Interview with the author of the ‘ Riyria Revelations’ series, Michael J. Sullivan

As part of the ‘Michael J. Sullivan as featured author’ series, today we have an interview with Michael. We talked at length about his books, his writing career and future plans. By now, I’m sure everyone is familiar with Michael and his books, so I’ll skip the usual introduction and jump right in.

About the Riyria Revelations series

Ritesh: I asked Michael about about the Riyria Revelations series and the upcoming final chapter due to be released soon. Michael was gracious enough to give us a sneak peak at an excerpt from ‘Percepliquis’ as a bonus for all the waiting fans who were not able to land the ARCs!  

Describe your books? What genre do you consider your books?

I’ll answer this from the “series” level as I wrote all six books together and think of them as one really large story told in individual episodes. In the beginning it is mainly about two guys who perform the “dirty work” for the nobility and are caught up in the middle of some pretty important events that end up shaping the world as it moves from a collection of small kingdoms to a reunited empire. As the series goes on it expands the story to four main characters as I also follow the arcs of two women…one of royal blood, who learns about magic and an appreciation for the simple lives of ordinary people. The other is a poor peasant girl who loses everything but becomes a puppet ruler of a rising new empire.

The genre is traditional epic fantasy because there are events that occur that have an impact on the world as a whole. By traditional I mean it is very much akin to the roots of fantasy where there is an undercurrent of optimism and a desire to be heroic. My characters have flaws and are conflicted, but in the end they do what is needed. They are unlikely heroes set within a fast-paced adventure.

Who designed the covers of the series?

There are actually two sets of covers.  My “original” ones for the six-book series:

Which were done by me, and then the Orbit covers for the three-book omnibus versions:

There were two main people who worked on these. The artist who did the photography work, Larry Rostant, and the graphic designer who did the layout/typography, which is Lauren Panepinto.

How long did it take you to write the series?

It’s interesting but I didn’t really consider the totality of this series until recently. The question has arisen in a few recent interviews.  From start to finish (finish being a few weeks from now when Percepliquis, the sixth and final book, is released) was twenty-two years.  Most of that, fourteen years or so, was in the conceptualization phase. I wasn’t even writing things down at that time. I just had ideas coming to me and I would keep adding them to a kind of snowball that was slowing building in my brain. During a part of those fourteen years I was actually writing other books, and so I was just making mental notes.  Then came my hiatus, which was a ten year period where I did no writing (because I had concluded it to be a huge waste of time and effort). During those years, the characters and plots really bombarded me to the point where I finally had to relent and start writing.

Because it had been building for so long, the first two books flowed out of me at a pretty amazing pace. I wrote the first one in a month and took about the same time for the second.  The other four were more leisurely with six to nine months per book.  The writing phase lasted four years from start to finish.

Editing took another two and a half years. When I was self-publishing, the books came out every six months. Even though I had written them all before the first one was released, I did have to make major changes…sometimes rearranging or adding entire sections. For instance, what was once the first pages of the third book (Nyphron Rising) now appears on page 105.

Lastly there was nine months from the time I turned in the final changes to Orbit and the last book will be available for reading in mid January.

Could you describe what happens in the last book in the series? Could you give us an excerpt from the last book?

Yes, but then I’d have to kill you 😉  Unlike a series of sequels this is actually a carefully crafted series and all the previous books are really just a setup for the concluding volume. It is where all the threads that have been woven finally conclude.  And there have been a number of mysteries slowly building that have their final closure.

It’s interesting, too, that the second to last book, Wintertide, actually ties up an amazing number of plots so in some respects there really shouldn’t be a lot left for Percepliquis. Just after the conflicts in the world of man are resolved, the elves show up after the end of a 3,000 year truce. Previously, Elan has only seen half-elves which are vilified and ostracized much like Jews in the 1940’s. “Real elves” are much different and a conflict with them could have devastating results.

Here is an excerpt….

