E.E. Knight Interview – The Age of Fire

This week our guest is E.E. Knight author of the Vampire Earth series as well as a new fantasy series called Age of Fire.

E.E. Knight

Damon: Eric, There is all this talk about you being part of a vanity press ebook release as your first book.  From what I have read though this was a venture that was started by AOL/Time Warner.  Can you speak on that a bit?

E.E. Knight – I think the confusion comes from the name AOLTWBG (AOL/Time Warner Book Group) came up with, “iPublish.”  They couldn’t have chosen a worse name.  I can’t think of anything that would sound more like a vanity press.

Long story short: iPublish was a writer’s forum where you could post chapters of stories in various genres and get commentary back from fellow writers.  AOLTWBG ran the forum, and had editors for each of the genres- – romance, mystery, and so forth.  The sf/fantasy editor liked the bits of Way of the Wolf I put up and acquired it for the iPublish imprint (I accepted because the manuscript had already been rejected by all the traditional sf/fantasy imprints), which produced an ebook and print-on-demand version.  It wasn’t like vanity press because you did get chosen by an editor, who read through the manuscript and worked on getting it into shape, copyedited, and so on.  More importantly, AOLTWBG paid the author and all production costs. Only a small fraction of the stories that went up on the site ended up being published, which is another feature that separates publishing houses from vanity publication.

Ebooks never lived up to the hype, and AOLTWBG pulled the plug on the whole venture in December of 2001, right after Wolf came out.  Fortunately for me, Penguin’s Roc imprint snapped the Vampire Earth series up because it had done unusually well for an ebook/POD and the rights had reverted to me in the debacle.

Damon: We had a recent discussion on Fantasybookspot about e books, how to you feel about e book readers?  Do you think the future we will just carry around a device that can fit in our pocket holding many books?  Personally I like the idea of an e reader I can have with me without lugging a bunch of books on vacation, but so called “purists” say otherwise.

E.E. Knight – They’re great!  I’m a carry-on traveler whenever possible so I appreciate the space-saving.  I wish more of the titles I use regularly for reference were available as ebooks; it would allow me to haul my research with me wherever I go.  I don’t have a reader other than Adobe Acrobat at the moment.

That being said, I do love the look of book spines on a shelf and the smell and touch of paper.  I hunt for hardcovers of novels I really love and I have an emotional attachment to the physical volumes, especially those I’ve owned for a long period of time.  Then there’s stuff like my complete Shakespeare.  It’s my mom’s old one from college,  filled with her notes (Mom was an English major) written in her precise hand, very lightly in pencil in the margins.  I’m sure there’s some ebook equivalent for annotations but somehow I don’t think it would be quite the same.

Damon: I have to ask a bit about this, this cleansing you do?  Is this a yearly thing?  Tell us about the why and hows and how this can hinder or help your writing.

E.E. Knight – You must have been reading the blog. A couple of times a year I do an aryuveda-by-way-of-Norway cleanse.  A few days ramping up on the veggies and beans, then a few days of nothing but cod liver oil, psyllium husk shakes, celery, and lemon water, then working back to solid food via lentil soup.  Great for cleaning out the digestive tract. And my head.  I don’t think it has much of an effect on my writing one way or the other.

Damon: So are you a Video Game fan?  Do you play World of Warcraft or Everquest?  Any good stories?

E.E. Knight – I like strategy and civilization building games.  Also Tomb Raider, which turned out lucky for me because I got asked to do a Tomb Raider novel in 2004 and accepted, the result being Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Lost Cult.  I play some first person shooters too.

Damon: So tell us a little bit about the Tomb Raider book?    Did you have to play a lot for research?  Also, did they put you on a leash when writing the story on where you needed to go with it and how it needed to happen or were you given a little more freedom then you thought?  From what I have been told sometimes the gaming companies pretty much want you to ghost write a story that they have already thought of.

E.E. Knight – I’d played the games, save for one special limited edition extension to TR3, so I felt like I had a grip on Lara (if only!).  I did buy a game book so that I had correct spelling of some of the minor character’s names and so on, as well as a little family history.  They allowed me to think up my own plot, settings, and supporting characters, though I had to write within a very strict set of rules.  Lara couldn’t drink, smoke, use drugs, swear, appear naked, or have explicit sex.  They needed to protect their creation.  So no hot lesbian bondage or opium smoking.  All joking aside, they gave me more freedom than I expected.  I feel that Tomb Raider: The Lost Cult is very much “my” creation and I’m grateful for that.

