Alec Hutson is a Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off ’17 finalist, and the author of the critically acclaimed Raveling series. While a new face in the SFF community, his work is already making waves as a bold new example of Epic Fantasy’s rise in independent fiction. I sat down with him recently to discuss self-published fantasy, his experience living in China, and the shifting landscape of SFF fiction.
MARTIN: Alec, Your Raveling series has garnered quite a bit of buzz as of late! Not too long ago, all the positive feedback surrounding the first book in the series (The Crimson Queen) convinced me to buy a paperback copy of my own. And I have to say, I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this world you’ve created! So as a newer writer, and a self-published one at that, what’s your reaction to all the positive feedback?
ALEC: Well, thank you for the kind words. I have to say the success of Queen caught me pretty much completely off guard. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy book, but I never really seriously entertained the notion that my writing would resonate with others or that my book would achieve a small measure of success. When the positive reviews started coming in and the book began selling at a reasonable clip I was pretty shocked. It was like I was in a dream, to be honest. Along with the surprise, I did feel a small measure of satisfaction regarding the nature of The Crimson Queen – I would consider it very much a book in the mold of a classic high / epic fantasy, and a kind of book that it appears to me that traditional publishers have almost stopped publishing. One of the reasons I self-published was because I simply didn’t see many debut books in the mold of Jordan or Feist being trad published today . . . with the exception that sometimes a book like this does so well self-published that it is eventually picked up (like The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington) Queen’s success in self-publishing *I think* is partly due to the fact that there is a large number of readers who still love classic fantasy, and their reading needs are no longer being well met by the big houses.
MARTIN: So for those here who haven’t yet read the first book, what can they expect from this world you’ve created? What sort of realms, magic systems, monsters and civilizations lie waiting for the curious reader?
ALEC: It’s a classic high fantasy world, with parts of it modeled after different Earth-analogous cultures. For example, one of the main empires is based off of Tang dynasty China (or, at least, the romanticized version that exists today in modern Chinese media), another is a more Classical-era Mediterranean empire, and others are cobbled from several different civilizations. For magic, I really prefer a ‘soft’ magic system – no formulas or complicated explanations. Hopefully, this preserves some of the wonder. Monsters also exist in the world, though they don’t run rampant over the country-side like in D&D. I have a race of ancient creatures called the Ancients who slumber in the deep places in the world, and I was going there for a Lovecraftian vibe. I tried to create my own creatures rather than rely on some of the fantasy archetypes. Basically, I wanted to pay homage to all the classic aspects of fantasy that I love – the magic, the world, the monsters – but put my own little spin on it. Comfort food, but filling.
MARTIN: It’s interesting you bring up unique creatures and worldbuilding elements, because I kind of feel that this is the path fantasy as a whole is taking. Hero’s journey stories are obviously never going to go away, but the way we tell Epic Fantasy is bound to change over time. And I notice in more modern fiction that there’s a shift away from the Dungeons and Dragons mold of “oh look, here’s these archetypes you can find in the Handbook/Monster Manual,” and more of a focus on new and unique creatures and worlds. I even talked with some editors in trad on this, and they seem to agree. How do you as a writer, feel about this genre shift?
ALEC: I think it’s a good thing. Personally, anytime I browse a fantasy book and see ‘elves’ or ‘orcs’ it’s a pretty good bet I’m not interested in picking it up. Usually, it shows a paucity of imagination, and if the same recycled races are in a book, most likely the plot isn’t going to surprise me. That said, there are exceptions. Two of the best books I’ve read this year included archetypal fantasy races – The Gray Bastards, which had orcs and centaurs and elves, and The Kings of the Wyld, which was a great nostalgia trip with basically every entry in the old Monster Manual.
MARTIN: It’s also worth noting that you participated in the SPFBO last year, and made it as a finalist. As a self-published author, how does it feel knowing that resources and awards like that exist? Do you feel that the self-publishing landscape is improving for SFF authors, and what advantages do you feel they have over trad publishing?
ALEC: It’s fantastic knowing that something like the SPFBO exists. Mark Lawrence is a saint for putting up with the headache it must be to herd those cats every year. And yes, I do feel like the SFF self-publishing landscape is improving. I’m seeing more and more authors choosing to self publish good books and ignoring trad publishing entirely. And it has massive advantages. Perhaps the biggest reason I self-published was that I looked at trad publishing and I saw virtually no classic high fantasy debuts being published, despite my feeling that there was still a massive market for it. This was back in 2016 when every new debut competed to claim the title of darkest grimdark. I do believe that the big houses decide ‘this’ is popular this year or this season and group-think publish only a few types of books – perhaps the kinds of books that the editors and agents want to read, and I don’t really think they represent the average fantasy reader. Or, at the very least, there are massive groups of readers undeserved by the books coming out of New York and London. Which is why we’re seeing self-published taking a larger and larger chunk of the overall reading market – I believe the most recent numbers put self-published fantasy at something like 35% of the entire pie, which is pretty incredible if you ask me. There’s also, of course, the advantage of speed, and that self-published writers can earn a more fair percentage of the money their work brings in.
MARTIN: That’s something I’ve taken note of as well, and while you and I both love a lot of what’s coming out of established publishing (I too own Kings of the Wyld!), I kind of feel the same way about the Epic Fantasy genre in particular. The self-pub scene has seen some fairly big releases that are Epic fantasy, with Queen being one of those. As a fan of fantasy — not necessarily a writer — what would you ideally like to see coming from that scene in the future? Are there any sort of cultures, myths or Epic Fantasy subgenres you feel are under-served by trad that could see a rise in self-pub? Wuxia, or Space Fantasy (ie Star Wars), something like that?
ALEC: WuXia is actually the perfect example, and more particularly – I believe I’m getting the term right – Xianxia. I think with the rise of gaming readers today have an attachment to the idea of character progression or leveling, and we can see this is LitRPG, which is another subgenre that trad seems blind to. In Chinese Xianxia books the main character starts out weak, but through a cultivation of qi or another internal energy they eventually develop into powerful warriors. They go from losing fights to the schoolyard bully to throwing mountains at the gods. There are a few websites of poorly translated versions of the popular Chinese stories, and they have a growing following. Will Wight’s excellent Cradle series (this is the most addictive self-published fantasy I’ve read) is, I think, a really great version of a Xianxia story, and shows how it can translate to the West. I’m toying with some ideas along this line for my series after The Raveling. I live in Shanghai and have met several Chinese SFF writers, and one of them is keen to collaborate on a project together. I’m not sure if it will happen, but co-writing a Xianxia style-story that’s aimed at both a Chinese and Western audience with a local Chinese writer could be pretty cool, and it might be the first such collaboration ever in fantasy fiction.
MARTIN: So your most recent book, The Silver Sorceress, was recently released. Without spoiling anything, were there any cool elements you enjoyed writing in that one? Maybe a sneak peek for those of us who read/are reading Queen?
ALEC: As in Queen, my favorite chapters in Sorceress were those written from the villains’ perspective. I like stepping inside the heads of the antagonists because it both humanizes them for the readers and perhaps provides context or justification for some of their actions. And villains are just fun to write.
MARTIN: On your Amazon page, you mention you live in Shanghai, and grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore? I mean, that right there kinda sounds like something from a novel! Do you feel any interesting events or places from your life helped with worldbuilding?
ALEC: Probably not my early life, as that was spent in a quiet Northeast coastal town. Though there is a fair bit of history where I live – my family has lived on the same land since 1600 or so, and the family farm where my cousin and her family now reside has been in the family since 1641. According to an old copy of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not it’s the oldest continuously owned family farm in America. Also, my hometown – Newburyport – was mentioned in an HP Lovecraft story. So perhaps I’ve always had an affinity for cosmic horror having grown up there. The biggest influence on worldbuilding for me was living in Asia for the past 15 years and traveling around to places like Angkor and Bagan and Tibet. There’s so much rich culture here, and it all becomes grist for the worldbuilding mill.
MARTIN: So normally this is the part where I ask a crazy question to see what creative response my interviewee comes up with…but right now? I’m just curious about the food in China! What are some of your favorite regional dishes and street foods? The intersection of food and culture is always one of those things that really fascinates me, and I’m just dying to know what’s out there!
ALEC: Oh, good question! As most folk know, American Chinese is completely different than real Chinese food. Real Chinese food is absolutely terrific and quite varied. It’s hard to choose individual dishes, so I’ll run through my favorite cuisines.
1. Sichuan. This is the most popular cuisine in China. Famous for its numbing peppercorns and fiery dishes. I suggest everyone eating at an authentic Sichuan restaurant once in your life.
2. Hunan. The really spicy stuff. More hot than numbing.
3. Xinjiang. This cuisine is from the northwest area of China, and the people here are actually Turkish. Lots of lamb and fried bread.
4. Dong Bei. Comfort food. Heart dumplings and noodles. The northeast of China.
5. Cantonese. Fresh ingredients and natural flavors, and dim sum is amazing. Dim sum in Hong Kong from one of the Michelin starred cheap restaurants will change your life.
My favorite street food is called jian bing. It’s kind of a breakfast crepe – here’s a very accurate video of what you’d see on just about every street-corner in China in the morning:
MARTIN: And as an added bonus, what would your main protagonist’s favorite Chinese dish be?
ALEC: I think he (Keilan) would like something hearty and rustic, maybe some di san qian (potatoes, peppers, and eggplant in a garlic sauce). Or for a special occasion some guo bao rou (fried pork in sweet sauce).
Alec Hutson’s latest book, The Silver Sorceress, is now available on Amazon. For more of his work, please visit his Amazon page and website. For those of you who’ve already read his books, please be sure to leave a Goodreads review if you haven’t already. Also, consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about great SFF, writing and more cool stuff!