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Straightforward & Unadorned Adventure:
A Conversation with Michael J. Sullivan
With The Riyria Revelations, Michael J. Sullivan wrote the books he wanted to read: fun adventures about loyalty and friendship. He wrote all six installments of the series before releasing the first through a small press, and he later self-published the rest at six-month intervals. His readership grew steadily, and by the fourth or fifth novel it was clear—in many ways, including financial—that the series was a hit. Lighthearted and rollicking, Sullivan's "buddy tales" are set in a world of betrayal and injustice, relaying the adventures of a thief named Royce Melborn and a mercenary named Hadrian Blackwater.
"Royce and Hadrian form the two sides of my personality," says Sullivan. "Imagine the angel and devil on your shoulders. That's them. Most of the time I am Hadrian, dreaming of being the hero, of achieving something worthwhile. I believe in the inherit goodness of people. If given the chance, they'll rise to the occasion. However, in serious situations, it's Royce that comes out, as we are both very protective of the ones we love. I try to keep him at bay, and Royce can be a difficult person to befriend. You have to prove yourself to him, but once you do, heaven help the person who threatens you. Luckily, I get to be Hadrian most of the time. Even Royce doesn't like to be Royce."
Sullivan's prose, as he says below, is "straightforward and unadorned." His plotting is remarkably consistent over the course of the whole series. He employs traditional fantasy tropes but never takes them too seriously. His world is gritty but never glum, realistic but still wondrous. Perhaps most importantly, his is a world of both humor and hope—the books were written for his daughter first, and general readership second.
In November of 2011, Orbit began releasing The Riyria Revelations over a three-month period as Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron. Each volume contains two novels. With the exception of some line editing, they scarcely deviate from the originals. Below, Sullivan talks about the Big Three of craft —character, plot, and setting—as well as the arc of his career.
In what ways have your children influenced your writing life?
In many ways you can say that they enabled my writing. When we had our first child, my wife and I decided that one of us should concentrate on raising her. Seeing as how Robin's electrical engineering career made significantly more than my commercial artist work, the logical choice was for me to be the one to stay at home. One of the side benefits was that I had time on my hands while Rebecca napped. Since early childhood I had enjoyed writing, so I used my free time to pursue creating novels as more than just a hobby.
Later, after years of rejections, I had given up on writing. My children had grown up and were now in school, so I had returned to commercial art and started my own advertising agency. My then thirteen-year-old daughter had been having difficulty reading—she's dyslexic—so I decided to write something specifically for her. As she preferred to read stories in book form, rather than typed double-spaced manuscript pages, she prodded me into considering publishing again. The rest, as they say, is history.
What's the fun part of writing fiction for you?
This question suggests that there's a portion that isn't fun, but I've yet to encounter that. So I'll just mention the part I enjoy the most, which is creation. I love inventing things. One of my favorite school assignments had been a sixth grade geography project. I had been given a blank piece of paper and asked to draw a map of an island and inhabit it with whatever I wanted. I drew mountains, rivers, forests, and valleys, then I developed various tribes of people with different traditions and histories. I had a blast, but I think I scared the teacher. She got far more than she had been expecting.
So, yeah, the ability to create worlds and characters and put them into impossible predicaments and seeing how it affects them is pretty darn cool. They say some physicians have god complexes, but as a writer I actually get to play god. Can there be a better job?
Where does a novel usually start for you: image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether? And how do you develop the novel from there?
Each novel is different. In some cases it might be a single question that begs to be answered, such as, "What would you do with unlimited power?" Other times I may have a character or several that I really enjoy, and I'm just looking for the right setting and predicament to place him into. Creating isn't a science; it's random.
For the most part I'm inspired by a lack of something I want to see or read. That's kind of how I got started with The Riyria Revelations. Because my books have many traditional elements, I've heard some people say they are not new or original. I wish that were true. I would love it if I could go to any bookstore and pick up another series just like it. Only I can't. I know of no other series that is a fun adventure aimed at an adult audience (but not littered with profanity, gruesome violence, and pointless, gratuitous sex) that is easy to read with endearing characters set in a world that is as often pleasant as it is frightening. Rowling's Potter books comes the closest, but those are young-adult. Tolkien comes next, but his aren't nearly as easy to read or as fast-paced. So while the elements in the story are as familiar as a gun in a detective thriller, or poison in a murder mystery, The Riyria Revelations are unique as far as the books I'm familiar with.
Can you talk a little bit about building the world of Elan? Where did you start? How did you develop it?
