Happy Halloween my fellow SPFBOians! I’m currently working on an overview of my weekend at Bristolcon (where I met a lot of you wonderful people!) But I bring you a new interview with Mark Huntley James today. I hope you enjoy!
(This interview is long overdue, I got it in June! Sorry it took so long, Mark!)
As always, I have a list of my current interviews for SPFBO(5) down below. Check out whichever you like!
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?
I’m Mark Huntley-James and I write science-fiction, fantasy, odd anecdotes and any story that catches my interest. I just like stories – reading them, and writing them – dark sagas, light tales, long and short, usually with a twist of humour to them. I won the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2013 and have shorts and flashfiction in various anthologies, on my blog or on Medium.
Apparently, I have a talent for the absurd.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
I’m very much a pantser, just making stuff up as I go along, with the occasional bit of backtracking when I need to. I sometimes have no more than an opening line, perhaps an idea of where the story is headed, and sometimes I just have an ending with no map between here and there. My characters are inspired by people I’ve known or worked with through a high-tech career and various low-tech hobbies, giving me a sort of pick’n’mix buffet of character traits that I draw on as I need them.
Tell us about your current project.
Hell Of A Deal (http://relinks.me/B01N94VXBC) is the first of three books in my Demon Trader urban fantasy series. (Around the house, the series is usually called Hell Of A Thing.)
Paul Moore – self-proclaimed, self-taught master of the dark arts and broker of demonic deals – is more of an amateur than he realises, very much an anti-hero, a bit of a loner, and suddenly at the sharp end when the demons decide to rewrite the business model. Paul’s first hint of trouble is an assassin sent to take him out.
It all started when I was stuck on a house renovation for months, 200 miles from home, passed a nail salon called Monica’s and wondered what they would be selling if they were called Demonica’s. When I got back to the house I wrote a note on the thought: “Everyone has their demons, but I buy mine wholesale.” The book grew from there, a way to vent my stress and dump everything onto Paul Moore as he tries to save the world, or at least the town of Barrowhurst, a place with an unusually high number of demonic traders. The demons want the town for their own reasons, and set about killing all of the potential opposition before they bring in the supernatural removals team. Paul’s assassin is a beautiful, psychopathic uber-witch called Simone. Paul survives her attack, insanely arranges a date, and then things go really bad after the Church gets involved.
Is this your first entry into SPFBO? If not, how many times have you entered?
This is my first entry. I heard about it last year, a few days after the entry window closed, so I’ve been looking out for this year’s opening.
Who would you say is the main character of your novels? And tell me a little bit about them!
Paul Moore is the narrator and notional main character, self-taught and self-confident, except he suddenly finds that so much of what he knows is not quite right. If anything, he’s in a rut, positively complacent, running a nice little business reselling demonic favours at reasonable rates, but not really keeping up with the latest in demonic evil-doing, or plugging the gaps in his knowledge of ancient languages.
Paul’s not born to be a hero, isn’t looking for a career change, but with the world coming apart around him, he has to do something. He wants to stop the demons, really, but it’s kind of dangerous and he’s only truly ready commit completely when he’s backed into the tightest corner possible. It would help if his attention was properly on the world-saving rather than a possible future with the witch Simone.
What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Write whatever makes you happy. I’ve tried writing for a market and to a formula, but none of that has worked for me. I was encouraged to write a blog about writing, to promote myself, but I couldn’t do it. What I know about writing could be jotted down on the back of a postage stamp, which just goes to show how little I know because that’s a damn stupid place to write anything.
Rather than write about writing, I ended up writing about talking to the feral tom cat living in the barn, the hazards of chickens, and anything else that entertained me around the farm. So that’s the advice I would pass on – write about the things that hold your attention, make you laugh, or make you cry.
What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding within your book?
It’s an urban fantasy, so much of the physical setting is drawn from places I’ve lived – Bristol, Berkshire and Cornwall. The narrow streets, odd alleys and pockets of industrial past are drawn from both Reading and Launceston. As for the crazy bus ride down Race Hill – that road really exists in Launceston. It’s not as steep or long as I made it, but it drops down into the centre of the town, running along the side of a hill so on one side the houses truly do sit atop high retaining walls. I crossed that with Summer Hill in Bristol, just down the road from where I grew up. Strictly speaking, Summer Hill is not that bad, it’s Vale Street just a little further along that is officially the steepest in England, at about 22 degrees gradient.
