It’s always a pleasure to chat with an author that you respect and admire. Today I have the honor of interviewing H. Leighton Dickson, author of the Tales of the Upper Kingdom fantasy series and the upcoming Victorian adventure novel Stone Cold and Ivy. I’m a huge fan of her fantasy novels with sweeping adventure, dynamic characters, and unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian culture and myth. I had a lot of questions for her regarding her novels and the state of the publishing business. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her answers as much as I did.
Let us know a little about your journey to become a writer. What is it that compelled you to write your Upper Kingdom series?
Dickson: Um, good question. I’ve always written. Even when I was a little kid, I wrote. I actually wrote a book when I was thirteen – a full-length novel loosely (okay, not so loosely) based on CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London. I received an offer to publish from a Canadian publisher but my parents thought I was too young! I’m also an artist and penciled my way into New Talent Workshop with DC Comics, where I started TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER as a graphic novel. I had the whole story plotted out years ago.
That’s very cool to get an offer so young. You could have been the first Christopher Paolini! Let’s talk about the setting of your novels. Your story combines various elements of Eastern cultures and mythology. What is it about that particular region that fascinates you?
Dickson: I’m not sure. It did morph from a more Western Fantasy base into the very Eastern-influenced culture that it became, but I honestly don’t know when or why that happened. I think I had always had the title in my mind and at one point, it was a light-bulb moment. “Duh, Year of the Tiger is Asian!” My son is also an anime buff (I was too, back in the day when Star Blazers was ‘Japanese cartoons’)As I got older, I began to enjoy the complexities of Asian cultures, and when I started writing Tiger again as a novel, it began in the Himalayas and just grew from there.
Your series features animal/human hybrids as main characters. Did your background in zoology have an effect on your creations?
Dickson: Absolutely. My specialty is predators. I know how they think. I’ve wrestled tigers (okay, she was tame, but still), I was chased by lions, I hand-fed foxes. I used to love the film series of the Planet of the Apes (original – yes, I know I’m dating myself!) and would often think about how the chimps, gorillas and orangutans were portrayed as different archetypes. That stimulated me to think about how cats would be as human hybrids. Lions would be noble, but a little vain. Tigers would be all-around good chums. Cheetahs would be sexy and aloof. You get the idea. Plus, I’ve never seen a good werewolf in a movie. I could SO do a good werewolf.
What stands out the most about your writing is the fascinating character development, in my opinion. How did you approach your character creation, and is it a conscious effort to create such dynamic clashes of personality?
Dickson: Ooh, really good question! No, I don’t think I ‘set out’ to write tension. I think I just have a really good handle on the characters. I see them as people. I have actors cast in my mind. I hear their voices, see their body movements and build conversations around that. Throw two or three of them in a conversation or situation, and they just take it and run. Sometimes, I would surprise myself with how things would end up, but literally, it is a case of the characters writing themselves. A perfect example is Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Throw all of those characters in a room and write what happens. It won’t be tea and crumpets.
Do you purposely create flaws in your characters, or is that more of a subconscious thing?
Dickson: Again, ditto the above statement. I didn’t intentionally create flaws but all people have flaws. I love the flaws in people – I am a true Captain Kirk at heart. It’s what makes us human. And I think it’s the humanity in these cat people that is the most appealing thing about the series.
Do you have a favorite character? If so, who is it?
Dickson: Mmm, I do love them all but for me, I loved Kirin the most. I loved his journey, from Mr. Perfect, having it all, to the man he becomes through all of it. I feel at home writing him, although I am far more like Kerris or Fallon at heart. I loved how Rah (Sherah, but I call her Rah) grew on me. I loved to write her. And Ursa. She was the most fun by far. My inner moral compass is Sireth, always right and knowing it. But Kirin, poor Kirin, wonderful, strong, noble, tightly-wound Kirin. Yep, probs him.
I think Kirin was my favorite character as well. In a way, the entire ‘journey’ was his own as far as his growth as a character. Speaking of which, there are many surprises for the reader in this series, but what caught me off guard was the surprisingly brutal climax of book two. I haven’t been that shocked since reading Game of Thrones. When it comes to writing such scenes, do you find any level of difficulty?
Dickson: I kind of knew how I wanted it to go and I didn’t want to shy away from the brutality of what happens to the characters. At the same time, I wanted the reader to feel it, feel the horror and then the healing that begins and how. I think I was careful not to be crude or shocking for the sake of shock but I really put myself into those particular character’s shoes (or boots!) and wrote with subtlety and emotion. People live with all manner of trauma and I admire the strength of the human spirit, the deep inner drive to survive no matter what the obstacles (there – another Captain Kirk moment!). Also, I wanted to see what it would be like for a character like Kirin to begin to live with what he might call a handicap, and not only live, but triumph.
There is a science fiction twist intertwined with the story that you pull of quite nicely. Did you intend to include that from the beginning?
