Interview - Joshua A. Harris: A Magical Pirate-King Who Plays Metal on the Corpses of the Slain &amp

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HJ: So tell our readers a little about yourself.

JH: I am a magical wizard pirate-king who was born in the wrong century and into a body that was not mine, so I thought I would vent these frustrations by becoming a writer.

HJ: *laughs* Best introduction ever.

JH: I don’t like bios for books. When writer’s do their bios it is like ‘Hello my name is Josh, I live in Surrey and I like to drink tea.’ I mean make up some interesting facts even if they aren’t true! Like I once wrestled a bear to death.

HJ: So we need fan art now of you wrestling a bear!

JH: Ah, we’ll have to ask my new favourite fan-artist for that.

HJ: So what are your books about?

JH: Kingslayer is a murder-mystery fantasy novel, where the King of Cantaria is murdered in his bed by a rogue knight who appears to have no motive. His disabled son Gideon hires a bounty-hunter to track the killer down and bring the murderers to justice. It also features: ginger people, prostitutes and Italian pirates! Though they aren’t actual Italians; they are Jade Islanders. The Jade Isles are based off Italy, in the same way the Ulvaeun continent is Scandinavian. So when the Jade Islanders eventually come up in a future book, their language will be Italian. So, Cantaria is the kingdom and it is moulded after England, so everyone speaks English. But the world is Arlanon and all the continents are named after rock stars. So you have the continent of Lennon, after John Lennon, you’ve got the Scandinavian continent which is named after Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA. Then the Oriental continent is named after Satoru Iwata from Nintendo, who may not be a musician but he’s the rockstar of the video game world in my eyes.

HJ: Why did you choose rockstars?

JH: I love music, I’m a musician by hobby. I play guitar, bass keyboard and I attempt to sing. I was once in a band, I would play metal on the corpses of our audience once we’d melted their faces off.

HJ: HJ: There are quite a few languages and cultures in Kingslayer, how did you bring those to life?

JH: I never intended it originally. When I started, when I was 21, it was all going to be: everything is English, because I’m English. Then I started travelling a bit, I went to Cyprus, America and most importantly Sweden, and Sweden I absolutely love! I had this idea one day because I have a Swedish penfriend whose name is Cissi and I asked her to translate some of the lines. I loved it so much that I decided then that every kingdom I have in Arlanon is going to be based off a certain country. I mean I don’t stick strictly to Scandinavian when I’m writing, but I do my best to capture the ways of those countries. Most of all, I’m taking their languages. So English in Arlanon is not called English because there is no England, it’s called Lennonese. Ulvaeun is based upon Swedish. I also have plans for Dutch, Italian and Japanese. I’m writing book three at the moment which is set in the Swedish kingdom.

HJ: Ooh are we allowed to know the title?

JH: Assassin’s Prince. I’m thoroughly enjoying creating kingdoms that are borrowed from real-world cultures and I like using fans and readers to do it. I met a Norwegian couple at a Comic Con in London and now if I ever had a Norwegian kingdom, they are my go-to people for translations. Its collaborative world-building with my fans! Comic Cons are amazing for those things.

HJ: What do you like best about Comic Cons?

JH: My favourite moments at Comic Con are when people come up to me and say they have read the book, they really liked it. There was one guy who made suggestions about changing the ending. I won’t be following his suggestions but the fact he had put that much thought into my book really meant something to me.

HJ: So other than your fans and borrowed cultures, where do you chiefly get your inspirations from?

JH: Tonnes of writers have inspired me. One of my biggest inspirations is Hironobu Sakaguchi, who isn’t a writer but he is the guy behind Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy 9 was a huge inspiration to me. Final Fantasy has had a huge influence on my writing. In terms of favourite novelists, there is John Niven, who wrote books like Kill Your Friends and The Second Coming, highly recommend those books. Antony Horowitz and Eoin Colfer, they were big inspirations for me as a child. Another great writer who has been an influence on me is Sean Gunn, who wrote The Guardians of the Galaxy screenplays. I LOVE Guardians of the Galaxy. It blends drama and comedy so well. It has been a huge inspiration to my writing style. I love the idea that even at the worst of times, there is still time for a joke.

HJ: Your books are a great blend of dark comedy. There are often humorous lines within quite dark scenes. Does that come naturally?

JH: I think it comes naturally. There are times when I think maybe I’ve gone too far with what I write, then I think ‘how can I make it worse?’ for the characters. I always try to make sure the antagonists get their just desserts though. I would never want someone’s actions to go unpunished. I think it is because I grew up with horror films and I have been desensitised to it. While I what I write about still bothers me very much...There was a big moment for me in University where I wrote a script and it was about abuse, and my lecturer said I was too shy to explore dark things. I was too nice. That was a very big motivator for me to be like ‘Game On!’ and to explore dark things without feeling bad about it.