What inspires you to write?
Frustration, incredulity, mischief and cats. OK, there’s some redundancy there since cats are made of frustration and mischief with a frequent by-product of incredulity. The point is, so much of my inspiration comes from those moments of WTF? or “I can’t believe you just did that” or the sheer temptation to make a really awful joke.
The third instalment of Paul Moore (Hell Of A Bite) is about vampires. Not *real* vampires, but something that looks just like vampires, and it all came about because of something I saw on the television that prompted me to have a rant of “Seriously? Are they nuts? There’s no such things as vampires…”
Even as I said it, I knew Paul Moore would say exactly the same thing, in the same tone of voice, except he lives in a world of magic and demons, and so will clearly come to regret it. Until that moment, I was pretty hazy about what the third book would be.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
For the ongoing saga of Paul Moore, the challenge has been finding the balance of keeping a light tone when really horrible things are happening in the story. I don’t do Grim Dark, but more what my partner calls Cheery Dark, or Grim Jolly. Yes, there’s gore and violence and so on, but it’s mostly off-screen, because this is supposed to be a light-hearted romp about a guy whose world has been dumped on by the ultimate evil super-elephant, and he is the one handed the bucket and shovel.
What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?
I don’t have a daily routine as such, partly because so much of my RealLife(tm) is driven by the weather, the needs of the livestock, a whole bundle of other external forces and four cats. I write when I can, often putting a story together in my head whilst moving manure from A to B, and hoping I’ll still be able to remember it and write it down later.
I do have a yearly routine of sorts – write a book over the summer, edit over the winter, publish in March before the lambs are born. However, that all went to pieces this year and the third Paul Moore book didn’t go out until the end of May.
I clearly have a problem with routines.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
A minor character called Walter. He’s a hundred and twenty years old, possessed by a speed-freak demon, and after an extended lifetime racing or stealing cars, he still drives like a maniac. Everyone ought to be offered a lift in a Robin Reliant by someone like Walter.
It was completely nuts and a consequence of the pantser writing. Paul needed transport – it could have been a taxi, or a bus, or a very long walk, but instead I came up with Walter. He only needed to be there for one scene, but I kept him around for the rest of the book. For some reason, I really, really liked him and he makes cameo appearances, one way or another, in the next two books.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
I learned three things.
Firstly, I should never be left alone in a bad mood with a keyboard. Unless you’re fine with humorous fantasy with a vulgar tone that is politely referred to as “adult”.
Secondly, no matter how clean and polished a manuscript may appear, it’s not. I picked Hell Of A Deal from my various projects as the “easy” candidate to try out self publishing, certain it would be done in no time at all. It took nine months of constant slog.
And finally, writing is hard work, requiring a huge investment of time and effort. Writing is easy compared to publishing.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
Definitely a pantser. I’ve tried being a plotter and it’s never worked well and with Paul Moore the demon trader, I just let it all flow. I wrote that first “everyone has their demons” line and waited to see where it took me. I got crazy witches, walking dead and explosive demonic spice out of nowhere, and by the time I was half way through, I actually knew roughly what the ending was. I only had to backtrack once, about half a chapter, because it was clearly going down a dead-end and just needed rewriting from the start.
This time last year, it did all go horribly wrong with an attack of Panster’s Block, which is like writer’s block, but a deeper and darker hole with no idea where the story goes next, so I retreated to a blog to write about the Black Hole of Pantser. (https://theonemillionprojectcom.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/the-black-hole-of-pantser-by-mark-huntley-james/)
Oddly enough, writing about my troubles set me on the path to climbing back out of the hole.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
Paul is easy, enough like me to understand, but with magic on hand and a much crappier life. I step out of my bad day, into his, and let it flow.
The psycho uber-witch Simone is another matter. She’s tricky to write because I have to hold on to that essential amoral character and still leave her likeable. In the subsequent two books I make use of her fundamental disconnection from the real world and her status of human-in-training, but for Hell Of A Deal, I only had her self-centred ambition with a hint of wonderment at the spectacle of “normal people” to play with. She has to be the girl who wields the knife without hesitation when sacrifices are needed, and doesn’t care whether the offering is a chicken or her best friend, not that she actually has friends in the conventional sense. I have to try to get inside her head, ask what would *I* do, and then think again, because whatever I would do is not what Simone would do.
What are your future project(s)?
I’m working on three.
