Alexandra Rowland on their hilarious new fantasy novel, Running Close to the Wind

"Comedy is so, so important, and we just don’t talk about that often enough"


Laugh out loud, chaotic and heaps of fun,  Running Close to the Wind, the new novel from Alexandra Rowland, is a fantasy romp filled with shenanigans and heart. To celebrate its release, we had the pleasure of chatting with Alexandra and learnt all about their inspirations, writing process and more.

Hi Alexandra! I’m so excited to have you on the site today to celebrate the release of your new fantasy novel, Running Close to the Wind. For readers who may just be hearing about the book, how would you best describe it to them?

Hello, thanks for having me! Running Close to the Wind is an adult fantasy book about Avra Helvaci (an absolute gremlin of a man whom I found in a dumpster behind a Denny’s, where he was eating wet pizza boxes and being bullied by some possums) and his hijinks on the high seas while he and a crew of his pirate friends face down sea serpents, haunted giant turtles, and a ferociously-contested cake competition as they steal and attempt to find a buyer for the single most valuable secret in the world.

It’s a little bit Six of Crows and a little bit Our Flag Means Death, and it is comedic in the vein of Terry Pratchett—meaning lots of jokes but also a lot of heart, paired with an underlying core of righteous anger. It’s also set in Chantiverse (the same world-setting as my previous books), so even though this is a standalone, readers who have been with me for a while can look forward to some Easter eggs of little references to characters, places, and events that they might recognize.

Can you tell us a little about your inspirations behind the book?

Pirates are cool! What more needs to be said? 🙂 When I first started writing it about six or seven years ago, Black Sails was really big at the time, and so for five years I kept trying to write it as a Serious Gritty Drama aaaand… couldn’t get past the first 15 or 20 pages. I was just spinning my wheels in the mud. It wasn’t until Our Flag Means Death came out that something clicked and I suddenly realized, Ah! It wants to be a COMEDY!

I mentioned Terry Pratchett above—the Discworld books were a significant inspiration for me as well, and they were certainly the main body of my curriculum in learning to write comedy. All the best comedy comes from a place of righteous fury, and Pratchett knew that in his bones: he was angry about exploitative capitalism, about bodily autonomy, about the pointlessness of war… But he also knew that laughter is one of the most powerful and underrated tools that we have in the fight against injustice. A king does not necessarily care about an entire mob of people standing at the gates with pitchforks, because he can just send out his army to clear them off. But just one little shithead in the marketplace mocking him and telling fart jokes? That’s upsetting, and even having the jokester arrested and executed doesn’t really help. Being laughed at sticks in people’s heads like nothing else.

The other thing about comedy is that it keeps you going in hard times. Some folks are very serious and think that you shouldn’t ever look for things to laugh at in dark situations, but those people are the Humor Cops and should therefore be laughed at in the marketplace. The reality is that no matter how dark and difficult and disheartening the situation, as long as you can laugh, there’s still a part of you that’s free. And pirates are all about freedom.

Despite being set in the same universe Running Close to the Wind has a different tone from the previous Chantiverse. What was it like making this tonal shift and did it change your writing process at all?

Oh, see, I disagree! 🙂 In my perspective (having been living in my own head and getting to watch it happen from up close), it’s not so much a different tone or a shift as much as it is an evolution and blossoming of elements that were already present in my writing—it’s sort of like playing with the same set of LEGO bricks and finding new ways to put them together that emphasize different things. I’ve had at least moments and sparks of humor in all my works, but in Running Close to the Wind, they’re given center stage. I’ve written several times about petty, small-minded, uncreative people incompetently taking the “villain character” role because the actual antagonist is something huge and abstract, such as oppressive institutional powers (governments, religious institutions, etc), and I’m doing that again here. I’ve written about people who care about something saying out loud on the page what it is that they believe in most passionately, and I’m definitely doing that again here. I’ve written about economics and money from several different perspectives, and womp womp, here it is again from another new angle! So yes, it’s still all the same LEGO bricks for your classic Alexandra Rowland novel. 😉