HJ: I find that can be a big sticking point for first time novelists. You are too afraid of going too far in those dark themes or you feel too much pressure to write about those kind of themes, because they always seem to be the books that get prizes. And I think that is a bad influence on new writers, because they think they have to write dark things in order to get attention. Did you feel that at all?

JH: Yes I feel Kingslayer is the darkest thing I’ve ever written. I’ve started to lighten up now. It’s not like I’m softer, the bad things still happen, I’m just approaching them a different way. Some of the stuff that is in the last third of the novel, I don’t think I’ll repeat but I gave it a go. I’m not going to reveal my own feelings on that, but I’ve written those dark themes once and I felt I had done exploring that. I wanted to try different things and themes. Kingslayer is a murder-mystery, Piper’s Harp I tried to write as something of a rom-com, Assassin’s Prince is based more off the old stealth video-games like Metal Gear Solid.

HJ: So let’s have another question or musing if you will. Gideon Fyedragon, who sort of shares the main character spotlight with Brandon Piper, didn’t seem to really change that much during the course of the story. However, he is very aware of the people around him in the Court but the moment he moves out into the world of the common people he loses all that self-assured knowledge. So is his change not really one of self-discovery but one of simply discovery?

JH: Yeah I think Gideon learns something about the world, because he’s spent his first two decades in his Dad’s palace. He’s very academic but basically knows nothing about the outside world, as particularly with his disability it is hard for him to get around. Part of Kingslayer is about him realizing ‘Oh! Not everyone lives like me’.

HJ: I found it interesting that at the start his disability is in the forefront of things. People call him and William ‘the fool and the cripple’. However, when he gets out of the castle, it’s never really an issue. No one really mentions it or makes fun of him for it. So it was nice to have that in moderation rather than have it shoved into the forefront of the reader’s mind the whole time. For example, in the Song of Ice & Fire series, no one ever lets Tyrion Lannister forget he’s a dwarf.

JH: I think the world of Westeros is a little harsher than the world of Arlanon. There is still lots of murder and all that, but something I tried to do is make my world an equal one. In Arlanon, women are as equal as men, men can marry men and women can marry women...I feel a lot of fantasy books rely on medieval politics and gender association, which I didn’t want to do. I’d rather combat sexism, racism, disablism and all the other ‘isms’ by simply not talking about it.

HJ: You are introducing them into the world as the ‘norm’ rather than making it a ‘big thing’, which quite a lot of people do. I find a lot of indie writers do that, they go too much one way, sort of screaming OH LOOK I HAVE A GAY CHARACTER rather than making a character who stands on their own two feet for personality’s sake. I’ve written characters where her sexuality is ‘this way’ or ‘that way’ but I haven’t made a big thing about it, because I want that character to be enjoyed for who they are and not who they want to date. Their sexuality just blends into the rest of my character creation.

JH: When I’m creating characters, I mostly think about their race, their sexuality and gender last. So in terms of when I make a character, I think more in terms of: do I need them to be a rogue? Do I need them to be a politician? A thief? A bartender? I decide what their job and role is within the story, then the name comes.

HJ: Their role comes first, then their identity.

JH: I don’t think I first did that when I was writing Kingslayer. I think I fell into the usual trap of male writers in that all the characters are men. Then I got about a quarter of the way through and thought: 28 of my 30 characters are men. I decided to change that, went back through the book and randomly changed the genders, I went: now she’s a woman, she’s a woman, she’s a woman. It didn’t change nearly any of the dialogue and I really enjoyed doing that. For example, Nala was once a Beau, who was a really boring character who was just there to attack Brandon. But when she became Nala, she had way more personality. Beau was more like ‘I’m going to be a villain in this story and I’m going to attack and kill you.’ Not Nala, I really like Nala.

HJ: I also love that by the end of Kingslayer, all your characters have grey areas. I love grey area characters in that they are neither good nor evil but have elements of both, they feel more real that way. Without revealing too much about what happens at the end of your first book, your main characters all do something that is actually quite dark and against the morals they have upheld for most of the book.

JH: Yes and I think that is part of human nature. I don’t think anyone ever sticks 100% to their morals. I think people as a whole are very good at dishing out advice but not following it. The world being the way it is, you are sometimes forced to make decisions you don’t necessarily agree with, whether it’s about work, family, in the streets. I mean think about the last time you saw someone kicking off in the streets: how many people did you see intervene? Probably none, although morally we should.

HJ: So I wanted to ask you about your female characters. You have quite a lot of strong, often quite vicious women with really powerful personalities. You have Silver the assassin, Nala the cold-blooded killer, Eleanor Horowitz the Minister of Information, even Brandon’s mother has quite a lot of sass to her. Did that come just through the gender change of some of that characters?

