An Interview With Michael J. Sullivan on THEFT OF SWORDS
When did you know you wanted to be an author?
I was really young, no more than seven or eight, and me and a friend were playing hide and seek, and I found a typewriter in their basement. It was a huge black metal upright with small round keys. I completely forgot about the game and loaded a sheet of paper. I swear the very first thing I wrote was: “It was a dark and stormy night, and a shot rang out.” I thought I was a genius.
When my friend found me, he was clearly oblivious to the value of the discovery I had made. He wanted to go outside and do something fun. I thought about explaining to him that I couldn’t imagine anything that could be more fun than what I was doing. I looked at the blank page and wondered what might come next. Was it a murder mystery? A horror story? I wanted to find out; I wanted to fill the page; I wanted to see where the little keys would take me.
We ended up going alley-picking until my mother called me for dinner. Alley-picking was the art of walking down the alley between the houses and seeing if there was anything cool being thrown away that we could take for ourselves. I had hoped that someone was throwing away a typewriter—no one was, and I went to bed that night thinking about that typewriter, thinking about that page, and that first sentence.
What made you start writing? Were you a big reader? Did you ever finish that first sentence?
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I hated reading in my youth. The first novel I tried was a book called Big Red, which was about a boy and his dog. I was on my way to my sister’s farm and would have nothing to do for four hours. This was before DS’s, DVD’s, VCRs—before all the entertainment acronyms. It was also before Sirius and I knew that twenty minutes after we left Detroit, there would be nothing but static on the radio—hence the reason for the book. I finished it out of a sense of perseverance rather than enjoyment. When I was forty I wanted to be able to say, “Yes! I read a book once! It was excruciating, and took half a year, but by god, I did it!” Then whomever I was speaking to would look upon me with awe and know they were in the presence of a learned man. The reality was, the book was boring and put me to sleep.
Then I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I loved it in a way I never dreamed it was possible to love a book. When I closed the last page of The Return of the King, I was miserable. My favorite pastime was over. As I mentioned before, this was before all those letters, before Xboxes and PS twos and threes, back when television only had three stations and cartoons were something only shown on Saturday morning. I went to the bookstore with my brother looking for another series like that one and was dismayed to come up empty.
There was nothing to read. I sat in my room miserable. I made the mistake of telling my mother I was bored and she put me to work cleaning the front closet. I pulled out what looked like a plastic suitcase.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“That? That’s your sister’s old typewriter. Been in there for years.”
I never finished cleaning the closet.
Can you tell us about your background in writing? Where did you go to college? Do you have a MFA?
Usually this question comes from aspiring writers, and they always look disappointed when I tell them the answer—I never took a class in writing or English, beyond those required in high school. I never read a book on creative fiction. I never went to a seminar or a writer’s conference. And I didn’t attend my first writer’s group until after I had published my first book. What I know about writing I taught myself.
My family didn’t have the money to help me pay for college. My father, a crane operator at Great Lake Steel, died when I was nine and after that my mother paid the bills with the money she made as a gift wrapper for Hudsons department store and my social security checks (that stopped coming when I turned 18.) Still I was pretty good at Art and received a scholarship to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, but it ran out just after my first year. I did manage to land a job as an illustrator/keyliner though. Then kids came along and my wife made more money, so I stayed home. I was twenty-three.
By this time we had moved to the remote northern corner of Vermont, literally over a thousand miles away from everyone we knew. I had lots of time on my hands, particularly when our daughter was taking naps and the idea of trying to write a publishable book rose to the top of my conscious. I was teaching myself to write by reading books. I went to the local general store (yes, just like in Green Acres), and looked for the books with the golden seal indicating they were Nobel or Pulitzer Prize winners. These were not the books I would normally choose to read. At the time, I was into Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert, but I was trying to learn—so I figured I should learn from the best, right? I purposely forced myself to read widely, especially the stuff I did not like. They were the ones that always won the awards, the abysmally boring novels with paper-thin plots and elaborate prose.