When the last troop was in place, there were at least two thousand elves waiting before the wall. Then more riders appeared. There were no more than twenty and yet to Renwick they were the most frightening yet. They rode black horses, wore no armor, and were dressed only in shimmering robes that appeared to change color. On their heads were masks of spiders. Behind them came twenty more riders. These wore chest plates of gold and long sweeping capes of rich purple. Their helms were the heads of lions.

As Renwick watched, those on the black horses raised their arms in unison and all made identical motions of a complicated pattern that seemed like a dance of arms and hands. He stood fascinated by the fluid gestures. The dance abruptly ended as the twenty clapped their hands, and even through the wax Renwick heard the boom.

The ground quaked, and a tremor shook the wall. He felt it sway and saw the men beside him stagger. Cracks formed, fissures opened, chips of stone splintered and fell. Beyond the wall, trees shook as if alive and the earth broke apart. Hills separated from each other, one rising, the other lowering. Great gulfs appeared, ravines forming, jagged cracks that sundered the land and raced at them.

Another jolt struck the wall. Renwick felt the stone snap, the shudder shooting up his legs, making his teeth click. More cracking, more tremors, and then, between the fourth and fifth towers, the curtain wall collapsed. Men screamed as they fell along with thousand-pound blocks of stone into a cloud of exploding dust. The tower to the left of the southern gate slipped its footing, wavered, and toppled, raining stone on a dozen men. The tremor, having passed through the wall, continued through the city like a wave. Buildings collapsed. Streets broke apart and trees fell. Imperial Square divided itself in two—the platform the empress had recently stood on was swallowed by a jagged crevasse. In the distance, the imperial cathedral’s tower cracked and fell.

The shaking of the earth stopped but the elves did not move. They did not advance.

Who is your favorite character in the series?

This comes up often and really there is no way to answer it. I like each character for different reasons and depending on which book I’m writing, and what is happening with them, the answer to that will change. One person who comes up time and again from the readers is Myron. He makes an appearance in the first book and is able to steal scenes effortlessly. I purposefully kept him off stage for books two through four as I wanted to use him sparingly.  When he returns in the fifth and sixth books he is a much different person than when we first met him…but I like what he blossomed into. He is always fun to write and I think he is the most often remarked upon character outside the obvious Royce, Hadrian, Arista, and Thrace who are the main protagonists.

How did you research writing the fight sequences?

The Interwebs is God’s gift to the writer. I’m actually old enough to remember having to drive to libraries (and at the time the closest to me was eighty miles away) to do research. Today Google will get you tons of information at your fingertips. The trick in writing fight sequences is not so much in understanding the basics of fencing or swordplay (which I did do research on), but learning how to make the scene interesting…to tell a story within  a story…to bring the drama. The visual nature of movies makes fight scenes very exciting. When written, they can be boring if you do little more than describe a blow by blow recounting.

About the world in Riyria Revelations

Ritesh: I was really interested in how Michael went about creating such a complex and detailed world. Here’s a fun fact: The world we see is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as Michael puts it.

Which of the political systems you introduce in the books do you find to be the best?

Well this is fantasy and I’m really not trying to make a political statement on the benefits or downside of any particular system. My so-called “villains” really aren’t. They see a future and the potential benefits of what they can bring about. In many ways, if they are able to accomplish their goals the result would be a lifestyle improvement for people at all levels. The problems come because they lose the forest for the trees and the means don’t always justify the end.

Did you base the nations in this book on real places / geographies?

As mentioned, my books are traditional fantasy so the setting is similar to Medieval Europe although the world of Elan is imaginary so I can have different history, gods, and of course a bit of magic. The first Novronian Empire (which ended 1,000 years before the events of my books take place) mirrors Rome and there are shades of the Catholic Church in the religion of my world. Still, because I created a world I could make concessions that fit my needs. For instance there is no gun powder in Elan, and sailing ships as described in The Emerald Storm do not coincide with those of Medieval times… I even have a character that wears a powdered wig. None of those things coincide on earth, but one of the advantages of making a world is that you can make up the rules without someone challenging you on the accuracy. You are the definitive expert in a world of your own making.

