An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan - The Fantasy Review

An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

I am delighted to introduce my interview with Michael J. Sullivan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Riyria Revelations, The Riyria Chronicles, The Legends of the First Empire, and The Rise and Fall series.


An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

The Interview

What elements of fantasy make you like reading and writing in the genre?

Like many fantasy authors, I find myself crafting stories that cater to my own reading preferences. As I reflect on the common threads that weave through my favorite books, three elements stand out. First, I seek to create characters that resonate deeply with me, individuals I would wholeheartedly embrace as real-life friends. Second, while acknowledging that darkness and adversity have their place, I gravitate towards worlds that retain a glimmer of hope, steering clear of dreary and despair-laden realms. I don’t mind shedding a tear occasionally, but a world devoid of optimism doesn’t resonate with me. And lastly, I appreciate the power of laughter. Some of the most amusing times are those when the current situation looks the bleakest. While some fantasy works may take themselves overly seriously, my taste leans towards the light-hearted and upbeat, allowing room for chuckles amidst the sad times. It’s not surprising that all that precisely describes the kind of books I write.

Why do we [fantasy readers] find ourselves connecting so deeply to narratives set in the past, whether they are in a secondary world or the real one? 

Your guess is as good as mine! I’m certainly no expert on why people gravitate to what they do. But I’ll add my two cents. I think escapism certainly plays a role. We live in complicated times, and the ability to let all that slip away and enter a place that is (at least in my case) idyllic is a welcome respite from all we must deal with from day to day.

Second, tradition, mythology, and folklore have always been prized by humans. It’s why storytelling has existed since the time we could communicate with each other. Whether we are reading, playing a video game, or watching a movie or television show, we are looking to be entertained, and they say there are no “new stories,” just variations on things that have already existed, so I think we seek the comfort of what has come before.

And lastly, I think that by our very nature, we like to learn and grow. I’ve found that looking at the past helps us find parallels to the current time and allows us to cope better when times look dark or bleak. I’m a firm believer that things are always getting better, not worse, and by looking at the past, I can see hope for the future.

Your characters Hadrian and Royce from The Riyria Revelations are often raved about by readers as some of their favourite characters. What makes you connect with a character?

 I spoke a bit about this in my first answer. Maybe I was a sad and pathetic kid, but I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I had to invent imaginary ones. I’ve always had an active imagination, so my “invented friends” were always “super cool” and someone I wanted to hang out with. As I also mentioned, humor plays a big part . . . oh, and loyalty. You can’t forget that. I think Royce and Hadrian’s bonds really come through as I’ve written them in a way that I know either would die for the other. I’m fortunate that in real life, I have that in my soulmate, Robin. It’s easy to infuse that kind of dedication when you are exposed to it every day of your life and for more than 45 years.

An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I’m a “morning guy.” I get up early, have coffee, and read a few things on my iPad (usually a newspaper or two). Once my mind is awake, I’ll go to my office and write until lunchtime. I start out by reading (and making minor changes to) whatever I wrote the prior day. I find that I only have about four hours of “productive” writing time in me. If I try to push beyond that, it’ll just have to be rewritten when I return the next day, so I don’t even try. In the afternoon, I’ll do editing or read submissions by some of the writers I mentor, answer emails, or do interviews. In the late afternoon, starting around 5:00, I spend an hour or so “conceptualizing” and working out plot problems. After dinner, I usually unwind with a video game, and I’m usually in bed before 11:00.

When did you start reading? And what books/series did you read over and over again?

 I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I wasn’t a “big reader” in my younger days. In fact, I hated it, and when I was forced to do so in school, I was not pleased. That started to change when I was about nine. My brother was reading Lord of the Rings, and he would wake me in the middle of the night and tell me what he’d just read. Most of it made no sense. Partially because I was half asleep and partially because there were so many foreign words: Hobbits, Shire, Dark Riders, and so on. Then at some point, I found the book, and since it was a rainy Sunday (and in those days, all that was on television on that day was golf), I started reading. I was captivated. After that, I read C.S. Lewis’ books and Richard Adam’s Watership Down. But there wasn’t as much fantasy in the early 70s as there is now. So that’s when I started writing. I found that I would rather read something I wrote than take a chance on other people’s stuff. And oftentimes, I was rather amazed that it was I who had written certain scenes.

