Mad Scientist of Epic Fantasy: An interview with Thomas Howard Riley

ARTWORK by chic2view from 123RF.com

When I heard about Thomas Howard Riley’s first book, We Break Immortals, I was fascinated by some of the ideas, and wanted to know more. Happily, Thomas was well up for doing a review, and also very patient with my slowness. But the interview is ready now, and here it is…

PL: Hi Thomas! Congratulations on your first published book. I’m going to start with the obvious questions – why writing stories, and why fantasy?

THR: Thank you so much! And thank you for chatting with me! The why of it is always hard to pinpoint, kind of like it was something that was always within me lurking and waiting for the right moments.

My dad was the family storyteller, and everyone would gather round to hear about his wild antics during holidays. Some of that must have rubbed off haha.

For as long as I can remember I always had a tendency to create elaborate scenarios as the backdrop for playtime with action figures and lego knights and whatnot. This was before the era of film-based lego figures, so we were kind of on our own to figure out what our knights and rogues wanted to do.

Whereas many five year olds went the route of “good guys Vs evil guys”, my lego princes were involved in elaborate scheming against each other, changing sides and trying to overthrow the rightful king, being exiled to my brother’s room and then marshaling his toys to help them retake the throne. I couldn’t play with toys for just an hour for a battle, I would stage entire military campaigns spanning days, where I would pause and pick up where I left off the next day. Lego characters would have narratives and character arcs. Weird shit like that.

I don’t have a definitive “moment” where I knew I wanted to be an author, I just started writing one day in between other pursuits, and it gradually squeezed out everything else. Now I am low key obsessed with writing. I couldn’t stop if you paid me.

I began reading adult themed fantasy and sci fi at a VERY early age. To demonstrate by ancientness, I wrote my first “story” on my mom’s Apple II GS computer (with its massive 4MB hard drive) after doing my homework. I had to save my work on floppy discs.

I DID do some sci fi writing early on in high school, but fantasy won out. And now though I still avidly read sci fi, I only write fantasy. I don’t think there was a reason for it. I just love it. It just draws me in better, the way VHS beat out Betamax. Shit I just outed my age again. I need to stop telling on myself like that.

PL: Aw man, I hear a lot about that. A lot of my childhood Lego still has cracks from the wars they fought with each other. So, what particular ideas were behind We Break Immortals?

THR: I build stories in layers. I start with a few ideas and layer more over them and then see how those concepts bounce off one another and generate new ideas.

I love grabbing concepts that have nothing to do with each other and smashing them together until they make something new. (That is why an old friend used to call me the “Mad Scientist” of epic fantasy. Because I had a habit of taking elements of completely different subjects and Frankensteining them together into some weird new thing.

So, in a way, everything I write is made up of jumbled of little impressions from a lifetime of reading history and fantasy and watching films.

I find inspiration everywhere. Render Tracers have many conceptual parallels to Blade Runners. The Render Tracers’ preferred tool, the Jecker monocle, was inspired by my childhood obsession with “heads up displays”, infrared goggles, Predator-vision, or the 1st person digital readout perspective of the Terminator, any lens that could reveal secrets of the world that are all around us but that we cannot see right in front of our “human” eyes.

Going below the surface, I would say that my CORE concept about fantasy, the central theme of all my writing, which I have been fascinated with since I was little, is not so much about how magick “works” in the story, but rather how it is undone, how it is stopped. That is perhaps the most unique part of the story—there is a method of hunting and blocking and capturing sorcerers, tools and methods for bringing magick users to heel.

I wanted to explore the fear and loathing and mistrust that must exist between normal people and people who are de facto unimaginably powerful deadly weapons.

And naturally this led me to explorations of how societies might try to control magick users, or live side by side with them, or try to exterminate them. And then how magick users might react, not only to what they experienced from others, but how the felt about themselves.

I wanted a good balance of swordplay and magick. But I wanted to bring a deadly realism to it. Magick can be wonderful and beautiful, but it can also be horrifying and destructive. It was important to me to show that. I wanted to bring the same degree of severity to magick as I did any other brutal fight to the death.

PL: At the risk of giving away possible future projects, is there an Idea Frankenstein you’d like to do that isn’t in We Break Immortals?

