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Interview: Author Auston Habershaw

Auston Habershaw is the author of fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, available through Harper Voyager Impulse. He is also a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published stories in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, The Sword and Laser Anthology, and Escape Pod, among other places. His next release continues the Saga of the Redeemed, with No Good Deed, which will be available on June 21st, 2016.

Thanks for joining us at Legendarium, Auston. Let me start with: how did you get into writing?

Auston Habershaw

A: Thanks very much for having me! Hmmm…how I got into writing…
Well, basically I’ve always wanted to tell stories, even from when I was a little, little kid. I remember standing in front of my whole extended family during Thanksgiving and telling random stories about talking animals (that I made up on the spot). I can’t have been much older than 4 or 5. I spent much of my childhood trying to figure out what profession got to tell stories for a living. I started by assuming it was a movie producer, then actor, then director, and then, finally, in high school I realized it was the writers who really made up the stories, and all those other people just translated them to the stage or movies or whatever. Once I determined writers were where the stories came from, I was basically doomed…errr…I mean *destined* to write.

Who are some of your favorite authors and influences?

A: Always a tough question, since there are so many. I have to say I learned an awful lot from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series–how to tell a multiple POV narrative, how to incorporate complex worldbuilding, how to write dialogue, etc.. I also have a lot of reservations about Jordan, but he definitely ranks as a primary influence. I also was inspired at a young age by Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island is an all-time favorite) as well as William Gibson and Robert Heinlein. Finally, in my adult years I’ve found Neal Stephenson and Scott Lynch to be major influences/idols. I love their stuff.

You write both novels and short fiction: can you tell us what you get out of these forms that is different?

A: The analogy I usually make is this: a novel is an anecdote–it’s got a lot of moments that are funny or touching, but the story can flex and change and there are a lot of characters and ups and downs. As you tell an anecdote a few times, you can include or leave out certain aspects and the thing retains its basic shape. Short Stories, on the other hand, are jokes. A joke is a precise, mechanical thing, like a watch or a bicycle. You build it and it either works (people laugh) or they don’t (people don’t laugh), and if it’s in the latter category, you often need to go back and redo the whole damned thing because its just so simple and carefully constructed to begin with.

I am, at heart, a novelist–I love the big, meaty tale. However, I find short stories very good places to experiment with character, style, and concept. I also use them to build the worlds I later set novels in–I use the story to illuminate some particular corner of the world with a short little story, and then it becomes part of the tapestry that makes that world real in my mind.

That’s a pretty cool distinction between the forms.

Your accomplishments span both sci-fi and fantasy. How are these two genres the same, and how are they different? What do you get out of writing in multiple genres?

A: I think scifi and fantasy probably have more in common than they don’t, honestly. Both genres postulate alternatives and speculate upon the effects of those alternatives–science fiction deals specifically with the future and the effects of science and technology on our lives, while fantasy changes the “rules” of the world in one way or another, often by setting the stories in alternate universes. Both of these things are laboratories in which we, the authors, stress test the human condition and seek to reveal something about it. There are a lot of ways I find the division between fantasy and science fiction to be arbitrary, at best. People who get hung up on scientific realism in scifi really annoy me sometimes and, by the same token, people who grouse about historical realism in fantasy affect me much the same way. The point, to me, is never about whether there are swords or ray guns, but ultimately what is the objective the author is seeking to achieve with either swords or rayguns. Sometimes the stories have both (Star Wars, Dune, etc.).

For me, personally, the difference between the two is largely just aesthetics. Sometimes I want space and zero gravity and aliens, and other times I want dragons and wizards, but not because fantasy or science fiction are inherently better at doing some things instead of others–I don’t think that’s really true–but because I’m just in a spaceship kinda mood, ya know?

I do know!

You’re also a teacher. How does teaching writing influence the way you write?

