Diagnosing Dr. Fantasy – An Interview with Philip Chase

If you’re a fan of epic fantasy or of Fantasy BookTube, our guest today will need no introduction. For the rest of you, Philip Chase is medievalist with a PhD in English Literature. He has taught courses on writing, medieval literature, and fantasy literature, among other things. His special interests include Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, nineteenth-century medievalism, comparative mythology, and fantasy. Other inspirations include time spent in places like Germany, the United Kingdom, Nepal, and the Northeast and Northwest of the United States.

Those of us who are fans of his eponymous YouTube channel, which is dedicated to exploring fantasy literature, have come to know him affectionately as Dr. Fantasy (after a regular segment on his channel). Many of us have also recently come to know him as the author of The Edan Trilogy, which begins with his recent debut, The Way of Edan. I was lucky enough to get an early chance to read, and I can tell you that his expertise and dedication shine through in every sentence of this wonderful book. I’m a fan twice over!

I also had the honor of hosting the discussion below, in an effort to ascertain the root causes—and lifelong consequences—of an affliction I share with today’s interviewee: a fervent love of fantasy. Please help me to welcome Dr. Fantasy himself, Philp Chase, to WU.

Vaughn Roycroft: You and I met in the comments of your YouTube channel. You’ve gained quite a large following there (rightfully so, in this fan’s humble opinion). Can you tell us your Fantasy BookTube origin story, and a bit about how running your channel fits into your writing life? It seems the channel has been a boon to the recent release of your debut. Did you have publication or platform-building in mind from the onset? How do you see the channel fitting into your career going forward?

Philip Chase: My YouTube channel began a little more than three years ago as an attempt to enhance a course I created and had been teaching for years at my college on fantasy literature. In the beginning, I imagined the channel as a forum where my students and I could exchange ideas on readings and on fantasy as a genre. I was completely ignorant of the community of book lovers on YouTube – I had no clue what a “TBR” or “tag video” was – but was delighted to find myself suddenly in the midst of so many people who love the genre that I believe is incredibly rich and deserving of critical exploration. My channel has always been part of the same passion that feeds my teaching, my reading, and my writing. It has turned out to be a lot of work to run a YouTube channel, but it rarely feels like work because of how much I enjoy reading and discussing fantasy literature and writing. Since I recently self-published the first book in a trilogy that I’ve been working on for more than 18 years, the channel has indeed become a boon for getting the word out. I would like to continue the conversations that take place on my channel within the “BookTube” community as a way to affirm my passion as a student of fantasy but also as a writer since it has become a wonderful way of interacting with my own readers. Most of all, I enjoy the meaningful friendships I have made while bonding over books on the platform.

VR: I can only imagine how much work goes into making your BookTube channel such a great resource, as well as a pleasure to watch. I often find myself marveling over it. If someone reading this was thinking of starting their own BookTube channel, what advice (or perhaps words of warning) might you offer them?

PC: Running a BookTube channel can be as time consuming as a full-time job, so it’s something that is, for me, fueled by passion for the subject. For a few people with large enough channels (much larger than mine), it is a full-time job. One key thing to know, I think, is that most (or all) of the things you can try to attract viewers and subscribers – to “grow your channel” – are things that take a lot of time and no small amount of determination. One example is putting out consistent content. Though I cannot claim deep familiarity with the mysterious algorithm, it’s common knowledge that regularity helps your views. Another example is the amount of content. In general, three videos per week will get more clicks and fuel more growth than one video per week. Yet another is putting production value into your videos, meaning lots of time spent editing and money spent buying nice equipment. And then there’s being responsive to folks who leave comments, which takes more time. And don’t forget thumbnails that grab people’s attention! You don’t have to do all these things, but I think you would have to do at least some of them very well to achieve a large following. That said, not everyone wants a large following. I’m on YouTube to exchange ideas about the fantasy genre and discuss books. Believe it or not, these are not the sexiest topics on the internet, and long form discussions (my favorite thing to do) are currently not in fashion, apparently. Deep analysis does not drive clicks. But I stick to that sort of thing anyway because it would be inauthentic — and likely a catastrophic failure — for me personally to make TikTok style videos.

