Interview with author Jim C. Hines

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Jim C. Hines today! Jim is best known as a fantasy novelist and the guy who did those gender-flipped SF/F cover poses. JCH-TARDIS-300x287His first novel was GOBLIN QUEST, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the “Princess” series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s currently working on the “Magic ex Libris” books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan. He’s also the author of more than forty published short stories. His web page is here.

Let’s talk about your latest news: The FABLE book, based on the best-selling game. How did that come about?

JIM C. HINES: The publisher contacted my agent to see if I’d be interested in writing the book. I’m guessing a lot had to do with my previously published work, particularly the GOBLIN QUEST series, which has some of the same fantasy and humor feel as the Fable game universe. My agent and I talked about the contract details, he went back and did a bit of negotiating, and voila – I got to write FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES, which was a great deal of fun.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of limitations did they give you? In other words, how far away from the main narrative could you go?

HINES: I had a fair amount of freedom with the story. They wanted a book that would introduce the characters and the world, but I wasn’t novelizing the plot of the game. I had to set the story in the world of Albion, and to use the characters from FABLE LEGEND, but I was able to introduce my own villains and secondary characters, my own plotline, and even my own quirky little town.

VENTRELLA: What is it like writing a story that has already been written, with characters you didn’t develop? Did you find it liberating (“Hooray! I don’t have to spend months working all the details out!”) or confining (“Dammit, I want the character to do this but I am limited by what someone else wrote first!”) or somewhere inbetween?

HINES: I was hoping it would be a bit easier to write pre-existing characters, but as far as I can tell, nothing about writing ever ends up being easy. Libriomancer-LgLionhead came up with some interesting and entertaining characters. Sometimes it was fun to play with ideas I wouldn’t have necessarily come up with on my own. But there were also moments when I wanted to do something with a given character and couldn’t, because it didn’t fit with what Liongate had set up.

VENTRELLA: Assuming that this is like other games, your character could make different choices which could change the ending completely. How did you approach this?

HINES: I haven’t played LEGEND, but I’ve played some of the other FABLE games and read some of the previous tie-in books, so I was definitely thinking about the emphasis on choice. I tried to include some moments for the characters where they had a clear and important choice to make. Trust this character or don’t? Fight or flee? Kill or capture?

VENTRELLA: Who do you think the audience is for these kinds of books?

HINES: Well, we want it to appeal to fans of FABLE. First and foremost, I hope that all the hard-core chicken-chasers will approve. But if I’ve done my job well, you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the games to enjoy the book. If you like fantasy and quirky humor, you too can be part of the audience!

VENTRELLA: What will people who have already played the game get out of it?

HINES: Right now the game is still in beta testing. I don’t know if the book will come out before the game, or how that schedule will work. So it’s possible this could be the first real point of entry into FABLE LEGENDS world. For those who have played the previous games or participated in the beta, my hope is that they’ll get some insight into the characters, some exploration of Albion and its history, and a new adventure to enjoy.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the “Goblin Quest” series. Where did the idea for that originate?

HINES: I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs, and it’s hard to get more underdogged than the goblins. How many goblins got slaughtered in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? So I really liked the idea of taking this scrawny, nearsighted goblin runt and doing a typical fantasy adventure from his point of view, with all of his questions about fantasy logic and this so-called “heroism” stuff.

VENTRELLA: What inspired the “Princess” series?

HINES: Those books were for my daughter, who went through a princess phase when she was younger. Red-Hood-LgSome of the movies, and a lot of the merchandise, all stressed that a princess has to look pretty and be rescued and so on. I wanted stories about princesses who teamed up and kicked butt and beat the witch and saved the prince. I also wanted to play with the older fairy tales, and to do something fun with it, like turning Sleeping Beauty into a ninja, or letting Snow White run around doing mirror magic.

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged about humor in fiction, and feel that tooLibr many authors think that if your characters crack jokes then you can’t make serious points or make them ever seem to be in danger. Since humor is a part of your work, how do you approach it? How do you find the right balance?

HINES: Humor and serious go quite well together. Just ask Joss Whedon. The contrast between humor and fear/pain/tragedy can make both more powerful. You don’t want to let the humor undermine the tension, but that’s just a matter of practice and learning how to write it. Human beings crack jokes. Even in dark times. Especially in dark times. It’s one of the ways we cope. Completely stripping that out of a story feels dishonest and hollow to me.

VENTRELLA: You haven’t avoided talking about politics on Facebook and your blog. Do you ever worry that this may alienate readers?

HINES: It’s weird. A fair amount of what I talk about are things like sexual harassment and racism and sexism, stuff I’d have assumed most people agreed were bad, regardless of politics. But it’s the internet, so everyone seems to get assigned to one “side” or the other, and that’s the end of that. It’s definitely cost me some readers. But I think these are important things to talk about, and I’ve ended up with a bit of a platform to do so. It would feel like a betrayal not to do so. I try not to be a dick about things, but it doesn’t matter how polite and “civilized” you are. There’s always someone who’ll get pissed off at you.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

HINES: I think practice and skill are far more important and useful than talent. Looking back, I don’t know how much of where I started was actual talent vs. skills I’d picked up over my life, from reading and telling jokes and getting a pretty good education and so on. Goblin-Quest-LgBut wherever you start, pretty much all of us have to work to improve before we become Good Writers™.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

HINES: I try not to disagree with criticism, as a general rule. Once my book is out there, it’s up to the reader what they find in the story. Who am I to say they’re wrong?

