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Monday, June 27, 2011

Interview with Cameron Haley (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order “Mob RulesHERE
Order “Skeleton CrewHERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Mob Rules
Read An Excerpt from “Mob RulesHERE

Last year I came across Mob Rules by debut author Cameron Haley. The novel differentiated itself from other urban fantasy titles with its dark setting and a morally ambivalent protagonist who acts as a gang enforcer. After reading Skeleton Crew, the second book in The Underworld Cycle—review to appear on Fantasy Book Critic in the next few weeks—I approached the author for an interview as I wanted to see his thoughts on his series, the UF genre and various other things. Fortunately, Cameron Hurley—which is a pseudonym for Greg Benage—agreed with the result below. On behalf of Fantasy Book Critic, I want to thank Greg for taking the time to answer all of the following questions:

Q: Greg, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in an interview. To begin with, could you introduce yourself for our readers and tell us what set you on the path of a writer?

Greg: Well, it was a long path. I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved stories. I think if you love them enough, you’re never really satisfied with simply consuming them passively. You and a lot of your readers are probably in the same boat—you don’t just want to read stories, you want to discuss them, talk about what the author might have done differently, about what worked and what didn’t, imagine different characters, scenes, story arcs, or endings.

It’s always been that way for me, and so I started writing my own stories. I took a few creative writing classes, and in college I started a couple of novels that never went anywhere. Writing Mob Rules—actually finishing it and seeing it published—was really just a matter of self-discipline and getting to a place in my life where I was settled enough to follow through on something that had always been a passion of mine.

Q: Cameron Haley is a pen name. Why did you decide to use a pen name and what are the reasons for choosing this particular pseudonym?

Greg: It was the publisher’s decision, and I think there were two reasons for it. First, name recognition and retention is important for word-of-mouth, and they thought my real name would be difficult to pronounce and less likely to be remembered. Second, a sizable majority of urban fantasy readers are women—and an even larger majority of my imprint’s readers are women—and the publisher felt they’d be more likely to pick up the books if the author had a gender-neutral name. I’m not sure I buy it, but I leave the sales and marketing considerations to the publisher.

Q: Could you elaborate more on the journey you went through in finding a publisher, what you think of Luna, and what you think they saw in your book?

Greg: The one thing I did right after finishing the book is find Absolute Write and its discussion forums on the Internet. It’s a very active forum full of published and aspiring writers and there’s a wealth of information there, along with plenty of qualified people willing to give advice, feedback, and criticism. I used that resource to polish my query letter and then sent it out to a list of agents I’d researched. I had an agent within a month, and about a month after that we submitted the manuscript to the editors of perhaps ten imprints that published urban fantasy. A month after that, Luna made an offer for the first two books in the series. We waited a few more weeks to hear from the other publishers, and then we took the offer.

My experience with Luna has been great. The truth is, The Underworld Cycle is rather different from most of the books they publish, and it was frankly more of a stretch for them than it would have been for some other publishing houses. Publishers don’t particularly like to stretch or take chances—especially on a debut—so I give them enormous credit for that. My editor is extremely experienced and has been a joy to work with. They landed me a cover artist—Timothy Bradstreet—whose work I’ve enjoyed for twenty years.

Of course, the fact that my series is so different from what they’re known for has some disadvantages. Luna is an imprint of Harlequin, and so a lot of their readers expect a certain kind of experience that The Underworld Cycle probably doesn’t deliver. And it goes the other way, too. I don’t think it’s terribly common for readers to choose books on the basis of publisher, but for those who do, some will pick up Mob Rules because it’s a Luna title, and they won’t care much for it; others who might enjoy it a great deal might pass it up because it’s a Luna title. There’s always a danger of that happening, and that’s why I appreciate opportunities like this to talk about my books to what should be my core audience.

Q: Mob Rules is written in the first-person which is very common for urban fantasy novels. Why do you think this is and what do you feel are the differences between first-person and third-person narratives?

