Monday, 25 July 2011

Interview with Tim Akers

SF and fantasy author Tim Akers has agreed to answer some questions for my first interview. Tim has written the Burn Cycle series and also The Horns of Ruin, featuring Eva Forge. Tim can be found on his blog

Firstly, many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. To kick things off, could you tell me a little about yourself and your work, and why you choose steampunk/fantasy/sf as your genre?
There's not much interesting about me. I grew up in an extremely small town in Western North Carolina, moved to Chicago for college, and here I still am. I'm a classically trained literary author, but F/SF is my native language, it's what I grew up reading and dreaming about writing. I don't think there was ever a conscious choice to go into F/SF.

When did you start writing? Is it something you have always been doing? Were there any books you read as a child that inspired you to take up writing?
The first time I remember writing something out of a sense of joy and creation was in fifth grade. By the time I got to middle school I was carrying around wads of paper in the pocket of my jacket, and writing between classes. I made my first pass at a novel the summer after seventh grade. That said, I kind of went into hibernation after college. Got busy with life, I guess. I talked a lot about being a writer, and one day achieving that goal of publication, but I did very little about it. When I turned 30, that's when I realized I had to get serious. It makes for a nice milestone.

Your resume says you split your time between databases and fountain pens. How do you juggle a day time job with writing?
It's difficult. You have to prioritize everything, from work life to family life to writing time to just plain old down time. I had to learn to not beat myself up for the days when I could be writing but I'm just too burned out, or the Saturdays when I spend the entire day playing videogames rather than churning out the word count. You really need to relax, I've learned, or the whole process falls apart. That said, every day I make a conscious effort to sit down for an hour or two and try to get some writing done. You just have to develop the discipline to produce on command. A lot of writers fetishize this concept of the muse, they develop certain crutches that "help" them write, and then they end up not writing just because some little aspect of their writing habit is missing. I'm guilty of this, too. I find it much easier to write first drafts long hand. But you just can't do that. It takes too long, and then you have to type it in and make corrections. Basically I've learned to write when I can, however I can. I write at work at lunch, I write at home in my office or on the porch or wherever I can be that it's quiet. I write in coffeshops, and I write in notebooks or on desktops or standing up or on my netbook. Whatever it takes. Mostly, though, I write. Every. Damn. Day.

Could you tell us more about your writing routine? When is the best time for you, are there any rituals involved, favorite pen, writing robe, lucky eraser?
I think I kind of answered this above, but I think it's important to reiterate. Developing fetishes that empower your writing don't do anything but limit the activation keys to your writing time. If you have to smoke when you write, then you can't write on the plane on a business trip. If you have to have a drink to write, you're going to have a limited period of time between when you're just drunk enough to write and too drunk to make sense. Writing with a certain fountain pen or at a certain time, all that does is prevent you from writing with different tools or at different times should they present themselves. The key to writing successfully is internal discipline. Grind it out.

Do you have any hobbies? Do they help or inspire you with your writing?
Many hobbies, none of which I have time for anymore. Well. Not all of them. I used to play Magic:The Gathering competitively, but that was just absorbing an enormous amount of my creative and analytical thinking energy. Plus it was expensive. I'll still do the occasional draft, but mostly I've had to put Magic behind me. I used to play Warhammer a fair amount. Now I mostly just buy figures to paint. My current work is medieval in nature, so I'm painting knights and such. That's been very helpful with the internal aesthetic of the book. My only consistent hobby these days is World of Warcraft. That's kind of like a third job, but it also counts as family time since my wife plays, too. That's just such a deeply immersive world. I have to remember that they have a team of writers coming up with that backstory, because it's just all so huge.

How do you approach writing a new book? Do you develop character profiles, map out the major plot events, or does it just come to you as you write?
I develop a loose idea of the central problem, draw up a cast of characters related to the problem, give them motivations and then set them loose. As I write I'll stop and plot out a couple moves. Sometimes things go the way I plan, sometimes they don't. Sometimes I add in some plot element that I haven't necessarily resolved, just to see how the characters react.

I often hear that characters have their own will and sometimes even surprise the author. Is this something that you have experienced?
I would say that the narrative often goes in ways that I don't expect, but if the characters are doing things I don't expect them to then they're probably not acting in character. Then again, I have "Characters" on the top of my list of things that need improvement, so maybe not having characters that live outside my head is just a sign of writerly weakness. Beats me. But I think that's one of those writerly excuses for undisciplined narrative.

There has been a lot of press cover of Steph Swainston who wants to leave her publisher due to pressure from them and the fans to write a book a year. Do you feel pressured to be prolific and if so how do you handle that?
Funny story, and I don't know how appropriate this is. I really enjoyed her first two books, but when I read this question I had to go look up if she'd written anything else. I had lost track of her. If I was a better fan (and I'm a terrible fan) I might have known better, but I didn't. So it might do her career some good to keep those books coming.

I feel no external pressure to be prolific, but a great deal of internal pressure. Like I said earlier, I have a full time job, a WoW addiction, a family and a social life. And I produce a book a year. Maybe free time is a curse, or something, but if this was all I was doing for money I can't imagine delivering fewer that two books a year, and I'd probably aim to do three. There are publishing realities that, with few exceptions, require constant market presence. You can be a writer and not recognize these forces but there are consequences. And yes, there are exceptions, and no, there are no absolutes. But there are reasons publishers ask that of you.

My favorite character of yours is Eva Forge from The Horns of Ruin. In my review of The Horns of Ruin I compared Eva Forge to Modesty Blaise, where did you find your inspiration for her?
Vic Mackey, from the TV series The Shield, and Mary Shannon from In Plain Sight. Not as broken as Vic, and not as dependent on family as Mary, but those are the two compass points. She's a painfully simple character, I'm afraid. I wish I could have done more with her.

Your Burn Cycles series protagonist is Jacob Burn. Which character do you like writing about the most Jacob Burn or Eva Forge? Do you share any traits with your characters?
After the first Burn book, there seemed a very real possibility that there wouldn't be any more Jacob Burn books. When I got the offer to write The Horns of Ruin, I felt like there was a lot in that style that I still wanted to do, so I imported a lot of Jacob into Eva. They're of the same template, I would say. Noir Brutal. But their backgrounds are radically different, and their worlds and experiences are radically different.

That said, Jacob is a dark mind. I don't like writing him as much as I used to. I've changed a lot in the last several years, both in my ability as a writer and fundamentally in who I am. There's a lot in Jacob's world that I'd like to tap into, but I'm not sure that's going to happen anytime soon. Same with Eva. If I go back to the world of Eva Forge it's going to be a radically different experience for everyone involved.

What books are you currently reading and are there any must reads you would like to recommend?
I love Daryl Gregory's books. He gets a fair amount of attention, but it's not enough. Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet was the best piece of fantasy to hit the shelves in the last twenty years. There's a real movement in fantasy to challenge the genre's traditional tropes and rethink it. Lots of people try, and they succeed to different degrees, but Daniel does it best. The Long Price is deeply involved, deeply beautiful... it's just amazing. I very rarely read a book and wish I had written. I wish I had written that book.

Most importantly, are you working on something at the moment, and will there be another Eva Forge novel?
Like I said above, I don't know about future Forge novels. There are commercial reasons for that, but mostly there are writerly reasons. After I finished Dead of Veridon I sat down and looked at what I had done with my catalog and, most importantly, why I had done it. I was still writing according to a form that I had created when I first started out in my career. I'm better now than I was then, but I was keeping myself constrained by that template. I wanted to do something radically different. So that's what I'm doing. Something else.

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