Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Interview: Stephen Hunt

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.


Stephen Hunt won the WH Smith New Talent Award in 1994 and now runs SF Crowsnest. The Court of the Air is his latest book, published under Tor in the US, while its sequel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, is now available in the UK.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, let's talk about your latest books, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves and The Court of the Air. How long have you been working on this series? What was the inspiration behind the series?

I started writing ‘The Court of the Air’ in 2005, picked up HarperCollins Voyager as publisher in 2006, and saw the novel hit the bookshops in 2007. For the novel, I really wanted to create a page-turning fantasy adventure set against the backdrop of a 18th/19th century level society that would give me more scope for using sword play, u-boats, airships and machine guns than the standard furry-pants-N-elves style fantasy books clogging the shelves.

‘The Kingdom Beyond the Waves’ is the follow-up to ‘The Court of the Air’, although both are standalone novels, albeit sharing some of the main characters. That was a very deliberate decision. I love Bernard Cornwall’s ‘Sharpe’ books, and would personally take an interlinked series like his, over a ‘you have to read the last ten books to get into volume number eleven’-type fantasy series any day.

I basically wanted to write what I’d quite fancied reading, but found depressingly little of on the bookstore shelves (although David Gemmell comes close with his ‘Jon Shannow’ series, as does Frank Herbert with his ‘Dune’ stories).

‘The Court of the Air’ follows two orphans on the run being pursued across the Kingdom of Jackals by assassins and trying to work out why in the world they’ve been targeted, before dragging in the eponymous Court of the Air of the title – a secret society based on a floating zeppelin city looking to control the development of the future by modelling the world on steam-driven computers called ‘transaction engines’.

‘The Kingdom Beyond the Waves’ features a university professor traveling deep into a dangerous jungle by u-boat to find a lost civilization that holds the secret to creating the perfect pacifist utopian society. Inevitably, she discovers that utopia comes at a terrible cost. Well, they always do, don’t they?

At this point in time, do you foresee an "end" to the series or are you more of the mindset that you'll work on the series for as long as readers and publishers will allow you to?

There’s definitely a full-blown space opera or two lurking inside me, but outside of that, I aim to keep expanding the Jackelian fantasy world of ‘The Court of the Air’ and ‘The Kingdom Beyond the Waves’ for as long as it retains my engagement and interest, I think. My role model is the excellent and criminally underrated Trigan Empire series by Don Lawrence (which fans of colourful British comic book art may dimly recall): it always seemed like there was another amazing adventure-packed vista hiding just around the corner and off the side of the map. There are a few corners of my Jackelian map yet to be pushed into, methinks, and some great fun to be had getting there.

What is it about steampunk that appeals to you?

I would argue that I’m writing fantasy with a light blend of science fiction stirred into the mix, rather than steampunk. My Jackelian society is obviously set at a late Georgian/early Victorian technological level, though, so I can see how the label gets applied. For myself, however, steampunk is the proper alternative history jobbie with walk-on parts for Sherlock Homes, Captain Nemo and Queen Victoria. I haven’t, to date, done that - Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ already appears to have that territory well and truly claimed [it].

My last few novels have been far more Moorcock and Jack Vance, rather than the Wild Wild West (I always feel I should precede that now with a wicky-wicky-wicked: thanks, Will Smith), and I’m far happier following in their tail wind without all the faux-‘By Jove, Sir Anthony, tis’ that devil Moriarty I spy’ dialogue. Or, for that matter, the painstaking historical research trying to work out if the hansom cab clocks on a 1865 Lavinia-type model were made by the United Clock Corp of Brooklyn, New York or someone entirely different.

In your opinion, what are the significant changes in your writing style or skill compared to your first novel, For the Crown & The Dragon?

There’s thirteen years between those two novels, so a world of difference for myself as a person. One was written by a kid a couple of years out of college, creating this mad unique thing that was labeled ‘flintlock fantasy’ by the press, the other was written by a cynical, jaded old geezer (well, it feels like it sometimes). Your life changes, your world-view changes, your tastes in reading alter, everything changes.

How did Tor end up being your US publisher? What were the difficulties in originally finding a UK publisher for the book?

It won’t help the morale of budding authors reading this, but I oddly didn’t run into any difficulties. When I decided to do a second novel, John Jarrold – my soon-to-be agent – said he’d take me on as his first client having recently left the book trade as an editor, and he managed to kick off a bidding war on ‘The Court of the Air’ between various British publishers who were biting my arm off to take the novel on.

After HarperCollins Voyager won the UK auction, they then went on to sell the rights to publishers in Japan, Russia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and of course, Tor in the USA. I fully realize this isn’t the standard publishing tale, though – with the piles of rejection letters and the accompanying pain. From zero to international bestseller in ten seconds… it still feels surreal to me sometimes.

Have you written any short stories lately or are novels your current end-goal?

No short stories at all for about eight years. I’ve been approached quite a few times by editors of anthologies to write them, but I’ve regrettably had to turn them all down due to extreme time poverty. I hold down a very stressful day job and it’s a war of attrition to find enough time to devote to my novels, let alone doing shorts, which always take a disproportionate amount of time to write.

What's your writing process/routine like?

