Lisa recently conducted an in-depth review with Michael about the birth of the series and it's climb to success and popularity. Michael has generously offered a copy of a book from the series to a commenter, so check the Giveaway Guidelines at the end of the post for details. Michael will be dropping by to chat, so please take a moment to say hello and leave a comment or question.
Lisa Reviews: The Crown Conspiracy | Avempartha | Nyphron Rising | The Emerald Storm
Thank you Lisa and Michael for being here today!
Lisa:. So, Michael, where did the inspiration for the Riyria Revelations come from? Did Royce and Hadrian appear in a dream, threaten your life, and demand that you write down their story?
Back in the winter of 1989/90, my wife and I were living in a tiny place called Troy, Vermont, a small village near the Canadian border. We had only just moved there and this was our first full winter. Any winter in Vermont is challenging but we were also going through some tough times. We were living in a mobile home that cost less than our car. We still had our house in Michigan that wasn’t selling and that was going to prevent us from building our house in Vermont in the spring. Add to that the fact that the water pipes froze like clockwork each week, we were living on spaghetti and peanut butter and jelly, and the kerosene heater kept running out of fuel in the middle of the night and you can guess it wasn’t the best of times. Coydogs (wild packs of coyotes/dogs) swarmed the trailer at night, prompting me to get a rifle. And my wife had just given birth to our second daughter, so neither of us got much sleep.
I wrote of my growing depression to a friend back home in Michigan, Peter DeBrule (who incidentally the Emerald Storm is partially dedicated to) who in an effort to try and lift my spirits and distract my attention, wrote back with an idea for a “chain story.” He wasn’t a writer, but he knew I was trying to be one so he wrote a couple of paragraphs in which two unidentified men enter a medieval tavern. One was big, the other little, they were expecting friends and they took a table after persuading a surly local to move by buying him a pitcher of beer. That was pretty much it—only a couple paragraphs amounting to half a page of typing.
With a third friend, Steve Gillick, who at that time was going to college in New Orleans, we collectively wrote, by way of snail-mail, perhaps fifty pages of a little story we entitled “Blades.” Pete and Steve, lost interest and the story was forgotten with only a third of it done, but I always liked Royce and Hadrian and that was the birth of the two characters, although they were not Riyria yet. That wouldn’t happen until nearly ten years later.
Lisa: What was the story Blades about?
Writing ad hoc as we did it was more like doing a literary version of improv. It was difficult to move the story in any consistent direction when the other two contributors were taking it other places and there was a week to a month delay as we waited for the mail. So it meandered a lot, but generally it was about Royce and Hadrian who were the leaders of a rag-tag band of adventurers forever struggling to explore and pillage the depths of a buried city called Kolmar, but always narrowly escaping with their lives. Blades was their last attempt to gather together their old team and go in again.
Actually, yes. Esrahaddon, who was Royce and Hadrian’s arch-nemesis was in Blades, only he was a decidedly more evil character. Arcadius was in it too, who was part of their team. There was even a Modina, only she was a countess and the wife of the Earl of Chadwick, and nothing like the Modina of the series. When I was trying to come up with a name for the empress I remembered her and it felt perfect. There were several characters that never made it to Riyria—at least not in total. One character named Berenger, was a favorite of my friend Steve’s so I deliberately left him out not wanting to step on his creation.
Lisa: What about the other characters? Was there a problem with you using them?
I had no problem using the rest of the cast as I invented and named them all—even Berenger, but Steve really built that character and made it his own. (He also built Wyatt and Elden, and did a great job with them too, but he made them too much a copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, so in Riyria I took them a different way.) I had a habit of writing a lot more than the others and even going back and re-writing their segments to “fix” them. I remember that this irritated Pete, understandably so, and likely contributed to the death of the story. It was quickly becoming no longer a chain story with three contributors but instead, my story.
Well, like I said, it was forgotten. The letters stopped coming so it just died, which is ironic as it was just about the time we all obtained the ability to email. For the next couple of years or so, they would talk about resurrecting the story, but it never happened, and I truly liked Royce and Hadrian. I knew these two guys, which was part of the problem with Blades. I hated it when Pete or Steve would make them do or say something I knew they wouldn’t. They were always in the back of my head and I wondered how, if I were to really sit down and rewrite the series, how would I do it. This is something I would think about while doing dishes or walking the dog. And I envisioned this scene where the two are climbing a tower of a castle to steal something only to discover too late it was a setup. I just thought that would make a great beginning to a story, but I was never going to write it, because I had given up writing.
