Interview with Michael J. SullivanPosted by Goodreads on July 4, 2016
But his upcoming release may be his most ambitious work yet. Sullivan has gone back 3,000 years to explore the origins of the folklore and mythology that have become the foundation of The Riyria Revelations. And although Age of Myth—the first installment of his Legends of the First Empire saga—is set in the same realm as the previous novels, it can be read as a standalone series. For fantasy fans who have yet to experience Sullivan's immersive writing style—powered by rich description, relentless pacing, and deep character development—Age of Myth is the perfect place to start.
Goodreads interviewer Paul Goat Allen caught up with Sullivan and discussed his new series, overturning gender stereotypes in fantasy, the state of publishing, and the importance of social media for writers.
Age of Myth was exceptional…
Michael J. Sullivan: So you're going to give it a good review? [laughs]
GR: …and the ending was absolutely amazing. In the last 20 or 30 pages, I experienced such a wide range of emotions—I cried, laughed out loud, and actually applauded.
MJS: Well, thank you very much! I appreciate that. That's considered to be the trifecta, the Holy Grail that I—and I think most authors would agree—want to attain. If you can get a reader to hit that kind of emotional range in a short period of time—that's what writers aim for, at least that's what I aim for.
GR: Another aspect I loved about this novel was that—unlike the vast majority of androcentric fantasy—this story line was filled with strong and dynamic female characters: Persephone, Suri, Moya, Arion…. Females aren't just two-dimensional, supporting characters here—they are the heroes, the history makers. Was including such a diversity of intriguing female characters a conscious decision for you?
MJS: When I first started writing the story, I was intending to fill in some gaps. I don't know if you're familiar with my other [Riyria] books, but this series sort of explains the myths—the true story behind the myths—that were included in my earlier books. When I started writing it, I had an idea of who my characters were going to be. It was going to be this triangle love story thing—and that was completely abandoned because as I was writing it, the secondary and tertiary characters took over. I really liked those characters. They were much more interesting, much more sympathetic… So, yes. Those characters you liked were the ones who kind of co-opted the whole story. I thought about keeping them in the background, but then I realized that I liked the concept of the story being based around the little people who make history that history tends to forget.
Something else that hit me was the idea of The Wizard of Oz. If you're talking about female-centric books, here's one where all of the major players are female: the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda—the Good Witch—and, of course, Dorothy. If you notice, they don't go to war. They find other ways around things, which makes it a completely different kind of book. I was thinking of that as I was putting this together. If I'm going to have a female lead who is controlling the basis of this war, how different would that be approached…. And I didn't want to stereotype these female characters. I realized if I had more than one [female main character], they were going to have to be much deeper. It kind of snowballed from that point on, and they turned out to be much more interesting than the traditional stereotypes you would normally meet in such a book.
GR: This is grand-scale adventure fantasy, but it's also deeply philosophical as well. You're very subtle with this, but it's certainly there throughout. "Power doesn't equal worth…. Wisdom is a far greater virtue." Statements like that add so much weight to this story. Two questions here: If you had to condense this story down to its primary message or theme, what would that be? And do you agree that the best fantasy—and for that matter, genre fiction—combine entertainment with some kind of enlightenment?
MJS: Well, I think the problem is that I'm a frustrated philosopher. [laughs] I try to keep it out, but I'm obviously not very good at it. I'm trying to create real characters. Real people have thoughts other than "Gee, I have to get to this objective." People have thoughts about life, thoughts about other people, thoughts about the world in general. I feel that you can't write a realistic character if they don't have thoughts and interests that are separate from what's actually happening. When I read stories like that, I feel that the characters are two-dimensional or flat just because all they're doing is what they're doing. They have no other life. So that's kind of where that sort of thing comes from. It also comes from the fact that I also like to incorporate my own personal thoughts as well as the thoughts that I've encountered from other people. It just presents a variety of viewpoints.
To answer your first question: There is an overarching theme that runs over all of the series, which is one of redemption, trying to make up for mistakes that people have made and find forgiveness in that. But in this novel, this is trying to tell the story of how history can be told in a very positive way and be completely false—and how we have all these legends and myths of people and places and things that may be completely wrong. But that the real story might be far better and far greater than how we even imagined it. If you look at Columbus or maybe even George Washington, their personal histories have been sanitized to a point where they're interesting and very nice, but maybe the real story would've been even that much greater.
MJS: And it may not have had anything to do with those people—maybe it was other people who we don't remember anymore. And that's kind of what I wanted to get down to, which was showing the true heroes.
GR: As an obviously successful author with an army of readers, what are your thoughts on reviews? How do you deal with them, both the positive and the negative?
MJS: I did a blog post on this subject five years ago that a lot of people really liked. What I did was I went through all of the reviews and comments that I had gotten on my books, and for every negative review I posted the exact opposite review that someone else had posted. In other words, someone would say that it has terrible characters, while someone else would write these are the best characters I've ever read. Some would say no action, and someone else would say it's all action. It's pretty much a wash. One person may love something, while another person hates the very same thing.
As far as [professional] reviewers are concerned, I have a feeling that reviewers like yourself —who have seen and read thousands of books—you immediately start looking for those things that you've read before, elements that have been regurgitated over and over again. But if you're a reader who hasn't read all of those books, then it's genius. Reviewers have a tendency to be somewhat jaded just because of all of the books they read. They don't realize that the same old story can be new again. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter is a great example. That has so many old tropes in it that are being reused again, it's ridiculous. But it became hugely popular because she treated it well, and a lot of people who were reading it never read all those other books. It doesn't matter if it's been done before. It just matters if it's being done well now.
As far as dealing with a bad review, you don't. It's something I learned very early on. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and you have to respect that.
