How Dyslexia, Linguistics, & Medical Science Inspired Blake Charlton’s Spellwright

Spellwright by Blake CharltonWritten by Blake Charlton

At the age of twelve, I still couldn’t read fluently. This despite years of special ed., endless parental tutoring, and one disastrous campaign to establish Scrabble™ as the family pastime. (Blake, honey, I didn’t think it was possible but you’ve finished game with a negative score.) And yet, eighteen years later, I am a medical student about to publish a novel. What catalyzed such a transformation?

Answer: fantasy literature.

When I was young, my parents read to me most nights. I found it enjoyable, but nothing special. Then we started Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. A quick fact: Mom and Dad are both psychiatrists. (Yes. The answer to whatever question you’re wondering right now is ‘yes.’ Trust me.) So, no surprise, they noticed how much Jordan ensorcelled me and began reading less each night. Often they stopped just when Rand and company most desperately needed to escape the Wheel of Time’s seemingly inexorable squishing power. I was driven wildly, floridly insane with frustration and focused my every desire onto reading faster. I began sneaking Jordan into special ed. study hall, then Ursula LeGuin and Terry Brooks, Tad Williams and Robin Hobb, and so on and so on until suddenly I was a bookworm, then a overly earnest geek, then a too rabid pre-med.

At that point, I didn’t want overcome my disability so much as crush it into a million tiny and anthropomorphically cringing pieces. (If you were the guy sitting behind me in Cellular Biology: Sorry, man. My bad.) In biochemistry, I was struck by how much nucleotides and polypeptides are like written languages. In a sense, they consist of letters and words that might be translated or transcribed. They might be rendered useless or harmful by a misspelling—a mutation. Then, while sitting in a dull English class, every disparate syllable of my life interlocked to form the long, lovely sentences of a daydream.

What if written language were more like molecular language? What if you could peel a paragraph off the page and make it physically read? Could you pick your teeth with a sentence fragment? Thrust a sharply worded invective at an enemy’s throat? How would physical language shape culture, technology, history?

As my daydream grew I escaped my cold, pre-med self and remembered the wonder that only good speculative literature imparts. Tolkien created Middle-earth for his languages; could I imagine a world built by—not around—its languages? More importantly, could I find a character whose story was intertwined with this world? Instantly, my disability provided the answer.

Welcome to the world of Spellwright, where luminescent magical languages come off the page and shape themselves into powerful spells. Authors can cast information across thousands of miles or write creatures made purely of text. Into this world is born Nicodemus Weal, a wizardly apprentice who can produce vast amounts of magical language. However, Nico was born with a disability so severe that any text he touches misspells in erratic, sometimes dangerous ways. When a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell, Nicodemus quickly becomes the primary suspect of the crime. Hunted by both investigators and a hidden killer, Nicodemus must race to discover the truth about the murder, the nature of magic, and himself.

I was so passionate about this story that after college I delayed applying to medical school to write while moonlighting as an English teacher, a medical writer, and a JV football coach. During this time I struggled with my own conception of disability and came to see that some disabilities never vanish, that they must be overcome. Armed with this realization, I matriculated into medical school and completed Spellwright. More importantly, I stopped pursuing a career in medicine and literature just to ‘disprove’ my disability and started writing and studying in hopes of healing and inspiring others as I was inspired and healed by fantasy literature.

Spellwright (978-0-7653-1727-8; $24.99) by Blake Charlton is available from Tor this March. Visit the author’s website at blakecharlton.com.

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