New York Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley has written mystery-thrillers, middle grade and adult fantasy, historical fiction and Shakespeare novelizations. Born in Northern England, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he specializes in the performance history, theory and criticism of Renaissance English drama and works as a director and dramaturg. His middle grade fantasy novel, Darwen Arkwright and Peregrine Pact was just awarded SIBA’s Young Adult Book of The Year this month. His novels include two Darwen books, The Mask Of Atreus, On The Fifth Day, What Time Devours and Tears Of The Jaguar, the Hawthorne Saga fantasy novels, including Act Of Will, MacBeth: A Novel with David Hewson, and several academic and nonfiction books. An active member and contributor to the popular www.magicalwords.net blog along with authors like David B. Coe and Faith Hunter, he can be found online at Facebook, at his website at http://ajhartley.net/ or at www.magicalwords.net.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt talks to A.J. Hartley about his career and his exciting future projects.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you become interested in storytelling and writing and how did you get started? Studying in school? Experimenting? Workshops? Trial and error?
A.J. Hartley: I loved writing and telling stories as a kid. That was, I suppose, my thing. But I didn’t start thinking seriously about producing long fiction till I was 18 or so. It was all just experimentation and whatever I gleaned from the fiction I read. I learned exclusively from reading and writing. To this day I’ve never taken a creative writing class or participated in a writers’ workshop, though I have taught a few and believe I could have benefited from them early in my career. I’ve never been part of a writers’ group either. I’ve always assumed writing to be a solitary activity until I think a project is ready to start getting feedback, though I think I seek that input earlier than I used to. In the last few years, I’ve become a regular at various writing-oriented conventions and I’m an active participant in the magical words group (www.magicalwords.net) from which I get a lot of good ideas and advice, but I still learn most from reading other people’s work and just cranking my own stuff out.
SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of the authors/books which inspired you?
AJH: I’m a pretty omnivorous reader so the list of inspirational books/authors is wide, diffuse, and constantly evolving. As a kid I was a Tolkien nut, but also a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ken Follett and a host of other mystery/thriller writers, while also being sufficiently academically inflected that I also really connected to much of the material foisted upon me in school. I love Golding, Joyce, the Brontes, modern poets like Larkin and, of course, Shakespeare.
SFFWRTCHT: You have written two fantasy series, one for TOR and a middle grade for Razorbill but even your Berkley thrillers had a touch of supernatural feel. Where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
AJH: I was, yes. I was an escapist reader for a long time, and the kinds of fiction that posited those crucial ‘what if?’ questions always took me into places I preferred to reality! I grew up in a fairly underprivileged, working class town in northern England. It was pretty light on the exotic and magical (in any sense) so I suppose I craved it. I’ve always been fascinated by the strange and unfamiliar, which is probably why the first thing I did on leaving college was go to Japan for two years!
SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved in fandom as a kid? Costuming? Cons?
AJH: Not at all. Such things were unknown to me in the place I grew up, and later I was skeptical of them (another consequence of fiercely working class roots is a suspicion of anything remotely performative: something it took me years to overcome). I didn’t start doing cons till I was already published, which is just crazy, because being among like-minded people would have really helped me. I really missed out.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before your first sale? Short story or book?
AJH: I’m not a short story writer. I published a couple of very small pieces in college magazines, though I didn’t get paid for them, and I don’t think of them as real publications. I wrote for 20 years before being published, during which time I completed 8 novels. I tried to quit several times and couldn’t, but the last of those 20 years was a real desperation point when, for family reasons, I realized I was about to have a lot less time for writing than I’d had before. If I was to keep writing, I desperately needed a sale. I wrote 3 of those 8 novels in that last year. The first got me my present agent. The third—The Mask of Atreus—was my first sale.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take to write?
AJH: First draft usually takes 2-3 months, sometimes less, though that means I’m giving the project all my attention for 4-5 days a week. Initial revision will add a couple of weeks, but the real editorial work begins once my editors get hold of it, and that will probably add at least another month, sometimes more, of constant revision.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about your process, are you an outliner? Pantser?
AJH: I used to be a pantser, and learned the hard way that it didn’t really work for me. I produced whole books, but they were often structurally very baggy and unsure of their own direction. I get so close to my work that I find really brutal editing very difficult even I can see what’s wrong with the book, so I’m rarely ready to do real invasive editing and rewriting till I’ve completely separated myself from a book, and that can take a couple of years. So I became an outliner. My outlines are short and leave lots of room for discovery, but they give me a story structure that helps me get into the narrative faster and keeps me on the rails.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or Word? Have any rituals? Write to music? Set word count goals? Have a set time to write daily?
