Monday, October 22, 2012

Author Interview: Michael J. Sullivan

It's a happy day here at Battle Hymns, because Michael J. Sullivan, author of the Riyria Revelations series, is on hand to answer some interview questions. I'm only a third of the way into his debut series, but as you can tell from my review of Theft of Swords it is off to a stellar start.  I could tell you how talented and how much of a nice guy he is, but I think it shows pretty clearly in his answers, so you might as hear it from the man himself.  

Battle Hymns: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Michael J. Sullivan: Sure, I’m a fiercely independent person, who REALLY hates being told what to do. If left to my own devices, I can be very creative and productive. However, if I have someone telling me what to do, or how to do it, I can barely perform.  As such, I don’t do well in a traditional work environment, and it’s best for all involved to keep me isolated and writing stories.

BH: Your path from writing the books contained in Theft of Swords to publication was quite an experience.  Can you tell us about that epic journey?

MJS: Years ago, decades in fact, I used to write with the intention of publication. I created twelve novels in ten years all of which went nowhere. Frustrated, I finally quit (and dramatically vowing never to write creatively again).  After a decade on hiatus, the itch to write couldn't be contained.  My daughter was struggling with reading (she’s dyslexic), and I decided to write a story just for her, myself, my wife, and a few friends.  I wanted it to be fun and fast-paced, similar to the books I had grown up with.  I had no intention on publishing, as I had already been convinced that was a colossal waste of time.

Eventually my wife read the books and made it her mission to “get them out there.” She wrote queries, got hundreds of rejections, found an agent (but nothing became of it), submitted to a small press (got accepted), and eventually created her own company to release the books.  Eventually once she had taken them “as far as she thought they could go,” she, and my foreign rights agent, took the series to New York where it garnered a much different reception.  There were seventeen proposals sent and seven or eight fantasy imprints expressed an immediate interest.  Orbit made a pre-emptive bid, and since they were already high on my list, I signed.  In addition to the English versions there are translations completed, or in process, for twelve other languages.  So I guess my wife accomplished what she had set out for.

BH: What aspects of the book, if any, changed from the independent publication to the publication by Orbit?

MJS: From a story standpoint actually very little changed between the two versions.  By the time Orbit got the books, there were already 70,000 copies sold, and feedback had indicated that the story was solid.  It was also intricately conceived, so pulling on one thread could unravel everything. As such, there wasn’t a lot of room for changes.  Still there were a few things adjusted. Most notability I added a new beginning, which started with our main characters (previously the books had started with the section directly after that).  My editor at Orbit, and feedback from readers, indicated a desire to meet Royce and Hadrian right away. Beyond that, there really were just places where I added a bit more description, or provided clarification, but none of those changes affected the story as a whole.  Of course, there was a full top to bottom re-editing.  Although I had hired many freelancers over the years a book can always be “further polished” and the team at Orbit did a great job with that.

BH: Was it a deliberate decision on your part to make each installment in the series feel self-contained, yet have over-arching plot lines that tie into a greater narrative?

MJS:  Most definitely, and a technique I stole from some favorite television shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I liked how the creators had ongoing aspects that would unfold across the season, but each story had its own conflict and resolution.  Truth be told, I thought of the series much like a television show, but since I didn’t have access to a production company, or an inside track with television executives, I did what I could, which was write a series of books.  To me Revelations has always been a single tale, but much too large to tell all in a single volume.

Because I wasn’t writing for publication, I actually finished all of them before my wife finally found a publisher. This turned out to be very fortunate, because I would sometimes go back and tweak an earlier book as some new insight arose when writing a later one.  This provided for some great weaving which makes the series particularly rewarding for me personally.

BH: What are the plusses and minuses of working with a big publisher in comparison to a small, independent publisher?

MJS: Actually all three paths (self, small, big) have their own plusses and minuses.  Small presses take a lot of the work off your shoulders (copy editing, layout, etc) and are more willing to listen to and incorporate your ideas on things like titles and covers (for instance AMI used a cover that I created).  The downside though, is they are very limited with regards to distribution, and many small publishers struggle financially.  My first publisher didn’t have money to print the second book, and there were times when The Crown Conspiracy showed up as out of stock because the warehouse wouldn’t ship until their back fees were paid.

