Sunday, March 06, 2011

An Interview with Michael J Sullivan


Michael J Sullivan is the author of the successful Riyria Revelations series, which Orbit Books has just picked up to repackage and offer to a wider audience at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 – much of Michael’s success thus far has been through the support of a couple of small presses and Amazon and the Kindle store (it frequently pops up in recommendations alongside some of my favourite authors, so I’ve bought the first couple as Kindling to try out).

The new Orbit deal, announced on February Sullivan-AuthorPhoto22nd, should bring Sullivan’s series to a much broader audience. The novels will be released in three volumes: Theft of Swords (November 2011), Rise of Empire (December 2011), and Heir of Novron (January 2012). The final volume will include the as-yet-unreleased final novel of the series, Percepliquis.

Orbit Senior Editor Devi Pillai said of the series:

“This is the kind of fabulous new adventure fantasy that readers of Terry Brooks and Brent Weeks can fall in love with. Michael really delivers a great story that keeps to the idea of great epic fantasy while taking on fantasy clichés and having fun with the idea of two thieves caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I read the first book – and I was hooked.”

I thought it would be an opportune time to interview Michael, to find out a little bit more about his series, and he was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions for this interview.

The first five novels in your Riyria Revelations series have already been published, and the sixth will be released later this year. How would you introduce your series to new readers, and what can long-time fans expect from the final volume?

The Riyria Revelations is a fast-paced adventure centering around some core characters (most notably Royce and Hadrian, a thief and mercenary who are caught in the wrong place at the right time) and how they are caught up in the political turmoil of the times they live in. I designed all six books as one story arc but made each one have its own beginning, middle, and end so that they can be read and enjoyed without forcing the reader to HAVE to read them all. Of course, my hope is that readers will find the story compelling enough that they will WANT to.

As to the last volume, I personally think this is the crowning achievement of the series and a lot of what has come before was setting the stage for the final “big bang” as it were. Writing all six before the first one was published provided me an unprecedented opportunity to weave tidbits between the various volumes. Like the Sixth Sense, I think many will re-read the series after finishing the whole thing and find little surprises that they did not notice upon first reading.


Where would you say your series ‘fits’ into the genre?

I would say it can best be described as “traditional fantasy” in that the world is populated with multiple races such as man, elves, and dwarves. There are a lot of reviewers that have mentioned that it reminds them of fantasy of their youth, and since those were the works that first got me interested in the genre I can certainly see those influences. One thing that is probably different of many recent releases is that this series is not as gritty and steers away from graphic violence, sex, and crude language. These are not YA books, but I wanted a series that adults would enjoy and as such could pass them on to their children. It’s not that I’m opposed to such things, I just think that including them is not necessary to the story as a whole.

Where do you draw your inspiration for the series from, and what drew you to read and write fantasy in the first place?

It’s kind of funny that many people say, “Sullivan was clearly influenced by Fahred and the Grey Mouser,” even though I’ve never read any of these books. My main inspiration came from Babylon 5 (the television series). On the surface, my books would seem to have little in common with this sci-fi offering, but the concept of telling a five-year story arc over multiple standalone episodes really intrigued me.

As to what drew me to fantasy in the first place... like most, I was blown away when I read Tolkien in the sixties (when I was just a kid). I of course read C.S. Lewis and as many books like those as I could get my hands on, but at that time there wasn’t much to devour. This forced me to write my own. While those early works were complete trash it certainly formed a foundation that later became The Riyria Revelations.

You recently signed a deal with Orbit to repackage and publish your series in three collected volumes. What was your reaction to the Orbit deal? What have you learned from the process of getting published through a print-on-demand small press, and now signing a deal with a large publishing house?

My first thought was one of pure shock and awe. When my wife suggested we start “testing the waters”, I thought it would take twelve to eighteen months and likely lead to nothing. I’ve heard that it is nearly impossible to cross from independent to traditional publishing and so I thought there was little chance of anything coming from the effort. There were actually several publishers that were interested in the series, which was even more surprising to me. Orbit was the perfect choice. They don’t put out as many titles a year as say Tor, but they seem to be very particular about the authors they bring on, and each work is given a good amount of attention. Their books are being recognized both in sales and by award committees so they are definitely doing things the right way.


Working with small presses (I’ve been with two – Aspirations Media Inc. and Ridan Publishing – which is a press my wife started), gives authors a longer runway to find an audience. Six months after the AMI release they told me that sales would basically “peter out” from that point on. I thought that was crazy as I started from nothing and had only started to see some headway in gaining some ground. It took a good year for sales to ramp up, and if I had gone straight to a traditional press I might have fizzled in the beginning. Now I have a bit of an audience, the Orbit launch should go much better. At least that is my hope and I’m sure Orbit’s theory. The biggest difference between large and small press is the ability to get books into the brick and mortar stores and libraries. Orbit will be able to take the series to the next level in a way that small presses really can’t.

Do you think starting through a small press, rather than a bigger publisher, had an impact on the evolution of the series and yourself as an author?

Not to a large degree, as I’ve said, the whole series was written before I started to publish, so the books that came out are pretty close to how they started out. Orbit has already performed their story edits (line editing is still underway) on the whole series and very little is changing. That was one thing I was a bit afraid of… what if they wanted to drastically change everything that I’ve already written? In general, we’ve added things here and there but nothing had to be removed so the story remains very true to my original vision.