JH: Well I didn’t just do a gender switch, I did add and change personality too. I feel like I gave them more personality. So Eleanor Horowitz was originally Alexander Horowitz, who I found really boring and then when he became Eleanor, it became ‘oh she doesn’t like that particular person....and she hires sellswords....’ None of that was done by Alexander Horowitz, he was just a drab politician. I feel that I gave her more personality when she became a woman, which has helped me with decisions like this in future books. Brandon’s mum came two weeks before I sent Kingslayer to print and she came about because I never specified whether Brandon’s mum was dead. Earlier on in the book, Brandon returns to the town to confront his dad and I thought hang on: he goes back to his home town and doesn’t visit his mum? How rude is that! So then I thought that the mother of Brandon Piper must be a very interesting woman and I really wanted to meet her. So that is how that scene with her came about.

HJ: Yes I really enjoyed that scene because it was one of those ‘quiet moments’ that actually ‘make’ the book. A lot of novels, especially first time novelists, it’s all action, it’s all about getting to the meat of the story, and sometimes they don’t pause for those essential quiet moments that actually add the real character to the book.

JH: I love the quiet moments. I think you need the quiet moments to make the fights and the confrontations to feel more dramatic, to feel heavier.

HJ: Exactly you can’t feel anything for the characters in those fights if you don’t see them in their quiet periods where you discover their backstories and who they are. Because those fights are the culmination of all those backstories and moments coming together, getting you onto the edge of your seat. Right now I will ask the question you dared me to ask prior to this interview, the question that should never be asked of writers: where do you get your ideas from?

JH: From the Magical Ideas & Storage Machine in Gothenburg.

HJ: What do you have to put into this machine?

JH: I can’t tell you. It’s a trade secret.

HJ: Where did you find this machine?

JH: Can’t say, again a trade secret. Possibly Gothenburg, but who’s to say?

HJ: Is it one of these things that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is? I’ll have to look out for this machine!

JH: Then you have to face the trials. You have to battle the Rancor.

HJ: Ah so you put whatever you need to in this machine, then you have to face the trials from various franchises.

JH: No no its where George Lucas got the idea for the Rancor. It’s where he got it from. I’ve probably said too much. Sorry, George.

HJ: Do you find it difficult to promote your work? Tell me a little bit about Tall Tales too, is that your own enterprise or a separate press?

JH: It is me and my friend Bron’s, who is also my business partner. We thought rather than spending ten years trying to get published, we would just go for it. What could they do that we can’t? Admittedly it is a very difficult road, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have loved the self-publishing route. Marketing is hard, particularly as being a writer isn’t my full time job. There is still a lot for me to learn about getting my stuff out there, but comic conventions have been a great thing to go to in order to sell the books. My next step is to tackle the online world, so we’ve got a webpage, we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and breaking into the Kindle market is going to be the next thing.

HJ: So did you find it easier or harder to write the sequel? Was it easier because you had laid the groundwork or more restrictive because you didn’t have that same freedom as when you were writing the first book?

JH: I never foresaw a sequel when I was writing Kingslayer. I wrote Kingslayer because I wanted to write a stand-alone book and when I got to the end of it, I loved the characters so much that I kept wrestling with the idea. I already had in mind what a follow up would be, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to write it. But once I started writing it I found it so refreshing being back. I love the second book more than the first.

HJ: Is that because you’ve come along more as a writer or because you don’t have to explain a lot of things...?

JH: No it’s not because I don’t have to explain things. I’m trying to make it so you can read any of my Arlanon books in any order you want. So the main character of Piper’s Harp is not Gideon, he may be a main character in a future book but he hasn’t got a big role in the second book. That role belongs to a new character called Daniella Harper. I’m trying to make it so you can pick up any of the books and you don’t need any prior knowledge. I love returning to Arlanon every time I write a book. It was initially hard but now I’ve made it into a series, I love going back.

HJ: I noticed there was a lot of rebellion, both in big ways and small ways throughout the book. You have many characters rebelling against the lives they have been born or forced into. Brandon is rebelling against his father for example. There are others but I can’t mention them here without giving away too many spoilers.

JH: My answer is: let’s be honest, when does anyone stick to the rules 100%? Who doesn’t break them every now and again? Even if it’s in the smallest way. To be honest I don’t work in terms of themes, I believe that is something for readers to do. I never sit down and think I’m going to write about betrayal or love. I just write characters.

HJ: So how did you come up with your characters? How did they take form? Are they the same as they are now?

