I'm delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series targeting great authors doing amazing things. This week I had the privilege to sit down and chat with Graham Austin-King. Graham has done some incredible things since he burst onto the scene with the first book in his Riven Wyrde Saga, and he spoke openly about the ups and downs of publishing.
Graham Austin-King, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell me a little bit about yourself and your career as a writer so far.
I've been writing stories my whole life. English was always my favourite subject in school and it's always been something I'd love to have made a living from. That said, I wanted to be an astronaut and Superman too. I read EVERYTHING as a kid and kind of put authors in the same category as movie stars. In my head you didn't just become an author, it was something unattainable.
That said, I've been writing stories forever. I got into roleplaying games as a young teen and quickly moved from playing a character to running the games and writing the campaigns. It's actually a lot like writing a book. Writing is like a roleplaying game for one.
Stupidly I never studied writing in university. I've studied journalism, international relations, and law. I've worked in media, finance, and lost my soul in the Civil Service. If I had my time again I'd have studied writing.
The first books I self-published were children's books for my kids and I think that's probably when I became aware of self-publishing. I'd found Kindle Direct Publishing almost by accident and, through a number of Facebook groups, became aware of how many people were trying, and succeeding, with their books. Suddenly what had once seemed so out of reach became a lot more realistic, and I started writing Fae – the Wild Hunt.
What made you pursue a career in writing? Was it something you always envisaged yourself doing when you were younger?
I've touched on this already but I guess the answer is both yes and no. I always wrote, I just didn't think it was something that normal people could achieve.
Do you remember the first story you wrote? What was it about?
I tried writing something when I was about nineteen. It was sort of a horror/thriller along the same vein as Dean Koontz. The concept wasn't bad but the writing was NOT good. It was about a woman with multiple personality disorder. One of her personalities was self-aware and wanted to be free of her body. It was also psychic and was using its/her abilities to project nightmares into the minds of the other students. The idea was that if it made enough people afraid of it then that belief would give it the power to leave her body and exist independently. Now I think back on it, it's not a bad concept. Maybe one day I'll go back to it.
What roleplaying games did you play and write campaigns for? Can you recall your favourite moment from these games? Do you remember the first character you created for an RPG?
I started roleplaying with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay which was created by Games Workshop. My first character was your stereotypical elf. I'm pretty sure his name was Linflas, though I might just be stealing that from somewhere else. Anyway I soon realised that I much preferred running games to being in them (depending on the DM). It wasn't long before I moved onto other systems though and I've played a whole bunch since.
I wrote my own campaigns using the Rolemaster system which is a bit like MERP on steroids. I'm a vindictive DM and I've done everything from curse my PC's to running a campaign where they were essentially penniless the whole time. I think my favourite memory was when one of my players summoned a demonic familiar. He was probably expecting something helpful. He ended up with an overly sarcastic imp that followed him around and essentially heckled him the whole time. Trying to sneak up on sleeping Ogres when you're familiar is loudly shouting "Don't wake them up, Mr Oh So Powerful Wizard!" didn't end well.
We here at Smash Dragons really enjoyed your Riven Wyrde books. How did the idea for the series come about?
Good question. I'd wanted to write something about fairies for a while. I'm not sure entirely sure where the notion came from but it was something about the original concept of faeries. These were things that were genuinely feared once upon a time, when the night was pitch black and people huddled close around the fire, clinging to the light.
I'm not much of a planner when it comes to writing. I tend to make things up as I go and see where it takes me. Some of the things in the books were planned out from day one but a lot of it just developed as I went along. The glyphs, for example, that become more important in the latter half of the series, took me completely by surprise.
So the story sort of developed organically. If faeries are real then where are they? If they are kept out of the world, then by who and what?
One of the things that fascinated me with your Riven Wyrde books was your incorporation of horror elements within what is arguably an epic fantasy saga. Was this something you consciously set about doing? Or did the story take you down that dark path naturally?
