In my last post I indicated that I was going to be doing an interview with Cameron Johnston, author of the forthcoming novel The Traitor God. Little did I know that Cameron was already hard at work on my questions and banged out his answers in one day! It’s his first ever author interview, and it’s my first interview as well, so there’s bound to be some rookie questions on my part…fortunately Cameron was up for the challenge. I tried to keep my questions that were in reference to The Traitor God spoiler-free, but there’s a couple of tiny tidbits in the interview due to the inherent sneakiness of my subconscious…
Cameron Johnston is a Scottish writer of speculative fiction (usually a mix of fantasy and horror) and a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle since 2010.
He is also a swordsman, gamer, enthusiast of archaeology and history, a fine ale drinker, builder of LEGO, a cat-slave, and owns far too many books to fit on his shelves.
His short stories have appeared in publications such as Niteblade Magazine, The Lovecraft eZine, and Swords and Sorcery Magazine to name a few, and his debut novel The Traitor God is forthcoming. A full list of Cameron’s writings can be found on his website: www.cameronjohnston.net.
With the background out of the way, let’s jump into the interview. My questions are in bold and are represented by “HA” (Hippogriff’s Aerie) while Cameron’s answers appear as “CJ”…
HA: Over at Fantasy Faction you mention 10 overlooked novels that “made you”. You also mention some of the big names like Lord of the Rings, Dune, Dragonlance, Elric, that are obvious influences as well. Which 2-3 authors would you say are your biggest influences?
CJ: All-time biggest influence is a tricky beast to define but we’ll start fairly early on as that influenced my future taste as a reader. If I have to only pick three I will go for H.P. Lovecraft for the sense of cosmic horror and ancient mystery, Michael Moorcock for the epic swords and sorcery multiverse and chaos vs order of the eternal champion books, and the duo of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman for Dragonlance, which got me into fantasy in a BIG way.
HA: You signed with an agent for The Traitor God. On your website you describe receiving the acceptance letter. Did you receive any rejection letters? Do you think you would have considered self-publishing had no offers been forthcoming?
CJ: You would struggle to find any trade published author that hasn’t been on the receiving end of rejections and ploughed on through it. Before I began The Traitor God I was working on short stories to help improve my writing skills before I began to write another novel (my third!), and when you have a few short pieces out and about at various markets and get three rejections all on the same day, well, that is not fun! With agents and novels the game has been upped and the stakes higher so rejections hurt more and acceptances are ecstatic – I received some nibbles of interest and some form rejections from agents before I was lucky enough to join forces with Amanda Rutter of Red Sofa Literary, which worked out very well indeed for me. I would definitely have considered self-publishing if The Traitor God had not been snapped up by a publisher. I believed in it too much to just trunk it in an abandoned folder somewhere, but thankfully with the help of my agent and Angry Robot’s fine editors it is being published stronger than sleeker than ever before.
HA: Did you write a synopsis and attach it to your manuscript? If so, how hard was it to crunch your book down to a paragraph or two?
CJ: Synopses are awkward and brutal and every writer I know hates condensing their novel to a brief and flavourless outline of plot points. I took the approach of ‘If they like the start then they just want to get a brief overview of where the rest is going to make sure it’s not going entirely crazy’ so I tried not to sweat the small stuff and give them that overview. Of course, as soon as you send it you start fretting over it all again.
HA: On your website you talk about some of the ancient places that you’ve visited, like Arran’s Giant’s Graves and the Machrie Moor stone circles. Do you find these mystical places making their way into your stories or influencing your writing? Besides Scottish/Celtic history, are there other areas and times in Earth’s history that you are particularly drawn to?
CJ: The sense of age and mystery that cloaks such ancient places has always called to me and absolutely influences my writing. I’ve even written a short story published in The Lovecraft eZine around standing stones and ancient churches and why they were set in a particular location. I only wish I could visit the distant past to find out how ancient sites were really used! Other areas of history that I am especially interested in are: anything prehistoric from the Stone Age right through to the Iron Age, ancient Egypt and Roman times. I am also interested in UK history of the Dark Ages through medieval – all those lovely castles, swords and armour!
HA: You are a self-admitted huge fan of archaeology and history. In the world that appears in The Traitor God, did you come up with a history first, or did it develop as you wrote the story? Are the monsters in the story familiar (based on Earth mythology/Dungeons & Dragons), or did you create your own unique creatures?
CJ: I’m of the school of worldbuilding where character and story develop first, and the world coalesces around that story. I had a core idea of the world but the details filled themselves in as I went along through the first few drafts. The monsters in The Traitor God are largely nothing like you would see in D&D-esque fantasy, with most being something far more disturbing that have more in common with the creations of H.P. Lovecraft than with elves and orcs.
HA: The Fantasy Hive calls your novel a “grimdark epic”. Is grimdark a rebellion against stories about farm boys with magic swords coming of age, a reflection of our current society, or something more? What is the appeal of grimdark to you?
