Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Interview with Samuel Z Jones

Samuel Z Jones is a prolific English fantasy writer. He lives on the Isle of Wight, and is perpetually working on several novels simultaneously alongside other projects. 

1.               Tell us about the Akurite Empire series of books.

Well, it's epic fantasy, but I've been told by some readers that what I'm writing goes beyond that definition. This isn't just another Lord of The Rings knock-off about elves in the woods and dwarves in the mines fighting orcs and goblins. There's none of that.

Can I summarise the plot of the whole series? Um... five immortal heroes quest across the history of their world to defeat an enemy from the distant future that plots to invade the past.

The story follows several generations of characters through the rise and fall of nations on a mountain plateau isolated from the rest of their world. Events sometimes take the story beyond this region, but fundamentally the books concern the wars and alliances between Silveneir, Kellia, Daricia and Uria.

The Silvans are a matriarchal, religious culture that arrived from the east several centuries previously, while the Kellions are a patriarchal nation from the distant west. These two cultures are fundamentally polarized and their politics and conflicts comprise much of the back-story underlying the setting. The Darians are a non-human race that dominate the southern half of the plateau; they have as much in common with elves as they do with trolls, being ageless and immortal but also massively strong   and muscular. They are the giants, the titans of this world. Finally, Uria is populated by hybrid beast men who are explicitly not natural races but rather the results of medical experiments involving humans, Darians and animals.

The structure of the series, which now runs to over a dozen books beginning with the Akurite Empire trilogy, is dynastic, so talking about one or two particular characters isn't really helpful; the lives of several hundred fictional people are interwoven so each novel is part of a vast tapestry.

2.               Why did you write this series, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

You've heard of the Neverending Story? Spoiler; it ends. But the idea at least was of a story that didn't. It's something of the holy grail of fantasy; The Worm Ouroborous, or Moorcock's Eternal Champion, Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, and others, have all tried to create a self-contained fantasy world that runs like a perpetual motion machine. Donaldson, I think, came closest quite recently with his Last Chronicles.

I'm going to do it, though. The overall plot forms a time loop, which when complete will allow a reader to pick up the story at any point, at any volume, and read on from there until they come full circle back to the place they started from. At this point, they will discover that the first book they read has a second main plot woven through it that they didn't notice first time around. And then a third time around. And a fourth; each revolution revealing deeper and more detailed stories that were previously invisible. I have the whole thing in draft, I'm halfway through publishing, and already a few readers have noticed the interweaving and layering of plotlines building this marvellous story-machine.

3.               Is there an underlying message in the Akurite Empire series?

I don't set out to make any particular point when I write a novel; the theme or message emerges from the process. Every book, conceptually, is an exploration of human psychology; the way people perceive and construct reality. From that arises the central theme of each book. I think in the current work-in-progress I'm saying something about gender-roles and post-modern feminism, but that's honestly not important if what you want is to read a good yarn about questing knights and women with guns.

4.               Of the characters you’ve created, do you have a favourite? If so, why this particular character?

I approach characters as if I'm getting to know a real person; after all, how well can you really know someone? A supporting character I know about as well as someone I've had a few drinks with, a main character is someone I know as well as a close friend. Conceptually, I wander through an imagined forest meeting various people camping there. Sometimes I spend weeks or months camping with one character, hearing their stories and meeting their friends, before we part ways, perhaps to cross paths again in the future. The first character I had this experience with was Montesinos DeKellia, a character now so well developed that someone actually succeeded in channelling him. The person in question had never read the books; the mannerisms and expression of DeKellia simply overtook him for a few seconds and told him to get lost. He was very shaken afterwards, he'd done a lot of channelling and I sandbagged him with a fictional character.

Eventually, DeKellia told me he was off on his own for a bit and left me to chat with Sabra Daishen. She was his fencing student, a very aggressive but spiritual young woman who in her turn introduced me to knights, outlaws, assassins and a whole host of other people. I've also spent a great deal of time with DeKellia's son and Sabra's sister, who eventually settled down together in a nice house in the woods.

5.               What do you find most rewarding in the writing process?

Reading it when it's done. When writing, the story and imagery are changeable, reading it unfinished is part of the writing and editing process. Once finished, reading it again is like reading something written by someone else, but someone who actually writes what I want to read. I want emotional realism, fully developed ideas, vivid imagery, and that only crystallizes in the finished novel.

