I can’t believe this is interview one hundred! Anyway over to you Chris.
Welcome to Chris O’Mara.
Where are you from and where do you live now? I was born in Preston, Lancashire. It’s in northern England. I moved to the South East several years ago, and now live in the seaside town of Folkestone. It’s a cool place, lots of creatives.
Please tell us a little about your writing – for example genre, title, etc. Although I have one or two science fiction/space opera WIPs, I’m focusing on fantasy right now. I have published one novel, Healer’s Ruin, which was what happened when I took a break from working on a much longer project. I was completely immersed in this 850-page draft of what might hopefully become an epic fantasy series, and I decided to take time out so that I could return with fresh eyes and do some ruthless editing work. During this hiatus, I felt like writing something colourful and light, full of spectacle and action. But, as is my wont, Healer’s Ruin ended up being full of misery and horror as well. I think that’s just how I roll.
Where do you find inspiration? I have a very vivid imagination and I love awesome spectacle. But no matter how much time I spend describing ancient demons or foul castles or Lovecraftian monstrosities, or how much effort I put into worldbuilding, what keeps me coming back to the project, and what gets me over the finish line, is the interaction between the characters. Despite my love of action scenes and general phantasmagoria, I get my kicks from the human stories. Healer’s Ruin was no exception. Underneath all the warfare and in the shadows of the monsters, it’s about three kids – Chalos, Samine and the Wielder, Taray – and how they respond to what’s going on around them. Ultimately, I suppose I’m inspired by the concept of agency, how characters decide to act, and why.
Do you have a favourite character? If so why? I really like the way the Accomplices turned out. They were initially going to be humanoid demons that were bonded to the mages in order to provide them with counsel, but they eventually became souped-up familiars. Mysa became a really interesting character in her own right, and I admit to being surprised by the tenderness that developed between her and Chalos. This deep friendship. And when Sixt, Samine’s familiar, is introduced, there was some amusing interplay between the two Accomplices.
Some of the more villainous characters appealed to me, too. Jolm in particular. Just because of the way he got under my skin, and I started caring about him. That surprised me.
My favourite character is probably Chalos, because he was a challenge to write, and because he felt natural. He was a challenge mainly because in my epic project I was writing about heroes with great martial prowess, and here comes this healer who doesn’t even have a weapon. He turned out quite introspective, perhaps a little bipolar – which was something that interested me. He’s already been affected by his affinity with sorcery. His mindset was a very important part of the book, and I think he’s a lovely character.
I’m very happy with Samine, though. I wanted to write a female character who was smart, tough and capable. She’s much more heroic than Chalos, in terms of how readers expect protagonists to behave in fantasy. She also tends to be one step ahead of him when it comes to working things out. And she’s defined by her skills and abilities, rather than by her gender, which I felt was very important. She makes a difference plot-wise, too.
I love Taray, of course. But I didn’t feel that there was much viability in making him the central character. It just wouldn’t have been interesting reading page after page of him kicking ass.
Do you have a character you dislike? If so why? I was interested mainly in exploring how the machine of Empire consumes its own people. So naturally, the Ten Plains King is the ultimate villain. But he’s quite remote, story-wise. I didn’t dislike him, either. He made for a cool villain. This strange, distant creature that everyone’s afraid of. So I suppose the answer is no, I didn’t dislike any of them. Not really. I did feel some vague apathy towards Tankanis, but he wasn’t around long. He was meant to be this pretentious, arrogant wizard and that’s precisely what he was!
Are your characters based on real people? Maybe a little. I take small characteristics sometimes, just so I can get a hold of the character. Then, once they feel real to me, I can start making them feel real to the reader.
A small confession: I got the idea for Jolm’s malformed legs from watching footage of a Brazilian footballer called Garrincha. He was this astounding, superhuman player. Fast, strong,and nimble as the breeze. But he was born with one leg curving outwards, the other inwards. There are some wonderful videos online where you can watch him almost defy gravity when he turns on the ball. So I got the idea of Jolm having this similar birth defect, and through force of will using it to his advantage.