AJH: So far I just write in Word, though my co-writer of the Shakespeare novels (David Hewson) has been trying to persuade me to try Scrivener. We’ll see. I write in silence. The music has to come from the words. Anything on the stereo would distract me and over-determine what I was writing. I don’t have rituals per se, though I like to write early in the morning, and I take walks when I get stuck. I do set word count goals (usually 3000 words a morning for first draft) because my schedule is very tight and I need to feel like I’m making progress.
SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for the Deborah Miller thriller series come from? Mask of Atreus, On The Fifth Day, etc.?
AJH: Mask emerged from a trip to key Greek archaeological sites, particularly Mycenae, which I had been to a couple of times before, but not for a decade or so. I rediscovered old stories surrounding Schliemann (the archaeologist who worked on Mycenae and who discovered Troy) and accounts of artifacts which went missing and the story grew from there. I had also been thinking about a thriller set during the second world war, and found that this new idea would work for that too, so two tentative ideas became one solid one. Deborah herself came out of seeing an all-female production of the Taming of the Shrew at the Globe, if you can believe that. A wonderful actress called Janet McTeer played the male lead, Petruchio, and I was fascinated by the idea of a woman in a male role or even in an unconventionally feminine body. I had been wary of trying to write a female lead, but I thought that if I made the character self-consciously awkward, unusually tall, and generally androgynous, I might get away with it.
SFFWRTCHT: How much research do you do before you start to write and how much as you go along?
AJH: Depends how well planned the book is and whether it stays on the prescribed track. I try to do my research in advance so that I can just get lost in the story when I come to write it, but sometimes I run into hurdles that send me back to the library.
SFFWRTCHT: Did a personal fascination with history and mythology play a part in that story’s development?
AJH: Absolutely. I’ve always been fascinated by history and archaeology and once considered becoming an Egyptologist. I’m glad I chose the path I did, but I’m still intrigued by the past and its legacies.
SFFWRTCHT: The Mask Of Atreus. Really well paced and suspenseful read. How much was true and how much made up?
AJH: Thanks. Almost everything was real, and the end notes delineate fairly clearly what I made up. Most of the fictional part is just the imaginary connecting of real dots: more of that “what if?” I try to be clear about what’s real and what isn’t in my thrillers. I find fiction which pretends to be fact irritating: at best cynically disingenuous, at worst just amateurish.
SFFWRTCHT: The book works as a standalone but you wrote more. Are they standalones? A planned series? Do they tie into Atreus in any way other than characters? Tell us about the latest release coming up.
AJH: They were never planned as a series and connect only loosely through the main characters who recur. Each is self-contained and stands alone. Mask, Fifth Day and What Time Devours, which are really driven by Thomas Knight. My upcoming thriller, The Tears of the Jaguar, returns the lead role to Deborah, putting her on a Mayan site in Mexico in which she discovers artifacts which seem not to belong to the site at all. They lead her to England and to a series of famous witchcraft trials from the early seventeenth century, but also involve international arms dealers!
SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for Darwen Arkwright come from? Why switch from adult novels to kids? Did you get complaints from parents who kept interrupting them from reading your thrillers and feel a need to occupy the kids? How hard was it to switch?
AJH: I needed a change. I read lots of different kinds of material so the idea of only writing one always seemed odd to me. When people started calling me a thriller writer I was baffled. I wrote books. The ones I had published happened to be thrillers. But I never thought of myself as a thriller writer.
I love reading middle grades and young adult books, and as my son got older I became more aware of them again. They reminded me of being a kid and discovering reading for the first time, while also making me want to write a book that he would be able to read and enjoy by himself. The result was the first Darwen book.
SFFWRTCHT: For me, the Darwen books have a Narnia/Harry Potter feel. Were those inspirations at all?
AJH: Yes. I set out to write the kind of book I had loved as a kid, but give it a spin of my own, set it in a contemporary world I understood, and play out some ideas that interested me. But yes, the overall structure and certain key features (particularly that idea of crossing into another world) was deliberately part of a “classic” kids adventure tradition.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you plan this as a series? How many books do you have planned? Does the second book, Insidious Bleck, follow in the heels of Peregrine Pact chronologically or again is it just characters and world overlapping?