I probably shouldn't admit this, because in fantasy sometimes the world-building is placed on center stage, but for me I look at this aspect as the least important of the three pillars: character, plot, and setting. That being said: As most fantasy authors do, I have created an extensive background to my world. It actually goes back 8,000 years, but for the most part it is the proverbial iceberg, and only a very small portion is ever exposed.
I'm a lover of history—I read it all the time—so I start by developing the timeline. I'm sure that many readers are tired of worlds with multiple races. But for me, the dynamic is a classic one, and I utilize it: men, dwarves, elves, and goblins. My world has its own creationist mythology, including gods that represent each major race. As is often the case, there have been wars between the various nations. When you start reading the books, you're in a world where men dominate. Elves are akin to Jews in the 1930s. Goblins are a boogieman story told to keep children in line. And dwarves are segregated from one another, lest they gain an upper hand.
But such was not always the case. There was a great war between men and elves, and it was only by the hand of the demigod Novron, the patron of mankind, that men were saved from total elimination by elven-kind. This aspect really is only hinted at in early parts of the book, but it is the entire impetus for the series as a whole. And men and elves eventually conflict again in the final volume, Percepliquis.
What part of Elan would you most like to visit?
Why, Percepliquis, of course. This is the ancient capital of the original empire that was destroyed and lost over a thousand years ago. It holds great secrets into mankind's past, including many related to the war (and the end of the impending truce) spoken about above. It represented the height of civilization in the world of Elan. When it fell, much was lost, including magic and the great fighting techniques of the Teshlor. It is the dream of nearly every adventurer in Elan, and it's strictly forbidden to even search for it. I'm a big fan of adventure, for going places where I'm not allowed, so how could I not want to visit there? I'm glad I did eventually get to go and could bring others along with me during its exploration.
And what part would you least like to visit?
There are actually two, and interestingly enough both are prisons: Gutaria and Manzant. Manzant is where one of the main characters, Royce, was imprisoned for years, and it's highly regarded as the foulest place in Elan. Royce is a strong character, hardened by years of betrayal and having to make his way on his own. But even he nearly lost all hope while there. The other prison, Gutaria, is known to only a few, but it is even worse. Built during the time of the original empire, it was constructed with the use of magic. Time does not pass there. What's more, those there are subjected to a dirge that dredges up their worst memory. Luckily for most, it was built to house just a single man, Esrahaddon, the wizard who has been accused of destroying Percepliquis. Having to relive the thing that you want to be forgotten the most, and being forced to endure it forever, seems like a fate worse than death.
Beyond the central characters. Royce and Hadrian, some of the most striking elements of The Riyria Revelations are the series' tone and the style.
I read fiction—and fantasy in particular—for enjoyment rather than for allegories. I feel that the best fantasies are the ones that don't take themselves too seriously, hence the humor that is found in my work. You can, and should, touch on emotional aspects of the human experience and strive to inspire or move people. That's essential to any good writing. But for me, the number-one priority is to entertain, and I write books that I would like to read.
The style of prose I chose for The Riyria Revelations can best be described as straightforward and unadorned. My intention was to make the writing itself invisible to the reader and keep them focused on the characters and plot. In the past, I've written literary fiction where I placed a higher emphasis on the construction of each sentence. Reading that type of novel is like drinking a fine wine. It's meant to be savored and read slowly, enjoying each sip. My hope for that particular piece is that the reader will often pause after a particularly well-crafted sentence. But I feel that style is best suited to stories with simple plots.
The Riyria Revelations, on the other hand, is a very plot-heavy book. A lot happens (it is epic fantasy after all), and my goal was to keep the reader turning pages. I didn't want the prose to get in the way, so I went with a more simplistic style. I wanted the words to fall away and for the events to unfold much like a movie playing in the reader's own imagination. To complete the food analogy, The Riyria Revelations should be like eating popcorn, where there is an unconscious hand-to-mouth motion, until you finally come out of a trance and realize you've just consumed much more than you had intended. I routinely apply this sliding scale between plot and prose complexity on a case-by-case basis. But since few have read my literary fiction, they may not be aware that I actually can utilize both sides of that coin.
As for tone, I wanted it to be light and fun. Sometimes I feel that in pursuit of drama, some writers forget that an important aspect of life is humor. We make jokes when we are happy, when we are nervous, and as a means for coping with fear or pain. Some medieval fantasies seem to take themselves too seriously, as if no one in the Middle Ages ever laughed. I've read books where the world is dark and morbid and filled with morose characters that are unpleasant to be around. I know that the intent is to be more serious or realistic, but for me, this has the opposite effect. I can't help but think, "Okay, no world, no reality, can be this awful for everyone." I personally find books with this perspective unpleasant to read. That's not to say that they don't have merit or a deserved fan base. It's just that my preferred tastes run differently.
