Interview With Sam Sykes

We recently reviewed Sam Sykes’s first novel, Tome of the Undergates, and we found it “blasphemously delicious”!

After reading such a wonderful, fun, and vicious fantasy adventure, I had to go to the source himself. Ladies and gentlemen, help me in welcoming the self-proclaimed Angriest Man Alive: Sam Sykes!

A caution for the weak of heart: there is some foul language here. Shame on you, Mr. Sykes!

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Sam Sykes: Man, Myth, Overlord

All hail Sam Sykes, self-proclaimed angriest man alive! You become Overlord of the Earth for the day. Your new subjects want to know about you. What do you tell them about yourself?
Tell them about myself? Well, that might fly with other, less despotic titles like mayor or day manager, but if I were to indulge my subjects’ inquiries as Overlord? C’mon, man. This is a fantasy writer you’re talking to.

I have the first person who asked whipped and torn apart. I sew half of them to their spouse and, as the pain I inflicted upon them drives them madder, I use them as oracles whose twin-brained foresight has given them glimpses into that which those of us with only two eyes can merely glimpse in our periphery. I prop their mad gibberish up as gospel, citing that their rare, two-headed breeding is the surest sign of a divine influence in their creation. Of course, no one knows that they have, in fact, been made within the Meat Factories, raised on a steady diet of torture beneath my fatherly gaze and driven steadily mad by a constant feed of pop culture songs.

Thus, as they can spout only, “The Overlord is wisest and kindest… we toil in his name… baby, baby, baby, oh…”, people listen, but tune the rest of this freakish puppet of sinew and song out so they never quite get around to thinking too hard about what I’ve said as I send them, one by one, into the paprika mines.

At twenty-five years old you had your first book, Tome of the Undergates published, and now a year later its sequel, Black Halo, is being released. What’s the story behind it?
The story is pretty simple: I wrote a book. The publishers liked it. I mean, whatever conspiracy theories people might brew up about the industry, publishers still don’t buy books they don’t like.  It wasn’t as though, halfway through using the manuscript for Tome of the Undergates as toilet paper, Simon Spanton went: “Oh, shit. This guy is twenty-five. We better sign him, quick!”

As for what it’s like? It’s not bad. I’m published at twenty-five, and that’s great and all. But the age largely means nothing. I want to write for a living and that’s what I do. It’s nice.

We recently reviewed Tome and found it “blasphemously delicious.” Anything you’d like to say about Tome that we missed?
Did you guys like the urinary philosophy? I thought that was a pretty inspired stroke myself, if you’ll pardon the innuendo. See, humanity’s most profound thinking occurs on the toilet. It’s been proven by science. The act of sitting warm cheeks upon cold seat creates a clash of warm and cold ions that boil up from bowel to brain, resulting in a sort of “Anal Tempest” that has been renowned for such inventions as the taco and Mark Charan Newton’s hair gel.

Do you remember where the idea for Tome came from, what you wrote for it first?
Tome
, originally, was not quite as character-driven as it is today.

Some of my earliest forays into fantasy were Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels, which all followed a pretty standard formula: good guys group together, go bust some heads in the name of goodness, evil guys sort of go “aw, man, why?” and then get their plots foiled. I liked a lot about that: the adventure, the group of companions banding together and overcoming each other as well as their enemies, the sense of wonder and mystery at discovering ancient cities and lands lost to myth.

But after I had finished the first iteration of Tome I realized I had written just that: the same thing that had been written so many times before. Hence, I didn’t really feel attached to it. It felt like anyone could crank it out. Beyond that, I started wondering why the tropes in fantasy were so easily accepted. Why would adventurers, people who basically rank a step above common thieves, be revered and loved when their activities tended to involve breaking and entering, murder and theft? Why wouldn’t two races who are so different and raised in different cultures not automatically like each other, especially in a world driven by religious fervor and exceptionalism? Why would evil call itself “dark”? Why would anyone want to destroy the world?

The answers are what made Tome what it is today.

Your brand of humor is palpable and I consider it a breath of fresh air for fantasy literature. What do you feel humor adds to fantasy?
Humor, of course, is how people cope with the agonies of their lives. Dark, sarcastic humor is how severely damaged people cope.

Ha. Ha ha.

Fantasy could stand to take itself less seriously, sometimes.

Tome of the Undergates has some really amazing characters, full of wit, tragedy and courage. (Well, maybe not Denaos for that last one.) Do you have a general philosophy when it comes to creating characters? Do you have any favorites of the bunch to write?
You know, I don’t really know. I guess I could give you some spew about how motivation, backstory and desire all come into one giant character stew that drives the story and then deliver said stew to you with all the subtlety of a high colonic enema, but I think if I had a philosophy on how to write characters, the characters would probably all be the same, or at least follow a distinct pattern.

I like to think that they don’t, of course. Lenk and Kataria being two of my favorites to write about, obviously, have pretty different personalities: grim and cynical versus loud and brash, occasionally dense versus frequently overconfident. But they also have a lot in common: desire for something they can’t have, a lot of self-doubt because of it, an almost stupid devotion toward each other. Compare that to Gariath, a proud and bold racial supremacist who is openly suicidal and has no problems resorting to violence as a first option, and you can find yourself in a hard place to define characters.

