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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Interview w/ Chris Howard

I recently reviewed Chris Howard's Seaborn and asked him for an interview, which he graciously agreed to. Here is the result:

First, thank you for doing this interview. Could you tell us a little about yourself (a bio, if you will)?

I write science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories, and I also paint and illustrate in watercolors, ink, and digital. Seaborn is my first published novel--it came out last July from Juno Books, and I've completed two more in the same setting, Saltwater Witch and Sea Throne. In terms of time, I've been writing for years, but it's only in the last five years that things have taken off, and 2007 is when it all came together. I got my first book contract, got an agent, won the Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest (amateur division).

I also love technology. I'm software engineer--have been for a long time--but as an author, I love the use of technology to get the word out. I love Twitter, Facebook, blogging, podcasting, web comics, all the ways technology can help readers--entire communities of them--find and interact with an author or illustrator.

Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to talk about (new books, comics, etc.)? Can you tell us a bit about them?

Quite a few. I have pen and ink work in the next issue of Shimmer Magazine. After completing three novels around Seaborn, I've moved inland with a whole new set of characters, actually a new setting, new world, new time, new everything. I'm about twelve chapters into this one, expecting to finish around April. I spent the last couple months of 2008 writing short stories, mostly SF, and I'm submitting and trying to get them sold.

There's also my weekly web comic Saltwater Witch (linked from, which allows me to move on to new stories, but keep my feet in what's probably my favorite world and set of characters--Kassandra and all the others.

Who are some of your favorite writers from the past and present? Were there any writers that had a significant influence on your writing? If so, why? Also, what are some of your favorite books?

I have a lot, but to pull a few out and make a list: Frank Herbert, Lois Bujold, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Richard Morgan, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman.

Growing up, Frank Herbert's Dune--and I'd include the next three, Messiah, Children, God Emperor--just blew me away. I wore out copies of the books. (Dune's influence on the world building in Seaborn has been pointed out, and sort of stealing from one Seaborn reviewer, I've been using "Dune meets The Little Mermaid" as the high concept for the book).

Favorite books--most of these are on my re-read every few years list: Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage, Caitlín R. Kiernan's Murder of Angels, Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

What are you currently reading, what did you just finish reading, and what do you plan to read in the near future?

I'm currently reading a couple books, Paul Melko's Walls of the Universe, Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and I 'm about to start a couple more: Marie Brennan's Warrior, and Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover. I just finished re-reading Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, which was outstanding (I'm also a Takeshi Kovacs fan).

You're published with Juno Books, which, until recently, was a relatively small publishing venue (or still is). Did you always intend to send your work to a smaller press? What are some advantages you think come with being published by a smaller press? (What was your experience like with Juno?)

Right off, I'll say--so far--Juno Books is the best thing that ever happened to my writing career. For those who haven't heard, Juno Books is now an imprint of Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books division, still focusing entirely on fantasy novels with strong female protagonists. (

I didn't really think of Juno as a small pub as much as I thought of it as a serious publisher, a publisher who would get my books on store shelves, who took the business seriously, who made room for new authors, room for something different, room for chance--taking good kinds of risks. I liked the books Juno Books editor Paula Guran was releasing. I bought them, I read them, and what I was writing seemed to fit. Juno's part of Wildside Press, and I'll add that everyone at Wildside, Prime Books, Fantasy Magazine--Sean Wallace, Stephen Segal, Cat Rambo, Tempest Bradford, and everyone else that I've met or worked with over the last couple years is passionate about books, publishing, storytelling, art, and there are a bunch of small and medium-sized publishers with the same passion, releasing great books, short stories, anthologies, and magazines. I think it's really about the passion, the ability to push the edge, and the ability to get books into readers' hands, not necessarily about the size of the publisher.

As far as differences--and with my limited publishing experience, here's what I think: with smaller pubs there are some clear advantages and disadvantages. Bigger publishers are just going to have more money, manpower, and clout in the industry, and that influences where and how books are reviewed, picked up by bookstores--indies to chain stores. A bigger pub in most cases means a bigger advance on royalties. With a smaller pub you may get more of your editor's time. With a smaller pub you're probably going to get from contract signed to the shelves faster, in my case a little over a year, in an industry where the norm is eighteen months and sometimes two years. There are outstanding editors in the smaller publishers, but there are more of them at the large pubs, with assistants, and publicists and contract copyeditors, and marketing channels wide enough to float barges of books down.

Seaborn seems to take quite a lot of inspiration from Greek mythology. Did you do any research into ancient Greece in order to add a flavor of authenticity to your novel? Is there more of the Greek myths in your novel than might be readily apparent to readers who are unfamiliar with Greek mythology? Or do you simply have a lot of Greek stuff swimming around in your mind?