Dickson: Yes, even back when I had penciled the first pages of what was then a graphic novel, Sireth was being awakened by a satellite. I always thought that was a cool concept.
What was the hardest part about writing this series?
Dickson: Honestly, the sci-fi! I can totally write the fantasy elements, the sociology, the philosophy, the zoology, but the tech? I’m so not a tech person! I depended on my vast history of sci-fi movies, and my son and a good friend who are tech geeks! Although, while writing Songs in the Year of the Cat, I began to get into it and sort of regret not spending more time in NorAm with the Ancestors. It was my first experience with a deadline, and I missed having months and months to mull and create. We will definitely correct that in Bones.
I know I’ll look forward to that, although I have a feeling the Ancestors will bring a whole new batch of problems. The third book leaves the door open for more installments. When can readers expect a sequel, and where will the story go from here?
Dickson: Yes, I have 6 novels (so 3 more) planned in the series, then two more full-length prequels. The story will involve a large battle for the right to be free, basically. Free of the Ancestors’ reins and yokes. I’m really big on social equality and justice issues. I’m half finished SNOW IN THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, so it should be out likely by the end of this summer. SWALLOWTAIL & SWORD is a book of short stories based on the lives of the main characters before they come together in TIGER, so that’s a great way to get your Upper Kingdom fix until SNOW comes out!
Questions on the Industry
You self published the Upper Kingdom series, but you’re now represented by a literary agent for your next novel. Tell us a bit about the pros and cons of both avenues.
Dickson: It’s been a very interesting road, that’s for sure. I tried for a long time to get an agent with the Upper Kingdom series, but I guess they were just too different for traditional publishing. I was hearing interesting stuff about self-pubbing, so I decided to put them up, to see if people would actually read something like this. And I was pleasantly surprised at the sales. Slow at first, but building steadily and steadily until I was able to start paying for bathroom fixtures and little trips with my earnings. But still, a part of me really wanted the validation of being traditionally published.
It sounds like a great plan to me. Do you think there’s a different perception of female writers in the fantasy genre, or has the playing field been leveled?
Dickson: I would have said the field has leveled before I received a rather sexist review on Amazon. It made me very angry, so angry that I blogged about it. (http://ow.ly/oRfgP) The reviewer basically said that since the characters began to fall in love, and there were ‘jealousies and romantic entanglements’, that is was a romance and thus, a very good read for female readers. I argue that ‘jealousies and romantic entanglements’ are a part of the human experience and they in no way eclipsed the plot or story arc, which is ultimately, racism, bigotry and prejudice. There is still prejudice in all human experience, writing included. It’s frustrating and stupefying but I choose to defy it in my own way because that’s also the human experience. Thank you, Captain Kirk!
Anyway, all ranting aside, I do think the field is better, especially with the recent successes of female writers like Suzanne Collins, Cassandra Claire, and of course trailblazers Meyers and Rowlings. A story is a story. If it’s good, it shouldn’t matter who writes it.
Did you follow a particular plan for promoting and marketing your books?
Dickson: Honestly, I don’t do anything except alternate the books on KDP’s free promotions. Four books are great because if someone buys one and likes it, then they’ll most likely buy the other three. They could, of course, wait for them to go free as well, but honestly, what reader wants to wait for a book for an unknown amount of time just to save $3.00! Readers are voracious hoarders. Also, I was able to bundle the first three books in a ‘Box Set’, which gives me 5 entities on Amazon at the moment. With the free promos, that’s almost 1 free item every 2 weeks. It really does work for promoting books in a series.
What’s your view of the future of publishing? Do you see self-publishing eventually taking over, or will the best option be a hybrid approach like your own experience?
Dickson: I have no idea what the future of publishing is. It has to change. Amazon is not going away and they have totally changed the industry, for good I believe. It is just like globalization. You can slap tariffs on something from China but in the end, you just have to offer a different and better product if you want to compete. Originally, the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals were small, indie events, eclipsed by Cannes, the Oscars and Golden Globes. Now, who DOESN”T want to be seen at Sundance, or TFF? Indie is cool and smart and trendy. But the market IS a global one, and it’s very ‘free market’ minded. It is the American way, isn’t it? Good is good, and will rise. Of course, crap is popular too. It will always be. It is, after all, the way of things. =)
Any advice for up and coming writers?
Dickson: Um, this might not be popular, but get better at writing. Learn grammar, sentence structure, pacing, tension. Learn, learn, learn. And take your time. Don’t write, ‘The End’ and slap it up on Amazon. It is quite likely very bad. Reread and reread and reread. Fix it. Edit it. Chop it. Lengthen and Strengthen it. Then leave it and percolate for a while and see if you can think of ways to give the ending more Wow, make the characters more complex, give the story a twist and write your way out of it. Think, ‘what would I do if this happened to me” and then have your character do it. Don’t take short cuts because your writing will be false.
That sounds like sound advice to me.
My name is Bard Constantine, and if you’re reading this, you probably guessed that Bard Writes Books.