Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Ryan Howse

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books. 

“I’d love to. I have three books out. The first two are both in my A Concerto For the End of Days series, which takes place several centuries after a magical apocalypse so powerful it broke the world. Reality has been made much stranger, but human ingenuity has taken those setbacks, harnessed the magical currents of the world, and learned how to use it for their own gain. 

The Steel Discord is a magitech train heist that follows a young Arcanist who attempts to rescue his mentor from a military train.

The Alchemy Dirge is a noir that follows an alchemist and a black market arcana merchant. The alchemist is desperately trying to fund his newest invention, a printing press, and sells a batch of alchemy that turns volatile—and valuable. 

The third book is Red in Tooth and Claw, which was a palette cleanser for me. Instead of the intricate world-building and plotting of the others, it’s just two people from opposite sides of a war caught in the wilderness. They hate each other, and they can’t survive without the other.”

You’ve written several different series. Is there one in particular, that you’re extra fond of? 

“I think The Alchemy Dirge has all the urban intricacies down pat. Aeon feels like a living city, infused with a sense of weird that I love. It also has protagonists who are pretty far from traditional fantasy heroes. Salai, the alchemist, profoundly hates how much everyone he knows has been held back by their lower-class stature. Ilher, the merchant, wants to gain power in the city to shift the laws, not just because they’re holding him back but because he sincerely believes they’re unjust. Neither is a wizard or a warrior or an assassin. 

But no book has ever come out faster than Red in Tooth and Claw. It had been sitting in the back of my mind for nearly a decade, so once I started it, it flowed out fast.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“I’ve been writing for as long as I remember. I have vivid memories of a ‘dinosaurs eat each other’ story I wrote quite young—possibly in kindergarten. As for genre, I love the potential of fantasy. Anything can happen. 

Yes, there are tropes that appear often—medieval European analogs, stabbing as an effective method of problem-solving—but none are required. You can bend the rules of reality. You can get the historical detail of a Miles Cameron if you want, or the wild abandon of China Mieville. I love the feeling one gets when the real and the unreal meet.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“They feed off each other. The only reasonable answer is, ‘they come at the same time.’ If Salai didn’t create the volatile alchemy, The Alchemy Dirge wouldn’t have been a book. If I put Zarachius and Kyran into Red in Tooth and Claw, there’d be a lot less tension because they trust each other and would just banter. 

I work hard to make my protagonists make a choice early on which causes the plot. Zarachius could have realized his mentor was arrested and ran away instead of attempting a rescue. Salai could have refused to sell the alchemy that didn’t work right.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Most characters have some relation to me or I’d not write them. They need to make sense, even if I disagree with them. Zarachius and Kyran have a fun ‘give each other shit’ camaraderie reminiscent of my friends. I disagree with Ilher’s politics but I understand where he’s coming from.”

 What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Zarachius, definitely. Zarachius is obsessed with symbolism and believes fervently that reading these signs will lead to the best solution or at least give him warning of problems to come. Making that an integral part of the story, while not making him insufferable, was sometimes a tough act. His relationships with his brother, his friend, and his mentor were all key in making him human.”

I hear that you enjoy role playing games. As a fellow rpg player, I’m curious: how does storytelling differ from DM’ing?

“I love role-playing games! I’ve even created my own system, a sort of Star Trek meets Mass Effect space opera.

Challenging your players is always a wildly different beast than challenging your characters. For one, if you get the players into a difficult situation, it’s up to them to get out of it. Not so if you’re writing a book. If I get a character into a bind I need to figure out how to rescue them.

I also find running RPGs to be a lot more episodic than writing novels. It’s a bit more compartmentalized. A novel needs a sense of unity of theme and atmosphere throughout, while a good RPG campaign can have sessions feel wildly different. It’s closer to a TV show, if anything. One session about a character‘s backstory coming back to haunt them. One session as a tense horror on a derelict but not-quite-abandoned ship. One session that reminds everyone of the overarching plot.”

 Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Honestly, because I try to limit my POVs the books I have out currently only have protagonist POVs. Some of those protagonists are not great people—Agash from Red in Tooth and Claw is a timebomb of a man. But they are protagonists.

My villains all have reasons for what they do. I can only think of one who’s vile for the sake of it, and they’re fairly tertiary. But my antagonists have, so far, been given less page time to develop than the heroes.

The real key is to make the villains reflective of the protagonist in some way.

Unless the villain is a bear.”

What do you do to “get in the zone”?

“Lately, I’ve been using tabletopaudio.com It’s ambience for rpgs, but some of the pieces help get a sense of place. I used a lot of ‘Sea of Moving Ice’ for Red in Tooth and Claw, for instance. I can’t do silence or more bombastic music anymore.”

 Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

“The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The perfect historical mystery novel. Aw yeah.

Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the best characters in all of literature. Frankenstein is just an absolute perfect book; watching those two characters destroy each other is fascinating.

For somewhat more modern books, I have a lot of love for Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, and Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence.”






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