AJH: I wrote the first book as a standalone, but always thought of there being subsequent books that would be adventures in their own right but which would develop some larger concerns and plot points that applied to the whole series. Razorbill, my Penguin publisher, initially committed to two books, then contracted a third. Right now, the series will probably be a trilogy, though a 4th book isn’t out of the question. These stories are much more connected by larger plot and character through-lines than my thrillers, and while the first two work separately, I’d definitely recommend reading them in order, and particularly waiting on book 3 till you’ve read the first two.
SFFWRTCHT: How much collaboration was there between you and Emily Osborne, the illustrator? Did you find her or did Razorbill bring her on board?
AJH: Very little. She was brought in by Razorbill, which is almost always the way publishing works. Writers who bring in their own illustrators are rare (and trying to take that path is often considered, fairly or otherwise, a mark of amateurism). I made a few suggestions here and there in response to early illustrations, but for the most part I just got out of her way and let her do her thing. I think she grasps the feel of the books beautifully.
SFFWRTCHT: Now, you’re a Shakespeare professor by day. And you’ve collaborated on a Macbeth novel I hear? Tell us about that please.
AJH: I had written an essay on Macbeth for a collection called The 100 Must Read Thrillers I was at a bog signing event for the book at the annual International Thriller Writers conference in New York and I was sitting next to British mystery author David Hewson. We got chatting about the play and somehow dreamed up the idea of rethinking it as a novel, set in medieval Scotland, but retold as a contemporary thriller. We first pitched the idea as an audiobook to Audible, and they were very excited with both the concept and—a few months later—with the execution. It was published last summer in that format, narrated by the great Alan Cumming, and recently came out in its print form from Thomas and Mercer, and has been very well received. It’s not a “translation” of the play, but a reimagining of it, fully fleshed out and exploring all a modern novel can do that works less well on stage (landscape, large scale battles etc.), tweaking the story so that it’s recognizable but still, we hope, fresh and edgy with plenty of surprises even for those who know the play well. We’re pretty excited by it, and I think I can say that it won’t be the only one we do.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies for UNC Charlotte. Obviously this seems right up your alley but you collaborated on this with David Hewson and Alan Cumming,
right? How was that experience? How did you approach collaboration?
AJH: Well, obviously as a Shakespearean I’m connected to the play as an academic, though writing fiction in response to the play is not something most scholars do and it does require a shift of focus. It’s difficult not to go into lecture mode and turn the novel into a kind of academic study, so it was useful to be working with David who came into the project simply wanting to tell a good story. I laid out a lot of academic stuff in my conversations with him and then saw which ideas he found compelling. We wrote by e-mail (being in different countries). We divided aspects of the story between us. In our first drafts he focused on landscape and geography, for instance, while I did more history, he did more of the domestic and I did the larger military and political scenes. We’d send each other bits and chunks and then respond to each others contributions, tweaking and polishing as we went. It was very even handed. Alan Cumming didn’t have an active hand in the writing, of course, just in the performance for audio which is, of course, first rate.
SFFWRTCHT: What do you think it is about Shakespeare’s plots and characters that keep them so popular after so many years? He’s famous for beautiful prose, of course, but his plays are so often adapted for film, other novels, etc. that clearly there’s more to it.
AJH: That’s a long and complex question, or rather the answer is! Part of it is about what is intrinsic to the plays—the verse, the characterization and so on—and some of it is about larger issues of Shakespeare’s place in culture and education. I’m wary of universals but I do think the plays deal with archetypal characters and situations which continue to resonate in interesting ways, not because they are simply general, but because they are very specific. But most importantly for me as a teacher, a theatre person, and as a writer of an adaptative novel, I think that the richness of the plays is tied to their ambiguity which allows them to evolve as we do, so that as our culture changes the plays somehow keep pace, showing us ourselves and allowing us to explore issues and ideas that are important to us now but which we hadn’t been that interested in 50 years ago.
SFFWRTCHT: What recommendation would you make to an AJ Hartley fan who’s not knowledgeable on Shakespeare as of how to get into reading more of it? Where should they start?
AJH: Depends what they read, I guess. I have a thriller called What Time Devours which deals overtly with some of what I think is central to why we value Shakespeare, and which is anchored by a search for a lost Shakespeare play (Love’s Labour’s Won, which almost certainly did exist). I get a lot of mail from readers who found that book made them want to go back to the plays (or try to get into them for the first time). In terms of simply telling a version of a Shakespearean story, I’d recommend Macbeth, a Novel, though we take a lot of liberties with the play.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you guys have plans for other Shakespeare novels?
