Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interview with Harry Connolly, writer of Child of Fire

For the next few weeks I'm going to interview writers at various stages in their careers. Who are these people, you may ask? People I know and have brow-beaten into letting me pester them with questions. Today's guest is Harry Connolly, the writer of Child of Fire: A Twenty Palaces Novel.

Child of Fire is about Ray, an average every day petty criminal who finds himself working for Annalise, a badass magic-wielding chick who hates him but has enlisted his assistance in hunting down evil magical predators. It's an easy read; I don't really read fantasy novels but I quite enjoyed this one because it reads more like a modern story with contemporary problems, sort of the way Buffy always played it. The book is the first in a series about the Twenty Palaces Society of magical people or something. The second book, Game of Cages, hasn't come out yet so I'm a little vague on what the future holds. Something awesome, I'm sure.

Child of Fire was also named one of Publisher's Weekly's 100 best books of 2009. And right now on Amazon it is available for the amazing price of $7.99. You cannot beat that with a fucking stick.

So now here's Harry to give us a little incite on his experience publishing his first big fancy novel.

What writer's career path would you most like to copy?

I guess I would like to be the Donald Westlake of fantasy. He wrote great books in a variety of styles and tones, had a readership that extends beyond the traditional genre boundaries, enjoyed critical respect, and made truckloads of money.

I don't think I'll ever be as prolific as he was, though.

How does the relationship with your agent work?

My agent is a former editor at Penguin Putnam. When I finish a draft, she sees it before anyone, even before my wife. Just recently I was working on a new project--something unrelated to the Twenty Palaces series--so I sent her the first 40+ pages and some notes on the plot and setting.

She saw right through it to all the problems it had. It's on the back burner now until I come up with a new take.

Not every writer has that sort of relationship with their agent, and some don't want it. Some agents out there see their job as selling, not editing. Me, I'm happy to have her input. She's smart and she knows story.

Child of Fire as a movie - thoughts?

Dear Hollywood, please write me a fat check at your earliest convenience.

In all seriousness, there is a film agent trying to sell film rights, but I'm not involved in that at all. The only thing I asked is that the deal, if it should ever happen, would be one that drove sales of the book. I wanted something that would look impressive in a press release and possibly convince people to give the book a read.

I'm keeping my focus on the book. I tried filmmaking and it's not for me.

However, if people were to ask me (and they wouldn't) I'd say TV would be a better option for these books than movies. The novels are human-centered rather than aimed at big events, and there's an ongoing story of the Twenty Palace Society that would be much stronger if it played out over a season-long arc.

You made an interesting choice creating a male protagonist that is physically weaker than his female counterpart.

Just to be clear, Annalise is supernaturally strong while Ray is a regular guy (mostly). I've written about physically unimposing guys before, but not in this story.

Annalise is Ray's boss and one of the antagonists in the story. Since antagonists are a lot of fun if they are more powerful than the protagonists, she is. I think it works. They maintain an uneasy truce, such as it is, and they have a job to do. He works for and with her, and tries to earn her respect. As the series continues, their relationship is going to grow and change.

Was it a conscious choice to make the woman the more imposing figure? It's something of a flip on conventional gender roles.

Actually, very powerful female characters is a standard of modern urban fantasy and has been for years. All those young women on UF book covers, katana in hand and big ol' tattoo peeping out of the top of their leather pants? Most of them are super-strong and/or have elite demon-killing powers. Buffies, every one (pretty much). So, in the genre, it's not that unusual.

It's a little more unusual to make the low-powered henchling the protagonist, definitely. But the truth is that I didn't plan it. I sorta backed into it.

The first Twenty Palaces story had Annalise as a straight antagonist. She wanted to kill Ray's friend (for good reasons) and Ray tried to prevent it. Enemies! At the end of the book, (in first draft) Ray had done the job for her, and she kills him. Once I realized that readers hate downer endings and publishers love a series, I changed "kills him" to "They Fight Crime!"

But no one wanted that book, for good reasons. So I did the stupid thing and wrote a stand-alone sequel in which Ray was forced to work for a woman could pinch his head off with one hand and who hated his guts. And he's doing work he hated (vigilante murder) but if he tried to ditch her, she'd kill him.

I wish I could say I planned it. Truthfully, like most of my creative choices, I backed into it accidentally.

How did you feel the first time you held a copy of your novel?

Weird. Incredulous. Utterly certain I was going to screw something up.

I know some writers jump around, shout, dance, celebrate, the whole deal. Me, I just felt a tremendous sense of relief. I'd sacrificed so much to pursue my writing--I'd spent so many years getting up early, buying stamps, reading writing advice, the whole thing, all while I had a wife and kid. I'd started to think that I'd wasted the best part of my life.

Being published isn't a vindication, of course. Not really. Things could still go terribly wrong: maybe no one will buy the book. Maybe no one will recommend it to their friends. Maybe something in my personal life will force me to give it all up.

But I know I'm on the right path, at least. That's a huge relief. Now I just have to be careful not to fuck things up.

How has your approach to your material changed since you became a published novelist?

Deadlines change everything. If something doesn't work in a novel, I have to keep working the problem until it's fixed. I can't set things aside and work on another project anymore.

Aside from that, I'll admit to enjoying some extra confidence. I used to approach plot problems with "How would a professional write this scene?" Now I don't have to pretend any more. At the same time, I'm aiming at a very high standard, so I have to be extra hard on myself.