Self-publishing is great because everything is in your control. You never have to worry about not getting things done “exactly” the way you want them.  But it is also a lot of work.  Whether you do editing and cover design yourself, or have to hire others there is a lot of time spent on those activities. The plus side there, besides the total control, is a better chance at substantial income.  It’s so much easier to earn a living when you make 70% of the sale.

Big publishing has tremendous distribution capabilities, and a team of professionals that really give you enough peace of mind to know that things will be done “right.” This allows me to concentrate on other books. The down side comes in the form of revenue sharing and dealing with infrastructure issues. Publishing has changed a lot but some of the contracts are still antiquated, so Robin’s time is spent getting clauses adjusted to a point where I feel comfortable signing. One thing that I think will need to change in the future is the author’s share on ebooks.  Currently industry standard is for the publisher to get 52.5% and the author to receive 17.5%. This is one of the reasons that so few traditionally published authors can earn a living. 

BH:  Who is your favorite character to write and why?

MJS:  My favorite is probably Myron, a monk of Maribor.  He shows up in books one, five, and six.  In the first book he’s a really bookish, gentle soul.  He’s been isolated from the world for so long that he can see beauty and fascination in something as simple as a cattail. I love his scenes. In one, he is performing a blessing before our main characters ride out to save the day, and then we discover that he was actually blessing the horses. That’s so typically Myron, and my favorite scene in the first book involves him and a “squirrel tree.” Later in the series he comes back as a much different person, yet still one of my favorites. He has a great outlook on life, and completely untouchable by any dangers, because he has found happiness and contentment. 

BH: Who is the biggest influence on your work?

MJS:  Back in the day, when I was teaching myself how to write, I would actually dissect how authors wrote their book, trying to figure out what they did and why.  For instance, I loved how Stephen King developed characters, how Ayn Rand described scenes, how Steinbeck evoked emotion, and the simplicity of prose in Hemingway’s works.  A lot of my early novels were written using some of those techniques, and in some ways it was like learning illustration by copying a picture.  I personally didn’t like it very much, because I hadn’t yet discovered my own voice.  Being so clinical about writing had taken a lot of the joy out of it for me. 

A decade later, it was when I picked up the first Harry Potter book that I had an epiphany. THIS was how fun writing/reading could be. I was transported and found it whimsical, exciting, touching, and most of all fun.  Realizing that I could write something with no other goal then making a book that I wanted to read really helped me to discover my own style, and in so doing the joy of writing returned.

BH:  What inspired you to become a writer?

MJS:  I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but I didn’t “decide” to become a writer. It’s just what I do.  I’ve always told stories, and for the most part I’m inspired by a lack of something to read. Don’t get me wrong…there’s a lot of great books out there…more than can be consumed in ten lifetimes, but it’s hard for me to read others without thinking about how I would do it differently.  That’s not to say that my execution would be better, just that it would suit my preferences more closely. Writing for me is a way to get “exactly” what I want.

BH:  What’s the best part of your job? What’s the worst part of your job?

MJS:  The best part is hearing reactions from people who love what I’ve created, especially from my wife. There’s nothing better than hearing her talk about things that she liked in the books.  I get the same satisfaction from readers, through email or in online forums. They usually say something like, “I don’t mean to bother you…” or “I’m sorry to take up your time,” and I’m always amazed by this.  It’s those letters that fuel me to write.  Coming up with a story is great, but it’s empty and hollow without sharing it with others. 

To be honest, there really isn’t a “worst part.” I feel like a child who wakes each morning with no other responsibility than playing their favorite game. I have complete freedom, very little in the way of pressure, and can set my schedule anyway I wish.  There really isn’t a downside in such an environment, especially since writing is currently paying my bills.  While I would do this if I never made a cent (and in fact did exactly that for several decades), I’m glad my wife no longer has to support the household. For years she was our sole income and I really love giving her what she had given to me.  The freedom from getting up each day and “working for the man.” 

BH:  For you as a writer and/or reader, what qualities make for a good read?

MJS:  Not too long ago I did an almost clinical analysis of my favorite books, and came to a realization that they all shared some common elements.  First off, I want characters that I really care about and would like to have as friends in real life.  Second, is a setting filled with adventure and danger that I would like to experience myself…I like escapism, to be transported. Most importantly, though is whether or not I’m entertained. We get so little free time that I want to make the most of mine. To me that means feeling better after I close the book then before I opened it.  

BH:  What is a day in the life of Michael J. Sullivan like?

MJS:  I get up and head out to a local coffee shop.  I’ll drink a cup while reading the paper on my ipad.  Then I stop in at the grocery store to get whatever will be for dinner that evening. I return home and start my workday by reading a few pages of a really good book. I find it kinds of primes the pump and gets me into the right frame of mind for writing. I generally write until lunch, which will usually produce  around 2,000 words. Now that Robin is home, we’ll make the lunches leisurely, sometimes talking about books past or future. In the afternoons I generally do something physical, bike riding, jogging, taking a walk, or doing a short workout.  I may return to writing, or go online and answer messages and talk to readers or other writers.  The evening meal is spent watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report  on the DVR (my only real TV time). It takes much longer than an hour as we are constantly pausing as we discuss something related or get pulled off on a tangent. In the evenings, I may write some more, or read, or play a video game. I usually end each night with a bit of reading before turning in.

BH:  Name three things you couldn’t live without.

MJS:  Can’t do it…because there’s only one, my wife, Robin. I’m not sure if it is a blessing or a curse.  I guess no matter how you look at it, we’ve had a good life. We met young (I was 18 she was 17) and have been joined at the hip through most of our lives (on three occasions actually sharing the same employer).  But we are many would describe as co-dependent, and I would literally cease to function if she were to pass.  We’re actually hoping to die in some accident that takes us both out at the same time.  If she were to go first, I’m sure I wouldn’t survive a year, and you wouldn’t want to be around me during those last months. 

BH:  Own up to a guilty pleasure.

MJS:  You’re actually the second person to ask this, and I’m just as stumped this time around.  I can’t figure out why if something brings you pleasure there should be any sense of remorse associated with it. In general people consider guilty pleasures things that they would be embarrassed by, but I say if it brings joy, that’s a good thing.  When my wife bikes, she cranks on music and sings (very off key) at the top of her lungs.  Joggers she passes shake their heads and smile.  Most probably think she’s a loon. I feel that sometimes we constrain that which brings us pleasure because we are afraid how others will perceive us.  This is not a problem that children, and some with developmental disabilities, suffer from. They just do what feels good, and could care less what people think. I wish more people of all ages and capabilities did similarly.

BH:  What music are you listening to these days?

MJS:  I’m always on the prowl for new music, and my search is aided often by my daughter who seems to find some really cool stuff. Some recent additions are: Fun, The Piano Guys, and The Flight of the Conchords.

BH:  What’s your all-time favorite album/record/CD?

MJS:  Hard to choose but probably Paul Simon’s Graceland.  At the time I hadn’t heard any music that infused other cultural influences so strongly and it opened up a whole new area of things to explore.  Plus it has some of the most entertaining lyrics I’ve ever heard. It’s brilliant.  

BH:  What was the last concert you went to?

MJS:  In the summers the National Gallery of Art puts on concerts on the National Mall in the Sculpture Garden. We go most Fridays if we are in town. It’s a great time. We bring a blanket, some snacks (cheese, fruit, crackers) and usually get a pitcher or two of Sangria that they sell there, which is pretty good.  I have a lot of friends that know I’ll be there so people just show up. You never know who will come until it happens, but it’s always a good time.

BH:  Are you a comics reader? If so, what’s something you read recently that you enjoyed? Who’s an artist you love?

MJS:  No I’m not a big comics reader, but I do have an artist that I absolutely love…my daughter.  She has a comic, Ugly Vampire that she does free online. It’s about Jerry, a not-too-bright guy who is a bit of a loser and decides to become by a vampire so he can be beautiful, immortal, and cool.  Problem is after he’s bitten, he’s still the same old ugly, fat guy…and will be forever.  She’s also helped me with a project called, Plotholes, where we poke fun at fantasy writing and publishing.  She’s even had done a comic with Royce and Hadrian (my two main leads) which is pretty funny.  I’m thinking about having her and a friend do a comic version of The Viscount and the Witch, a short story I wrote a while back. I hope she takes me up on it.

BH:  What book or books have you read lately that you thought were especially good?

MJS:  I’ve been very impressed with Anthony Ryan’s Bloodsong. There are a lot of similarities between us. He’s a self-published author, who has now signed on with ACE.  It’s not without its flaws, but what he does right far outweighs any nits of criticism. Few new writers have the patience to let the story unfold slowly and naturally.  He has mastered that art of restraint, and knows how to pull the reader along a bit at a time.  I except to be seeing a lot more from him in the future. I recommend picking his book up now while it’s just $2.99.  You’ll be able to say you “knew him when.”