It's equally rewarding to know that someone else has read and enjoyed one of my stories; writing is in many ways an exercise in telepathy, I spend a great deal of time creating a highly detailed thought, and writing is the only form we have of transmitting that thought directly to another mind; even film doesn't quite do that, the imagined world is on the screen, while with a book it takes shape within the reader's mind, becomes a place they visit rather than a performance they watch.

6.               What do you find most challenging in the writing process, and how do you overcome it?

Making a living. The modern world keeps hassling me for money. I'd like it to stop, please, and the only way I can find of doing that is to sell enough books so I can write in peace.

7.               Just how do you produce so much work?

The way to learn any skill is to practice every day. The way to get good is to practice every day for hours. To write a book, you open your document and write at least one word per day. With a little effort, you can train yourself to turn out 2000 words a day reliably. With dedication, you can write 5000+ words a day, every day. Emotional and material concerns do affect this; in the best possible state (which isn't, incidentally, being happy and wealthy), I can write 10-15k words a day fairly consistently. Akurite Empire, all 300,000 words of the trilogy, were written in two months. Editing and proofing took a lot longer, but I left it alone for a long time and wrote several other novels in the meantime.

On average, I write three novels simultaneously and finish one or two a year.

8.               Tell us about your interest in martial arts and sword fighting.

From a purely literary perspective, one should write what one knows, even in fantasy. Others disagree, but logically if your genre features large amounts of horse riding, camping, and sword fights, it really isn't tenable to know nothing about them.

Let's see... my grandfathers on both sides of the family were boxers, one a professional coach and the other a bare-knuckle contender. I started Karate aged six and have pursued every opportunity to train any martial art or combat system since; I have about twenty five years of training. I hold a black belt, I've taught martial arts and self-defence in some of the roughest areas of London. Over the past few years, I've pursued Kobudo and Kobujutsu, which broadly means archaic weapons; I've taught nunchaku and fencing, among other things. I really will take any opportunity to grab a shinai (that's a Kendo sword), and bound out into the garden to fight anyone who's willing. Without body armour; padding is for sissies. I'd like to do more work with shields and pole arms, and I've yet to find anyone brave enough to let me come at them with my two-handed war flail... but we really would need armour for that (anyone reading my work may have noticed that I hold a special fondness for the terrifying two-handed flail, aka the threshal, corn flail, or a giant set of nunchuks).

I make an effort not to get technical when writing about swordfights and combat, but I can't help think that direct experience and study can only improve the way I write about these things.

9.               What have you done to promote and market your books, and what advice would you give to other authors?

Until quite recently, I was running all over Facebook waving links at people. I have used Twitter, and it does work, but I really don't like the site, it's like YouTube without videos. Currently I don't have the regular Internet access to make serious marketing efforts, but I do what I can. I'm looking forward to a near future where I can use YouTube and similar media again. Without a huge publicity budget, one really is down to WoM, even if we do that now online.

Advice... unless you can afford to hire a publicist, don't pay for anything. Anyone asking for money to read your book is ripping you off. The writer gets paid to write, they do not pay to be read. If you're already making a living from your books, you might consider hiring an editor or a proof-reader just to speed things up. If you really can afford it, or you're lucky enough to find someone who'll work on commission, hire a publicist.

Don't waste time canvassing blogs and vlogs that purport to review books: these folk are either fan geeks who want to bask in the reflected glory of their existing favourite authors, or money-making enterprises that are only interested in well-known writers (who already get tons of reviews anyway from both of the above).

If you want reviews and interviews, talk to fellow writers who run their own blogs and need regular posts (hi Wayne), these people are far more approachable and professional.

With ebooks, its possible to tap those people who read so much that they'll review anything in their favourite genre in exchange for a freebie. You can get a small fan club going like that, but it's unlikely to be the foundation of wealth and fame.

Ultimately, if you're serious, you have to approach the industry. That means contriving to sit down and have drinks with people already working in some capacity in entertainment: most deals are done at the bar, not over the phone, for what should be the obvious reason that people deal sooner with their friends than with strangers.

10.            Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal reader?

My readership seem to be mostly women. The most common thing people say about my stories is that they love the strong female characters... I'm puzzled by this, I just work for psychological realism. That means all my characters are products of their emotional traumas, as are real people.

My ideal reader, I think, is someone who wants to explore the frontiers of their own mind, and finds my stories a useful map in an infinite territory.

11.            What advice would you give to help others build the confidence required to write novels?

Give up! Give up now! I started writing a novel and it's completely devoured my life! Seriously, don't do it, think of your family, your children, your career...!