Of course they nudged me. They did look at my outline and they were always asking for Lara to kill more stuff.  She couldn’t just see a poisonous snake, she had to kill it.  Even I admit that Lara’s not a “leave nothing but footprints” explorer, in fact you could probably trace her journeys by the shell-casings, but I thought it was a bit silly.

Damon: Dragons…they seem to be the hot thing these days in fantasy as either main characters or holding a large part of the plot/storyline.  How long have you been holding on to this story or thought?  Was this something that was brewing while writing early Vampire Earth work or something that has cropped up recently in your writing time?

E.E. Knight – Animal POV stories appeal to me and I’d been thinking about one for years.  I put my energy into Vampire Earth first because it struck me as a bit more marketable, plus I was a afraid of getting labeled as a YA author if I came out of the gate with the dragon books.

Damon: Lets talk a little bit about the dragons without giving too much away.  Do you have a favorite?  So far did you find it easier to write from one characters point of view then the other?

E.E. Knight – At the moment I love the little crippled copper one.  He got a pretty raw deal at his hatching, and he makes some awful mistakes early on, so he has a lot to overcome.  AuRon was probably the easiest POV to write from, he’s a very instinctive, action-oriented dragon.  Wistala was more cerebral and quieter emotionally.  The Copper doesn’t quite know who he is.

Damon: Do you feel the lines between YA fantasy and Fantasy itself are being blurred?  With Harry Potter you have a YA book hit mainstream, and recently I heard of someone seeing a 13 year old reading GRRM.  What is your take on that?  Is a YA label on a book a bad thing these days?

EEK:  Again, I wrote the book with the idea of appealing to both teens and adults.  Roc is certainly not a YA line, in fact the imprint has put out some pretty edgy titles.  I think there’s always been a rich crossover audience between younger people and older with fantasy, it’s one of the lovely things about the genre.

Teens don’t need to be talked down to and can handle some of the harsher elements of the story, and any adult who doesn’t enjoy a good fairy tale now and again, well, I’ll defer to C.S. Lewis:

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

As to YA labeling and so forth, I don’t know enough about the market to give a firm opinion, as my experience is encompassed within a single book.  In some ways its helpful — there’s a better chance for school library sales and so on.  I also know adults who won’t read anything thought of as YA, which is their loss.   When the question comes up in a class I tell people to write the story they want to write, then worry about classification later.

Damon: Eric,  I know one of the topics I always like to discuss with authors it the book cover.  How much input did you have on the cover and how was your interaction with artist?

E.E. Knight – You’re talking about Dragon Avenger, right?  My artist for the Age of Fire series is Paul Youll, a fine English artist.  Normally authors and their cover artists don’t interact much, it’s handled by the production team at the publisher and the author doesn’t see much until the final product.

I sort of did an end run after I saw Dragon Champion and contacted Paul directly, because I wanted to know what it would cost to get a larger format printed so I could frame it and hang it up.  We’ve been friendly ever since. I send him signed books, he sends me signed prints. I can’t tell you how happy I am with his work.  He gives the dragon wings an art noveau look; I think it’s tremendously appealing.

I just offer a few basic details and then the production department and the artist takes it from there.  They’ve gone for a portraiture style of art for the series, rather than showing an action scene or a cast of characters. I think they made the right choice,because it sets the cover apart.  It certainly hasn’t hurt sales.

Damon: Blogs they sure are the rage these days…do you feel that they have been helpful to you as an author, or do they take time away from your writing?

E.E. Knight – Tough question.  I like doing it, because it gives me a chance to wander off onto different subjects, talk about craft, or just be silly.  Does the work I’ve put into the blog mean I’ll produce a few less novels over my lifetime?  Could be.  But as the blog is more recreational than anything I suspect I would have just put the energy into video games.

Damon: Writing a series like Vampire Earth, have you ever had any nightmares based on your writings?  I know for myself I’m a big baby when it comes to Horror work.

