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August 23, 2013 / minusbar

Author Interview: David Walton (Quintessence)

Author Interview: David Walton (Quintessence)

A while back we reviewed a book called Quintessence. Today, the author has been kind enough to stop in and tell us a bit about himself and his work. Please read, enjoy, and meet our author guest for today, David Walton!


David Walton is a native of Pennsylvania and recipient of the of the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel, Terminal Mind. His latest work is Quintessence, published by Tor in March, 2013. You can read more about his life and work at


Over on A Daily Dose of R&R we dislike using the same standard bio. Instead, could you tell us a funny or interesting true story about yourself?

When my fourth daughter was born, I was so muddleheaded from lack of sleep that I put my third daughter’s name into the medical insurance system form.  Their computer system made no objection to the idea that I might have two daughters with the same first name.  This caused an incredible mix-up that lasted for months, as I made endless phone calls to Aetna trying to sort it out.  Apparently, their computer system couldn’t handle the idea of deleting or changing a name, nor moving the records.  I earned quite a reputation in the Aetna call center as I called over and over to get problems fixed.  (“Oh, I’ve heard of you!  You’re the father who forgot his daughter’s name…”)

What do you like to do with spare time when you’re not writing books for readers to love? Any hobbies you’d like to share?

For the most part, writing *is* what I do in my spare time.  I hold a full-time job as a software engineer for Lockheed Martin, and I have seven children at home–the oldest is twelve, and the youngest was just born this month!  I do, however, enjoy playing jazz piano, and I like solving–and sometimes creating–complex brain teasers.

Your first novel, Terminal Mind, was a science fiction book with advanced technology. Was it difficult making the switch to a more historical setting like the one in Quintessence?

No, not difficult at all.  I read a variety of books, and I never wanted to be the sort of author who wrote exactly the same kind of book all the time.  I love science, and I love history, and Quintessence is about both.  The characters are early scientists, exploring how their world works–though of course, their world works a lot different than our real world does.  That makes it an alternate history that is, in some ways, still a science fiction book that will appeal to those who love science as I do.

What type of research went into making Quintessence feel authentic for readers?

I love to read biographies of scientists, particularly those that go beyond the dry facts to the cultural upheaval that scientific discoveries caused.  What widely-held beliefs were challenged by this discovery?  Who embraced the discovery, and who resisted it and why? Quintessence captures some of the thrill of how science has, in the past, impacted the belief systems of a culture.  Of course, I also did a lot of factual resource into the times, what people wore, how they traveled, what London looked like at that time.  I also read several Philippa Gregory novels (e.g. The Other Boleyn Girl) when I was starting to write Quintessence, which helped me get into some of the detailed feel of the time period.

How much time went into writing this novel? Did you allow yourself any break books or was it full steam ahead?

I like to think I’m getting faster.  Terminal Mind took me 2.5 years to write, Quintessence took me 2 years.  I’ve written two more books since then (more on that later!), and each has taken me less time than the last.  Of course, I have no idea how much actual clocked time that adds up to.  I don’t have a regular writing schedule.  I just fit my writing in in stolen moments, early mornings, Saturday nap times, etc.

The cover for Quintessence is absolutely amazing. How much input did you have on what was depicted? Did you have any communication with the artist to ensure it matched your mental image?

I agree; I was thrilled by this marvelous cover, and kudos to Kekai Kotaki for creating it.  As is usual when working with the major NY publishers, however, I had absolutely no input on what was depicted.  Covers are very much a marketing decision–a way to communicate to potential readers that this book will be like others they may have read and enjoyed–and publishers aren’t usually very interested in what authors think.  However, if done well, an author ought to like the result, since if anybody, the author ought to be in his own target audience!  Tor did a great job with this one.  If I hadn’t written Quintessence, I would definitely be picking it up off the shelf!

What made you decide to name the eternal-life-granting substance quintessence? Is there any historical historical or personal significance behind the name?