AJH: It’s not absolutely nailed down yet, but it looks like we’ll be doing a Hamlet.
SFFWRTCHT: Last, but not least, you wrote the Hawthorne Saga fantasy series for TOR. Will Hawthorne, a medieval actor and playwright flees the authorities only to find himself inextricably bound to a group of high-minded adventurers on a deadly mission. After traveling with them to a distant land, they are charged with the investigation and defeat of a ruthless army of mystical horsemen, who appear out of the mist leaving death and devastation in their wake. Will is a skeptic of magic and heroism both, making him an unusual fantasy character. Where’d the idea for this series come from?
AJH: I used to play D&D type role playing games with my brother when we were much younger. I lived in Japan for a couple of years and then spent a lot of time traveling slowly back to the UK, during which I drew up some ideas for a campaign for him to play when I got back. I can’t remember if we ever actually played it, but key plot elements and scenes found their way into Act Of Will, the first book. Of course, as it became a novel the whole thing changed radically, particularly when I decided to tell the story in first person, whereupon the whole thing became driven by Will’s voice and attitudes.
SFFWRTCHT: As I mentioned, Will’s attitudes make him less than the traditional hero, but on top of that he’s a bit of selfish scoundrel and not one you’d like if you took his qualities at face value but he does have a certain charming personality. Did you invent Will as a protest against standard High Fantasy, to make a statement? Why choose a hero like this? Oh wait, he’d resent my calling him that.
AJH: Absolutely. I loved high fantasy growing up, but always found it hard to connect to the thoughtless nobility everyone in those stories seemed to have (unless they were villains). I wanted to write a fantasy novel with an unheroic protagonist: not a villain who would do terrible things, but just an ordinary guy who valued his own skin. It took 20 years for the book to find a publisher. I rather wish it would have come out closer to when it was first written when it might have felt more radical (which is part of why it didn’t see the light of day till the cultural climate had grown up a bit, I suspect).
SFFWRTCHT: In Will Power, Will and his band get transported to another land amid a battle between goblins and humans. The book acts as a standalone despite having similar characters. Where’d the idea come from?
AJH: The first book is fairly light on magic for fantasy and Will is, as you said, a confirmed skeptic. I wanted to plunge him into a more clearly Tolkien-esque world and see what that would do to his grasp on reality. More importantly, I wanted to use that world to interrogate some of the assumptions which persist in high fantasy about issues of race, say, and notions of evil. I love Tolkien to this day, but there are ideas at the heart of his world which seem to me now very problematic. I wanted to pull at them from inside a fantasy novel and see what happened when they unraveled.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have plans for other Hawthorne Saga novels?
AJH: I’ve outlined a third book in the series which is darker than the first two, but don’t know when I’ll get round to writing it.
SFFWRTCHT: You have mystery-thrillers, middle grade fantasies, Shakespeare and adult fantasy. Quite a range. Do you have a favorite or are you as eclectic as your work?
AJH: Strictly eclectic. I get excited about things I read and that gets me wanting to go in that direction myself. It is very taxing for my agent who is very patient with me but who probably wishes I’d stick to one thing and thereby raise the visibility of what the marketing types call my “brand.” Never going to happen, I’m afraid. I read all over the place generically, so I’ll always write all over the place too.
SFFWRTCHT: What genre have you wanted to write but not tried yet?
AJH: I’ve tried way more than I’ve published, so the list of what I’ve never taken a shot at is surprisingly short! I guess pure(ish) scifi is a possibility for the future.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
AJH: Hmmm. A writer friend in grad school told me I should spend as much time writing creatively as I did on my day job. It was years before that was a viable option and the math still doesn’t quite add up, but I think it’s a good thing to shoot for because it reinforces a sense of professionalism and dedication. I was a hobbyist far too long. The worst advice is usually of the puritanical type: you must write every day, for instance. You really don’t, and setting up those kinds of goals is like promising you’ll go to the gym every day. The moment you miss one day you are off the wagon and abandon the larger project.
SFFWRTCHT: Last, but not least, what future projects are you working on that we can look forward to in the future?
AJH: Darwen II (Darwen Arkwright and the Insidious Bleck) comes out in late November and the third one will be out Summer 2013. I’ll also be working on the Hamlet novel in the spring and fine tuning a YA novel which is pitched older and darker than my middle grades books. Academically I’ll have a book on the performance history of Julius Caesar and a book on Shakespeare and political theatre out, I hope, next year. Those are the projects which are already under contract and in the works. After them, who knows?
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.