In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week we spoke to Michael J. Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations series and the Legends of The First Empire series, which begins with Age of Myth.*
What comes first when you’re world building: the world or the characters?
Sometimes I’ll think of a character and then build a story off of it. Sometimes I’ll think of a world and add characters to it. Sometimes I’ll just think of an interesting plot and then add both. There’s no consistency to it. Age of Myth grew out of explaining what happened in the past that came before my existing series. I had to kind of construct how the world would have been 3,000 years ago.
How do you manage to keep track of everything?
I was at a panel at a convention, and a lot of the other authors talked about how they have wikis online where their readers will actually keep track of things for them. George R. R. Martin is famous for the fact that he has so many characters and often has readers he relies on. I don’t have wikis, but I use Scrivener, a word processor that also keeps files within the program. All the research and the history and names are listed there. It makes life easier because I have this database.
As a modern sci-fi and fantasy author, do you think it’s important to attend conventions?
Originally I started out in a small press and they didn’t have money to send me to a convention. Then, that publisher had financial problems and I ended up getting the rights back and self-publishing. At that point, I started to go to a few. I stood for eight hours every day trying to wave people over to give them my spiel about my book and hope they would buy it. It was pretty exhausting. So when I got traditionally published, I didn’t like conventions. But I was asked to be the guest of honor at ConnectiCon a couple years ago, and I enjoyed that. And Del Rey asked me to do three conventions this year.
The point of going to a convention is supposed to be to sell your books, but I do it because I want to talk to the people who’ve read my books and I like talking to other authors. As far as a need for selling my books, I’ve never really found conventions to be worthwhile. That’s just me though. There are many other authors who would say just the opposite.
What excites you most about the direction of sci-fi and fantasy?
I didn’t read sci-fi and fantasy for many years. I started when I was 19 or 20, then I got away from it and I started reading other genres. When I started learning how to write, I was reading general fiction and trying to study classics. I did that for a decade. By the time I came back to writing for fun, it had been 20 years since I read fantasy, and my experiences with fantasy had been back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So when people read my stuff, I was surprised at the reaction — people were saying, “This is such a refreshing change!” That it’s not what was popular at the time and is still today, which is what’s known as Grimdark fantasy. There are no heroes, the general feeling is a sense of negativity, and often it ends in the same place it began, or things got worse. I didn’t even know that that was a thing until I started getting reactions and reading other authors.
My stuff is generally traditional heroic. I want to leave the reader happier when they get done with the book than when they started it. I want to read a book that has good places that are worth saving, and the bad places are things you want to fight against.
What are some interesting books you’ve read recently?
I really like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I’m presently reading Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King. [Andy Weir’s] The Martian was one of my favorite books I read last year.
Do you plan your series ending at the beginning, or discover it as you go?
When I write a series, it’s like episodes on a television show. I write the first five seasons all complete, because to me it’s one big story arc, but each one is a complete episode. I don’t like publishing the first book until the last one’s written, because, quite often, I’ll get to the fourth book and go, “I just came up with a great idea. But I said in the second book that that can’t happen. If I could only go back and change that paragraph!” I’ve made it so that I can do that. Also, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, the books will still come out, because they’re pretty much done.
What are you most anticipating for future?
I never really intended to be a fantasy writer. Fantasy was something I wrote because I stopped trying to get published. I was just writing a book I wanted to read, and that was the one that caught on, and now I’ve been classified as a fantasy author. I wrote a science fiction novel called Hollow World, which was fun because when you’re writing in a fantasy world, you have to keep your references in that world. It’s hard for me to say, “He was as fast as a bullet,” because there are no bullets. It would also be nice to write a book with a person going forward in time. It would be enjoyable to play with both sets of tools. Maybe in the future I will try splitting off to some other genres.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.