How difficult is it to create a world for a fantasy series?

I wouldn’t describe it as difficult…time consuming yes…but difficult…no. Again it goes back to that “this is what I do for fun” thing. My world has 8,000 years of history behind it. Most of the things that I’ve invented never make it to the page as my philosophy on world building is like that of an iceberg and most of it should remain submerged.

Changes due to the Orbit Deal

Ritesh: I know a number of long time fans of the series who read the original 5 books were quite displeased about the delay in the release of the final book caused by this deal. Maybe this will help clear Michael’s thinking behind accepting Orbit’s points behind the delay and calm you down a bit :). 

What changes have come in the 3-book format vs. the 6-book format?

The story line is almost identical between the two versions with two notable exceptions. One is a new beginning.  My editor at Orbit, and some fans, had mentioned that they didn’t connect with the opening scene in the original books. It actually featured a couple of minor characters, one of which is meant to be pretty unlikeable. Some thought that as Archie shows up first he was actually the main protagonist and they didn’t want to read a whole book about him. So I added a scene that starts with the two male leads, Royce and Hadrian. I think this is a much better place to start.

Orbit’s versions also added a pretty extensive glossary and some shorter summaries about the various nations of Elan, political systems, and an overview of the Gods. Again this is something that I heard a lot of feedback from the fans over the years so I think it was the right choice to incorporate.

Which do you like better? 3-book format vs. the 6-book format?

At first I was very opposed to the 3-book format because they were “designed” by me to be individual stories. There has been a bit of confusion from people not knowing that the newer titles are Omnibus versions (which I find hard to understand as the descriptions clearly say this). Orbit made some really good points about trying to keep six books stocked in bookstores and by combining they could get the whole series out faster. Both of these arguments made sense. Now that I see how things are “rolling out” I’m a total convert and agree with the decision.

The only “bad thing” is that there are some recurring themes or little innuendos that might seem to be beating a dead horse when they are read in quick succession.  I thought about editing out some of these but thought that their absence might be a bit conspicuous to people who read both versions, so in the end I decided to keep what was already there. In the editing process I added things from time to time but I didn’t remove anything.

Getting to know Michael Sullivan

Ritesh: We all want to know more about Michael. Well, this is where it happens!

When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve always written…I started as a kid typing up books on a manual typewriter and folding and binding them with glue. For the most part I wrote because I couldn’t find enough books to read that suited my taste. Boredom is another big reason for my writing. It was a great way to fill time. I’m an old timer and when I was a kid there were only three network television stations and they went off the air around midnight, so I needed something to keep my mind busy.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Was there somewhere in the series you felt stuck?

As I mentioned I really don’t have problems writing. I often have problems reading or watching movies as I constantly want to “rewrite” them, or see ways that I would have done something differently. As far as getting stuck, the thing about writing is it consists of thousands of decision points, and I could see branches of different paths that could be taken—kind of like alternate realities—so sometimes navigating the final direction would cause me to stop writing to ponder the various implications. As I mentioned this allows me to see connections which fall into place like pieces of a puzzle. It’s very interesting to watch how they come together.  Whether that counts as “being stuck” or not I’m not sure, but that’s about the closest thing I ran across along those lines.

Did you learn anything from writing the books and what was it?

I learned the importance of giving the books time to incubate and trust the characters and their motivations. There were times when I could feel the story taking on its own life and actually fighting me to go in directions that I really didn’t want it to. I never wanted to settle for “good enough” and after each book I would challenge myself to see what I could do to take it to the next level. It was during these “post book” reflections that some of the greatest revelations came to me, and although it would mean going back and rewriting, the books are much better because of this.

What was the hardest part of writing the series?

I actually didn’t find any part of it “hard.” I guess the thing I spent the most time on was research into nautical information because a portion of the fourth book, The Emerald Storm (found in Rise of Empire) is set on a ship for part of the book. I had really enjoyed the A&E series on Horatio Hornblower and it got me to read the books in their original form. I also read a lot of textbooks describing nautical terms and lifestyle. I wanted to make sure I balanced the “research” with the storytelling and walked a tightrope to get authenticity into the books without boring the reader.

