alone and at rock bottom.
Can Ashai kill the second assassin and win back Makari’s love? Will he regain his faith and restore his magic?
What do you want readers to know about your book?
That it is the first book in a trilogy, and I am writing Book Two right now. It began life as a stand-alone fantasy, but it turned out that the characters have a much longer story to tell than I thought.
Aside from the plot, is there a story behind it?
The idea for this book—which was my backup thesis for my MFA—came during a creative writing class taught by Michaela Roessner at Western State. She gave us an exercise where we had to look up a term or object or character typically seen in the genre we primarily write in. I ended up looking up where “assassin” came from. Turns out, the word originated in Arabic, and translates as “Hash eater.” There was an assassin’s order in old Syria or Iraq, lead by someone known as The Old Man in the Mountain. He kept his killers faithful by getting them hooked on Hashish, and telling them that their highs were actually glimpses into heaven. He further convinced them that only he could give them that insight. It created very loyal, very effective killers. That assignment idea turned into a novel idea, which became the backup outline for my MFA thesis. I ultimately went with a different choice for thesis to allow more time for world-building in Shadow Blade.
Why is your writing different from other authors in this genre?
Because I have a bit more of a romantic element in my book, for one thing. Obviously, Ashai falls in love with Makari early in the novel, and that conflict continues throughout the series. Also, I don’t necessarily adhere to the medieval western Europe model for my world building.
What was your path to publication?
For this book, pitched it to an Editor from a major, Big Five house at Superstars Writing Seminars. He told me it had strong world building and interesting characters, but that he already had an assassin series. Didn’t want them to compete. So using his comments as kind of blurbs, I was ready to pitch to someone else when a friend suggested WordFire might like the book. They didn’t have an assassin series, so I emailed Kevin Anderson, who referred me to Dave Butler, his acquisitions editor. Dave said it would be a couple of weeks, but Kevin emailed my acceptance two days later.
What are you working on now?
I am writing Book Two in the Denari Lai Series, tentatively titled “Shadow Masks.” I’m also working on Book Three in my Hell’s Butcher novella series, and a short story.
What else have you written?
I have published a paranormal romance novel as B.T. Clearwater through Permuted Press. I have published short fiction in every genre except thriller. And I self-publish a novella weird western series known as the Hell’s Butcher Series.
Are there any awards or honors you’d like to share?
I don’t submit myself for awards, because I’m not in it for that. I’d rather have readers.
Do you create an outline before you write?
Yes, definitely, though not always the same way, and not always the whole thing at once. For novel-length works, I use either the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2), with colored sticky notes on a white board, or the software program Contour. Either way, I usually only outline one act at a time. So I’ll outline act 1, write it, outline act 2, etc. This allows me to make adjustments on the fly. If my characters take a plot line in a direction I didn’t foresee, I don’t have to rewrite the whole outline. It’s easier to may course changes that way.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Never had it. In my opinion, writer’s block comes from lack of preparation. It means you’re not READY to write that thing you’re trying to write. Either you don’t know your characters well enough, haven’t thought out the conflict enough, or just plain aren’t excited about the story. And I always have multiple writing projects going on, so if I’m not ready on one, or just don’t want to work on it, I can work on something else.
At this stage in your career, what is your greatest challenge?
I have Parkinson’s disease, which causes a set of unique problems, including difficulty typing at times, fatigue, and so on. It means I have to work extra hard to get a story written, sometimes just 500 words at a time. And it means I spend a lot of time doing things to fight the disease (like mountain biking and karate), and those take away from writing.
Tell us about your writing community.
We have an amazing writing community here, and my involvement in it goes back to the early 2000s, when I joined a writer’s critique group with John Stith, Barbara Nickless, Sasha Miller, and more. That group disbanded, though, and I didn’t find another until July of 2016, when I met Marie Whittaker, Tony “Christopher” Katava, and Kevin Ikenberry. I’d just gotten diagnosed and divorced, and was having trouble dealing with it all. Those guys took me in and got me involved with the community. And of course, both Marie and Barb encouraged me to try Superstars Writing Seminars, and that has become a huge support net for me.
Do you have another job outside of writing?
Yes, I work as an imagery intelligence analyst for the DoD.
Describe a typical day.
Up at 4 a.m., at work by 5:30. Work in a dark, windowless room for 8.5 hours, then either go mountain biking or go to the dojo. Squeeze in meals and time for my incredible girlfriend, and the day is used up.
Do you have any pet projects?
I self-publish a dark fantasy/weird western series of novellas called the “Hell’s Butcher Series,” and while I’ll never make back the money I spend publishing them, they have a small, cult following that eats them up, so I keep writing them.
What is your greatest life lesson?
Nobody makes it alone. Let people help you. ASK for help. That’s the only way sometimes. Don’t let pride keep you from doing it.
Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to share with us. Before I close with an excerpt from Shadow Blade, followed by your social and book buy links, I’d like to conclude with the traditional Lightning Round. In as few words as possible, please answer the following:
My best friend would tell you I’m a: fighter.
The one thing I cannot do without is: My bike.
The one thing I would change about my life: I’d have spent more time with my kids, especially my youngest.
My biggest peeve is: Lazy people. If you don’t want to work hard, get out of the way for those of us who do.
The person I’m most satisfied with is: My girlfriend. She’s my twin flame.
Do you have a parting thought you would like to leave us with?
Don’t put off writing. Do it. Do it now. Waiting for tomorrow sucks because there’s always another tomorrow. Until there’s not.
Excerpt from Chapter One:
No one ever noticed Ashai. In his business, being noticed got you killed. So he kept his black hair trimmed just below the ears, flowing free in the style popular with Pushtani men. His nose had been broken once, but its jagged bend was not unusual among these men, who often tussled over matters of honor or family. He wore the long, tan robe of a cloth merchant, nothing more. Though he could afford them, he didn’t wear expensive perfumes, nor did he allow himself the luxury of fine jewelry. A simple leather band wrapped around his right wrist—a plain adornment for a plain man. He looked like the average Pushtani, blending in despite having only lived in Dar Tallus two years. No one here knew his true identity. No one knew his plan.
They wouldn’t until he spilled blood.
The sun hung low in the eastern sky, but already, Central Square baked in its heat. Summers here oppressed a man, body and spirit, the heat baking the trash piles and sewage in the streets until the stench assailed the senses like a foul army. When it rained it merely made the heat muggy, and brought out mosquitoes as big as Ashai’s fingers, and biting, yellow flies. Yes, with its squat two-story buildings, dark cobble stones, and throngs of people, Central Square acted like a frying pan, grilling up merchants, beggars, and nobles alike.
Ashai slipped through the crowd, angling and sidling at a steady pace, not slowing, despite the packed street. He passed within a finger-length of rich merchants, commoners, and soldiers smelling of sweat inside their bulky armor. The last would have gutted him had they known his true identity. But they marched past, blissfully ignorant.
It helped that he drew lightly on the tiny stream of power his God provided him, taking in its strength and portioning it out to his mind, body, and face. He saw events before the average man, as if time had slowed for Ashai, so he moved through the crowd like it stood still. His features shifted slightly with every step, making it impossible for any two people to describe him exactly the same. Even the deep brown of his eyes—the mark of a Nishi’iti—changed every other step: blue, then green, then gray. Never brown. Not here, where Nishi’itis were beaten on-sight. Never brown eyes.
Nishi’s power also improved his senses, feeding him bits of conversations, detecting scents only dogs could smell, keeping him alert for any sign of danger.
He stopped outside a spice shop, breathing in the aromas of cinnamon, crushed hot pepper, and Nishi’iti Snow Spice, which made his mouth water. Ashai had grown up on Nishi’iti streets much like these, only without the heat. Or the wealth.
But he lived here now, in the capital city of Pushtan. He no longer slept under bridges or wagons, but in a small flat atop his humble fabric shop. A shop he’d paid for himself, with money he’d earned as a cloth merchant. All part of an elaborate cover story, years in the making. And that cover was so perfect, it was like it had been fated since his birth. Even his Nishi’iti name, “Azha’i,” made the transition to the Pushtani version simple.
Nishi always provided.
The crowd milled about like sheep, ringing the fountain in the center of the square. Waiting. For her.
These fools ignored their gods and worshipped a mortal woman. A woman marked to die.
Ashai studied the street entering the square from the north. Princess Makari would come from there for her weekly bout of helping the poor from the safety of her carriage, where the filthy masses couldn’t touch her. On occasion, she would step from her coach onto the broiling cobblestones and mingle with her people. Today would be one such day, if her patterns held.
He’d seen her many times, and always from afar, yet her beauty always stunned him. He almost regretted that he would kill her.
Out of nowhere, the stench of rotting flesh hit him like a wall of refuse. He glanced to his right, following the odor. There, weaving through the crowd, was a bent, filthy man, with hair like a wet mop and rags on his back. When his gaze met Ashai’s, his eyes flashed silver.
“Nishi strike him.” Ashai risked the Nishi’iti curse out loud to protect himself from the foul creature. Shiners were people who fell prey to back alley magic—potions or powders or spells that gave them a kind of contaminated power that mimicked Nishi’s gift. But once the corrupted magic sunk its teeth into a victim, it never let go. Most went mad and killed themselves. Survivors were marked with the glow in their eyes for all to see. Abominations.
The first time Ashai had seen a shiner, he’d left the man’s corpse on the snow-swept side of a Nishi’iti mountain.
Those who would like to follow Chris online can do so here:
You can order a copy of Shadow Blade here: https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Blade-Denari-Chris-Barili/dp/1614759812/