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Friday, June 8, 2007

Interview with Stephen Hunt

Buy “The Court of the AirHERE
Read Sample Chapters One & Two
Watch “The Court of the AirMini-Movie HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "The Court of the Air"

I don’t remember how I first heard about “The Court of the Air”, but its description – A hugely engaging adventure set in a Victorian-style world -- a fantastical version of Dickens -- that will appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman – grabbed my attention, especially since I greatly enjoyed Mr. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. So, I purchased “The Court of the Air”, reviewed it HERE and loved it! After finishing the novel, I just kept thinking about all of the wonderful ideas that the book explored, and wanted to know more about the author Stephen Hunt and the world of the Jackals. Unfortunately, after doing some research, I found that there wasn’t really that much information on Mr. Hunt. Luckily, I ran across Stephen’s literary agent, John Jarrold (Ian Cameron Esslemont, etc.), and through him was given the opportunity to ask Stephen some questions about “The Court of the Air” – its influences & concepts, possible sequels & adaptations, etc. – his other published novel “For the Crown and the Dragon”, the website SF Crowsnest, and tons more. So, much thanks to John Jarrold for the hookup, Stephen Hunt for taking the time to enlighten us, and any readers who take this opportunity to learn more about a bright new voice in the SF/fantasy literary scene…

Q: For starters, Stephen Hunt seems to be a pretty popular name, shared by footballers, an Australian actor, and even a sociologist. So, who’s Stephen Hunt the writer?

Stephen: Interesting you should say that. For years I was a Google ‘Alpha’ (number 1 in the search list when you did a search on my name). Mainly, I suspect, because of my science fiction web site, www.SFcrowsnest.com - with half a million readers each month, I get a lot of back-links. But as the Internet has crept forward in popularity though, other Stephen Hunts have emerged to grab the Google Alpha crown. But accept no substitutes – certainly not mere footballers paid more in a week than I get in a year, or Neighbours stars (I’m far more good looking; no really!). Or perhaps there is only one Stephen Hunt, and my footballing is just for the money while the Australian soap work is just to satisfy my desire for simpering fan letters.

Q: LOL. So, your first novel, “For the Crown and the Dragon” winner of the WH Smith New Talent Award, was published way back in 1994. Following that book’s release, can you tell us a bit about your journey in writing “The Court of the Air”, signing to John Jarrold’s Literary Agency, finding a publisher in Voyager, and getting your new book published? What about plans for getting the novel published in the United States?

Stephen: Well, I got to know my agent John Jarrold via the SFcrowsnest.com web site from way back when he was still an editor. I signed up with him as an author (his first client, I believe), when he swapped sides as it were to become a .lit agent. It was under his influence that I started writing what was to become “The Court of the Air”. It’s amazing the difference having a good agent makes…when the book was finished it went to auction, such was the level of interest in it. HarperCollins Voyager won said auction, and are now the proud owners of the little yellow-jacketed hardback devil.

As far as the US is concerned, there’s been a lot of interest from the other side of the pond, so I’m sure someone is going to end up publishing it there, no firm details as of yet, though. But hey, there’s always Amazon Canada, who I understand are doing a roaring trade in the title.

Q: For readers who haven’t yet taken the plunge, how would you describe “The Court of the Air”?

Stephen: A fantasy adventure set in a Victorian-style world about two orphans whose destiny is linked by more than the mad assassins and murderers who are trying to slay them at every opportunity. I took the opportunity to re-imagine what the English character is really about, and push it back out through my Kingdom of Jackals.

Q: Looking at reviews and other readers’ thoughts, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman and even Dickens are brought up, while personally I see a lot of steampunk (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells) influences and hints of anime (Metropolis, Steamboy) and videogames (Final Fantasy) in “The Court of the Air”. Just to clarify, where did you draw your inspiration for “The Court of the Air”?