I was also striving to make the series an easy read, the kind of books that would be appreciated even to people who don't generally read fantasy. For example, my dialogue has an intentionally modern style. I didn't want an overly formal or archaic sound, which would stand as an obstacle to readers. Making a movie based in France for an American audience might be more authentic if subtitles were used, but I would find it annoying and distracting. Elan is an invented reality, and I can make people speak anyway I wish. If my goal was to create a sense of otherworldliness, then using archaic or invented language would make sense. But like I said, I wanted to remove all obstacles and let the story flow effortlessly. I should clarify, before some people take me to task, that I do have some invented words. Some of the spellings and pronunciations may seem overly difficult. But I've done that for specific reason in regard to plot. They are not arbitrary decisions.
One last thing I'd like to speak about with regard to style: The books are intended for adult audiences, but I do avoid scenes with sex or overtly graphic violence. This wasn't done because of some kind of moral decision. I just didn't see that adding such things would add to the story. I do like the unintended effect that it makes the books readable by people of varying ages, and I've enjoyed letters from parents that mention they and their children are able to have a shared experience.
How do you go about writing fight scenes?
I hate fight scenes. Not because I am particularly nonviolent, but because they are, oddly enough, boring. Making a fight scene interesting, rather than a series of physical movements, is tough. Every element in a story needs to be a story onto itself. A chapter is a short story; a scene has to have its own story arc. A fight scene needs to be its own mini-drama with a beginning, middle, and an end. This is what makes a fight interesting and memorable.
The role it plays in the narrative can be varied. It can reinforce that the story isn't just fun and games—people die in these books. That fact helps ground the reader and reminds them that there are genuine dangers even though the story is a romp. A good fight scene can also as the payoff for many tension-builds. There are just some times when you really want to see some jerk get what's coming to him.
Why do so many readers leap into the stories at word one and stay there till the end? Why do they keep eating the popcorn?
I think this is a question I should be asking the reader, but since I wrote the story to be tailor-made to my particular tastes, I guess I'll talk a bit about what I was shooting for. When I looked at books that I have enjoyed most over the years, a common thread emerged. They were all good stories about characters I wished I were friends with in real life, which occurred in settings I wanted to actually visit or even live in. A lot of people really like Royce and Hadrian and the banter between them. They recognize a deep sense of loyalty between the two, and I think they would like to be a part of that.
One of the things I wanted to do is provide an escape into a place that is better than reality. One of my favorite TV shows is The West Wing. It may not be an accurate portrayal of what working at the White House would be like, but it showed a world that I wanted it to be. Especially in the early seasons where everyone was depicted as intelligent, hard-working, and striving to make a difference. I would have liked to have been a part of that and surrounded by those characters.
That's not to say that I write worlds that are all sunshine and rainbows. Sure my books have serious moments, dark moments—you have to have these to create tension. There has to be a low point to provide contrast for joy. My characters have not led ideal lives, and I place many challenges before them. But through it all there is a current of optimism that runs through the stories. I think people enjoy being a part of their triumphs. Perhaps people stay glued because they really care about the characters and want to see what will happen to them.
One other element that I've heard is a big draw for people: Each of the six books has its own self-contained conflict and resolution, but it exists within a framework where there is an overarching story with mysteries that unfold a bit at a time. This could only be accomplished because I wrote the whole series before publishing the first book. I often would go back to an early novel and add a scene or two to further enhance a plot point that was occurring late in the story arc. Many books provide all you ever need to know about the world and the characters in the first book, and the rest are just "more of the same." Because I had the freedom to work with a larger canvas, I could reveal the history of the world and the backstories of the characters a little at a time. There are things that I only initially hint at that eventually come to light. So I think a lot of people are seeking to find that next puzzle piece and see how it fits in place.
What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling fantasy protagonist in particular?
I don't really see that genre has much to do with compelling characters. There are certain things that are universal, regardless of genre. Myron is often cited as a favorite in the series even though he has very little time on stage. For those that are early in the series: Yes, he comes back, but not until the last two books. I need to use my big guns sparingly. When I saw the movie WALL-E, I thought, "They stole Myron!": unassuming, kind-hearted, and optimistic beyond reason. I think the single most important aspect of a likeable character is one that doesn't whine. No matter how awful things get, they just don't complain.
I also think people respect characters that take responsibility for their own actions—or for that matter even act at all. Likeable characters don't sit on the sidelines and expect someone else to do what needs doing. They are men and women of action. If you want to make them even more sympathetic, place them in situations where they know they don't stand a chance. Their deeds are further amplified if accompanied by people who remind them that they aren't expected, or even supposed, to do anything that is not in their own self-interest.