But alright, yes, you’re right that I haven’t written straight-up comedy to quite this degree yet. What was it like to do it? Overall easier, I think. It takes so much less energy for me to come up with funny moments compared to gritty dramatic ones. When I was writing, I kept playing a game with myself where I’d say, “Okay, the next scene is where they arrive at the pirate republic. What could make it MORE? How about a dangerous reef that shifts around because it’s on the backs of some giant turtles. More than that? Ghosts of sailors, shipwrecked on the reefs of the giant turtles, whom the crew has to appease before they can make it past to the safety of the harbor. Push it farther, even MORE? Avra’s having hiccups the whole time.” Oftentimes in writing, I’m striving to practice rather tight precision and control, so it was exhilaratingly freeing to go for maximalism, to be always looking for nooks and crannies to fit in just one more joke, even if it was just Avra making some weird mouth noise like “Hrgkgm.”

It also made the handful of quieter, more emotional scenes hit harder, even when there were still jokes in them—though I am worried about the reception those scenes will get and whether people will realize that the presence of jokes doesn’t change how genuinely emotional the characters are during them. Personally, I can be ugly-crying with tears streaming down my face and still interrupt myself to laugh about something (ask my therapist, this happens all the time), so that layering of humor and pain felt very real to my lived experience… But we shall see how readers feel about it!

The other thing that the comedic tone changed about my writing process was that it went a long way to reducing friction, especially in the last third. By friction I mean the tedious, exhausted slog towards the finish line, when you’ve got a dozen plates to juggle and seventeen plot threads to keep track of that all have to be woven together and neatly resolved for an exhilarating payoff and a satisfying ending. In the past, I’ve often had trouble keeping up morale during that last third, but with Running Close to the Wind, it was just this headlong race downhill to the finish line that felt strangely effortless and lighter-than-air. I wrote the last 50,000 words in seven days—and 20,000 of that in two days—which is a pace that astonishes even me. I’ve never achieved that before, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to again (and honestly I might not have been able to do it then if I hadn’t been listening to “Molto Piratissimo” by Two Steps From Hell on infinite repeat for 10 hours a day to keep me going). It was a perfect storm of having arranged all my fireworks and then being able to just light the last fuse, stand back, and watch the big cascading finale of the show.

(That said, I have just checked with a couple of my friends and asked them to keep me honest, and they said that before I reached that last third, I was still in my desponds on a “nightly basis” for three or four months about how I was worried the jokes weren’t funny and that the book wasn’t any good. I sincerely have no recollection of this, but I trust them that it did happen, and I think it makes sense in hindsight—writing a good set-up is so much harder than writing a good punchline, because it is the set-up that makes the punchline funny.)


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There are countless brilliantly ridiculous and chaotic scenes in the book but did you have a favourite moment to write or one you’re most excited for people to read?

Thank you! But oh man, that’s such a tough choice. Possibly the cake competition, firstly because it’s such a celebration of the fact that even a community of outcasts can still have a culture, one that ties them together and gives them an identity as a people, one that is fierce and joyous and meaningful and important… And secondly, because it’s an expression of a theme that runs through a lot of my works, which is a very affectionate philosophy that humans are humans no matter where you go (messy, imperfect, petty, complicated, self-important, opinionated, human) and that’s a rather beautiful and lovable thing.

If not that one, then possibly the scene where Julian (the hot monk with an inconvenient vow of celibacy) makes a big dramatic speech about his relationship to his faith. Possibly the very last scene, which I’m really proud of. Possibly the description of Captain Teveri’s black-and-silver coat and what it means to them. Possibly Avra’s sea shanty.

The humour in Running Close to the Wind was so much fun and something you don’t always seen in the fantasy genre. Do you have any reading recommendations for fans who loved the book and are looking for more comedic fantasy reads?

Anyway, back to Terry Pratchett again— 😉

No but seriously: Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment are my favorite of his books, and I think they’re a great place to start if you haven’t read any Discworld before. There’s also a really fantastic foundation of humor in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, and I love To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is hilarious, and (for a more scifi flavor) so are several of the Vorkosigan Saga books by Lois McMaster Bujold—and if you loved the main character of either one, you will also have room in your heart for Avra Helvaci.

