Sam Sykes Interview
Sam Sykes is the author of one of 2010’s most popular debuts: Tome of the Undergates. At just 24 when it was published, he was quickly marked as one to watched. He proved he was capable of living up to this label when he released the sequel to Tome, Black Halo, earlier this year. The story lines of the novel are not so much what is unique about Sam, it is more the way he tells them.
Moving away from his abilities as an author, Sam is a hugely popular personality within the fantasy community and with good reason. He is what I would describe as ‘one of us’ – a knowledgeable, entertaining and opinionated guy. He likes video games, reading books, reading comics, going to the cinema, speaking with the Twitter community, visiting forums and wrestles bears too! (Source: http://samsykes.com/about-2/)
It is therefore with great pleasure that I can tell you; even with his busy writing, reading, Twittering and video gaming lifestyle, Sam was kind enough to agree to an interview with Fantasy-Faction in order to chat a bit with us and answer some questions.
I feel I must put some kind of warning here before we begin. You will finish reading this interview mentally scared. I can’t do much about that, but just so long as you know…
Tome of the Undergates has impressed a huge amount of people over the course of the year it has been out. In your own words, who would enjoy it? What exactly is it about? And why should people read it?
Ostensibly, an author writes so that anyone can enjoy their work. I mean, there are authors who’ve done amazingly well by writing for certain demographics such as teenagers, mothers or people who have always wondered what it would be like to engage in pseudo-bestiality with a giant swan but never had the guts to find out, but I don’t think one actually ends up choosing those demographics.
Tome of the Undergates sort of goes all over the place with its appeal, though. It’s a violent, blood-soaked body count wrapped over an epic quest fantasy smothering a charming love story. But those are just buzzwords, really, what I’ve noticed is that it’s the characters that draw peoples’ interest and the characters that adapt their own followings and interests. I can’t quite explain why some people prefer a smelly, angry, racial purist in love with the creature she’s supposed to kill over an alcoholic, lecherous scumbag who sees ghosts and visions of hell in the people he’s killed, but there you have it.
But rest assured: if you don’t like Tome of the Undergates, you are probably just the worst. Girls probably say “EWWWWW” after they say your name and you are picked last for kickball and your math teacher always mispronounces your last name so it sounds vaguely like “Choadster.”
Tome of the Undergates is quite a gritty read. Being a twenty-four-year-old male myself, just a year younger than yourself, I can relate to your style and the humor and it feels like the kind of book I’d love to write! I then read online that you started writing it at fourteen. Is that right? Could you tell us about the process of writing the book? I’m hoping the more edgy/gory scenes were added later on?!
I’m actually twenty-seven now, so you can just suck on that for a bit. (Overlord needs to check his facts!)
I started writing when I was fourteen, yes. It took me about a year to finish it and, when it was done, it kind of resembled something you would expect a fourteen-year-old boy to have written. It took another ten years to refine it, tweak it, slice it up into little pieces and sew back together as a horrifying abomination that shambles across the bookstore shelves, ripping out pages of lesser books and adding them to its growing girth.
…sorry, where was I?
The process is basically the same as anything: as you go on, your tastes change, your style becomes more defined, your love of gore becomes apparent and your understanding of why gore is important and how to use it becomes clearer. The more you write, the better you get. This is law.
Although the story, personalities, style and dialogue of Tome is pretty original, the fundamental quest theme and classification of characters (dragonman, mage, priest, rogue types) is familiar. Was this something you were worried about when selling Tome? Could you give us an insight to your pitch to publishers and their reactions to the book after having given it a read?
I wasn’t really worried about it, no. The concept of “haters gonna hate” is a little overused at times, but, I’ve found, increasingly apt when it comes to publishing. By that, I mean that you can’t really “worry” about a lot of what you write as to how well it will go over because you’ll frequently find that the only people who have a serious problem with it are the people who were going to, anyway. And you simply can’t write for them.
In a way, the classifications were a throwback to the fourteen-year-old self that relied on those sorts of classifications when I read it in stuff like Dragonlance. In another way, it’s just another word to call a character by. We could argue days in and out as to whether it was right to do so, but I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was truly and genuinely and, most importantly, objectively horrified by it.
As for the pitch? I have no idea. My agent made it for me. My publisher read it and bought it. Maybe Simon Spanton read the same books?
Continuing on from the above question. What are your thoughts on the requirements to enter the fantasy genre. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of the idea that we have to move away from traditional fantasy in order to really get fantasy noticed and bring its continued growth. In-fact, I’d go as far to say that a lot of the speculative fiction around these days tries so hard to be different that it is basically in a genre of its own and I personally don’t find it that appealing (as a fantasy fan). Does fantasy really need to change and if so how much can it change and still be enjoyed by fantasy fans?
Well, you’re kind of right. People desperately trying to be original seldom are, as it’s not really something you can just do. If you’re original, then you’re original and that’s not always easy. If you say “I’m going to be original,” then chances are, you’re probably not.