There is definitely an historical significance.  Aristotle identified four main essences that Earthly things were composed of–earth, air, water, and fire–as well as a fifth essence (quint-essence) that was the stuff of the heavens.  Aristotle’s conception of the sciences dominated European thought for the next millennium.  It wasn’t until Isaac Newton that the incredible realization came that the heavenly bodies actually followed the same natural laws as Earthly ones, instead of being something entirely other.  I simply combined the idea that the Earth was flat and this idea of a special heavenly substance, and wondered what might happen at the edge of the world, when the quintessence of the sky dipped down close to the Earth.

Sinclair, the alchemist, is a complex character. Did he come to you in a flash of brilliance, or how did the idea for him come about?

Sinclair initially developed from my admiration of the character of Mr. Norrell in Susannah Clarke’s masterful novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Norrell is one of the book’s two protagonists, but he is petty, self-centered, narrow-minded, easily manipulated, and obsessed.  These traits lead him to make a foolish contract with a powerful spirit, and to cover up the fact that he has done so, leading to tremendous harm.  Sinclair is, ultimately, a very different character than Norrell, but I wanted to create a character with the same complexity, one who would drive the plot forward both by the strength of his character and by his failings.

Was there a particular passage or phrase in Quintessence that you  especially love? A character’s line, maybe? If so, please share which and why.

There are many passages I love in Quintessence.  The conversations between Sinclair and Marcheford contain some of my favorite thoughts and lines. I’m particularly proud, however, of the Prologue, which I think is one of the best novel openings I’ve ever written.  It immediately sucks the reader into the mystery of the tale, and sets the stage for the conflict to come.

How did it feel writing about the Inquisition? What made you decide to make it a part of your story?

Part of what I wanted to do with Quintessence was to explore a middle ground of thoughtful, reasoned Christianity that accepts the reality of doubt and uncertainty as part of life, but isn’t afraid to face challenges to faith and think through them. This is in contrast to pure rejection of God on one hand (as represented by Christopher Sinclair) and an unreasoning, blind, narrow-minded faith that maintains belief by pretending things are more black-and-white and obvious than they really are (as represented by the Inquisition).  Using the Inquisition to play the role of the Evil Fundamentalists may seem a little stereotypical, but that was part of the point.  I needed an extreme of religious thought and practice to provide a counterpoint to the more reasoned, honest faith of my other believing characters.

Could you share something that significantly changed from a previous draft of Quintessence? Maybe a different original beginning or a character that had to be omitted.

One early and significant change was that Joan initially came along on the voyage instead of being left behind in London.  Unfortunately, someone who had been a strong and interesting character suddenly became dull, since she had no real role to fill on the voyage, and nothing to do but complain.  It was my own wife who suggested that she be left behind and come later, with the Spanish, a change that made that character and her role in the book much more powerful.

So what is next for you? Any projects you’re willing share a tease of?

At this point, I’m writing faster than publication can keep up with.  Since finishing Quintessence, I’ve completed a sequel called Quintessence Sky, which is currently being read by my editors at Tor.  I’m excited about this sequel, which explores a lot more of the island’s secrets, as well as starting to impact the politics of Europe with quintessence magic.

I’ve also written a quantum physics murder mystery called Superposition that my agent is showing to several publishers.  Superposition is a mind-bender with the kind of reality-twisting feel of films like Inception or The Prestige.  The main character, on trial for murder, must prove his innocence and save his family from a quantum creature that can alter reality.  It’s difficult for the characters (and the reader!) to figure out what really happened when reality might change at any time. This is, again, a quite different book from either Terminal Mind or Quintessence, but I think readers will find that if they like my writing, they will find a lot to like in this one as well.  Next, I will be forging ahead with a sequel to Superposition called Supersymmetry.

Lastly, a bit of a fun question…  If you had a Yacht, what would you name it, and why?

I’d name it the QUINTESSENCE, of course! 🙂



Please checkout our review of this novel HERE! 

Imagine an Age of Exploration full of alchemy, human dissection, sea monsters, betrayal, torture, religious controversy, and magic. In Europe, the magic is thin, but at the edge of the world, where the stars reach down close to the Earth, wonders abound. This drives the bravest explorers to the alluring Western Ocean. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares only about one thing: quintessence, a substance he believes will grant magical powers and immortality. And he has a ship.


A Daily Dose of R&R


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