A: If I’m being honest, being a teacher has only a negative influence on how I write, though, paradoxically, it also makes my writing career possible. Let me explain: I’m a college writing professor. I primarily teach all those freshman year expository writing seminars most of us had to go through when we first got in. I’m a pretty low ranked professor (*just* made it out of the adjunct mines a couple years back–now I’m an Instructor, which is full time) and, therefore, my teaching load is pretty heavy. I read (honestly–not exaggerating) about 2400 pages of student writing a semester. The vast majority of it is, while passable, pretty awful from any professional perspective. It’s mind numbing and it makes it basically impossible to write anything good during the fall or spring (though I can edit, maybe write a short story or two, etc..). It also severely affects my reading time, so I don’t read half as many novels for pleasure as I would otherwise. I like teaching, but I really can’t teach and write at the same time. When the semester ends, it takes me a week or so to shift my brain back into writing mode.

On the plus side, I get my summers off (more or less) and get some nice breaks sprinkled throughout the year that make it possible for me to be, essentially, a full-time writer for what basically amounts to 4-5 months of the year. I write as much between May and August as most people I know do all year, so this is a huge, huge benefit.

Being entrenched in academia, do you ever feel pressure to write more literary or mainstream fiction, as opposed to sci-fi and fantasy?

A: Ye gods, yes! The closest I’ve ever come to being an “oppressed minority” (and I put that in quotes to make it clear I know that my straight white male butt has never been actually oppressed in any sense of the word) was while earning my MFA while being an unapologetic fan of science fiction and fantasy. I had numerous professors that refused to even look at anything scifi, insisting they “knew nothing about it” (but always spoken with the subtext that they were proud that was the case). As a professor, nobody has ever actually pressured me to write literary stuff, but having an MFA among a bunch of PhDs does make you feel a bit like the poor cousin in the room–the pretender. I mean, technically an MFA is a terminal degree just like a PhD, but nobody in academia actually believes that. It made getting the job I have now rather difficult, I think, and I’m very lucky to land where I have.

And, if I’m being honest, I *do* have some ideas for some mainstream lit novels. I just think they seem terribly dull.

No Good Deed cover art
No Good Deed, by Auston Habershaw

I have a couple of questions about your series, The Saga of the Redeemed. Just to clear things up for our readers, they can find the first two books in the series as The Iron Ring and Iron and Blood, however these two volumes are also combined in an omnibus edition called The Oldest Trick. I highly recommend going straight to this combined version.

Yes, please do! The publisher, for reasons of their own, wanted to split The Oldest Trick in half and me, being new and green and without an agent, didn’t feel like I should stand up to them over it. That means, though, that The Iron Ring basically ends on a “To Be Continued” and has pissed a number of people off over the past year. As the author, I’m begging you to read the omnibus (i.e. the book I intended) and, if you don’t, don’t get pissed at me for the way the other two are split up!

Tyvian, the main character of your Saga of the Redeemed novels, is pretty much a complete jerk. And yet, against my instincts, I find myself rooting for him early on. You probably get this question a lot: how do you create an unsympathetic character that readers will still want to cheer on?

A: I think all of us, on some level, love the jerk who says the things we wish we had the guts to say. That’s the magic of Gregory House, of Sherlock Holmes, of James Bond, and Tyvian is cut from that same cloth. Yeah, Tyvian is a giant, seething jackass, but he’s your giant, seething jackass. The trick, ultimately, is to make the objects of his derision and sarcasm deserving of such, on some level. There are lines I don’t have Tyvian cross, for instance, since he’d immediately lose reader sympathy. He isn’t cruel to children, for instance (or not greatly so) and he doesn’t push any old ladies off cliffs. He’s a killer, but not a cold-hearted one. It’s a balance, but it works, I think.

You turned a gnoll – a wolf-like humanoid creature, often translated by the roleplaying gaming world as low-level cannon-fodder – into possibly one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy. What was the inspiration for this character, Hool?

A: Ahhh, Hool–liked her, did you? Glad to hear it, as I love Hool to death. Where she came from is a bit complicated, but is basically the confluence of two things. First off, I stuck gnolls in my world because I felt they had always been given pretty short shrift in fantasy lore (cannon fodder, as they say) and all the nasty things said about their culture and ways I felt read an awful lot like racist propaganda spread about by all the humans/demihumans of the cosmos. Basically, I started to wonder what gnolls were “actually” like. As a lover of dogs, they act a lot like a cross between humans, wolves, and lions.

