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Indie Author Spotlight: S.A. Hunt, Author of THE WHIRLWIND IN THE THORN TREE

Hello and welcome back to a new addition of the Indie Author Spotlight! This month I’m featuring an author that without a doubt deserves to be on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf with all of the heavy hitters of fantasy and horror.

When I stumbled across S.A. Hunt’s The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, not only the beautiful cover and unique premise impressed me, but also the rave reviews calling his story “Superb…captivating,” “Can easily become an epic of our time,” and “A quality that I only expect to see from upper-echelon, traditionally published authors.” Well, upon actually reading the novel, I can tell you that this is all true. S.A. Hunt has an incredible gift for taking classic fantasy and horror tropes and reinventing them into fresh, exciting, and beautifully relatable stories.

Check out the synopsis below:

After coming home from a stint in Afghanistan, veteran Ross Brigham learns that his father has passed away. Dearly departed Dad was a famous fantasy novelist, and the 300 fans that show up for the funeral demand that Ross finish E. R. Brigham’s long-running magnum opus.

Ross and two of the author’s devotees investigate his untimely death and discover that he might have been murdered…and the time-bending gunslingers of Dad’s steampunk novels might be real.

As they try to acclimate to the arid deserts of the author’s fantasy world, the three damaged heroes become pawns in a war for humanity’s survival. The Muses have grown tired of immortality and now incite atrocities on Earth, trying to lure down a leviathan from the stars.

Can Ross and his new friends stop the scheming satyrs before both worlds are eaten?

Whooo! Sounds like — dare I say it — a whirlwind of adventure and suspense! I have to point out, that not only is S.A. Hunt a fantastic storyteller, but he’s also a down-to-earth, genuine person. I had the pleasure of interviewing him, so if you’d like to find out more about Hunt and the worlds he’s created, check out our in depth, engrossing talk below!


Interview with S.A. Hunt

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S. A. Hunt is a U.S. veteran with very little money and far too much free time, which is now spent telling lies about time-bending cowboys and brainwashing witches. He lives in a shack in the woods in Summerville, GA, where he writes books, drinks moonshine out of a clay jug, and plays music with spoons.

You might be able to pigeonhole him in the “fantasy” and “horror” genres, but really he just uses them as backdrops. His stories are mostly studies of the human condition and the power of love and friendship–and a character that’s truly human can transcend the boundaries of its genre.

In high school he was named a “Mentor of Poetry, Prose, and Performance” by the National Creative Society and in 2014 he won Reddit.com/r/Fantasy’s 2014 Self-Published Book of the Year.

Max Pfeffer: Sam, I’d like to start off by thanking you for taking the time to be a part of this month’s installment of the Indie Author Spotlight.

S.A. Hunt: Thank you for having me! I really appreciate the opportunity.

MP: Could you give the SF Signal community some background on how you began writing, and in particular, what made you focus on a cross-genre blend of fantasy and horror?

SAH: I started writing in high school, during my math and language arts classes. Both teachers saw where I’d dumped all my skill points–writing. My math teacher knew I was garbage at math (I could barely do long division at the time, and I’ve pretty much lost it now) and let me use the classroom computer to tip-tap away. My language arts teacher Julie Jordan, who is one of my childhood heroes for believing in me at such an early point in my life, let me use her personal computer at her actual desk to do my writing because I’d already read everything in the textbook and never failed a test.

At the same time, I got into MU* games, which are pretty much “internet tabletop” — Interactive multiplayer fiction. You create a character and enter a text space with other human players and you each roleplay your chosen characters by taking turns writing a scene with them, paragraph by paragraph. I played dozens of these games over a four-year period, mostly Final Fantasy MUX and FiranMUX. When there are half a dozen people participating in a scene with you and you’re expected to write, it’s hard to slack off without looking like a jerk.

