Hi Chris. Thanks for joining us in the Interview Zone of SFFWorld….
Your latest, Black Lung Captain, is something like your twentieth novel, if I’ve counted correctly. This might surprise readers who only know you for your Ketty Jay novels.
It depend how you count them. I did an anime-themed children’s fantasy series called Broken Sky which was originally intended to be published in 27 parts (!!!), then got condensed to 9 (or 7 in the States), then reissued as 3 books which is how I originally wanted it. I count The Black Lung Captain as my eighteenth, but I have The Iron Jackal coming out in October and Pandemonium – my first graphic novel – out in January, so I’ll be hitting 20 pretty soon.
It is funny, though. I’ve been at it professionally since I turned 19, so that’s 15 years in the game. I meet new authors who are older than me and I’m the hoary, jaded old campaigner in the corner smoking a pipe and offering grizzly veteran advice to the bright-eyed newbies.
Can you summarise your books before Retribution Falls?
Not easily. I started out writing YA books, and the first four weren’t that great (and are thankfully out of print now). I hit my stride when I started writing fantasy, SF and horror, which is where my heart always lay. Most of my stuff is a mash of those three elements, but it’s usually hard to put them in one category or another.
Have you always been a genre fan?
Yes, ever since ever. I’m unashamed to admit that genre was escapism for me. As a kid, I was really very bored and uninspired by the world around me, and I didn’t see any other way out of it at that age.
If it boiled down to it, and you could choose only one: SF, Fantasy or Horror?
Fantasy. It may err towards cliché more than SF does, but I find a lot of SF nowadays alienating in that it becomes obsessed with ideas and forgets about characters. It gets played out on such a massive scale that it becomes hard to identify with the stakes on a human level. Horror doesn’t have that problem, but it’s usually set in the modern world since it’s all about twisting the familiar. That limits how much you can do with it.
One of the things about these books is that they mix up all those genres. Is that deliberate?
Not in the sense that I consciously went in with the purpose of subverting the established genre norms. I just never paid any attention to them. I take what I need, and if it works, it works. I know there are a lot of fans and writers out there who love to debate the finer points of genre, and good luck to ‘em, but I honestly don’t care about any of that when I’m writing.
What was your intention with the Ketty Jay series? Apart from the need to highlight bucklepunk, of course!
The object was to tell a story that recreated the feeling I got from books when I was young. I put a lot of thought into making it quote-unquote ‘unputdownable’, which is all to do with dramatic structure, pacing and all of that. I knew I was writing something very unfashionable, in that I was just going for a belting story without attempting any genre commentary, but by that point I’d been in the game long enough to trust myself. I just wanted to write the kind of story I wanted to read. I expected it to get panned all over the blogosphere, but the opposite happened, and then it got shortlisted for the Clarke Award. Just goes to show… er… I don’t know what that goes to show. Don’t try too hard?
I understand it can be like choosing one of your children, but do you have a favourite character in the series?
Hard to pick, since I like them all for different reasons. But I am just a little bit in love with Samandra Bree.
Which characters came first when you started writing the series?
Frey came first, followed closely by Pinn. Both of them were inspired by people I knew or met when I was living in Madrid, but I’ll name no names. Nobody wants to find out they’ve been immortalised in literature as an insecure narcissist or a repellant dimwit.
Through your dialogue on the SFFWorld forums, we know that The Iron Jackal had a major re-write after its initial outline. How do you normally write? Do you have a writing regime?
I write nine-to-five (ish… more like nine-to-four these days) while moving around between various cafes and pubs near my flat. I work best in stints of about an hour and a half, then I have to change location or do something else for a little bit till I get my concentration back. These days I tend to plan a chapter, handwrite a rough draft in a cafe, then type it into my iMac back in the flat, which acts as a first editing pass. It’s slightly slower, but I find it saves me tons of time later on.
Meticulous, methodical plotter or ‘fly-by-the-seats-of your-pants’ writer?
I’ve written books where I just made them up as I went, but nowadays I’m much more of a plotter. I get all nerdy about dramatic elements like stakes and character arcs and stuff. Working out how to fit everything into a story without bogging it down (and without the reader really noticing) is what I spend the majority of my time on. Streamline, streamline!
I loved The Fade, which had a brilliant chapter structure. How much planning did that take? Was it written in chapter order?
That book was a nightmare to write. I had to bin half the novel and start again. The problem was that the world of Callespa is so unusual that there was no way of showing it to the reader without tons of infodumping. The only way I could get around that was by having Orna getting thrown into prison right at the start of the novel and then drip-feeding information to the reader via flashback until they were ready to be let out into the wider world without needing every little thing explained to them. I’m really happy with how it turned out though.
I did plan it, though obviously not as much as I should have. And yes, it was written in chapter order, although I probably shifted the flashback chapters about a bit to put them in the most appropriate place.
And now we’re eagerly awaiting The Iron Jackal. What can you tell us about it?
Nothing! Hahaha! You’ll have to read it to find out! Also, any blurbs you’ve seen so far are totally wrong as well: the book changed beyond recognition from the pitch I wrote at the start.
What do you think was your greatest challenge when writing this one?
Living up to the expectations of the previous two. What I came to realise – and what caused the rewrite – is that, like it or not, I’ve set a template for the series now, and if I deviate a great deal from that then it’s going to thwart the expectations of all the readers who liked the first two. When I started writing it, it was too diffuse and too slow, and the crew were all getting separated to pursue side-stories, and that was totally counter to what I intended when I started the series. So I had to strip out some storylines and move them to the next book, and rework what was left with a much tighter focus. The chapter that starts The Iron Jackal now was chapter 11 in the original. That’s how long it originally took to kick into gear, and that’s faaaar too long for a Ketty Jaybook.
Do we know if there’s more in the series on the way? How far would you like to take the series?
There’s definitely a fourth. The way the series is set up, I’m never more than one book away from pulling all the strings together, and The Iron Jackal isn’t that book. The fourth one might well be, but we’ll see. Since they’re each relatively standalone adventures, and since I can change around the crew of theKetty Jay to keep things fresh, I think it can go on for as long as I still have the passion for the story. I’m certainly not done with them yet.