Greg: One of the primary traditions that urban fantasy draws on is noir detective fiction, and first-person narrative really became an icon of that movement. It’s actually somewhat challenging to tell a story from the perspective of a cynical, morally compromised protagonist in a way that makes the character at least somewhat sympathetic to the reader. It would be easier in third-person, where the author could perhaps explore some of the reasons and motivations for certain behaviors and choices the reader may have a hard time accepting. It’s difficult to do that in first-person, unless the protagonist is angsting constantly. And a good noir hero or heroine shouldn’t suffer a lot of angst.

Third-person also allows the author to show more of the plot—you can come at it from different character viewpoints, including the antagonist’s if you choose. That’s one of the weaknesses of a lot of first-person urban fantasy, I think. The villains sometimes have a certain cardboard quality about them, because we never get inside their heads and understand what’s driving them. In Mob Rules, the real villain doesn’t even make an appearance until the end of the book, when Domino finally catches up (and catches on) to him.

On the positive side, though, first-person lets readers identify with the protagonist, explore the world, and experience the action much more immediately. Both POVs have strengths and weaknesses, and those will weight out differently for different books. I think first-person works very well in Skeleton Crew and is the right choice for The Underworld Cycle as a whole; third-person might have worked better for Mob Rules. Unfortunately, I’m not a good enough writer to pull off changes in narrative mode between different books in the same series!

Q: Staying with Mob Rules, Shanar Rashan endorses the rule: “Survive, pick a side and do whatever it takes to win!”, which Domino tries to follow. This rule strongly resonated with me while I was reading your book. How did you come up with this rule and are there any other principles Shanar Rashan follows?

Greg: I think the principle is just moral and existential nihilism, and Neitzsche probably expresses it better than Shanar Rashan. But the idea is that if life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose, and if morality doesn’t inherently exist, then these things are arbitrary—they are just what we choose to make them. All that’s left is the human will. That’s the underlying meaning of the title “Mob Rules.” At the beginning of her story, Domino is almost a creature of pure will. There’s another line in the book where she describes sorcery as “will and power.” That’s who she is and what she is, and the first book is really the story of her development from that starting point.

As for Shanar Rashan, the thing to remember about him is that he’s six thousand years old. First, he has a good excuse for being a nihilist, since it’s probably very difficult to sustain a commitment to anything over the course of an existence that endures so long. Likewise, he’s probably been many different people and held many different convictions during that time. We learn a lot more about that in Dead Drop, and some of it comes as a rather unpleasant surprise for Domino.

Q: Was there a precise spark of inspiration that lead to the creation of Domino and The Underworld Cycle? And how long have you been working on the series and has it evolved any from its original idea?

Greg: I’m not sure there was one spark. I wanted to write urban fantasy, and I wanted to write about a sorcerer. But I also wanted a take on it that hadn’t been done a million times already, and that meant no private investigators, no cops, no bounty hunters, etc. Separately, a couple things in film and TV sparked the idea that organized crime and urban fantasy were a good fit. Some of the fan speculation about Pulp Fiction, for example. The idea that it was Marcellus Wallace’s soul in the briefcase, that the bandage on the back of his neck when we first meet him is evidence that his soul has been removed. And a couple episodes of The Sopranos, one where Paulie Walnuts visits a psychic and learns that the ghosts of his victims are following him around, another when Christopher is being “made” and they’re going through this ritual, burning a card with the image of his patron saint. Anyway, I realized we’d never seen “sorcerer as gangster” before, and that organized crime was a pretty nice fit for a modern wizards’ cabal, an excellent way for them to hide in plain sight. I took that idea and ran with it, juxtaposing in myriad ways the criminal and supernatural underworlds.

Q) The Underworld Cycle is primarily set in Los Angeles. Why L.A.? And will you be exploring the world beyond the city in future volumes?

