across Walter Sorrels’ swords
website through another talented smith, Jesus Hernandez.
At my first visit to his site I missed the link which would reveal one of
his other facets, that of the writer.
My first encounter with a smith-writer or a writer that makes swords as
well, encompassing the old saying of the pen in one hand, the sword in the
other, which the great Portuguese Poet Luís de Camões (1524-1580),
immortalized in his lyrics, both as a poet and a swordsman.
In my permanent quest for people of interest, Walter emerged as a very
fine and friendly human being of fine and open character with a versatile
mind. As the interview unfolded, I could see a most interesting mind with
the great ability of expressing itself.
Walter Sorrells wrote and saw about a dozen novels published and won the
Edgar award for his thriller
Power of Attorney.
But rather than attempting to write a biography on Walter, I believe
asking him is the best way.
BLADESIGN: Walter, it is inevitable that knowing something more
personal about you will be a very good introduction to a wider audience.
Care to talk a bit about yourself, where were you born what was the
journey that brought you into writing, being a martial artist and making
WS: My father is a writer, so I grew up around writing. My father's
side of the family have been journalists and lawyers going back to the
beginning of the 19th Century. So every man in my patrilineage has made
their living with words for at least six generations. I guess writing is
in the blood. My mother's people were practical. I got my sort of tactile
and physical craft from my mom. She's a minister. But she has also been a
potter, a sculptor, and is now an extraordinary quilter. I was born in
Nashville, Tennessee lived most of my childhood in South Carolina, so I'm
pretty much a child of the American South. I lived overseas for while when
I was a kid, though, and went to college in the northeast, so I have an
uneasy relationship to the South. I've been involved in the Japanese
martial arts for about fifteen years. That led me to sword making.
BLADESIGN: Is there any kind of connection, obvious or more
subterranean, where you can bridge from a novel into the making of a
WS: My first response was to say, no. But the more I thought about
it, sure, there's a connection between everything that's important in our
lives. I always feel a little sorry for people who wall off parts of their
lives. This part is about money; this part is about comfort; this part is
social obligations; and then this little sliver left over here is my real
life. Well, no, it's not -- not if you deed the rest of it to forces you
don't believe in. So...all I can say is I really liked weapons and making
things from a very early age. I liked digging holes. I liked setting
fires. I liked breaking things. I read a lot. I was a good kid, but not
very good at faking enthusiasm for what my teachers wanted me to do. Now I
make up stories about violence and its human implications. My heroes and
heroines are people who don't take well to authority. Not rebels. People
who ignore idiots. Making swords seems to be part of the same wad of oddly
connected urges: desire to see justice done; an unstifeable
urge to create; fascination with violence; pleasure in hitting things;
incapacity to do what I'm told.
BLADESIGN: Very interesting. Would you consider yourself as a
quixotesque thinker? Where would you root this pleasure, or is it an urge,
to hit things? Is that a manifestation of a justice wish, a sound signal
to be heard that you hate faking enthusiasm for what your teachers wanted
you to do? Kind of a bunch of entangled questions.
WS: I'll address the hitting question: Look, even the most docile
animals attack each other when mating time comes around. And human beings
ain't exactly bovines. We're a predator species. We have violence in our
blood. It's how our ancestors prevailed in a hard world. It's our
birthright. I hate people who pretend we don't have these urges. Sworn
pacifists are probably the angriest people on the planet. Rigidity of
thought always comes from fear and anger.
BLADESIGN: How was your initiation in the craft of fire and steel? Are
you self taught or did you learnt from another smith?
WS: I'm almost entirely self-taught. I've been to seminars and
classes...but nothing approaching an apprenticeship. Most of my
learning has come through the written word and through practical
experience. As a baseline, I've read pretty nearly every word
written in the English language about blade-making, and I own
most of the books written in English about the Japanese sword. I
read about swords and knives nearly every day. Not dutifully,
but just because I enjoy it. But that's only a starting point.
To be a good craftsman, you have to be attuned to process.
Results (often failure) have to be viewed as integral to that
process. Instead of saying, "That blade cracked; what a failure
I am," you have to say, "Ah! Excellent! The blade cracked, now
I've learned something." The hardest lesson I learned as a
writer was to throw away anything I wrote
billet for a customer
that was crap. You have to be ruthless with yourself. But without
self-reproach. People who aren't psychologically equipped for that
will never really excel at creating things. It's a feedback loop:
work, fail, learn, work, succeed. Then you move on to the next
level, the next challenge. The minute you relax and stop learning,
you're dead. Creatively speaking anyway.
BLADESIGN: Interesting indeed. Your last statement is exactly what I
believe in when it concerns creativity and life, which I cannot dissociate
one from another. How does the writer define creativity in the smith? Is
there a creative process in each blade?
WS: Every time you make something, it's a creative process. Making
a loaf of bread involves creative decisions. Swords are infinitely subtle
objects. Compared to an oil painting or a novel, a sword is a ridiculously
austere canvas. I like the subtle decisions the most. Fine tuning lines,
truing things up, tinkering until something looks right. Or until I get
sick of it. (That's a much-neglected aspect of creative endeavor. People
tend to focus on method and intention when they talk about creativity. In
other words, what techniques will yield perfect realization of an idea.
But actually, that never happens. Perfection is perfectly elusive. At a
certain point in any creative process, you throw up your hands and quit!
Otherwise you never get anything done. So knowing when to quit and go on
to the next thing is an important part of the creative process.)
