That Bright, Piercing Gaze: An Interview with Andrea K. Höst



Andrea K. Höst has made indelible contributions to the world of SFF fiction. Along with championing the right of indie authors to be fully accepted members of the literary scene and offering sound advice to newbie writers on both writing and publishing,  Andrea has been an Aurealis Award finalist multiple times, shining a bright light on Australia’s emerging SFF writers. Check out her exciting genre-bending SFF adventures!

RLM: What first led you to writing?

AKH: Reading. I’ve always read a great deal – when I’m not doing anything else, I’m a book-a-day reader. Writing came as a natural extension of continuing the experience of reading, but with the stories catered specifically to me.

RLM: You’ve written quite a number of series. How do you keep the storylines and characters for each series different and unique to that series? Do you ever find yourself inadvertently overlapping them?

AKH: I’m not really concerned with “different and unique” so much as “true to the situation.” I tend to only properly get to know my characters and my world as I write them, but those worlds become quite distinct to me as they develop and the characters inextricably tied to their settings and whatever plot is driving them.

So I don’t set out to write someone I’ve never written before – I set out to make a character who is x, knows y, and lives in z, and produce actions and feelings that match xyz. I’m very interested in not imposing social mores on characters that don’t fit their societies, and in trying to think through the consequences of a particular technological change or a belief (that can be very difficult – it’s so easy to fall into established patterns).

And I actually like to do re-treads!  I will take a situation from one book, and reproduce it, consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely different place.  The Setari from the Touchstone trilogy and the Sentene of the Eferum series can be read as very similar – specialised monster hunters fighting creatures from another dimension – but one in an SF and one in a fantasy setting.  But those two stories have very different focuses.

I also sometimes use the same magic system in different worlds, or even the same names.  I have a character with the surname ‘Surion’ in the Touchstone series, and a character with the first name ‘Surion’ in a (not yet published) fantasy novel.  That’s not inadvertent overlapping – it’s me liking a name so much I use it twice.

hunting   pyramids

RLM: What strategies do you find most helpful in trying to get your books out to readers?

AKH: Free first book in series is still the most successful. I also choose to make my books available from a wide variety of outlets, rather than locking them into one. And reader word of mouth (though hardly a strategy) is definitely more effective than anything I can say about myself.

RLM: I gather from reading your blog that you have a hand in producing the covers for your books. Can you tell me about the process of creating a book cover and what you aim for in the designs?

AKH: Although I aim for a distinctive cover that will draw readers in, my true focus is really “art that I like that fits with the book.” I really love commissioned artwork, and find the process a lot of fun.

Generally I give the artist a rough outline of what I want, or a whole heap of different ideas. The artist will come back with a number of thumbnails (small, rough sketches) and I’ll pick the one that I like the most, suggest any changes, and get back a more detailed and much larger sketch. This is followed by minor dinking of the image during the sketch approval, and final art approval.

Once I have my image, I do the cover layout myself. Sometimes this is easy and logical and sometimes it involves a lot of fiddling, but I generally enjoy it.

stained glass monsters   sleeping

RLM: Given the experiences you’ve had in your publishing journey (I read the “gory details” of Glacier Publishing on the edge of my seat!), what advice would you give to other would-be indie publishers?

AKH: For self-publishers, it’s really a matter of focusing on your writing, and being practical about your expectations. Self-publishing, especially if you start with no platform, no readers, and no idea how to change that, can feel like standing at the bottom of a cliff, but if you put aside the idea of teleporting to the top you can move forward.

If you’re wanting to make a career of writing, having a long-range view is very helpful. Map out a five year plan of how many books you’d like to have released after five years of self-publishing, use some of the less pushy marketing options (like first book free in a series) and concentrate more on putting the books out than fretting over your first release. Use one of the cheap but good photo-manip cover services (paying between $50 to $200) unless you really are an extraordinary cover artist in your own right, or having commissioned artwork is more important to you than your balance sheet.

Also read a lot of blogs (like Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s) that cover some of the pitfalls, and stay away from get rich quick schemes and self-publishing “services” whose goal is to make themselves rich by charging you ridiculous amounts for things that are useless or easy to do yourself.

If you are a ‘one-off’ person, wanting to get a single book out there for the sake of having one out there, or to give to your grandmother and friends, and aren’t tech-savvy, look for one of the lower end publishing assistance packages that will do formatting and covers and hand over an established publishing account for you for under $1,000. Don’t go paying $20,000 for anything like ‘marketing’ or ‘press releases’ or ‘web optimisation’.

RLM: Your books tend to meld multiple genres/subgenres (steampunk, fantasy, alternate history, and sci-fi) together. Was that a conscious choice or did it develop as the story unfolded?

AKH: I usually have a very rough idea of the basic type of world I’m working in (as in its tech level) from the start, so usually that’s a deliberate choice. Though the first thing I ever wrote (a meandering fantasy collection quest) took a right turn in book three and went through a portal to an advanced tech world – the fantasy characters then spent a lot of time flying around on spaceships.

stars   touchstone

RLM: I’m impressed by how prolific an author you are, considering you work a full-time job. Can you describe your writing process and how you maintain your creativity amidst a hectic life?

AKH: I’m less prolific than I might seem, since I had built up a reasonable backlog of unpublished work before self-publishing became viable!  Most of my output from now on will be entirely new books and I’m only likely to put out one a year (not so much because of the demands of my day job, but because I am inclined to spend my time playing computer games or reading instead of writing perhaps as much as I should). My biggest issue is having a thousand ideas and wanting to work on all of them.