As for how and why I tend to blend genres… well, I can’t really say that it’s a conscious choice. Whenever I write one genre, the other always bleeds into it, and it usually tends to be horror. With Outlaw King, I was intentionally trying to write a straight-faced fantasy, but as usual my old love, horror, came sneaking in the back door and put its two cents’ worth in.

And it makes sense, really, because fantasy and horror are my two great loves. They’re basically all I’ve ever enjoyed reading—starting with The Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time, library books about “real ghost stories” and weird supernatural incidents (those fucking black Time-Life compilation books, y’all, Mysteries of the Unknown, you know what I’m talking about if you’re an 80s kid like me) and as a young adult getting into Dean Koontz’s glory-days work like Watchers and Intensity and Stephen King’s post-accident work.

Basically, fantasy and horror are intertwined at a genetic level for me. My favorite horror always has a fantastic edge — witches, zombies, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, there’s always some sort of supernatural or magical cause. I like horror that can’t be explained scientifically.

And to me, an engaging fantasy is a story that can effectively leverage well-written horror elements: the Jabberwocky of Alice in Wonderland, the Others of G.R.R. Martin’s books, the totemic Taheen of King’s Dark Tower books and his iconic Man in Black. When a fantasy story has an antagonist that’s almost prohibitively dark and monstrous, a fresh weird monster you love to hate, it really ups the stakes. Weirdness is what gives the creative world its addictive edge, I think.

MP: Wow, such fantastic inspiration — I couldn’t agree more! It’s clear that your series, The Outlaw King — while remaining highly original — brilliantly pays homage to classic fantasy fiction such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark Tower series. Are there other authors/series’ that have notably influenced your work?

SAH: There’s definitely a lot of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, especially in the Grievers. They’re a monastic order of warrior women that incorporate L’Engle’s concept of the “tesseract” into their fighting style, using an extradimensional plane called the High Road to maneuver swiftly in combat. The Outlaw King also borrows Wrinkle’s quasi-spiritual cosmic horror, embodied by the Sileni, otherwise known as the Muses, elusive, tricksy fauns that have rebelled against their purpose and are now inspiring chaos and bloodshed to lure down a god-beast from the stars.

A great deal of book two, Law of the Wolf, took inspiration from the BioShock video game series. I’ll try not to spoil the best bits, but in the series’ fantasy world there’s a colony far to the west, established on the ruins of an advanced civilization. This dead nation was built as a science-as-religion Platonic utopia, or what I think an isolationist paradise would be like with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a figurehead as opposed to the Ayn Rand stylings of BioShock’s Objectivist city Rapture.

Book two, Law of the Wolf, was published before the movie Tomorrowland came out, but from what I hear (I haven’t seen the movie yet), apparently there’s a similarly technocratic agenda at play there. This was partly because I wanted to see how a 19th-century frontier society would cope with scavenged bits and pieces of advanced technology. There’s a huge black market for artifacts smuggled out of the colonies where these ruins are found.

In the as-of-yet untitled book four, we’ll see more of the conflict that led to this area’s deteriorated state and more of the retro-futuristic technology buried in those strange ruins, including BigDog-inspired robotic horses for my gunslingers.

Much of Law and the third book, Ten Thousand Devils, delve into survivalism territory like Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet books. One of the POV storylines is a road story set in an unforgiving wilderness, with plenty of hardscrabble survival and going head-to-head with the landscape. The other two storylines are distinctly different: one is a high-seas pirate tale in the fantasy world, reminiscent of something George R. R. Martin would write, while the other is a horror-tinted thriller taking place in the real world of Earth, more akin to something Dean Koontz would have written back in his Watchers and Phantoms (the bomb, yo) days.

And above all, there’s of course Stephen King, whose simple cadence and flair for the elusive and terrifying has, and always will, inform my style.

MP: Self-publishing has become an excellent opportunity for aspiring authors over the past few years, largely in part to the digital market. What made you choose the self-publishing route for your novels and what success have you found as an indie author thus far?