The one difference with starting out with a small press was related to release schedule. Usually, most publishers release one book a year (or sometimes every eighteen months) and with six books that would have taken a long time for the whole story to be told through most traditional presses. Because I was with a small press we could release new books every six months. This kept a nice momentum and people really liked finishing one just as a new one was getting ready to come out. One of the reasons I was most attracted to the Orbit deal was their intention to release the entire series in three consecutive months. This is fantastic, and I’ve not heard of many publishers that can pull that off. I think it will be great for the readers as they won’t have huge delays and can jump from one book to the other very quickly.

What was your first foray into writing? Are still fond of the results?

Believe it or not, the very first words I ever typed were… “It was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out.” I was nine or ten at the time so I didn’t realize how cliché that was, but I thought I was a genius. [Been there! – CR] I had actually written thirteen novels over a period of about fifteen years in just about every genre I can think of (except Romance and Erotica). Most have interesting concepts but with the exception of one, my literary piece called Burden to the Earth, the execution leads much to be desired. Most of these early works are worth revisiting, but I’m always thinking up new ideas so they get pushed further and further back. I have more ideas for stories than time to write them all, so some may never see the light of day.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline? Any other novels or series in the works?

Going back to the previous question, my work in progress is a complete revamp of a stand alone fantasy that I wrote in the eighties. Unlike Riyria, it is set in contemporary times and its working title is Antithesis. As the title might suggest, it explores the classic good-versus-evil theme. I also should work on getting Burden to the Earth released, but since it is not fantasy, I’m not sure how my current fans will receive this work.Sullivan-5-Wintertide

The other project that is slowly filtering through my brain relates to Riyria. It’s not a sequel or something “tacked on” to milk the series. As I mentioned, the story arc was carefully designed and definitely ends with book six (Percepliquis), but when I wrote the series I gave myself some outs so that I could revisit the world of Elan. I have at least one three-book series, and several stand alones that could be written if it looks like people want more. Whether any of those see the light of day will depend on how well received the Orbit releases are.

How do you keep busy when not writing?

I write full time and try to keep a good balance between various activities that stimulate me both intellectually and physically. My day usually starts with writing in the morning, some exercise in the afternoon (bike riding is my favorite of these) and reading and/or art (painting) during or directly after meals. In the evening, I either return to writing or write my blog. Lately, I’ve had to devote a bit of each day to respond to fans (which is surreal in itself). I’m always amazed when people write that they are sorry to bother me, as if anyone is put out by someone saying nice things about what you’ve produced? Some of the letters make me completely dumbstruck. Like when someone is suffering through a medical problem and finds escaping through my books as a release from the pain they’re experiencing. I don’t even know how to process stuff like that.

What are you reading at the moment (fiction/non-fiction)?

In non-fiction, I’m continuing my self-education on history of various parts of the world. When I was in high school the emphasis was on Western Civilization so I’ve really enjoyed reading about the places not generally covered, such as Asia, Africa, and South America. In fiction, I force myself to stay away from my genre as I don’t want to be influenced by what others are writing. That being said, I am reading and enjoying Jim Butcher’s Dresden books as well as Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, since his second book has just been released.

What are you most looking forward to in 2011?

I’ll extend the timeline a bit and make it “the next year”, because the Orbit release that has the last book of The Riyria Revelations in it will just miss the end of 2011 (scheduled for January 2012). Nothing can pale to my anticipation of having that last instalment out. Currently there are only five other people in the world who have read it and keeping my secrets bottled up for six-years is a long… long… time. I do a lot of local book clubs who have read each book and there is so much I can’t say when at them. When all is said and done, it will be so good to be able to talk to people about the series without holding back. The Orbit deal moves that deadline from April 2011 to January 2012 which is only nine months (very short compared to most delays common in this genre), but it was still one of the hardest parts of taking the Orbit deal.

Any final thoughts/comments on reading and/or writing?

I heard a joke once that the second book that came off the Guttenberg press was one predicting the end of printed books. Nowadays you hear a lot about the demise of publishing (especially with Borders closing, etc.), but I think people are always interested in hearing a good story. The mechanism by which we get stories may change over time, but the desire for people to be entertained will always exist. Some people will always prefer printed books. Many listen to audiobooks while working out or commuting. eBook readers are devouring more books than they used to because of the convenience and lower costs, and we’ve yet to see what type of multimedia-book-experiences are possible through applets and the like. I’m bullish on reading and writing. The formats may change but I truly think there has never been a better time to be in the business of writing and I’m looking forward to a future of even more possibilities.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, I’ve recently purchased the first couple of books in the series (they are still available through Amazon UK and US), and I hope to get started on reading and reviewing them in advance of their repackaging.

Thanks to Michael for taking the time to answer these questions for the us, and congratulations on the book deal!

While you’re waiting for the Orbit books to come out, check out Michael’s website for more information about his writing and the Riyria Revelations. For those who have already been reading and buying the Riyria Revelations, Orbit will apparently be releasing Percepliquis as a stand-alone ebook as well as publishing it with Wintertide in the Heir of Novron omnibus.


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