GR: You were a wildly successful indie-published author back in the day, and I know there are countless writers now turning to that as an option. Goodreads member Tyler asks the same question I was going to ask: "Your success as an author parallels the rise of nontraditional publishing. What do you think the future of publishing will look like as traditional companies are forced to compete with new methods of distributing content to readers?"
MJS: Well, I'm a little concerned about the weakening of bookstores. That's kind of the biggest ace in the hole that traditional publishers have is that they can get you in bookstores. It's a level playing field for the most part with ebooks and audio books, but when you're getting into actual paper, it's usually been that the traditional publishers have had that locked up. These days, unfortunately, bookstores usually only carry one copy of your book, so if you release a book and five people go into that bookstore to buy it, they can't. But you can buy it directly off the Internet, and there's never much of a run-out. That really hurts traditional publishing.
I think a lot more authors are going to go the way that I have gone, which is being a hybrid author. You self-publish projects that you want, and then if you have a big title, you might go through a traditional publisher. Going through a traditional publisher, you get a lot more exposure, a lot more recognition, and a lot more legitimacy. It's a huge marketing boost—going traditional is less about your career than it is about marketing.
In the future I don't know that it will be all that much different. The big problem is that if the bookstores start to fail, then there's less reason to go the traditional route at that point. Then I'd be kind of worried.
GR: Goodreads member Douglas Park asks, "Michael, what role and importance does humor play in your writing?"
MJS: In my opinion, a book without humor is completely unrealistic—and there are a lot of those out there, which is why I have a hard time with suspension of disbelief. I've often said some of the best jokes I've ever read were at a funeral because people have a tendency to deal with pain and grief with humor. It's just a natural kind of reaction. I put humor in my books because it's just how I know people react. If you're in a dire situation, people will make a joke—and if you don't do that, then you're not being realistic and the book will come across very stilted. I hate fantasy novels that seem to take themselves so seriously that no one can make a joke. Everyone makes jokes—even if they're bad ones.
GR: Goodreads member Kayleigh says, "Out of all of the authors I follow on Goodreads, you are certainly the most active on the site, and I always see you posting updates or answering questions from readers. Most of your updates are about how much writing you have completed, and I am just amazed that you have already finished the books for the Age of Myth series! I'm curious what your writing process is like…."
MJS: You'll probably find that if you were to poll most writers who do this full-time—which I do—that they're almost all consistent. There are a few anomalies, but almost everyone I've ever encountered has all said the same thing, which is that they write in the morning. Most people write from whenever they wake up until noon or one. That's your writing period. I do it every day. If I'm actually writing a story and not editing, I'm probably writing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 words a day during that period of three or four hours. After that, then I have time for social media and time for going on Goodreads. I will admit that I time those Goodreads updates. I don't do a lot in one day. I try to spread them out so there's always an update from me every once in a while.
GR: OK, you mentioned social media. How important is utilizing social media to becoming a successful writer?
MJS: It is how you become a successful writer. Without that, you've got nothing. My entire career was built off of social media. I started out trying to sell books at bookstores, but that would get me two, three readers maybe… But then I found Goodreads, which is one of the best sites for marketing yourself and your work. In fact, I was just at Phoenix Comicon and they were talking about marketing, and no one actually brought [Goodreads] up, and I thought to myself "You've got to be kidding," so at the end I had to make sure that everyone knew that if you're going to market your book, you have to be on Goodreads. Goodreads is where all the readers are. And if you're not there, you're doing yourself a disservice. But it's that and reviewer sites—you get in on the ground floor of the reviewers, and they work their way up and start talking about your book, and it's through that that people start to notice you. Then, of course, you get to the point where readers are actually telling their friends about your book, and things really start rolling.
The only way to get anyone to notice you these days is on the Internet. There are so many people on it that it makes no sense to try to get people in a bookstore. You might see ten people there, whereas on the Internet you'll be reaching thousands.
MJS: OK, so Lord of the Rings is what got me started writing. I finished reading that, and then I tried to find another book like it and I couldn't, so I started writing one when I was 13 years old. That's when I first started getting into writing, and that got me hooked. But after writing for 15, 20 years and getting nowhere, I gave up writing for like 12 years. I didn't write anything. I refused to write. I was never going to write again. But then I started reading Harry Potter, and that was the first book I had read since I was a kid that I really just enjoyed. In between time I was trying to learn how to be a writer, so I was reading Pulitzer Prize-winning-type novels—they were dry and not as engaging—so when I picked up Harry Potter, I thought this is a really great story, and I said, "I'm going to write something like that. I'm going to write something that's just fun to read. The kind of book that I would like to sit down and open up and read because it's just enjoyable." And so that got me writing again—so it would probably be those two books.
GR: What are you reading now?
MJS: See, I never read just one…. [laughs]
GR: Oh, you're one of those.
MJS: Yeah, I actually have a number of books…. I've got The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and there's another new book that I picked up while I was at Phoenix Comicon from another writer called The Last One by Alexandra Oliva. I also read nonfiction, but that's probably the most current book that I'm reading.
GR: So you've already finished the rest of the books in this series. What's the publication schedule look like—one per year?
MJS: Yes, that's what Del Rey's going to be doing. I kind of like the once-a-year release schedule because while they're putting those out, I can be writing other things.
GR: Well, that does it—I hope it wasn't too painful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, and I hope that fantasy fans who read Age of Myth will be as blown away as I was….
MJS: Thanks—it was quite pleasant [laughs]—and thank you for all the compliments.
Interview by Paul Goat Allen for Goodreads. Paul has been a genre fiction book reviewer for the last 20 years, working for companies like BN.com, PW, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, and BlueInk, to name a few. He has written more than 8,000 reviews and interviewed hundreds of writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, and Charlaine Harris. He also works as an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program.
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