I have a 9-5 type job that I, fortunately, don’t have to take home with me, and is actually an advantage to me in terms of writing because my 50-minute train commute turns out to be the ideal environment for me to concentrate on my latest WIP instead of browsing the internet or playing whatever computer game is currently taking my fancy (at least in the morning – I get up early so in the afternoon I’m often busy trying not to fall asleep on the trip home).

One thing that I do have to manage is exactly where my creative output goes. I’ve found I can’t RP [role play] without getting distracted into the RP’s story over my own, and I have to be careful about the books I’m reading or the games I’m playing – avoiding anything too interesting unless I’m willing to simply not write because I’m too busy devouring something.

Since I outright like writing, even if I sometimes only add a sentence or two to my WIP on any given day, I do always manage to spare time for it between my busy daily schedule of slacking off. At the moment I’m finishing off The Sleeping Life on the morning commute, and then working on my MMO story, Snug Ship, in the evening after I’ve put in a quest or three on Borderlands.

I’m also avoiding setting strict deadlines any more – even though my readers would get my books quicker, deadlines are rather exhausting!

champion  bones

RLM: How much of your own life and experiences makes it into your fiction?

AKH: Fragments. I don’t think it’s possible for a writer’s life not to inform the worlds they create.  I don’t think I’ve ever put in an exact steal of a person, place or experience, but there are definite echoes.  Usually when I try to copy something or someone, it doesn’t end up anything like: Cass from Touchstone, for instance, was supposed to be a combination of my two nieces, and couldn’t be less like them.

RLM: In your April 18th blog post, you discuss SFF awards and in the previous post you talk about gender roles and equality between the sexes in SFF fiction. Because much of the recent debate around the Hugos has involved a perceived downfall of story in the wake of message, I’m curious how you would respond to supporters of the Sad Puppies and their crusade to restore “good ‘ole fashioned SFF” to the mainstream.

AKH: Well, the whole “message fic” argument is ludicrous, isn’t it? It first posits that it’s possible to write something that has no sub-text, and revolves around the idea that, until recently, the Hugos were given to stories that had no social, political or historical context. And yet, SF particularly, is a genre of ideas, often defined as exploring the nature of humanity.

The very first Hugo Award for novel was awarded to a story that could be roughly described as “espers dealing with a capitalist dystopia.” In fact, you’d be hard put to find a Hugo award winner that does not in some way explore what it means to be human, or what would be the social or political consequences of x or y technological or natural world development. And even those that truly do seem to be “pure adventure” are simply adventure on top of a lot of embedded social, political and historical assumptions.

Take the classic bug eyed monsters (BEM) story. Put together a rousing tale of Joe Josephson of the United Earth Confederation beating back the insectoid hordes while defending the peaceful settlement of New Las Vegas, and you are reading a string of embedded decisions. The active character is male (and will be considered white and straight unless otherwise indicated). He is solving the problem with violence. The UEC all speak English. The insectoid hordes are mindless, wrong and evil. It is Earth’s right to establish colonies on other planets, no matter whether some insects happen to feel that they shouldn’t. And, strangely, a 1000 years into the future, the characters use expressions and social mores from the American mid-west circa 1950. And are really into baseball.

What you write as ‘normal’ is sending a message. But even in the early days you’d find writers flipping that story to give us the rousing tale of Xdes Xdsjklr of the Dls Ktktkc, fighting off the invasion of the squinty-eyed apes.

The question then becomes whether the message has overwhelmed the rousing adventure, and a simple perusal of the winners of the last four years of best novel awards shows us Ancillary Justice (a well-paced space opera), Redshirts (a humorous homage to space opera), Among Others (basically “SFF reader: the experience” [and a fascinating exercise to compare Among Others to the concept of fans are slans and then start to question who is the slan in this debate and who is the non-imaginative harasser]), and Blackout/All Clear (time travel for UK history buffs). Three out of four of these can definitely be described as ‘rousing adventure,’ and the last is pure celebration of the genre.

So the pushback boils down to comfort zones. SFF is a genre of imagination, exploration, wonder and questioning – but only THESE questions, and only exploring in THIS direction. The problem isn’t message fic. The problem is the “wrong” message.

My personal view of the Hugos is much the same as any award – that “best” is a terrible word, especially in an environment where so many SFF books are published every year that there’s many the voters will not even have heard of, let alone read or made some kind of objective assessment of its merits.  I’ve certainly been indifferent to, or outright disliked, many Hugo winners.

But I’m 100% against slates.

silence   lost

RLM: You’re also a dedicated gamer. How has taking part in gaming (including D&D) influenced your writing of SFF worlds and characters?

AKH: It’s certainly going to influence Snug Ship!

Being a gamer does make you aware of the mechanics behind certain plot lines. Collection quest. Escort quest. But so does being a reader. Or the briefest visit to TV Tropes. And if you’ve played a variety of games – from those considered to be ‘on rails’ to pure sandbox worlds – you might be led to take a somewhat different view of traditional narrative structure.

Being a gamer certainly influenced the Touchstone Trilogy, with its genre-savvy protagonist, but it will be fundamental to one of my upcoming releases, first in The Singularity Game series. Snug Ship is a near-future story structured around the release of the first “true virtual reality” MMO. This is a story that will put to great use all the countless days I’ve invested into playing MMOs, but also let me try to really get into what drives gaming and gamers – and what ‘true’ VR will mean to the gaming experience.

Or just reference a hell of a lot of games. One of those.

Learn more about Andrea and her writing on her website and Facebook.

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