I do have a lot of Greek stuff swimming around my mind, and I did want to draw on it, but one thing I didn't want to do was use the same well-known and very obvious myths. Most of the Seaborn ties to Greek mythology are centered on the Telkhines (Telchines), who were the original gods of Rhodes that were then absorbed into the ancient Greek pantheon. They played minor roles for the most part as sorcerers, metal workers--they made Poseidon's trident, helpers of the gods when it was needed, and they ended up betrayed and sent to the bottom of the sea by Zeus.

Do the novels following Seaborn delve into the history of the Telkhines as present in Greek myths (with your own spin on them, of course)? If so, can you talk a little about that?

There are actual Telkhines in Sea Throne, so yes, I get more into their history, starting with hints that, as a people, they've scattered--the few that remain, with some still living under the sea, some on the surface, and they don't even maintain much in the way of contact among themselves. At the end of Seaborn, I hope I made it pretty clear that Kassandra has a whole new kind of enemy, and is herself something completely different from the woman in the first chapter--and her reshaping of the world the Seaborn continues with how she deals with the old kings, the Telkhines. I think she's more of a tragic character in Sea Throne, in a way paying for everything she's done up to now. Readers will also get to understand why she did certain things way back in the middle chapters of Seaborn.

Your writing style is at times quite beautiful, particularly in your descriptions of the ocean, etc. How long have you been writing and developing your craft? What do you think are some unique aspects of our writing?

I've been writing more on than off for around twenty years. My mother was a writer, and she really encouraged me. I also have hundreds of rejection letters, some going back to the 1980s from Dragon Magazine, a couple fantasy anthologies, F&SF, which I'm still trying to break into.

I think it comes down to the reality that I just like to write. I write poetry, short form, long form, non-fiction (including blogging). I carry my journal everywhere I go and I write down every idea that might be worth exploring. To me, if I couldn't be writing, I'd be holding a pen or brush and drawing, and what the hell, why can't I do both?

I'm not sure how unique it is, but it is a preference of mine. I love internal struggles, I think they're more exciting than most of the plots that work solely in the external world.

Both Kassandra and Corina deal with some very obvious, but different internal struggles. What draws you to the internal struggles of these characters now and when you were writing Seaborn? Will these struggles remain a strong focus in later novels?

In Sea Throne I continue with Kassandra's inner turmoil, although she's a lot more in control. It's more like she does something, then stops and has to tell herself she doesn't have to do that any more. She can make choices that weren't open to her in Seaborn. I think internal struggles are far more interesting, make a character more real and relatable. Very few people spend their lives openly battling oppression, but just about everyone can at least relate to living with painful memories, betrayal, secrets. I think that's what makes the internal struggles work. I do continue with this in Sea Throne, where misplaced revenge is one of the themes, with a character who has grown up with the certainty that she knows who killed her father, and when she catches the murderer, it isn't going to clean and the death will be slow. Unfortunately, she's wrong.

Can you talk a bit about how you developed your characters? Where did Aleximor come from? Was Kassandra inspired by anyone in particular?

The seeds for Aleximor came out of a scene idea I wrote five or six years ago about a man imprisoned underwater inside the stone with a handprint of blood to mark the spot on the cave wall, but he didn't really develop until I had the other side, the person who was going to release him. That came from a completely different direction, several years later.

Seaborn started with the idea of losing freedom and how many forms it can take. I actually spent a lot of time plotting Seaborn--more than any other book I've completed so far. I also have two main characters, Corina Lairsey, who has all physical control taken away, and Kassandra, who has what appears to be near unlimited power, but can't be certain that any motive, any particular idea, anything inside her head is actually hers. I think it's interesting that most readers love Corina's struggle and really don't have a lot of sympathy for Kassandra--somewhat deservedly. Kassandra's whole life is about manipulation--being manipulated, and manipulating everyone around her. I'm also confident that those readers will all come around in the concluding book, Sea Throne.

One of the interesting concerns within Seaborn is centered on the idea of having other consciousnesses within ones mind. Aleximor has Corina and Kassandra has the presence of all her bleeds (which increases at the end of the book). What about the mind and how it responds to the pressures of things like insanity do you think it is important to fiction as a whole and to your fiction in particular?

I do think it's important--not necessarily insanity, but everything that can be grouped under Internal Struggle. There are a thousand ways to tell the same story, but I think some work better than others, and I have preferences as both a writer and a reader. Some are easier for a reader to realize, some invite the reader to look at things on a more personal level, and some make it easier for the reader to realize that this could be happening to them.

Put it another way, very few people are actually battling a Dark Lord at the moment. But just about everyone can relate to suffering from or struggling against hard decisions they have to make, lies that have to be told and the bad aftertaste of telling them, growing up with pressure from different groups, loneliness, being dealt a hand less than fair, betrayal, conflicting loyalties, all that normal bad stuff that almost every person on the planet over a certain age can relate to. Sure, Sauron, Voldemort, Darth Vader, etc., can represent the powerful, some evil elite, institutional corruption and violence--all of which make for great storytelling, but I think you need more than that, more than perfectly healthy characters going up against the big bad guy.