Now, as for Hool herself, that’s easier: while developing this world, I wrote a homebrew RPG and set it in the world as a means of fleshing out the universe a bit more. In the campaign I ran, one of the players was my wife (who had never played an RPG before). She made a gnoll and one of the wonderful things about her was that she had no concept of many of the RPG customs we gamers are used to. While they all sat around and tried to plan how to attack the enemy castle, she just went and *did it.* While everybody stressed out about whether this or that piece of treasure was trapped, she just took it. The crazy thing was, my wife’s dice were so hot that she always, always got away with it and even made it look easy. That exasperation for the norm and aggressive philosophy formed the bedrock of Hool’s character.

One of the things that fascinates me about your fantasy world is how fleshed out it is, and yet there isn’t a single moment where I feel like I’m stuck reading history or other info-dumps. How much worldbuilding did you do before you started writing this book? How do you find a balance when showing the reader the rich details of the world without stopping the action?

A: As I’ve suggested above, I am an obsessive worldbuilder. I’ve got not just *a* map, but a whole atlas of maps. I’ve written almost a whole novel’s worth of background material (much of which is never going to be used, frankly), I write stories in the world, and I’ve even run RPGs there, too. Now, do I feel all of this is essential? Well, no–you don’t need to go to the lengths I go to in order to have a functional setting. I think you do need to know a lot more about your setting than you let on in the narrative, otherwise things are going to seem shallow or ring false. I operate on a kind of iceberg theory–the 90% that the audience doesn’t see keeps the 10% they do afloat. You can avoid a lot of infodumping if you have characters that know there world so well that they effortlessly move through it and bring the reader along, and you can only do *that* if there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Tyvian’s world seems fleshed out because it is both complicated but, at the same time, Tyvian seems totally at ease there. You follow his lead and, as you go, you pick up enough info to understand what is going on.

And then, every once in a while, you give the reader a paragraph or two just explaining something (usually a setting), and that new information just clicks into the framework you’ve already built in the reader’s mind.

Without giving away spoilers, what can we expect from in the next book, No Good Deed?

A: Well, Tyvian is in a bit of a rut–he can’t be much of a criminal with his ring torturing him anytime he does bad stuff, but he doesn’t exactly have any other professions to fall back on, you know? There’s a lot tension, too, between him and his new “partner,” Artus, who is getting older and starting to think more for himself. Oh, yeah, and there are now *two* giant hairy gnolls attached to his hip everywhere he goes. So, basically, life sucks and shows no signs of improving for Tyvian and he’s going to need to make some serious changes to either his lifestyle or his company if he wants to be any happier. You’ll have to read to see how that might turn out for him.

Okay, I have just a couple of closing questions:

How often do people misspell your name?

A: All the time, everywhere, for my entire life. You wouldn’t think Auston would be that hard to figure out, but it is. I once had an English professor in college actually *correct* the spelling of my first name on a paper.

Obviously, you’re hard at work with the Saga of the Redeemed series. Anything else in the works that you want to tell us about?

A: I’ve got a number of things kicking around, but the project occupying most of my time currently is a space opera setting with a shape-shifting assassin at the center of it. Still eyeball deep in the worldbuilding stages right now, have some basic characters and conflicts laid out, but it’s all going well. Stay tuned for that, if and when it appears.

Thanks for joining us today, Auston!

Thanks so much for having me!

About No Good Deed:
Cursed with a magic ring that forbids skullduggery, Tyvian Reldamar’s life of crime is sadly behind him. Now reduced to fencing moldy relics and wheedling favors from petty nobility, he’s pretty sure his life can’t get any worse.

That is until he hears that his old nemesis, Myreon Alafarr, has been framed for a crime she didn’t commit and turned to stone in a penitentiary garden. Somebody is trying to get his attention, and that somebody is playing a very high-stakes game that will draw Tyvian and his friends back to the city of his birth and right under the noses of the Defenders he’s been dodging for so long. And that isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that the person pulling all the strings is none other than the most powerful sorceress in the West: Lyrelle Reldamar.

Tyvian’s own mother.

Where to find No Good Deed: