Paul Tobin: First… since some readers of my blog might not be familiar with your work, give a brief, “this is who I am, and this is what I write.” And I do apologize for this question, because I hate it myself, but it’s as unavoidable as the pull of the giant black hole that will eventually devour our galaxy.
Steve McHugh: Well, I’m originally from a small village in South-Yorkshire called Mexbrough, but we moved to Southampton when I was young and I’ve lived here most of my thirty-three years. I’m married with three young daughters, which probably makes me sound insane, but the lack of money just means I get to write more. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Apart from writing, I’m also a big reader, especially comics, and I have a love of anime and videogames. Basically, I’m a geek.
I write Urban Fantasy and my first book, Crimes Against Magic came out on 30th April 2012. It’s book 1 in the Hellequin Chronicles, a series of books about a centuries old sorcerer, Nathan Garrett.
PT: Just a comment that you, along with Jeff Salyards, are one of two first time novelists that I’m interviewing who have three young daughters. It makes me wonder if there’s some sort of requirement involved. I feel as though I’m short a secret handshake, here.
SM: We should really sort out a secret club, with a newsletter and badges. Okay, it would be a really small club, but I’m sure people would be clambering to get in.
PT: Are you an author who builds a meticulous skeleton, or are you unleashing the flood and then dealing with the aftermath when revising?
SM: I’m somewhere in the middle. I tend to know what I want to have happen and roughly where it should happen, but I let the individual chapters write themselves. That sometimes means I need to re-write things that don’t work, but for the most part it seems to work out quite well.
PT: When you go through your revision process, do you end up with bits and pieces leftover for later, or do you well and truly just delete the mistakes and move on? And, on that subject, how important would you say the revising process is? Myself, I rank it as an absolute necessity where the writing is honed, and as something of a net that allows my mind to truly cut loose during the draft stage, but I’m well away from one of those writers who say that revision is where the “real” writing gets done. Where do you fall?
SM: I do tend to finish with bits over, like when you put something together from Ikea and you have a few screws left over that you put into your big bag of screws in case you ever need them for a later date. I have a list of things I didn’t use and might use at some point. Usually I only keep the characters or entire scenes I’ve deleted. If it’s a little thing, I just delete it for good.
Revisiting your book is incredibly important. It’s where you polish and change to make things better. For me, the early drafts are getting the story and characters to a place I want them. After that it’s about trying up the writing so that it’s readable.
PT: Myself, I have a whole list of writers I consider as influences, but I don’t actually write like any of them. Is it that way for you, or do you find yourself with a certain level of emulation?
SM: My influences are people like Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Jim Butcher, Lee Child and too many more to mention, but I don’t actually write like any of them. I think you have to find your own voice when you write.
PT: Finding your own voice is of primo importance. Although, I think the phrase is a bit misleading, as it’s not so much as a writer going out to look for his or her own voice, but almost like sculpting… hacking away all the excess material (all the OTHER voices a writer has been exposed to) to reveal the core of what’s left over. That’s your voice. I’ve yet to interview anyone who’s said they write like their influences, incidentally. Maybe I’m drawn to the unique voices.
SM: The idea of finding your voice being like sculpting is a good one. I think the best writers write like themselves. Even if you’re compared to another writer, you should still write in your own style or voice.
PT: So… you’ve found your own voice… but where do you find yourself when writing?
SM: Either in my office at home or on my couch, depending on whether or not I can get enough time to actually go to my office without having the rest of the house get trashed.
PT: Where do you wish you could write?
SM: In my office all the time. That would be great. Or better yet, if I had an office that was separate to the house, like a really good shed. With electricity and a comfortable couch.
PT: I’ve long dreamed a small house / writer’s shed. But every time I start to dream about it, suddenly there’s a full bar and a pool and etc, etc, etc, and suddenly I would be watching all the dancing girls instead of working. I work mostly in cafes, and so far haven’t found one with a pool, and there’ve been no instances of girls leaping up on tables to dance, the way the Savage Sword of Conan comics of my youth ASSURED me would happen.
SM: I couldn’t write in a cafe, I’d just sit there and drink too much tea. And I’ve never had someone just jump on a table and start dancing either. I think somehow Conan lied to us all about the reality of being an adult.
PT: That really is the moment between boyhood and manhood… the realization that you’re not going to get to bash your drinking mug over some bastard’s face shortly before tossing a serving wench over your shoulders and marching her laughing and lissom form up the stairs, to the applause of the rest of the scurrilous tavern-goers. Ahh… it’s all too sad. Let’s move on. Authors are always interviewed about the right things to do… give me your thoughts on the WRONG things to do.
