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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Sam Sykes

Sam Sykes is a young writer, who, at age twenty-five, many feel may turn many tropes of the fantasy genre on their head. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he writes full time and plays dog’s best friend a lot. His first novel, Tome Of The Undergates, first in the Aeon’s Gate Trilogy, came out from PYR Books and Gollancz in 2010. His second, Black Halo, released in Spring 2011. A third will soon follow. He’s had short stories published in a couple of anothologies, including Gardner Dozois’ The Dragon Book and his forthcoming Dangerous Women. He spends a lot of time tweeting as @samsykesswears and also hangs out online at

SFFWRTCHT: What inspired you to want to be a writer? Did you study it officially early on? Did you always see it as a career option?

Sam Sykes: Really, I became a writer because I was thoroughly incompetent at everything else. That and I was rather classy at lying. Beyond that, I’ve never really “studied” beyond the practice that comes with doing creative writing classes and reading a lot.

SFFWRTCHT: Why fantasy?

SS: Essentially, because it was the story I wanted to tell.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start writing before your realized it might actually be a career goal then?

SS: Basically, yeah. Publishing was always a possibility, but it wasn’t the biggest thing on my mind back then.

SFFWRTCHT: Which books & authors inspired you as you took an interest in writing?

SS: I don’t think it’s possible to read any book without at least learning something from it. Probably one of the biggest influences, though, was Gemmell. The first fantasy book I read that shattered my perceptions. I started getting more serious when I ate George R.R. Martin’s series alive. But everyone says that. With the characters. I became more interested in what they were doing and wanted to know more about them. Thus, a story.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for Tome Of The Undergates and the Aeon’s Gate Saga come from? Did you start with character bios or an outline or let it unfold as it went?

SS: It started pretty simply: write an adventure fantasy. After I had finished it for the first time, it looked like every other a/f. So from there, it started to grow. I started asking questions about these people and what they were doing. Originally, it was just going to be one big-ass thang. My editor put the axe to that, though, and we hacked it up pretty nicely.

SFFWRTCHT: I’ve heard Lots of talk about Sam Sykes turning the S&S genre on its head. Was this a conscious decision? Why?

SS: In general, I find that discussions of S&S or any genre, really, devolves into arguments about what is “true” genre. Adhering, consciously, to those definitions means the work has more rules and will suffer for it. So, no, it wasn’t conscious. If it was, I wouldn’t be writing my story. I’d be writing it for someone else, which I can’t do.

SFFWRTCHT: You deal a lot with how adventurers undertake the life and how a diverse group of races/cultures could live and work together. Did you research other cultures for perspectives on this? Did you write from particular life experiences?

SS: A little, yeah. I didn’t incorporate other cultures heavily, since I’m grossly terrified of offending ancient Romans. But I like learning things about other cultures as a matter of hobby, so that naturally finds its way into the writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Have role playing games like D&D or even World of Warcraft influenced you?

SS: Not as much as people think they have. I like D&D, but I was more interested in reading Monstrous Manuals and supplements. For those times when you absolutely, positively MUST know a delver’s digestive process.  I am such a poser.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve been complimented on your skill with descriptive prose. Is that something you’ve worked on or did it come naturally? How do you develop that skill?

SS: Prose is totally subjective. One’s man lyrical is another man’s purple. I wrote the way I wrote without really thinking about it. If anything, it’s probably from years of using big words to make myself sound smarter. Chicks dig that, I hear tell.

SFFWRTCHT: Great. Let me know how that works out for you.

SS: Not well.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the title of book 3? Does this conclude the saga or will there be more adventures of Lenk & company?

SS: The third book is called The Skybound Sea. It concludes everything you would expect it to conclude at that particular point in time with this particular story as it pertains to these particular characters assuming you are of a mind that I am assuming you to be.…see what I did there?

SFFWRTCHT: Black Halo picks up where Tome left off. Only this time, there’s no 200 page opening battle sequence. Lenk and his friends are at sea with the Tome and then wind up attacked and separated, stranded on islands wondering if they’ll ever see each other again. The journey to bring them back together is an interesting one and they each go through personal trials and challenges in the process. Much of the tension and action in these books is internal, inside the heads of your characters. Is human psychology and behavior a favorite subject for you? Have you always been fascinated by it?

SS: Ah, yes.  200-page fight scenes are a young man’s game, really; endless days of rolling in the grass, dreaming of your first kiss, scraping together enough change to buy an ice cream cone, violently eviscerating a tattooed, Shakespearean pirate through six different personalities, one of them a smelly, violent racist woman with a lust for blood…sorry, what was I talking about?

I don’t know if I’d say that psychology is a particularly favorite subject as much as it is an involuntarily natural one.  I am an intellectual, which is something I say as an excuse when I don’t have a date on that particular night.  But more than that, it means I think, frequently too much.  I spend a lot of time worrying over motive, method and consequence in my real life and it sort of spills over naturally into my writing. Of course, that’s not to say I just spend a lot of time writing down my own fears and hopes and calling it literature.  It has to apply to the characters and it does so pretty naturally in Black Halo. It was fairly obvious from the get-go in Tome of the Undergates that the companions had a lot of problems with themselves that caused problems with each other, but it was their problems with each other that allowed them to forget about their own for a moment.  Black Halo is denying them each other and thus, forcing them to confront their own. Psychology is character, but only one aspect.  Action must also follow.

SFFWRTCHT: Your writing showed real improvement between the first and second books. Was that a conscious effort any more than is normal for most writers?

SS: Nope!  I’m just that talented! Or I just felt there was less of a fear to say absolutely everything on my mind at all times, lest I never be given a chance to say it again, thus resulting in a stronger, tighter style. Take your pick.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve created a lot of cool creatures to populate your world like schicts, dragonmen and netherlings. Can you describe those and tell us a little bit about what inspired them please?