And I like what you say about “the fear and loathing and mistrust that must exist between normal people and people who are de facto unimaginably powerful deadly weapons” because that chimes in with many of my thoughts of fantasy. Is that something you think the genre does well, or maybe ignores too much?

THR: *laughs nervously* I have a ton of future projects planned (some already in the works) in addition to the forthcoming sequels to We Break Immortals. Most of them do not involve any of the cast of We Break Immortals (or the sequels), BUT they DO all take place in the same world as the Advent Lumina series.

Some tell the stories of characters only tangentially mentioned in WBI, and some involve events from history casually referenced. Some will be magick-heavy like WBI and some will be nearly absent of magick. Some will be near the same time period, some hundreds or even thousands of years in the past. (There may or may not be Easter eggs referencing each other as well).

I intentionally built the geography and history of the world to be immense for this purpose. I am a huge fan of the old Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books. I loved how they had huge worlds and a multitude of stories in different places and times, sometimes crossing over into the same places but not necessarily touching any of the other stories. I want Luminaworld to be like that.

As far as the consequences of magick on society, some stories have touched on this issue to greater or lesser extent. Some tackle it deeply and profoundly. But most seem to just want to move past that as quickly as possible and get to what the magick can actually DO. You know, the fun stuff. I cannot fault them for that, honestly.

But I wanted the mistrust and otherness of magick users to be front and center in the societies in this world I’m writing about, so that I can explore the complexities of this. Human nature being what it is, I have a hard time believing magick users wouldn’t be looked at with distrust, if not outright disdain. I wrote an article about the origin of this idea in my head, titled “What If Gandalf Was A Serial Killer?” if you want to see an in-depth (and quite long) essay on my detailed thoughts on the topic.

(This is not a criticism of any fantasy that doesn’t do this by the way, just an observation. I have immense love for fantasy stories that don’t go anywhere near this topic. It is purely a me-thing I feel compelled to write about, not any kind of reaction to others not doing it . I simply feel a force driving me to put it front and center.)

I was deeply into the early 90s X-men comics and I was excited to find that, much like my own neurotic-author-thought-spirals they dive headfirst into this topic and I thought they developed some amazing ideas out of it. They made me have to stop and think about it. (They tried to do this in the movies but movies being what they are there was little attention paid to the depth and nuance of it)

I also found inspiration in the 2000s comic series by Mark Waid (Irredeemable and Incorruptible), Garth Ennis (The Boys), as well as the Marvel series Squadron Supreme and its reboot, Supreme Power. These series really turned hero/villain tropes on their heads and further pushed me in my direction of “how could anyone in society ever trust people with the same human mental and emotional limitations while having THAT much power?”

It won’t be in EVERY story I write, but it is a theme I revisit regularly.

PL: I hear that, both on the mistrust and “sometimes I just want to see how it goes boom”. Interesting you look at comics as being good for the mistrust – I feel like comics had a really powerful moment with that literature has yet to equal.

Anyway, speaking of themes. Any other themes that you particularly love or that are really important to We Break Immortals?

THR: It’s funny, a lot of the general themes I write about I only realized after the fact when I noticed a pattern.

But now I am at a point where I see very clearly that I fixate on how people handle strong emotions, how they are able to process them or manage them or….how that are NOT able to manage them.

I particularly explore grief, rage, guilt, sorrow, obsession, and how these can be confronted either with hope or despair. My characters are their own worst enemies at times, and that’s ok. I don’t just have things happen to them, I have things AFFECT them. I make sure they carry their baggage all the way through.

I don’t want to give the impression that every page is morose however. There is a an appreciable amount of snark and humor and joy and love and moments that are, dare I say, cute. Just like everyday life. There is a lot of light to equal the darkness.

On a more specific note, I am obsessed with noir crime conspiracies, so I have a habit of putting some element of conspiracy lurking in the shadows in this series, not necessarily as the primary villain, but as a background of self serving corruption that must be avoided or confronted as the case may be.

I love corruption and redemption, and playing with the idea of what it means to be a villain or a hero from different perspectives. I also have a singular obsession with the breakdown of order, last stands, and breaking through layers to get to the center (whether that be climbing the hierarchy of an imperial government, or penetrating layers of security when laying siege to a city, or simply delving into the core of who someone is.)