What about an antagonist?
Antagonists are actually easy—much easier. You just have to put someone at odds against the protagonist, but give him a good reason for doing so. I find it works well to portray a protagonist as a determined individual with a very reasonable goal (sometimes even a noble goal). The problem arises because these people are short-sighted and pursue their desires regardless of the costs. They are the ones that console themselves with the notion that the ends justify the means.
It's easier for people to be accepting of antagonists, as there are so many in the real world to use as examples. Heroes are rare, which is why people like reading about them. Most antagonists, while not evil, are often self-centered, misguided, and unsympathetic to others. No one ever thinks of himself as evil or bad. We all think we are the good guys. So an antagonist, in order to be believable, has to feel this way too, and be recognized by those around him as trying to do good. Being evil for evil sake is as unrealistic as a lack of humor.
Did you do much editing of the original tales in preparation for the Orbit editions? If so, did the chance to go back over them reveal anything to you about yourself and your writing? About the characters or the world?
Nothing frightened me more than getting back the changes from the editor. I had created a very intricately woven plot, and pulling on one thread could unravel an entire tapestry. I also constructed my series in an unusual way—that is, different than how most stories are created. I'm speaking about the timing of how I expose details about my characters and the world. To get published is so difficult. The first book has to be strong—really, really strong—and there is often a lot of front-loading, giving enough meat for the readers to really sink their teeth into. When I wrote the books, I had no intention on publishing. I doled out details slowly, over the course of the entire series. My audience had been myself, my family, and friends. I knew they would read the whole thing. But for someone else, they may find the first books lacking in detail and conclude it is because of poor writing skill—when in fact it was by design.
In any case, I thought that to make the books "marketable," they might need major rework. What if Orbit had declared that "buddy tales" weren't popular and wanted to make either Royce or Hadrian a woman? What if they wanted to add a love interest? What if they needed more revealed earlier in the stories? Any changes like those would have been a huge problem, and I'm not sure that I would have been willing to make such concessions.
Luckily my concerns turned out to be unfounded. Orbit loved the books just as they were, and they realized that the plot was already very sound. They didn't find any holes that needed plugging (thanks to my wife Robin who had already taken care of them when they were originally published). Their only problem was that the book didn't start with Royce and Hadrian; I had started the book with two minor characters, Archibald and Victor. Others who had read the series had had the same reaction, so it made perfect sense to change. For those that have read the original version, and who want to read the new opening, they can read the free sample of Theft of Swords from my blog (www.riyria.com). It's there in its entirety. That really was the only major change.
The biggest revelation that the process unveiled was that I wasn't completely delusional about the strength of the story as originally written. A lot of my insecurities had been alleviated by the high sales and positive reviews when they were originally self-published, but it felt good to know that professionals in the industry appreciated what I had written. On the technical side, I did learn a great deal by reviewing the numerous changes from the line editors, although I'll probably always struggle with the placement of commas. Orbit has a great team of very detail-oriented copyeditors and proofreaders. I was constantly amazed at the things they found and embarrassed by some of the mistakes that were still present—even after more than a half dozen editors had worked on the books over the years.
From the time you penned your first Royce and Hadrian tale to the most recent, has much changed for you? Professionally and in terms of craft?
Having come from the "indie" world, a lot has changed for me in regards to income. When I started, and for several years after, I made little more than enough to pay for an occasional dinner out, assuming we didn't buy any wine. It wasn't until my fourth book was released that my income started paying some of the bills. And on the fifth book, I started making enough to match my wife's income. Even before the series was bought by Orbit, I had graduated to earning enough money to be self-supporting, which I consider quite an accomplishment, since there are many traditionally published authors (some with multiple book releases) who haven't reached that milestone yet and have to keep their day jobs to pay for bills or insurance.
My goals have definitely changed. When I started The Riyria Revelations, I had no intention on publishing. But now, one of my main goals is to continue to be able to write full-time. Whether I'll be successful at that, it's hard to say. Income can be so sporadic. Most writers don't earn out their advances, and you get those payments only at major milestones. It can be months or even years between checks. I had socked away a lot of the money that I made from self-publishing, and I'm being cautious about spending the money made from the Orbit and foreign translations. I feel like I'm in a race to see what line is crossed first: depletion of my nest egg or the next book's release. Still, I can't complain. While I would hate for the financial freedom to be just a brief respite, it's more than many authors will ever see, and I consider myself fortunate to have done it for any length of time.
