Author Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

Author interview with Michael J. Sullivan

The Riyria series has been on my to read list for quite some time now and last month I finally gotten around to start with the prequel series, The Riyria Chronicles with The Crown Tower and well it was just superb A+ reading material. Even though I don't have prior knowledge of the original series my first introduction to the protagonists of the series was a fantastic one. Michael J. Sullivan knows how to write an excellent story with great characters. This series is must read for every fantasy aficionado. With having sampled this first book, I need more!

Read my full review here

Author bio:

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Michael J. Sullivan has lived in Vermont, North Carolina and Virginia. He worked as a commercial artist and illustrator, founding his own advertising agency in 1996, which he closed in 2005 to pursue writing full time. He currently resides in Fairfax, Virginia with his wife and three children.


Hi Michael, welcome to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Michael J. Sullivan is? What are you likes/dislikes and hobbies?
MS: Sure, I’m a novelist, who is fortunate enough to write full-time. I don’t think many readers realize just how few authors can say this, and how little is generally made. Writing is without a doubt my favorite pastime. Some of my other activities actually fuel it, like biking, hiking, or jogging. It’s usually when doing those activities that I work out issues with my plot.

BP: You have been writing for several years already, do you still remember when, where and why you decided to pick up the pen and start writing?
MS: Absolutely.  I was young maybe eight or nine years old and I was playing hide and seek at a friend’s house. I found a typewriter, inserted a piece of paper, then typed out the well used line, “It was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out.”  I actually started writing “real books” at the age of thirteen. Basically I had read The Lord of the Rings and was so sorry that the story was over that I started writing my own books to continue the tale. I would type them up on my sister’s portable and draw covers with markers and bind with yarn. I still have a few of those early works.

BP: If you look back on when you first started writing to where you are now, can you say that you have learned a lot? And can you specify something’s in particular?
MS:  Oh without a doubt.  Malcom Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours required to master any task in his book, Outliers.  Stephen King mentions that the first 1,000,000 words should be considered practice.  For me both of those pretty much occurred at the same time…just as I was writing my 10th novel.  The nine that came before that weren’t meant for publication – they were just exercises in learning how to write. It wasn’t until my 13th novel that I got a publisher interested in my stuff. As to specifics, it’s really all across the board: Better plots, more realistic dialog, characters with more depth. It’s a direct result from working toward constant improvement.

BP: Even though you have quite a few stories behind your name, do you still encounter new things when you are writing new stories?
MS:  Always!  Every book I write I try to do something different. Sometimes it’s a different setting that takes a lot of research (for instance a good portion of The Emerald Storm (my fourth book) is set on a ship and I had to learn a lot about the age of sail.  In my current novel, I’m writing in a setting resembling the Bronze Age so I’m learning how round houses were made and how water was boiled without pots.  My next book is going to have some battles that involve large armies so I’ll have to learn about the dynamics of large scale warfare.  Then, of course, there is the challenges of coming up with new characters, ones that will have their own personality and not just a copy of someone I’ve already written about. The variety is one of the things that makes writing so rewarding, you are never doing the same thing twice so every book has its own challenges.

BP: If you would have to sell your Riyria series with a single sentence, how would it go?
MS:  Two rogues are caught in a conspiracy that goes beyond the overthrow of a tiny kingdom when they find themselves framed for the murder of the king in this classic fantasy of adventure, humor, and friendship.

BP: There are a lot of epic/thieving fantasy books out there, where do you think your books set themselves apart with?
MS:  I made a top ten list once, but it is a little long. At its heart is the friendship and humor between Royce and Hadrian. Where a lot of fantasy is very dark and gritty, Riyria is more classic fantasy which lets you tag along with characters you would want to have as friends in a world that you would like to explore.  This makes it somewhat of a standout these days when so many books are filled with anti-heroes and worlds where everyone is miserable and have little to no chance of a better life. I wasn’t trying to buck a trend, in fact I didn’t even know the genre had changed. I was just writing a book I wanted to read.

