Alec Hutson is the author of The Crimson Queen, and the forthcoming sequel, The Shadow King. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China. His other books are The Manticore’s Soiree and Twilight’s End. His official website is authoralcehutson.com.
Alec was able to field my questions and answer them immediately, so I’m pleased to be able to publish the interview sooner than expected, despite a forgotten question I had to follow up with later. And don’t worry, my questions regarding The Shadow King are mostly spoiler free, but I did get a detail or two out of Alec.
My questions are in bold and referenced as “HA”, while Alec’s answers are represented by “AH”. Together we are AH HA!
HA: Let’s get started with some personal stuff. I’ve read some of your other interviews…how you grew up in a Massachusetts town (like someplace right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories), how your aunt owned a bookstore, and that you thought you might become a lawyer before you started to think about writing…until a girlfriend convinced you to go to China. How hard was it to make the decision to immerse yourself in a different culture, where English isn’t widespread? What was that experience like? What kind of struggles did you go through early on? Is Keilan’s journey akin in any way to your own at that time in your life?
AH: At the time I really embraced the opportunity to live abroad. I had just graduated college in Minnesota and before that, as you said, had grown up in New England. Two wonderful places, but not the most exotic. Perhaps that was part of the reason I read so much speculative fiction growing up – on some subconscious level I was yearning to experience something different, perhaps to have an adventure in an antique land. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I took the other path in the woods and went to law school or got my MFA (I had been accepted into a program just before I decided to go to China), but I can’t say I’m unhappy with how things have unfolded.
My biggest regret might be that I didn’t write for my first ten years in China. Asia – particularly the mega cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai – can be sensory overloads. There’s always so much swirling around that it can be really hard to find the head space necessary to write, or do anything creative. I wonder if I was in some more sedate US city or suburb if I would have thrown myself into writing earlier . . . but perhaps my experiences in Shanghai have enriched my writing and made it better than it otherwise would have been.
I never had a difficult adjustment period. From my first day in Shanghai I felt really comfortable in the city – far more comfortable than I do in, say, New York.
That’s a really interesting point about Keilan and whether his journey mirrors my own. I think, though, that having a character like Keilan is important for most fantasy books, as it is helpful to have a point of view that is discovering the world along with the reader. The young, coming of age perspective emerging into the larger story is an effective way to present the history and cultures of the setting fairly naturally. Fantasy is all about summoning up that sense of wonder, and experiencing the world through characters like Keilan – no matter if it is tropey – is a very effective way to instill this feeling in the readers.
HA: I see you have visited Angkor Wat – a magnificent place that gives one a feeling of connection to an ancient past. What other awe-inspiring places have you been to since you moved to China – perhaps the Great Wall or the Forbidden City – what were your favorites, and do you think they make their way into your writings?
AH: I’ve always loved ruins. To walk among towering monoliths or peer down crumbling passages and imagine how splendid it must have been a thousand years in the past. I love the mystery and romanticism of these places. To keep with Shelley, we may not despair when we look upon their shattered visages, but we do feel something deep inside. Or at least I do.
The weight of history presses down on China and shapes the character of its people, but a lot of the physical manifestations of its rich past were purged after the communists came to power. I’ve been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and these are all impressive places, but for me, Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar are more magical.
And they definitely make their way into my writings. Keilan’s adventures in Uthmala in The Crimson Queen was a homage to my love of ruins. I was imagining Angkor when I wrote my descriptions of that city. It was also a paean to D&D style adventuring – exploring ancient ruins, fighting monsters, returning with treasure and ancient knowledge.
HA: You’re a big China Mieville fan. What other writers would you say are your favorite or most inspirational and why is that?
AH: George RR Martin absolutely changed my conception of what fantasy was capable of being. I was 16 or 17 and I randomly found Game of Thrones on the shelf at my bookstore. I’d read Jordan and Goodkind and Salvatore, and I loved those authors, but when I entered Westeros it was like something clicked inside me. I was evangelical about those books before almost anyone else, I think. I remember attending the Odyssey fantasy writer’s retreat soon after and telling everyone that Martin was the harbinger of a new age in fantasy fiction, and they all just shrugged and rolled their eyes.
For prose, I love the rich language of Lucius Shepard, R. Scott Bakker, Josiah Bancroft and David Mitchell. Some writers give me this sense of tingling, dreamlike unreality when I’m reading them, which is another feeling I’m chasing when I crack a fantasy book – the short stories of Kelly Link and the novel The Etched City by KJ Bishop are good examples of this.
Other favorite writers include Guy Gavriel Kay, Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Bear, Roger Zelazny, Jeff Vandermeer, and Alistair Reynolds. The best fantasy book I read last year (or at least the one I most enjoyed) was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.
HA: Can you give us an idea about what it is like to self-publish…how did you do it, what obstacles did you face, marketing efforts – were you able to steer people towards The Crimson Queen, and how much of a boost came from the SPFBO?
AH: It was really quite simple. I wrote the book, paid for a cover and editing, and put it up on Amazon. No marketing, no plan. It did well right out of the gate, and I think I was around 1500 in the Kindle store when it somehow got in the hands of the excellent indie writer Will Wight. He read it, loved it, and recommended it to his fans. That pushed my book up into the top 800 or so for about 4 months.
One reason I decided to self publish and not pursue trad was that it seemed to me that the big publishers were not publishing traditional epic fantasy anymore, at least not unless it had a very dark edge. But it looked to me that that style of fantasy was still immensely popular, as evinced by the indie books selling incredibly well online (think Dawn of Wonder, Benjamin Ashwood, Path of Flames, etc). That’s one of the big benefits of this new era in publishing – massively popular subgenres like military sci-fi or epic fantasy that have essentially been abandoned by the big houses can now be serviced by indie writers.