SM: Take things personally. If someone leaves you a bad review or feedback just shrug it off and get back to writing. If you agree with their points, then take them on board, just don’t get hung up on the negative will always make your job harder in the long run.
Also, do not publish or submit your work without having someone read it. And by someone, I mean someone who isn’t your family/friends. Someone who will be critical. It’s why a lot of people join crit groups; it’ll improve your writing tenfold.
PT: It wasn’t until I joined a crit group that my writing truly took the necessary steps forward. Casual strangers will point out mistakes in your writing that a friend will NEVER say. And, as far as reviews, I never read them. Never. My wife will sometimes point one out to me, but having written so many comics it’s been a constant barrage of reviews, and I had to step away. I don’t miss it. I LOVE when people say nice things about me… but it’s too much of a roller-coaster ride.
SM: Crit groups are how I improved writing. Without my crit group, I wouldn’t be published. It’s something I find to be very odd when people say they’re not a member of one.
PT: If you could spend a night on the town with any three characters from history / fiction, who would they be, and what would you do? Don’t feel the need to restrict yourself by the boundaries of legality. We are authors. We are above the law.
SM: Someone should have told me we were above the law a while back, I might have taken a few liberties with paying for stuff.
From history, I’d probably pick Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci and Nikola Tesla. I might not be able to understand everything they discuss, but whatever they came up with, you just know it would be all kinds of incredible. I’d just sit there and listen to them, and then I’d be able to say that I was right there when they invented something world changing.
From fiction, that’s a bit easier. I’d take Wolverine, Thor and Black Cat to the pub. Because you know you’re going to have a good night with those three together. And if there’s any trouble… well you’re probably going to come out on the winning side.
PT: Throw in Oscar Wilde in that history group, and I’d be right there with you. As far as the fiction one… I just couldn’t take it when the Black Cat went home with either Thor or Wolverine. That said, whichever of them was left, we’d sure get a hell of a drink on.
SM: Yeah, but there’s a good chance that whoever goes home with Black Cat is going to get robbed blind. It’ll be the best robbery of all time, but still, robbed blind.
PT: Speak a bit of your first novel, Crimes Against Magic. How did it all come about, and where do you see it all going?
SM: It basically came about by me wanting to write a book that I’d like to read. I’ve always loved magic and monsters, stories about mythology, that kind of thing, so it was only natural that I use those elements to create a story. The characters have been in my head for years, in one form or another, they just needed to be set free, so to speak.
I’d like Crimes Against Magic to be the start of many books to come. I’ve got fairly detailed notes for over a dozen and ideas for a dozen more, excluding a few spin off series and short stories that I’d like to get written when I have more time. In an ideal world, I’d sell enough to let me write full-time, maybe one that that’ll be possible.
PT: So many of my favorite books came about from an aspect of the writer saying, “Well… I needed to read a book like this, and there wasn’t one… so I sat down and wrote it.” I’m intrigued that you’re already thinking of a spinoff series! I wonder what characters? And… speaking of characters, do any of your characters refuse to dance to the music you want? I ask because my own characters will sometimes decide their own fates, discarding my plans, chastising me for underestimating them, or pulling them away from how they would actually act in a given situation.
SM: It has happened, yeah. I’ve a had a few occasions where I’ve wanted to do something, but once I’d gotten to that point in the story, I just know that the characters in question wouldn’t behave in the way I originally wanted them to. Meaning some re-writing on my part and probably sniggering on theirs.
It’s quite nice being surprised on occasion, even if it does mean more work.
PT: I agree that it’s nice to be surprised by your characters. It’s amazing how they’ll see something that you’ve missed, some story point that fits perfectly. When that happens I have to sit back and say, “Umm, I AM the author here, right?” Going further into the topic of your characters… Nathaniel, excuse me, Nathan Garrett has powerful magic, and yet also uses modern weapons. Was that a conscious decision on your part to keep him in the “current” world?
SM: I wanted his world to be a mixture of the two. I decided long ago that while magic will deal with most threats, not everything could be overcome with it, so more physical weaponry would be needed. He’s the sort of person who uses what works, so having him carry a sword or gun just made sense.
PT: I thought you worked it very well. Especially in that there were “big” instances where Nathan used magic, and equally “big” instances where he used modern weaponry. The balance kept him as a character who had a job to get done, not a character that was showing off to the readers.
SM: Thanks very much. Nate is definitely someone who uses whatever gets the job done. He’s not really someone to show off when killing or fighting people. I think the fact that he’s so efficient makes him a little scarier too.