VR: Your writing journey and mine are similar in that we’ve both written epic fantasy for a lengthy period, and have both completed several manuscripts in a series prior to publication. How long have you been writing your own fiction? Can you tell us why you chose fantasy, and what makes the genre special to you? I’ve noticed that several reviewers refer to your work as providing a fresh take on classic fantasy. Does that description match what you aimed to achieve? What advantages does the genre provide to what you’re seeking to accomplish in your storytelling?

PC: I feel like, rather than choosing fantasy, fantasy chose me. Or grabbed me and tossed me through a threshold into worlds of peril, beauty, and wonder. I haven’t felt much like returning ever since I wandered in the Shire, but of course fantasy also has much to say about our world and its struggles. When we return from imagined worlds to the one we inhabit, we often do so with a sense of clarity and new perspectives that help us in our struggles, even with an affirmation that we have meaning in a world that often tells us that we lack meaning. So, in some way, I have been working on my fiction ever since I read Lord of the Rings as a 12-year-old boy and found myself wanting to do for others what he did for me — something I would later learn is often called catharsis. I suppose that going off to learn Welsh, Old English, and Old Norse and becoming a medievalist was part of that journey too. But I actually began writing in 2004, and I started with a map. Not knowing what was going to happen in my story, I nevertheless felt the need to imagine a world in which it would happen. And I knew my protagonist’s name – Dayraven – which I stole from Beowulf (it’s not the only thing I stole from it, either).

Philp Chase’s Story Map

I’m not entirely sure what puts the “classic” in classic fantasy, but it’s safe to say that my influences include not only older writers in the genre like Tolkien and Le Guin, but that they go all the way back to the really old stuff, like the Old Norse sagas and The Mabinogion. So, perhaps some of the “classic” vibes rub off from there. More modern fantasy writers have also played a role in my ideas about storytelling. Some that I admire and read while I was writing include George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, and Steven Erikson.

VR: The Way of Edan opens with a brewing religious war as the overarching backdrop to the story. For me, the most powerful theme of the story has to do with the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Would you agree that it’s a central theme? Was this something you set out to explore thematically, or did you come upon it as you wrote? Did you seek to enhance your themes in the rewriting process?

PC: The theme of the consequences of mixing religion and politics was part of the story from the beginning. The title of the first book, The Way of Edan, is the name of a religion, and I chose a stained glass window for the cover art with the purpose of nodding toward how important religion is in the story. Being the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Protestant ministers, I suppose that religion is in my cultural DNA, so to speak. Though I do not participate in institutional religion myself, I still consider myself a spiritual person, and I have deep affection for the faith that I grew up in. As I look back, I can see how writing The Edan Trilogy has been my way of exploring how religion has been a source of both connection between people and divisions among people, a calling to love others and a rallying point for hatred of others, a tool for mercy and an excuse for bigotry. Like a lot of other things that involve humans, religion is complicated, and perhaps on some level I’m trying to work out how I feel about it.

VR: Do you think it’s important for writers to come to the page with ideas about themes they’d like to explore? Do you think that themes can be discovered along the way? Do you seek to enhance additional themes in your revision work?

PC: It depends on the writer. There’s not one correct way to write. That said, I tend to enjoy books that are theme-driven, and so I try to write that sort of thing. There are certain themes that I plan on including in the story, and then there are themes that the story tells me to include along the way. For me, it’s important to have at least some idea of the themes I’m exploring, and these tend not just to give weight to the story, but also to serve as the core around which the story coalesces. But I don’t think every writer needs to be conscious of themes before diving into the story.

VR: Our journeys are also similar in that we both sought a traditional publishing deal before self-publishing. How did you decide the time was right to move to self-publication? Do you have any regrets about not publishing sooner? Did you have hesitations about self-publishing at any point along the way? Are there any specific changes that have come about that helped to change your mind?