BP: Everyone enjoys science fiction and fantasy in their own way. What do you like most about reading and writing it?
MS: In some respect all writing allows the writer to “play god.” We invent settings of our own making and breathe life into characters that would never exist otherwise. Fantasy and science fiction gives me even more freedom as I don’t have to be bounded by the reality of our own world. I can invent new races, creatures, places, and go on adventures that don’t exist in our modern world. Few of us have the opportunity to be a hero in our day-to-day lives. About the closest we can get is to pull over and help someone change a tire or give a lift to someone whose car is broken down at the side of the road. By writing fantasy I get to live vicariously through my characters. I can be a hero that saves the kingdom and wins the heart of the one I love. I can accomplish great deeds and change the course of the future. In short, I can be a kid playing “let’s pretend” and the only limitation is my own imagination.

BP: The Riyria Revelations have gotten some excellent reviews, when you wrote the first story had you thought that the story would be so well received?
MS:  At the time I was writing Riyria, I had no intention on publishing.  I had tried to get published for more than a decade, and felt it was just a huge waste of time. I actually quit writing for about twelve years and when I stated again, it was only on the condition that I wouldn’t try to publish. My goal was to write something that I wanted to read, and my audience extended just a bit beyond that to include my daughter, my wife, and a few close friends. It was my wife who, after reading the first three stories, decided it had to get “out there.”  At the time she started shopping it around I thought the first few books were good solid, fun stories. By the time I got done with the series…I knew I had something really special…and yeah, I thought that people who got through the whole series would be pretty pleased with the time they spent with the books.  

BP: Did you feel any pressure when you were writing the subsequent sequel?
MS: I feel pressure with every book I write.  Each one starts with a nagging doubt of, “Were the other books just flukes?  Do I still have something worthwhile to tell?” When I decided on prequels I wasn’t aware just how much animosity there is about prequels. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have tried, but the feedback to date shows that people have really enjoyed them.  I was concerned about living up to Revelations which was, in my opinion, a really well written series. It’s still hard for me to objectively judge the new books against the old, but if I look instead to the readers, then it looks like I did well.

BP: The Riyria Revelations were finished in 2012, but this year you came back with The Riyria Chronicles featuring two new prologues. What gave you the idea two write the two prequels, The Crown Tower and The Rose and Thorn?
MS: When I finished Revelations, I had no intention on writing anything else with these characters.  I started writing Antithesis (an urban fantasy) and Hollow World a science-fiction novel. But I was getting a lot of email about people being saddened that Revelations was over.  Even my wife went through a six-week depression where she lamented about missing the characters who had become her friends.  I didn’t want to “tack on” to the Revelations as I felt it wrapped so perfectly.  Back in October 2011 (just as my self-published books were coming off the market but before Orbit’s versions were available for sale), I wrote a short showing how Royce and Hadrian met the Viscount Albert Winslow. It was done just to provide “something out there” for people to read during a time that I otherwise wouldn’t have anything “out there.”  That short story read a bit like the start of a novel, so when I was going to revisit this world – I used it as my starting point.  It wasn’t until I was almost done with The Rose and the Thorn that I realized I had made a fatal mistake. I hadn’t gone far enough back in time so I decided to write  The Crown Tower which chronicles the first job the two did together.

BP: With already having finished the main series, writing a prequel can be challenging task in terms of not telling too much or coming up with new things for the characters. What was your gameplan for writing the prequels?
MS: It was tricky, but also part of what attracted m to the project. I knew it would be a challenge and I like challenging myself.  With the first book, The Crown Tower, the goal was to show the differences in the two main characters before they were each tempered by the other.  I wanted to show them in a more “raw” form of what we see in Revelations and the real hard part was coming up with a plausible way that these two VERY different people would start to forge a legendary friendship.  In Revelations, I didn’t have to explain how this happened, it was a given. But in the Crown Tower I had to show that which I had only hand-waved about.