I had spent ten years writing thirteen novels of nearly every genre. I studied the classics, the Pulitzer Prize winners, and the blockbuster novels. I sent out submissions daily to agents and publishers and after a decade had nothing to show for it but a wall plastered with rejections. Steve had graduated with his doctorate and had become a professor. Pete had moved on to a job at General Motors. All of my friends had careers, and I was like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin that was never coming. So when we left Vermont, I quit writing and looked for work as a commercial artist.
I was successful. In two years, I opened my own advertising agency. In three more, I had offices taking up a quarter of the eighth floor of a glass tower office building and clients like AT&T. I was so busy I never thought of writing. I didn’t even read. Then my daughter, who was at that time about thirteen, was having trouble in school with reading. She didn’t like it. In seeking a way to interest her in reading, I bought this book called Harry Potter, and being bored one day I picked it up. It was fun and reminded me of when I was thirteen and discovered Tolkien. It reminded me that reading books could be a blast, and that got me thinking about writing again.
Then it hit me. I could do the same… with books. I began thinking seriously about Royce and Hadrian. And that’s how the Riyria Revelations was born. Probably a longer answer than you wanted.
Lisa: Do Royce and/or Hadrian draw any parallels to people in your life, or perhaps yourself?
In order to make characters feel real, I draw on experience, so yes, Royce and Hadrian are both part of me—the glass half-full and the glass half-empty sides. There is a part of me that is chivalrous to a fault, and the other side that is practical to the point of cynicism. My wife insists that while she sees both in me, the dominate side is Royce. I am only five foot eight and have been slender and agile all my life so I think that also adds to it.
The first book I ever enjoyed reading was The Hobbit, and my all-time favorite novels have all been fantasy, but I outgrew the fantasy genre by the time I hit twenty. Of course, there is the problem of language here. What does the term “fantasy” mean in regards to literature? Technically, any book of fiction is a fantasy—as it is a made-up story. When I hit twenty, I started reading Stephen King. This is technically still fantasy, but I never thought of it that way. I also never considered him a horror writer, as strange as that may be because I read The Stand first which I don’t put in that classification. In fact, all the stories by him that I loved, I would never classify as horror. I then went on to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Asimov’s Foundation. I also enjoyed Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—interesting pairing, eh? The fact is, I have spent most of my adult life reading as a means of educating myself rather than for enjoyment, so I never hit on a favorite genre. It wasn’t until I read Rowling’s great series that I remember how much fun it could be. Nowadays, I am playing catch-up trying to read the works of other fantasy writers just so I don’t sound stupid when people ask me about my own genre.
Lisa: As one reads these books, we become drawn more and more to Royce and Hadrian, even though they’re not traditional “good guys”. Why do you think that is?
The short answer is: I planned it that way.
Royce and Hadrian are good guys, they just aren’t prince charmings. When I conceived the series I wanted to avoid the common pitfall of the stereotype fantasy story. You know what I mean: young boy destined for greatness, prophesied to defeat an evil but he has to go on a quest to find the one weapon to do it. There is always an ultimate evil for no other reason than because the author says so. And the good guys are saints. I didn’t want that. I also didn’t want to go the other way with the gritty anti-hero. I like books where I like the main characters. I won’t read books where I don’t. And I like the “bad guys” to be believable, not just “evil.”
So Royce and Hadrian are, at least on the surface, normal guys. They don’t have superpowers, they make mistakes and they have both led hard lives, but they don’t moan about it. That might be the thing right there. When you come to understand what these two have lived through, what awful lives they have led, you sympathize and like them all the more because they don’t complain, and still manage to have a sense of humor. That’s the kind of person people like—at least that’s the kind I do.
Lisa: Your writing is very polished. Did you have any formal training in creative writing? What advice do you have to up and coming writers in the fantasy /sci-fi genres?
Thanks for that. Not everyone is so kind in their assessment of my skills. No, I have no training at all. I’ve never had a class, and I’ve never read a book on writing. I never even did very well in English in school. When I graduated high school, I wanted to do two things, write books, or paint the cover art for books. I went to art school until my scholarship ran out, because I knew I could never be a writer. I was horrible at spelling and grammar. And no that’s not what editors are for. They help—oh yes they help—but you still have to know how to write a sentence.