I think you’re right that we don’t always see humor in fantasy, and… I have big opinions about that. Listen, I was rereading the first couple chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring literally just yesterday—and I was genuinely surprised at the amount of humor in there! How is it that we as a society forget how funny Tolkien was?!??! The Lord of the Rings is arguably the seminal text of the entire fantasy genre, and comedy is carrying those first two chapters on its back! Nothing happens but a party and a bunch of absolute zingers about small-town nosy neighbors! I know I remember jokes and moments of lightheartedness later in the books as well, but we just… forget about those parts in favor of the epic sweep of the story. We distill fantasy down to heroes fighting an epic evil and taking on burdens that no one else can take, and it feels so very important to us that these Chosen Ones must be taken seriously, so therefore they must be Serious. No jokes allowed.

I just think that’s a shame. Humor is part of the human experience. Almost everyone has SOME kind of sense of humor, but I think that sometimes when we’re trying to write about really serious and challenging topics, humor is the first thing on the chopping block—even though it doesn’t have to be.

Comedy is so, so important, and we just don’t talk about that often enough, possibly because it’s so easy to toss it aside and dismiss it as frivolous or trivial and claim that it’s not saying anything of substance (because clearly if it was something of substance, it would be grim and difficult to read and painful, right?). And yet… Going back to what I said before about comedy and freedom: If you’ve got a character going through something wretchedly awful, even if it is facing down the darkest and ugliest parts of society, I truly believe that the most empowering act of agency you can give them is the opportunity to laugh. It’s a light in the dark; it’s the guttering candle of their soul.

Finally, do you currently have any projects in the works and if so, is there anything you can tell us about?

I do! For anyone who loved A Taste of Gold and Iron, I’ve just published a novella sequel called Tadek and the Princess, which is about everyone’s favorite side character—it is a reflection on familial love and grief and unwavering loyalty enduring silently for years, and I made myself cry 500 times when I was writing it. (You can get it anywhere you usually get your books, but if you’d like to support me a bit more, the best place to buy the paperback is IngramSpark or Allstora and the best place to get the ebook is my Patreon shop.)

Later this year, you can also look forward to even more in the Chantiverse, including a new novel in the Seven Gods series called Yield Under Great Persuasion, which is a romance/fantasy about a prickly tea shop owner named Tam Becket and his childhood archnemesis who has been stubbornly in love with him since they were nine—and it is about the difficulty of atonement and forgiveness, and the rocky journey through personal growth from pessimistic, cynical self-isolation to a point where it’s even possible to let yourself receive the love that people have always been trying to give you. Imagine an “Am I The Asshole” Reddit post where the answer is conclusively, “Yes, you’re for sure the asshole, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve empathy and understanding and the chance to grow and do better.”

There are a few other exciting projects in the works—I’ve given sneak peeks for some of them on my Patreon, but if you’re more of a wait-and-read-it-all-at-once type, I’d recommend signing up for my newsletter or joining my official Discord server to get a heads-up for new releases.

But in the meantime, of course, go preorder Running Close to the Wind! And thanks again for having me, United by Pop!

Get your copy of Running Close to the Wind by Alexandra Rowland here.

1 Comment
  1. Risa says

    Oh man, that bit about the ability to laugh being the guttering candle of one’s soul during dark and awful times. The number of truly terrible jokes I’ve made about going through cancer, and my husband getting killed at 33, and losing damn near everything I owned to a real-life version of Hawkeye’s Trust-A-Bro during the pandemic is mind boggling, and you *have* to be able to laugh when everything is falling apart around you otherwise you’ll be crushed in the debris. Most of the works that have carried me through the most awful times in my life have been humorous, and without all those amazing writers gifting the world with their comedy, especially around hard subjects, I’m not sure I’d still be here to write this. We as a society really need to value humor, and those who write it, so very much more.

    (Also LESS THAN A WEEK TO RELEASE OF RCW I CANNOT WAIT!!! Man do I need some humor right now…)

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