Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Interview with Michael J Sullivan

Fresh off the announcement of his upcoming Riyria Chronicles and my review of the preceding Riyria Revelations, I contacted Michael J. Sullivan about doing an interview. After choosing to answer questions one by one in a conversational format much like I used in my interview with Stina Leicht, we got down to business. The following interview took some time to finish, largely due to some health issues in my family, but I am very pleased with the final product. Michael was a pleasure to work with, and his answers leave no doubt as to why he has been so successful. 

52 Reviews: As an author's whose biggest success story seems to be your rise from writing stories that you had no intention of publishing, to self-publishing phenomenon, and finally as a well recognized author with books in every major bookseller across the country, which step in the process was the most rewarding and why?

Michael J. Sullivan: Good question. I think it is probably the knowledge that my early writing years weren’t a complete waste of time. I’m not sure how many people know this, but I wrote twelve novels over the course of a decade. While I knew most of those books were simply throwaways (work done to teach myself how to write), I thought the last three of four were of publishable quality. After years of rejection, I started feeling like Linus from the Peanuts waiting for the Great Pumpkin. I had seen my friends develop respected careers while I accomplished absolutely nothing. This caused me to quit writing altogether.

As you already mentioned, I started again (a decade later) but only on the condition that I wouldn’t publish. I had already concluded that way led to frustration, pain, and despair. If my wife hadn’t insisted on getting my Riyria Revelations “out there,” I would have died regretting not making better use of that time. Because I finally “made it,” all those hours magically transformed from a complete waste to necessary prerequisites…my contribution to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours if you will.

52 Reviews: Do you think that writing with the condition to not seek publication allowed you a freedom to write without expectation? If so, do you think that contributed to the success of the resulting work?

Michael J. Sullivan: In some respects, every first-time writer has freedom from expectation. It’s only once you’re known for something that that comes into play. For me, the main byproduct of writing without publication as a goal was that I had an extremely narrow audience to please…myself. Given how dark and gritty fantasy had become over the years, if I had wanted to seek publication, I would have followed that trend. Instead, I wrote what I wanted to read: a fast-paced adventure with a couple of guys I wanted to hang out with.

As to success, well I think the jury is still out on that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really pleased with how the books have been received so far, but I think there is still a very long road ahead. Whether it runs out of steam and fades into obscurity, or gains momentum and finds a place in the fantasy landscape, is just too foggy a future to predict. When readers mention my books along with the likes of Sanderson or Rothfuss, I find it a bit surreal. In many ways I feel like a freshman at a new high school, watching the “cool kids” chatting at the “big boys” table. Sure I’d like to be invited to sit down, but it’s still way too soon to even consider such a notion.

52 Reviews: Speaking of the trend of darker, grittier stories in modern fantasy, do you believe that the last decade with it's nearly continuous wars, financial insecurity, and political back biting has contributed to this trend? And if so, do you think that part of the success of the Riyia Revelations is due to its focus on characters who for all their flaws are obviously noble and heroic and the generally more hopeful tone of the storyline?

Michael J. Sullivan: I’m not sure the “social climate” was a factor, but I don’t study such things, and could be dead wrong. I think it has more to do with a constantly swinging pendulum. There was a time when fantasy was too idealistic with shiny heroes and happily-ever-afters. I think a few authors started bucking the trend, and it breathed new life into the genre. Publishing, being what it is, saw that this “new style” was selling, so a lot of acquisitions editors started looking for more of that. Given the pervasiveness of the dark-and-gritty I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pendulum swing back again.

Your assessment on my own characters is pretty accurate in that they are flawed, complicated, and have their own demons to run from, but they are aspiring to do the right thing and will rise to the occasion. To be honest I wasn’t trying to “buck a trend.” I was just writing the type of fantasy I enjoy to read. I do prefer my reading to be escapist, especially given the social conditions you mentioned, and I want to feel better after reading then when I start. One of the criteria that draws me to a work is characters that I enjoy and would like to know in real life. I do hear A LOT of comments from people saying things like, “This is the type of story that reminds me why I fell in love with fantasy in the first place.” And I must say that I get a certain amount of pleasure out of that. But I wasn’t trying to “time the market in any way.” In fact, at the time I started thinking/writing the series it was before the transition occurred…so I guess for me it was good that it took so long to reach the market. A case of “what’s old” is new again.

52 Reviews: You mentioned readers commenting on the similarity between Riyria and the stories that led them to a life long love of the genre in the first place. What books and authors served as gateways into the genre for you personally? Are there other authors in the market today who are also writing more 'escapist' fantasy that you would recommend to your readers?

