So. You’ve been diagnosed with Stage 3B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, battled through the poison of chemotherapy and the emotional ups and downs that come with it, and incurred a crippling $200,000 medical bill. What would you do?
Well, if you’re Shawn Speakman, you create a publishing company, publish your own book, pull together some of the world’s top fantasy writers and create ‘Unfettered,’ an anthology of fantasy short stories to help cover his medical costs and those of others in need.
In 2011 Shawn became the bastard thorn in the side of cancer and medical debt. Having already survived an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma ten years earlier, Shawn did not let this Hodgkin’s diagnosis get him down. After tests and an invasive biopsy, Shawn found that he had a new and different cancer in different parts of his body—in the lymph nodes in his neck and body plus hot spots in his spleen. After a gruelling 6-month course of chemotherapy, Shawn survived to tell the tale and CALM writer James Nock caught up with him to hear his inspirational story…
James Nock: Emotionally, how did the initial diagnosis of your ‘Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma’ ten years ago effect you?
Shawn Speakman: ‘Honestly, it hit me pretty hard. I was twenty-five then, with my whole life in front of me, and here I was being asked to fight for my life. I remember crying so hard I couldn’t see, after I received my diagnosis. But after an hour something inside me switched over and I became the arrogant bastard that my friends and family know me as today! Cancer was not going to kill me. I would kill it and make it pay painfully. Once that switch flipped, I was fine and those who knew me best knew I was going to be okay despite the aggressive nature of the disease’.
Shawn’s Non Hodgkins Lymphoma is a fairly uncommon cancer but invasive and aggressive all the same. According to the NHS in the UK about 12,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year.
JN: How did you find the drive to fight on with daily life after your second cancer diagnosis?
SS: Not having a choice helps! But seriously, daily life is the exact reason why someone should fight. It’s the small things in life that we should look forward to and every day I woke up thinking: “This is going to be my best day.” I made that a reality through sheer force of will. As a child, I had several different odd and rare illnesses and confronting those at an early age really helped define me as a person. I learned to enjoy life, be happy, see the silver lining in every dark cloud. I’m hyper-aware of the world around me and the people who inhabit it. Because of that, I work hard at making other people’s lives better. That provides a gratification in my life that I can’t express in words’.
JN: During this tough and very anxious time how did you keep your head above water?
SS: ‘I mentioned this earlier, I’m a bastard. People don’t know that when they meet me and many of my friends and family would scoff at the notion, but I truly am a first-rate jerk. Cancer did not stand a chance. And even if it did, I was going to give it my best shot, be damned. My mother was very important to me. She visited often and helped when she could. When I had a chemotherapy food craving, author Peter Orullian would deliver and keep my company. I had a lot of mother hens watching over me. It helped keep this bastard alive in more ways than one’.
From a young age Shawn was drawn to the worlds set out in fantasy fiction and became an avid explorer of other realms.
JN: Which books introduced you to the world of fantasy fiction?
SS: ‘I am a child of the 80’s, no doubt about it. I first read the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander and I was immediately hooked but it was really Terry Brooks and The Sword Of Shannara that cemented my love of fantasy. I loved that book from the very moment I started reading it. His Shannara series led me to Stephen R. Donaldson, Anne McCaffrey, Barbara Hambly, Stephen King’s Dark Tower and dozens more. I need great characters and the writing has to be top-notch. If those elements are there, I’m happy’.
JN: What drove you to create Grim Oak Press during your illness?
SS: ‘Treating cancer is expensive. I didn’t have health care due to a pre-existing condition so I had no choice but to fight back in any way I could. Luckily, I had friends to lean on who also happened to be some of the best fantasy writers working today. They bolstered me, they helped drive me, and the end result was Unfettered, a fantasy anthology I couldn’t be more proud of. It just so happened that the anthology helped my own writing career – publishing The Dark Thorn as my practice book helped pave the way.’
With the ‘Unfettered’ project, Shawn was soon to become free from the bonds of debt and the ruthlessness of an unsympathetic system. With determination and stubbornness Shawn managed to cobble together a few legends of the fantasy fiction world. Terry Brooks came on board first, then Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson and Jacqueline Carey and soon, many other authors followed, each contributing a short story. Shawn had tried to get The Dark Thorn published before Grim Oak Press became a reality, which proved to be a minefield of disappointment. Shawn was not going to let his dream of getting published die with each rejection letter, however…
JN: How was the publishing process for you?
SS: ‘Getting published is not for the faint hearted. I learned a lot of lessons early on. The first lesson I learned was this: Editors are just people. Whilst they may be well-read people, they also have opinions and those opinions often don’t match up with readers. The Dark Thorn was rejected by most of the major publishing houses. Then cancer entered my life and I didn’t have a choice but to publish it. What I quickly found was that those editors were wrong. Readers have absolutely loved The Dark Thorn. Who is more right? A small handful of editors, or thousands of readers? I’ll stick with the readers on this one!’
JN: So tell us more about ‘The Dark Thorn’?
SS: I wrote The Dark Thorn as my answer to the question: “What if the Crusades against the Middle East were instead against very real fey creatures in Britain?” I wanted to explore religion and extremism and that was the best way for me to do it. I originally wrote The Dark Thorn from the point of view of a young man named Bran Ardall. but when I gave the first draft to Terry Brooks, he pointed out I should tell the story from a completely different point of view – Richard McAllister, a broken knight in need of spiritual saving for past transgressions. It took me 8 months to do rewrites but Terry was right. It is a far better book now’.
JN: So what do you think it is about you as a person that enabled you to pull all of this together whilst being so ill?
SS: ‘I’m tenacious to a fault. If I set my sights on something, I will get there eventually. I have a character named Merle in The Dark Thorn who can see probabilities in the future. That’s not the same as seeing into the future, but more about being able to envisage the odds of events going one way or another. I have that gift, I think.
It was in 2013, whilst still under the strains of paying off his own debt, Shawn decided that ‘Unfettered’ was also to become a firm starting point in Shawn’s quest to pay it forward by helping other writers in a similar financial situations to himself. He began by supporting a fellow fantasy author who found himself in substantial debt due to being hospitalised by an infection.
Aided by generous donations from likeminded authors, Grim Oak Press hosted auctions that helped to pay 100% of the incurred debt. ‘Unfettered’ was becoming a runaway success. The anthology had done what Shawn had meant it to do. It had helped another in need. Shawn’s ideology was in assent and quickly Shawn was to be rewarded for his generosity and passionate drive: ‘I am now debt free and eager to help others become debt free’.
Following the project’s success, a second Unfettered anthology is in the pipeline with the aim to grow the fundraising aspect of the Grim Oak mission. Shawn is continuing to use the ‘Unfettered’ series to help writers and artists struggling under the weight of medical debt in the US. Shawn is currently in remission and continues to follow his appetite for fantasy fiction as a writer, publisher, editor and a passionate supporter of his peers.
The last word must go to Shawn: It is important for all of us to remember that life is a journey and every second of every day is precious. Take the time to look at a blade of grass. Take the time to listen to birds singing. Take the time to tell someone you love them for exactly who they are. The moment matters most’.
Find out more about Shawn Spearman, Grim Oak Press, his first novel ‘The Dark Thorn’, as well as the progress of the Unfettered anthologies here: