Tinkermage, the second volume of his GnomeSaga trilogy, was recently released by Ragnarok Publications. The Ragnarok edition of the series’ first volume, Rough Magick, has been available since October, and the concluding volume, Cogweaver, will be released in February 2015.
Ken’s first novel has been praised as “The Hobbit meets Aliens meets Dirty Old Man” and “a bone crushing, blood gushing visceral experience.” Reviewers also called it “a bit quirky and certainly brilliant.” He’s making the fantasy world stand up and take notice, not to mention coining the term “#gnomepunk.” Yes, this could be the start of a whole new fantasy sub-genre.
I first met Kenny at Haggin Hall, the sophomore dorm we shared at the University of Kentucky in the late 80s. We shared an interest in heavy metal music, Conan the Barbarian, and David Letterman. Ken lived just down the hall from me for two semesters and we had some good times. I remember Ken’s daily Top Ten lists (his sense of humor is irrepressible), playing a few killer sessions of Call of Cthulhu, and driving through a snowstorm looking for a practice space so we could form a band. (We didn’t find one.)
Cut to 24 years later — lo and behold we’re both fantasy novelists. Turns out we both studied creative writing at U of K under Gurney Norman, and both of us went through a few years dedicated to playing in different rock bands in separate cities (him in Cincinnati, me in Lexington). But I hadn’t seen or heard ANYTHING from Kenny since our sophomore year of college, since I had moved out of the dorm after that year. Then, earlier this year, I discovered Rough Magick and suddenly realized this was the same guy I knew in college. Thanks to the magic of social media, our friendship resumed immediately.
Naturally, I wanted to interview Ken for Black Gate, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to do it! So let’s get started…
John R. Fultz: Of all the fantastic creatures and races you could have picked for your first fantasy series–why gnomes? What is it about these mystical creatures that drew you to them so powerfully?
Kenny Soward: I suppose at the heart of things is my penchant for rebellion. No one had ever done gnomes before, as far as I know, so I thought, “Why not?” But the specifics are also rooted in my love for the natural underdog – gnomes and dwarves and hobbits being shorter and arguably less-gracious than the ‘cool’ races – and the fun I had playing these characters in early D&D sessions and later online with Everquest. And being a technical guy, I was really drawn in by their knack for mechanics and tinkering, and I was anxious to work this aspect into the plot.
Your gnomes are mechanical geniuses who build magical contraptions. Did you set out to write a “steampunk fantasy,” or did the steampunk kind of creep into your original vision?
Working in the IT industry for twenty years has afforded me knowledge about mechanics, parts, and other technical concepts. As you said, gnomes are mechanical geniuses, so I went right to it and made an invention the focal point of the GnomeSaga series. The fact that I could do this in an epic fantasy setting was a source of great fun for me. But I never considered GnomeSaga ‘steampunk.’ Rather, I thought of it more like an ‘industrial’ aspect of my series. The nature of intelligent beings is to make things they think will improve their lives for trade, comfort, and even war. Joe Martin, Creative Director at Ragnarok Publications, says it’s ‘gnomepunk.’ I’ll take it.
Did you envision the original story as a 3-book tale, or did you write Rough Magick and afterwards plan the two sequels? (In my case, I wrote SEVEN PRINCES and then an agent asked me to outline two more books, so I hadn’t originally planned to do any sequels, but I’m glad I did because each book was an improvement over the previous one.)
The original draft, sometime back in 2001, was intended to be one book. Only when redrafting Rough Magick in 2011-2012 did I start to see where it could be stretched across three books. It really wasn’t hard to imagine, and the arcs came to me quite naturally – although I did struggle a bit with book two.
We’re both fans of heavy rock, but also lovers of music in general. I make certain playlists when I’m writing a novel–carefully chosen music to set a mood in my head that translates hopefully into a mood on the page. Do you make playlists, or do you prefer to write in silence? (I know some writers need complete quietude. I need that during revisions.)
It’s true! I do love heavy rock. But strangely enough, my thoughts about music for writing have changed drastically over the years. I’ve learned that certain types of music actually stimulate my brain for writing more than others, and I’ve been gravitating to those rather than what might seem obvious. The heavy stuff doesn’t really get me going. Sometimes it actually clutters my brain with noise and hinders my progress. So, I listen to classical, new age, and other odd styles in order to keep my mind fresh as I power through the current WIP – yes, even when writing a bloody battle scene. Seems contradictory, but it works for me.
I usually put one thing on repeat for weeks so that over the course of one book I might have listened to only two or three albums of some select artist. Usually, these selections have no vocals (or maybe just choirs) as vocals seem to add to the clutter.
Let’s talk influences. My early discovery of Tolkien in third grade led me to all sorts of other fantasy writers like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Moorcock, etc. What were your earliest fantasy favorites?
The first book my uncle ever handed me was The Hobbit, so yeah … there’s that. It pretty much introduced me to epic fantasy. I also had one of those subscriptions to a book club, you know, where you paid $.01 and got like twenty books? I can’t even remember half the books I got as most of the authors were fairly obscure, but that’s where I acquired my first Conan books.
So yes, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Glen Cook were big influences. Also Piers Anthony’s very strange INCARNATIONS OF IMMORTALITY was a huge influence on me. Of course, there were many others such as Lovecraft, King, Gaiman, Mieville, Barker, Poppy Brite, and Caitlin R Kiernan.
But one series that sticks out as a specific influence on my GnomeSaga series is the Dragonlance series by Weis and Hickman. I really enjoyed the wide variety of characters, the comedy, and the heart those first books displayed. I felt a kinship with the characters and enjoyed the light parts as much as the heavier. Not as brutal as some of today’s books, but still a very solid series that will go down as one of my biggest influences. I actually need to reread those soon.
Can you see yourself doing more Gnomes-based books, or when this trilogy is done do you want to explore new worlds and settings? New genres? What comes after the trilogy is complete?
I have a long list of ideas. Specifically, an outline and novella set in a new world where the story will be a mix of Mieville’s New Crobuzon series and Mad Max. Strange magic, diverse characters, mechanics … fantasy, horror, and action slammed together. I feel I haven’t shown the world my full range, so I’m anxious to prove myself.
I still have some things left to write about in the GnomeSaga world, Sullenor. In fact, I’m working on an outline for three new books featuring the ongoing adventures of Nikselpik Nur. The group will be a little more close-knit, the characters more conflicted, and the action a good degree heavier. Probably a little closer to what one might call Grimdark than the first three books.
I know you started by self-publishing Rough Magick, which was later picked up by Ragnarok, who is doing the whole trilogy now. What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
Getting a publishing contract is cool, but it just translates to – “Keep workin’, son.” It’s all work. Fun, too. But still work. Every day. Every night. Promoting, writing, and trying not to be annoying to people while selling them my books. But with the right touch and a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude, I’m starting to make some headway.
I’m gaining a little traction … I can see friend requests increase on my FaceBook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts. Book sales seem to be elevating slightly – from almost nothing to a little something. Reviews are trickling in, generally positive. Each day brings something new. Each day is a new highlight. And thanks to cool folks like you who take the time to recognize me by putting me on your blogs and websites.
I think the highlight I’m waiting for is the one that allows me to write full-time.
Which comes first to you when writing: Characters, Settings, or Plots? (For me, it’s different every time, but I usually start and end with Character, from which all else seems to stem, but I know ever writer has his/her own method.)
More often than not it is a huge scene that comes to me first, where I see the character performing something … well … epic. Like in a movie. Or sometimes it could be a theme, like Nikselpik’s ongoing drug addiction in GnomeSaga. I usually build the characters and story around those ideas – which is fun because I see this character doing something cool and I want to know more about them myself. So, yeah, sometimes I know the ending of my book before I put down the first word.
Ah, this will be fun. I listened to the following albums on repeat during writing sessions for the two or three years I wrote GnomeSaga, depending on which scene I was working on. Sometimes each song, specifically, was placed on repeat for several hours while I finished a scene.
Sigur Ros – Valtari – Ekki Mukk
Pelican – What We All Come To Need – Strung Up From The Sky
System of a Down – Toxicity – Aerials
DefTones – Diamond Eyes – Diamond Eyes
DefTones – Diamond Eyes – You’ve Seen The Butcher
J.S. Bach – The Cello Suites – [Suites 1-4]
Colin Frake – Two Steps From Hell – Battle at Hoback
TINKERMAGE & COGWEAVER (written very closely together):
Clutch – Pure Rock Fury – Spacegrass (Live)
Colin Frake – Two Steps From Hell – Colin Frake
Colin Frake – Two Steps From Hell – Fire Mountain
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes – Blue Ridge Mountains
Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun – High Road
Opeth – Damnation – Death Whispered a Lullaby
Anuna – Illuminations – La Chanson De Mardi Gras
How do you keep your writing inspiration and energy alive? (Since I know you’re still working a “day job” like me.)
To be honest, I have no clue. The day job is rough especially when I can’t relax afterwards but have to dive into a writing session or do more promotion. I’ve missed a lot of naps. At the end of each day, I set a list of things to do the next day and then go at it in the morning – especially for the 3 months I’m off drafting (April, August, and December). When I’m drafting something, everything else just goes on the back burner … especially housework.
My energy probably comes from my genuine curiosity about life’s mysteries, and I seek to understand them by writing through them in my works. It doesn’t hurt to have an absolute love for books and words as well as a passion for anything fantasy. I just love it, man. Couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing … except maybe more napping.
Thanks so much for the questions, John. I can’t wait to dig into SEVEN PRINCES.