Interview: Michael J Sullivan, author of Hollow World

Michael J Sullivan’s new book, HOLLOW WORLD, just came out in March and he stopped by to chat about it, and more!

michaeljsullivanCongrats on the new book! Will you tell us a little about HOLLOW WORLD and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you very much, and I’d love to tell you more about Hollow World. It’s the story of Ellis Rogers who is pretty much an “ordinary Joe.” He is rather intelligent (he builds his own time machine after all), but he also has everyday problems such as a failing marriage and personal regrets he carries around. When diagnosed with a terminal disease, he has nothing to lose, so he goes into the future hoping to find a cure. What he discovers I’ll not go into, as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but suffice to say it’s a future he didn’t expect. Ellis is caught up in a murder mystery and through the course of the novel I explore themes about individuality, what it means to love, and the price of paradise.

As for the inspiration behind Hollow World, it started because of an anthology I was asked to contribute to. I wrote a short story with a kind of “Twilight Zone” vibe, where someone from our time goes into the future resembling John Lennon’s song Imagine…a world with no religion, countries, greed or hunger…and although it would seem utopic, he sees it as hell on earth since much of what he values has disappeared over the years. In that short story he is “locked away” as his outdated thinking may infect and spoil the world he arrives in. I showed the short to my wife and a few writer friends and they all came back with the same response, which basically boiled down to there was a lot of potential in the ideas presented, and it should be expanded into a novel. I ended up writing a different short story for the anthology so I could make use of some of the elements of the short for Hollow World.

Hollow World definitely looks like it’s a bit of a departure from your Riyria series. What made you decide to take a break from epic fantasy and write something a bit different?
I agree it looks like a departure from an external perspective, but that’s only because I’ve published just a fraction of what I’ve written over the years. As of right now, I’ve written twenty-six novels and only nine have been published. Hollow World is actually my fourth science fiction novel. When an idea comes to me, I don’t think of it in terms of a specific genre…to me it’s just a story and certain aspects might turn it into fantasy, or science fiction, or a murder mystery. In fact, Hollow World has a bit of all of those. Because it involves time travel that puts into science fiction…and the fact that I’m discussing certain aspects about society also makes that label a good fit, but it’s not like I sat down and said, “I want to take a break from fantasy and write some science fiction for a change.” To me it’s all about writing an entertaining story with some interesting characters, what shelf it ends up in the bookstore isn’t something I concern myself with.

hollowworldWhy do you think readers will root for Ellis Rogers, and what did you enjoy most about writing him?
I think people will be able to identify with him. We all like the “over the top hero” that can do extraordinary things, but Ellis is definitely not “that guy.” Instead, he is someone who gets thrown into some extraordinary situations, and he rises to the occasion to do what has to be done, even though he’s no one special. In that way, he’s kinda like Frodo from Lord of the Rings. He’s not a king or some powerful wizard, he’s just a person with a good heart that does what is right because he’s the only one there who can.

What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m actually a little bit of both. I never start a book without the basics of it laid out. I know where it will start, how it will end, and have some key scenes that I want to show. From that broad-brush sketch I start making an outline. It is usually just a list of chapters with a few bullet points for each. Then I start writing to that outline, but as I get deeper into the story things come up through “discovery” that would greatly enhance the story, so I make changes and update the outline. What I don’t do is set out in a direction without knowing where I’m heading. The destination is always in view, but I might make some detours from the original roadmap. One thing that really helps is I spend one afternoon a week as my “thinking day.” I usually go out and rehash what’s been written (and what is to come), then I try to push the book to the next level. This gives me a week worth of writing material and then then the process repeats itself.

One of the most important things in SFF is worldbuilding. What are a few of your favorite literary “worlds”?
Usually it’s a place that I want to visit myself. The first time this happened is when reading Lord of the Rings. I really wanted to live in the shire and then have a grand adventure like Frodo (or Bilbo before him). J.K. Rowling did a fabulous job with Harry Potter. Again I wanted to attend Hogwarts and go down to Hogsmeade and drink butterbear and eat pumpkin flavored deserts. I also loved all the layers in Dune. In that particular case it’s not really that I wanted to live there, but the various factions and descriptions of the politics was very well done.

crowntowerHave you read any good books lately? Are there any books that you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
I have read some great books lately…there’s always something new and entertaining coming out. Some of my most recent favorites include: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Under the Dome by Stephen King, and The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron.