What book are you reading now? Which are your all-time favourite authors / books?

I just completed A Moveable Feast by Hemingway and I’m reading King’s Under the Dome a bit each day before I start writing. I’ve started and stopped a number of fantasy books (most very highly regarded) but I tend to stay away from those as I don’t want it to unduly influence my writing. Many people think Royce and Hadrian are based off of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but I never read those books (or even knew of them until a fan mentioned them). Now that I know of their existence, I have to keep my distance because I’m afraid it would dramatically change how I write.

As to all-time favorite authors, well of course there is Tolkien, who has started just about every fantasy writer down the road of discovery much like Bilbo when he set out for the Lonely Mountain. It was his books that forever changed me from hating reading to wanting to explore where the printed page could take me. I adored J.K. Rowling’s Potter series. It was the effortless and fun aspect of the first Harry Potter book that finally convinced me to write again…but this time purely for fun instead of trying to write something to be published. Stephen King’s The Stand has some of the greatest characters ever written. They were so clearly defined and diverse that it really had an effect on me. Watership Down is another book that has truly fantastic characters and I really felt transported with them on their adventures. It is one of just a few books that I can read over and over and still enjoy with each telling. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is generally thought of for its political manifesto but if you look at it purely for its fiction it tells a pretty well developed story. I liked the way the mystery of “Who is John Galt” unraveled and thought the characters of Dagny Taggert and Hank Reardon were exceptionally well done. In addition, Rand paints some amazing scenes with words such that I still can visualize them in my mind’s eye decades after reading them. There are many, many more including Updike, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. The books and authors I really like are actually scarce in number (as I’m particularly picky) but their contributions and influence on my writing is pretty substantial.

Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you, something you could not read just about anywhere.
That’s a bit of a tough one as the things that are “good to know” are things that I talk about often, so they’ve probably mentioned them before.  But let me see…I believe in “true love” or “soul mates” and though not everyone will find theirs I certainly found mine and just one year with Robin would have been enough for a lifetime. The fact that we’ve had more than thirty years together has made my life better than anything I could imagine…and I have a pretty active imagination.

I value freedom and abhor authority to an extent that I probably could not operate in “the real world.”  In fifty years I’ve only had “a boss” for seven and most of that was when I was a teen or in my early twenties. I’d rather live in a shed and work a minimum wage job then climb a corporate ladder. If I’m put in a cubicle or under florescent lights I don’t think I could produce anything requiring creativity.

I like the idea of “heroes,” and feel that the label is both over and under used. I think a true hero is someone who makes a choice to do something as opposed to just having an event happen to them. A small child falling down a well is not heroic, but the efforts of those risking their lives to go in after it are. The incident can be small or far reaching; it is the motivations and the story behind why the hero does what they did which interests me.

About his Future Plans

Ritesh: The series will soon be over. Will we see Royce and Hadrian again? When will we get to read something by Michael next? The answer, my dear readers, depends on you! Surprised? Continue reading to find out why.

What are your current projects?  What can we expect now that the series is coming to a close?

A lot of that will depend on the readers. Because this series was constructed in a very tight and well defined story arc I won’t be “adding on” to the end of it. I wrote this series so that all the preceding books build to the final book, Percepliquis, and it ends exactly the way I want it to. I don’t want to tarnish that by tacking on another book just because people are enjoying the series.

That being said, Royce and Hadrian were together for twelve years before the start of this story so there is a lot of potential in doing “the early years.”  Plus there are some threads that could be played with regarding the first empire which was 1,000 years in the past and even further to the original war between man and elves which was 3,000 years ago. What I don’t want to do is “milk the series” or “overstay my welcome” in the world of Elan. I would hate for people to “grow tired” of Royce and Hadrian. I’d rather they go out on a high note then to be one of those television series that just went on longer than it ever should have.  So, I’ll keep my ear to the ground as the final book comes out and try to judge what people say. I could do a few short stories, as I did with The recent Viscount and the Witch or I could write longer full-length novels. We’ll see how it goes.