PT: When you’re writing, what distracts you the most, and how do you deal with it? I assume you have grumpy bodyguards who push away those who foolishly venture too close, but what else?
SM: My kids distract me the most by a huge margin. I mostly deal with it by not writing until they go to bed, or leaving my wife to deal with them while I vanish off to my office for a few hours.
I don’t think any grumpy bodyguards would be able to deal with my three daughters; they’re like three, incredibly cute, mini-tornadoes.
Working at night or in a locked room is the only way to get enough quiet time to actually work. Although I can block out what’s happening around me when I get into it, it’s hard to block out a two year old who sits next you and asks a million questions every few seconds.
PT: Have your daughters’ questions ever provided a springboard? There’s something about the simplicity of a young mind that can cut through the “extras” we adults like to pile up, so I’m curious if any of your daughters have ever made you see your writing in a different light.
SM: My daughters are quite young (8, 2 and 1 month), so I haven’t really discussed my writing with them too much. I think when they get older, that’s probably likely to change. Keira (my eldest) likes to ask the occasional question about history or a scene I’m writing, but that’s about as far as it goes.
PT: You’ve mentioned you read comics. What are some comic books / writers that you particularly admire?
SM: Comics are a love of mine and have been for years. I’m a big fan of Scott Snyder, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns, Stan Sakai, Mark Waid, Gail Simone, Dan Slott and a few dozen others. All of them have written something that I find incredible.
As for artists, well there’s far too many to list, but David Aja, John Romita, Jr, Steve Ditko, Humberto Ramos, Chris Bachalo and Greg Capullo are all incredibly talented storytellers.
PT: You’ve named a lot of my favourites as well. I’d love to see Alan Moore and Steve Ditko team up, mostly because I’d love to be in the room when they discuss philosophy.
SM: That would be a superb team up. Two of the greatest creators of all time working together would be a dream.
PT: Have you ever written something, then stepped back from it and thought, “No. I like this character too much. I cannot be so cruel to them.” It’s happened a couple times with me, and I’ve set the writing aside for a week or two. Then… coming back, I discovered a better way to deal with the situation in one instance, but in the other I had to say, “Sorry, chum. It’s a shitty world, ain’t it?”… and then cast them into the abyss. How about from your side?
SM: I read something a while ago by someone who said that we torture our favourite characters the most, so making Nathan’s life a misery is a way of expressing how much I like him.
I have destroyed a few characters lives in really horrible ways and afterward I thought, was that too much? But the answer is usually, no. They’re a sacrifice I’m willing to make to ensure that the story happens in the way I want it to.
PT: Sounds like you’re a cruel and heartless man, Mr. McHugh. That’s a compliment, of course, because I agree that our favourite characters have to run that gauntlet of literary torture.
SM: If we make our main characters happy all the time, there’d be no tension, you have to make the miserable to make them overcome their obstacles. It doesn’t always make for the most well adjusted characters through.
PT: Okay… we started off with who you are and what you write. In closing, give us the romanticized version: who would you like to be, and what would you like to write?
SM: Well, like all fans, I’ve had a few comic book stories in my head for years, and maybe one day I’ll get to write them, but as I’ve never actually written a comic book before, and getting into comics is incredibly difficult, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.
I have an idea for my own comic series set in the same world as Crimes Against Magic, but once again it’s finding the time to write it and then find an artist to draw it. The novels come first at the moment though, with book 2, Born of Hatred, being released before the end of the year. But it’s something I’m thinking about.
I’d want to be someone who writes stories that people enjoy reading. That’s basically my goal, and the reception to Crimes Against Magic leads me to believe that I’m heading the right way.
Hopefully one day I’ll be able to write full time and then all the other stories in my head will have time to be let loose into the world. That’s the dream.
PT: Salute! I hope you get a chance to do all this. I was much impressed by your first novel, so it would be nice to see what kind of worlds you create when you really cut loose.
SM: Thanks very much. And thanks for taking the time to interview me. I’m glad you enjoyed Crimes Against Magic. I’ve been amazed at the incredible reception it’s received. Hopefully people will enjoy the sequel just as much.
PT: Much appreciated that you stopped by. It’s always fun getting to know talented artists. And… cut! (though cool things to read await below!)
Steve’s debut novel can be found… here. (and at a SUPER LOW digital price!)
Gingerbread Girl, my latest graphic novel, can be found… here.
My online ongoing Bandette comic can be found… HERE.
The first issue of my new horror series, Colder, will be available on November 7th!
A huge wealth of my other work in the field of comics can be found… HERE.