Sam Sykes fascinates me, which probably makes me sound like a psycho stalker. Oh well.
He’s one of the most humorous internet personalities I follow. He’s also one of the most complex authors, as he can manage to do what so many others struggle with. He can write these amazingly gory battle scenes and mix them with some of the most stunning, delicate prose ever. He’s also just released the final book of his first trilogy, which is quite incredible and something to celebrate.
Thus, he was worth interviewing. He’s young, funny, and insanely talented, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about the man behind the amazing books and the humorous internet personality. The interview is a bit all over the place, and I’m far too medicated at the moment (yay recovering from major surgery…) to edit it and make it look beautiful, but I don’t think anyone will mind too much. I learned a lot about him from this, and I’m endlessly thankful that he spent the time to answer these questions.
I’m sure others will enjoy this interview just as much as I did.
About the author
Sam Sykes has done many things worthy of note, most of them involving violence of one manner or another. Amongst his feats of strength, he counts the following:
- Wrestling a Kodiak bear to the earth
- Defeating nine of ten prime ministers
- Founding, and later destroying, the East India Company
- The Renaissance
Those are most likely true, as Sam Sykes is not given to lying without cause.
Sam Sykes currently lives in the United States with his two hounds and, at any given time, is probably yelling at something inanimate. Tome of the Undergates is his first book, but far from his last. At 25, Sam Sykes is in an excellent position to provide entertainment while other authors are dying from various infections and stress-related illnesses. Sam Sykes looks forward to being one of the sole providers of fantasy entertainment, assuming no other authors are actually discovered in the next forty years.
You can learn more about Sam, his books, and where you can find him online on his website.
Onto the interview…
When you aren’t writing, or wrestling Kodiak bears (as your website says) what could someone generally find you doing?
Usually, I am either deep in the bowels of self-loathing or sitting quietly thinking about shit.
Not literal shit, but you get what I’m saying. A great deal of time that is not spent writing is spent thinking about writing.
This is probably a stupid question, but something almost anyone who follows you online has probably noticed is your undeniable wit, but you are also a very deep thinker. I assume you are just a witty person in general, but do you also use humor to keep some sort of anonymity on the Internet? Or is that how you are in real life as well regarding wit/humor/depth?
Well, it’s not entirely an act. I can’t really help being a deep thinker or being funny. The former is just a product of deep self-loathing and aversion to people while the latter is a desperate attempt to steer ever further from that realization. Humor, in general, serves a symbiotic purpose to thought, though. It takes the edge off of the conversation, putting people at ease and making them more receptive to the point.
I use this a lot in writing. Breaking up tragedy or tension with a joke or a piece of off-beat prose will make people instinctively pay attention to the point of the piece.
On a more personal level, though, of course some of what I say is an act to guard myself from the internet. Person is something of a finite resource: the more you put out there, the less you have for yourself. Sharing everything is an easy way to burn out and come to loathe the people you should like talking to. Hence, jokes.
You are one of the younger speculative fiction authors, and you are incredibly successful. That, coupled with being so young, is a huge testament to your talent. Do you feel that your age gives you any advantages with your writing? Do you think your younger age ever gave you some battles that other authors might not have faced?
Incredibly successful? What barometer are we using here?
I’ve had this discussion with Mark C. Newton a few times before. The truth is that, in a lot of ways, being a young author sucks. They (that is, older authors) don’t take you seriously if you approach them as equals, but they resent you if you act like they think you ought to. There are a lot of names thrown around that mean nothing to you and there are a lot of things important to you that nobody else knows about. You don’t always feel cut off from the general community of authors, but sometimes you feel like you’re speaking another language.
And when you’re a new author, just starting out and already alienated from fantasy readers at large as the default position, that can feel pretty terrible.
As for advantages? Well, I mean, I’ll die long after they do, so there’s that.
Perhaps I shouldn’t ask this question, but your mother is a well-known author. It seems ridiculous for me to ask how much having an author as a parent has influenced you as a child, but has it? What are some ways your parent(s) fostered your creativity and how much would you credit them with your undeniable talent today?