In the interim, I’ve written my next novel, Antithesis, which is a modern-day fantasy and I have a literary fiction piece which is much different than the fast-paced action of The Riyria Revelations that needs a bit more editing and then it could go out there. I suspect most of my existing fans won’t be interested in that one but it is some writing that I’m pretty proud of and I do want to see it released.

Other than that I have many other stories that are just waiting in the wings. I have more projects than I’ll ever finish in my lifetime, so there are nearly endless opportunities. I’m never lacking ideas for what to write.

Would you be open to others writing books in the world created by you, or using your characters in their books?

My daughter loves fanfiction and tells me that I’ll only “really make it” when it starts appearing for my works. I guess I’m both flattered and terrified by the prospect as I can only imagine what type of pairing will come out of that. I have problems when editors try to change Royce or Hadrian’s dialog, because I see them a certain way, so I’m sure that any deviation from my own mind’s eye would be a bit difficult for me.

As for “commercial endeavors,” like what Patterson does, or franchise work such as Star Wars or Star Trek, I can’t really see myself getting involved in that. As a writer it would be a nightmare to operate in someone else’s sandbox. I can think of nothing worse than to be handed a plot or bible to follow. I know that from a financial perspective it can be lucrative (as more work is produced without much effort on the original author’s part) but money has never been a motivating factor for me. I get my enjoyment out of creating, so any work that I do will be my own.

Some words for aspiring writers and readers

Ritesh: Any aspiring writers out here? Look at words of wisdom Michael has for you. And for the readers? How can Michael ever forger you? You get a mention as well!

What suggestions would you give aspiring writers looking to self-publish?

It’s been said a thousand times before but it really is true…write a damn good book. The fact is that in self-publishing you have to be twice as good to get half as much credit. Don’t skimp when it comes to copyediting and cover design. I can tell most self-published titles from a mile away just by their covers. You have to be able to put your book side by side with other works in your genre from traditional publishing houses and not be able to tell the difference. If this isn’t the case with your books than fix that. People will judge the copy editing of a self-published book much more harshly than a traditionally published one. Every misplaced comma or homophone error will be shouted from the rooftops as an example of poor editing and why self-published books are “dreck.” A similar mistake in a book from Simon a large publisher is looked upon as, “oops a small boo-boo there.” You have to make sure there are few chinks in your armor to exploit.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to the readers?

Thank you.  Whether you read my books, or someone else’s, it’s you who make it possible for us…writers…to live out our dreams. I want to especially thank those that tell others, or write reviews of books. This extra step is the key ingredient of making a success, and I, and I suspect most writers, don’t care so much about the money as we do being able to devote more time to writing. It’s a shame that so many authors, even those with multiple books out, depend on spouse’s income or have day jobs (very few make a living wage from writing). Readers can devour in a few days (or sometimes hours) that which takes a writer months or years to create. So by helping to spread the word of your favorite author, you may provide them additional income such that they can “quit their day job” and spend more time banging on the keys and producing new adventures for you to go on.

Ritesh: I really like to thank Michael for this terrific interview as well as for the amazing week we’ve had so far. And yes, there’s still more to come!


6 responses to “Interview with the author of the ‘ Riyria Revelations’ series, Michael J. Sullivan

  1. Awesome review! Those ‘good to know’ facts are exceptional. You have created a new fan!

  2. Pingback: Michael J. Sullivan as featured author for an entire week! | Ritesh Kala's Book Reviews

  3. Pingback: Percepliquis: The series concludes by Michael J Sullivan | Ritesh Kala's Book Reviews

  4. Pingback: The Riyria Revelations: A Series Overview by Michael J. Sullivan | Ritesh Kala's Book Reviews

  5. Pingback: Interview with the author of ‘The Nousdian Chronicles’, Mark Waters | Ritesh Kala's Book Reviews

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