I wouldn't have said that I was aiming specifically for horror but I did want it to be dark. I've always loved horror writing, especially when it touched fantasy. Writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King are definitely among my influences.
I think I worked quite hard, especially with Obair's character, to inject an element of bleak despair – that much was certainly conscious. I also wanted the fae to be downright scary. I think there's a world of difference between a brutish monster and a creature more capable of thoughts and feelings. I wanted the fae to definitely be more like the latter but to see mankind as so far below them that they were not worthy of consideration. Mankind are like cattle to the fae, possibly even lower.
I adored the world building that you did throughout this saga (Haven, the world of the fae, the melting pot of cultures and ideals etc). I have read before that you originally didn’t want to write a sprawling epic fantasy loaded with detailed world building. What changed?
The original plan kind of went out the window. I had this idea for an epic fantasy but somehow focused on Widdengate, almost as if the story was zoomed in on the village and whilst things are happening in the wider world the reader only gets to experience them as they impact upon the village.
It was a cool idea but, in practice, I couldn't make it work. By the time I started writing about Kloss and the Bjornmen I'd more or less abandoned it. The story wouldn't have worked within those confines.
Did you have a favourite character when writing the saga? Why?
I have a few. I think my overalls favourites are Selena and Ylsriss. Selena is probably my favourite character overall. She grows a lot over the three books. They both have some great lines. That sounds a bit arrogant, as I wrote them, but they were both very easy to write and the dialogue flowed easily with both of them.
What was the reasoning behind self-publishing these books?
You imply this was well thought out. The reality is that I was stupid, naive, and impatient. I finished Wild Hunt and sent it out to agents long before it was really ready. I self-published before it was ready too and it's been pulled and re-edited a couple of times now.
I'll hold my hands up and admit I made big mistakes there. I was learning as I went and not doing a great job of it. Thankfully I found some good editors and the books are better for it.
What were the benefits behind self-publishing the Riven Wyrde books? What were the drawbacks? What challenges did you face as an author trying to market your books to a global audience?
The benefits to self-publishing are in the royalties. I earn far more from an individual sale than someone like Mark Lawrence. That said, he sells far more books than me. Publishing has changed a great deal and even the major players are required to do far more of their own marketing than they ever used to.
The drawbacks are obvious. If you choose to self-publish you are on your own. You need to find editors, cover art, formatters etc. This is all going to cost, and if you try to do things cheaply then you will usually get what you pay for.
You're also responsible for your own marketing which is a huge challenge. I have no idea how I've managed to make my books stand out a little. I know other authors who's books are no worse than mine, some are far superior, who are simply not being read. There are millions out there and more being published every day.
I'd like to be able to pretend that I know what I'm doing but really I'm just fumbling my way along. Some of the things I do must be working but I couldn't tell you which ones they are.
How did you grow as a writer as the trilogy unfolded?
Oh my writing definitely improved. I think each book is better than the one before and personally I think it shows in the characters. My prose also improved with writers like Mark Lawrence and Patrick Rothfuss being a huge influence.
I also learned a hard lesson in that just because it makes sense and is obvious to me, it might not be so clear to the reader. I actually had to write an entire scene into the second book because a number of people who read Wild Hunt didn't get something I thought was blindingly obvious. Of course I knew it, I wrote it. I was too close. So I basically put a great big neon sign into the second book so people would get it.
You mentioned that you like to write and see where the story takes you. What are the disadvantages and advantages to this approach in your opinion?
Well the obvious disadvantage is that I don't know where the story is going either. I had almost completely painted myself into a corner by the end of the first book, or so it seemed at the time. (Spoiler alert) With the fae released, running riot over Haven, and seemingly far superior to mankind, how was I going to claw this back? It took some long walks, during which I openly talked to myself and gathered many odd looks, before I figured it out.
The advantage, at least to me, is that it flows better. I've tried plotting things out before. Anything that goes beyond the roughest of sketches is a waste of time as I'll go off on a tangent anyway.
