Dangerously enthusiastic author of the Split Sea Novels, Stephen lives in Cambridge, UK, and writes software as well as books. Winner of absolutely nothing, he writes words that make you laugh, wince and cry – which is a fairly similar experience to reading his code.
Welcome to what I call a tradition at this point, talking a bit with the authors of the book we love. Today, the chosen one is Stephen Rice, author of A Handful of Souls, a rather unconventional grimdark fantasy that starts the Split Sea saga.
Let’s dive in!
1.- What made you decide to go for the self-publishing route?
Interestingly, it was more about the challenges involved than anything else. I’d just finished working for a startup that didn’t go as expected, so I really wanted to do something entirely on my own back. Self-publishing seemed to have ample opportunity for making mistakes and learning things. It was exactly what I was looking for. I mean, you only get to be ‘bad’ at something once. Then suddenly you’re ‘okay’ at it, and it’s really hard work to become ‘good’ or ‘great’ at it, and you miss that initial endorphin kick from the first improvement. With self-publishing there were so many small skills to pick up here and there, so I got that kick over and over again. I find it quite addictive. That said, traditional publishing has a different set of challenges to overcome. I’d love to tackle them someday.
2.- Why you decided to write Grimdark?
When I started out writing, I was reading a lot of Abercrombie – so perhaps grimdark is there as a starting point. But I found it impossible to stick to a tone. My influences from that genre are probably the dark humour, a focus on flawed characters, and a setting that seems intent on dragging people down. Where I diverge from grimdark is that I’m not making a point about bleakness or our inability to win. My characters wade through the muck with hope and humour, and for every horrible thing that happens to them, they subvert it and make it a success. People can win. There can be victory, but not without cost, and certainly not as you expect. A recent and wise reviewer coined the phrase ‘grimdark family drama’ when talking about A Handful of Souls. I think that sums things up quite nicely. At least it lets the die-hard grimdark fans know I’m floating up near the hopeful end of the scale.
3.- Of all the parts of the creative process, which part do you find more difficult?
So many of them! But I love to struggle. My worst habit is that I’m overly fixated on the sound of words. If a paragraph doesn’t sound right it’s impossible for me to focus on anything else. Sometimes it’s meter. Sometimes it’s repetition. Sometimes it’s just too complicated to say a certain series of words out loud. These things should really be polished for later on, but they often have me writing in circles during a draft, with hours and hours wasted on paragraphs that I end up cutting. Often I will finish reading a book and return to my manuscript, only to be baffled at something I was stuck on. Best-selling authors repeat the word ‘his’ three times in two sentences, Steve, so why are you tearing your hair out over it? But that’s not to say I’ve accepted this habit. I’m cutting myself some slack while I learn which writing gremlins to ignore and which ones to listen to, because I’d hate to lose touch with my writing style just as I’m starting to figure it out. Efficiency can wait.
4.- How would you describe your experience in SPFBO7?
It’s very intense, and great for finding an online community of readers and writers. I’d recommend it to any new author – though be prepared for a lot of nerve-wracking waits and mixed emotions. It’s all worth it in the end. Reach out to other authors who are participating, participate in the sales, and cheer each other’s successes. I have to mention that I’m so pleased to have made the semi-finals. I’d been following the reviewer who put me through (Bookborn) prior to her getting to my book, and I saw a lot of detailed and fair critiques. She put a lot of work in when judging and I appreciate that. Having her pick my book felt all the more rewarding because of it. And if I’m being honest, reaching the semi-finals was the perfect mix of success and defeat to spur me on. There were a lot of very good books in that competition. I’m grateful my one landed with a judge who enjoyed strange writing grounded by stubborn characters.
5.- Who is your cover artist?Dane, from ebooklaunch.com. Didn’t he do a great job?
I think their deals are quite reasonably priced, too. The design I asked Dane to draw has been a real learning experience. I’m not sure it speaks volumes about the style or content of the book, but then plenty of people seem to buy it based on the art alone, so I’m not too worried. The other books in the series will follow a similar pattern. Hopefully, we’re going to get the whole Kale-Tollworth family staring out to sea by the end of it.
6.- What can we expect from you in the future?
This series (the Split Sea Novels) needs four or five books to be finished – hard to say because I keep finding stories within the stories that are worth telling. I’ve already cut a book’s worth of backstory from the first book, hopefully destined for a later standalone. Each one in this main series will follow members of the Kale-Tollworth family as they explore their dying world before they get swept up in a crisis that arrives at the end. I’d very much like to write something that’s a bit more pitchable so I can get some experience in traditional publishing as well. It’s definitely for the best that I didn’t try that straight away. Ask any ten happy readers what they think about A Handful of Souls and they’ll give ten different answers. It’s not easy to sell to a publisher.
7.- It’s my impression that the Split Sea world is mostly inspired on Post Industrial rev England?
Or more well said: From where did you draw the inspiration for the Northern Region of your world?The Northlands are stuck somewhere around the British Victorian period. It’s only a loose comparison. For example, they’ve got pistols and rifles of a sort, but the use of these weapons has been heavily restricted by an occupying force. There are no trains or steam power. In a lot of ways, their progress has faltered as they’re very much stuck in their ways and refuse to believe in anything magical. I didn’t really set out with any plan for any of that. I laughed when I realized I’d written about a small damp island that thought it was the most important place in the world, cut off by a channel from a continent full of wonders and riches. But, that’s fine. If you can’t make fun of your own culture, what can you do? Other locations in A Handful of Souls borrow their architecture from frontier towns, or the medditeration, or a bunch of other places mushed up together in my head. I don’t think I’ll ever write about a normal city based on a real place. Everything should be a bit unique, often grown from a single premise and extrapolated with a bunch of questions like “ok, well if they flood the city every year, then where the hell do they put their stuff?” With that in mind, I always aim for the architecture and culture of a fictional location to reflect something about the people who live in it. That’s true for the real world as well, but the joy of writing fantasy is being able to dial that up and create a spectacle.
8.- I imagine writing a character like Lily, is difficult. How would you describe it?
Actually, Lily is by far the easiest character for me to write. I’m not sure why. I just have a really clear understanding of her voice and how she reacts to things. Her sister was harder to get down on the page because her character traits are much more subtle. As a general trend, readers tend to like Lily and warm up to Rose. That’s okay. Some characters are like that, and I did intend to write her that way. If you put me on the spot, I’d say the single best thing about writing Lily is how she’s both fragile and determined. She will say one thing but mean another. She will argue from a futile position. We can see her struggling, and that makes it endearing rather than annoying when she’s running her mouth or being difficult.
9.- Plainly overthinking, but is there any correlation between the prisoner liberation and the Miserables start?
In a cruel betrayal to my childhood enthusiasm for musicals and acting, I haven’t actually seen Les Mis! Funnily enough, I’ve found that in writing I scratch a lot of the same itch I used to with acting. There’s a lot of character work to do. You have to put yourself in their shoes and really understand what they’re feeling, and then their reactions and dialog are much more honest.
Personally, I want to thank Stephen for being so reachable, accepting these questions, and waiting for the review. I certainly enjoyed my journey alongside the Split Sea world and I want to return as soon as possible.