SAH: When I first self-published The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree in February 2013, my head was firmly planted up my fourth point of contact, as they say in the Army.

I knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, but my predictions for success were wildly out of tune with reality — I was that stereotypical Joe Q. Selfpubber who slapped his book up on Amazon and proceeded to spend the next six months trying to engage on forums, subreddits, and Facebook groups, wondering why he couldn’t get anyone to take a chance on it.

Even after three years, 800,000 words, and an award, I’m still fighting like hell to stay alive. It’s only this year that I’m beginning to realize that if I want to do this for a living, I’m going to need help.

When I published the second book the day before Christmas 2013, I was a little more jaded and world-weary, but I knew I had something special in my hands. At that point, the blogger mantra “just put it out there and keep writing” had begun to sink into my thick skull, and I was already on this self-publishing track, so I figured I’d just keep trucking and see if the oracles’ messages would come true. That was halfway between the naive, sparkly-eyed optimist I used to be, and the gnarly, salty, one-eyed mariner I am now that knows real success as a genre author will more likely be found in the traditional market, not in self-publishing.

And then in November 2014, I finished my third book, Devils, which at 300,000 words was as big as the first two put together and took me most of a year to write. By that time, I had established a modest fanbase, and there were actual, legitimate fans waiting for the third book to be released, people that I couldn’t leave hanging. I was no longer shouting into the void — people wanted what I had made. And I had already self-published the first two, so I’d left myself little choice as to how it was going to happen.

It’s strange. I’ve felt like I was trapped in this bulletproof bubble for the first two years or so, hermetically sealed off from the world, screaming silently for someone to notice me…and now I get the occasional comment from other indie authors to the effect of, “You’re an inspiration to the rest of us indies,” or “Thanks to you, I’ve decided to finally push myself and write that book I’ve been wanting to write,” both of which are something I have a lot of trouble internalizing, but they feel incredible to hear.

A good friend of mine, Ashe Armstrong, just released his first book, Demon in the Desert, after ceaseless harassment and cajoling from me. I couldn’t be prouder.

MP: It sounds like a difficult, yet fulfilling journey. I’m excited to see what comes next! I recently finished the first book in The Outlaw King series, The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, and was blown away by your intricate story and fascinating world building (and I can’t wait to start Law of the Wolf). I gave the synopsis for the first novel above, but could you let us know a little more about the series as a whole and the themes that it embodies?

SAH: I’ll be honest, I don’t start my stories with a theme in mind. They just sort of coalesce along the way. I just want to tell a story about weird people and watch them do crazy things; they’re the ones that come up with the themes.

One of Outlaw King’s biggest themes is the concept of “the importance of scarcity”. Scarcity is close to my heart, a sweet glimpse at a condition of life that not many people here in America know, people that aren’t homeless, anyway. And you know, there are a lot of homeless people that prefer that life. There are actually homeless people that, when they’re given the chance to have a comfortable life, choose to live hand-to-mouth on the streets. Maybe some things in life are more satisfying when you’ve had to work for them, yeah?

There’s a scene in the first book where Ross tells Walter a story about how, when he was deployed to Afghanistan, real milk was hard to come by:

“I guess. Here everything seems imbued with importance. The effort it takes to survive here makes every day so much more meaningful.” I paused in thought. “Here’s an example. Back on our world, I was a soldier.”

“A soldier? Really? Pale, doughy you?”

“Yeah, believe it or not. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence.”

Walter bit back a smile. “My apologies. Please, continue.”

“Anyway, our world has…wars going on. I don’t know if you would really call them wars. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. But when I went to the front lines, I was a long way from my home and all the conveniences there. And in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, milk is very hard to come by.

“I had to get together a team, get my hands on some method of travel, and drive several miles to another encampment for milk. And it was warm and thick, and came in little boxes you could store dry on the shelf. I craved milk like a son of a bitch. I couldn’t get enough of it. I would walk out of the barracks mess hall with it hidden in my pockets. I couldn’t wait to get back to my camp with it, and I would save it, stretch my ration as far as I could.