I pointed out in my review of Seaborn that you maintained a connection to the "real world" with Corina, which allows the reader to see this fantastic world-under-the-sea from a new perspective, as if we're there learning about it too. Was this part of Corina's purpose when you wrote the novel or simply a coincidence? Can you talk about how you merged the real world and the fantasy world together? How did all this come together (how did you decide to have both present in the novel)?

That certainly became part of Corina's purpose. I already had Kassandra, the exile who grew up in Nebraska, as far from the ocean as her enemies could move her. I didn't think Corina's purpose was to reveal a lot about this underwater world, but it ended up working very well, and also the other way around, Aleximor knowing absolutely nothing about the surface and being forced to rely on his own host--Corina--for guidance.

Can you talk about your process for working on Saltwater Witch (the web comic)? How, in your opinion, is it different from writing novels/short stories (with obvious exception to the differences between written word and visual medium)?

Sure. To set it up I'll say Saltwater Witch is actually another novel I completed after Seaborn, although it all occurs five or six years before the events in Seaborn--Kassandra growing up in Nebraska, completely ignorant of any connection to the sea until she cries and demons drop from her tears, kings and queens wake up in her head, and a grandfather--she never suspected she had--has an army of the drowned dead and he wants to kill her.

Having the completed story makes it far easier--I think--to create the web comic/ graphic novel, whatever you want to call it. I've been using "web comic" mostly to describe it, but it is long form, no punch lines at the end of each segment, and so it's more like a graphic novel.

As far as process, I usually sketch panels during the week, storyboarding action, scenes, and expressions in my journal. I do a lot of this at lunch. See this post for examples of some quick idea sketches: I post three to five panels to Saltwater Witch every week, usually Sunday or Monday evening, and I usually don't get into the real art until Saturday morning. Here's an example of the actual posted panels that came out of the earlier storyboarding sketching:
As you said, the obvious differences between written and visual storytelling is that I'm far more limited in what I can describe, narrate, and show. In many ways a comic is like a screen play, except that all the action has to be done in stills--the motion and character reactions have to be shown visually but frozen in time. Another element I use quite a bit in my writing but it's rarely used in movies and TV is inner dialogue, thought bubbles.

Another cool thing about Saltwater Witch is that it allows some part of me to remain in that old world, in contact with Kassandra and the Seaborn. It was hard to move on after Sea Throne. The story was done. It was really difficult to get into the next thing when I had characters I had worked with for several years.

Where does your inspiration come from in your artwork? Were you professionally trained (school) or is it something you just developed on your own?

The inspiration for almost everything I've drawn or painted comes from what I write. For commissions and contract work, the ideas usually come from the story or synopsis the art director sends along, or in the case of a commission, the client.

I took a couple art classes in college, but I was painting long before that, and didn't really take anything away from classes other than a continued interest. Everything else is just from doing it and making mistakes. I read art books and the blogs of artists and art directors. I lurk and occasionally participate in the forums like, where there seems to be more pro artists doing stuff than anywhere I've been.

Maybe most important, I grew up in a household in which art--writing and painting especially--was encouraged. I've been doing both for a long time, and I was never told that art as a profession was in any way wrong, or not serious, or that it ought to relegated to just a hobby. Maybe sentiment has changed over the years--for the better, but growing up I had friends whose parents made them quit artistic activities, or at best sideline them for "more important things."

Additionally, what is some writing advice you would give to any budding authors out there?

I'm a newb with a first novel out and a handful of short story credits, so not a ton of experience, but I do think that publication is mostly a matter of having the right story, the right length, the right theme, the right editor, and the right publisher all come together at exactly the right time. There are thousands of authors all competing for the same page space and way more stories than can be published every month. So, what do you do? Write a lot and submit everything as many times as it takes to get what you write published.

Get a job as close as you can to the publishing industry or the kind of work your characters do--so if you write SF and you work in nanotech fabrication, well then you're kicking ass. You need to do something that pays bills and allows you to buy a computer now and then, and even better, if you can do something that gets you that and feeds your ideas, damn you're set.

Do something to stand out. Podcast some short stories, blog about ideas for writers, blog about your publishing experience. Go to cons and meet other authors, agents and editors, pitch your stories in person. Read the books your favorite authors are writing and blog about them, recommend them, and review them.

Random Question: If you could be any specific kind of fish (not mammals, but actual fish) in the ocean, what kind would you be and why?

Cool! I'm going with a whale shark, all the benefits of a gigantic non-mammalian sea creature and you get to travel the world, but not in a hurry. Very few predators--really just those pesky packs of orcas. The biggest fish in the sea, they're rock stars with scuba divers, but they know a whale shark isn't going to have them for lunch.

And there you have it! Hope you all enjoy. Make sure to check out Chris Howard's website and all the nifty stuff there!

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