Greg: There were a lot of reasons for choosing L.A. One is just that the gang culture has such deep roots there, both in reality and in popular culture. Another is that, one of the things urban fantasy allows the writer to do is juxtapose the ancient and mythical with the modern, and L.A. is in some respects the most modern and most American of modern American cultures. It just has a lot of raw material to play with. And then, when I land that movie deal, it will be less expensive for the studio to do those location shoots! I do have one book outlined that would take Domino outside the city (and the country), but for the most part, this is an L.A. story. In my view, the best urban fantasy is as much about its city as its protagonist. They should work together. So The Underworld Cycle is about Domino, and L.A. is part of who she is.

Q: Speaking of The Underworld Cycle, how many volumes are projected (do you have an ending envisioned), how far along are you in the next book, and is there anything you can tell us about volume three?

Greg: I’d like the series to go at least six books, but it’s somewhat open-ended beyond that. As long as I still have stories to tell in the world, and as long as people want to read them and Luna wants to publish them, I’ll keep writing. One of the great things about SFF is that we’re very close to the readers, and the readers will always let you know when you’ve jumped the shark and it’s time to wrap things up. I’ve recently signed a contract for the third book, Dead Drop, and I’m working on it now. It’s tentatively scheduled for next spring. It’s difficult to say too much about it without spoiling Skeleton Crew, but it deals with the aftermath of events in that book and continues to build toward the supernatural war that’s coming.

So, to answer the question, I don’t really have a fixed endpoint in mind, but I do have a transition point. Those who have read even the first book probably recognize that it’s building toward a kind of apocalyptic scenario. It’s driving toward events that, if the series continues beyond that point, it will shift to a fundamentally different kind of story. Usually in UF we see one side or the other of “The Change” or whatever you want to call it. I think it would be cool to run a series all the way through to the other side.

Q: Is there a process you follow when naming your books? How about a special meaning behind the novels?

Greg: For The Underworld Cycle, I wanted short, punchy titles with, hopefully, at least a couple layers of meaning. There’s really nothing magical about the process—I try to define the core concept of the book and then brainstorm titles that fit. Sometimes, as with Mob Rules, they come quickly; sometimes I go through a few working titles before I land on one I really like. I’m happy to say that, unlike my name, the publisher has liked all my titles, through the upcoming third book in the series, Dead Drop.

Q: Your debut, Mob Rules, was nominated for Best Urban Fantasy Novel in the 2010 Reviewers’ Choice Awards by RT Book Reviews Magazine. Unfortunately, your book lost to Magic Bleeds by Ilona Andrews. Still, what did you think of the nomination and the chosen winner!?

Greg: I was surprised and delighted by the nomination, of course, and I think they made the right decision. The first book in the Kate Daniels series wasn’t the best UF of the year, and neither was Mob Rules. I think Skeleton Crew is a better book, and I hope the series will continue to improve. Maybe I’ll have a winner by book three or four!

Q: In the fantasy genre, cover art has always been a hot topic, especially how important it is in selling books. How do you feel about the covers for your books and what are your thoughts on the difference between Urban Fantasy covers from say “Paranormal romance”, et cetera?

Greg: As I said before, I love Bradstreet. I’ve been a fan of his since he really defined the look of Vampire and The World of Darkness for White Wolf in the early 90s. I loved his artistic approach to the covers and the way Luna’s designers drew on it to create a kind of Grand Theft Auto-inspired graphic look for the series. I think it’s appropriate and sets the covers apart from the typically darker, more “painterly” covers that are more common in UF.

The cover for a true paranormal romance will usually follow the conventions of that genre, with both a heroine and a hero (often shirtless!) in the illustration. The kick-ass chicks in black leather branch of UF has evolved its own conventions in cover art, of course—feminine backs and/or tushes with tattoos, maybe a sword. UF draws on multiple traditions, and some of these stories are influenced by the Romance genre—but it’s probably not a true paranormal romance if the hero/love interest isn’t on the cover. I think the cover art conventions in UF became so well established that they all started to look alike, and we’re starting to see a little more variety. That’s a good thing.