There’s a space opera which I wrote years ago and is currently going through final edits. It is far saner than Hell of a Deal. Probably. I thought it was simple, just a chase across the universe, grappling for a mysterious artefact, but it turned into an old revolution coming back for a rematch, shifting alliances in search of profit, and messed up families on every side of the arguments.
Then I am building a collection of science fiction shorts centred around using genetic engineering to create strange plants, dangerous perfumes and mind-bending people. All being well, it ought to be ready to publish in early 2020.
Finally, I keep writing notes and snippets for the fourth instalment of the Paul Moore Demon Trader series, which I’m aiming for 2021. Paul and his girlfriend are working on their relationship, striving for domestic harmony whilst they each lead opposing factions in a demonic conflict. It’s just so tricky to keep their private life separate from the march to Armageddon.
What is your favorite book ever written? Who are your favorite authors?
I find my tastes have changed over the years and I can never pin down an absolute favourite. There are several contenders that spring to mind: Lois McMaster Bujold’s “A Civil Campaign” is a delight to re-read, Mary Gentle’s “Grunts” is another old favourite overdue for a re-read, and I adore Terry Pratchettt’s “Guards, Guards”. As for favourite authors, I would add on Ben Aaronivitch, Jasper Fforde and Frank Herbert.
What makes a good villain?
A good villain has to fit the story and the (anti-) hero, providing the right balance of contrast and similarity. Funnily enough, I recently did a guest blog at Dark Lord Journal on the “hypo-villain”, the sort of annoying, gets under your skin irritant I used in Hell of a Deal. I like him, he’s vile, petty and childish, but would be utterly useless as a villain in a different context.
If I were looking for a generalised quality, it would be self-justification. I like my villains to have reasons for being bad. Not necessarily good reasons – in the right circumstances just being a self-centred toad can be good enough – just so long as the villain feels right about him or her self.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time… that’s when I write. Unless writing is the main thing I do, and spare time is for looking after the livestock. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Back when I had a normal life with a day-job, I used to do amateur theatre, English Civil War battle re-enactments, bee-keeping, gardening and clog-dancing.
I still do a bit of gardening, actual plants rather than story plots, but the scale has increased to fit a small farm and everything has to be chicken/sheep-resistant.
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
It would have to be something busy, and with constant variety. Perhaps I could train as a paramedic at a front-line Orc barracks, or even borrow from Paul Moore in book three and become a relationship counsellor for demon/mortal couples.
You can travel to any planet or moon in the Solar System. Where would you go, why and what would you do there?
When I was younger I would have had a list, a long list, but now I’ve found that when I’m going to play tourist I want comfy seats, a decent restaurant and extensive green spaces. So, assuming all of those can be laid on somewhere in orbit around Saturn, I’m on. I wrote a crazy flash piece about jousting at near-light-speed and I’d like to go an see if my tournament stadium really looks anything like what I pictured. Preferably with a pot of Earl Grey handy, and perhaps a few sandwiches.
Pick any three characters from a fiction novel. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
That’s a tricky one. The first two are easy – Miles Vorkosigan, because any trip with him is bound to be interesting and filled with enough thrills to last a lifetime. The second slot has to go to his cousin, Ivan Vorpatril, because if I’m going to be cooped up in a car with Miles, I want a ready-trained and experienced buffer to take the edge off it. I think the practical arrangement will be for Ivan to drive and Miles to tell him where to go. The third place is harder, but I think I would go with having the Cheshire Cat on the backseat with me. For a roadtrip like that, a mischievous grin is going to be an essential component.
As for where to go, I would pick St Mary Mead. I doubt we would get there, because Miles is bound to get us into trouble on the road, and hopefully back out of it, but never actually reach the destination. In the unlikely event of actually reaching St Mary Mead, Miles is bound to draw us all in to understanding why the locals keep murdering each other in convoluted ways, and watching him spar with Miss Jane Marple will be good for a laugh.
I do feel that this particular roadtrip requires an authorial directive: I am not the humorous character that gets killed.
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)?
I can be found at my blog (https://markhuntleyjames.wordpress.com/) where I try to post something about the farm at least once a month, along with contributions to the #BlogBattle writing prompt. I’m on Twitter as @MarkH_J, post stories on Medium (https://medium.com/@MarkHJames) from time-to-time, and occasionally remember to login to Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Mark-Huntley-James-Author-374330716324335/).