If anyone else has a question about the process of publishing my novel, leave a question in comments. I'll get to them as quickly as I can.


  1. very nice interview. I think I agree with him with TV being better toward novels than the big screen. you can only put so much stuff onscreen for 2 hours, but with TV, a mini-series is much more faithful to the novel.

    by the way, I laughed at you "you can't beat that price with a fucking stick." classic!

  2. Anonymous8:51 AM

    I didn't know he died in the original draft.

    ~A Helpful Fan

  3. Wonderful interview, thanks for this Emily!

    Mr. Connolly, the relationship you have with your agent is one that I would certainly crave. Did you hook up via the traditional query process or a friend-of-a-friend type of deal?

    Child of Fire is obviously intended to be a series... did you market it as such and if so, how does one go about doing that? (I ask merely because I'm tapping out a P.I. novel at this time and I'd certainly love to toss my foxy investigator into subsequent situations in the future...)

    I must reiterate, this was a terrific little interview, very inspiring.

    Harry, you had me at "Westlake." And since I don't own a "fucking stick," I'm off to Amazon to snag your book. Thanks again!

  4. Thanks, Jeff! I hope you enjoy the book (and if you do, be sure to tell your friends)

    I found my agent through a cold query. I sent out about sixty queries over a two-month period (after having spent six months or so building a list and futzing with the letter), had 8 agents ask for the manuscript, and had 3 agents offer to sign me. In publishing, queries are king.

    There are writers conferences you can go to, with pitch sessions and all that. Those work, too, if you're the outgoing type. I'm not.

    As for the series, I didn't market it that way. I pitched the story because that's what really matters. Whether it kicks off a series is not that important.

    Publishers and agents like series, yeah, but it's like offering free refills at a restaurant--no one is going to care if the drink tastes bad.

    If the agent likes the book well enough to read to the end, that's when it matters that the finale leaves an opening for another story.

    Did I explain that correctly? I'm suddenly unsure.

  5. Having read the book, I can whole heartily say it's good stuff! Go read it!

  6. Anonymous12:33 PM

    Great interview... HC, can you talk a bit more about how you culled your list of potential agents down?

    Did you rely on one online or published list of agents?

    Did you track down the agents of other urban fantasy writers and approach their agency?


  7. Thanks for the interview Harry & Emily.

    I'm only disappointed there isn't a pinup of seminude Harry reclining on a bearskin rug. You know they're out there.

    Harry, can you talk a couple of things? I'd love to know more about your process as far as working out a story structure, and also how you had to adjust your stylistics when switching from screenplays to novels.

  8. Steve, about those pictures... There was no bearskin rug. That was all me, baby.

    RP, I did all my agent research online, because I'm cheap. I made a master list from by searching by genre. Once I'd copied down their names, addresses and preferred contact method, I checked their website, Publishers Marketplace, and the Background and Bewares board at Absolute Write.

    I also Googled each of their names along with the word "interview." I didn't strike many names from the list, but if they said they were closed to queries, didn't handle my sort of thing, or said stuff that made me doubtful, I changed the font color of their entry to red and didn't submit.

    As for things that made me doubtful: one agent at the very top of my list said in an interview that she handled urban fantasy but not fantasy fantasy. That dropped her out of consideration because I'm planning to do both.

    Another said she loved horror (Win!) because it's a genre that can deal specifically with religion and religious issues (Oh.) Me, I'm an atheist; she wouldn't have gotten much from my work.

    That still left a metric buttload (<--actual unit of measurement for agents) for me to query.

    One thing I did wrong was query agents who would have been an awkward match. I was operating under the idea that I would make them reject me; I wasn't going to reject myself. That's all backwards, though. I should have been going after only the ones who would be a solid fit. Luckily, awkward matches weren't interested and I landed a fantastic partner.

    Steve, I'll answer your questions in a separate comment so this capcha doesn't time out.

  9. Steve, when I was writing screenplays, I struggled with the conflict between the Syd Field/Five Act/Big Gloom structure stuff and the "throw fun things at the page" stuff. Ideally, you do both, but that's why they're called "ideals" because it's near impossible to live up to them.

    When I switched to prose, everything opened up. All the expectations fell away, and all that was left was "Be interesting."

    Want to write three pages about the decline of a commercial fishing fleet? About the drug routine at a nursing home? About the exhaustion of being a new mother? Go ahead! As long as it's interesting, you can do whatever you want.

    So in a sense it's very freeing. In another sense it's a nest of Skinnerian anxieties, as having so many options can lead to indecision.

    The important things for me are that every page has to be engaging, and every sentence must work with the one before and after it.

    A novel is really just a long string of abstract symbols, after all. Most of us know these symbols so well that they barely register, but a novel can't have two things happening at once the way a movie can. It can only describe something in one sentence, then describe something else in the next. It's a weird tool to play with.

    As for story structure, I've gotten sort of hopeless. At this point, I create an MSWord file called a "goof" (as in: Child of Fire Goof.rtf) and type in random ideas. They don't have to be good ideas--it's not an outline, it's a place to goof off and play--but they do build on each other.

    Eventually, I feel that I know enough about the characters and their situations to start plotting. I'm always wrong, but that's the process. I go back and forth between character, setting and plot until the plot outline reaches a point where I feel lost.

    I mean "lost" in that I don't know where I am in the book. Page 150? 250? Do I need more complications to spin out the middle or should I start wrapping up the plot threads for an ending?

    That's when I abandon the outline and start on the first chapter.


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