Man, I hate to sound like an ingrate, but that’s also something that kind of sucks.
Let me clarify, though. My mom helped out when I was just starting out, but not any more than really saying “yes, this works” or “no, this doesn’t.” The best thing she ever did for me was introduce me to my agent, who took me on my own merits (it would be insane to take me on just because of who my mom was. That wouldn’t make sense in any economy, let alone this one).
In truth, my mom’s influence on me is pretty little. We write different things, we use different styles, we tell different stories. It’s perfectly fine to be associated with her in the same way it’s perfectly fine to be associated with, say, Joe Abercrombie (I was once called “the second coming” of Mr. Abercrombie when his career was first taking off, which is a little awkward for everyone, especially since he’s proven he’s nowhere near finished). It’s an indirect comparison that doesn’t really affect me in any way, so it doesn’t matter.
It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
What can make it difficult is the fact that I have a very close author to compare myself to. I mean, it’s difficult with any author and, when you’re a young, fresh author (I’ve only done this three years), looking at anyone who’s been doing it longer and with more success is intimidating. When that person is your mom, it can make the comparisons seem closer. This, too, is a very silly notion.
Yet I haven’t quite come to terms with it yet.
You’ve released three books now. Does it get easier over time or do you still get anxious with each release day? As cliché as this sounds, have you learned anything about yourself as your Tome series has completed?
I learned the very important difference between erupting because you can’t control it and erupting when you want to.
Tome was something of an embarrassment of excitement. Everything had to burst, everything had to be over-the-top and everything had to be exploding with blood. It was somewhat exhausting to the audience. It got better in Black Halo, but only in The Skybound Sea did I explode when I wanted to, rather than because I didn’t know any better.
I’d like to say it gets easier, but shit if there aren’t times when I sit and stare at what I wrote and think: “How the fuck did I do this last time?”
I follow you online (honestly, you are one of the most entertaining internet personalities I follow). Occasionally you write things about fan letters that have really touched you. Do you ever find yourself surprised or humbled with how far you have come and how wide-spread your books have reached?
I try to be humble, as a rule (I don’t control my ego well), so whenever anyone sends me a “hey, I liked your book” email, it instantly brightens my day to biblical proportions.
It’s the damnedest thing, really. I know I’m a good writer. I know what I do is good and I’ve never sent out a book I wasn’t happy with. But just hearing that someone liked my book is enough to make me squeal like the fattest piglet attached to the fattest sow.
Tome of the Undergates was released when you were twenty-five. How long did it take you to write it? Did you have to refine it a lot as you grew older?
I always have a hard time with this question. Tome was something I began when I was way, way young and it shows. I didn’t have to refine it too much, but I should have. I could have made it so much stronger than it was.
Alas, beauty isn’t made through flawlessness but through flaws. Grit, iron and blood are what make things beautiful, not polish, sheen and sterility.
One thing I’ve always loved about your books is how complex your characters are. Not only are their personalities complex, but their relationships are also quite complex. Your books have some amazing plots, but I really found myself enraptured by the character development as the series progressed. Nothing is black and white. I’m a huge fan of this. Did you make a specific point to stay away from black-and-white themes in your books? If so, why/why not?
Oh, hell yes.
Black and white problems are too clean. They aren’t interesting because the reader can leave them when they’re done with them. This is the appeal of airport fiction and the like: it’s something easily digestible, like a Big Mac (and McDonald’s is all over the world).
But that’s not what I want to write.
The best conflicts are never easily solved. If the villain is clearly in the wrong, if the hero is clearly in the right, then we have no stake in the conflict. We’re just waiting to see how the hero handles it. If the villain can’t be easily brushed aside, if the hero can’t win without resorting to something desperate, then we’re invested because we can’t dismiss the outcome.
If we feel for the villain, then we’re not sure we want him to lose. If we have problems with the hero, then we’re not sure we want him to get everything he wants. The conflict is difficult to take, so it’s difficult to sweep aside when you’re done. You take it with you as the reader and carry it forever.
Like a disease.
Following the last question, I’m quite impressed with the complexity of the characters as well as the plots in your books. How do you keep it all straight without losing sight of the underlying plot and characters?