E.E. Knight – It’s a rare night when I have a nightmare.  They’re usually pretty conventional: I find out my wife has died, or Chicago is on fire again, or I’m naked in the Mall of America.  Oh, and losing all my teeth, I get that one now and then.  I think Madonna has that one too.

Damon: Who are some of your Favorite authors?  Do you feel that reading fantasy and horror makes it harder to write because you have to be consistent of not using someone else’s ideas subconsciously?  I know some musicians try not to listen to music in their genre to stop that from happening.

E.E. Knight – Most of my reading nowadays is nonfiction for research.  I still follow some old favorites I’ve been with for years: Alan Dean Foster, David Gemmell, Joe Haldeman, Steve Stirling, R.A. Salvatore.  I’ve started reading Tim Powers in the last couple of years — I met him at a con and he had such interesting stuff to say about both Lovecraft and P.K. Dick I picked up a few volumes of his and now I’m working on completing the collection.  I think Brian Keene and Scott Lynch are rising new talents.  I keep meaning to get into George R.R. Martin but his books are so damned formidable looking…

Damon: I do want to stay on topic with Age of Fire though.  I know that by trading emails with you before your plan is to take each book from the point of view from Auron, his sister, the copper dragon and then either bringing it all back together with the copper dragon book or another book.  How did you decide on this format?  I know that a lot of newer epic fantasy (GRRM) have started to go with chapters based on specific characters so this is similar to that style.  As a reader sometimes I feel writing this way makes me take a little bit of a step backwards which I personally don’t care for.

E.E. Knight – The events of the hatching (where the males fight until one dominates the nest) shaped the rest of their lives.  Even Wistala, who wasn’t involved in the actual fighting, had her life radically altered a few months later by the Copper “helping” the dwarves.  But I wanted to pull a Kurosawa and show that a single event can seem different from alternate points of view.  That’s part of the fun of an “alien” POV.  Each of my dragons does something despicable at some point in their life — at least from a Judeo-Christian moral heritage — and it’s a challenge to keep the audience on the side of the dragon and emotionally attached.

I see your point about backtracking.  The last thing I want to do is bore the readers, or force them to go over the same ground again and again.  So in each book I’m halving (roughly) the amount of text covering events familiar to the readers.  What took a hundred manuscript pages in Champion takes about fifty in Avenger, and I’m going to try to do it in thirty or so with the Copper.

Once the three hatchlings spin off in their own directions there isn’t any more retelling of old tales, though their are little ripples and eddies from the other storylines that cross over, and a supporting character or two –like the Dragonblade– makes multiple appearances.

Damon: Many authors feel like their characters are their “children”, maybe that’s not a manly way to say it, but what sort of attachment if any do you feel to the Age of Fire characters in relation to your other work?

E.E. Knight – They’re scaly little dears. Writing the dragons is kind of liberating, because they’re not so firmly attached to our own conceptions of right and wrong.  Each receives some form of moral education — I don’t want my audience turned off by a bunch of amoral narcissists, but all their actions are bound to be a little off according to human convention.  If they’re children they’re rather wayward ones, but things manage to work out in the end.

Damon: As a writer do you feel your style has grown, and that the Age of Fire books show that?

E.E. Knight – With Age of Fire I challenged myself to write from a non-human point of view and to create something that adults as well as young people could read and enjoy.  There seems to be enough of a fan base to feel validated.  Whether and how much I’ve grown from it is a tougher call.  I think five or ten years down the road I’ll have a little perspective on that issue, I think I’m too close to it to judge at the moment.

Damon: Were any of the dragons based on real life people that you know and interact with?

E.E. Knight – There’s a little of my Dad in AuRon and a little of my wife Stephanie in Wistala.  As for the Copper he’s a right little bastard so maybe there’s some of me in him.

Damon: In closing what would you like to say to our readers?

E.E. Knight – Thanks for the opportunity to appear on your site.  I love hearing from readers; it keeps the work alive for me.  Writing is a fascinating form of communication, because it takes an active effort in the brains of both writer and reader.  It’s a joint exercise in imagination.  Because the novel grows out of the reader’s experiences, readers sometimes  take things away from the work that I didn’t intentionally put in (but am all too happy to take credit for).

It’s been a pleasure.  Thanks for fighting to keep fantasy alive and thriving!