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Friday, August 11, 2017

SPFBO: Interview with Alec Hutson (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Order The Crimson Queen HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Crimson Queen 

Alec Hutson's The Crimson Queen was our first SPFBO Semifinalist and as you can read in my review yesterday, it's really apparent why. Alec was kind enough to answer a few questions while preparing for his marriage. I owe him more than just a thank you for his time.  In this interview, you'll learn more about his beginnings on the writing path as well as how The Crimson Queen came into being. Read ahead and get to know more about Alec and  be sure to grab a copy of The Crimson Queen. You won't be sad when you do.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To begin with, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background & your interests?

AH: Hi! Thanks for the questions! I grew up in a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts (the setting for one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, actually). My aunt owns a rather large independent bookstore, and I was surrounded by books from a very young age. I always loved fantasy and have a memory of lugging Ed Greenwood’s Spellfire into my third-grade classroom for show-and-tell. 



I went to Carleton College and studied mostly history, majoring in political science. Up until my senior year I thought law school would be my route, but as graduation hurtled closer I realized that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer - it just seemed like a natural path for my skill-set (high school debate captain, good with the words, etc). So instead I applied to writing programs, and was accepted into the one at NC State run by John Kessel, the eminent science fiction author.

About this same time, I’d started dating a girl who was working at the same bookstore as me. Before we’d even met she was planning on going to Shanghai to teach English with her sister, and she convinced me to defer my writing program for a year and join her in China.

That was fifteen years ago, and I’m still in Shanghai (though the girl I arrived with is now happily married to a doctor in New York). The interval has been an exciting and fun time, to be sure, but I do wonder how my life would have been different if I’d taken the other branch back in 2003 and gone off to get my MFA.

Q] Can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finishing your book, & why you chose to go the self-publishing route?

AH: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I remember writing, illustrating and binding a book in the first grade based off of the old King’s Quest computer games. I published fantasy stories in my high school’s literary magazine. I loved creating and having written, but I can’t say I have the same compulsion to write that some writers speak of. The act of writing isn’t enjoyable for me. It’s like a wrestling match, and while I do feel tremendous satisfaction when words I’m happy with are on the page, it’s also exhausting.

During my twenties I tried several times to write a book. I always got 50k words in or so, and that nagging little internal critic would convince me to throw it aside. For The Crimson Queen, I joined the story-sharing site Wattpad when I’d hit the word count where self-doubt usually came crashing down hardest and started posting chapters. The reception was quite good, and honestly it was the readers there that pushed me to finally finish.

After I had a first draft done I started researching the query process. For those who haven’t done it, it’s pretty horrible. Slaving away over a hooky blurb, then dispatching these queries to literary agents, most of whom will only glance at what you send them and dash off a form rejection (if they reply at all). My initial batch of 15 queries or so fizzled, though I did get asked for two partials – from the two biggest agencies I’d queried, actually.


One of my writer friends on Wattpad suggested I look into self-publishing. I hadn’t even considered this route, but I started reading articles by Hugh Howey and lurking on kboards. It quickly became very apparent to me that this was the future of publishing. I loved that I had absolute control over the story and its rights, and that my book’s success or failure would rest on my shoulders, not some faceless marketing department.

I began preparing my book for self-publication. It took me about two months to make The Crimson Queen, and I hit publish in early December, 2016. The response really floored me. My initial goal was to make back in 2017 my investment in putting the book back together, which was about 2k dollars. By the end of December, I’d already done that. Then in the middle of January a really fantastic indie author – Will Wight – was handed my book by a reader of his blog. He loved it and raved about it on Goodreads, Amazon, Twitter . . . . The Crimson Queen sort of exploded after that. At the end of January, I received an e-mail from the huge fantasy agency I’d queried 9 months before. They wanted the full manuscript of Queen, which I believe is a big step on the way to representation. I explained to the agent that I’d already self-published, and he said that that was okay, but I’d have to take down my book, it wouldn’t return to print if he took it on for at least 18 months, and he couldn’t guarantee an advance of more than 10k dollars (which I guess is sort of standard?). By this time – 6 weeks into self publishing – I was already fast approaching that number.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of The Crimson Queen occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

AH: Elements of the book began gestating back in my twenties, and several characters and scenes were taken from previously failed versions. I really wanted to write a classic fantasy story set in the kind of world I loved to read about, but without the Manichean duality that in my opinion renders a lot of fantasy kind of simplistic. I wanted to do a less-dark version of Game of Thrones. The characters of the Crimson Queen herself and Alyanna – and their conflict – were always there in previous iterations, as was Jan. Keilan – who became the viewpoint character – was a late addition.