...It's not really about confidence. Writing is a learned skill, talent is just the desire to learn. Let the first rule be “Rules are there for a reason”, learn what they are and why they are the rules. Let the second rule be “Rules are there to be broken”, and go wild with your imagination. Let the third rule be “No they're not, get over yourself”, and put in the work necessary to develop technical skill.

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking, and I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who don't seem to realise that the primary skill of a writer is mastery of written language. When you write well enough, in the technical sense of actually knowing what you're doing as with any other skill, then confidence is not a major issue; competence begets confidence.

12.            Tell us about The Flame of Freedom.

This was actually a paid commission; there is a whole world of writing-for-hire which is hard to get into and easy to fall out of, but when you're in it is a great boost: you're actually getting paid a working wage to write! Break out the good booze and smoke a fat cigar.

Flame of Freedom is a story of two halves; George Washington at war, and Betsy Ross in British-occupied Philadelphia. Everyone (I hope) knows who Washington is. Betsy Ross is the woman who physically made the first American flag. It's officially considered an apocryphal story, but having researched it in depth I can say it is absolutely true.

Betsy lived directly across the street from Ben Franklin and was close friends with his daughter Sarah. Betsy was literally at the centre of the Culper Ring, Washington's spy network in Philadelphia.

So The Flame of Freedom follows the men's war on the battlefield and the women's war of espionage.

I'm currently working with the same publisher who hired me for Flame of Freedom, Gabriel Murray. We're working on a screen-adaptation of Hamlet. Gabriel's recent work includes Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and Obama's Irish Roots.

13.            Would you like to see your books adapted for the screen? If so, do you have any aspirations or reservations regarding this?

Yes! Give me my movie cheque! I want to sit in casting sessions while Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen literally fight it out to play Montesinos DeKellia! I want to lose my temper with executives who keep presenting willowy bimbos to play the six-foot female body-builder Sabra Daishen! I want to be presented with an endless queue of tattooed models vying to play Sorcha! I want to point out to censors that if Dr Manhattan can spend the whole of Watchmen literally balls-out naked, then there's no reason Isa Maxine can't bound around topless the whole time!

Reservations? Yes, obviously; there are great adaptations and awful ones. The great ones usually let the actual writer of the actual book actually call some shots.

I envisage adaptations of my stories as having the style and sensibility of Excalibur; if I'm writing with a director in mind, it's John Boorman (armed with modern FX and a massive budget). Much as I love the Lord of The Rings movies, the notion that all fantasy should be like that is sorely mistaken. Look at the Narnia films; someone in Hollywood thought that the way to do it was to smash Harry Potter and LOTR headlong into each other. Doing a LOTR treatment on my stories would have roughly the same effect; it's not LOTR, treating it as if it was would not make a good movie. There's no sex in LOTR, just for a start.

14.            Tell us a little about a good fantasy book you’ve read recently.

Currently I'm reading Joseph Campbell, which should say something about my grasp of mythology. I think the last fantasy novel I read was Unseen Academical by Terry Pratchett. I'd avoided this one because it's a fantasy about football, and I have no interest in footie whatsoever. I actually devoured this book in two days flat though because it had something unexpected; a good modern treatment of orcs.

I used to love Orcs as a kid, far more than I liked elves. I've always been disappointed though that Tolkien never went near the orcs as a culture or as characters, and attempts after him to write something about Orcs have always been LOTR knock-offs.

Pratchett's treatment of orcs in Unseen Academicals was brilliant, a well-spoken orc football player... I almost gave up writing completely when I read Pratchett's Nation, but then I thought “He's been writing professionally for over thirty years, of course he's better than I am!” Then I pushed on and finished Akurite Empire, and I personally reckon it's pretty good. I'm not as funny or as sociologically incisive as Pratchett, but then I'm not trying to be: He's definitely an influence, but I'm no more writing Discworld than I am LOTR.

15.            What are you doing now?

Writing or generally? Currently I'm working on the final draft of book three of The Lord Protector series, which is the sequel to Akurite Empire: While Sabra Daishen is away crusading, her most trusted knight attempts to rebuild the nations shattered by war. At the same time, I'm developing the rough drafts of three or four other novels in the same series, getting ready to bring the epic around into its complete loop. I'm also, as I mentioned, working on an adaptation of Hamlet.

Generally, I'm just waiting out the summer before taking a place at Portsmouth University as a mature student. It's about time I got a degree in Creative Writing, and Portsmouth quite reasonably offered me a place on the strength of being a published author, even if I am virtually unknown.

16.            Where can we find you and your books?




Book Two: Fortress of Knighthood




E-book formats available at Smashwords.com
Hardback and paperback editions exclusively from Lulu.com