Lisa: How is it that you are doing it the hard way?
Putting out a six book series, one every six months and bucking the gritty/urban/noir/steampunk trend with a throwback traditional fantasy story without any sex, and hardly any profanity is hard. Writing each novel as a complete story while maintaining a strong story arc is really hard. And doing it through a tiny independent publisher is sort of insane. To get as far as I have—to have you interested enough in my work to do this interview—is amazing as the only source of getting the word out about my books is from myself or my wife—or now from readers who are beginning to spread the word on their own. I wonder how well the books might be doing today if I were published through Tor or Random House, and if a couple of copies of my books were in most bookstores. Being published through little Ridan, I’m not even eligible to submit my work to many publications for review let alone awards. It reminds me of Count Pickering speaking to Hadrian, “But not being noble born, you aren’t allowed to enter a tournament.” I don’t even have a literary agent, although I did just acquire a foreign language rights agent.
Lisa: Why is that?
I’ve had a number of inquiries from France, Germany, Poland and even Random House of Spain asking about the foreign language rights. I never took them seriously but recently, three major publishers in the Czech Republic made offers. They actually sent contracts. I don’t know anything about this sort of thing so it was time to get an agent. There I was with an established book series that has good reviews and—considering my ability to market it—excellent sales, and contracts in hand for foreign rights, and still I had a hard time getting an agent. My wife sort of stumbled on the one we found, and I’m glad she did as she looks to be fantastic.
Lisa: What are your absolute top five favorite books, and why?
- The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series
- The Harry Potter series
- Watership Down
- The Stand
- Atlas Shrugged
A real good litmus test for a good book—like a movie—is if I would read/watch it again. I almost never reread a book, but I have reread all of these. And I think the reason why is because the characters and setting are places and people I honestly enjoy spending time with. I like all sorts of other books. I find them interesting and entertaining, but I love visiting Hogwarts and having lunch with Ron, Harry and Hermione, or wandering through the lush fields of the Shire with Sam and Merry. And it would be exciting to help rebuild the world with Nick and Stu, or just sit in the tall green grass on the high downs with Hazel and Fiver and watch the sun rise on a perfect spring morning.
Lisa: I have to ask this, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was reading Avempartha – there is a character named ‘Thrace’ who appears in this book – is this an homage to Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace?
Sorry. I’ve never seen Battlestar Galactica. Well, no, I take that back, I did watch the pilot, but that was it and I don’t recall the character in question. I try to keep the names of those in a family to be similar. Alric and Arista for example, Theron and his son and daughter, Thad and Thrace were another. All of those were made up off the top of my head. The funny thing is, that when I do that, when I make up stuff like names on the fly as I write, I pause and think, shouldn’t I take some time to really think about this. What if what I write here becomes popular? What if decades later, there are movies and clubs and Broadway plays based on this and they are using this stupid name unduly burdened because it is now ingrained in the collective psyche of society. I thought that about Tur Del Fur—which is hard to say and sounds like the Swedish Muppet chef, but then I laugh at my own insanity wondering why I am spending so much time worrying about that which will never happen.
Lisa: The Emerald Storm is a really fun journey from start to finish. There is this underlying dark thread, though, as if some kind of conflict is brewing underneath all of these layers of plot. There are two more books that have yet to be released in the Riyria Revelations series – can you give us any hints as to what we can expect?
Ha-ha! So now we get to the meaning of this interview. This has all been a ploy to find out what happens next! The series is made up of what I call a very tightly knit weave of a plot. It is like an extremely intricate web of connecting threads. Almost everything in it connects to everything else, and often what appears to be unimportant, is the most important. For example, Avempartha might appear as an aside story. It sets up Nyphron Rising certainly, by getting story threads moving, but it is the bedrock foundation for the sixth book. As a result, it is hard to say a lot without giving too much away. By now, you know that there are unexpected twists in this tale, but the reality is that I saved most of the “revelations” for the last book. The funny thing is that when you finish the fifth book I suspect you will find that hard to believe.