A little every day, religiously, fitted in around the day job. Weekends, evenings and holidays are my best buddies! The commute is full of adventure in the Kingdom of Jackals, not a chore.

When did you know that you wanted to be a professional writer? What steps did you take to become one?

My pre-fiction career once involved nearly a decade working at various national newspapers and magazines in the UK as editor, publisher and writer – both online and print work. I happened into that field more or less by accident, as having mastered early desktop publishing software like Quark and Illustrator, I found my technical skills highly in demand… and from that point, more or less naturally moved into a more mainstream publishing career. It was all very accidental, as my college degrees were in marketing/business studies, and later, graphic design.

How have RPGs impacted you as a writer?

Not enormously, to be honest. I used to play a little when I was at High School. At college I graduated to PBM (an early form of MMOG, pre internet), and that led to writing reviews of games for magazines like Flagship and Roleplayer Independent… my first published work. I guess it gave me the confidence that I could write and get material published, which is priceless. Start small, and then work your way up to bigger things.

Do you currently still have time to game? What are/were the games you played?

None. My wife has wisely banned all computer games from the house, too. I’d love to have the time to play something like Eve Online, which looks cracking. D&D, Traveller and the first edition of Warhammer were sadly more my era. Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum, for the computer gaming side of the hobby. I loved painting and assembling all the Citadel war game figures, too.

Let's move on to SF Crowsnest. What made you decide to purchase ProtoStellar?

It was going to shut down, and knowing the exiting editor/owner (who was moving back to the UAE), I thought it would be fun to take over a SFF zine to practice my then new DTP skills on. Quark 1.0, to be exact.

What made you finally settle on SF Crowsnest as the magazine's title?

SFcrowsnest.com was established back in the early 1990s, and AltaVista was the main search engine everyone used. I thought AltaVista = high-place to get a good view: Crow’s nest = high-place to get a good view. This’ll be the AltaVista for the science fiction and fantasy world on the web! www.SFcrowsnest.com was born!

What was the turning point that made you decide to take the magazine online?

Cost. Each copy of the zine made a loss of something like £300 an issue – that was a year’s basic hosting, without the crippling hassle of distribution. If you build it, they shall come… and in those early days of the Internet, they did.

Is the site self-sustaining? If so, how does it accomplish this?

Sadly not. I usually pay about £3000 a year to keep it going out of my own pocket. Online advertising and affiliate fees are derisory and don’t even cover the cost of the basic bandwidth, let alone all the associated extra software/hardware costs.

What exactly is that you do as publisher? How different is it from the duties of its current editor Geoff Willmetts?

The split these days is that I handle the technical/coding/graphic design issues and do the news editor job (as well as being the sugar daddy paying the bills) – Geoff sits in the book review editor role and handles all the contributors and slush pile etc. We muck in wherever and however, though. We’ve been doing SFcrowsnest.com together now for about thirteen years online, but ironically, we’ve never actually met face-to-face, although we do e-mail each other every day.

What are the current goals of the magazine?

Lose less money...

What was the biggest challenge in running the magazine when it was in print? When it was online?

In print: just getting the damn thing out there and into the shops. Online: trying to develop a technical infrastructure capable of handling 700,000 users and 40 million hits a month without breaking the Stephen Hunt retirement fund.

In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the publishing industry?

Less than you’d think. It’s great for marketing/selling your offline products (aka free e-books to ramp your print sales), but making money out of actually being online? Very hard. Porn, gambling and vertical market information services are about the only areas that can generate cash just from putting content online – for most mainstream publishers and broadcasters, their web sites are just infinitely deep money pits. As for record companies and, increasingly, TV/movie companies, hey, the web just came and ate their lunch… leaving Steve Jobs laughing all the way to the First Bank of iPod.

For the geek question of the day, PC or Mac?

I own a few of both. I used to work for Apple, and we wore T-shirts that read IBM = ‘I should have bought Macintosh.’ That being said, there’s a lot of technical coding stuff that can still only be found on the PC. With Bootcamp, the Windows/MacOS faith wars are a little easier to navigate without getting roasted… the fastest PC in the world just became a Mac.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write a lot. Read even more (and wider than the SFF genre too, to hone your craft).

How about advice for aspiring magazine publishers?

Take a thousand pounds/dollars that would pay for an absolutely great vacation for yourself, douse it in lighter fuel, then throw it on the bonfire and hope that you’ll find a diamond among the ashes. That’s your chances of getting your money back in the publishing game.

Advice for aspiring SF Crowsnest contributors?

Send those reviews, short stories and articles in, as we’ve got Catholic tastes, zero budget and a really frakking big readership.

Anything else you want to plug?

Well, I’ve just had the beautifully rendered cover back from HarperCollins Voyager for my third book set against the backdrop of the Jackelian milieu – ‘The Rise of the Iron Moon’, due for early 2010 publication in the UK.

The paperback of ‘The Court of the Air’ will be hitting the US later this year via Tor, as will the hardback for ‘The Kingdom Beyond the Waves’ early in 2009.

The paperback of ‘The Kingdom Beyond the Waves’ is, as we speak, also rolling out in the UK for a September 2008 launch.

It still feels like early days to me, but the fantasy books have all been selling well and the critic/fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, so what can I say?

Rule Jackelia, Jackelia Rules the Clouds.