What are some of your favourite recent reads?

At the moment, I’m reading a very old work: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. It’s fabulous, but not fantasy. Some of my more recent reads “in the genre” include Uprooted by Namoi Novik, Kings of the Wyld by Nicolas Eames, Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree, and Hail Mary by Andy Wier.

What do you enjoy doing outside of writing and reading? 

Well, writing is my favorite thing to do. I’ll take that over just about anything else. I love listening to music, especially if there is a drink and some lively conversation. We have a pool and frequent visitors, so just sitting around that I find to be a joyous time. As I mentioned, I also like video games. I’m not a “console” person, so most of my games are on the computer. I’ve started getting into virtual reality gaming as of late, and I find that quite entertaining. In the wintertime, I tend to be a bit more “solitary,” and I’ll spend time working on an oil painting, which I’ll finish up before spring arrives.  Art was my “original creative outlet,” so I still dabble in it.

If you only had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring author, what would it be?

“Never give up. Never Surrender.” Yeah, I’m a big fan of Galaxy Quest. Seriously, though. Persistence is the name of the game when it comes to writing. I wrote and discarded thirteen novels before I had one that was good enough for publishing. When I got “into” the business, I was 47.  Not a time most people start a new career – but after twenty years of writing with no success, followed by a ten-year hiatus, I just couldn’t stay away any longer. I didn’t care if my stories were ever read by anyone. I just wanted to write for myself, my wife, and the few friends I thought might give them a try.  Turns out there were a lot of people who liked them, and while writing is its own reward, having others love your work is beyond measure. So, to everyone who is struggling, I say, “Hang in there and keep at it.” Don’t worry about “making money.” Just enjoy the process of writing, and if it turns out that someday you can earn a living from it, consider that a bonus, not the goal.

Are you working on any new books or other projects at the moment?

Always. I recently finished writing Drumindor (the 5th Riyria Chronicle). It’s done, but not “finished,” which means I’ll still have some editing work, but that is on hold while I wait on others. Right now, that means my wife, Robin, who is my alpha reader, and after I get her feedback incorporated, then it will be my beta readers who will chime in.  Then I’ll have to review the copyeditor’s fixes, so I will have that “on my plate” for maybe as long as half a year, depending on when various people have time to devote to it.

In the meantime, I’m working on a massive project that may never see the light of day. A few weeks ago, its chances were about one in ten. But now it’s up to 50/50. The thing about it is, it will probably take me several years to write, and if it doesn’t clear a very high bar, I’ll throw it in the trash.  So, it’s too risky and too tenuous to know whether it’ll be released.

For those who are curious, it is something that I swore I would never write, but now I just may. You see when I finished the Riyria Revelations, I swore I would never write past the timeline of the Heir of Novron. Why? Because I was so proud of how it ended, that I didn’t feel it was possible to raise the bar any higher, and falling short of its excellence would do my beloved ending a disservice.

But since that time, I’ve written twenty books in the world of Elan, and that has let me fully explore the tapestry that was in my head when I sat down to write my first series, The Riyria Revelations. With my later books, Legends of the First Empire and The Rise and Fall, I was able to provide the appropriate foundation that would make “going forward” in the overall timeline possible. 

So, that’s what I’m working on now. I’m not actually writing anything yet – it’s far too early for that. I’m just getting my ducks in a row, fleshing out the storylines, and planning and plotting, and conceptualizing. Sometimes an entire book is created and destroyed in just a few minutes because I can see intrinsic problems that have no way to be solved. But some of the really tough obstacles have been cleared, and I’ll keep on this path until I either (a) have enough worked out to start writing or (b) decide it’s just too impossible to tackle.  If the answer is (a) then I’ll be writing that for a long, long time. If it’s (b), well, I have plenty of other ideas that have been patiently waiting in line. Coming up with new story ideas is never the problem. It’s having enough time left on this earth to get them written down that is the hard part. 

Related to Our Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

Owner and Editor of The Fantasy Review. Loves all fantasy and science fiction books, graphic novels, TV and Films. Having completed a BA and MA in English Literature and Creative writing, they would like to go on to do a PhD. Favourite authors are Trudi Canavan, Steven Erikson, George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson.

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