Stephen: My own influences for this? That’s a big list – but it would include luminaries such as David Gemmell, Michael Moorcock, Frank Miller, Charles Dickens, Alan Moore, Rudyard Kipling, EE Doc Smith, Mike Butterworth, Clifford D Simak, Tolkien, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Alan Dean Foster and Piers Anthony.

Q: One of the more interesting ideas that you explored in the book were steammen (robots basically), who are essentially human with their own thoughts, feelings, souls and gods. Why did you choose to depict steammen in this way?

Stephen: That was a bit of fun with the stereotype. I wanted to push them as far away from every literary and film depiction of a robot as I could. Almost all the fan letters I’ve read on the new book mention them as the favourite race in the novel, so I must have hit a nerve there, I think.

Q: Besides steammen, you play around with a lot of other interesting concepts, mythology and characters. What would you say are some of your favourite characters and ideas from the book?

Stephen: One of my clandestine aims at the start of the book was to bring to life the English society depicted in the dark sketches of 18th century cartoonists such as Gillray, but to do it with the sense of wonder and imagination that I used to feel when reading SFF titles such as Butterworth and (Don) Lawrence’s Trigan Empire series. It’s the Jackelian world I fell in love with, everything else flowed smoothly from that. I’d imagine Tolkien felt much the same away about Middle Earth.

Q: “The Court of the Air” is basically a standalone novel with the main story arc resolved by the end of the book, though a few threads are left dangling. Do you plan on returning to the Kingdom of the Jackals anytime soon, and if so, can you share any details?

Stephen: Well, the good news is that “The Court of the Air” is the first of a three book deal, and the other two novels I’ve signed with HarperCollins for are both set in the Jackelian milieu. I have handed the second book into Voyager and am currently working through the production edits. I have also started the third book and must be about a quarter into writing that one, currently. Neither have an agreed title yet, so I won’t jinx them by expressing my choice! There are some familiar faces from "The Court of the Air" in both the two new novels, as well as some exciting new characters too.

Q: That's great news! I definitely can't wait for the new novels. Going back to your debut “For the Crown and the Dragon”, are we ever going to see a reprint? What about its sequel “The Fortress In the Frost”, which is completed but unpublished? Also, can you tell us anymore about “For the Crown and the Dragon”, it’s sequel and how the books compare with “The Court of the Air”.

Stephen: Well, there’s a 13-year gap between “The Court of the Air” and “For the Crown and the Dragon”, and I think my work has come on a lot since then. Will the sequel ever come out? If I was going to release it, I suspect I’d want to go back and polish up ‘The Fortress In the Frost’ a heck of a lot first – it might actually take more time to do that, than writing a completely new novel.

Q: “The Guns of the Wisdom” is another unpublished novel. What’s that about and what are your plans & thoughts for that book?

Stephen: “Guns” is pure space opera, very much out of fashion when I wrote it, but irritatingly back in vogue now with fantastic authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Peter F Hamilton. Before I was getting published again, a lot of people used to say to me: ‘wow, your work was really ahead of its time.’ I used to find that really, really fucking annoying!

It’s the sort of thing I would imagine a small press buying at some point in the far future, just to show the real fan boys and girls what that strange old fantasy author’s take on science fiction was like.

Q: Are there any other unfinished works lying around that you hope to revisit, or other writing projects that you planning on tackling in the near future?

Stephen: I’m fairly focused on getting more novels set in the Jackelian world out, at the moment, with not a whole lot of time left for anything else, sadly. This last year I’ve said no to potential project approaches from both the TV and comic book world, not to mention anthology requests. If Spielberg, Lucas or Peter Jackson turn up with a movie adaptation script stuffed into their tweedy pocket, I’ll let them into my living room to chat, though. Who wouldn’t?

Q: Funny that you should mention TV and comic books. Anymore, it’s pretty common to see books adapted into different formats such as film, comics or television. And personally, I could easily see “The Court of the Air” made into an anime or videogame. So, regarding “The Court of the Air” has there been interest or anything optioned yet?