PC: I sought to publish traditionally and, like you, got as far as having an accomplished and talented agent in my corner. I have no regrets about that since my agent helped me to improve the story, and I’m grateful for that. When most publishers ignored my agent’s pitch or took close to a year just to acknowledge his submission, it dawned on me that the state of publishing right now means that, even in the unlikely event that a traditional publisher would agree to take on my books, it would probably take years for them to see the light of day. When I weighed in my YouTube channel as an advantage in getting the word out, I had a great conversation with my agent, who agreed that self-publishing was the best path forward for me. I have not regretted it for a moment. I enjoy the creative freedom it allows, such as deciding I want my book covers to be modelled on stained glass windows (something I doubt a traditional publisher would have agreed to). I get to decide my timeline, so I’m putting out the entire trilogy this year because I think my readers will appreciate not having to wait too long for the second and third books (if a traditional publisher has ever done that, I’m not aware of it).

Self-publishing means a lot more work for me, but I own the whole process. These days, with freelance editors, talented artists, and capable designers all available, self-published authors can match the quality of traditional publishing if they invest enough in the process. The other piece of the puzzle is marketing, but traditionally published authors have to hustle on social media and elsewhere just as much as self-published authors do, so I see little difference there. I have found the self-publishing  journey deeply fulfilling so far.

VR: You mention how your journey began with Tolkien at age 12, and I totally agree, that everything we do in life informs our storytelling. You’ve certainly made some fascinating choices along the way to publication. Still, both of us came to writing a little later in life, and then took no small amount of time to complete longer stories. I feel glad that I didn’t self-publish earlier, and that I went “through the wringer,” so to speak, of seeking a traditional deal. You allude to that when you say that your agent helped you to improve your story, but do you feel the same way? Would you agree that it’s somewhat of a privilege to spend many years developing a story as we did (not to mention the likelihood of needing a “day job”). With all of that in mind, what would you say to a young writer who is anxious to be published?

PC: I love Samuel Johnson’s ironic self-deprecation when he declared, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Like Johnson, I must be a blockhead. People who write, I think, do it because they are passionate about it. To get any good at it, you must have that passion because there is little other incentive for most of us. Yes, there are a few writers who do very well – well enough to earn a living doing it. But even they were likely blockheads for at least a while. They had to hone their craft and work hard and get lucky. I’m glad I got to spend more than eighteen years tweaking my trilogy, and I wouldn’t take back a moment of it. But I had to keep a day job all those years, and it is, fortunately, one that I enjoy the majority of the time. I hesitate to tell a young person to follow their bliss and go be a writer when most writers – young and old – need some other means of support to pay the bills. If it’s your passion, then make room for it in your life. If you work really hard and get lucky, you might get to do it for a living. But don’t quit that day job too soon.

VR: For writers with a finished manuscript, considering what route to publishing to take, what advice would you offer?

PC: If you’re willing and able to put in the money, time, and effort, self-publishing can be a very fulfilling and empowering process. But you have to be willing to wear all those hats, including the marketing hat, which is probably not something that most authors enjoy doing. If you don’t want to be your own manager, marketer, and administrative assistant, then traditional publishing is the route you should try.

VR: Now that The Way of Edan is out in the world, what’s next for you? When can readers expect more (this fan asks selfishly)? Will there be more once the trilogy is complete?

PC: I’m focused on putting out the trilogy this year, with a June 21 release date for book two (The Prophet of Edan) and a September 21 release date for book three (Return to Edan). After that, I hope to release a standalone sequel to the trilogy in 2024, and I already have written a complete draft of it. The title is While Darkness Gathers. Beyond that, I don’t have firm plans, but I have an idea for a prequel involving one of the characters introduced in The Way of Edan. The one thing I know is that I would love to keep writing!

VR: Thank you, Philip! I’m not sure what our diagnosis reveals, except perhaps that our shared affliction is uncurable. I’m guessing your fans will be pleased to hear it!

The Way of Edan is available now, and I highly recommend checking it out. You can connect with Philp via his BookTube channel, on Twitter, or via his website.

What about you, WU? Have you chosen your genre, or did your genre choose you? Would you consider starting a BookTube channel as a major component of your author platform? Are you pursuing a traditional publishing deal? At what point might you consider the indy route? How will you know when the time is right?