SPFBO has been interesting. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure how big its reach actually is. I think there are a few hundred people very invested in the contest, but it’s largely an insular and self-contained community. The blogs and major personalities involved also lean heavily towards one particular style of fantasy (gritty, violent, and dark) and that’s reflected in the scores given out and the finalists chosen. But I don’t think that’s the most popular representation of the genre.
HA: The Crimson Queen and Alyanna were in earlier iterations of your story. Where did Keilan’s character spring from as a late addition, and why did you decide to make him a prominent POV character?
AH: The initial conflict was always between Cein and Alyanna. They’ve always been very distinct characters in my mind, and I find them both intriguing. Keilan was eventually added to the story because – as I mentioned earlier – having a coming of age hero makes the discovery of the world and its history seem more natural. Also, it’s helpful to have a character that readers can identify with. Young and confused is something everyone has experienced – sorcerous queens and courtesans not so much.
HA: Did your world-building come first, or did the plot come first and the world-building evolved from that?
AH: The characters of Alyanna and Cein came first. And then Jan. Demian was a relatively late addition, and Senacus became a larger character as I wrote the book because I liked him so much. I had the broad strokes of the world outlined, but a lot of the details were filled in as I explored the story.
HA: The Crimson Queen is the first book of The Raveling. Do you have a series arc lined up already, or is the story evolving organically as you write and your ending is not yet set in stone?
AH: The arc is set, and I know how it all ends. I tend to have a few major plot points and the end very clearly realized when I start writing, and the journey from plot point to plot point sort of unfolds naturally as I go along. That’s not to say that there aren’t major revisions that occur – one of the reasons The Shadow King was so delayed was that I wrote about 60k words with a new character joining Nel and Keilan on their POV thread, and I suddenly realized it would make much more sense for the story to bring back a character I liked from Queen. So I basically started over and re-wrote everything after this epiphany.
HA: What would you say are the biggest differences between The Crimson Queen and The Shadow King, from not only a story perspective (sharing whatever generalities you can while avoiding spoilers), but also your perspective in the writing process when crafting the two books?
AH: Hmm. I would say that a big difference is what’s driving the plot. The Crimson Queen was a little like the court intrigues of Game of Thrones, as you had several selfish players competing with others or are perhaps more principled for power and control. The main villain was Alyanna, who could be likened to Cersei. Evil, but still perhaps a bit sympathetic at times. In The Shadow King the threat shifts to become more global. My version of the Others start to work their will in the world.
In terms of the process, it was a bit harder to write simply because I knew I had to do it. With Queen it was a labor of love, bits and pieces written without pressure on holidays and weekends. With King I knew I had to produce something (and it still took me too long).
HA: Did you feel any pressure when writing The Shadow King…I mean, is there a conscious part of you that knows people are anticipating the release, and after the hundredth time of “when will it be ready?” (the equivalent of “are we there yet?”) do you feel pressure to finish? If so, how do you keep from buckling under that pressure or avoid rushing things just to meet some kind of self-imposed deadline?
AH: Certainly. The success of Queen took me really by surprise, and the thought that there are many readers out there anticipating the second is a bit daunting. I really wanted to meet their expectations, though, so I never gave any thought of rushing through the sequel to capitalize on Queen’s popularity. I’d rather release a book I’m proud of and have it sell a tenth of the copies than throw something half-baked out there nine months too early. And I’m happy with it. Some threads turned out better than my expectation, and some threads didn’t quite come together like I had hoped, but I think that’s part of being a writer.
HA: Do you have artwork chosen for the cover of The Shadow King? What does it represent? How did you go about getting the artwork for your books?
AH: With the art for my first book I found a thread on kboards (ground zero for self-publishing) from an artist I liked and commissioned him to draw Uthmala. It didn’t quite come together like I hoped, but it’s pretty cool so I stuck with it. Now 18 months later I have a much better lay of the land and I’ve commissioned an artist I really like to redo Queen and do King. He’s working on the artwork – I haven’t seen it yet but the scene is going to include the Chosen, the demon-children from the first book (they are the bigger ‘global’ threat in the second) and they are facing off against a sorceress from the second book. The artist doing the covers is John Anthony di Giovanni. He does great stuff.
HA: Would you stop at a trilogy, or do you think the series will go beyond three books? Do you have other stories not related to The Raveling that you are considering publishing in the future?
AH: I will probably return to the world with other books, though I might take a break and write something different. Still probably fantasy, though. I’ve got a few ideas gestating.
HA: Bonus question: You’ve played Ultimate Frisbee for years and are passionate about it. What do you find appealing about it and how did that translate into a “Spirit” award? What is a Spirit award? Did you ever consider a way to work a similar game into your books using some kind of magical item or arena contest? 😉
AH: Haha. Okay, so Ultimate Frisbee is a self-refereed sport. At the recreational level, it’s pretty easy to stay honest and not use the rules to your advantage. But the more competitive you get, the harder it becomes to stay objective. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how well players comport themselves when they are responsible for playing fair. Can you imagine if fouls in soccer and basketball were called by the players? It’s a really remarkable concept. Anyway, the Spirit award isn’t just given for an adherence to fair play, but also for being a good teammate. Ultimate Frisbee – along with speculative fiction – are the two great non-organic loves of my life, so receiving this award from an incredible team of amazing people is still one of the proudest moments of my life.
Many thanks to Alec for graciously accepting my interview request and taking the time to answer my questions in an entertaining manner. Look for The Shadow King to be released very soon…