As for books I’m looking forward to. Some are going to be further away than others. Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss is probably on the top of many fantasy reader’s list, but who knows when that will be. The Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan is coming out this summer and given the strength of the debut I’m expecting great things. Another sophomore release I’m looking forward to is The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan which is just around the corner. There are others of course but I tried to keep the list to my top three.

On your website, you talk quite a bit about your experience with small press and self-publishing. What are a few of the most important things you took away from that experience?
I think the most important thing is to realize that, despite what others are saying, there isn’t one universal right path. Each author is going to have their own goals and aspirations, as well as strengths and weaknesses. An author needs to think realistically about what each route has to offer and choose the one that is right for them.

Also, “what is right” may change over time. I started with a small press, went self, then to the big-five, and my latest work came out through another small press, so I’ve gone full circle. Each move was a strategic one, and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to pick and choose. I turned down a five-figure advance for Hollow World from a large publisher and accepted a much smaller amount from Tachyon Publishing. This might seem stupid, but Tachyon was willing to offer me the contract terms I wanted (including keeping my ebook and audio rights) so it was a no-brainer for me.

When working with a small press, it’s important to do your research and consider carefully what they bring to the table. Many of them are using print-on-demand these days, and that doesn’t provide you with any distribution advantage over what you can do yourself. For the two small presses I was with, they each did print runs and had partnerships with distributors that got a wider distribution than I could have on my own. That’s just one example out of many things to consider so I think the more important point is to be well educated about the business and do your research.

It was a long road for you to getting published, and you almost gave up at one point. That said, what’s been one of the most interesting/awesome/challenging things about being a published author, and what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Almost? I actually did give up…and vowed never to write creatively again. After spending more than a decade on what looked to be a fool’s errand I put writing behind me. It was another decade before I started writing again, and I did so on only one condition…that I wouldn’t seek publication (as that way led to the dark side). It was actually my wife who did all the footwork to get me published on that second time around. So to answer your question about advice…I’d say that the only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.

roseandthornAs far as interesting/awesome/challenging things. There are many. I really got a kick out of attending the Audie Awards (Theft of Swords was a nominee). I bought a tuxedo, stayed at a plush New York Hotel, and spent the night chatting with my narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, who did such a fabulous job. We didn’t win, but just going was a lot of fun. As for challenges…well that’s the great thing about this profession, every time you accomplish one milestone another lies before you to strive toward. Out of all the ones that remain, and there are many, I really would like to see someone in public reading my book. A friend of mine took a picture of someone once, so that was “close” but as in horseshoes that doesn’t count. If I ever do see someone reading my work, I’m wondering if I will have the courage to ask them what they think of the book.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Every morning I spend time on the Internet. Both reading the newspaper and checking in with social network sites. I write during the mornings (every day – even Christmas). In the afternoons, it depends a bit on the season. In warm weather I go biking or jog. In colder months I increase my reading time. In general I spend essentially no time watching television (except for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report), which we watch during diner. In the evenings I might write some more, play on the Internet, or relax with computer games.

What’s next for you?
I’m about three-quarters through the third book of my next series. It’s tentatively titled, The First Empire, and goes back into the history of Elan (setting of my Riyria books) to explore the differences between mythology and “what really happened.” It’s kinda an ensemble cast where the deeds of many get rolled up into the accomplishments of a few, who ultimately get credit for everything and grow larger than life.

After that is done, I have a few projects that have been beating on my head to get it out. One of which will be the next book in The Riyria Chronicles. I’m taking that series a book at a time as I want to be very careful not to have Royce and Hadrian overstay their welcome. I would rather the pair leave early than stay too long, but the response to first two books in that series has indicated there still is an outcry for more, and I’m very happy to accommodate those requests.

Keep up with Michael: Website | Twitter

Ellis Rogers is a seemingly ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing. But when he is faced with a terminal illness, Ellis is willing to take an insane gamble. He’s secretly built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a utopian world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and what the cost of paradise really might be.

Ellis could find more than a cure for his disease; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time has begun — but only if he can survive the Hollow World.