Kelly McCullough – Interview
Kelly McCullough is an American writer with a lengthy SFF series at his back. His first series, the Ravirn series (alternatively called the WebMage series) has been on the shelves for some time and is an excellent example of mixing it up within the genre, mashing up ideas, themes and concepts to create something different. His latest series follows a more traditional fantasy vein, instead of the cyber/sci-fantasy verve of the Ravirn books, and shows that McCullough knows precisely which buttons to hit when really getting to grips with making fantasy different.
His latest novel, The Broken Blade, released this Autumn in the US, but (according to Amazon / The Book Depository, et al) doesn’t hit our green UK shelves until mid-February. The Kindle edition, however, is available nonetheless.
1. So, to readers unfamiliar with your work, and those wishing to know more, who is “Kelly McCullough” and what’s he all about?
I was raised and educated by hippies. Not the long hair and beads variety, but certainly unconventional thinkers. At home I was encouraged to follow my interests and believe I could be whatever I wanted, and I went to a school that was founded on the same principles.
The funny thing about growing up like that is that you come to believe it. So, along about the time the rest of my peers from the real world were finishing college and thinking about normal jobs, I decided I wanted to be a science fiction and fantasy author. It took a while, but here I am. For which much thanks also goes to my wife, the physicist with the stable job and both feet firmly on the ground.
My driving passion as a writer has always been world. Some of that has to do with that counter-cultural upbringing, I think. I was raised in a world that was attached to the normal one but that ran on fundamentally different rules. And if I lived in a world with different rules… Add in the enormous quantities of SFF I imbibed at the foot of a mother and grandmother who were both long-time genre fans, and I ended up with a fascination for the unspoken things that underpin a society.
One way to get that out in the open and examine it is to build completely different worlds, where you can push thing to extremes and then see what happens. So I tend to approach my work by trying to build an alternate world to ours, make it as real as possible, and then demolition test it by setting stories there and pushing the extremes to see what breaks. It’s tremendously fun, and people seem to enjoy reading the results.
2. As an established SFF author with a completed series at your back and a brand new series on the go, how would you describe your work to new readers? What might your new series have in common (if anything at all!) with your previous one and vice versa, despite the difference in settings/genre?
I write adventure fiction with a lot going on under the surface. My top level goal is to tell a fast-moving, ripping-good yarn that makes the reader want to keep turning pages. What’s the Princess Bride quote about all things that make a book interesting? “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” That’s what I’m shooting for as a first order effect. I want my readers to have fun, to laugh out loud and gasp and generally feel like they’re on one hell of a ride.
But that’s not enough. Our genre is one of the few where you’re still allowed to talk about love and friendship, sacrifice and honor, and to do it sincerely and with a straight face. The WebMage books are as much humor as they are adventure novels, and wit and pure silliness play a big part, but there’s more to them.
Cybermancy is built around the Persephone myth, which at its heart is all about abduction and rape and divine injustice, and none of that is funny at all, and I like to think that the book deals honestly with that core. I wrote it in part because I’ve always been deeply angry on Persephone’s behalf. The same with MythOS which is about Ragnarok and the death of the gods and the tragedy of predestination, another myth that has always made me in-the-bones mad.
My new series, the Fallen Blade books, is darker and starker than WebMage. I do hope I’ve managed to put in some level of humor, though likewise it’s of a darker sort. The main character is Aral Kingslayer, who used to be one of the best assassins in the whole world. Aral worked for the Goddess of Justice, Namara, and his job was to kill those criminals who have always been able to get away with it in our world, the rich, the powerful, the high nobility. Everything was going along pretty well until the order he belonged to expanded that list to include corrupt clergy. At that point the other gods decided this whole justice thing was overrated, and bumped off Namara, burned the temple to the ground, and proscribed her followers.
The form of the books is a hybrid of high fantasy and detective noir, sort of Sam Spade meets the Lord of the Rings, and again, they’re adventure fiction. But, at a deeper level they’re about what you do when your whole world burns down around you. How do you pick up the pieces and keep going? How do you do that and stay true to your ideals? It’s also about the relationships that really matter. Aral’s a sorcerer, and like the WebMage books, that means he has a familiar.
Ravirn in the WebMage books was a snarky hacker, and his familiar reflected that. Melchior was a cynical sarcastic shapeshifter, half laptop, half goblin. Aral’s darker world calls for a different sort of companion. Triss is a living shadow, and an idealist helping keep the dream of Justice alive for Aral.
Friendship, action, complex magic, fast pacing, swordfights, a many-layered world, these are things that I hope my readers will find in all of my work.
3. The Ravirn series (WebMage, Cybermancy, CodeSpell, MythOS and SpellCrash) spliced the “cyber” (without the punk) with modern-set urban fantasy: cyber-fantasy, we might say. This suggests the genre of “science fantasy”, an unsung genre usually explored by video games and comic books only—what brought about the idea for this cyber-fantasy/science-fantasy series and where do you feel a series like this fits in the SFF genre as a whole?