The Rose and the Thorn was really interesting because it tells a story from the past and does so in a way that many of the players need to be in close proximity to one another but never quite meet/touch. It’s kinda like the old saying that if you travel back in time and see yourself it will cause all kinds of problems. In this case I wanted to tell “the full story” about an event that happened in the past but one that Royce and Hadrian had nothing to do with. So I needed to have some key people that spanned both story lines but keep a wall between others. The first draft was actually quite a mess.  It took a lot of work by both myself and my wife to streamline and write a story that is satisfying for both old readers and new fans.

BP: Did you still encounter any specific problems when you were writing the prequels?
MS:  Yeah, there are a few very minor points that don’t align perfectly.  In Revelations it is said that they steal the Crown Tower treasure one night and replace it the next, but when I actually wrote it the plot would really suffer if I kept to that “fact.”  So the reality is there are a few days between those two events.  I’m justifying it by saying that Albert (who is the noble that gets the jobs for Royce and Hadrian) exaggerated to clients to make the pair seem even more impressive. My story, and I’m sticking to it, that after so many years of hearing this version everyone involved excepts that as fact.

BP: What was the hardest part to write in the prequels?
MS:  Working and reworking the plot of The Rose and the Thorn. There is a lot going on in that book…and there used to be a lot more.  It was too complicated and difficult to follow. It took a lot to figure out what to keep and what to throw away…and most importantly how I could keep that wall between the two plot lines that couldn’t cross.

BP: Besides the hardest part of the books, which chapter/scene did you enjoy writing about the most?
MS:  The first scene with Gwen in The Rose and the Thorn where she tries to save a friend who is being abused. I really liked how it defined her as a character. All the women who worked in the Hideous Head had reasons to keep their heads down and not make waves, but the fact that Gwen stands up for her friend, and tries to get justice for her death shows that she is able to see past what is in her own best interest to do what is “right.”

BP: Hadrian and Royce are just superb characters, I still don’t know their full deal but being introduced to them was a real experience, their natures make them very interesting. How did you create their personalities?
MS:  They have literally been developed over several decades.  I first met what would be the duo back in the 1980’s.  It wasn’t until years later that I started seeing some of the influences. I didn’t see it when writing them, but I can now.  Some of the influences: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby from I Spy, and Sam and Al from Quantum Leap.  These are all teams that are different from one another and yet there is a lot of respect for each. They are not above playful banter but their bonds of friendship have been forged through years of having to rely on each other for their very lives.

BP: Now that the whole Riyria series has been finished, do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue? Will you be perhaps writing a short story collection set in the world of Riyria?
MS:  I’m always writing something. I’m currently in the middle of a trilogy that explores the “actual truth” as compared with the mythology of things that happened in the distant past. It is based in Elan, but as it occurs thousands of years in the past it doesn’t have Royce or Hadrian in it.  I have a whole list of books that are waiting in a queue.  Some might not be written (for instance I have several more Royce and Hadrian tales, but I’ll not write them if I get the impression that “the boys” have overstayed their welcome. Then there are the projects that come out of the blue and jump the queue altogether. Hollow World was one of those. I had no intention to write that story, but once it took root, I put aside all the other stories waiting in the wings to get it written.  The bottom line, I have more stories then I have time to write, I’ll be dead before I run out of things to write about.

BP:  And just lastly, if you would have to name your top 5 favorite books, which would they be?
MS:  Well Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit as I consider them as one). They are what got me to first pick up a pen. Likewise the Harry Potter series is what got me to write again after my more than a decade hiatus. It reminded me what a joy a fun adventure can be.  Then there is The Stand by Stephen King…great characters that are still with me more than three decades after I read it.  Watership Down by Richard Adams is a classic hero tale with a cast of characters that I really enjoyed adventuring with. And for my last one I’ll chose Atlas Shrugged, but not for the reason that most might think.  That book is best known for its ideology, but to me the really important thing about it is the way Ayn Rand paints a scene with words and the outstanding mystery she weaved in the story line. Again, really strong characters that you really care about and some interesting twists along the way.

BP: Thank you for your time Michael and good luck with your future writing!
MS: Well thank you for inviting me. It was a great set of questions and I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

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