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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author & Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones is Managing Editor of Black Gate Magazine where he first introduced Asim and Dabir, protagonists of his debut novel, The Desert Of Souls, out now from Thomas Dunne. He also has written Pathfinder Tales: Plague of Shadows, a game tie-in out from Paizo. He’s just recently signed on for two more novels and is a frequent reviewer of role playing games and more for Black Gate. He’s edited compilations of classic science fiction and fantasy stories for Bison Books and is a frequent speaker at conventions on sword & sorcery and other topics. He can be found online at, as @HowardAndrewJon on Twitter and on his Facebook page.

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: How do you define sword & sorcery? And what are its key elements in your mind?

Howard Andrew Jones: Hah! Define S&S in tweets? Easier in Haiku.

SFFWRTCHT: Howard’s article on defining sword & sorcery was so good, I reposted it on my blog but you can find it on his site also. Well, what are the core tropes or elements?

HAJ: Let’s talk protagonists, then.  With the caveat that we should paint with a broad brush and leave lots of gray edges, because I think trying to define the edges –where they stop and start — is a fool’s game. In S&S we have different sorts of protagonists. They are usually veterans, and they’re usually outcasts or rebels, sometimes-accidentally, sometimes deliberately. Another analogy would be the lone gunslinger or the wandering samurai–it doesn’t have to be medieval at all. But it should be in a setting where obstacles can be overcome face to face, usually with physical means, so swords and athleticism. They could be acting for a group or system, but be remote from it, without backup. In amongst their enemies, say. 

SFFWRTCHT: Like how Asim and Dabir worked, in and out of their boss’ authority and instructions?

HAJ: Sure — or how sometimes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser might take on a job for someone.  Setting is one of the other key features.

SFFWRTCHT: Does it require a tech-impoverished setting?

HAJ: I see a lot of overlap with some kinds of “planetary romance” and historical fiction.  If you have tech, then it’s almost a protagonist. We’re talking Star Wars tech, or rare tech with an old-style vibe. And the best s&s settings seem to have memorable worlds—Lankhmar, or Melnibone, or Amber, or Viroconium, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: Do they tend to be worlds with rustic places where it’s difficult to survive? Desert? The surface of Mars? Isolated and hard to navigate kinds of places?

HAJ: Absolutely, but if you want interested readers, they’d best be interesting places! Brackett’s Mars, for example, which is surely a  non-western setting. Melnibone isn’t very western. Well, Brackett wrote some fabulous space opera/planetary romance on an old-style Mars.  Knowing they aren’t S&S in a strict sense. There are some non-western sword-and-sorcery characters out there. One of my favorites is Imaro—Charles Saunders epic about a great African hero. And he has another, shorter cycle of stories about Dossuye. A fabulous writer. Dossuye is a warrior woman in a fantastic Africa. Imaro is one of the few sword-and-sorcery heroes you might want to sit down for dinner with. A good and honorable man.  Many s&s heroes tend to be a little bloodthirsty, or out first for their own good.

SFFWRTCHT:  Is there any real difference between Sword’n’Sorcery and Sword’n’Planet ala John Carter?

HAJ: Honestly, I see only surface differences — the hero might have a raygun with a couple of shots on his hip, but tech is low otherwise. Maybe she’s on her way for a rendevouz with a spaceship, but she has to ride a horselike beast to get there and fight through the hordes with her wits and a sword.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

HAJ: It probably started when my mom read me The Hobbit aloud. She had to read it for A grad class. And I discovered the original Star Trek in reruns when I was five and watched it devotedly.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of the writers who first captured your attention as a young reader?

HAJ: First? Bradbury. Then Roger Zelazny and Fritz Leiber and Catherine Moore and my heroines Leigh Brackett… I didn’t find my hero Harold Lamb until a little later, or Robert E. Howard, who I came to last, even though he invented sword and sorcery.

SFFWRTCHT: Who’s the S&S writer (old school) that people should read?

HAJ: Old school, my favorites are the aforementioned Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Harold Lamb, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you first start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

HAJ: I have been writing “seriously” forever, but I didn’t start selling, to the small press, until fifteen years or so ago, in my  late 20s? Early 30s? Can’t recall.

SFFWRTCHT: How different is the experience of writing historical fantasy and S&S? Is one more effortless for you?

HAJ: As for the differences, historical fiction seems like a little more work because I’m striving so hard to bring the real setting to life. But I love them both, and I don’t know that either one is simpler to write; one just takes longer to research.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

HAJ: I have a minor in creative writing; I studied under Howard Macmillan and Karl Barneby, and those guys were great. One of the  things Karl taught me to do was to take stories apart and figure out what makes them tick, and once I knew how to do that, I could analyze my favorite authors and stories on my own. 

SFFWRTCHT: Would you consider Desert of Souls to be historical fiction with S&S themes then?