JH: Brandon was the first character to take shape. When I was young, I was hooked on a game called Dark Saviour for the Sega Saturn and it was all about bounty hunters, so I became obsessed about bounty hunters and I wanted to write about them. When I was a teenage, I had a sci-fi idea about two bounty hunters in space called Liam and Brandon. So they amalgamated. I just love the idea of this rogue guy who said what he wanted and did what he wanted, he toed the line as much as possible because it amused him. Gideon was never meant to be a main character until I realized he was the main character. Initially he was only meant to be in the first chapters where he hired Brandon. Brandon was meant to be with another guy called Tark, who is now not in the books, as I found Brandon and Gideon going on an adventure together was way more interesting. Gideon came about because I wanted to give people with cerebral palsy more spotlight. One of my closest friends Steve has cerebral palsy and I wanted to air more light on that particular disability, so I was always calling up Steve to find out how physically his condition works. There are so many varied severities of cerebral palsy. I always wanted to give a homage to Steve, so Gideon’s cerebral palsy is very much Steve’s cerebral palsy. Gideon isn’t Steve, Gideon is Gideon. I never put people from real life into my books, I always take bits from people and add them to my characters. But certainly in terms of his physical disability, it is very much Steve.

HJ: Do you think there is a lack of disability in fiction?

JH: I think there is a lack of most things in the Western world. Most Western straight white writers, write about straight white men. Brandon is one of them, but he’s also cheeky. However, I do try to write more diversely. In terms of Silver, she wasn’t really meant to be a main character either, she just evolved into it. Kingslayer originally was the Brandon Piper Show.

HJ: It was hinted in the book that Brandon had been in love once, are we going to find out more about that in later books?

JH: Yes!

HJ: For someone who wasn’t planning a sequel, there were a lots of things that bled into a sequel haha!

JH: Yes and you’ll have to read Piper’s Harp to find out about it!

HJ: Do you want to tell us a little bit about Piper’s Harp then?

JH: Piper’s Harp is about a girl called Daniella, who is the daughter of the second richest house in the kingdom, which is in open rebellion against the throne and she wants no part in it. She just wants to have a normal life and doesn’t want war. So she goes along with a kidnapping of her in an attempt to create peace between her family and the throne. Piper’s Harp is a series of shenanigans between Daniella and Brandon.

HJ: In terms of character, is she a match for Brandon? Not necessarily in terms of romance, but is she a match for his attitude?

JH: She starts off very naïve but very quickly learns Brandon’s sarcastic ways and more so than Gideon, Piper’s Harp is a journey of discovery. Daniella is not the same person at the end as she was at the beginning. And Brandon changes. The alternative title to Piper’s Harp would be ‘Brandon Grows Up’. He is probably the mainest of the main characters in this series, but I would still say Piper’s Harp is Daniella’s story. It can be summed up as Daniella throwing herself into dangerous situations and Brandon reluctantly following her deep into them. Daniella starts out as a damsel-in-distress but learns to look after herself. Without being too spoilery, if Brandon and Daniella weren’t in each other’s company for this book they would probably both be dead!

HJ: I like that, there isn’t a power struggle as such. That is something I enjoyed in Kingslayer, in that Gideon and Brandon take turns saving each other.

JH: Piper’s Harp introducing Lenna and Sachi the girl bounty hunters. They are very much a duo and firm friends. They don’t put up with Brandon’s crap! They walk all over him and there is nothing he can do about it.

HJ: Is there anything you want to do in terms of future projects?

JH: Contemporary stuff. I want to write a story about four teenagers forming a band together and doing a teen drama kind of thing. I was once a teenager and I once formed a band, so I would like to write a story about that, but where an invasion of ice werewolves attack the town and who are weak to music.

HJ: You also have a YouTube channel, what do you tend to use that for?

JH: Mostly The Adventures of Being a Writer at Comic Con. Every comic con I go to, Bronn and I film it, almost like a documentary. We meet other Comic Con people.

HJ: Will we ever see you in a cosplay outfit?

JH: Possibly. If I cosplayed I’d either want to be Tommy Wiseau from The Room, Sagat from Streetfighter but the disco version with an afro. Chun Li from Streetfighter would be cool to do too.

HJ: So who else would you recommend we read?

JH: The Sam Hain: Occult Detective series by my friend and business partner Bron James. I’d also recommend reading Afterlife by Jon Lock, 7STRING by Nick Angell, and definitely John Niven’s Kill Your Friends and The Second Coming.

HJ: Where can people find you next?

JH: We are going to be at Stockholm Comic Con on September 15th, so we will get to meet all the Swedish fans again. In terms of the UK, our next appearance is at MCM Glasgow. Other than that, more Arlanon books! Book Three is set in a northern kingdom and it is the classic ‘princess in the tower’ but gender swapped. So a prince is locked up because he falls in love with an assassin girl and she has to rescue him. I’m also working on a comic called Sweden vs. Aliens, a contemporary sci-fi where Anja, a school teacher from Stockholm, discovers some of her friends are acting a bit strange. Hopefully it will be coming out at the end of the year. I’m working with an artist called Patrick Frediksson. Yes, Sweden vs. Aliens is definitely the most Swedish thing I’ve ever written and it’s more light-hearted compared to Arlanon.