As to the craft of writing, a great deal has changed. He who does not evolve dies, or at least he should. I'm always working on becoming a better writer. While it's true that my entire series was written at once, the books still took me four and a half years. From what I can see, my voice and style has definitely improved over time. I hope I never get to a stage with my writing where I become too arrogant or inflexible not to continue to push for constant, incremental improvement. I do believe that writing is a craft, and it takes years to move from apprentice to master. Where on the scale am I? I'm not sure, but it's a muscle that I'll continue to strengthen the more I use it.
As to professionally, I guess the first thing that has changed is this: I now feel like I can say that I have one—a profession, that is. When you self-publish, even if you make significant money, there is still doubt in the back of your mind whether you'll be chastised for applying the label "professional writer" to yourself. There is no doubt that I'm taken much more seriously now that I have the traditional stamp of approval. It's manifested in all kinds of ways: requests to blurb other authors' books, speaking engagement requests (I recently did a talk at the Library of Congress), the way my online interactions are taken, and requests from people to do interviews. When I was self-published, I always felt like I was standing with downcast eyes and my hat in hand when talking about my books. Nowadays I feel that I'm allowed to speak about them with my head held high, and that removes a lot of stress.
What's next for you?
Going back to the last question, the only way to guarantee steady income is to keep writing. Since finishing the edits for The Riyria Revelations in June of 2011, I've been busy working on my next books. I have three written, and I'm about fifty-percent done with a fourth. Of course, I'm hoping that Orbit will pick them up as well, but I've not submitted anything... yet. The next project that will likely hit the street will be Antithesis: Two opposing individuals possess limitless magic, providing the universe balance. An unexpected death transfers this power to an unsuspecting bystander who is clueless of the consequences of his newfound abilities.
I tend to write my own "back of the book blurbs" or "elevator speech" and do so early on to help me articulate what a book is about. This is what I have so far:
Have you ever wondered how the world will end?
No? Well, don't sweat it. Most people don't, and the few that do expect the cause will be a dramatic change in climate, a pandemic, or mostly likely war. That's what we've all been taught to believe, and we're comfortable with rational explanations. But people weren't always so quick to accept the facts provided by so-called experts. There used to be a time when we believed in myth and magic. Our minds were open to the idea of things that couldn't be seen...the fantastical.
Having been that way myself, I can understand the propensity...but then I met Winston Stewart and learned to believe that there are other forces at work—not the least of which is fate. Fate is an amazing thing. It put Gandhi in South Africa, Nelson at Gibraltar, and Winston Stewart on that train in Alexandria, Virginia.
You don't know who Winston Stewart is? You will.
I'm also keeping my ear to the ground about how The Riyria Revelations are being received and whether people want more. There are many ideas I have for prequels—or even sequels set in the far distant future. What I won't do is tack on to Percepliquis, the last book. The series was carefully choreographed to end as it did. To extend directly to that story would ruin something that I feel is pretty special as it is. But Riyria existed for twelve years before the start of The Crown Conspiracy, and Royce and Hadrian had many exciting escapades that could be explored. Also, I could do a series of books about the original empire and the fall of Percepliquis, or go even further back in time to the original war between men and elves. I really like the idea that the religious beliefs that Elan holds in the days of The Riyria Revelations are actually myths that have been distorted over time. The "actual" events would have been much different than what they have been led to believe.
So I'm watching and waiting. I'm very conscious of not "milking the series." I'm really happy with what I created, and I don't want to be like one of those television series that stays around long past its prime. I think there are two ingredients that are required: first, have a compelling story to tell, and secondly, have an audience interested in reading it. I think I have plenty of the first, but I'm going to let the readers decide if there are any of the second. To that end, I do have a work-in-progress area of my blog where people can vote on which stories they would be most interested in. Bottom line: I don't want to overstay my welcome in Elan. But if people want more, I'm more than happy to oblige.
Any parting words of advice, encouragement, or mischief?
Many readers of fantasy also feel like they have a book inside waiting to get out. To them I say, "Go for it." Even if you write something only for your own enjoyment, you never know where that may take you.
As for life in general: I'm glad that I learned early on that life is too short to do something you don't enjoy doing. I'm fortunate to have a wife that was willing to support me while I chased, and eventually caught, my dream. Without getting too Princess Bride on you, I do believe in true love, and if you can find yours, your life will always be spectacular.
As for mischief: I'm a rebel. I believe in doing things my way. I don't mind bucking a system (or two or three). Know that you can be in complete control of your own life, if you only dare to step off the well-worn path. And last but not least, live by the immortal words of the classically trained and revered philosophers of Galaxy Quest: "Never give up! Never surrender!"
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.
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