Also due to my love of old comics and 90s era WWE matches, I am also obsessed with the concept of nemesis, mixing and matching hero team ups, switching sides, betrayals, and switching up who is antagonistic to who as the series unfolds.

I love magick duels, and how the intricacies of how a magick system works can be used tactically for one sorcerer to defeat another, so I always have a bit of that.

I also have to have sword fights (being that I used to be an avid wielder of heavy rapiers myself). I’m sure I’ll think of others but that’s a pretty good sample of things I gravitate towards.

Here’s the cover of We Break Immortals

PL: Ah! New tangent anyway. So I read you saying you consider your work plot-driven rather than character-driven, despite everyone saying it’s character driven. When coming up with a story, what comes first for you? And do you think there’s a bias towards saying stories are character-driven these days?

THR: These kinds of questions always boil down to “what does one mean when they say character-driven?”

I always thought it was referring to stories with exclusively character explorations with very little in the way of actual things happening. And on the other side, many people take plot-driven to mean the characters are cardboard cutouts with nothing below the surface and no emotional affect to them at all. Which is not how I would define it, but I know some people who have thought I meant I didn’t spend much time on my characters’ development and emotional states, and relationships.

But now here we are instead of talking about the story, we end up talking about what are the definition of terms. It’s like using the term “grimdark”. We as readers and writers then have to spend at least twice the times discussing what our terms mean as we do the actual books we are discussing haha.

I like to write characters who have depth and emotion and are affected by what happens to them, and their decisions in response to events are a part of what determines the direction of the story, their triumphs and mistakes.

To me, that seems like a baseline of realistic characterization for what I want to aim for in my writing, but I have come to find that this is what most people mean when they use the term “character driven”.

This may be why we see that term getting a LOT of mileage—that it is coming to mean any story with excellent characterization. And if that is what people think of my writing then I am through the moon happy about it.

So I suppose it could be that character-driven writing is a big part of what I do and I hadn’t realized that what I was doing “counted” as that.

I think then one could say I write simultaneous plot-driven and character-driven stories. Which sounds on the surface like they might cancel each other out, but I think it just shows that I pay a great deal of attention to both aspects of storytelling. I take as great care excavating my characters’ emotional states, the changes in them, and the path of their psychological journey as I do with my worldbuilding, my magick systems, and my fight sequences and sex scenes. I really try very hard not to leave anything half-assed.

As for how I start coming up with a story, I usually begin with certain plot ideas in mind, interests, whims, concepts I want to explore.

And before during and after this process, I spend a lot of time worldbuilding for fun. For every little name or reference in the story, there are a thousand that I DON’T put in. So that is floating around in the background.

And then I move on to general concepts for characters.

From this shell I start adding layers to their personalities or their journeys. It could be because of a movie I see, or a conversation I have, or something I hear about in the day’s news. Each little bit I add to the people bounces off the worldbuilding, and bounces off the steps on the path of the plot.

I definitely use the ping pong effect to generate new ideas out of existing ones. A quirk of my worldbuilding geography may spark an idea for a new plot event, and then that event will make me think of an outcome that will challenge my characters, and then I will have to have the characters change and develop as they deal with the fallout, then their decisions are altered by it, leading to a whole new event I hadn’t thought of before. It’s really a wild process to be in my head with all this stuff. It is like new life evolving as it is sloshed together in the shallow soup of a primordial sea. It is a weird mix of organized information and absolute chaos trapped together in a jar and then rattled around like crazy until some of the pieces stick together.

PL: It feels like you’ve thought more about your process than the average writer. Is that something you’ve studied, read articles on, have influences from? Or did that just come naturally? Bit of both?

THR: The creative “idea-making” part of it developed naturally over time. And it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize how my creative forces worked best. It was not so much a concerted force of will or anything, just that I began to notice my own tendencies, and learned to stop fighting myself.

I noticed that some ideas would bounce off each other and lead me in new interesting directions and I learned to harness that process, encourage it. I began to intentionally bounce ideas together that I would not have even thought to before to see what came out of it.