Michael J. Sullivan: While it’s not very original, and I feel like I should make up some inventive story so I seem more interesting, but it was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings That got me started. My brother was reading them and would wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me what had happened.

A few years later, I found the books and then devoured them for myself. Prior to that I had read only a single book (and hated that one). Directly after reading Tolkien, I started writing my first story, because I wanted to make up my own world and characters. At the time there really wasn’t a lot of other fantasy for me to choose from especially after I finished C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for me boredom is the mother of creativity. When I didn’t find much else to read that’s when I really started devoting time to writing so I could get “exactly” what I liked. Eventually Eddings and Feist came along and I had something to read again.

As to “modern writers” the two I’ve enjoyed the most in recent memory are Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. I keep trying the names that I hear often (Martin, Weeks, Lynch, Abercrombie, Cook) and while I can appreciate their storytelling ability and the craft of their writing, I don’t particularly want to escape to their worlds or pal around with their characters. For the most part it has been some of the young adult stuff that I’ve had to turn to for that: Rowling’s Harry Potter, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and even works for young readers such as Jacques’ Redwall.

52 Reviews: In talking about Riyria with friends, I've found the same responses come up over and over again about the series. Royce and Hadrian seem to be the driving force of the series popularity. I personally find the back and forth between the pair to be the heart of the series, bringing to mind the best buddy-cop movies only in a different setting. Did Royce and Hadrian come to you as a pair, or was one the starting point with the other created as a foil?

Michael J. Sullivan: They’ve always been a pair, and doing so has allowed me to explore multiple aspects through their differences. From time to time someone mentions one of them as a “sidekick” of the other, which I find it interesting because to me they have always been equal partners. A lot of people think I drew inspiration from Lieber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, but I’ve never read any of those books, and in fact didn’t even know they existed until after my series was completed. I think the real inspirations come from two sources, one conscious and the other subliminal. The conscious one was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid one of the first movies I saw and really enjoyed (yes this dates me). The second dates me even further, and it’s a television series called I Spy, starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was only recently that I happened upon them again while channel surfing and said to myself, “Hey, they’re a lot like Royce and Hadrian.” I’m sure the years of exposure to them had an impression. Oh, and there was also Sam Becket and Al Calavicci from Quantum Leap, still old but at least some of your readers might know who they are.

52 Reviews: Since you had the luxury of having most of the series completed before publication, I find it hard to decipher whether you are a discovery writer or if you plotted the entire series before you started. Which camp do you fall in, and what can you tell us about your writing process for a series with so many volumes?

Michael J. Sullivan: Actually, I’m a little of both. I pretty much thought of The Riyria Revelations as one long tale, divided into separate episodes, and had an outline for both each book as sell as one for the entire series. But these would change as the writing process went along. A lot of times it’s like navigating a ship at sea. I know where I started and where I’ll end up, but at each compass check I might adjust course. If I find something particularly interesting, it may change the destination completely, but I never adjust the sails until I know that the new course is definitely the way I want to go.

Many times when I get done with each book, I’ll let it “simmer” for a few weeks and I’ll constantly challenge myself to see if there are ways I can ramp it up a few notches. Usually there will be something really juicy that was lurking at my subconscious level that will bubble to the top, and a few minor adjustments will really make a big difference. For instance, in The Emerald Storm I took great care to show the meticulous planning capabilities of Merrick Marius but I was able to take that to a whole new level by going back and tweaking a few things to really punctuate that point. It provided a “surprise ending” that surprised even me because it wasn’t planned consciously from day one. It must have been there all along, because it only took a bit of adjustment to make all the pieces fit.

The ending of the series is interesting because at various stages I would trade one good ending for a better one. As I was finishing the fifth book I had two or three ways I could conclude the series, all of which were very satisfying, but I knew I had not quite found “it.” I was missing something. It’s like looking at a puzzle and seeing there is something recognizable but not being able to put my finger on it. One day, during a torrential rainstorm while I was picking my daughter up from work, the pieces finally slipped into place…and the ending was…dare I say, perfect. This required me to go back and adjust threads earlier in the books. I even had to add a character or two, but I “knew” this was the ending I had been setting up all along.

52 Reviews: Many of your secondary characters grow into much more important roles in the story becoming almost as important as Royce and Hadrian. Was there ever a time where one of your characters stood up and told you where they wanted to go?