Have you ever used a person you don’t/didn’t like as a character then killed them off? I was pretty brutal in Healer’s Ruin, but I never did that.
Research can be important in world-building, how much do you need to do for your books? Do you enjoy this aspect of creating a novel and what are your favourite resources? Yeah I enjoy it. Fantasy is certainly less of a grind than science fiction in this regard. I studied medieval literature as part of my degree, as well as comparative mythology, so I developed an interest in that. The romance, the songs, the poetry, the stories… the legends, the gods, the cults. As for more practical aspects of worldbuilding – how far can a horse ride, what’s the economic model of Mordor, that sort of thing – I used a bunch of old books about wayfaring in the middle ages, and other obscure tomes. And of course, the internet. I’m a member of some really good groups on social media. Those people know all the answers!
Is there a message conveyed within your writing? Do you feel this is important in a book? I think every work of art has a message. Even in the thoroughly generic stories about farmboys who overthrow emperors, the message is that everyone has value, and sometimes rulers ought to be abominated rather than respected. It’s very hard to think of a story that doesn’t have a message.
Honestly, I’d never write a story that ran counter to my beliefs. Ultimately the moral and ethical questions of anything I wrote would have to adhere to my own ideals. I’m pretty sure my scepticism about empire comes through in Healer’s Ruin, for instance.
Fantasy often sees duty and the upholding of order as virtuous. I’d question that. Plenty of terrible people have flourished because of underlings doing their duty, right? I prefer warriors who do the right thing, not the dutiful thing. I’m sceptical about any kind of social machinery that tries to take that agency away, that replaces morality with a set of rules written in accordance to someone else’s interests. That’s why I love Dune. Paul Atreides stands up to religious doctrine, corporate interests and Imperial megalomania all at the same time. Not many heroes can do that!
Sort these into order of importance: Great characters; great world-building; solid plot; technically perfect. Can you explain why you chose this order? (Yes I know they all are important…) I think you’ve listed them in the right order. I’ll read a book if the characters are compelling, if they feel real, believable and suitably complex. I can take wonky worldbuilding, a meandering plot (I’ve read plenty of A-list fantasy and sci-fi that lack solid plots or good pacing) and a few typos if I care about the characters.
In what formats are your books available? (E-books, print, large print audio) Are you intending to expand these and if not, what is the reason? Healer’s Ruin is available as an ebook. My next novel, which I hope to have out in the next couple of months, will also be an ebook. I’m not overly interested in expanding to print just yet, as I want to focus on the writing.
Do you self-edit? If so why is that the case? Do you believe a book suffers without being professionally edited? Yes, I self-edit, pretty rigorously. I’ve edited a lot of poetry and prose, so I have experience. Also, I wanted to see what I could do on my own, without any real technical help. There’s a practical reason, too. I want to be in a position, in a few years perhaps, to approach a publishing house and say, ‘this is what I can do by myself.’ I don’t think there’s better proof of commitment than that, if you can pull it off.
Do books suffer without being professionally edited? Sure. The writing is woollier. The arcs might not be as smooth as they should be. But I’m wary of books being edited so that they fit the zeitgeist, or fit a market. You lose a lot of good shit doing that.
Do you think indie/self-published authors are viewed differently to traditionally published authors? Why do you think this might be? Yes, because there’s this idea that the best get deals and the worst self-publish, right? It’s not true; I mean, plenty of successful authors struggled to get deals (J.K. Rowling and Steven Eriksson, for example, didn’t get deals right away; in poetry, it’s even more starkly obvious – we only got T.S. Eliot because Ezra Pound bullied the editors of magazines into publishing him). I think it’s usually the case that the cream rises to the top, but remember, publishers want to sell good books, not just publish good books. And not all good books are marketable, so not all good books are viable in terms of publishing deals. So plenty get turned down and end up indie.
Do indie authors care? Well, I think we all want that six-figure deal! But if we’re good enough, we can earn a decent living from doing it all ourselves, with support from the community.
