by Ian McHugh
With the impending release of Bound, the first book of his new Alex Caine series, I interviewed Alan Baxter about babies, writing fu, elevator pitches and how real men (like us) never squee.
Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.
An enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, approaches Alex after a fight and reveals, ‘I know your secret.’ Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else.
A cursed grimoire binds Alex to Uthentia, a chaotic Fey godling, who leads him towards chaos and murder, an urge Alex finds harder and harder to resist. Befriended by Silhouette, a monstrous Kin beauty, Alex sets out to recover the only things that will free him – the shards of the Darak. But that powerful stone also has the potential to unleash a catastrophe which could mean the end of the world as we know it.
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Bound is your first book with HarperVoyager. You’re manly enough that no-one’s going to laugh at you if you answer this question truthfully: did you squee like a little schoolgirl when you found out you’d landed a three book deal with a major publisher?
I do not squee. I even hate that word with a fiery passion. It’s funny though, because traditional publishing is glacial. I knew the editor at Voyager really liked Bound and told me she was taking it to acquisitions, which is where the whole publishing team decide on what to buy. I was really hoping they would take Bound, then it would do well enough that they would take the next books. So I was beside myself with nerves for weeks waiting to hear back. Then, when I did hear back and the news was that they had offered on the whole trilogy, I just in my chair and started shaking. I’m shaking again now at the memory! I couldn’t believe it. I read the email again and again, then called my wife with a weak voice and asked her to read it. When she got excited I decided maybe I wasn’t hallucinating, and then I started laughing and singing and dancing like an idiot.
But I did not squee.
That’s beautiful. And, ah, yeahno, I don’t squee either, now that you mention it. Not ever.
Landing a three book deal was only your second best news for 2013, how have you found writing with a baby in your life? Has being a dad started to influence your writing?
I don’t know that it’s influenced my actual writing yet. A lot of people said I’d find it impossible to write about bad things happening to kids once I was a parent, but the story I just sold to Daily Science Fiction absolutely proves that not to be the case thus far. I’m certainly far more conscious of my writing time though. I’ve always been good at writing whenever I could make time – I wrote my first novel during my lunch hours at a 9 to 5 office job. I think that trained me well for being a writer with a newborn!
Yeah I agree. I write my own kids into my stories so I can make awful things happen to them without getting in trouble. Maybe not being able to hurt kids in your writing only applies to Mums and to Dads who squee?
It wouldn’t surprise me. If they stopped squeeing, they’d probably be able to hurt way more kids. Or something.
Tell us a bit about Alex Caine. You’ve said he’s an MMA fighter – as a martial artist yourself, how much of you is in him? Are there any other real or literary shoulders that you see this character as standing on? What have you enjoyed most about the character?
I’ve long had a reputation for writing good fight scenes, which is no surprise given that I’ve been a fighter for… ever. So I decided it was time I wrote a book about a fighter. Not just characters who can fight, but a protagonist who is first and foremost a fighter. I’ve also tried to bridge the gap with this character between the modern MMA thing and the traditional Kung Fu style that I practice and teach. Alex Caine is a cross-trainer with a solid and primary base in a traditional style. He reveres the wisdom of his now dead Sifu, whose words ring in his ears throughout the books. In that sense, there’s a lot of me in him (though my Sifu is still alive!) – someone who applies the techniques and wisdom of the traditional styles in real and dangerous application. That’s how I’ve always taught and been taught.
Hard to say whose shoulders he stands on. There are so many influences that go into characters, but the people I’ve trained with and been taught by certainly have sway in there somewhere.
I heard some great advice once to model your villain on someone you admire. Have you ever tried anything like that? Who would make a good a villain in one of your stories?
Well, without giving away too much, the main bad guys in Bound are a sexually deviant, nasty pair, who I tuckerised some friends for. They’re called Hood and Sparks. Anyone who knows the Aussie SF scene might recognise that pairing. It’s only in name though, of course, I don’t honestly think my friends are evil sexual deviants… well, they might be. Anyway, as the story progresses through the three books, there are some people who come back and I ended up getting to style one big bad villain on my favourite big bad villain of all time: a character from DC Comics. I’ll say no more than that.
Otherwise, people I admire being great villains is a really cool idea. I’ll have to think who I admire enough to villainise in the next book.
The next few questions I’ve been asking everyone:
A book needs a good elevator pitch. What was your pitch for the Alex Caine books?
Alex Caine, a fighter by trade, is drawn into a world he never knew existed — a world he wishes he’d never found. Magic, mayhem, martial arts and monsters from one side of the world to the other. And Alex just wants out.
It’s that last sentence that’s the critical one, isn’t it? Five words: tells you exactly where the character’s at emotionally, what he wants from the story and therefore what kind of action story it’s likely to be. It would point to a completely different book if that last sentence was, say, “And Alex just wants to do what he does best: beat the everloving shit out of people”, for example. Was it hard to distil the book down to that exact right pitch?
So freaking hard you wouldn’t believe. I hate synopses with a fiery passion – I had to submit one page synopses of books 2 and 3 to make the sale and that’s a special kind of hell. So a ten second pitch is like the burning line of pain across your genitals from Satan’s own whip in that special hell. The thing is, though, it really does make you focus on what you’ve done and ask yourself, “What the fuck is this really about?” Because there’s loads of story in a 100,000 word novel, obviously, but there are small underlying truths that pin the heart of it down. In this case, regardless of all that’s going on, Alex Caine had a good life and, against his will and better judgement, he got dragged into the horror in which he finds himself. Trying to get out of it is the fundamental bedrock of this book.
