In the first half of our interview with Sam Sykes, we discussed his debut novel, Tome of the Undergates and its upcoming sequel, Black Halo. In the second half, things get even livelier.
Recently, you decried the over-use of the word “genre”, and its corresponding implication that sf/f authors are working towards some category standard rather than just writing the best book that they can. What about readers? What do you think readers have come to expect from a fantasy book?
I can't speak for readers, of course, not even a significant majority of them. Because I don't think we're at the point where we can lump readers together as we used to. Saying shit like "oh, girls won't read epic fantasy" and "oh, boys don't want romance in their books" is pretty ridiculous. At DragonCon, a rather dignified older woman listened to me discuss the complex relationships, only to have her nod and say: "Uh huh. So, I'm looking for a lot of blood and guts. You got that, kid?" I've seen a lot of guys gush over the relationships, a lot of girls do the same.
Which, I think, is pretty indicative that the whole idea of the "genre standard" is pretty much over with, or at least not nearly as important as writing a good book is. People don't become attached to the tropes and the magic systems and the worldbuilding (they admire them, certainly, and there's nothing at all wrong with that), they become invested in the stories and the characters and the people. Even when someone goes berserk over the complex societies and crafting of civilizations, they admire (in my opinion) the character of that society, rather than its silk-driven economics or whatever.
For evidence, look at some of the best authors that have been very present in the last five years: Abercrombie, Newton, Miéville, Rothfuss, Lynch, Martin and all the other ones you'd come to expect. Now tell me that they all follow a standard.
So I can slap you for lying to me.
You’ve stepped into a role as one of fantasy’s iconoclasts - using the webbernets to challenge the status quo. Have you had any issues with rubbing other authors the wrong way? What about your own “team” - do you ever get nervous phone calls from your editor, “Listen Sam, we’re...er... we publish a lot of the stuff you’re mocking right now...”?
Is "iconoclast" a new word for "loud asshole" or are you trying to flatter me?
My editors would not be my editors if they did not believe in what I do or what I did. Either that, or both of them have completely given up on the idea that I will ever be an austere, bespectacled tea-snooter, curling up thin lips into a tight smile as I quietly discuss the influences of Hoity v. Toity. That ship pretty much sailed the moment I cut wind in front of them. To be fair, though, it probably was already getting ready to leave port when Simon Spanton looked at the cover he had arranged for Tome of the Undergates and said "looks a little homoerotic, doesn't it?" And Lou Anders remains one of the few men to have ever called me a pussy in multiple formats.
As for authors...I have never had anything but total support from them. I mean, it wasn't exactly the easiest transition from unpublished to published, and a lot of them helped me out during the days when I just felt like crap. Special thanks go to Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett, Brent Weeks, Mark C. Newton and Leanna Renee Hieber for being various pillars to support my tremendous ego. I don't know if it's because everyone remembers how anxiety-inducing it can be to be just coming into this business, or because we just talk to each other and like each other that they're the way they are, but authors are remarkably good to one another. That's probably not at all the reason they don't come to me with any grievances, though.
Diversity is healthy from an economic and artistic standpoint. The more trendy something is, the harder it is to look good in it. Thus, the more we conform to something, the less special we feel. Beyond that, we're clearly not writing to be rich. We have a story to tell. If there were a bunch of rules and standards to follow, we wouldn't be telling the stories we wanted to tell. We'd be telling other peoples' stories.
I've seen, on occasion, some people I've rubbed the wrong way: bloggers, readers, whatever. I welcome dissension, so that I may crush it between my feet, but I never address it unless someone addresses it to me. Until then, I will rub whomever I want, however I please. You cannot stop me from rubbing you.
Since you don’t sleep, you’ve got a good view on the differences between US and UK fan bases - is there anything they could learn from one another?
Not a lot of difference, really. People is people. Nerds is nerds. Haters gonna hate.
I'd say UK readers have a harder time figuring out what makes pee funny. But you can't fool me, Britain; I've seen your comedy. You love this shit.
2011 is a year of highly-anticipated books - once Black Halo is out there and you have a chance to breathe, what will you be reading?
I've been on a Kurt Vonnegut tear lately. This came after my obsession with North Korean memoirs, which came after a brief love affair with Patricia Briggs books, which came after a reading of Bernard Cornwell's various medieval sex fantasy books, all interspersed with various fantasy books (quite liked James Clemens' stuff. Is he still alive?)
So, to summate, I have no fucking clue what I'll be reading next.
Thank you very much. It isn't out yet, so I can't promise "next", but we're pouncing on Black Halo as soon it hits the shelf on 22 March. However, as tradition dictates, one final question... could you beat a Displacer Beast in hand-to-hand combat?
Fuck no. I took TWO ranks of specialization in Great Axe. My attacks come slow as shit and, with a 50% chance to miss? Nuh uh. That thing will have its way with me while appearing to have its way with the air exactly four and a half feet to my left.
Hope you enjoy Black Halo and don't give me a reason to kill you!
*Really lovely Orcish Battle Standard by Dante. Spotted on the Warhammer Fantasy Miniatures Gallery.