Do you read work by self-published authors? Yes! It’s exciting to not have to rely on publishers to vet stuff for me. Since I’ve started self-publishing, I’ve found that there’s this enormous coral reef of literature hidden beneath the surface of the mainstream. It’s very cool.
Practically too, you need to measure your skills against your peers. You need to know you’re good enough to rub shoulders with them. And there is a lot of good stuff that’s just a click away. I love that this is the case.
What are your opinions about authors commenting on reviews? How important are reviews? You know, I’m tempted to say that I don’t care about reviews, as I try to be objective about my work. If I know that something’s a little wonky, but I can’t fix it without bringing down the entire edifice of the project, I live with it. I think all writers do (even A-listers). If I’m happy, that’s what matters. But honestly, when you get a positive review, you grin from ear to ear. And you realise that’s all bullshit.
If a reviewer got something terribly wrong, or perceived a message that wasn’t there, I might be inclined to talk about it in a blog post, just to clarify. Authors are free to do that, and sometimes they should. Reviews are important because they sell the book for you. They’re an author’s magic carpet.
When buying a book do you read the reviews? Yes, fleetingly. I don’t worry about the stars aspect. I just want to know if the book is at least OK in terms of style. I just want a review to say, “OK, this wasn’t terrible.” Then I can think, “great, what’s the blurb?” Because people’s tastes are radically different, but also, some great books have bad aspects. Philip K. Dick’s style isn’t great. Lovecraft’s dialogue is bonkers. Dune is, at times, really boring. But none of them are terrible. So all I need reviews to say is, “this isn’t terrible.” That’s enough for me to consider reading the book.
What are your reviews on authors reviewing other authors? It’s cool. We’re all writing out of love for the craft. If you wrote a poem, who better to critique it than another poet? If you put up a shelf, who better to show off to than a carpenter? I find that other indie writers are honest and knowledgeable and they understand the hard work that goes into finishing a novel.
What experiences can a book provide that a movie or video game cannot? It’s more immersive. Movies are about suppression; the speed of the cuts, the sound, everything is about shutting down your higher functions. I love movies, I think cinema is a great communicator. But it’s very different to text. It’s like performance poetry versus poetry on the page. One is about grabbing your attention and eliciting a reaction, the other is about sitting in silence and contemplating. The movie versus literature distinction is the same. Movies I think are about what Keats called negative capability. You react to a movie. But a text requires your constant conscious critique. You interact with as text. You work it out as you read it.
As for video games, they’re as distinct from movies as literature is. They’re interactive, but they place you in what psychologists call the flow. It’s a state of automation, almost a meditative trance, where you respond to what’s going on with remarkable efficiency. It’s very different to the way you engage with a work of literature. Although with open-world games, with more convoluted narratives and moral choices, where various player actions have various consequences, we’re seeing a blur between the experience of reading and the experience of playing. However, this sees the player create the narrative. Which is like playing a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. And the drawback of those books is that the writer can’t tell a focused tale because player agency needs to be protected.
Books provide contemplation rather than agency. Conscious critique over the flow.
What three pieces of advice would you give to new writers?
I always think, what advice would I have loved someone to have given me? And it’s this.
- Finish the book. Get to the end. Don’t keep rewriting the prologue. Just. Finish. The. Book. Then revise. Just by getting to the end of the draft you’ll feel like A Proper Writer. The buzz of this will carry you through editing. Then write the next one.
- Don’t venerate. You need to be able to read your favourite authors and notice not only what’s great, but what’s wrong. Once you’ve noticed what’s wrong (woolly plot, broken magic system, lots of characters who all have the same mannerisms and tone of voice) make the decision not to do this in your own book.
- Share your work. This is so easy nowadays, with self-publishing and social media. Don’t be so precious and obsessed with perfection that you never share anything. You can have the best story in the world, but if nobody sees it, who cares? By sharing, you learn how good you are, and how to get better.
