So today, I’ve got my interview with Harry Vossen, creator of the step-by-step worldbuilding guide A Way With Worlds and author of the upcoming novel Under a Burning Sky. I met Harry through his website, which I started reading as I worked on the worldbuilding for my Griffins & Gunpowder universe.
So without further ado, here’s Harry:
What do you do when you are not writing?
Study, for most of the year at least. We have a pretty intense ‘beach culture’ here in New Zealand as well, so I spend a lot of the time swimming and lounging around in the sun. Other than that I mostly study. I do a bit of freelance transcription sometimes when I’m really bored, and I do a bit of sketching occasionally, mostly characters or settings from a story. Then I study some more.
Do you have a day job as well?
Sort of. I’m not officially employed – we all know how hard it is to get a job in this economic climate, particularly if you’re young – but I do a lot of informal work for people around my town; chopping down trees and painting houses and demolishing things and concreting, that kind of stuff. I also do transcription work when I really have nothing to do, because it’s quick and easy. I anticipated that doing a lot of work would get in the way of writing, but was pleased to discover that chopping down a tree doesn’t take a whole lot of concentration, and one’s mind wanders quite freely. If anything, physical labouring has helped my writing.
When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
I started writing when I was five years old. One day I finished the set work before everyone else, and asked the teacher what to do next. I imagine she was feeling particularly harried that day, so she gave me an exercise book with each page divided in two: the top half was blank, the bottom half had lines on it. She told me to write a story on the lined part of the page, and draw a picture on the top part. If memory serves, the story wasn’t much good and focused on people who ride dinosaurs, but that exercise rapidly became a daily thing and by the end of that year, Under a Burning Sky was born.
I finished Under a Burning Sky twelve years later in the May of 2012.
How did you choose the genre you write in?
In some ways I think Under a Burning Sky, and the series which it is part of, defies genre. I’ve had numerous people tell me that I shouldn’t call it fantasy because it lacks what is so often the defining feature of ‘fantastical’ works: there are no elves, no dwarves, no magic, and no unicorns. In fact, there is very little in the story which isn’t scientifically ‘real’ in our own world. The few fantasy creatures or concepts that do appear within the story are never substantiated: for example, the Eotn, or giants. They are referenced several times by several characters, but each time they are scoffed at as being nothing more than a story to frighten children. I try not to reveal too much about my work so I don’t want to give a definitive statement in either direction, but the ‘fantasy’ in the story is extremely limited.
That being said, I chose to write the story in the low fantasy genre because it gives me the freedom to construct whatever situation I desire, and say what I want to say. I have always viewed writing as a way to make a statement, and I think – depending on what statement you wish to make – fantasy is an extremely powerful way of tackling big questions that people don’t want to think about in regards to the real world.
Where do you get your ideas?
If I knew the answer to that, I’d bottle it and make a fortune.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Ohh yes. I think it’s mostly the result of stress – as exams and assignments pile up I find I can write less and less, not because I don’t have time – I make time – but because I’m feeling the pressure. In fact, with exams just around the corner I haven’t written anything substantial in a couple of months.
Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I work with an outline. Normally I figure out what I want to happen in the book, the major plot points, and map them out on a line. Then I need to fill in the space between them, and put in minor plot points to move the story along. Then I break it all up into chapters, and every time I get to a new chapter, I outline it in great detail. I tried just writing, or ‘pantsing’ once… It didn’t go well.
Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. It has had a huge influence on both my writing and on the way I look at things. One of the major themes in Under a Burning Sky and, on a larger scale, Chronicles on the Nature of Angels is the idea of a ‘perfect world’ that Pullman explores with His Dark Materials.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?
I’m still exploring this question, and any ideas are welcome!
Have you written a book you love that you have not been able to get published?
Oh I have. When I was about eight years old I wrote a novel, or possible novella, it came to around 21,000 words, called The Adventures of Maurice the Mouse. It will never see the light of day.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book?
Under a Burning Sky fits neatly into the ‘low fantasy’ genre in that it is very gritty and real, avoiding the better known stand-bys of old ‘High Fantasy’: magic and dwarves and dragons. The story deals with themes of mental trauma and collapsed idealism and colonialism and the not-so-glorious realities of war. The central ideas revolve around the beliefs we hold – not individually, but as a people – the desire to create, or to discover, the perfect world… and to live happily ever after.
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
Most of the characters are based on people I have met in real life. Obviously I’ve never lived on a tropical island which was invaded by imperialistic cannon-armed legionnaires, but the underlying essence of the story is mostly based on my experiences. Some of the characters have very obvious aspects of myself in them, although they’re probably not the ones you’re thinking of.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
My favourite chapter was the entirety of chapter fourteen. So much comes together in that chapter, and all the emotions of the characters involved come to a head. There are epiphanies and a huge amount of ‘action’ which isn’t physical combat. Every time I write a scene which feels tense without anyone hitting anyone else, it feels like an accomplishment.
How did you come up with the title?
The titular ‘Burning Sky’ is a motif throughout the novel. The story is divided in two parts, between Caspra and the Imperial Army in the far north and Artos on his island near the equator. Neither side of the story interacts with the other (in this book), and the only thing that really ties them together, or at least the only aspect which obviously ties them together, is the ‘burning sky’ symbol.
What project are you working on now?
When I wrote Under a Burning Sky I took the view that it’s better to just plow forward and make changes as I go rather than to realise something needs to be changed, then go back and make changes throughout the whole story before I move forward again. For this reason, there are a lot of inconsistencies in the story – for example, when I started, all of the characters had been involved in the battle at Sarakhamon (an event which haunts the backstory of the novel) but by halfway through I decided that some of them hadn’t. A few people who read the first draft caught that, and were confused. So, what I’m working on now is rewriting the entire thing from page one so that all the plot fits together properly.
Will you have a new book coming out soon?
I will! Under a Burning Sky is projected for release in September next year.
Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?
Although everyone hates him, I’d really like to go back to the Judge and expand on him. I think he gets really misunderstood, both by the characters in the story and by readers, and he deserves vindication. The idea I love to work with, and one of the major pillars on which the story is built, is that some people really do see the world in black and white, and the potential effects of that worldview. The Judge and the Old Man are very similar in that respect, and I think it makes them some of the most interesting and compelling characters in the story.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
The toughest criticism I’ve ever received was also probably the best. It was a critique on scribophile.com I opened the critique and the opening comment said:
“The bad news is, the writing itself sucks.”
As I’m sure you can imagine, that felt pretty lame. However, I read through the entire critique and took everything the critiquer said into account, and it was completely true and my writing is significantly better for it. In the closing comments was the best compliment. “The good news is, the story is fucking awesome… And that’s what matters.”