“But when I got home from the war, I could buy all the milk I wanted. I just had to go to the marketplace and I had all the cold, fresh milk I wanted. I could have mopped the floor with it if I wanted. And suddenly, well, milk didn’t seem so great anymore.”

We sat there sprawled on the bench, waiting for our friends to come out of the bath-house, watching the crowd swarm and surge around us. I could smell the tantalizing aroma of a man sizzling meat on a charcoal grill in a kiosk at the edge of the square. He probably slaughtered that meat himself. I wondered what kind of animal it came from.

A few minutes later, Walter turned to me. “On second thought…I think I can see why you like our world so much more.”

Scarcity is one of the things that drives us as a species. I think one of the problems in the milk-and-honey land of modern society is that we have access to so many creature comforts that we lose our appreciation for them. As a society, we have everything we could possibly want, and it makes us restless. Sure, modern medicine keeps us alive longer, but as we languish in offices and traffic jams, workin’ for the weekend, we’ve lost that spirit of adventure that keeps us young and inspired. We’ve replaced it with video games and yoga.

That’s what I found as a soldier in Afghanistan: adventure. I think about it every day; I miss that country every day. I got to meet people from a culture I’d only seen in National Geographic. I heard and saw the rockets of the Taliban and I understood what it’s like to fear for my life in slow-motion (as opposed to the abrupt shock of realizing you’re about to crash a car or the total surprise of drowning or electrocuting yourself…civilian deaths at home always seem to ambush you, don’t they?). And knowing how finite my time as a living being is made me appreciate the time I have left. So when I got home I started writing The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree.

Another theme of Outlaw King is the evolution of an old you into the real you: the strange dilemma of whether that real you is good or bad, and the acceptance of what that real you is…accepting your flaws as a beautiful part of who you are, and recognizing your true strengths. As the series progresses, the three main characters are honed against the fantasy world of the books, becoming stronger and smarter and understanding the importance of scarcity and how it can improve you.

One of them will become something horrible, and in book four we’ll see how that character copes with how the consequences of their choices will force them to evolve into an antagonist.

MP: Wow, this all gives me a whole new outlook as I go into book two! In my opinion, one of the greatest aspects of The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, is that the characters are relatable: they make mistakes and they deeply question the morality of their choices – and not just as a side note. In a novel that partially takes place in a fantasy setting, was it a difficult process making your protagonists so human?

SAH: Not really. I mean, I don’t know, actually, I don’t know the difference because this is just the way I’ve always worked. I don’t intend to make the characters so human, they just turn out that way. When I write, the scene plays out in my head as if I’m watching a movie, and I try to include all the actors’ nuanced movements, tics, emotions, facial expressions. Characters that behave realistically and speak realistically will eventually become human. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, then it probably sells insurance.

Part of the reason why I push so hard to make flawed characters is because I consider Mary Sues and Gary Stus as bad writing.

I make a conscious effort to steer clear of unbeatable, super-competent ace-of-all-trades. The best, meatiest drama comes from letting your heroes fail sometimes. That draws from my background in online roleplaying games…if you roleplay a character that never loses a fight and never walks away without the prize, you’re going to be boring and frustrating. That’s what’s called a “twink” in online roleplay circles. And a twink is going to be boring — people are not going to want to play with a twink character. Likewise, nobody wants to read a book about a twink. There are no stakes in a story where nobody fails, and stakes are what make stories exciting.

That’s not to say that everybody in my books fumble forever. They start off in a fledgling position and work to get to a formidable level. That work is where the good stuff is, and the apex of their development is where the payoff waits. You have to earn that satisfaction. That’s part of my technique: build up, payoff, build up, payoff, and over the course of the story it’s been slowly building up more and more until it gets to the Main Payoff, the climax.

