[Note: Amanda (who lives in the UK) has previously published this interview with Sam Sykes at her personal blog.]
Gather round, people – I’m slightly nervous to present interviewee Sam Sykes – self-styled ‘Angriest Man Alive’ and debut author of Tome of the Undergates (to be released by Gollancz on 15 April 2010 in the UK). Sam has already conducted an interview with Aidan Moher, over at A Dribble of Ink where they discussed… well, video games and cover art and other such boy things. After reading (and reviewing) his book I wanted to try and draw out a little more about the man behind the book and how he went about writing the death and mayhem that fills the pages of Tome. As usual, we’ll give away a couple of books to commenters. So, without further ado…
Amanda: Welcome, Sam! How are you today?
SAM: Suitably irritated and full of meat, thank you.
Amanda: That’s, ah, good to hear… Let’s kick off gently and ask first about what constitutes a typical day in the life of Sam Sykes!
SAM: Assuming I’m lucky enough to have made it home last night, I typically pull myself out of wherever I fell on the floor. There are many soft things on the floor. Some of them are moist. I avoid those. I quickly pull down the blinds and peer through; the sunlight usually burns my eyes, so I try to sleep until five or six in the evening. Frequently, I find the police out there, looking for me. They’ve caught onto the fact that I laid a false trail in the woods where they chased me. They are persistent. They have hounds with them today, sniffing the earth. I am not worried. I evaded hounds before. Hounds, bullets, the shrill cries of the enemy, the hushed whisper of their gun barrels brushing against the leaves as they leveled their weapons at me, and took aim and–
What?… No, that’s not the story to Rambo. That’s my life! Rambo copied ME!
Amanda: Just a normal everyday life then! Seriously, what gives with calling yourself the ‘Angriest Man Alive’?
SAM: You’d be angry, too, if you’d seen what I’d seen, if you’d smelled what I smelled.
Amanda: Ha, so much for getting the inside scoop on the man who parades as a ninja in most of his author photos! Let’s try this: part of your reputation comes from your lively banter on the Internet with your readers. How do you feel about the greater interaction between authors and readers these days? Does it help or hinder? Is it something you enjoy?
SAM: It’s a treat for me, really, because I love attention. That may come off as crass and shallow, but it’s basically true. I like it when people are interested in my book and myself. And I like helping them find out whatever they want to know about it. It’s just an immense treat to have someone interested enough in you to seek you out and ask questions, so naturally, I’m happy to answer them. These days, one doesn’t sell just a book, they sell the author with it. This has created, in my opinion, one of the best and most accessible network of authors ever.
I’m not sure an aspiring author can even go without a web presence because of it. The internet has been the de facto form of communication, hype and delivery for ages now. If there was an author out there who got by solely on verbal word of mouth, I’d very much like to read his book.
Amanda: I honestly can’t think of an author these days that doesn’t have at least a website (even if they don’t mouth off, starting feuds all over Twitter with other authors). Two questions there: fancy giving us some hype about your new website www.samsykes.com and extended plans with it? And exactly how many authors do you now have on your black list?
SAM: Well to address the feuding, and I could get in severe trouble with my publishers for telling you this, it’s not so much personal as professional trash talk. You see, the publishing world is not unlike the movie Highlander, with various authors competing with each other for the spot of supremacy. However, as a lot, we tend to be pasty, underexercised and apathetic, so our sword-slinging duels to the death tend to rage in semi-polite insults over email and twitter that occasionally degenerate into “yo mama” contests.
Feuds are divided into “blood,” “formal,” and “spit.” Blood feuds are soul-deep contests of anger that rage between myself and other people who probably wonder what the strange man sending them angry emails are about. Formal feuds are undeclared states of perpetual aggression based on envy and spite that I have running with currently every other author in existence. The sole spit feud is pretty much me and Adam Roberts trying to spit in each others’ mouths while yawning.
As to the site, you might notice that, at a glance, it looks like any other jerk’s website, save for that little button up there saying: “LORE.” This is the solution I came up with for a professional quandary: I have a lot of world to share, but I don’t necessarily want to shove it down the readers’ throats in prose form (not that they wouldn’t appreciate it, but I find it can be a little irritating for readers to discover a history lecture in their fantasy). So, the lore tab is there for me to offer little tidbits, incentives and extras from the book without actively forcing it on other people.