Perhaps a better description than “harnessing” would be that I learned to get out of the way of my creativity, to stop trying to force it into predetermined ideas of plot or character, to let it flow, to see where things went. It is not as plot-ruining or outline-destroying as one might think. Often the new ideas and tangents would flow right back into the plot I already had. (most of the time anyway, but not always)

I began to see plot holes or open questions regarding character motivations not as problems I was saddled with, but rather as challenges that I looked forward to. Because thinking out the solution often allowed me to discover a whole new amazing plot thread or character depth or worldbuilding piece that not only solved the issue, but made the entire story better.

On the other hand, the “technical” aspects of writing and storytelling also developed over time but involved far more active pursuit of improvement. Creativity is summoned in different ways by everyone, but writing itself only ever gets better with practice, by reading books and emulating things you like and then trying to figure out why they work, and then adapting them to your own writing voice.

I read some books about the rules of prose and grammar, and then I read books about how to delightfully break the rules of prose and grammar.

I watched tutorials and breakdowns of scenes or paragraphs or sentences to try to learn why the worked. Some things I learned just from reading books, the “oh, I can do things this way, or frame a scene that way, or alter the point of view that way” kind of thing.

But other knowledge came from ruthlessly seeking out instruction on how to be better. I do not consider myself self-taught, but rather taught by all of my favorite authors, and by a whole community of experts and free online workshop instructors and video tutorial producers.

In fact, the solution to the one big storytelling hurdle that almost prevented me from ever completing We Break Immortals at all was from one brief moment in the middle of a video of a creative writing workshop series I chanced across.

But all of that took practice. Endless practice. And it is still ongoing. I am still seeking out ways to improve myself and get better at this thing that I love to do. I will likely still be trying to get better at it until the day I die.

PL: So who are your favourite authors then?

THR: Strap in, I have a lot. Haha. I love them all for different reasons, and I have been influenced by each of them in different ways. JRR Tolkein, Isaac Asimov, Robin Hobb, RA Salvatore, Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Douglas Niles, Dan Abnett, Brandon Sanderson, George RR Martin, Jacqueline Carey, Stephen R Donaldson, HP Lovecraft, Jim Butcher, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss, Neal Stephenson, Gene Wolfe, Dan Brown, Jack McDevitt, Joe Abercrombie, Pierce Brown, Justin T Call, Andrea Stewart, John Gwynne, Evan Winter, NK Jemison, Scott Lynch, Tasha Suri, Sarah Chorn, ML Wang, and Krystle Matar.

Also I am a fan of a number of history non-fiction authors: Roget Crowley, James Reston Jr, Brian Catlos, Dan Jones, John Keegan, and Tom Holland to name a few.

PL: Okay, and now time for a few just for fun questions! If you could have any animal in the world as a pet, all lifestyle and ethical questions magically resolved in your favour, what would you pick?

THR: A genetically altered “tiny” elephant. Something 12 inches tall or smaller. Or literally any cloned dinosaur, no size is off limits.

PL: Why don’t you want a full size elephant? Also, you’re in a movie fight scene. What song is on the soundtrack to accompany your arsekicking/arse getting kicked

THR: It seems like an awful lot to manage a full size elephant. But I’d make exception for a dinosaur if science can make that happen.

It’s funny. When I write combat scenes I have to have sweeping orchestral music or intense techno/EDM. But I can’t seem to imagine something awesome like that playing for myself in real life. Go figure.

As for myself fighting, it depends. Songs that get me amped up the most for combat would be Bad Blood by Ministry, Slave Labor by Fear Factory, and Die Motherfucker Die by Suicide Commando. But with my luck I would probably end up getting my ass kicked to something humiliatingly upbeat like Paradise City by Guns n Roses or MmmBop by Hanson.

And then of course there is my lifelong dream of killing a hitman in my old high school reunion while Mirror In The Bathroom is playing, a la Grosse Pointe Blank. Though at this point I’m running out of reunions to attend. If it hasn’t happened by now it’s pretty unlikely.

PL: Finally, if you could go for a night out with one of your characters, which one would it be and where would you go?

THR: 100% would hang out with Corrin. We think alike and he definitely knows the proper way to have a good time. As long as he doesn’t get too stabby.

A big thank you to Thomas for his time and patience. We Break Immortals is out now (please don’t ask me how long it’s been out) from all outlets and for more details about the author and his work, please visit http://thomashowardriley.com/

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