That said, it annoys me to be told I only included a non-white or non-straight character as part of an “agenda,” or to push some mysterious “message” down people’s throats. Acknowledging the existence of people who aren’t exactly like me isn’t a message. And choosing to exclude people who aren’t like you from your stories is lazy, lousy writing.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HINES: Lena Greenwood, the dryad character from the LIBRIOMANCER books. I’ve been working to get her character right for at least a decade. The way I wrote her and her backstory is problematic as hell. This series deals with the magic of books, and Lena was “born” as a sexual servant, one who gains in strength and independence over the course of the series. There’s a lot I’ve tried to do with her journey, but it’s so easy to mess up, and I know I’ve made mistakes along the line. For some people, she’s their absolute favorite character, but she’s been tough to write.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

HINES: I prefer to flip it to “know what you write.” Do your research, and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

HINES: Mostly, I try to pay attention to when I’m getting bored while writing the story. There’s nothing wrong with exposition and info dumps from time to time, as long as it’s interesting. But the moment I start getting bored, that’s a clue to look more closely at the story and figure out why.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

HINES: My first draft is when I get a sense of the book’s structure. I can’t hold an entire novel in my head, and outlines help, but they only work so-so. Cover2Once I’ve finished that first draft and know more or less how the book goes, I can go back and start developing the characters better, cleaning up plot problems, and generally delving deeper into the story.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

HINES: Not a clue. I think it depends on where you look, too. Are superheroes science fiction? If so, then Marvel’s films are blowing away most of what’s out there. Video games? Paranormal romance vs. sword and sorcery? I try not to worry too much about what’s hot this year, and to just write stories I love.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

HINES: I was told you have to write short stories first, and I spent years doing that before really trying to write novels. That was Bad Advice. There’s no one right way to learn, and while short fiction used to be the “traditional” road for breaking into novels, these days I’d tell people to write whatever the heck they want. Enjoy short stories? Do that. Prefer books? Start writing them.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

HINES: I think they’re different. For me, short stories are much faster to write. You know, on account of being shorter. I like that. But you have some of the same challenges of characterization and worldbuilding and so on.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

HINES: I like anything that gives authors more options, and gives readers more ways to find stories they love. I could do without the religious crusades about the One True Way to publish, though.

Most of my books are through DAW, a commercial publisher in New York. I’ve also self-published some electronic chapbooks, as well as a mainstream novel and a fantasy novel project that … well, let’s just say RISE OF THE SPIDER GODDESS probably wouldn’t have found a home at most self-respecting publishing houses.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

HINES: I think the small impress has been and continues to be important. They have more ability to take chances and to take on projects that might not sell huge numbers, but are important and powerful nonetheless.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

HINES: Finish the manuscript, and do some research. Learn how agented and unagented authors built their careers.Mermaid-Lg Learn the pitfalls of different paths. Read Writer Beware and other writing blogs and resources. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are definitely some wrong ways to be aware of!

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

HINES: You have to write short stories before you can write novels.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

HINES: I don’t know that it’s a specific piece of advice so much as a general attitude of persistence. Writing is hard, and there are times it will wear you down. Most of the successful authors I know are the ones who got stubborn and just kept writing.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer that you wish someone had given to you?

HINES: Have fun. Find your own voice, and your own passion. I spent years trying to write the books and stories I thought I was “supposed” to be writing, but it wasn’t until I said the heck with it and started having fun with this goofy little goblin and his flaming pet spider that I really found myself as a writer. Coincidentally, that’s the first book I sold. Go figure.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

HINES: It depends on when you ask! Terry Pratchett, Janet Kagan, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire… Heck, I’m on Goodreads. You can see my shelves here.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

HINES: I’m working on the fourth LIBRIOMANCER book, which is called REVISIONARY and should be out in February of 2016. I’m also finishing up the copy-edits on FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES. Beyond that, I’m starting on INVISIBLE 2, which will be a collection of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy. I’ve also got several anthology invites waiting for me to write short stories. So basically, I’m in no danger of getting bored any time soon!

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

HINES: I’m not actually much of a party person, so I’d probably keep it small. Maybe David Tennant and my wife to start with. (So that my wife could meet David Tennant, which would make me the Best Husband Ever. And also because I’m a bit of a fanboy myself.) Janet Kagan, who was something of a mentor for me, but passed away before I could meet her in person. I’d also want to invite someone who can actually cook, you know? Oh, and maybe Gutenberg, because he’s one of the characters in my current series, and if I got him to sign one of those books, it would be a pretty awesome memento!

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