SAM: Not bad, actually! At the moment, the book resembles the chubby, unpopular girl from one of those teen Cinderella stories. Right now, she’s laughed at, what with her pimply face, love handles and paint-covered overalls. But we will embark on a joyous 80′s montage, (set to something catchy, like “I Ran So Far Away,” I think) and we will make her lose weight, wear nicer clothes, put on make-up and maybe pad her bra a little and soon, the captain of the football team (you, the reading public), will fall desperately in love with her and you’ll realize perhaps she was this beautiful all along and the way she gorges her food and snorts when she laughs and covertly farts in your mouth when you yawn is just part of her charm.
Amanda: I think with a response like that, you’re rather lucky I’ve already read the first book and have therefore been sucked into needing to read the second! Since we’re indirectly talking about girls, let’s deal with this question. What do you think your debut novel offers to the female readership of SFF books? Did you think about a target audience as you were writing it?
SAM: This is kind of a tricky question, isn’t it? Women, I think, are pretty discerning in their reading and want interesting plots that affect them. The typical fantasy female character usually has two routes to go: either she’s totally head-over-heels in love with the male protagonist or she’s out to prove male society wrong and usually becomes something of an unintentional parody in the process. Hell, for those who also read YA (as the readership tends to blend a little), the new trend has become for females to not only be upstaged, but totally irrelevant in their own stories, being a sort of passive disease caught by the male characters.
I don’t really subscribe to that theory. I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that women and men are all that different, actually, in terms of conflict. We handle our problems differently, maybe, and we react to them differently, but we have the same desires: to be loved, to have purpose, to not fail. In short: girls fart. Men fart, too. We’re all embarrassed by it, but we move on.
The female characters in Tome of the Undergates do exemplify this attitude, I think. One is a strong, confident woman convinced by her racial creed that her personal feelings are a symptom of a disease… who farts. Another is a woman questioning her role in society and whether she even makes a difference, while at the same time wondering if she can actually do good through the typical fantasy problem solution of “kill stuff.” And another is seven feet tall, purple and has a fondness for ripping off limbs.
None of those really factor in all that much, though. As I said, I think we all want the same thing out of a story: conflict, relationships, plot and probably one or two dismemberings. I’ve got that in spades.
Amanda: Having read Tome of the Undergates I agree with the fact that you are definitely writing in some strong female characters there! I think my favourite character in the book is Kataria – did you have a favourite while you were writing?
SAM: I know it’s kind of a cliche to suggest this, but I really do love all of them and I think that by having fun with each of them, the reader will also be in a position where a different point of view is something to love as opposed to moaning “oh jeez, another chapter with this character.” I think what made them fun to write was the fact that none of them are easily categorized, in my mind.
Lenk appears brave and practical, but is occasionally willing to sacrifice it all for someone else. Kataria is tough-as-nails and excruciatingly violent, but possesses a vulnerability that disgusts her. Asper’s strength is buried under a mountain of doubt and dread while Denaos has secrets one wouldn’t expect of a coward. Gariath, naturally, was one of the most fun because he simply doesn’t give a crap. And Dreadaeleon… well, I suppose if you combine the ability to spew fire and lightning with a self-loathing, insecure, annoying seventeen-year-old nerd, you can’t help but have fun.
Amanda: And I certainly did have fun! While I read about the dismembering and crotch-stomping, it did occur to me to wonder where your ideas come from? Did the book spring fully formed? Did you have any issues with the characters taking you in directions you weren’t expecting?
SAM: Well, most of my characters are mentally disturbed, so…
I mean, of course characters surprise you frequently. If they didn’t, why would anyone want to read them? If the hero always did the right thing all the time, no one would ever wonder what he was going to do when the village was burning and he had to save the orphanage or the bank. If the villain was out to do evil for evil’s sake, no one would ever watch what he was doing because he was obviously about to steal an orphaned kitten’s college fund or something similar.
Granted, it’d be really easy if they could follow that set pattern, but if it was really easy, there’d be no reason to read it.
Writing scenes is equally tricky and for less logical reasons. On occasion, I’ll have an idea that’s fully fleshed-out and meets all the criteria I need it to meet and is just exquisite in my head, then I’ll put it on paper and see it’s absolute trash. At that point, it’s fairly difficult to move forward, so I sometimes need to abandon it if it’s really giving me trouble and move onto something else. Other times, it’ll weigh heavily on my conscience for awhile and then I’ll get something out of the blue that totally inspires me and changes the entire course of the story.