The characters drive the plot is the simplest answer.
It’s hard to lose track of, say, Lenk’s goal and Lenk’s character when his character drives the goal. He wants to save the world, sure, but he also wants to be with a woman he can’t be with. These two problems seem sometimes mutually exclusive and thus his conflict is wrapped up in the plot.
A good book will always make it seem like solving the problems (or failing to solve them) is what makes the plot go forward. The world is genuine, big and the heroes have to change it. A bad book will manufacture plots to specifically challenge the heroes. The world is made specifically for them and nothing about it is real.
The Skybound Sea is the last book in the Aeons’ Gate trilogy. I tend to think, perhaps wrongly, that books are author’s children in some respects. Is it bittersweet to see this series finally close? Is there anything that surprised you about releasing the third book of your first trilogy?
Mostly how little of a deal it is. This might just be because I’m an incredibly unpopular author or because I stopped paying attention to online buzz a long time ago, but I didn’t really take time to draw in a deep breath before I started work on the next project.
It’s not that I’m not proud of The Skybound Sea (personally, I think it’s my strongest yet), but I’m not nearly done.
One of the things that I really noticed in The Skybound Sea was how mature your writing was. Your books are known to be quite gory,
but you intersperse the gore with some extremely eloquent descriptions and some stunning prose. Not only this, but despite how bloody and battle filled this book is, you still manage to allow readers to sympathize with some truly nasty characters and points of view, which is quite a feat. It’s a book that will appeal to those who love the gore, but there is a lot happening below the surface as well. Maybe I read into things too deeply (I’ve been known to do that) but do you ever worry that some readers might miss the deeper themes and some of the more subtle artistry of your writing due to the gore?
I tend to trust my readers enough to get what I’m trying to say. The gore, the toilet humor, the battle and the cursing are all there to make the impact of the themes stronger.
One example would be the Shen. They are a uniformly violent people, obsessed with death and more than willing to shed blood in service to a perceived duty. There’s a lot of violence in their culture, which compounds the poignancy of their problems. As a people obsessed with death, they have given very little thought to living, and have little culture that goes beyond glorifying death in battle.
They’re not obviously stated, of course, because they can’t be. You can’t whack your reader over the head with messages, because then the message wouldn’t be theirs. They may not register what’s going on, at first, but on some level they get it and draw their own conclusion.
The Skybound Sea brings things to a nice close, but you seemed to leave room for toying around a bit more with the world. Are there more books based in this world in your future?
Yes. It’s all very difficult.
Oddly enough, a while ago (probably a year or more) you talked about being interested in reading books about North Korea at roughly the same time I was. I seemed to hone in on this because we were reading a lot of the same books and, for some reason this impressed me. How much do real world events, or learning about other cultures and gaining a broader view of world history influence your work as an author, if at all?
I don’t know that I’ve ever gone out and actively searched for things to put into my books. But at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something, registered it and not found a use for it.
North Korea fascinated me because it is, essentially, the final frontier of humanity. It’s a secret police state, rife with rumors of prison camps, death squads, totalitarian tyrants and impoverished suffering, yet it’s all hidden behind a carefully-tailored image of joy and ecstasy.
One can’t research something that weird and not have it influence them, even if it is all unconsciously.
I feel like some authors get “typecast” into writing certain types of books. Do you ever worry about this happening to you? Do you think you’ll ever take a dramatic left turn with your writing and come out with something completely unexpected by your fans? Do you have any ideas for that sort of thing and do you worry about how it would be accepted?
Eh. I try not to worry.
That doesn’t mean I succeed, of course. I worry whether my stuff is any good, I worry if I’ll ever do well with this, I worry if anyone really likes what I write. But these aren’t things I can really help. I can only go and write the story I want to write in the best way I can.
Hence, whatever I do in the future (and I’ve got a lot planned) will be done from that angle.
I realize that this interview is pretty long and kind of random, but I really want to thank you with taking time to do it (and being so patient with me as it took me WAY longer than expected to get these questions to you). Is there any parting words you’d like to leave your fans with?
Eat more protein.