I would pick a particular author, read several books by them, and then write a novel using what I had gleaned from reading their books. I didn’t just write a short story—I wrote whole novels, then rinsed and repeated with the next author. I found something in each writer’s style, or technique that I could appreciate, and worked at teaching myself how to do what they did. In a way, I was like that Silar from the television series, Heroes, where I stole powers from other authors and added them to my toolbox. From Steinbeck I learned the transporting value of vivid setting descriptions. From Updike I found an appreciation for indirect prose that could more aptly describe something by not describing it. From Hemingway I discovered an economy for words. From King, his ability to get viscerally into the minds of his characters…and so on. In addition, I wrote in various genres: mysteries, science fiction, horror, coming-of-age, literary fiction—anything and everything. I did this for ten years.
My writing improved with each novel. I finally wrote what I thought was something worthy of publishing and spent maybe a year and a half trying to get an agent before I finally I gave up. Ten years and untold thousands of hours is a long time to work at something and achieve at least what I thought at the time to be nothing. Ten years, ten books, a ton of rejections and not a single reader. It was time to give up this pipe dream.
So how did you “get back on the horse” as it were? What got you to start writing again?
It was years later, we had left Vermont and were living in North Carolina. The kids were old enough for daycare and I went back into advertising. I had been a one-man-band running an advertising department at a software company, and then left that to create my own advertising agency where I was the creative director. As for writing, I had vowed never to write another creative word.
Years passed, and my second daughter, Sarah, was struggling in school. She’s dyslexic, which makes reading difficult. Not being good at something, means it isn’t any fun. So I got her books, good books, books I loved. The Hobbit, Watership Down, Narnia Chronicles, Chronicles of Prydain, and that new book that I was hearing about—that thing about the kid who was a wizard or something…Harry Potter. It was sitting around on a table one afternoon. Beautiful brand new book—I’m a sucker for a pretty book. I cracked it and started reading and was transported. What I liked the most was how easy it was to read—it was just plain fun.
I stared writing again, but this time for the sheer fun of it and with the hopes of making something for my daughter that would help her to like reading. I wasn’t writing in anyone’s style. I was done trying to make the great American novel. I just wanted to enjoy making something I would like to read. Still the authors I had studied were there, lurking beneath the surface. When I wanted to paint a vivid setting, Steinbeck was whispering in my ear. When I hunted for a special turn of phrase, Updike lent me his hounds, King gave me a roadmap into the character’s heads and when I wrote a run-on sentence, “Papa” scowled at me.
Why did you decide on a series instead of writing a single book and adding sequels after?
It may seem strange, but two of the biggest inspirations for The Riyria Revelations were Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The thing about them that I found fascinating was the layered plots. B5 in particular was amazing in that the entire five-year series was mapped out before the first episode was shot. I think this might be the first, and only, time that’s ever happened. Yet it allowed for the unique opportunity for viewers to watch episodes and look for clues to the bigger questions that were hinted at from time to time and in small doses. In addition, Straczynski—the show’s creator—layered his plots, something that was mimicked to a lesser degree in Buffy. This really impressed me and I wondered if it could be done in a book series. So I actually mapped out the entire series before writing it. I was never making a series of books, but rather one long story in six episodes.
You use a lot of humor in your books, talk to me about that.
During the late sixties and early seventies a lot of the movies were pretty depressing. Many of them were tough dramas like Chinatown or were dreary account of the aftermath of Vietnam such as Coming Home. For me, it was a terrible time to be a movie goer. Then I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I really liked the mix of drama and humor. Sometimes at the most tense spots a bit of humor is the perfect ingredient, and to me, far more realistic.
I also mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that’s another great example. Joss Whedon is a master of mixing drama and humor. I don’t presume to put myself into his league but the hours of enjoyment I had in watching something I wouldn’t normally be attracted to was definitely an influence on me.
Royce and Hadrian are a great pair, where did the inspiration for them come from?
It’s funny because many people assume I’m a big fan of Fahred and the Grey Mouser, but I’ve never read any of those stories. Any similarities are purely coincidental. I already mentioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and there was a television show called I Spy that I enjoyed growing up and I’m sure at a subconscious level there is a lot of that seeping into them, but their origins actually go way, way, back—more than twenty years. It was when I was living in Vermont and to help pass the cold boring winters I started writing a chain story with two other friends. It basically started with two characters walking into a tavern and getting together a crack team to go on an adventure into an ancient dungeon. We would write a few pages and mail it on to the next to add to the tale. Yes it was long ago…before there was email.
