I’m back again with a new SPFBO interview. This one is with Huw Steer, author of The Blackbird and the Ghost. It’s a really cool looking book, and the cover is amazing. Go check it out down below by clicking the link!
Previous SPFBO5 Interviews
You can check out previous interviews by clicking on the cover down below. I’ll be giving a rotation of five or six to have a look at as this list inevitably grows!
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?
I’m a historian, author and comedian (sometimes) from London. I write sci-fi and fantasy – with the occasional foray into alternative genres – mostly long-form, but I’ve got a few short stories knocking around the place, some published. I don’t really stick to one theme; I’ve written dark, introspective stuff and swords-and-sorcery, weird cyberpunk and a reimagining of ancient Greek SF – if it sticks in my mind and I can figure out half a plot, I’ll write about it.
I also write and perform sketch and improv comedy; I’ve done 3 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and one day hope to do some more!
How do you develop your plots and characters?
I usually start with characters before anything else. They’re the heart of any story; you’re following their experiences through whatever mad world they’re in; and the best characters can find a home in many different settings, shaping the plot around them. I usually write only 1 POV at a time, sometimes 2 – if I’ve multiple then I try and give them different opinions, different attitudes, make their plot strands as distinct as possible. That gives a story much more life in my opinion.
Often, though, I’ll just have some kernel of an idea, or write down a scrap of verse that comes to mind and leave it forgotten in a notebook for half a year – then find it much later and stare at it for an afternoon until some wisp of a story starts to come together…
For The Blackbird and the Ghost I actually started with the setting, for once. Once I’d drawn up the map (while onstage during a production of The Comedy of Errors, of all places), and had the idea for this inverted ocean and all its accompanying dangers, the characters and plot fell into place within it nicely.
Tell us about your current project.
Right now I’m working on an SF piece, inspired of all things by First World War salvage operations. I learned recently about the massive cleanup effort in northern France after the Armistice, and the Iron Harvest – fascinating stuff – and wanted to write a military SF piece that takes place during nominal peacetime. I’ve got a classic crew of misfits who all hate each other, going around battlefields and defusing fusion bombs and getting wrapped up in a nice grand conspiracy – it’s fun to write so far!
Is this your first entry into SPFBO? If not, how many times have you entered?
This is entry number one – hopefully the first of many!
Who would you say is the main character of your novels? And tell me a little bit about them!
The main character of The Blackbird and the Ghost is Tal Wenlock. He’s a young adventurer, archaeologist and occasional thief – nothing major, but he’s certainly not above taking advantage of an unguarded pocket if he’s in need. He’s quick and clever, as professional a tomb raider as it’s possible to be, and though he needs to make a profit he’s very much in the business for the history too. He’s a thief who does his research!
What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Get into a writing habit. Even if it’s just 50 words a day, if you can get into the routine of writing every day then you’ve fought half the battle already, whether you’re writing short stories or huge novels.
What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding within your book?
I’m an ancient historian, specifically of ancient Rome – so guess what I default to when I’m creating an ancient civilisation? The Arcadian Empire of the Boiling Seas is heavily inspired by Rome, especially in architecture and naming, and so when Tal ventures into Arcadian ruins there’s a clear real-world analogue if you know where to look. Rome was a culture full of life and distinctive in appearance, and I love creating mirrors to it in most of my worlds, even if it’s just in a small way.
What inspires you to write?
A lot of things! Sometimes another book will spark my interest with a concept, or I’ll find something fascinating from history that I want to explore – like the salvage stuff I mentioned earlier. I write down stray thoughts whenever I can, and I’ll usually look at them long afterwards… and sometimes a stray line becomes something much more.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Definitely the editing – I struggle with forcing myself to go back over stuff I’ve already written to improve it. I want to write something else, not rewrite what I’ve already done! I’m fine at actually doing the editing once I’ve started, but getting started is the battle… hence the two-year wait between writing The Blackbird and the Ghost and publishing it…
What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?
I write 500 words a day, minimum, and if I can I do it first thing in the morning (before work…). It’s a bit strict, and sometimes I hate myself for it, but I’ve managed to keep the streak up for more than 4 years now – and written six books in the progress, alongside other stuff, so it definitely works!
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
Probably the sequences in the Lantern, especially its library. It was great fun building this university/hospital/magician’s guild hybrid, full of scholars and doctors and learning of all kinds – with the kind of library I’ve always wanted to have in my house some day, just endless books in a great tower! It was definitely my favourite location to write, and it was where one of my favourite characters was introduced too – so definitely that section.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
That the superficial aspects of a character – appearance, gender, etc. – really aren’t that important – it’s the kind of person they are that shapes them and the world around them.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
A bit of both, really – I’ll set out with some kind of outline and beats to hit, but my characters invariably lead me down entirely unexpected paths along the way. I’m happy to wander. Usually they’re better at telling their stories than me.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
I don’t always do this, but I’ve always been a proponent of the bar fight method of character introduction. A bar fight is an ideal scenario to quickly explore how characters react to stress and conflict. Why are they at the bar – are they drinking alone or are they with people? What are they drinking – if they even are? Do they try to stay out of the fight, or are they the ones who started it – and if they do get involved, do they win? It’s an opportunity to explore lots of character traits in a short time.
What are your future project(s)?
Finishing the salvage SF book, editing a dystopian SF book to send to agents, and actually plotting the sequel to The Blackbird and the Ghost!
What is your favorite book ever written? Who are your favorite authors?
Don’t ask me to just pick one! For SF, William Gibson; Neuromancer is an absolute work of art and all his books are thrilling stories in beautifully realised worlds, whether futuristic or all too close to home. For fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien shaped my perceptions massively, as he did so many other writers, but one of my other favourite authors is Adrian Tchaikovsky. Shadows of the Apt is a glorious series, with some of the finest character work I’ve ever read in Stenwold, Tisamon and Thalric especially.
What makes a good villain?
Motivations. If a villain’s got a good reason for doing what they’re doing then sometimes I’ll root for them over the hero. The best villains don’t want to watch the world burn for no reason.
…though if they want to do it in style, then that’s sometimes another matter…
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I play video games, I watch an embarrassing amount of YouTube, and I work for a charity toyshop assembling and sorting through donated Lego!
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
A museum curator. I love the past, I love learning about what’s gone before – hence my degree! Working with artefacts and objects from all periods is fascinating, especially the weird, niche ones – if I could run any bit of a museum I’d take the clock room at the British Museum, it’s a beautiful place (and I’ve always wanted to set all the clocks to chime at exactly the same time…).
You can travel to any planet or moon in the Solar System. Where would you go, why and what would you do there?
Stick me in orbit around Jupiter, maybe on one of its moons. Seeing that wall of storms filling half the sky would be breathtaking.
Pick any three characters from a fiction novel. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Zaphod Beeblebrox knows how to party, Stenwold Maker would keep us on the road… and Captain Carrot would stop us getting into proper trouble.
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
My personal website is here – https://huwsteer.wordpress.com/ – please feel free to drop me an email via the address on the contact page!
If you’d rather use Goodreads, that’s here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18268244.Huw_Steer (though I’m still getting used to the platform, so might be a little longer before replies…) – or indeed my Twitter here: https://twitter.com/huwage?lang=en-gb (same disclaimer as above)!