HAJ: I think Desert is officially “historical fantasy” (Yes, it’s hard to be a casual reader — it takes a lot for me to fall through the words and into the story anymore, although Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett can still pull off that trick) but Desert Of Souls is probably a marriage of historical fiction and sword-and-sorcery. That was certainly my intention.  Desert of Souls, and the short stories featuring the same characters are set in the Abbasid caliphate — 1001 Nights — except that magic and djinn are real (if rare).

SFFWRTCHT: Where did the idea for Asim and Dabir come from?

HAJ: Too much reading of Lamb and Howard historical fiction, and then one day the narrator, Asim, just was there.

SFFWRTCHT: How much research did you do before and while writing?

HAJ: I’m still doing research. Constant! I tried to use real historical settings. I wasn’t inspired by the settings, I tried to use them. That scene in the marshes is my best attempt to bring the real -marshes to life. And my attempt to bring the real ancient Baghdad to life, etc. Sometimes I set the research aside, but I always have to come back to it. There’s just so much to know! Wish I had a photographic memory! I can’t even imagine how much effort it takes to keep up with hard science fiction! So many new discoveries. With the caliphate, at least everything’s already happened. But there are always new interpretations…and my memory can’t keep track of all of it.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to write a book featuring the characters and world?

HAJ: I was tired of rejections for my other novels. I figured, long as I was not getting published- I might as well not be getting published writing the novel I most wanted to work on. Funny thing, that, because Desert of Souls then got published!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you start with characters sketches or outlines or just let it unfold as it comes?

HAJ: Well, I know Dabir and Asim very well after having written short stories about them for many years. I try to write from a careful outline, but I am not afraid to veer off — though if I do, I outline the new direction. My writing process varies — in rough draft I’m working for set hours and shooting for at least 2k a day. Revision revision/editing, is different. Re: outlining, I’m not much of a pantser, unless I’m really inspired by a scene. And sometimes a section needs more outlining than another. For instance, I might have three ‘graphs of deatil for one chapter  and the next — say that question & answer scene deep in the book between Asim and the vizier’s son — I just wrote a one sentence description of  that.

SFFWRTCHT: How many short stories have you written with them?

HAJ: I think I’ve written 9 short stories featuring them, though some are novellas.

SFFWRTCHT: How much of the backstory and direction do you have planned out already?

HAJ: I have it fairly well in place, though I‘ve left a few holes in case I need to add something. Book two is already with the editor, and I just finished a detailed outline of book three. Book four is a little more nebulous, but I have the general plot, as well as some sketchy ideas for things that would follow, should I be so lucky! They’re standalones, though they are all sequels in a way, because the characters continue, and some of the problems introduced in one will carry forward into the next.

SFFWRTCHT: What about the villains? How do you create them? You do research inside yourself or you base’em on other people?

HAJ: I read a lot of history, and I suppose the villains are influenced from there, and partially made-up to suit the story needs.  I think the best villains see themselves as heroes, and I try to keep that in mind as I design them.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there any lesson or moral to your story?

HAJ: I can say that I don’t go out of my way to do morality plays, but yeah, it was lessons about loyalty, honor and friendship at all costs. I like stories about heroes who will stand up and do the right thing even when no one is watching. But I don’t try to create noble, flawless heroes, either, because those are deadly dull.

SFFWRTCHT: You use a lot of humor in your stories, at least what I’ve read. Is humor a core element of these types of stories?

HAJ: I wouldn’t say necessarily so — I think humor is realistic, and that any storyteller worth his or her salt, even writing a  tragedy puts humor in place. There are some great funny bits in Macbeth, which isn’t exactly a comic sendup. Humans look for humor even in the darkness.  I have limited patience for all grim — but then I have limited patience for pure comedy, too. 

SFFWRTCHT: What kind of responses have you gotten from readers/reviewers?

HAJ: I have been blessed with an awful lot of really positive reviews. So many that I haven’t updated my site recently to put them all up! It has been amazing.

SFFWRTCHT: You write a lot about RPGs for Black Gate. How much influence does your RPG background have over your writing?

HAJ: I grew up playing RPGs, and I even test out some of my ideas in games these days before I put them to paper. Some of the short  stories were game adventures, and the central threat from the novel came from an adventure I created for my players.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a favorite RPG?

HAJ: A favorite? Depends on the mood. We spent years with the wonderful Talislanta. I’m a big fan of Traveller, though we haven’t  gamed with it much. I’ve been using the Pathfinder system a lot to get familiar with it for the game novel I wrote, and I loved the Diceless Amber system. One of our favorite systems (our meaning my play group) is a home-brew percentile system.

SFFWRTCHT: You currently have a game tie-in novel out with Paizo, right?

HAJ: That’s Plague of Shadows—a sword-and-sorcery romp with a female lead.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the difference between writing a male and female POV character? Any challenges?

HAJ: Good question. I think that so long as you know your character, there’s no difference. The toughest part is knowing your way through any character’s head so you can bring that person to life, male or female. 

SFFWRTCHT: What are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

HAJ: I’ll be working on Dabir and Asim for the forseeable future — finishing up a short story collection, then working on edits of book two and drafting book three and four. I’m also talking a second game tie-in novel with Paizo, but nothing is set yet.

Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the 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, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

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