Hippogriff's Aerie

Apparitions of Imagination

An Interview with Alec Hutson

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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!

 

INTERVIEW

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.

 

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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…

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May 29, 2018 Posted by | interview | , | 1 Comment

Interview with Cameron Johnston

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…

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BACKGROUND

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”…

 

INTERVIEW

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?

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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?

Traitor God

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.

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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.

February 14, 2018 Posted by | interview | | Leave a comment