Michael J. Sullivan: Oh that happens all the time, and I’ve learned that it is best to listen to them when they defy my original intentions. There are also characters that get more “screen time” because they turn out to be so entertaining. I know that many people see these books as Royce and Hadrian’s tales, and there are good reasons for this, but for me I’ve always considered this series to have four main characters: Royce, Hadrian, Arista, and Thrace/Modina. By the end of the series it becomes apparent that the women stand toe-to-toe with the men, but early on Arista and Modina are given secondary status by design as I wanted to show their growth. Much of what makes Royce and Hadrian who they are occurs in the past, and we see the results in their “current” bonds of friendship. But Arista and Modina are put to the anvil through events as they occur. We get to see me pound their metal into stronger stuff. Their stories really start to come into the spotlight with the third book, Nyphron Rising. Those who stop after the first pair will never get exposed to the full effect, but it’s a technique where the payoff is worth the risk.

The best example of my characters refusing to submit to my will came in the sixth book. A party rides out from Aquesta (the capital of the current empire) on their way to Percepliquis (the ruins of the original empire). Along the way they wanted to stop and spend the night in Ratibor (a nearby town that was the setting for much of the third book). I REALLY didn’t want to go there. It’s a place that I’ve already visited, and I was anxious to get to the party to the “really good stuff,” which was entering Percepliquis. But it was cold, and snowy, and they insisted in staying at an inn. So I let them go. This resulted is some of my favorite scenes in the book. As I was writing I realized that there were all kinds of opportunities that could be fulfilled by that one night stay in Ratibor, and I’m grateful that they refused to follow my initial directions.

52 Reviews: One of the things I like best about the Riyria Revelations is the way you slowly details about the setting often only showing a single larger piece per novel. This allows for a more subtle way of inserting exposition and detail. I've read that you prefer to write with a light touch, trying to remain nearly invisible to your readers so as not to distract them from the story. Was the slow reveal of the setting, part of that effort? What else can you tell us about "writing lightly"?

Michael J. Sullivan: I actually see two things here. The first is slow reveals, which is a pretty non-conventional approach, particularly in traditional publishing. Because I wasn’t planning on releasing any of the books, I didn’t concern myself with “front loading” character background and world building. I wanted to reveal this information slowly over the course of the entire series. When traditionally published, a book has to make it through the gauntlet of agents and acquisition editors, and to do that it must be packed with all the choice cuts. I think this is why some series start out strong and end weak, because all the “good stuff” was in the first book. My Riyria Revelations is just the opposite. Because my readership was myself, my immediate family, and a few friends, I knew my audience would read it in its entirety, so I concentrated on a big finish. I wrote the series so that each book escalated and the reader got more details the deeper they journeyed. My intention was to make each subsequent book “better” than the one before. This makes the earlier books, by definition, the weakest of the set. It’s a dangerous practice, because some who reads the first book might feel there is too little substance and the logical conclusion would be to attribute any deficiencies they see as lack of writing skill. They have no way to know that it was a planned approach. I’ve no qualms with people who judge my work as lacking, but when that occurs before the end of the series, I also realize they saw only a piece of the entire tapestry.

The writing lightly aspect has to do with focusing on the story rather than the prose. I selected an unadorned style for Riyria so that the focus was squarely on the plot. I’ve written literary fiction as well, and in that case I do just the opposite. In that type of writing the challenge isn’t in the spinning of the tale, but rather selecting just the right word and creating sentences that make the reader pause and reflect. I have mental pictures for the readers when employing each of these styles. For the literary work I imagine someone sipping wine and slowly savoring the book. My hope and intention is that they would pause at a particularly well constructed sentence before moving on. For Riyria, I imagine the reader eating popcorn. Their eyes are glued to the page and there’s an unconscious hand to mouth action delivering the snack, and it’s not until they find the bowl empty that they realize just how much time went by. While writing simply and lightly” may sound like less work than constructing eloquent prose it really is quite difficult to do. I’ve killed off many sentences that I absolutely loved, because of a fear of breaking the spell I was weaving. My approach in this kind of writing is to have the words vanish from the page, and instead have the reader see a movie playing in their mind. I don’t want them to even notice the writing.

52 Reviews: Also you make very effective use of common fantasy tropes in a way that plays to fantasy readers expectations, resisting the temptation of trying to invent whole new races and systems of magic. I felt this allowed the focus of the story to remain firmly with the characters, which seems to be what you have become most known for. What more can you tell us about your approach to world building?

