Interview With A.J. Hartley

June 30, 2010

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my good friend A.J. Hartley has a new paperback out from Tor Books. The book is called Act of Will, and it is A.J.’s first foray into writing fantasy, after a highly successful run as a bestselling writer of thrillers. A.J. is one of the writers at Magical Words, our group blog on the craft and business of writing. He is also a theater professor at UNC-Charlotte and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.

Here is a quick interview with A.J. in which we touch on his approach to writing, elements of the new series, and what he’s working on now. I hope you enjoy it.

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Q. Will is an unconventional fantasy hero. Can you tell us why you wrote him the way you did, and talk to us a bit about what you think defines a literary hero?

A. I think that we sometimes apply different standards of characterization to fantasy than we do to other genres, embracing a brand of heroism that doesn’t bear that much resemblance to the world most of us live in. I realize that that ‘larger then life’ quality is exactly what some readers want from a fantasy hero, but I’ve always gravitated to stories where the characters feel real and familiar even in worlds involving magic and large scale conflict. Will is less a hero than he is a protagonist, the guy at the heart of the story, but not the great fighter, not the mystical talent destined for greatness. He’s ordinary, he’s realistic to the point of self-interested and he’s not about to put his life on the line without a really good reason. I like that. I like to follow a character who feels like me, who is trying to make sense out of strange and dangerous situations in much the way I might. He’s not a coward. He’s a pragmatist, and one I suspect most of us would connect to. I’m not sure I can expand this to include what all literary heroes are, but I do think that most of the best kind (or at least the ones I like) have something of this ordinaryness which is stretched by extraordinary circumstances. It might not amount to greatness, but it shows growth and development in response to challenge. That said, sometimes a literary hero is just the person we experience the story through, who’s personality and thoughts are as much the point of the narrative as are the events. In Act of Will, the first person perspective helps me to keep character and story intertwined.

Q. With all the success you’ve enjoyed as an author of thrillers (THE MASK OF ATREUS, ON THE FIFTH DAY, WHAT TIME DEVOURS) why make the switch to fantasy?

A. Oddly enough, the first version of this book predated my thrillers. I started writing the first draft of this in a computer lab at Yale where my wife was in med school. I revised and retooled over the years, learning as I went, and I think the current version did benefit from my experience writing thrillers. All told, we’re talking a gestation period of about 20 years. I was lucky enough to have an agent who liked the book enough to consider redirecting my career towards fantasy even as my other publisher was asking for more thrillers. I love the freedom to write whatever I feel like, and am glad not to be constrained to a single genre.

Q. What did you read growing up?  Is most of your reading now in genre or do you read more widely?

A. Like a lot of nerdy kids, I read voraciously, and other than what I encountered at school, I got particularly excited by both fantasy and mysteries, the latter of the kind we now call ‘cozy’ at least until I discovered Conan Doyle. After Tolkien and C.S. Lewis I read a lot of fairly derivative fantasy and formula mystery, both of which fed my conviction (unfounded at the time!) that I could do as well or better. By the time I was an undergraduate I was reading more widely, fuelled in part by my literature studies, and plunged into the masters and the modernists (and postmodernists) alike. I got excited by really layered and self-consciously clever writing, like Iris Murdoch, Joyce, Golding and others, but retained a soft spot for more sensational forms and stories from Dickens on. I never lost my British adolescent sense of humor and really connected with Douglas Adams and, laterly, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Now, I read all kinds of stuff: almost everything except perhaps romance which doesn’t really appeal to me. If it’s good according to its own rules–particularly if there’s something working at the sentence level–I’ll read it.

Q. You have a background in theater and have an endowed chair in Shakespeare studies in the theater department at UNC-Charlotte.  In what ways does your theatrical background influence your writing?

A. I think my theatre experience gives me both a visual sensibility–a sense of the pictorial and dramatic–and a focus on character, particularly manifested in dialogue. I love the way character emerges from speech and I suppose that also fuels my fascination with first person narrative. In theatre you can’t hear thought except by indirect means, and that forces an audience to watch and listen carefully to figure out what they think is motivating the action. I like to approach fiction with that same sense of attentiveness in the reader, the idea that the speaker can’t always be trusted to reveal everything, and the special dynamic you get when everything in the book is–in a sense–dialogue. From Shakespeare, of course, I get the notion that even the sensational or preposterous can be great if it’s well executed.

Q. You have a second book in this series [WILL POWER] coming out in September.  Can you tell us a bit about that volume and also about projects you have in the works beyond that one?

A. Will Power is a second installment in Will’s adventures, though it is–like Act of Will–a completely self contained story. In each of these I try to tell a fantasy story while pushing a bit at the limits of the genre. I’m also working on a middle grades/YA fantasy series, the first of which ‘Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact,’ will be out in Fall 2011.

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