CJ: Grimdark is a response to the old days of epic fantasy, of goody-goody farm boys with magic swords but it’s also more than that, and just one part of an ongoing trend of real-world cynicism. It’s partly a desire for more realism and authenticity in the same way that modern war films don’t shy away from depicting the brutality and atrocity of war or the moral implications of darker deeds by all involved. Many of the video nasty’s of the 1980’s seem tame and cheesy compared to modern horror films, and the Internet is everywhere now – the knowledge must flow, which over time has meant the restraints of censorship have been relaxed for much of the media. We’ve all seen and heard too much about the real world and its scandals to go back to those more innocent days of pure-hearted heroics – at least not all the time. It’s always good to escape all the grimness of reality and read unashamedly fun fiction too, one of the reasons why I think a book like Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames has done so well (despite it being generally awesome anyway).
HA: The cover of The Traitor God was done by Jan Weßbecher and is absolutely gorgeous. How did that come about?
CJ: Angry Robot asked me what sort of cover I fancied, and agreed with me that it should be artwork as opposed to one of those photo-realistic hooded man style covers. Then I was asked for a range of images that inspired me, and to write a brief of what the main character looks like, his gear, descriptions of the city of Setharis and that kind of thing. Jan wove that into a series of rough sketches that Angry Robot and I looked at and chose the parts we liked best: the bridge detail, the angle of view, character pose, and the style of the titanic *coughcough* ‘statue’ in the background. Then Jan fleshed out all the amazing detail work. I was thrilled to be so involved in the process.
HA: One of my favorite posts that your wrote on your site is called “A Writer’s Thick Skin”. It nicely sums up the anxieties of being a writer, as well as the need for constructive criticism to make you a better writer. Did you have any family and/or friends read and critique The Traitor God? If so where there things you thought you nailed that they didn’t like? Pleasant surprises? How long have you been working on this story?
CJ: I am a member of an amazing and long-running (30+ years!) writer’s group here in Scotland, that has enjoyed having some wonderful trade published writers such as Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Gary Gibson, William King, and Michael Cobley through its doors. Plenty of professional advice has been on hand, and critiques are completely but constructively honest and focused on building a writer up to be better instead of tearing them down. Which is exactly what you need if you really want to improve. One thing I have learned is that writers are really not the best judges of their own stories and some things I thought were fairly bad turned out to be well received. The first draft of The Traitor God began as a short story called ‘Head Games’ in late 2012 and the first rough draft of the novel took a year. Multiple drafts and rewrites later, it went out to agents in late 2015, then following edits, to publishers mid-2017. Quite a journey!
HA: On my site you state “if only The Traitor God does well enough to get a book 2 & 3, then the magic and monsters will be turned up to 12″. Do you already have an arc/plot for the next two books? Does that mean there will be unanswered questions in The Traitor God that will leave the reader anxiously awaiting resolution in a sequel?
CJ: I originally wrote The Traitor God with the intention of it being part one of a trilogy, as we fantasy writers tend to want to write. However, one thing that I feel passionate about is that any book should also have a satisfying ending, to stand alone to a great extent. And so The Traitor God does! I really hate it when a good book just…stops, and an entirely unresolved story is left dangling – that is just not fun for readers. The Traitor God has a satisfying ending to the events of this book but also leaves open the possibility for more mayhem. If enough wonderful readers buy it, like it, and want to explore more of the character, the world and its dark history, and its macabre magic then I hope to have the opportunity to write it for them.
HA: You mention an interest in swords/fencing on your site. Can you expand on this?
CJ: Well-crafted swords are things of intrinsic beauty to my eyes, the careful work of master smiths. Take a look at the exquisite work of the Raven Armoury, Castle Keep, or Albion Swords and I defy anybody to say I’m wrong. On that note: I’ll drop in a cheeky ‘buy my book’ to readers here – I’d love to be able to afford one of those works of art some day! A guy can dream. I also dabble in Historical European Martial Arts, which tries to reconstruct martial weapon arts from surviving original texts, historical records, and practical reconstruction. Also, what’s fantasy without those magic swords we love so very much? (shush, don’t mention question 6!)
HA: Bonus Question: I know you’re a Harryhausen fan like I am. Favorite Harryhausen movie and favorite Harryhausen creature? For me it’s Clash of the Titans for sheer epic-ness, and the six armed, sword-wielding statue of Kali in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (full disclosure: I have the vinyl figure from X-Plus sitting on my bookshelf because it’s so awesome!)
CJ: I’ll have to go with Jason and the Argonauts I think. As for creatures, Kali is an amazing foe that I’d put on par with Medusa from Clash of the Titans, but for me the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts win out. The slow advance and then that mad charge and the fight, all perfect.
Many thanks to Cameron Johnston for graciously accepting my interview request and taking the time to answer my questions in an entertaining manner. Look for The Traitor God to be released on June 5th in the U.S. and Canada (June 7th in the UK), or better yet, pre-order it now from his publisher, Angry Robot Books; it’s also available for pre-order from Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.