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Interview: Anthony Huso on The Last Page

Anthony Huso is a video game designer, “self-described nerd” and the debut author of The Last Page, a semi-steampunk courtly fantasy more akin to Dickens than Verne, published last month by Tor Books.


John Ottinger: First off, for those who haven’t heard or read The Last Page, what is the premise and synopsis for the tome?

Anthony Huso: If I could count the hours I’ve agonized over the synopsis and the many reasons that it causes me angst…

The synopsis is really quite simple though, I think. A pair of young lovers meet at college, both dreading what the future holds. Caliph Howl takes a pragmatic path, delving into politics, bureaucracy and the very tangible problems associated with civil war. His girlfriend, to put it simply, finds her way into an underworld filled with occult magic, assassins and arguably nebulous threats. I see the two characters as opposites in some respects, one grounded in the empirical and the other representing the theoretical. The book is about their relationship, how it evolves as each of them climb the rungs of power in their own spheres. In many ways, the main conflict of the book is that of “mated couple vs society”. But, having laid that synopsis out for you, if you’ve read the book, you probably understand why it makes me cringe.

JO: In The Last Page, you have some exceptionally clever metaphors and similies, often comparing things like clotted milk from a baby’s bottle to thick air in a deep cavern (p. 139) or using adjectives cleverly, like describing sunlight as “antiseptic”. How do you come up with these strange comparisons, and how much flows naturally as you write and how much of it is a result of good revision?

AH: Good revision is an important part of any writing. It’s what I’m doing now on Black Bottle. Revision allows me to see things several layers deeper on the second go round than I did on the first. In that respect, my metaphors and comparisons may change because I discover an emotional angle or implication that I didn’t see the first time. That said, many of the things I write (descriptively) are there in the first draft. It’s just natural. What makes me happy is that you liked them. :)

JO: You are very careful to not through away small details like the existence of Sena’s cat, but to rather remember them and reuse them and revisit them in the story. How do you plot your book so that you can keep track of even minor details like that?

AH: I’ve been writing since I was eight. I don’t use an outline. The outline is in my head. I have a calendar in a spreadsheet that helps me keep track of the time that events happen as I write them. After writing an enormous pile of notebooks full of story after story that I realized would never see the light of day, I realized something had happened, internally. I could see ahead in my writing. That is, as I wrote page 13 for instance, I knew what was going to happen several hundred pages later. I think probably all writers get this ability. A sense of what’s to come. The details, like cats and street names and whatever else are just part of that. When I’m buried in the story, I’m in Sena’s shoes. I know what’s important to her. Her cat is important to her. I know what colors she likes. Etc. I don’t see it as miraculous to remember the details. I think of it as a natural part of being essentially, critically embedded in the characters and the places. And besides, when the world is as strange as it is in The Last Page, readers are going to need that kind of consistency.

JO: Your story uses “magic” but it is a mix of mathematical concepts, hocus-pocus, and complicated words like “holomorphy” and “chemiostatic” and “metholinate” to create a technomancy, a blending of technology and magic. I’ll admit that as a reader, I often did not understand how this system was supposed to work and my suspension of disbelief was put on trial by your suberversion of the expected tropes. Was this a concern of yours when writing the story, and why did you go a different route with your “magic”? What was the appeal of writing this technomancy style of mysterious power?

AH: Was it a concern? Hell yes. It was terrifying. I knew what I was doing and I knew it would alienate some people. Going whole-hog on an unconventional setting is something that I thought, well…this is probably not a story that very many people will like. It’s just too weird. Happily, I’ve had great support from review sites and readers, more so than I’d ever hoped. I equate it with what the debut of pistachio ice cream must have felt like. Is this really going to work? My intentions with my writing are not to show off an obscure bit of vocabulary that hasn’t probably been used in a hundred years (chyrme comes to mind) but to try and get the balance right between obscure, (and what I consider to be cool) words and enough plot and character motivation that the reader understands what’s happening despite not having a clue what word X meant. It’s about context and pacing, keeping the action going. Some will disagree with my opinion that strange words actually help with a strange setting — and a strange magic system. They’ll tell you that you need to make it clear. Say “cold” instead of “gelid” or whatever. But I’m actually totally against making magic clear. The term “magic system” annoys me. It immediately makes me think that the magic in this place is understandable, logical, and fully known: that is essentially just like books full of laws, or books full of math, etc. Mundane.