My friends soon became bored, and not too happy that I would rewrite the parts they wrote, but I really loved the concept of two buddies, each with their own strengths, each very different, but having a relationship that really works for them. My daughter tells me its classic bromance, but that’s a term that came into vogue long after Royce and Hadrian came to life. I really like creating characters that I would like to hang out with. Being a writer means you get to create your own imaginary friends.
How did you decide on the writing style for the series?
The Riyria Revelations was born out of my trying something new. My last novel before this, even though it was written years previously, was a true literary fiction piece. Short on plot, long on character development, with sentences that are composed with great care and require a tremendous amount of contemplation and polishing.
As I already mentioned, I loved the fun of Harry Potter. This wasn’t Steinbeck, it was simple, and light, and just a good enjoyable read. Riyria just flowed from my head to the keyboard. I wrote the first book in a month, the second a month later. Its style was designed to be light. I had a huge story to tell, one of complex themes, numerous characters and dozens of twists where things are not always what they seem. This idea would be unmanageable in a heavy handed style. I’m already asking a great deal of the reader—to keep track of everything that happens over the course of six separate novels as if they were one long book. To make the trip as comfortable as possible for my readers I attempted a style I had never tried before—invisibility.
The idea is to make the story pop off the page and make the writing disappear. Neither awkward prose nor eloquent phrases should distract the reader from immersion in the action and the world unfolding before them. I have needed on many occasions to rewrite passages that were too pretty; too sophisticated for fear the reader would notice them and pause to reflect. I have other works that do this. For the Riyria Revelations I wanted to keep it simple. The result I have discovered, much to my delight, is a book that reads like a movie in the reader’s mind. As you can tell a lot of my references have been from tv and movies, and I think that also sets the tone and pace in these books. I’m not so much trying to create another Lord of the Rings, so much as a good old fashioned Errol Flynn movie or sixties western.
This then is the “light-hand” approach that some have read about on my website. While I know that I am not the first to employ it, it remains something of a rarity in the fantasy realm. For me this is a great disappointment, for while I enjoy a beautifully written novel—I love a great story.
Why did you choose to use such established fantasy tropes in your series?
For years now, I have heard fans of the traditional “Tolkienquese” fantasy novels lament the repetitive themes and exhausted archetypes of the genre. They are tired of the same old hero-vanquishing-evil and want something new, something more real, more believable. Which to me sounds like someone saying they love chocolate, they just wished it wasn’t so chocolaty and that it tasted more like vanilla. Many writers struggle to appease, whether that means turning an old theme on its head, or going for the gritty and morbid. Over the last few decades this trend has resulted in fantasy going dark. Evil often wins. Heroes don’t exist.
This happened before.
The motion picture industry turned out happy endings for decades, then in the Sixties things began to change. Gritty, realistic, films began to pop up and anti-heroes like The Man with No Name arrived in the Italian western. The trend solidified in the Seventies, with moviemakers like Scorsese, De Laurentis, Coppola, and Kubrick who often focused on complex, and unpleasant themes. It was theorized that the public was tired of the old good-triumphs-over-evil stories because it was so out of sync with the realities of the American experience during the age of Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution.
Then Star Wars debuted in 1977 and everything began to change again.
I remember seeing Star Wars the weekend it debuted. I wasn’t expecting anything and I was debating between it and the cartoon movie Wizards. Only one early review for Star Wars was out, a small block article in The Detroit News that slammed it for being unoriginal and using just about every movie cliché that existed, but did add, that it was surprisingly entertaining. It was the comment about movie clichés that tipped the scales for me. I never cared for the gritty realism of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. I liked the old films, the ones I saw on television that I was too young to have seen at a theater. When the movie ended and the credits were rolling, I had one thought—so that’s a movie.