Of course, there are characters that have reached that payoff point already, like Walter and the eponymous Normand the Outlaw King, but they have problems just like everybody else. They usually serve as mentor characters, demonstrations of evolutionary goals, or studies in failed ambition. Elite gunslinger Walter pushes himself too hard trying to live up to his father’s expectations and rushes into battle, disregarding his own safety. Old and arthritic Normand is trying to be the folk hero he used to be, but he’s been shut up in the palace too long and his own kingdom’s moved on without him to become an unfamiliar and hostile place.

One thing that helps me is that internet adage, “Remember that everyone you meet is fighting a secret battle that you know nothing about.” If you can build your characters around that, and do it skillfully and with care, then you’ll always have a deep, human cast.

MP: You have a new book coming out called Malus Domestica. Can you tell us a bit about this new horror novel?

SAH: Malus Domestica started off as my attempt to do a Kingsian small-town-horror pageturner, but it evolved into something that’s like what Lords of Salem would be like if Neil Gaiman and Stephen King co-wrote it and HBO made a TV series out of it.

21-year-old transient Robin Martine has been traveling the country in a van for the last several years, hunting the supernatural and helping people. She videotapes her adventures for her YouTube channel “MalusDomestica”, which funds her life.

The book begins as Robin returns to her hometown, and you quickly learn that she’s in town to exact revenge on the coven of witches that killed her mother when she was a teenager. She’s been out there grinding witches in preparation for this fight. When she and love interest Kenway fail spectacularly to kill them, a band of shady Grossmanesque magicians come out of the woodwork to help — in exchange for her only defense against the witches: a dagger called the Osdathregar.

The Malus beta-readers are going crazy for it:
“THE MAN CAN WRITE, Y’ALL.”
“… fresh and powerful …”
“This novel is KICK ASS.”
“… knocked the wind right out of me …”
“… paints with language …”

I’m hard at work on the sequel, which is like a cross between Christine, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sons of Anarchy, and Dog Soldiers. Robin and Kenway from the first book flee across the desert to keep a mother and daughter away from their abusive patriarch Santiago and his gang of bikers. The Los Cambiantes gang is driven by an insidious motorcycle that brings out the beast in those that ride it.

MP: Sounds awesome! What have you learned as an indie author and do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

SAH:: If you’re thinking of self-publishing, just keep in mind that it’s not a last resort. Snobs would have you believe that it’s a “quick ticket” to publication or an excuse to publish bad work, but it’s just as hard as traditional publication, if not harder. Self-publishing is nothing less than starting your own business, and you wouldn’t do that without capital, would you? You need an attractive book cover and your story needs editing, and that takes money and effort. You can’t open a pizzeria on the change in your pocket, and you can’t just slap a book up on Amazon and expect to sell it.

Querying agents is ultimately easier than trying to get people to spend money on a new, unproven, self-published author, and with a traditional publisher the logistical work is out of your hands. Going back to the pizzeria analogy, traditional publishing is like applying to be a chef in someone else’s pizzeria. Self-publishing is like opening your own pizzeria AND making your own pizzas.

Figuring out what you’re going to do as an author comes down to what you’re capable of, financially and effort-wise. Do you want to try to singlehandedly convince one of 200 literary agents to represent you, or all of a million readers to spend real money on you? Do you have the capital to pay for what it takes to produce a quality product?

MP: Finally, how can the SF Signal community help support you?

SAH: Word-of-mouth is even more important than reviews. My books have upwards of 300 reviews and extraordinarily high Amazon ratings, but I’m one of the best kept secrets on the internet, so nobody knows who I am! But you can fix that. The best way to support any author is to buy their books and spread the word…tell your mother! Tell your brother! Tell your coworkers! Tell the people at your AA meeting!

For more information and updates on S.A. Hunt, check out his wesbite at sahuntbooks.com.

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