It all started with a bit of world building. I was noodling around on the then-fairly-underdeveloped web and got to thinking about the different webpages as a series of little self-contained worlds. That’s an absolutely classical sfnal setting. Piper’s Paratime Police stories come immediately to mind, or Norton’s Crosstime books. The web seemed like a great new metaphorical structure to use to approach that idea. But when you’re taking a run at one of the grand conventions of the genre you need to bring more to it than just one new layer, in this case, the web.
So, I started looking around for new ways to approach that story. One of the things that occurred to me pretty quickly after I started thinking about the problem seriously was to come at the SF from the fantasy side. Merging the two genres is a delicate undertaking, because it doubles the number of ways you can screw the whole thing up. On the other hand, mixing the two gives you opportunities that you might not have otherwise as well, and that’s how I tried to approach it. What cool things can I do with computers and parallel worlds if I come at it from the magic side?
That gave me the hacker as sorcerer and the familiar as shapechanging computer/creature of magic. From there it was mostly a matter of pushing down on the gas pedal and seeing where I could take the ride.
As for where it fits in the genre? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not a huge fan of drawing lines and saying this story fits over here, and that one fits over there. You mentioned gaming and comics in your question. I’m a long time fan of both as well as the more classical SFF venues, and I think a lot of the most interesting opportunities for storytelling happen at the interstices between genres and mediums. For example, one of the great strengths of the Final Fantasy series of games is the way that the writers embraced the idea of blending genres. What Neil Gaiman did with the Sandman comes to mind as well.
With WebMage, and to a lesser extent Fallen Blade, I’m trying to explore some of that same place between stories. Cyberpunk and contemporary fantasy, or noir and traditional fantasy. I’d love to try my hand at comics or games at some point as well. I want to create a career that leads people to say, “he tells good stories,” and to have trouble narrowing it down from there.
4. Genre crossovers are happening more frequently in modern SFF and where the boundaries of setting and plot once fell within clear parameters, this is no longer the case: the noir, crime and mystery are more and more mixing with SFF (the first two Legends of the Red Sun books by Mark Charan Newton explore detective noir, as well as his upcoming 2014 release Drakenfeld; Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves introduces potentially more mystery than fantasy in his cloak-and-dagger approach), whilst subtler crossovers such as alternative views of our own world at different points in history, with magical or technological additions (historical fantasy with a high magic element, Steampunk, etc). When writers step outside the normal and expected boundaries of their genres, changes happen. Your writing almost always nests happily outside these boundaries. Over the course of my recent interviews I’ve been talking about a return to classical fantasy, a fantasy Renaissance: do you think using classic fantasy tropes and mixing them into stories with genre crossovers is a good way of both returning to fantasy and keeping the same stories new and fresh?
I’ve never been entirely convinced that there is any such thing as a truly new story. We are all the product of the stories that we have internalized over the course of our lives, whether those stories come primarily through books, movies, music, or are simply the stories that we encounter in our day-to-day interactions with the world. When we tell stories, we each bring our own unique mix of narratives to the table, but we’re still fundamentally taking the bits of story that have affected us and putting them together in different arrangements. Which is, I guess, a long way of saying yes, though I wouldn’t confine it to fantasy.
All story is renewed and refreshed by the continual churn of bits and pieces of previous story being filtered through the narrative sensibilities of individual storytellers. Whether that’s Shakespeare pulling up bits of Roman history and reexamining them through the lens of Tudor politics, or J.K. Rowling reimagining the British boarding school story at Hogwarts, the main fuel of story is always going to be other stories.
5. Returning to a previous comment you made (and the question above), “our genre is one of the few where you’re still allowed to talk about love and friendship, sacrifice and honor, and to do it sincerely and with a straight face”. Some of these themes are considered by some, to have become a little stale and trite in modern day SFF. Writers like GRRM have branched from the genre, still within the genre, and begun crafting a new and far grittier style of fantasy that can read much like historical fiction at first. The themes you mention fit very much so with the idea of a resurgence of classic-era fantasy. The point of a Renaissance, of course, is that it has been reborn and it changed somehow; do you feel your new series, with its new crossover attempts, fits with this Renaissance? Is it even part of it at all?
I think that what I’m writing now certainly partakes of that Renaissance on some levels. You can call it low fantasy, or fantasy noir, or gritty fantasy, or whatever you like. It all includes an effort to bring more real world sensibility to a genre that has on occasion failed to remember that medieval cities had generally terrible sanitation, or that dirt and blood and sweat are inherent byproducts of swordfights.