SS: It’s hard to say.  A lot of what drives me to create the creatures like dragonmen, shicts and netherlings is the thought: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”  That sense of wonder, I think, is at the heart of a lot of scifi and fantasy and it kind of saddens me to know that some authors disengage from it in the name of gritty realism when you can just as easily have both. By that, I mean that “wouldn’t it be cool if…” is not enough on its own.  If you just decide to put a dragonman in for the sake of having a dragonman, then it’s just an ornament on the wall: cool, but functionless and ultimately dissatisfying beyond bragging that you have one.  The sense of wonder does not come from the description or the unusualness of the creature, but how they interact with the world around them, what function they serve or rebel against, how they talk, how they move, what they think if someone spits in their eyes and what happens when someone they love dies.

So, it’s all well and good to have a seven-foot-tall purple-skinned woman with anger issues and muscles out to here, but the interest spawned from her physical description only goes so far.  The interest spawned from her conflict as a giant purple woman is much more involved and so we have the sense of wonder that comes from the unknown and mysterious compounded by how they deal with problems that we face.

SFFWRTCHT: You use a few more POV characters this time around. We discover a different kind of Schict and wizards of a holy order of sorts dedicated to acting almost like lawmen. Are there more POC characters coming in book 3?

SS: What the heck, man.  The Venarium are militantly atheist.  I can’t believe you missed that!   JEEZ. I’ll be pulling more out of my hat and my ass in equal measure in The Skybound Sea, don’t you fret, my pet.

SFFWRTCHT: Was it your own interspecies romantic life which inspired the Lenk-Kataria romance or did you just research that? And how have readers responded?

SS: Romance is a strange thing to write about, really.  People love to read about it, so naturally it comes into a lot of books, but it’s not always done well…or even passably, at times.  The thing about romance is to adhere to it the same way you would in real life: it has to happen naturally, an attraction between two characters that might not make sense, but just feels right. And it’s that last part that’s worth holding onto.  When it feels right, you don’t necessarily have to explain it (and in Lenk and Kataria’s case, I don’t even bother, since it’s fairly offensive logically), it just is.  Likewise, when it feels wrong, a reader can usually tell you exactly why that is and it’s usually because the writer, at some point, said: “Oh, hey, I should probably put a romance in here somewhere.”

Hint: if you ever think that, you probably shouldn’t.

We’re not necessarily looking for the payoff to the romance, as readers, since it’s not about the reward.  Romance, like anything, is another layer of conflict.  If it’s a reward, it removes conflict, makes the character shallower and removes tension.  If it’s a conflict, it heightens tension, makes the reader more invested and gives depth to the characters. This is why I got an email from someone saying: “please let them end up together…please.” That’s a reaction.  Not even the ideal one, because there is no ideal one.  All romance is different, if it’s done right.  Because no romance is more important than your romance. And you can’t research that.

SFFWRTCHT: You introduced some really interesting backstory this time around surrounding the two races of froglike peoples, Owauku and Gonwa, and their relationship to the other races introduced the first time around. Any more races you’re planning to introduce in Book 3?

SS: The Shen play huge roles in The Skybound Sea, of course, being of the mind that the main protagonists have just done quite enough living for the time being.  Other than that, there’s nothing I can say without giving more away. Suffice to say, when describing some of it to a friend of mine who is also a beta reader, he furrowed his brow and grunted: “Well, that’s just messed up.”

Bralston and Hanth both make less-than-joyous returns to the points of view.  They were mostly necessary for the story, which is why I used them.  If it comes up that I need more, then I’ll probably use more. That’s not an interesting answer, though. I will say that there is a stirring debate between Sheraptus and a crab on divine predetermination, though.  Not from the crab’s point of view.

SFFWRTCHT: Were the Owauku and Gonwa at all inspired by Gollum?

SS: The Owauku were inspired by the fact that I think geckos are funny.  The Gonwa were inspired by the fact that iguanas are jerks.

SFFWRTCHT: When you started your first novel, did it begin as, say, chapter 1, or was it a random scene, other, etc? i.e. Do you tend to write linearly?

SS: I’m a pretty linear writer, usually. I know how where I begin/end, I just don’t know how to get there. It depends. Sometimes stories reach their end before it’s intended. But other times you’ve got to dig a little deeper than that.

SFFWRTCHT: You started with characters and then built a story around them? And what do you find when you dig deeper–a better story or something else?

SS: Essentially, the characters came first. The story went through a lot of mutations before it became Tome. But the characters were always the soul of it all. That’s just the kind of story I like. Sometimes you go far and hit gold. Sometimes you go far and hit poop. You have to go far to know, I think.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you outline the other parts of the story before or are you going with the flow as you write?

SS: I tend to know roughly what’s going to happen. Stuff always comes up that I can’t control or don’t expect, though.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s an average work day like for you? Do you write full time?

SS: Get up, put on pants, do things, work from 12 AM to 4 AM, take off pants. I do write full-time, actually. I’m lucky. Let’s not jinx it.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any other series in mind to write once you’ve finished this one?

SS: I do, actually. I wish I could go into further detail, but I can’t because I am a huge jerk.

SFFWRTCHT: What other projects do you have in the work which we can look forward to? Any short stories?

SS: To answer both questions in one fell swoop, I’ll be putting out a short story with Gardner Dozois’ anthology Dangerous Women next year.  I’ll hope you find it then!

SFFWRTCHT: Any plans to write science fiction?

SS: Me arr dum fantasee riter. No can grasp things like sky boat and finer points of human philosophy. Just want write fights.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.