Kelly McCullough has been writing genre fiction for many years, but I have only just stumbled across his name (thanks to Doug Hulick, who is in Kelly’s writing group). With the release of Kelly’s first fantasy novel, The Broken Blade, I thought it would be a perfect time to interview him, to find out more about his upcoming and already published work, his writing practices, the wealth of projects he has in the works, and more.
Your latest novel, The Broken Blade (the first in your Fallen Blade series), marks a departure from your previous series. How would you introduce it to a new reader? And what inspired you to make the shift to fantasy?
I think the pitch line is probably as good a starting point as anything. When I was talking about it with my editor, I said, “I’m thinking Dashiell Hammett meets Lord of the Rings.” My lead character is something like a high fantasy analogue of a hard-boiled detective and the tone of the books is strongly noir inflected, but the plot and world are very much swords and sorcery. Aral Kingslayer is a classic noir style hero. In this case, a jack of the shadow trades (a sort of underworld freelancer), a good man fallen on hard times with a drinking problem and a corroded but fundamentally unbreakable sense of honor and justice.
The book starts with the classic detective noir opening, a beautiful woman with a problem, in a world where the client always lies. But it pretty quickly brings in the fantasy elements. Aral is also a sorcerer and former temple assassin. His familiar and companion, Triss, is a shadow elemental living within Aral’s own personal shadow and together they get sucked into what’s fundamentally an adventure story, with lots of sword fights, magic, walking dead, and a chance for Aral to start to redeem himself.
As for going from cyberpunk/contemporary fantasy to noir/traditional fantasy? Well as much as anything, that’s got to do with how I would like to see my career develop. What I want, ultimately, is to build a reputation for telling good stories in a bunch of different ways. I don’t want to be an urban fantasist, or a science fiction writer, or swords and sorcery guy. What I want to be is a storyteller. There’s nothing wrong with any of those boxes, I just would prefer to have freedom to work in the places between. Which is, in part, why the two series I’ve had published thus far have been genre hybrids.
Where would you like to take the series/character in the future (assuming answering this won’t present too many spoilers)?
There are two more books written and delivered to my editor at this point, and if the series does well I have six and nine book arcs plotted out, but it’s really hard to talk about the concrete plot stuff without getting into spoiler territory very quickly. Thematically, Aral and Triss’s main character arc is about redemption. Aral is a former temple assassin for the Goddess of Justice, a man who killed the criminal nobility, those people who were too powerful for the courts to touch in a feudal society. He was really good at it, and he believed in his mission. But the other gods decided, hey this justice-for-all stuff is destabilizing the social order, and they bumped off Aral’s goddess in response.
It was an utterly shattering experience for Aral. He was raised by priests to be completely obedient to his goddess and to think of the authority of Heaven as absolute. Suddenly, bam, he discovers that the world isn’t nearly as black and white as he thought it was. Some of the gods are every bit as bad and nasty as the dukes and generals he used to kill in the name of Justice. His response was to crawl into a bottle for five years. Now he’s crawled back out again and he’s trying to find his way in a world that’s all shades of gray, to build a new life for himself that allows him to recover some of that sense of being a force for justice in a world that needs heroes.
What is it about assassins and thieves that make them so interesting to write about?
The trickster is one of the all-time great characters, and thieves and assassins tend to fall into the shadow of the trickster. Morally ambiguous, victory by cleverness, always in trouble. It’s very rich material. Every one of us has both light and darkness in our natures and I think that characters who play that out in a very visible way appeal to that inner narrative as they dance back and forth across the line between light and dark. Also, the caper story is great fun. There’s something about writing about sneaking that’s just a blast.
Let’s take a look your other novels. How would you introduce your WebMage series to new readers? Will you be revisiting this setting and character(s) in the future?
WebMage is another genre hybrid, cyberpunk + contemporary fantasy, with a hefty side order of humor, and mythological setting. Mel Odom wrote a review of the first book that I think really did a great job of capturing what I was doing with the books, and it’s easy to find. Basically, they’re fast, fun adventure fiction with a hacker-as-sorcerer protagonist. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll get back to the WebMage world or not. I certainly have more ideas for Ravirn and company, but the series arc is fairly complete with the five extant books, so it’s not really demanding to be written right now.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
With my mother’s milk, if not in the womb. I’m a third generation fan, and my mother and grandmother both read fantasy and science fiction to me from before I could speak. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know the names Bilbo and Frodo, or Lessa and F’Lar, for that matter. My family was involved in the campaign to save the original Star Trek. I grew up in the world of genre.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
There’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing with my life. There are, of course, bits that drive me crazy, but that’s true of any job. As for technique, I tend to fall on the plot things out in advance end of the spectrum. I write full time, so when I’ve got a project I’m working on, it’s very much a day job routine.