In the Fallen Blade books, my characters get filthy, they get hurt, they are as close to real people as I can make them in a fantasy milieu. At the same time, they care deeply about things like justice and honor and love because real people care deeply about those things. It seems to me that anyone who tries to write them out of fiction because they think of them as trite or stale is missing out on an enormous amount of real human experience.
The cynical stylistic affect that pretends that we don’t care about those things is a big part of why I don’t particularly enjoy several subsets of modern literature, not that I would characterize Martin as falling into that trap. You mentioned that he’s doing work that partakes of some of the same feeling as historical fiction, but that doesn’t preclude touching on those deep human feelings in a non-cynical way.
Look at Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome historicals, where you’ve got Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar and Lucius Sulla all simultaneously playing cynical real-politic games while caring deeply about their personal dignitas and honor in a way that obviously engages the human need to embrace the deep emotions. Is their sense of those things identical to a modern audience’s? No, and the books would come across as less real if they were, but they absolutely give those ideas a real weight.
What I think is happening in the fantasy renaissance right now is a synthesis of the older heroic style with the modern desire to ground the big action in a real world that engages all the senses. It tries to show you the nicks in the magic swords and the scars on the old warrior’s arms. It may give the evil necromancer believable motivations with real depth to them, but it doesn’t necessarily remove the necromancer from the picture. What I’m trying to do with the Fallen Blade books falls squarely into that sensibility.
5. a) Your last point is excellent and I think it smacks the nail right on the head. All fiction is a response or reaction to the world (much like you admit Cybermancy and MythOS were) even if the source is denied (China Miéville said he was influenced by Tolkien—purely by the desire to completely deny that branch of fantasy) so it’s natural a renaissance in the genre would respond to the problems within its own world(s)—in this case, by showing the nicks and scars. Being skilled at keeping the old essence of fantasy, but presenting it in a fresh new way, what elements of classic-era fantasy do you think translate well through “modernisation” and which do not translate well at all?
With the exception of some things that simply don’t go well with modern cultural expectations—the classic helpless damsel in distress comes to mind—I suspect that it’s mostly a question of who’s doing it and how. It’s not so much about the individual elements as it is the way that they are handled. I’m having a really hard time imagining a piece of classical heroic fantasy that couldn’t be reworked into a more modern sensibility in a successful way if done right. Likewise, there is nothing that is so bulletproof that a bad handling can’t wreck it.
I just rewatched the movie Enchanted last night, and it’s a brilliant example of simultaneously taking the framing of a classic princess fairy tale and both using it to great advantage and subverting it in really compelling ways. From the songs, to the wicked step-mother, right through to the climactic battle at the end it follows the classic formula while bringing it forward into a framework that works for a modern audience. Now that’s a humorous example, rather than a gritty one, but I think the right writer could do the same thing noir and have it work.
6. What books have influenced you throughout your writing career, both pre-publication and in an on-going sense? Anything you owe a great deal of inspiration to in particular?
That’s always such a hard question to answer with any brevity. Tolkein is in my bones. I don’t ever remember a time where the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings weren’t part of the furniture of my mind. Likewise, Shakespeare, and Narnia. I had all of those read to me and reread to me from before I could actually speak. Growing up, Zelazny, Norton, McCaffrey, Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, Niven, McKillip, Howard. Later, Lackey, Tim Powers, Gaiman, Pratchett, the Wild Cards books, Thieves’ World, Anne Rice. I could go on, and on, and on. All of those writers had a part in shaping my own work.
But let me try to narrow it down to the most direct influences. The top of the list is probably either the Chronicles of Amber or the Lord of the Rings. Also, the Riddle Master of Hed, Lackey’s first couple of Valdemar books, half a dozen Tim Powers titles, Discworld, Martha Wells’ Element of Fire and Death of the Necromancer, War for the Oaks… Yeah, see, the more I think about it, the more I want to add to the list. So, let’s leave it there.
7. Was there a particular book that sealed your desire to become a writer and at what age did you first read it? What about this book made you want to write your own so much?
Funnily enough, the book that sealed my desire to be a writer wasn’t one that I read. It was the first one that I wrote. You see, I didn’t set out to be a writer at all. From the age of 11 till I hit 22 I was dead set on a career in theater. Then I met my wife, and I had a rather stunning realization: Theater and anything remotely resembling a normal life is a very, very tough mix to master. So, I bailed out of theater and started looking around for something else to do. I’d always loved SFF and had success with writing for classes and theater, so I thought, “what the hell, I’m going to write a novel.”
And, for the second time in a year I fell head over heels in love. This time, with the process of writing a book. I loved every moment of it, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I’ve never looked back.
7. a) Do you find that your experience in theatre helps you “stage” scenes more easily in your head? Do you think writers who can bring something “external” to their writing will generally craft more interesting and authentic stories that those with little experience outside of just writing?