BH:  If you found yourself in a typical fantasy setting, what would be your weapon of choice?

MJS:  Hmmm….in role-playing games I usually choose wizards. I think standing in the background while someone else takes the damage is more to my liking. In general I’m pretty agile, and avoiding attacks would be my modus operandi. So I guess something small, like a dagger.

BH:  What would you like to see change or see more of in the Fantasy genre?

MJS:  I actually think right now there is a lot of diversity in the genre, and that’s a good thing.   I’m not really big on the idea of limiting choices. Just because I may not be drawn to paranormal romance, or some of the recent dark-and-gritty releases doesn’t mean that I want to see them gone.  The more variety, the more readers, the more readers, the more authors that can earn a living, so it’s all good.  For me personally, yes I would like to see more books that would excite me…which means a bit more fun and less dour. But that’s not really such a big issue as I’m in a position to write that type of stuff to entertain myself.

BH:  What does the future hold for you?  Any new projects you can spill some beans on?

MJS:  Just recently Orbit announced that I’ll have a new series coming out in August 2013, The Riyria Chronicles.  This is a prequel that tells “the other side” of The Riyria Revelations. In Revelations we see how the team known as Riyria ends, and inChronicles we see how it all begins.  I’ve finished two books in that series, The Crown Tower and The Rose and the Thorn.Whether there will be any more after that will depend on the readers.  I don’t want Royce and Hadrian to overstay their welcome, and while I do have ideas for more Chronicle tales, I’m not going to write them if there is no interest.

I’ve also written an urban fantasy called Antithesis, which is currently being reviewed by Orbit.  If they decide to pass, I’ll likely self-publish it. This is a story of two opposing individuals who each wield magical power limited only by their imagination. They keep the world in balance.  Usually the power is passed down to someone who has been trained to receive it.  But in this story, an untimely death has it passing to an innocent bystander. Not only does this person not understand the responsibilities of this power, but they also aren’t aware that they are being hunted by the other party.

I’m about fifty percent done with Hollow World. A science fiction novel that wasn’t even on my radar to write, but I got inspiration from a little short story I created called Greener Grass. Originally it was for an anthology, but it didn’t fit the theme as well as I had wanted, so I released that as a little self-published short.  The concept is based loosely on John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”  It’s set in a world with no religion, countries, or war…and explores whether this would be a utopia, or a bland homogenized existence.  I’m not sure how my existing readers will feel about it, but I LOVE it and my experience has been that if you write something you want to read, there will be an audience for it somewhere.

Last but not least…I’m going to be about half a year behind on my next big series.  I’ve ben plotting it for several years now and had intended to start writing it this fall.  Hollow World kind of jumped in front of it, so I won’t start it until early next year.  Like The Riyria Revelations I plan to write all the books in this series before publishing any of them, so it’s going to take awhile to produce.  That’s why I have these other four stories: The Crown TowerThe Rose and the Thorn, Antithesis, and Hollow World queued up.  They should give people some stuff to chew on while I’m off writing this next series.

BH:  Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?

MJS:  As always I want to take this opportunity to say thanks so much for all your support.  It’s the readers that allow me to live a dream that I didn’t think was possible.  In many respects I think any success my books have is only partially my own. The rest comes from the readers who recommend them, buy extra copies as gifts, leave reviews, and help to get the books noticed.  I feel like we have a great symbiotic relationship, and I’m just glad that I don’t have to earn a living at a day job. They give me plenty of time to work on the books, and I hope to continue to produce works they enjoy reading.

Oh, and one last thing. Feel free to drop me a line anytime at As I’ve said, hearing from people is my real fuel, and getting letters actually increases my productivity by many factors. So if you want to see me write faster, then stop by and say hello.


Michael, As always, a big thank you to you for taking time out of your busy writing schedule to be part of Battle Hymns.  I had a lot of fun, and I hope you did too!  Much Appreciated!


Bryce L. said...

Great interview and I am very happy about the Flight of the Conchords reference. Best. Show. Ever. (well, besides AD)

Ryan said...

Thanks Bryce! Agreed, Arrested Development is the best show ever.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic interview! It was great hearing how publishing the book came to be.

Ryan said...

Thanks Anon! I had a great time. Michael was a lot of fun to work with.

Agreed, it was cool to get his perspective on publishing.