Really, I guess I just turn them loose and see what happens.

I know the group dynamic was something you wanted to explore, how people from different cultures would most likely not immediately get along. How did this idea come to you and how did you approach it in your writing?
As I said, it seemed like something that would happen in any typical fantasy band of mismatched adventurers. And, as I also said, when I had finished it, it looked like something anyone would have written: blatantly heroic characters who could overlook superficial and shallow differences in the name of a greater good they automatically believed in because it was called “the greater good.” And, as I concluded, I didn’t like it.

I think it kind of cheapens the idea of a race in fantasy if they don’t have a conflict that affects the character. I’m not talking about some “you beardless elves and your long, sexy legs” kind of conflict, either. I wanted conflicts that stemmed from “why?” Why would non-humans ass
ume that humans deserved all the wealth that they had? Why wouldn’t a member of a dying species be bitter and resentful towards those that were thriving? Why would religions automatically get along because they were on the same team?

This is just sort of how it happened when I turned the characters loose. The more I asked myself those questions, the more I found what a lot of people in real life have found when it comes to issue of cultural clashes: there is no easy answer. I didn’t want one, either. Shicts are losing their ancestral lands to human incursion, but avenge themselves with some truly abhorrent practices (as we’ll see more of in Black Halo). Dragonmen are proud and noble creatures, but also with no particular grasp on the value of lives other than their own. Humanity has brought civilization and stability to lands that didn’t previously have it, but at the expense of those lands that didn’t particularly want it.

The less clear an answer is, the deeper the conflict is and the more readers become invested in one side or another. If there are good races and bad races, we already know all we need to. There’s no reason for us to read further.

There seemed to be a really nice balance between exploring the world you made, and moving the plot and characters along. What can you tell us about your approach to worldbuilding?
Chekhov’s Gun. If I put a ruined civilization in, I must explore it. If I mention a war, it must affect the conflict. If I detail a magic system, it must affect a character.

All the beauty of your made-up language, the tragedy of your detailed wars, the past thousand years of your world’s history are nothing more than trivia if they don’t affect the characters.  And no one gets invested in trivia.

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Writing, Craft, and Rage

So how did you begin writing? Is it something you learned you wanted to do as you went along, or was it more of a “calling from above” type of thing?
I was fired from my job at Barnes and Noble when I imitated a Cuban immigrant over the PA system and told a customer my manager was a racist when he reprimanded me for it. I quit my job as a cook when I thought I wanted to open my own bar. I left Hotel and Restaurant Management school when I was given an “F” for using words that were too big. I quit my job as a salesman to go meet a Norwegian girl in Hawaii. I was told to leave Journalism school when it was discovered that I made up most of my news articles.

Writing is pretty much all I’ve ever been good at and writing fiction is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

How has your life changed since you’ve been published?
I argued with a man for an hour straight about the artistic significance of the God of War video games while drinking expensive beer and eating steak.  I got to write it off as a business expense.  Life is good.

Any favorite parts about the writing process? Anything you’ve come to dread?
There are no real moments of dread, I find. There are moments when I have the vague sense that time is wasting, such as when I enter the third day of wondering how exactly Denaos is going to react when he fears Asper, his last human connection, is vanishing from his life (again, more on that in Black Halo) and I sometimes get a headache when that wondering turns to agonizing over the question.

The truth is, though, I love that part. I love the agonies, the hatreds, the moments when I butt heads with my editors, the times when I stare at a blank page and wonder if the fact that I haven’t come up with anything means I’m becoming impotent.

If it hurts, you’re doing it right.

What do you feel fantasy can do that other types of writing cannot, aside from dragonmen and purple lady warriors?
I suppose you could argue that fantasy is a good way to approach difficult subjects that are too sensitive to discuss by name. But I wouldn’t know. Really, I think fantasy is just basically the equivalent of giving a kid a bunch of paint and a clean, pristine room full of porcelain and puppies and telling him to go nuts.

More freedom means more artistry. Either way, I try not to think too hard about what my work does for anyone else. If they like it, great. If they take something from it, fantastic. If not, oh well.

You’re very vocal online, never letting an opportunity pass when you can contribute a comment of either pure rage, genius, or some odd combination of the two. Do you feel there are certain things about fantasy you constantly find yourself defending against naysayers?
I am very aware of who I’m trying to reach when I write. The naysayers typically aren’t part of that audience. I have no inclination to try to persuade someone who has no inclination to read it. When it comes to people who think that fantasy is all feasting scenes and shallow conflicts, then yeah, I’ll go nuts and point out any number of character-driven fantasies out there. They have to want it, though.

Really, I find myself having more intense discussions from people in the genre. Or rather people in “the genre,” in which “the genre” is a holy word that constitutes exact and specific qualities that cannot exist. There is only The Genre. The Genre is immutable. The Genre is precise. There can be nothing beyond The Genre. The Genre is at war with Mainstream Literature. The Genre has always been at war with Mainstream Literature.