Q: You actually have a background in designing RPG games such as DRAGONSTAR, MIDNIGHT, DAWNFORGE. Did that experience help in your current writing and world-building? And how much does writing for RPGs differ from writing your own fiction?

Greg: Yeah, I mean, RPGs were my first opportunity to write commercially. On one hand, it’s very different from writing fiction. With games, you’re really creating the supporting material gamers can use to tell their own stories. You get caught up trying to tell your stories, it gets you in trouble. That’s not what roleplaying is about. On the other hand, the work I did in RPGs was almost pure world-building, and so I think it really honed my skills in that area. Hopefully The Underworld Cycle benefits from that experience.

Q: What's the best writing advice you've ever received? Conversely, what's the dumbest you have encountered?

Greg: The best advice probably isn’t particularly profound. Follow through. Don’t just write, finish it. Don’t just finish it, submit it. Don’t just publish it, learn from it and improve. The worst advice is probably “write what you know.” How about, “Learn something you didn’t know, and then write about it”?

Q: When you aren't writing, what other activities do you like to pursue?

Greg: I read a lot, mostly urban fantasy at this point, because I don’t even have time to keep up with all those, let alone everything else in the genre. Like many of your readers, I’ve been waiting for A Dance With Dragons for a very long time, and I’ll probably take a couple days vacation to devour it when it’s released. I’m ordinarily not a big TV guy, but we’re actually blessed with a lot of genre series that are worth following right now: A Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Being Human, Supernatural, True Blood. In the crime genre, Dexter redeemed itself last season and the first season of Boardwalk Empire was great. Like many men of a certain age, I have a Harley and like to go for a ride and pretend I’m not getting old from time to time. I’m also blessed with a wonderful wife, Maria, and I try to save some time to do things she enjoys, as well!

Q: You mentioned GRRM’s A Dance With Dragons. Who are some of your favorite writers?

Greg: In terms of their whole body of work, it’s fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy. In SFF specifically, it’s Tolkien, Martin, King, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Niven, and a lot of the other usual suspects. She’s gone crazy a couple times since and hasn’t been writing anything that interests me lately, but Anne Rice was also influential during my college years when I really started thinking about what I wanted to write. In UF specifically, Jim Butcher has been doing it right for a decade or so.

Q: In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

Greg: Only to express my gratitude to you and FBC for this opportunity. Like I said, one of the big challenges for a new writer is to reach his intended audience, so this is a real service both to me personally and hopefully to the community of SFF readers. One of the great things about working in RPGs was how close I was to the gamers I was writing for. I had daily conversations with them, I knew what they liked and didn’t like, and that’s so important when the business you’re in is providing entertainment. Fortunately, SFF has the same kind of community—it’s just a lot bigger! So opportunities like this to reach out to that community, maybe start a conversation, are pure gold. I really appreciate it.


Bastard said...

Hey Cameron (Greg) and Mihir...

Very good interview, and it's actually put me in the mood to read Skeleton Crew which for whatever reason has been sitting on my shelf since it came out. I'll see about giving it a go by next week.

Really enjoyed Mob Rules, though I had a bit of trouble in the first half. I thought the 2nd half was great particularly when the action picked up and we were thrown into what I can only call "twists galore".

Bets Davies said...

Urban fantasy and mobs! I actually did something like that too in "Sheep that Stray," but I think we took very different takes.

In my next project (I'm in the middle of a series and I don't want to change partway through), I want to have my main character in the first person, but then also follow other characters including the villain in third limited.

A lot can actually be done as far as getting deep into a character and those around using third limited correctly, but I'd like to experiment.

Cameron Haley said...

Hey Bastard, thanks for the comment. I think you'll like Skeleton Crew and I'm looking forward to hearing your reaction.

Bets -- great minds and all that!


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