The theater has been a big help on every level. Acting experience gives me insight into how to actively construct a character that will play well on the page. My combat choreography training, which included explicit instruction on how to stage a combat and how to write notes so that it can be understood by your actors, has been absolutely priceless in writing fictional combat for the books. Directing experience helps with everything. Stage design and theatrical make-up both help me to think visually about all the stage dressing of a story. If you’re going to put a gun on the mantelpiece of chapter one for use in chapter seven, it really helps to know how to describe both gun and mantelpiece.
More generally, I think one of the reasons that most authors don’t really start seeing success until they’re in their thirties or later is that it’s hard to write about anything convincingly without having significant life experience under your belt. Certainly, there are exceptions, but in general, it really helps to have a depth of experience if you want to have depth in your writing.
8. Your writing is obviously a labour of love (the best kind, really!), but what makes up your personal writing process? What gets the book written and what stages or techniques do you employ? Have you ever tried different techniques or approaches to craft?
I tend to fall on the extreme outline end of the line between writers who outline and those who just hit the accelerator and go. When I’m feeling really focused on process I will have a narrative outline, a timeline, and a scene by scene outline for length. Early on, I wrote a couple of novels by just sitting down every morning and seeing where the story took me, but generally I like to know where I’m going and how I’m getting there before I start the trip. With the latest series I’ve been playing things a good bit looser, but I still had a solid idea what the main plot arc for each of the three books was before I started writing the first one.
I do muck about a good deal with technique and craft, but that’s going to be less visible to readers because I try to keep the look and feel of the story consistent between books within a series and do any macro level stuff at the breaks between series or sets. With only two published series out in the world, it’s just not that visible yet. I hope that will change soon and that some of the seven novels set in six other worlds that haven’t yet found a home will be published over the next few years. In particular I’d love it if readers got a chance to see the Black School, an alternate WWII young adult fantasy series that I feel is some of my best work to date.
9. You’re part of the Wyrdsmiths: how helpful has being part of a group like this been and do you feel regular writers’ groups can be helpful for aspiring writers? Is an online writers’ group ever a good substitute for a physical one?
My writers groups have been absolutely critical to my success thus far, and I can’t recommend joining or forming one highly enough. I’ve been in four groups, one unnamed, Guts and Rocks, Karma Weasels, and Wyrdsmiths. The critiques of my peers have been absolutely critical to helping me grow and improve as a writer, especially when I was first starting out, and I don’t think I’d have made it to publication without them.
They’ve also been terribly helpful as a way to build and pool information about the publishing industry. When I first started writing it was very hard to find up to date information about markets and editors, and by sharing our bits and pieces the various members of my writers groups were able to do that far more effectively than any of us could have on our own.
Perhaps most importantly, my writers groups have provided me with a network of peers and support that has pretty much saved my sanity in the rough times before and between publication. The members are my very dear friends and far too numerous to name them all here. They are also my professional colleagues, many of whom have gone from unpublished hopefuls to selling books to major New York houses more or less in parallel with my own journey.
Just look at Wyrdsmiths, the only group in which I am currently active. When I was starting out, no one had ever heard of the fiction of Lyda Morehouse/Tate Hallaway, Naomi Kritzer, Douglas Hulick, Kelly McCullough. Collectively we’ve got something over 30 novels published or forthcoming now. Add in the books of Eleanor Arnason and Adam Stemple, who both joined us as multiply published authors, and we break 40. I also fully expect Sean Murphy and William Henry to make their mark in the industry at some point in the not too distant future since they’re both extremely talented writers who haven’t yet had the successes they deserve.
10. Besides your newest series, what’s on the cards in the near future?
At the moment, I can’t see much past the launch of Broken Blade. The book’s only been out a week as I’m writing this, and that means I’m at the running around like a chicken with my head cut off phase of launch neurosis. Once that fades, I’ve got Bared Blade and Crossed Blades, of course. But after that, I’m not sure what’s next on deck.
If the new series does well, I’ll probably be writing some more Fallen Blade books. I’ve got a pretty solid idea of where to go with it, and I’d love to spend more time with Aral and Triss. I’ve also got those seven books mentioned above all out and looking for homes, with at least some strong nibbles on a couple of them. Barring one of those being bought tomorrow, I’ll be taking a few weeks off while I recharge my batteries.
The only thing that’s certain is that at some point in the not too distant future I will wake up and start doing what my wife refers to as leaking weirdness, at which point she will insist that I go write something, as she would prefer that the weird happens on the page. That could be Blade Reforged, the next Fallen Blade book. It could be the third Black School book, The Hand of Light. It could be Spirits of the Past, which is the first book in a series I’m calling Aqua Vitae, which is all about alcohol magic. Or it might be something I can’t even guess at because that moment of “Ooh, Shiny!” hasn’t happened yet.