When I finally set to writing the book it took me about 18 months to finish.

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?

AH: I wouldn’t say I have a muse, unless it’s the writing of authors that I really love, like Mieville or Martin. My motivation, I suppose, was chasing that emotion I always loved when I read fantasy novels – kind of an upwelling in wonder, that feeling of being transported to a different realm. If I can create that same emotion in readers, then I’ll consider my book a success.

Q] The Crimson Queen is the first volume in the Raveling series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any blurb details about the sequel and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

AH: I’m about halfway through the second book in the series. I’m aiming to release it this winter, but I also won’t put it out until I’m completely satisfied, so that might be the spring. I can’t imagine it’ll take longer than that. In the second book – The Shadow King – the threat to the world becomes clearer, and in some ways the series settles down into a more traditional fantasy story.

Q] One of the things I noticed in your debut was a good mix of mythology that seem inspired by East, Central & North Asian legends. Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write your debut? What were the things which you focused upon and any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

AH: I’ve lived in China for fifteen years, so I have a familiarity with East Asian culture and history. I’m also in general just a bit of a history nerd, so bits and pieces of my own interests worm their way into certain cultures in my books. The Shan and their Empire of Swords and Flowers are very obviously based off of Tang dynasty China. Menekar is a more classical-era civilization. The Gilded Cities are similar to Italian city states, or perhaps more of a Hanseatic league-type merchant federation.

Most research I did was related to particular events – like when Nel begins to teach Keilan knife-fighting, I researched the basics of that. The last thing you want to do as a writer is break immersion by completely misrepresenting something that readers might be passionate about.


Q] Another curious bit about your debut was the presence of the mythological creature designs within TCQ & TMS (at the start of chapters and in the start). Is there any particular reason for their presence in these volumes? Also why those particular designs (dragon, manticore) for each volume?

AH: The internal formatting of my books is done by Colleen Shaheen of Write Dream Repeat book design. She’s wonderfully talented, and I love what she’s done with the books. She presented me with an assortment of designs and images, and I simply chose ones that I liked. The manticore obviously made sense given that my short story collection was named after a flash fiction piece inside called The Manticore’s Soiree – the rose and dragon design in The Crimson Queen I just thought looked great.

Q] I thoroughly enjoyed how your debut presented your own twist on several fantasy tropes. Particularly the titular character whom you kept sort of hidden from the POV characters as well as the reader & is only revealed in the last fourth quarter of the book. I liked how you subverted reader expectations by purposefully keeping The Crimson Queen as an enigma? Was this planned? Will we ever see what makes her tick and how she rose to power?

AH: I did want her to be an enigma. Mysteries keep readers reading. I’ve found it interesting how different readers have come away with very different impressions of her, from benevolent to ruthless, to both good and evil. I do plan on getting deeper into her character and her motivations – I have a backstory all primed for when it makes sense in the narrative to explore it.

Q] Talking about POV characters, you have written both mortal & near immortal ones. How do you get in the mindset for writing them? Do you write them one at a time? or do you write them all together?

AH: I wrote the chapters as they’re laid out in the book, so sometimes alternating points of view, sometimes the same character again. The most difficult POV for me to write was Keilan. I had to be true to the fact that he’s being thrust into a situation he doesn’t fully understand, and goes through much of the book in wide-eyed wonder at what’s going on around him. Some readers have remarked about a lack of agency with him, but for me, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a fifteen-year-old boy seizes control of the situations he finds himself in. He’s an effective vehicle for exploring and explaining the world, I suppose. Alyanna was the most fun to write. She’s confident, arrogant, and powerful. A lover of beauty and life. Also extremely selfish. Just a fun character to explore and write about.

Q] Your book has an intriguing world mixed with some different geographical countries. What was your inspiration for the setting and what are your thoughts on world-building in general?

AH: Like a lot of fantasy books and worlds, the inspiration came from our world’s history. Most of the cultures are vaguely analogous to something familiar. I don’t think I broke new ground with the setting, but it’s exactly the kind of world I love to explore as a reader, so I was hoping others would find it compelling.

There’s also a certain way to present a fantasy world – in the language used, and the way far-off peoples and locations are referenced – that I think really deepens the fantasy reading experience. Let me give a few examples. Here’s one of my favorite openings, from The Phoenix and The Sword, one of the first Conan stories:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.”