Michael J. Sullivan: My intention with Riyria was first and foremost to entertain, and as such there is a lot of focus on comfort. I wanted the series to feel like your favorite pair of well-worn shoes, so having settings and archetypes that have been well received in the past, helped to set that stage. One of the things that I think makes fantasy difficult for some readers is what I call the Wall of Information. Most fantasy writers have extensive worlds that they have spent years, or decades, creating. It’s natural for them to want to show that off, but for me it can also be a barrier between the reader and the story. Of the three pillars in writing (plot, character, and setting), The Riyria Revelations sacrifices setting in favor of the other two. Yes, my world has an extensive history (going back 8,000 years), but I employ the iceberg technique of exposing only a small fraction of it to the readers. Bottom line is if it doesn’t propel the plot, or have some baring on the conflicts and challenges of the characters, then it remains offstage.

52 Reviews: I would be remiss if I didn't mention self-publishing. As an author who has enjoyed commercial success in both self-publishing and more traditional routes, what advice can you give aspiring authors who may be considering which method works best for them. What does it take to be successful in self-publishing, other than having a sellable product? How did you make your books stand out above the crowd of similar titles? And on the flip side, what do you perceive the benefits of the traditional publication model?

Michael J. Sullivan: Wow, that’s a great deal to cover, but I’ll do my best to be concise. There is a lot of partisan rhetoric between the self and traditional publishing camps. I think there is no right choice because it all depends on the goals of the individual author. Some really love the freedom of total control that comes with self-publishing. Others won’t feel like they are “a real writer” unless someone else vets them. These are both legitimate concerns that lead to different paths. I just want people to be educated on the pluses and minus of both and choose what is best for them. So my best advice it to make a list of the aspects of publishing that are important to you, and based on those your path should be pretty clear.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating, that success in self-publishing is exactly the same as in traditional. You need to write a good book, get it in front of a core group of people (who wind up loving it), then let word-of-mouth do the rest. After that, the author’s primary responsibility is to continue producing more books to keep the hungry readers well-fed. Some authors think that going traditional means you can relinquish all the marketing work to their publisher, but this is a dangerous fallacy. Each release calendar, the marketing department must juggle dozens(or sometimes hundreds) of titles and there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. I feel that the savvy author will take responsibility for building their audience regardless of which path they take.

So the real difference between self and traditional comes down to the production of the book. Whether the self-published author hires cover artists and editors, or goes the do-it-yourself route, they MUST produce a high quality product that would stand toe-to-toe with works released by a major publisher. In general, a self-published book must be twice as good to get half the credit.

The two biggest venues I used for getting the word out when self-published are the same ones I would recommend to traditionally published authors: book bloggers and Goodreads. Yes, I have a website, Facebook pages, and twitter accounts, but I see these as conduits for interacting with existing readers.

For discovery purposes, I think bloggers and Goodreads is a better choice. Bloggers do a tremendous service in uniting readers and writers so I always treat them as the god-like beings that they are, or at least that’s how I think of them. They’ve done so much for my career in the way of validation by sharing their enthusiasm for my books. When it comes to interacting with other readers, you can’t beat Goodreads. The secret to that site, and all social networking sites in general, is that you have to be a contributing member of the community first and foremost and treat any mention of your books as an aside.

As for traditional publishing it does indeed have many advantages that are closed to self-published authors: bookstore sales, library acquisitions, full production capabilities including audio, print, and ebook. Also you have a full team working on your behalf instead of having to do it all yourself: marketing, public relations, channel sales, editors, cover designers, layout people, each one’s efforts give me more time to write. Also traditional publishing extends the author’s reach. I had some small foreign translation sales as self-published, but once the Orbit deal was announced, I was able to get more lucrative contracts with bigger countries that sell a lot more books. Also, there are still a lot of people who would never consider reading a self-published book no matter how many recommendations they’ve heard. The stigma is not as bad as it once was, but there is a certain amount of benefit an author receives by getting the traditional publishing house’s seal of approval.

52 Reviews: With the Riyria Revelations completed, what can we expect from you in the future? Readers of this blog are likely familiar with duo of Riyria prequel novels due out next year, and I for one am anxious to read more about Royce and Hadrian's early days. Do you intend to continue expanding the world of Riyria beyond those novels, or can we expect to see something completely different?

Michael J. Sullivan: As I write this I actually have four completed novels, another at 60%, and a new series in the developmental stage. Two of the books are indeed already accepted and as you mentioned will explore the forming of Riyria. The Crown Tower is being released in Aug 2013 and The Rose and the Thorn the following month. These are part of what I’m titling The Riyria Chronicles, which means that Royce and Hadrian will be featured. If there will be other Chronicle books is impossible to say, as it really depends on the readers. I have more stories in my head then I’ll ever be able to write in my lifetime, so I don’t want to spend time writing more Royce and Hadrian if no one cares. The Chronicles came into existence because so many people expressed they REALLY wanted more. Unlike Revelations, which was a single divided tale, the Chronicle stories are more standalone. I did this so I can stop them at any point. But demand alone isn’t enough to keep the series going. I’m very protective of Riyria and we’ve all seen television or book series that have gone on way past their prime. I won’t let this happen. If I feel that I’m not providing something fresh and entertaining, or find myself running out of momentum, then I’ll stop no matter how great the demand.