Each story has been different. Different in tone, setting, plot, and outcome. The first two were almost typical fare, the first being nearly a Disney-like fairy tale plot and the second the standard village plagued by the beast scenario. Granted I put my own special twist on these, but you get the idea. The next two don’t fit standard molds at all.
The last two books, I have always thought where the best in the series. If you look at each novel in the series to date, you see the pattern of a build up to the climax that is the most exciting part of the story. If you realize that this whole series was constructed as a single story, you should understand that the last two books will comprise the climax of the series. And I do work hard to make the climax of my books satisfy the reader’s anticipation.
If you have read Storm, then you already should have a very good idea what to expect in Wintertide. The title should be ominous by now. If you have been reading closely you’ll know that many things are all focused on that upcoming holiday. It is the focal point, the confluence of the series. Everything will come down to that date and nothing will be the same after it. The world of Elan is about to change forever. It will be a big change and it will all begin on Wintertide.
Lisa: Are you working on any other short stories or novels? Will any of them take place in Elan? You know us fans are going to need something after the Riyria Revelations series ends.
You sound like my wife. She nearly cried at the end of the series and was depressed for weeks because there was no more to read. Royce and Hadrian have become her friends and she longs to go on more adventures with them. One day she looked at me and marveled, “You can make them come alive again whenever you want to…that’s not fair.”
There are a great many things I could still do with the series. I purposely left a single unanswered plot thread unexplained. It is exceptionally minor insofar as the series is concerned, and I am certain no reader will even be aware of its presence unless I were to point it out—that’s how insignificant it is. But it’s a thread that leads to a huge revelation about the series that I could, if I so chose, use to build a second series on. There are also the obvious additions such as Royce and Hadrian the Early Years. I could also do a trilogy concerning the fall of the First Empire and how Esrahaddon and Jerish save the Heir. And of course there is the vast epic tale of Novron himself. This could easily be another six book series if I ever fully fleshed it out.
But honestly, I never intended to be a sword and sorcery author. To me, it would be like being typecast as an actor. I have lots of other stories I hope to write. Only the fans of Riyria may not like them, as they will be very different; different genres, different styles. I will want to stretch myself, push my limits and see what else I can do.
I already have another novel ready to go, but it is a standalone literary fiction, a much more serious sort of thing written in a completely different style. After that, I will likely release Antithesis. This book I first wrote back in 1985 was originally entitled Wizards. It was the first novel I ever seriously tried to publish. It is a fantasy, but it is set in the modern day and it needs to be completely re-written. I have to take the original, which is the equivalent of a campy 1960’s tv series and turn it into the multi-million dollar, blockbuster, big screen adaptation. My daughter has been waiting on this one for a long time.
Lisa: Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?
Yes. I would like to say, thank you.
I really mean it. As I already mentioned, I’m doing this the hard way and alone I don’t stand a chance. If it wasn’t for the Internet no one would know about this series. And while my wife has done an astounding job of getting the word out through forums and websites, she and I amount to two voices shouting in a very loud wilderness. My books do not greet you as you enter the local Barnes and Noble or Borders, and very few libraries carry it because I’ve never had a review in Publisher’s Weekly or the other publications they rely on.
Nevertheless, more and more people are buying the books. They’re even stealing them—posting PDFs and selling them to readers for the cost of memberships on sharing sites. I don’t so much mind the sharing, but I find the selling distasteful.
So how is it possible that these few unknown books, by an unknown author have done so well? How is it that I have been placed in the same category as Eddings and Feist, or more recently added to a list of names such as Patrick Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, and Joe Abercrombie? I mean, that’s just crazy. And how did my first book, Crown Conspiracy sell out its first printing? It is because readers have taken the time to tell a friend. It is the most effective marketing there is, and the one that no amount of money can buy. So yes, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who handed the book to a friend or family member and said, try this. Or who posted a review on a blog or Amazon, and to you Lisa, for this interview. Without you folks, the entire series would be sitting in a dusty cardboard box along with all the rest of my manuscripts. I owe you big time.
Michael is offering a copy of a book from the Riyria Revelations series to one lucky commenter.
- To enter, ask Michael about his writing or tell us about a favourite fantasy adventurer.
- Open to US and Canada.
- Leave a way to notify you if you should win.
- Blog, tweet, post on Facebook or other social network sites for an extra entry. Leave a comment here to let me know.
- Giveaway open until Midnight, May 5, 2010 EDT.