This is a world I want to explore. I get those little flutters in my stomach when I read about the ‘towers of spider-haunted mystery’ or ‘Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold.’ With The Crimson Queen I tried in parts to do the same thing – here’s a section from the very beginning, when Keilan is describing what he knows of the world beyond his village:

His mother had taught him so much. While most of the other villagers only knew about this tiny sliver of the world, their homes and the nearby town of Chale, the waters of the bay and the dun hills to the east, his mother had told him stories of the vastness that unfurled in every direction. Farther east, over the Bones of the World, lay the ancient cities of Menekar, where white lions curled at the feet of ruling satraps; to the far north was a frozen waste pocked by crumbling holdfasts locked in ice and sorcery; to the west the Gilded Cities glittered on the coast; and to the south, beyond the sea, was where the mysterious Shan ruled in their Empire of Swords and Flowers.


Or another example would be how I introduce the city of Menekar from the perspective of the Shan advisor to the emperor:

The peach rains had finally come.

For weeks now Menekar had been swaddled in a shroud of late summer heat, heavy and suffocating. Along the Aveline Way, in the shadow of the aqueduct that channeled water from mother Asterppa to the cisterns and gardens of the city, the bare feet of children had slapped the marble as they ran shrieking to play in the crowded fountains. Past them matrons and maidens alike had walked swaying to market, their jokkas unbound and bared breasts gleaming, hair coiled atop their heads so that the faint breath of a breeze might cool their necks. And elsewhere in the city, in shaded villas along the banks of the sluggish, silty Pandreth, the painted wives of satraps summering in the capitol had reclined on velvet couches, fanned by great feathers held by the hairless men of the Whispering Isles.


As summer had waxed, the days had lengthened, becoming more languorous, colors slowly seeping from a city bleached by the heat.

Then the spell had broken. As happened every year, something in the swollen air had burst, and the peach rains had finally come, sweeping over the city in lashing torrents. The patter of children’s feet had given way to the sound of falling raindrops; the hairless men of the Isles had set down their fans and bent to rub oils into the legs of their mistresses. The dust and filth of the hot dry summer months had been swept into the suddenly overflowing canals.

Menekar had been reborn, cleansed – for a short while, at least.

There’s a trend in fantasy toward realism and grit, and that’s really not where my writing leads. I’m going for that sense of wonder – I want to make the reader want to strap a sword to his or her side and go out to explore these places and have adventures.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AH: My conception of fantasy changed when I pulled A Game of Thrones off my bookstore’s shelf in 1996. It was probably the most formative reading experience of my life.

For the quality of their sentences I really respect Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabakov, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, China Mieville, Lucius Shepard, R Scott Bakker, John Crowley, and KJ Bishop, to name a few off the top of my head.

If I was to make a list of my favorite fantasy books they would be:

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

The Scar by China Mieville

The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Etched City by KJ Bishop

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (short stories)

The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard (short stories)

My exposure to self-published books is somewhat limited – before this spring, I’d never picked one up. Now I have a to-be-read list a mile high, and I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of what I’ve tucked into so far. There’s a few indie gems I’ve picked up that I’d love to steer readers toward:

The Cradle series by Will Wight, starting with Unsouled. Will gave my book a tremendous boost soon after I published – I had never read him before that, but I devoured the (now three) books in his Cradle series. Incredibly inventive and accomplished fantasy. So much fun. If this series was picked up by a big 5 publisher it would be a NYT bestseller.

I love sword and sorcery, so I read The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung. It’s a wonderfully written adventure that I read in about two sittings.

And one science fiction plug – if you enjoyed The Hunger Games or Red Rising, try Age of Order by Julian North.

All three of these books I thought were better than the average title put out by New York publishing.

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

AH: You’re welcome, and thank you for the wonderful questions! I guess I just also want to say thank you to all the readers who have read The Crimson Queen. I never imagined my book would be so well-received, and it’s great motivation to keep writing and improving my craft.

2 comments:

S.J. Lem said...

Wonderful interview! Alec, you are inspiration to all us self-publishers. I'm very excited for your success and glad to see your book getting the recognition it deserves.

Nancy Foster said...

I was too lazy to read the entire interview, but it's really fascinating to hear this was one of those uber rare authors to hit over 10,000 k in just a few weeks of publishing their first novel. Sounds like a million to one shot. I'll have to read this book sometime to see for myself.

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