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Friday, September 2, 2016

Interview with SJA Turney (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order Insurgency HERE (US) & HERE (UK)
Order Emperor's Bane HERE (US) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Interregnum
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ironroot
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Marius' Mules

SJA Turney is an indie author who has developed quite a bibliography since his first book release in 2008-09. Here at FBC, Liviu & I have been big fans of his works especially his Tales Of The Empire. Read ahead to find out how he got started, how he developed both his series and what readers can look forward to in the near future...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background? Tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

SJAT: Wow. Well, I’m a Yorkshireman, born and bred. A proper country bumpkin from northern England for all my Welsh and Londoner blood. I live in a small, beautiful village with my wife and two kids and a pair of bizarre dogs. I’m a lifelong lover of history (especially Roman history) and a fantasy fan since my school days (two of the first series I ever read were the Lord of the Rings and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry). I’ve been a geeky fantasy role player and passed through an eclectic series of jobs. I’d written short stories a lot as a teen, including a great Klingon Star Trek one which sadly is long lost now. Then, back in 2003 while working in IT, I was (for fun, if you would believe it) perusing Caesar’s Gallic War Diaries. My job involved about one day a week of rushing around madly fire-fighting computer disasters, then 4 days of waiting bored for the next crisis. To fill the time, I started playing around with an idea of rewriting Caesar’s diary as a novel and making it readable to the general public.

I finished Marius’ Mules that year and decided then to try something different. A friend and I had discussed what we would put in our own fantasy epics if we ever wrote them. I looked at my completed Roman novel, and thought ‘well, why not?’ I would try using Roman history as a flavor, but apply it to a fantasy world in the manner that had so impressed me with Kay’s standalone books. I wrote Interregnum between 2003 and 2004 and was immensely proud of the result. I felt certain that Marius’ Mules and Interregnum would sell. I was wrong. As most desperate authors out there will nod in agreement, I started to feel a little dejected when I’d sent out paper copies at immense expense to three dozen agents and received a form letter of rejection in reply.

A few years passed and I joined a peer review website, uploading the books. Then, in 2009, YouWriteOn (that website) published 50 of the books on their site with funding from the Arts Council. Mine were two of them. They received moderate praise and sold a few copies. I decided to buy a chocolate bar, or maybe a new desk tidy with the proceeds. Then a friend from another web group asked me why they weren’t on kindle. I asked if kindle was such a big deal and he all but laughed at me. Marius' Mules and Interregnum went up on kindle a week later and flew off the virtual shelves. In fact they were so successful, I regained my mojo and started writing sequels. They sold too. I started to build a reputation and a fan base. It was a busy time, since I was still working full time, too. Then in 2012 I was made redundant (couldn’t be helped and I’d seen it coming.) By happy coincidence, the seven books (I think) that I’d released by then provided me with a living wage. I decided to take the plunge and did not seek a new job, just knuckled down and started to write more. Here I am four years further on with around 20 books out and happy as Larry, whoever he is!

Q] Many writers have a muse, who directs their writing, and others do not seem to be affected the same way. Which group do you fall into? What is your main motivation and source of inspiration?

SJAT: I subscribe to Terry Pratchett’s idea that inspiration is like sleet, particles raining through space all the time. Some people get hit more than others. In one of his books a playwright is struck by inspiration on a second-by-second basis. I am more or less the same. I don’t really need a muse as I have far more ideas than I will ever have time to put on paper. In fact, I have a folder on my PC with about twenty book ideas that will have to wait for the day I can squeeze them in. In a way it’s too much inspiration, as my brain never truly rests. Even of an evening when sat with my wife watching a movie, my mind is still churning things over.

My motivation? Well, there’s staying solvent, of course! But also, particularly, the fact that I just love to tell stories. It’s addictive. I want to tell more stories, longer ones, funnier ones, more exciting ones. If there is a muse for me, though, it would be solitude. Whenever I walk the dogs or have to drive out somewhere and I’m on my own, I inevitably solve small plot problems or have epiphanies about what I’m currently working on. Sometimes without falling over the dogs or driving into a hedge in the process.