Stephen: Still early days yet. I think it’ll take the numbers the paperback edition will sell to awaken the hunger of the studios… and I’m still on the hardback stage for the first novel, currently. A lot of people have said they’d love to see the "The Court of the Air" as an anime flick. SFX even made the plea on my behalf when they reviewed the book! It’d need a big budget to do it justice, so that automatically narrows the field as to people who could run with it. Please god, spare me a direct to video turkey!

Q: What would be your dream adaptation?

Stephen: For big budgets, I’d go with Lucas or Spielberg. Lucas tends to do his own thing, which just leaves our Steven. I could see him doing a good job. For matching the sensibility of the novel with an appropriate creative type, though, I think I might plump for Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam. They tend to go with the dark and the offbeat, and that’s more the world I created than CGI special effects. Actors, easy – I’d cast Oliver Brooks as Leonardo DiCaprio and Harry Stave as Michael Caine. For young Molly, I’d plump for Keira Knightley. If you had to, though, you could do a ‘Star Wars’ and cast complete unknowns and just let the story and the world carry the movie.

Q: Let’s move on. As a founder behind SF Crowsnest, a fan-run website dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, you're obviously a follower of the genres. And since you're probably exposed to a lot of different sci-fi/fantasy, how much of an impact has SF Crowsnest had in your writing, especially in avoiding certain clich├ęs?

Stephen: To be honest, for the last few years, my main involvement with SFcrowsnest (beyond paying for the depressingly large hosting bills) has been on the site production/programming side. I write my editorial once a month, source a few articles and features, and load all the rest of the content into the content management system, then build and FTP the result. The editor Geoff Willmetts handles all the book review coordination and is a far more prolific reviewer than me. My most intensive reading years were during university – everything else I get through these days is either for fun or research. Maybe seven fiction novels a year. If I was writing a book on PHP and mySQL programming SFcrowsnest would be a really big influence, but as it stands, nope, I'm afraid not.

Q: LOL. Well, in some form or another, you've been involved with sci-fi/fantasy since the late 80s/early 90s. What are your thoughts on the genres' evolution since then and where do you see science fiction and fantasy going in the future?

Stephen: I think the genre's popularity has grown enormously over the years, but by stealth – if you look at all the most popular books, TV series and films, they're all front-loaded with science fiction, fantasy or horror. In terms of acceptance? Forget it…we're stuck in the 1970s still. Just look at J.K. Rowling denying she writes fantasy because her books are too popular to be associated with spotty fans like us. But the nerds have had their revenge – Microsoft, Google and PayPal are taking over the world!

Q: Besides your writing and SF Crowsnest, I believe you also have a day job. How do you balance everything out and what keeps you motivated as a writer?

Stephen: Well, writing is something I have to do. As in: 'am driven to it'. SFcrowsnest is a zine that's grown to over half a million SFF readers a month worldwide, and it's success is really down to doing the same thing a little better each month (and setting up at the same time as Amazon: e.g. early enough to become a gorilla in its niche). The site's fans are also its writers, and doing something for love rather than money always gives you the best content. Everything else is just to pay the mortgage and put bread on the table.

Q: You said you don’t get as much time as before to read, but what has been grabbing your attention lately?

Stephen: I've just picked up the latest Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel for a little cyberpunk action on the side. I've also just finished Freakonomics, which made for a very interesting social and economics read. As a special treat, I have also ordered up a couple of volumes of the EC Comics compendium of the old Weird Science titles. They don't make them like that anymore! (And if they did, they'd probably be banned).

Q: Any recommendations for up-and-coming authors to check out?

Stephen: For that, check out the reviews section of SFcrowsnest – the site does up to 50 new book reviews a month. My tastes are still running to the new-a-few-years-ago level – Alistair Reynolds, Adam Roberts and Peter F. Hamilton. Their new works still feel new to me, but that probably makes me sound like an old man to any kids reading this.

Q: Any final words that you'd like to share with readers?

Stephen: Recycle more paper, plastic and tins, and don't buy a private Lear Jet. Outside of the ones in the books, Spaceship Earth is the only one we've got.

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