Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Act of Will - by A.J. Hartley

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm fascinated by different writers' processes and the story behind the creation of their stories. Usually I ask the authors of the stories in IGMS to talk about this, but today I've got something slightly different. A.J. Hartley is the author of several novels, including Act of Will, which was released yesterday in paperback, and I got him to talk a bit about the creation of this novel.

Edmund: The book has a first person narrator, which is an unusual choice for fantasy. Why did you choose this?

A.J.: I sometimes say that I think of myself as a novelist who happens to write fantasy sometimes, and has written in other genres too. What draws me to stories is often about the characters and the way they respond to their predicament, and nothing does this more than a first person narration. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and being thrilled by how much the voice became the story. It wasn't just about seeing what happened from the protagonist's perspective: it was about being the protagonist. I love that, love even the challenge of telling a tonally varied story from that same, consistent perspective.

Edmund: Tell us something about where the impulse for this story came?

A.J.: A long time ago (more than 20 years) I outlined the core story for a role playing game I was playing with my brother. I was living in Japan at the time and hadn't seen him for over a year, so I wanted to build something rich and complex for us to do when we met up again. I planned out a lot of the basic plot but tweaked its specifics based loosely on places I visited during my long trip back to the UK. After we played the game I wrote up some scenes as short stories, but they lacked interest value to anyone but us. It wasn't until I hit on the idea of the first person voice, and complicated the hero's origins by making him an actor that the story came into focus as a viable novel.

Edmund: Your previous novels are all mystery/thrillers. How does experience with those genres inform WILL?

A.J.: Well, I hope that readers will find that in spite of the sometimes flippant playfulness of the voice, there's a sense of real danger which grows out of my experience with those other genres. I learned a lot about large scale pacing as a thriller writer, as well as about writing combat in ways that stay rooted in reality. I'm writing fantasy, but I'm trying to stay close to the real world in terms of what it feels like to be running from someone who wants to kill you. My protagonist is no heroic weapons master, so that sense of panic so common in thrillers was really useful to me here.

Edmund: What kind of research went into devising the world of the story?

A.J.: Gloriously, (though I hesitate to admit it) almost none. My thrillers are very research heavy, and I'm a publishing academic, so I was delighted to give the library a miss for once and draw largely on stuff I either already knew or could just make up. I'm a Shakespearean scholar so I had a good sense of the theatre in which Will works (suitably modified for my world and story) but even that really only shaped the character's attitude and skills. Within a few pages he's out of that environment and living on his wits with a group of principled adventurers.

Edmund: This book was almost 20 years in the making. What did you learn from this drawn out development that might be helpful for unpublished writers?

A.J.: Some general things and some specific. The specifics: pay attention to the market but don't copy it. When I wrote the first draft of the book I had (for reasons I can no longer remember) stripped it of magic entirely. Agents and publishers told me that they thought magic was integral to fantasy as they conceived it then, and if this wasn't fantasy they didn't know what it was. That's always bad, because they can't sell something they can't first identify. I then worked some of the magic back in, but did so in a tentative way that made it feel like an after thought. I had to figure out the logic of the power I was playing with and make it work consistently, adjusting plot and character accordingly. All of this would have happened much faster if I'd been more attentive to what was being published at the time. Throughout this period I was working on other things, different books and screenplays, from which I learned a lot about overall structure and repeating ideas about hero journeys (archetypes, I guess, though I'm wary of the word). Periodically I would go back and apply what I was learning to a new draft of the book, and from time to time I would show it to other people. (I even started work on a sequel, though I wouldn't advise that till you have a home for the first!) The point, I suppose, is that I never thought of the book as done. It was always in progress, though that progress really did take 20 years, and didn't reach its current form until I had started having success in the mystery/thriller area. That leads to my most general (and obvious point): if you think something about your novel has merit, figure out what that merit is, then be prepared to change everything else, and keep tinkering till you get it right, even if it takes decades. Indeed, I'd say the time that passed was essential to my figuring out what the book had to become. Funny how helpful failure and rejection can be in hindsight, isn't it?

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