I get up, I have breakfast, I start work. In my case that means, I read my email, and do a bunch of online stuff that could loosely be called research. Then I write for a while, have an afternoon workout and go back to writing till my wife gets home from work. Research is an ongoing process for me. Basically, I read a lot about whatever interests me, and eventually much of it comes out in my work. I try to hit 1,000-2,000 words a day, plus polishing the previous day’s work. As I finish sections, I run them through my writers group, the Wyrdsmiths. When a project is finished it goes out to beta readers, then my agent or editor depending on whether it’s under contract or spec work.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
About half way through my first novel, actually. I started out in theater and more or less backed into a writing career when I decided I’d rather have a stable, happy relationship than a life in theater. The two aren’t wholly incompatible, but it’s damned tough. My wife-to-be was just starting a physics degree, and I was just finishing one in theater, and instead of looking around for the next show, I decided to try writing a novel, and I fell in love with the process. It hit almost all the buttons theater hit for me, and I didn’t even have to leave the house.
It was a contemporary vampire fantasy, and this was back about twenty years ago, before the market for them had really developed, but I did get a number of strong nibbles. If I’d known then what I know now, I could probably have revised it to address at least one of the rejections I got, and sold the book, and it would have been incredibly bad for my craft if not my career. Instead, I wrote another novel and tried to make it better than the first, and then another likewise better, and then WebMage, and then three more. And that’s when WebMage sold. At this point, I’ve written seventeen novels.
Eight are in print or forthcoming, seven are out under submission, two are trunked, and one novel to rule them all and in the darkness bind… Okay, so that’s eighteen, but I couldn’t resist.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I love what’s happening with the genre today. When I was growing up, it was possible for an individual to mostly keep up on everything that was happening in the field. Now, there are more genre books that come out in any given year than I could reasonably expect to read in the next four decades, more of it is really good work than ever before, and it happens every year. This is an absolute golden age for genre fiction. It’s an amazing and expanding field right now.
Where do I fit into that? That’s a tougher question for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard for a writer to really see their own work in that wide perspective way. More importantly, one of the things I’m really trying to do with my writing is to avoid pigeonholing. I’ve written and published a fair variety of things to date. Form-wise, the list includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, a science comic, and teaching-stories for a science curriculum. I’ve hit cyberpunk, contemporary and traditional fantasy, hard and soft science fiction, humor and dark fantasy edging on horror, as well as hybrids of several of those. I haven’t finished a straight mystery yet or sold any of my horror, but they’re both on my list.
I was out on a walk with Neil Gaiman a couple of days ago, and I got to talking about not knowing what I was going to do next. He told me that whatever I did it should be something different. It’s excellent advice, and I’d love it if in years to come people looked back at my work and said that I was always doing something different.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
I’m in a weird little bubble of time where I don’t have an active project. There are two more Fallen Blade books already in with my editor that will be coming out in 2012. But we’re waiting to hear what the numbers look like for Broken Blade before we talk about whether there will be more books in this series. I’ve got several spec projects in various stages of development – seven completed novels in six different worlds, at four different houses, but none of those have yet been picked up.
That said, I’ve got three books that are in contention as most likely candidate to be the next new novel: Blade Reforged (Fallen Blade IV), The Hand of Light (final book in a very dark WWII YA fantasy trilogy that I’m writing on spec and which my writers group really, really wants to see), Spirits of the Past (Book I of Aqua Vitae, a contemporary fantasy built around alcohol magic). But which one it’s going to be I can’t say right this moment.
Bared Blade and Crossed Blade are forthcoming next year, of course. Other than that, the only thing I’m sure about is a noir-ish cyberpunk short story called “Interface Pattern” that should be out next year in the Fantastic Stories Anthology. It’s the first short I’ve had out in ages, mostly because I haven’t been writing them.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
Looking at my started-it-but-haven’t-yet-finished-it pile: I see Kat Richardson, Martha Wells, Pat Rothfuss, John Scalzi, and Alex Bledsoe on the SFF heap; Colleen McCullough in historicals; a Hammett mystery; a linear foot of borrowed DC graphic novels, and The Poisoner’s Handbook and A Traveler’s History of Scotland in non-fiction. That’s a little light on the non-fiction side for me, but otherwise fairly typical.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m male? I see quite a number of people online talking about me and my work as “Mrs. McCullough’s books”. A side effect of being a Kelly, I think. Less facetiously, it’s really hard to say. I know me so well that it’s hard to separate out the public Kelly from the private Kelly and figure out what doesn’t cross over. How about this: I’m one of the only people I’ve ever known to get building burn. It’s like road rash, but it happens when you’re falling down the side of a building.
Starting the next book. I love writing, and I’m quite excited about all of the potential projects that are currently on my horizon. Though, I must note, it’s pretty cool to have both Bared Blade and Crossed Blades coming out next year as well. This will be the first time I’ve had two novels published so close together and I’m really looking forward to that as well.