Who are your literary influences? Why?
Clive Barker definitely for creating that feel of forgotten or hidden truths. Robert Jordan for much the same reason. Lawrence and Rothfuss for the beauty and pure poetry in their writing. Hugh Cook and Joe Abercrombie for gritty realism. I could go on for days here...
Pratchett because, well, he's Pratchett.
If you could sit down for a cup of tea with another author (dead or alive) to get advice who would it be? Why?
Hugh Cook. He wrote an amazing series of books, "The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness" but they were plagued with poor sales. He was the first author I ran across that leaned toward the "grimdark" with a gritty, harsh, realism. He actually had a 60 part saga planned that would be formed of intersecting series. It would have been amazing to just sit and pick his brain.
Take me through a day (or night) of writing with yourself. Do you have a word goal? Do you like to plan what you’re going to write or do you just pants it and see what happens?
I do set a word goal. I like to get at least 1500 words done a day and average 10k a week. That doesn't always work out and my word counts are always much lower at the beginning of a book.
I stay home with my kids so once I have them off to school and nursery then I start work. I write in 30 minute sprints using an internet blocker (yes my self-control is that feeble) and use the time in between to sketch out what I want to happen in the next section.
How much research did you undertake before writing your books? What was it about the Fae and their mythology that fascinated you?
Not a lot. The internet allows me to research as I go. Right now I'm writing about mining and smithing a lot and there is a wealth of information that I can access pretty much instantly.
I think what drew me to the notion of the fae is that the fairy myth is pretty much global but the effects of Disneyfication mean that most fairy tales now have them as benevolent, friendly, creatures. This is definitely a new thing. Even Tinkerbell wasn't benevolent if you go back to JM Barrie's original work. She abducted babies, kept them for her own ends and tried to kill the girl that interfered.
I wanted to get back to a more Grimm style fairy tale. Of course, from there I went out on my own with my take on satyr and the fae'reeth, with glyphs and the almost-religion of the fae and the moon.
Most interesting tidbit you've discovered whilst researching for your writing?
Just about every nation on Earth has a myth of fae/faeries/wee spirits of some form. Composite bows are actually made of layers of different materials. It makes sense when you think about it, but I never knew.
Arrows are bloody deadly. You're far more likely to die from the wound becoming infected than anything else though... this happened a lot!
What’s the most loved book in your library? Why?
Pawn of Prophecy. Well the entire series really. Pawn of Prophecy was one of the first fantasy novels I read. I've probably read the series a hundred times or more over the years. I still go back to it now on occasion. David Eddings gets a lot of stick for some reason. I think if these books were released today they'd be marketed as young adult. Luckily I read them when I was the right age and they just resonated with me. Reading them takes me back to those first steps into a fantasy world.
What are you working on right now?
I'm working on a novella which has now taken on a life of its own and grown into a novel. It was supposed to be me taking a break, just small project to clear my head. As it stands it's definitely going to be a full length novel and may even grow into a series.
It's about a religion dedicated to the god of creation, specifically with regards to blacksmithing and fire. Most of the book takes place within mines that run deep under the temple and the slaves that serve the temple from them.
Sometimes it's not just darkness that lurks in the deeps.
Will you be appearing at any conventions or events in the coming months?
I'll be at Nineworlds in London in August and then a bunch of smaller shows later in the year.
Worst writing tip you’ve ever received?
To read over my work, make each chapter perfect before moving on to the next.
And finally, best advice for those of us looking to get into writing?
Just do it! Get started! Don't read back over what you've read, you can polish anything and make it better. To start with just bang some words out and make sure you write every day (or every day you can).
You can find out more about Graham and his work via his website. The Riven Wyrde Saga can be found online at all good book retailers. You can buy the entire saga at Amazon for little over 7 bucks! An absolute bargain for what is great dark fantasy.
Until next time peeps. Be nice to each other, and keep on reading.