BLADESIGN: Each smith sees the fire and the steel in a different way
feels it in his very personal way. How would the writer describe what the
smith feels when he sees a red hot blade and all the subsequent process?
Is this by any chance an alchemic process repeated thousands of times
through centuries? Is it something else, and if it is, what is it?
WS: For me the fire and the hammer are the core of the
experience of being a smith. You actually spend much more time
grinding things than forging. But the forging is the most joyful
and intense part of it for me. Grinding is just work. I spent
several years making knives by the stock removal (i.e. grinding)
process before I started forging. I enjoyed it for a while, but
eventually my interest flagged. Once I
started forging, though, it just was like falling in love with
the right person. The tumblers all just clicked. One of the
things I love about forging is that you create by deforming and
It's creation and destruction in the very same moment. Very
create by deforming
The rhythm and
concentration and discipline of it...but also the freedom and sense of
skirting danger at every moment. You're always on the edge of disaster.
Not figuratively: you literally can maim yourself every moment if you stop
paying attention. It demands focus. Everything else goes away. It's just
you, the fire, the steel, the hammer...and the idea of some beautiful
thing not yet formed. Don't you love that about martial arts, Antonio --
that simultaneous combination of discipline and chaos, control and
explosiveness, creation and destruction?
BLADESIGN: Indeed I feel somehow that what man creates, and I refer to
the martial arts and to your definition of the combination of discipline
and chaos, control and explosiveness, creation and destruction, isn’t all
this the definition of the Cosmos itself? How much is man near the divine
in his different expressions? Would you consider that dwelling in the
realm of almost molten iron or steel, a cosmic or cosmogonic craft? You
know, the elements involved, the archetypes that preside over it, the
WS: That's a lot to tackle! But, sure, I think there are echoes of
larger forces in the smallest things we do. But when you're forging steel,
all you're thinking about is the next hammer blow. And maybe that's the
secret of it. There's nothing less divine than straining toward the
divine. I think that's what those idiots who just blew up the subway in
London don't understand. Do you see what I'm saying?
BLADESIGN: While there is this powerful expression of ideas and fluent
discourse aimed at the conflict of forces and wills, I found working with
you a most pleasant experience, a most open person. Through life I have
met great artists who were very violent or, to phrase it better, whose
work was imbued with a certain kind of violence that was that refusal to
obey, that statement of independence. Yet they were all very kind, gentle.
Would you consider the work also as a release of tensions, something of a
WS: Maybe. I was raised to be polite and to respect other people. I
don't know why some people find that so hard. I think that openness to the
world is part of being an artist. And that includes openness to other
people's opinions and experiences. That's not the same as knuckling under
or letting yourself be screwed. It's just that it never hurt anyone to
say, "Thank you" or "Please." But I hesitate to make general rules. A lot
of great artists were terrible, terrible, cantankerous, awful people.
Maybe in my case artistic work (in the long run I don't care as much about
the product as the labor and the dreaming) is a way of yoking a lot of
disparate and conflicting impulses into a coherent whole. That's a little
different from catharsis. Catharsis implies a great deal more mental
complexity than I have. Craftsmanship is just my way of handling obsessive
BLADESIGN: Speaking of craftsmanship now; each smith has his own touch,
his own signature in everything he does. If you were to define
your Japanese style swords, how would you choose to do? Are they
generally on the light or the heavy side? Any type of trademark
you would like to highlight? Crispness of lines, your preferred
sugata, your own favorite hamon?
WS: I don't think I really
have a trademark. I tend to make swords that are similar in sugata
to gunto blades -- but longer and a little heavier. I like choji
hamons. I prefer shinogi-zukuri blades. But they are probably
require twice as much work as hira-zukuri blades. Maybe more than
that. You have to work shinogi-zukuri blades mostly on stones to
get the lines crisp and accurate, whereas on a hira-zukuri blade
you can do a bit more with a belt grinder. As far as looking back
at the older traditions of sword-making, I like the Bizen blades.
BLADESIGN: Then we have the fittings and the mountings, as you offer
fully mounted blades. Would you care to share what are the materials that
you prefer to work with for the fittings?
WS: Copper is a joy to work with. Unfortunately its
not that interesting to look at. But I generally just try to make very
utilitarian fittings for my blades, so that's okay. I go through phases
where I'm really enjoying fittings and phases where I'd rather do more
blades. The nice thing about doing fittings is that it gives you an array
of challenges. Sometimes you just don't feel like making a blade. Then you
can do something else.
BLADESIGN: Would you care to reveal how is your time management and
your method for dealing with orders? I think that this is another
interesting and most certainly important point.
WS: I have no time management
skills. Right now I just get up in the morning, and then suddenly it's
midnight and I seem to be still working. Which isn't to say I don't mess
around during the day. But everything required for my work is right here
where I live. So if I'm bored, I work. This year I've been working pretty
much seven days a week because I have a gob of writing to do. I'm working
on my fourth novel since January and maybe my sixth or eight long blade. I
always write in the morning. That's pretty much religious. Then after my
brain is squeezed dry, I light up the fire. As far as orders go, I just
try to be honest and conservative about how completing a project will
In conclusion, a very direct, no frills, no trying to sweet talk or
impress anyone kind of person.
Walter Sorrells, outspoken, non-conformist, writer of words and maker of
swords. Conscient of the power of the word and the lethality of the sword.