There’s a scene, for example, where the character of Denaos, a cowardly thief with particularly black secrets, really came to life for me and probably for a lot of readers. That scene, originally, was totally clownish and stupid with vague, childish threats being made that only served to make the character even more of a parody than he pretends to be. Then I saw a torture scene on the HBO show Rome and thought: “fuck, that looks painful.” From there, the scene, even the character of Denaos, came clear as day to me.
Just goes to show how tricky, and utterly whimsical, this whole process can be.
Amanda: You seem pretty comfortable with being a full-time writer. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you dabble with other career paths first?
SAM: For a long time, I was actually a writer of a specific kind of romance subgenre known as “Presidents in Lust.” You can find my opus: “Coolidge on the Brink” under my pen name of Mavis Bernard. Before that, I bottled my urine and sold it to French-Polynesian Witch Doctors (if you’re reading this, Pierre, you owe me sixty francs).
Truthfully, I didn’t know if I always wanted to be a writer, but I did know I was too lazy and incompetent to do anything else.
Amanda: Well, since you mentioned laziness, do you find it easy to get up and write every day or do you suffer from procrastination? What leads you astray?
SAM: Pretty much everything. I’ve got this lovely situation in which I’m an author cursed with a short attention span. I’m frequently twittering, facebooking, farting about…wait, shit, is my editor going to read this?
AHAHAHA WHAT IS PROCRASTINATION I AM UNSURE I HAVE BEEN WRITING FOR PAST SEVEN YEARS NO STOPS NO BREAKS I PEE IN MASON JAR AND USE IT TO NURTURE FLOWER I AM A WRITING MACHINEMACHINEMACHINEMACHINEMACHINE
Amanda: So, moving rapidly on from the writing process before you get yourself in trouble (!), we’ve all had a chance to see the cover art of your book and I know you and Aidan chatted about it. What is your take on the differing opinions that have cropped up?
SAM: The cover’s a fun source of debate. Girls seem to like it, men seem to hate it. Perhaps our problems are quite different, after all? To me, it’s pretty hilarious. Griping over cover art is a time-honored pastime, right up there with arguing over whether urban fantasy is real fantasy and complaining about George R.R. Martin. I don’t even have a hooded figure on the cover and I still get lumped in with that oft-maligned (perhaps unjustly so) crowd. I truly look forward to the day where I set a trend and “wet, shadowy figure” becomes the hated grudge.
I don’t begrudge people their God-given right to complain, really. With absolutely no offense intended to the various bloggers out there, the ones that are typically the most vocal in their scorn, they are a very small percentage of the people we’d like to have read the book. Chances are, they’d read it, anyway, and just have some fun bemoaning it. So, I mean, it’s really a choice: do we try to attract 80% of the population or do we tailor it so that we aren’t crucified by Aidan Moher again?
One of these days, though, I’ll make a Special Bloggers Edition of Tome of the Undergates. Its cover will be a grizzly bear at a tea party with a robot. It’ll be meta as hell and I will finally achieve the love of the reviewers I so desperately crave.
Amanda: Well, that’s one way to deal with the detractors! It isn’t too long now until the release of the book in the UK. How excited are you and do you have plans for the book launch?
SAM: I actually have no idea what happens. I have placed myself at the beck and call of my publishers, who I hope are plotting to both expose me to a lot of media and keeping me out of jail for exposing myself to the media.
SAM: It underscores a lot of familiarity with a lot of new and innovative stuff. It takes a neat look at a lot of fantasy tropes and does new and interesting things with them, really. It goes deep into the psychology and philosophy of an adventurer and dregs out the really nasty, unpleasant stuff in a really fun way. I think a lot of people who are bored of fantasy political thrillers and fantasy boys with uncommon destinies will enjoy it.
You may notice that sounded a lot like the response I gave at A Dribble of Ink. Well, there are two key differences! For one, this one is far more condensed and for two, I didn’t threaten to weld peoples’ anuses shut in the last one!
And I think that is an… unusual note to leave the interview on… Thanks so much for your time, Sam. Remember, people, Tome of the Undergates is out in April in the UK. I can guarantee that the book itself is just as depraved, aggressive and downright mad as the man himself – make sure it’s first on your list come April!
Today one US commenter will win a copy of Jim Butcher’s Changes (reviewed by Justin) and one UK commenter wins a copy of Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (reviewed by me.) (UK commenters, please indicate you’re in the UK.)