And yet, we kind of see that a lot these days: people bemoaning and weeping over the state of unoriginal traditional fantasy, yet bemoaning and weeping over new authors who aren’t George R. R. Martin. But you can’t write for them any more than you can write for people who might hate you. It’s just not going to work.
The truth is, there is nothing that fantasy “needs” beyond to be a genre in which good books are written. There are no Gritty Badass Checklists in which you can mark off X amount of main characters dying and Y amount of sex scenes. There are no Tolkienist traditions you must appease by writing a six-page-long poem that may or may not be a vague allusion to anal sex. You have to write a good book.
The rest is just stuff to argue about on the internet.
The next book, Black Halo, is out and being marketed at the moment. People seem to have received it pretty positively too, so you must have been glad about that. Could you tell us a little bit about the book and how you think the story evolves in this novel?
I’m becoming steadily aware that Black Halo is my The Empire Strikes Back. It’s very heavy on character development, introspection and motive, really figuring out why the characters are doing what they’re doing. So far, it has gone over pretty well and that’s lovely, but what I’m most pleased about is that few people have had the same thing to say about it as anyone else.
The book takes place immediately after Tome of the Undergates, beginning with the companions finding themselves in dire straits and separated. Without anyone to kill, anyone to fight, they are forced to turn inward and they don’t quite like what they see there.
Add to it the whole “demons want to kill us, longfaced warrior women want to kill us, lizardpeople have stolen our pants and one of us might be insane” and it’s all pretty vivid and violent.
I am guessing that with this book you had a deadline. For someone who had ten/eleven years to work on their first book that would have been a new experience for you. How has the added pressure of the deadline affected your work and your life in general?
Truth be told, deadlines aren’t the magic cut-off dates that people seem to think they are. We complain about deadlines, to be certain, and they are important, but it’s not like you’re a day late with your work and then you get a call from your editor and it’s your wife on the other line sobbing hysterically into the receiver before your editor picks up and grunts, “Happy endings are for prompt people, Sykes” and then you just hear the sound of a pistol’s hammer being drawn back.
It wasn’t a matter of editors constantly bombarding me asking for the next book. So long as you keep them informed as to what you’re doing and what you’re thinking (as indeed you should as a professional), you should be fine assuming your work is reasonable.
Even then, if you happen to make a shitload of money for them, they probably don’t give a crap.
Could you tell us how far you plan to take this series and what your plans are for the future. I know you are a bit unsure about this comparison, but people have compared you to the likes of Joe Abercrombie. Obviously he has had some great success in not only writing, but also television and such. How do you see your future in the genre? Are you a one world guy? Are you going to be multi-world storyteller? Are you interested in becoming one of these ‘faces’ of the genre?
Abercrombie’s in television? Are you referring to his short-lived series, All My Abercrombies, the soap opera in which he plays every role, including the female ones and is still scrutinized today by filmmakers trying to figure out just how he was able to make out with himself on screen?
Truth be told, the comparisons to Joe are really flattering. I’ve only just come to grips with admitting that he is one of my favorite authors (I can’t really explain why I was hesitant to do so before). I’d hesitate to say I modeled myself after him or anything, only because my book was well underway when I discovered him. But I think the main difference between us is attitude.
As for my own series? I have plans.
But that’s not a very satisfying answer.
So here’s a picture of a manatee.
Okay Sam, you need something done, a huge task. Literally, unless you do it, the world will end. In-front of you, you have a list of elite adventurers. To make things interesting, you have been offered replacements for each of your created adventurers. When assembling your team you may either keep your own adventurer or swap them for someone else’s. Here are your choices, please give reasons for your answers!
More reliable Mage: Dreadaleon or Gandalf (The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings)
Better Hunter: Katarina or Uhura (Avatar)
More likely to make it all better: Asper or Goldmoon (Dragonlance)
More likely to make a plan come together: Lenk or John “Hannibal” Smith (A-Team)
Most likely to get the job done…at any cost: Denaos or Han Solo (Star Wars)
Better brain basher: Gariath or Hulk (Marvel)
Gandalf doesn’t even pee himself, so he’s clearly no wizard I’m interested in.
Avatar was awesome and all, but I can’t tell the blue bastards apart. I liked it better when it was Dances With Wolves, anyway. Now, if you offer me a choice between Kataria and Kevin Costner…
Hannibal is probably less whiny. Still, I’m reluctant to seal the deal unless Mr. T comes included. In fact, if I could do some kind of spin-off with Gariath and Mr. T, I definitely would.
Are we talking Norton Hulk or Ang Lee Hulk? I didn’t like either of them.
Now, the real tricky question here is Denaos and Han Solo. But I’d have to choose Solo, only because Solo is played by Harrison Ford and I could come to him after watching Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and go, “Mr. Ford…how?”