I saw the same scenario play out to some degree in the fantasy book world. This time it was a novel series by a new author who made the unforgivable mistake of writing a hero-story using every clichéd trapping available. It was actually the tale of a young boy destined to defeat an evil dark lord and save the world from destruction. It even had an old mentor wizard guiding him as well as a motley crew of humorous sidekicks (not unlike Star Wars.) According to the professed mentality of the consumer, the books should have been laughable. In serious times, people don’t want trite tales of do-gooders with happy endings. They should have been panned as the worst kind of old-fashioned echo. Instead, there is a Harry Potter theme park in Florida now.
So I have to wonder—what’s the deal?
An aspiring writer friend of mine was working on a book in which a talking cat plays an important role. He presented part of his story to a writer’s workshop and the overwhelming response was that the talking cat was cliché—a tired device as old as Alice in Wonderland. He was depressed afterward and over drinks asked me if his story was even worth pursuing anymore, as it wouldn’t work without the cat. I told him that the cat doesn’t matter. All that matters is if the story is good and if it is well written.
You see, I don’t think people so much hate to read the same type of story, they just hate to read bad stories. There are an infinite number of ways to combine old ideas to create new books. If the plot is good, if the reader cares for the characters, if the setting feels real, then it doesn’t matter if it’s about talking cats, or boys destined to defeat an evil dark lord. And trying to write a completely original story is sort of like trying to compose music with all original notes. It’s not necessary, and I’m not even certain it’s possible.
Some people have told me that I should alter the names of things to make the world more unique, less generic, but I chose to use elves and dwarves, kings and queens, castles and churches, precisely because everyone knows what they are—I don’t have to explain them. The less time I have to take explaining the basics of my world, the more time I have to tell a great story and the less work a reader has to go through to imagine themselves in the world.
How did you get published?
Well as I mentioned, I wasn’t planning on publishing. I had put that aspect behind me. But, I did want my books to be read…heck all authors do. Originally I gave it to a few friends and they, not surprisingly express their enjoyment…but hey they are my friends so I wouldn’t expect less.
I mentioned my daughter is dyslexic. This means she has a few strange quirks. She is easily distracted by the color of the background on a computer screen, whether a door is left a jar, or a light is on in another room. When I finished the Crown Conspiracy I presented her with a stack of double spaced 8 ½” by 11” double spaced pages and she looked at me as if I was crazy.
“I can’t read it this way…you said you were writing me a book…I need binding, I need a smaller page size.”
I just sighed.
For anyone who has read my blog, or read or listened to any of my other interviews you know that my wife is the engine behind my writing. She is an extremely competent person who will break any door and rise over any challenge—even something as daunting as publishing. And she is a great business person. So when I finally resigned myself that I should give publishing one more chance. I laid my plan well. I wrote a terrible query letter and presented it to my wife along with my inept plan of mailing it to an agent a month for the next twelve months.
“Seriously?” she told me with a raised eyebrow. “Send me a copy to rewrite and go back to your editing…I’ll take care of this.”
Yes! I thought. Now I just might have a chance.
Robin was the one who after a hundred or so rejections got Aspirations Media (a small independent press based in Minnesota) to publish my first book. They had planned on putting out the second book in April 2008, but in March they informed us they really didn’t have the cash for the printing. We negotiated the rights back and published the next four ourselves under the Ridan Label, a publishing company Robin set up. When the original print run of The Crown Conspiracy sold out that reverted to us as well. By October of 2010 we had kept up the breakneck pace of releasing one book every six months and saw a nice following both from readers and book bloggers.
With the release of book 5 the sales went up exponentially. For the first time in my writing career I was actually contributing some money to the household. And was even able to pay off some pretty high credit card debt we had built when my single income wife had been laid off not once but three times over a two year period – OUCH!
A few months earlier, we had several publishers in the Czech Republic asking for foreign rights. Knowing that there was no way she could handle this on her own, Robin went in search of an agent to broker this deal. And landed Teri Tobias (who had sold foreign rights for Dan Brown and Patrick Rothfuss). She had left her position as Foreign Rights Director at Sanford J. Greenburger and Associates to start her own agency.
The books were doing so well by the fall of 2010 that it got Robin thinking that there might be an opportunity to try New York again. Neither of us thought it would happen, or so fast but to our amazement we received an offer from Orbit in just a couple of weeks. So Riyria has taken a strange path. It has been published through a traditional small press, self-published (primarily as ebooks), and now through a big-six publisher.