This was originally, and remains, a field where we can do anything we want. We give too much of a damn about what should be and too little of a damn about what we want. There are no rules. Let’s not think anyone’s going to be offended when we break them.

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Time Travel, Violence, and the Future

A quiet night. All of a sudden, Doc and the Delorean come bursting from the space/time continuum. He offers you a spin through time; where would you go and what kind of havoc would you wreak?
The last time I got into a car with a man with white hair who claimed to be from the future, I cried for a week into my pillow.

You get a passport letting you go on vacation to any fantasy world. It’s good for three trips. Where would you go to visit and why?
Jesus, the options aren’t really tempting, are they? I go to Westeros and my family gets raped. I go to the Circle of the World and we get manipulated into a centuries-old conflict between divine usurper-kings and then get raped by Shanka. I go to Camorr and get bilked out of all my money listening to a charming young man’s life story growing up without a family or name of his own after which I get turned out on the streets while he uses my money to finance some insane scheme, miles away from the alley in which I get raped. Or I go to Middle Earth and get driven down into the dark places of the earth because I think it’s not okay to kill someone because their skin is green.

…in which I get raped by a Balrog.

Fuck this. I’m going to Redwall Abbey. Fucking rodents will learn respect.

People have an impression that you like to fight anything and everything, inanimate or otherwise. Your rebuttal, good sir?
Anyone who has such accusations has yet to say them to my face.

Possibly because their faces will quickly grow to resemble Angela Lansbury at a rib shack afterward.

Case rested.p>

Likewise, in my interview with Mark Charan Newton, he said he knew how to take you out in a fight. What would your counter-attack be?
Mark Charan Newton’s hair is silky and his skin is a fine porcelain, he has delicate musculature and a fine bone structure.  He looks like a very pretty girl and I’m sure I have, at one point, made it clear that I could carry him around like a handbag.  Either way, his point about my weakness for women is quite moot.

Beyond that, my last three girlfriends have been a Hung Gar student, an Army Medic and a girl with teeth like a shrew’s. I seem to have an issue attracting women that can hurt me, so I’m fairly sure that whoever he brings out will probably devour him for his weakness.

If all else fails?  Uh, hi. Sam Sykes. Six foot four and built like a silverback. Pleased to meet you.

On your blog you recently pointed us to Unsounded, a wonderful webcomic about a young thief and her undead chaperone. Have you found any other online gems like this to share?
If you’re not reading Oglaf.com (NSFW OH GOD), you don’t deserve to live.

(Editor’s Note: While this is an entertaining web-comic, some of the material is pornographic in nature, and as such we feel our readers should be aware of it before viewing.)

Everyone always asks writers for advice on writing, but we know it’s a jungle out there! Any survival tips?
The most valuable phrase you will ever learn is “fuck it.” There will be hundreds of people telling you how to write, what to write, who to write for, what to do and how to act. There will be hundreds of people who don’t like you and, if they were going to tell you any of that shit, they weren’t going to like you, anyway. There will be envy for other writers. There will be frustration for your own faults. There will be criticism you should listen to and criticism you shouldn’t. There will be a lot of hard times. It might get easier, but it’s never going to get easy.

Fuck it.

This is your work. This is your world. You got this.

Aeon’s Gate is a planned trilogy. Do you have any more stories planned for the world of Aeon’s Gate, or you going to move on to unexplored places?
Aeon’s Gate
is going strong.  I will destroy all that I have before me before I think of destroying other people.

And finally, can you give us a hint as to what we’ll see in Black Halo, coming out this month, March 22?
Black Halo
is an evolution of the characters so far.  We got to see hints of what drives them and what makes them who they are in Tome of the Undergates, and some people expressed anger at not being given enough. Personally, I took that as a good sign, but agreed with them.  There’s much more to them in Black Halo: Lenk’s growing madness, Kataria’s deepening identity crisis, Asper’s slow decay of faith, Dreadaeleon’s frustration with his lack of respect, Gariath’s loss of will to live and we’ll see just who it was that Denaos saw in the ship’s cabin.

As all characters drive the plot, we’ll see the story of Ulbecetonth grow. We’ll see what drives the Abysmyths to bring her back, what she promised her Mouth, what she did in ages and why Miron Evenhands might be more than what he seems.

Beyond that? Killer Librarian wizard-hunters, xenophobic tattooed lizardmen and netherlings, netherlings, netherlings!

I hope you enjoy the shit out of it.

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I plan to, Sam! Thanks a lot for your time and your insight! Good luck with Black Halo!

Black Halo arrives in stores March 22, 2011 in the US. Look for a review of it soon thereafter!

About Martin Cahill

Martin Cahill
Marty is a 20 year old English Major and Theatre Minor, and while he still possesses his youthful idealism, hopes to become a writer/actor/improv comedian when he grows up. When that will happen, no one truly knows. Since a young age, he has never been without a book close by, and most likely never will be; this is most likely his parents’ fault. Marty hopes to one day write something memorable. Hopefully, this will occur more than once, fingers crossed. Thank you for coming and enjoy the site!

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