The other projects do branch out into different areas. I have Antithesis, an urban fantasy where the world is kept in balance by the opposing forces of two individuals who each wield powerful magic. At the time of the story, one half of this pair must give the power to an unsuspecting by-stander because their apprentice isn’t present as they die. The person who receives this power has no idea how to use it, the consequences of having it, or that his polar opposite is planning on killing him off. This book is currently with Orbit for consideration.

My current work in process is Hollow World, a science fiction novel that wasn’t even on my radar to write, but inspiration struck when I was writing a short story for an anthology. It basically shows a future that resembles the attributes expressed in John Lennon’s song,Imagine. In my future, I portray a place where there is no war, hunger, religion, countries, and people basically have all their needs provided for. But is such a future a utopia or does freedom from want and a world where everyone is truly equal create a homogenous morass where passion ceases to exist?

The literary piece I spoke about earlier in the interview, A Burden to the Earth, is still one of my favorite stories but I just have to figure out how best to get it “out there.” I don’t think self-publishing is a good venue for literary fiction and as Orbit only represents fantasy and science fiction, I’ll have to get my act together someday soon and get it on the traditional query-go-round track.

My next series, which I was supposed to start this fall, but Hollow World jumped in front of it, will be another epic fantasy but not Riyria related. I’m hoping to do what I did with Revelations, which is write all three books before publishing any of them. This will probably mean two and half years of writing, so my hope is that Chronicles, Hollow World, Antithesis, and Burden can keep the readers well-fed and provide me the runway to follow that course. If Chronicles is well received, I’ll pause the new series when I’m between books to put out a Royce and Hadrian story. Those can be done fairly quickly because I already have the outlines, the setting, and, of course, already know most of the characters pretty intimately.

52 Reviews: I imagine that many of your fans dream of one day becoming authors themselves. What advice would give your fans with literary aspirations?

Michael J. Sullivan: Two things come to mind. First, I’d like to make sure they know what they are signing up for. The media loves to tell the story of “overnight successes” but for the vast majority of writers they will have a very long road ahead. In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell puts forth the proposition that it takes 10,000 hours of doing a task to become successful. If you write two hours a day that’s 5,000 days of effort or 13.7 years. In his own book On Writing, Stephen King puts forth a similar theory but he expresses it in word count. He believes the first 1,000,000 words are basically practice. Assuming most novels are 80,000 to 100,000 words that’s 10 – 12.5 novels. Those numbers align pretty well with my own experience. I wrote twelve novels over the course of ten years where I would generally write three to four hours a day. So the key take away here is that writing is a marathon not a sprint, and you have to be willing to dedicate yourself to putting in those hours. You may be born with a natural talent to conceive and spin a great tale, but the skill required to translate that into the written word has to be learned by doing.

The second relates to the first, and it is that you need to write “for the love of writing” and not for the expectation of financial gain. Again the vast majority of writers will earn nothing, or very little, so your motivation must come from the enjoyment you receive from the creation process. It just might be the only reward you will ever receive. You need to focus on making the journey one of joy and be less concerned about the final destination. After all, if you are going to spend decades doing something, you damn well better enjoy it. If you find writing a chore, or make statements like, “It’s hard for me to put my butt in the seat and write,” or “Whenever I sit down to write, I get distracted by the Internet and don’t actually get anything written,” then you may be infatuated with the idea of being a writer, which is a much different thing than having a desire to write.

Today, there are more opportunities than ever for getting your work “out there,” but forget about shortcuts or the dreams of being an overnight sensation. If you are dedicated, constantly working on improving your skills, and keep producing then you are on the right track. Celebrate each accomplishment, but continue to push yourself to a higher level, and above all enjoy the ride. Life is short, and if you are fortunate enough to find your passion then pursue it with unbounded enthusiasm. Then, no matter the outcome, you’ll have lived your dream.


  1. Great interview. I love how Sullivan talks about his difficulties with liking many of the worlds and characters of modern fantasy. I often have the same issue, and this quote alone would have sent me off to buy the series (but I just did so last week, so it's simply added excitement at this point).

  2. Thanks for the interview. I especially enjoyed the writing advice at the end.