What aspects of this story were new for you compared to your previous work, or challenged you to extend yourself – in terms of things like genre, character types, plotting or style?
While this is an urban fantasy, set in a version of our world, there was a lot of worldbuilding required. Initially in the mythology and underworld of the supernatural that Alex finds himself in and certainly in Obsidian, the second book, and Abduction, the third one, as entirely new worlds become a feature then. It was hard, but I really enjoyed that aspect of things. It’s more worldbuilding than I’ve ever done before.
Are you making use of a real-world mythology, or building your own? Or both?
Both. I’ve deliberately subverted the whole myth of Faerie and the Fey, as well as the monster tropes (vampires, werewolves, etc.) into a whole new mythology that suits my world. I’ve also, through the course of three books, corrupted my own mythology. In the same way that we don’t necessarily know all there is to know about our own myths, the same can be said of the people in these books. They learn things that surprise them, things that are different to the world they thought they lived in and so on. It was a lot of fun.
There’s a certain point when a writer is kicking around an idea for a story that they start to get excited about it, and in my experience it doesn’t always happen right away. What was that moment of excitement for you with Bound?
It started when I was pondering what I mentioned above – writing a character who was first and foremost a fighter. From the concept of the character of Alex Caine, I realised he would be the perfect vessel for a plot idea I’d had knocking around for a while. I wanted to write a kind of classic epic fantasy quest story, but set in our world with strong horror elements. The more I thought about the character and that plot, and the more those ideas came together, the more excited I got.
Yeah, right. So it was when saw you had the right things to bang together to make sparks. Is it often character + plot that gives you the spark?
It can be one or the other. Sometimes I’ll have a great character or plot idea and the rest grows from it. But the best things are usually when the protagonist and the situation kinda hit each other in a head-on collision and I know I’ve got something good to work with.
Without wanting you to give away any spoilers for the book, were there any darlings that you had to murder in writing Bound, as in characters or scenes or plot threads that you were really attached to that the story was better without? If so, how long did it take you to realise that the darlings had to die and what made you realise?
Paul Haines made me realise. He was kind enough to do a thorough critique of the original draft of Bound (which shows you how long it can take to get a book published.) His advice was invaluable and he made me realise a couple of things I’d done were really dragging the book down. He unlocked the potential in the novel and made it what it is. I’m very lucky to have (or have had) such great writing friends who I learn form all the time. Angela Slatter and Joanne Anderton have made indelible impressions on this whole series for me too.
Getting more specifically back to you, being a martial artist obviously gives you a body of knowledge that you make use of in some of your stories. Aside from that and paying the bills, does being a kung fu teacher help your writing in any other less obvious ways?
The ways are legion. The comparisons between the pursuits of the martial arts and the creative arts are many and varied. I plan to write a book about it one day.
Give us one example of your writing fu.
The obvious one is determination. I get people turning up to class and think they can be Bruce Lee in a few classes. The idea is that they pay me to teach them, then they can do it. They don’t expect the years and years of hard work involved in practising the things I’m teaching them in order to get good. There are no secrets, no shortcuts. You work at it, you learn all you can, you keep getting better and if you give up, you’ll never succeed. That last sentence could apply equally to writing or martial arts, right?
Given how you present yourself (dark fantasy author, martial artist, misanthrope, etc) do you find that people expect you to be writing a certain kind of manly stories? Have you found it surprises people when you pull out stories like “All the Wealth in the World” or “Tiny Lives” from last year?
Yes and no. I think people do expect all my stuff to be hectic action and a dark horror, and a lot of it is, but I also like to think I’m broader than my primary defining features! Even then, stories like those you’ve mentioned above still tap that core of misanthropy and darkness I have (people struggling against a broken system, or trying to use money to buy the intangible). Generally speaking, people are fucked on one level or another and the nice people out there get fucked by the bad ones. I see horror as a many layered thing and one end of the scale is monsters and murder and hauntings and so on. The other is true, real horror – people dying of cancer, especially young; people who can’t afford the health care they need; rich people trying to use money where it’s useless; greed; selfishness; power plays. Those kind of things are true horror in my mind. So I try to address the full spectrum in my writing.
You’re right, the two stories I mentioned both come with a sting, but it’s kind of wrapped up in lovely moments of stillness and quiet. Two related questions: Who is a writer whose work you admire because it’s so completely alien and different to what you do? And, what’s a style or genre of story that you’ve not written but want to have a crack at?
The first one would be Iain M Banks. That dude’s work just blows me away in scope and scale and imagination. I was devastated when he died so young. Not only for the great loss his death is in general, but because there’ll be no more Culture novels. That’s just not fair.
As for genres I want to try, I love the genre mashup. I’ve published horror/sci-fi, I’ve recently had a horror/dark fantasy/crime story published, called “The Beat of a Pale Wing“, in the A Killer Among Demons anthology from Dark Prints Press, and a weird ghost western story called “Not the Worst of Sins” published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I also wanted to try my hand at a superhero story and I got to do that recently as I was commissioned to write one for a new anthology coming out later this year. So I’d like to do more of that stuff – genre-mashing. Maybe a Victorian era sci-fi story, or an epic fantasy crime caper or something like that!
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Alan Baxter is a Ditmar Award-nominated British-Australian author. He writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the forthcoming dark urban fantasy trilogy, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction (The Alex Caine Series). Bound is due out from HarperVoyager Australia in July 2014. He is also the author of the dark urban fantasy duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance Book 1 and Book 2) and co-authored the short horror novel, Dark Rite, with David Wood. Alan also writes short stories with more than 50 published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France.