What are your best marketing/networking tips? What are your worst?Well, I’m not a bestselling author, so take this with a pinch of salt. But I would say that it’s important to be genuine and to be open. If you love a genre, show that you love it. Blog about it and tweet about it. Often, prospective readers will buy your book based on a blog post you wrote about magical cats, rather than because of your five-star reviews. Some readers buy your books because of you, rather than because of the blurb. So market yourself, to a degree.
Worst tips? Well, I can tell you what marketing puts me off. I don’t like adverts that say “the new Lord of the Rings!” mainly because I want an original story, and I don’t want a new LOTR. Or adverts that say, “if you liked Mistborn, you’ll love this!” because that just makes me think, “OK, so you stole Mistborn.” Just sell what makes you unique, not what makes you generic. Nobody bought Mistborn because it promised to be just like something else.
Most authors like to read, what have you recently finished reading? Did you enjoy it? I’m pretty eclectic in my reading. I’ve got Salman Rushdie’s Fury, Roberto Bolano’s 2066, Name of the Wind and Ancillary Justice on the go right now. It’s a nightmare. I’m re-reading Neuromancer again, too, because it’s a gorgeous masterpiece. And there’s usually a Lovecraft collection on the bedside table. Because Cthulhu.
I just finished Diamond Dogs, a science fiction novella by Alastair Reynolds. It’s really good. Especially when you tie it in with the narrative of his Revelation Space series. It’s bleak, dark, gothic and mind-bending. I love his books.
Can you name your favourite traditionally published author? And your favourite indie/self-published author? That’s tough. I really like Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. J. G. Ballard’s supercool. There’s this Spanish post-modern writer called Juan Goytisolo who’s absolutely brilliant. In horror, Clive Barker. In science fiction, Iain M. Banks (RIP). Goodness, it depends on my mood.
In fantasy, I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s ideas, Steven Erikson’s sense of scale and Rothfuss’ style. I can’t name a favourite. It depends on what day of the week it is. But I remember being absolutely blown away by the Dragonlance Chronicles when I was a kid. It had a maturity that a lot of the whimsical fantasy novels lacked, mainly due to the light and shade of the characters (and the french kissing) and it was so much better than the ‘big muscley invincible hero kills everybody no problem for 200 pages’ stuff some of my friends were reading!
As for indie authors, I’m discovering so many on social media… and the depth of talent and range of ideas is extraordinary. I can’t choose a favourite, though. It would be unfair to all the ones I haven’t read yet. Which is both an honest answer, and a cop-out.
What are your views on authors offering free books? I understand why some writers don’t like it. I suppose they don’t like how it devalues the market, and forces them to compete with people who are selling books for £0. But sometimes giving books away free seems like the only way to grow a fanbase.
But honestly, I’ve found that readers who buy a book and like it are more likely to give feedback than those who got it for free. Perhaps there’s something psychological about appreciating the value of a book because you actually had to pay for it.
I don’t mind if writers want to give books away for free, and maybe it works for some (especially if they have a series). But it’s not something I plan to do. I can’t even gift books because Amazon refuses to let UK writers do that for some reason. So I have to sell them, and hope people think they’re worth it.
Do you have a favourite movie? Heh. Tricky. It’s either Akira, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Third Man. Or Seven Samurai. Or The Big Lebowski. I watch a lot of movies.
Do you have any pets? No. I had a cat when I was younger, but I’m allergic to them now. I always thought I would have pets. But now I can’t imagine having one. I’d be red-eyed and pissed off all day!
Can you name your worst job? Do you think you learned anything from the position that you now use in your writing? I’ve had some good and bad jobs. I worked as a copywriter for a little while, and that was interesting but very stressful. But the worst jobs I ever had were the mindlessly laborious ones. Just watching the time go by, and knowing that you’re not getting the chance to do the things that you care about, is horrible.
So many people lack the chance to achieve their potential. Perhaps this makes its way into my writing, I’m not sure.
Can you give us a silly fact about yourself? I used to play guitar and write lyrics in a grunge/alt-rock band. Luckily there was another guitarist, who was awesome, as I’m a really scrappy player. But those were fun times!
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