An Interview with Jay Kristoff – Stormdancer


Jay Kristoff is the author of Stormdancer, a Japanese steampunk adventure which is the first in his The Lotus Wars trilogy. Stormdancer will come out in September 2012 from St. Martin’s Press and Tor UK. You can read more about him and STORMDANCER over at his blog, Literary Giant.

Coming September 2012

‘Jay lives in Melbourne with his secret agent kung-fu assassin wife, and the world’s laziest Jack Russell!’

Q1.      Why did you locate your novel and upcoming series in Japan?

I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies.

I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus.

Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…

Q2.      How much research did you have to do with regards to authenticity? 

Less than people seem to think. It’s kinda odd – I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.

Q3.      Yukiko is an unforgiving and hardened protagonist. I bet she doesn’t believe in happy endings either?

Hah, she’s had a hard life, to be sure. I’m quite mean to her. I do something to her in book 2 that had my wife yelling at me – literally yelling about what a bastard I am.

The great thing about Yukiko is that she just refuses to break, no matter how dark it gets.

She’s stubborn as a mule – one of the things I really love about her.

Q4.      You said the idea to writing Stormdancer came to you in a dream. Do you think you can remember how long after the dream you actually started writing it? How did the idea grow into a story?

Not very long at all – I was querying my first novel at the time and looking for an idea for my next book, so jumped into it almost right away. Funny thing is, I almost STOPPED writing it. My first book was a very angsty vampire book (no-one sparkled, everyone died) and I felt a little silly going from that to a story about a girl who could speak telepathically to animals. So I dropped it and wrote something else, but the characters pulled me back.

I’m not sure how it developed into a story – the same way most do, I suppose. Lots of hours spent in front of the computer. Lots of finding yourself in a dark room at 1am, realising you’ve been writing for four hours straight. I had a solid idea how I wanted it to end, which really helps – knowing your destination is a good idea before you set out. It’s ok if you don’t quite know how you’ll get there, though. That’s where the fun is.

Q5.      Share with us your wisdom on the following phrase. Writer’s Block.

I’m not 100% sure it exists. I know there are folks who will disagree violently with that. But unless your brain has literally packed its bags and run off with the cat, you can always write. Even if what you’re writing is complete and utter dross.

I think you have to accept some days the words just aren’t going to flow, that everything you write will come out reading like it was scrawled in crayon on a toilet door by a pantsless hobo. I think you just need to give yourself permission to suck sometimes. Don’t get down on yourself. It’s ok to suck. It’s also ok to get up and walk away for a while. Getting bent out of shape about it is only going to make things worse.

…Jesus, I sound like an ad for erectile dysfunction…

Q6.      What books did you enjoy as a kid growing up? Have they helped you established your writing style?

I was actually a big sci-fi fan when I was a kid. Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, Anthony. I read fantasy of course, but I just wasn’t as into it as much as SF. Which is odd, considering I write fantasy now :P

I think the single biggest influence on my writing, stylistically, has been William Gibson. I re-read Neuromancer every couple of years.  The dude can just straight up write, and he’s excellent at breaking rules, which I really appreciate (I hate rules – hate hate hate rules. Tell me I can’t use a semi colon because the preceding phrase is a fragment, frack youuuuuuuu). I was also a big Stephen King fan – his simplicity of language can be amazing.

Q7.      Did you pitch The Lotus Wars as a whole or just Stormdancer? What advise can you give writers about seducing an agent?

STORMDANCER started as a single book – Yukiko actually died at the end of it. I figured it would be arrogant of a person who’d never even had a short story published to plan a trilogy, but my agent convinced me it had the legs to be a series, so I altered the ending (and it actually works far better now)

Agent seduction – hooking them comes down to your concept – that one sentence hook. There are loads of great resources online about how to write a query (Miss Snark, Author!Author!, Query Shark), how to track an agent (Query Tracker, Agent Query). I put my query up here. But honestly, if your query has a premise that sounds marketable or agents have never seen before (ie, Japanese steampunk) and you can convey that succinctly, you’ll have the agent wanting to read pages.

The hard bit is making those pages not suck.

And seriously, read the submission guidelines!

Q8.      You are not based in the US or the UK. How should writers in a similar situation go about pitching their book? US or UK or both? And what about SASE?

I aimed for the US. It’s the biggest market with the largest reach. If you crack it in the States, everything else will fall into place. SASE’s aren’t feasible, so I queried electronically wherever possible. For those agents who only accept snail mail, I included the following lines in my queries.

My first XX pages are enclosed. Unfortunately I was unable to include a SASE – I live in Australia and our postal system is run by muppets. I apologize for the inconvenience this will surely cause. Hopefully one day my great sun burnt country will enjoy a postal system not reliant on horse and carriage or koala bears. I hear rumor that we’re getting running water installed next year, which I’m quite looking forward to.”

The thinking here was twofold: I was breaking submission requirements, which is normally the kiss of death, so I had to do something to soften the blow (ie, try to be funny). Second, most query letters are dry as dust in tone, so injecting a bit of character into it might make it more memorable.

As an aside, I still joke about muppets in the postal service with my agent’s assistant to this day.

Q9.      Did you watch The Dark Knight Rises?

Not yet. I’ve heard it’s amazing. I luurrrve Chris Nolan. But I’m going to see Spider man first. I’m a Marvel boy at heart.

Q10.  Finally, the recent trends in Fantasy; Young Adult Fantasy more so, have been written aimed exclusively at teenage girls, filled with more romance than action. As a result, it has become very difficult to find good fantasy for boys. (and the random, odd girl like me who gets turned off by romance-heavy prose)Care to weigh in your opinions and suggestions for levelling the playing field?

I’m… not a fan of the huge influx of romance-focused work in YA. These books sell – publishers wouldn’t print them if they didn’t. However, in most of these books I’ve read, plot, world-building, characterisation, allll of it takes a second seat to the romance. Who will she choose? Will they get together in the end? EXCUSE ME PEOPLE, BUT AREN’T WE IN THE MIDDLE OF ARMAGEDDON?

I can’t help feeling this mentality is selling readers short. I like to think readers want more out of a story than a cute boy. I could be horribly wrong here – like I say, these books MUST sell, or publishers wouldn’t keep printing them.

But, there’s a basic rule I learned while working in advertising – they teach it to you on the first day. “Zig when everyone else zags”. In other words, it’s really easy to stand out in a crowd by doing something different. And since soooooo verrrrry maaannnnyyy of these books are essentially romances with fantasy/dystopian/sci-fi window dressing, it’s easy for an unpublished writer to do something different, and therefore get noticed.

I mean, romance is fine. Romance is all good. There’s romance in STORMDANCER. It’s just not the focus of the entire frackin’ book. I wanted to write a heroine who defined by her actions and her choices, not by which boy she picked (or whether she picked one at all). Hopefully there ARE readers out there who appreciate that.

And that wraps up our interview. Is there anything you’d like to say to writers and readers alike out there?

To anyone who’s planning on checking out STORMDANCER, thank you. Sincerely. Love it. Hate it. For agreeing to spend some of your time in this tiny world I’ve made, thank you.

And thank you Jay! Don’t forget to follow us both on Twitter. Jay – @misterkristoff and Dash – @dashdidntdoit.

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