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that the Tales Of The Empire is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

SJAT: TOTE (my shorthand for the series) is heavily based on late Rome. Viewing the empire map one can place where it is really in the world. In the first book (Interregnum) the main locations are the city of Velutio and the island of Isera. The former is heavily based on Rome, mixed with Tarragona, the latter on a mix of Capri and the Palatine hill. In Ironroot, the fort they visit is solidly based on the Roman fort at Hardknott in Cumbria. In Dark Empress, the Pelasian capital is a mix of Istanbul and Carthage. Many sites in the new book (Insurgency) are based on places I know in Spain. Basically the geography, architecture and style are all borrowed from real historical places that I know and have visited (with a couple of exceptions – such as the horse clan stronghold in Insurgency).

The characters are not generally based on real people, with the exception of the mad emperor Quintus, who only appears as a historical figure in Interregnum, but who is clearly based on Nero. That being said, there are influences of real people in them. Kiva Caerdin in Interregnum contains more than a little of the late Roman general Stilicho, for instance. The books are all standalones, for all they are connected by common threads, so there is no central set of characters that run throughout. Each book has new heroes and villains. To date, I think my favourite character though is Tythias from Interregnum – a scarred mercenary captain with a sense of humour. His son appears as a major protagonist in Insurgency and is very similar.

Q] My next question is about the genesis of the Tales Of The Empire and how it occurred? How long have you been working on it?

SJAT: Ah. I’ve probably more or less answered this. Heh heh. The first book germinated in 2003 and was finished in 2004. I didn’t write the second until 2010, with the third in 2011. Then, I sort of shuffled it aside and began to concentrate on the historical books until recently, when Canelo took on the series for a reissue and commissioned a new volume. Their interest rekindled my own, as they saw great potential in the ongoing series. So Insurgency was written in 2016 after a five year gap. And now there will almost certainly be a book 5 in 2017. To be honest, throughout that 5 year lull, I constantly toyed with going back and writing another. I love the world in which they’re set and it offers infinite possibilities. I already have the bones of a plot for book 5!

Q] Talking about the Tales Of The Empire, you self-published the first three books (from 2009 to 2011) and recently re-released the books in a partnership with Canelo books (with smashing new cover art to boot). Could you walk us through your decision beginning from self-publication to the recent re-release and what specifically drove you to join Canelo?

SJAT: Building on what I said at the start, I released my first two books in 2009 with YouWriteOn. Once the kindle version took off and I realized people liked them, I started to write the sequels (a second Roman one, and Ironroot for the Tales Of The Empire.) Once again I released them with YWO, and the third the same a year later. At the time it was blasted as an Arts Council funded project, this publishing push from the website. In retrospect it was very much vanity press. With the growth of Amazon’s self-publishing system and the ease of that and Createspace, I decided that I would continue to write and release but do it all myself. That way more profit lies, for sure. And these days the stigma attached to self-publishing seems to have vanished. And while I would be reluctant to put my whole career in the hands of one of the big publishing houses (who seem to be dropping more and more authors), I could always see the value of traditional publishers too.

When my lovely agent put me in touch with Canelo I was intrigued enough to offer them the Tales Of The Empire to see what they would do with it. They wanted a new book or two for the series, and I went to meet with them to talk things out. Canelo are not only visionaries who have brought a whole new angle to the publishing marketplace that should appeal to many, many authors both self- and traditionally published, they are also really cool guys. A conversation with them was enough to seal the deal. I am a Canelo fan now.

Q] All the three books: Interregnum, Ironroot and Dark Empress are stand-alone stories set in the greater mosaic of the world. Why did you write them as such? Is there an over-arching saga that is being planned?