So, I took magic and intentionally married it with a mundane system: math (that’s hardly a new concept by the way). What I did next was to break the math part of marriage and turn it from something recognizable into something much more esoteric. I did this because math is something everyone has a good idea of.

That’s the part, I thought, that people would be relying on to get a footing. So instead, I turn it into something that the reader feels like they can barely understand. Mystifying math with obscure references to things like non-physical numbers was my way of trying to make holomorphy something really strange, unpredictable, and hopefully more fantastic than fireballs and magic missiles. No offense D&D nerds. I’m one of you! The strange words and the strange blend of blood and math don’t (I hope) force my readers to dig in dictionaries. I’m hoping, instead, that they’ll trust me, let the obscure words go by and instead just listen to the sounds or the words, stay tuned to the context and the emotion, and just let it carry them. That puts a huge burden on me by the way and I always worry whether I might ask too much. Nevertheless, I like the challenge and I’m going to continue to try.

JO: In your “Take Five” at Suvudu.com, you mention that you used old Dungeons and Dragons Campaigns to help provide depth to your world-building. How is it, though, that you are able to come up with so many fanciful place and character names?

AH: How does that guy on Man vs Food eat all that stuff? I don’t think he’s superhuman. He just loves what he’s doing. He just loves food. When you love something, your resources are endless.

JO: You also mention in your “Take Five” at Suvudu that your own doodling plays a significant role in your writing. You rough sketch some of the monsters in your work to have a better idea of what you are working with. Is this something you suggest other authors do?

AH: No. I think everyone’s different and I don’t think that you need to draw in order to visualize something clearly. Lovecraft is an example of someone who did draw. He was not (in my opinion) an incredible artist, but he did draw and he did seem to love drawing the things he’d dreamt up. And that’s just awesome. I love to look at his sketches and think of him sitting alone, working at this thing from his mind, putting an image of it on paper regardless of his proficiency. It’s just cool. So I think, you can draw if you want to. (cue music from Men Without Hats) But not everyone wants to and not everyone needs to.

JO: The maps in The Last Page were not drawn by you, but rather Jon Lansberg. How much of Lansberg’s work is based on your own sketches?

AH: All of them. I have enough maps that I could keep myself warm by burning them one at a time if ever lost heat on a long winter night.

JO: In addition to being a novelist, you are also a game designer. How is storytelling different in these two mediums, and did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in transferring your writing style from video games to novel writing?

AH: They are vastly different. A video game is an end product. A novel is also an end product. End products compete and don’t generally play well together. What that means is that the writing in a video game must serve the experience of the player and it must serve the game. Therefore, necessarily, the writer is often coerced by the nature of “the game”. Sometimes, characters in games say things that a character in a novel would not say, for the sake of the player — so that the player doesn’t go the wrong way or push the wrong button and therefore blow himself/herself up and feel punished. We don’t like it when gamers throw their controller on the floor and get up off the sofa shouting, “[expletive deleted] this game!” Games, unlike movies and novels, require the player to understand things immediately with enough clarity to act. That is not the case in other forms of fiction. I have enjoyed doing some writing for games, but I will admit that it is far more difficult to write for a game than it is to write for a novel. The game constrains you in many, many ways. But it’s also good because it teaches you how to write things that hopefully don’t totally suck even within very rigid constraints.

JO: The Last Page is a planned duology, with Black Bottle being the next book. What led you to askew the stereotypical trilogy for your fantasy?

AH: Is there a notion that a fantasy should be a trilogy? Is that what makes it good? And I’m not trying to be belligerent here, but I think the story should be as long as it needs to be. As I thought about the story I wanted to write, it turned out that I thought…hmmm…you know what? I think that’s going to take two books.

JO: Where can readers find you online?

AH: Round about here: http://www.anthonyhuso.com/.

JO: Thanks for your time!

AH: Thanks so much for having me.