And he’d just sigh and stare off into the distance and say, “You know how when you get a really fine-looking girl in bed and she has a penis and you think…do you do it for the story?”
And I say, “No.”
And he says, “I do. Because I’m Harrison fucking Ford.”
I’ve played this scene out a million times in my head and it ALWAYS ends that way.
Okay, so you totally dodged my ‘what are you plans for the future question’ so I’m going to try and ask you a somewhat similar question in a different manner…sneaky!
Your writing is typically seen as gritty, darkly humourous and generally filled with cool, yet bloody fights. There was a scene though snuck within the carnage of Tome of the Undergates that showed another side to you – an emotional side that I and many others certainly weren’t expecting. Do you think we can expect to see your writing evolve and take us down completely different paths in terms of story in the future, post Lenk and the adventurers?
…okay, okay, let me be slightly less useless.
Writing styles always evolve as a matter of simply doing it a lot. Really, the best advice I can give anyone hoping to make a living at writing is just to keep doing it until you either hit your stride or you puke.
I’m in a pretty good position in that I find my stride is pretty constantly moving. I like twisting a lot of different styles to fit the mood of whatever I’m writing. Some things are sharp, gritty and bloody, other sections are poetic, warm, emotional, and then some talk about pee.
So, yes, you can probably count on my style(s) to keep evolving. I don’t know from what to what, but I do know that it will all end with me eventually losing my mind and writing stories about a down-on-his-luck writer who solves mysteries with the help of his dachshunds, Horatio Leonard and The Beef.
Where do you find the time to write? You seem to be online 24 hours a day. I mean…I presume that you sleep sometime…eat maybe…? But you seem to be forever to be chatting with us, the fantasy community. Could you talk us through a typical day in the life of Sam Sykes the author?
A little trick I learned in North Korea was to stagger your activity levels so it’s more difficult to predict when you’ll drop in. This teaches people to fear you and to constantly be aware of your presence. And in fact, this is fairly solid marketing, as people who think you’ll leap out at them at any moment will also be constantly thinking of you and, thus, your book. The true path to a reader’s heart is through the fear center of their fleshy, chemical-soaked brain meat.
But, to be honest, my entire day revolves around the idea of doing pretty much whatever the hell I want. Sometimes I play video games (though not lately since nothing is ever out during the summer), sometimes I read (still working on The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham), sometimes I stare out the window at my elderly neighbor and if he ever happens to look up and meet my gaze I quietly mouth the word “soon.”
The same goes with social media. If I didn’t like doing it, I wouldn’t do it. As it happens, though, I quite like chatting with the fantasy community, as well as anyone else who sinks down into my little black corner of the internet.
You are an avid Twitter user and this is something you are well known for. People are always saying, “you need to follow Sam Sykes!!!” I must say that I think there should be some kind of ‘rated R’ style warning along with that statement, but if you can handle the heat it’s certainly worth doing! A question I like to ask all authors is: what is the oddest, the most uplifting and the harshest thing you have been tweeted?
Who says that? You should shoot them.
Surprisingly, joking/not joking about cannibalism rarely gets you anyone tweeting harsh things to you directly. Everyone who has a beef with me either takes it up in private or acts on it passively aggressively. That said, I don’t frequently go looking for uplifting or odd things in tweets, since it’s hard to be one in 140 characters and too easy to be the other.
If you’re asking me what tweet contained the oddest, harshest and most uplifting thing all in one singular piece of text, though?
My friend Leanna Renee Hieber once said to me: “I sometimes worry about your soul.”
That pretty much nailed it.
How has your interaction with the community affected your writing? Often you ask question over Twitter saying, “Is this too far?” or asking peoples thoughts on something you are writing. Do you think in this respect Twitter is a useful or dangerous tool for you as a writer?
Well, no, not really. An audience can’t dictate what gets written. I know Steph Swainston said they do, but I think she’s wrong. There’s pressure to do it, of course, but it’s folly to listen to it for the reason that it wouldn’t be your story if you listened to them. That’s not to say that criticism should be rejected outright or that you can’t trust anyone but yourself, but presumably, people are reading your stuff because it’s yours. If they want you to be more like George R. R. Martin, then you’ll never please them because you’re not George R.R. Martin.
Unless you are George R. R. Martin, in which case, why are you reading this, George? I don’t have the money yet.
So, anyway, call it hubris or whatever you want, but I don’t really hold consultation meetings with Twitter, no. Not out of contempt, but rather because it’s difficult enough to try to get someone to understand what you’re going for over the internet, let alone in 140 characters or less.
I listen, of course. But I don’t say a lot of stuff back.
Because I have no mouth.
Well Sam, I must say, it has been a pleasure. I wish you all the luck in the world with Black Halo and your career in general. On a personal level I must say that it’s great to have an author interacting so closely with the community and I hope it is something that you continue doing even as your popularity inevitably increases.