SJAT: Interregnum could only ever have been a standalone. Once I’d finished it I was determined not to undermine its value by eking out a sequel. That was disaster lies, as anyone who saw Highlander II knows! I toyed with a prequel, but that would basically be a 400 page spoiler for Interregnum, so I decided against it. But there was more to set in the world. Plot lines leapt out at me, so I grabbed one and wrote Ironroot. I was determined to have it link to the first book, so there is a cameo from one of the main characters in Interregnum some decade or more after his first appearance.

Then Dark Empress similarly has a cameo from an original Interregnum character or two. Insurgency is something new. Having spent some time away from it, I decided upon a plot, but saw it as something of a reboot. Insurgency is closer to Interregnum than either of the two volumes in between. It could be seen as a sequel in a way. To some extent it is ‘Interregnum: the next generation.’ I like the standalone idea. Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are standalones, yet linked in a similar fashion and he is my literary idol.

Q] Emperor’s Bane follows the standalone nature of its predecessors while Insurgency showcases characters we might have met/heard about in the previous books and is the first true sequel in this series (considering the plot threads from Emperor's Bane & Interregnum). Please tell us about the inception of both these stories and what made you dive back in to this world after a gap of nearly 6 years?

SJAT: Ha. I’m not looking ahead at these questions. A bad habit of mine, that. Emperor’s Bane is a novella that acts as something of a prequel to Insurgency. Neither relies upon the other, though. EB was written partially to give readers a little nudge that the series was back, a taster for the main event in a way, and partially to help me get back into the swing of the fantasy series. And it answers some questions that readers of Insurgency might be left with too. As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t call Insurgency a sequel as such, but more of a ‘next generation’. It is a whole new plot involving the children of the characters from Interregnum, and can easily be read as a standalone book. Canelo when they first commissioned a new volume urged me to write something with a close connection to the original book and when I threw the idea their way they were astoundingly encouraging. I went at it with a vengeance, and… well, here it is.

Q] World-building is one of the key ingredients of fantasy; your series features quite strongly on this factor. What is it about world-building that you love, and what are the keys to successfully crafting such a believable, & deep world found in the Empire series?

SJAT: I am fortunate in several ways in this respect. Firstly, my world is so heavily influenced by the real world in the late Roman era that half my job is already done. I just need to give the world a little twist this way and that the way both Kay and Pratchett have done with their work. I am also a constant traveler. I love to travel and visit ancient sites. I do so or research into my historical novels, but in the process everything I encounter gives me inspiration for the Tales Of The Empire. Added to that, as I mentioned at the start, I spent decades playing table-top fantasy games and as such have spent maybe half my life building fantasy worlds as a hobby. The value of fantasy gaming to a fantasy author is displayed in spades by Raymond Feist, whose D&D campaign turned into a very successful series of fantasy novels. The combination of my history with gaming and the world that lies around me makes world-building for TOTE a simple thing.

Q] Themes of identity, ethnic diversity, & cultural disparities seem to play an important role throughout this series. How much of this did you draw from your own traveling experience? And how much of it was gleaned from history?

SJAT: Oooh, much. I try and travel adventurously rather than safely. As well as places like France, Italy and Spain, we’ve toured Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey, including Istanbul during a time when tourists were being discouraged by the UK government. And we do not stay in holiday resorts. I have trudged the backstreets of small Tunisian towns hunting lost Roman villas with the help of non-English speaking locals. I have wandered the streets of the Fener district in Istanbul where tourists rarely ever get, watching the kids playing in the street and the mesh of more than one culture fill the city. I’ve traipsed around a Roman town where the guide was surprised to meet an Englishman. We drive over tiny mountain roads in the middle of nowhere.

I try not to stay in the world of the English tourist, but to immerse myself in the culture of wherever I am, and I encourage my kids to do it too. Diversity is all around us, and many people don’t realise it simply because they don’t look up from the comfort bubble often enough. However, despite this diversity, wherever I’ve been I’ve generally found a connection with the locals no matter how disparate our backgrounds. We’re all people when it comes down to it.

Q] After reading and enjoying A Year Of Ravens, I’m very excited to read your Trojan collaboration with Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Thornton, Russ Whitfield titled A Song Of War. Please tell us about your story set in this milieu and how this project came to life?

SJAT: Oh I love A Song of War. More or less the moment we finished Ravens we started throwing about ideas for the next collaboration. Several ideas were put forward, some of which are likely to happen over the next few years, but we liked the idea of the Trojan War. Seven stories covering the entire decade-long saga. And because I was in at the start, I leapt in and called Aeneas as my character. This might be ancient Greece, but that is the one character with a Roman connection, through Virgil. And added to that, Aeneas has always been to me one of the most intriguing characters of the Trojan War, yet he’s given little screen time by Homer. Several of the authors of Ravens had to step out due to other commitments, but Libbie, Stephanie and Christian all stepped up and joined us, enriching the whole thing with their own unique and considerable talents. It’s out in October and it’s epic! And I get to burn Troy, too… heh heh heh. Kate Quinn considers me a serial city-burner, given that over two books I have now burned three cities.

Q] You are an author of many facets as evidenced from your extensive bibliography and yet the announcement of your upcoming books (duology?) with Chris Cameron left me deliriously surprised. As a fan of you both, as well as Greek History, I can only await to see what you both unleash. What can you reveal about these books? Have you both decided on a title and is there a release date set?

SJAT: I’ve been working on a collaboration with Gordon Doherty for a couple of years now, the first volume of which will likely be released within the year. This has been written in an interesting manner, with Gordon and I taking the opposing characters of the emperors Constantine and Maxentius and telling their tale in alternating chapters. The result has been surprisingly successful and we’re both so happy with it that we’ve almost finished book 2. At the same time I was becoming good friends with Christian, who had been introduced to me by our mutual acquaintance Robin Carter (Parmenion Books). I love Christian’s work. He’s very much the writer’s writer. Many of the authors I speak to consider him to be the standard to which we all aspire. And I had been bitten by the collaboration bug through my work with Gordon. I wondered how else a joint work could be written and the idea came of a story told from two sides in two separate books. Two people who are connected, who live through the same times and events, which we could see from both points of view. I wondered if it could be done with a Greek and a Roman, since there are times when the two cultures clashed.

I bounced the notion off Christian, generally expecting an instant rebuttal. On the contrary, Christian was immediately excited by the project. I threw some more ideas of character and era at him and he brushed them aside (in fairness, they were probably Roman-o-centric. I can’t help that.) But he had a proposal to essentially reboot Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Plutarch compared pairs of historical characters, and one such pair was Philopoemen (dubbed ‘The Last of the Greeks’) and the early Roman general Flamininus. I liked it. And the more I read and the more we bounced ideas, the more I liked it. We are still in the planning stages of the duology. The way this will have to work is immensely complex, as the two books will have to interweave seamlessly. But we will start work in earnest in the new year (at least, that’s the plan.) As for titles and release dates, that’s for future revelation, but we’re both champing at the bit to get started, I can tell you.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

SJAT: Only that I hope everyone enjoys reading the Tales Of The Empire as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. It’s been a blast over a 13 year period so far, but the Tales are far from over. No matter what other projects I might have in the works, there is always room for another outing to the Empire. As long as people want to read them, I’ll happily write them. Oh, and if anyone wants to ask any more questions or just generally ‘chew the fat’, I’m on Twitter (@SJATurney) and Facebook ( and always ready to chat. Thanks for having me at FBC. Still the best fantasy review site and one of the first I ever came across. Cheers.

NOTE: (1) Insurgency is his most recent novel, and is published by Canelo, priced at £3.99 as an ebook.
(2) All pictures courtesy of the author & Canelo books.


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