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Interview with author E.E. Knight

Posted on May 6, 2006 by Flames

How did you get started as an author?

The macro answer is that I started writing pastiches at a very young age. I was interested in journalism in high school and college and did a lot of writing associated with game mastering role-playing games. I remained a dilettante until I got into my thirties and started wondering what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Writing a novel had always been one of those things on my “dream list” like cave diving or climbing Kilimanjaro, but I could do it from the local coffee shop at very little expense. I took a couple of classes on fiction writing at the local community college and tried to learn theory.

My first efforts weren’t impressive. I didn’t have any success until I talked it over with my aunt, who writes children’s books. She told me to write to entertain myself, not an imagined audience or an editor by chasing whatever sf/fantasy genre that was hot at the moment. I think about that time John Carpenter’s Vampires came out, based on Steakley’s novel Vampire$, and the mercenaries fighting vampires rang an inner bell. I’d had an old role-playing campaign for the post-apocalyptic game Aftermath involving ancient vampires taking over the Earth that was kind of an action-filled mix of The Omega Man, Dawn of the Dead, and the Road Warrior. It was very popular with the players; they always wanted back in. I tweaked the setting and started writing, and with the setting in place the story came rather easily. I wanted to write a novel about a young man going off to war, something along the line of Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.

The result was my first published novel, Way of the Wolf. It got rejected pretty much everywhere so I put it up on an internet critique site that later turned into AOL-Time Warner book group’s ebook experiment iPublish. It sounds like self-publishing but it wasn’t — the book got selected by an editor and I got paid, but iPublish crashed and burned along with a lot of other internet startups in 2001. Luckily I had the novel in hand and my iPublish editor introduced me to an agent at the World Fantasy Convention. He took me as a client and sold it fairly quickly to Roc as the first in a three book deal. Wolf hit the shelves in September 2003 and it’s been an exciting ride ever since. Wolf sold well and won the Compton Crook and Darrell awards, and has been translated into four foreign languages.

What can you tell us about the Vampire Earth series?

They’re adventure stories set about seventy years from now telling the tale of a young man fighting against a new order of vampiric aliens who conquered our planet circa 2022.

It’s modeled after two long-running series that I’ve admired since I started reading: C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I liked watching Hornblower grow in skill and responsibility over the course of the books, rising through the Royal Navy in an ever-more personal struggle against Bonaparte. Ian Fleming had a winning formula and stuck to it: ship Bond off to some exotic local, match him up against a nasty bad guy and his henchmen, and throw in a gorgeous woman or two.

Of course my main character, David Valentine, is closer to the Bond of the books. He’s a good deal more troubled and not always successful with the women he meets. And as for comparisons to Hornblower, Valentine has more conflict with those higher up in the service who aren’t always acting in the best interest of the resistance.

What sets your vampires, the Kurians, apart from other vampire myths?

I’ve taken the classic vampire and bifurcated it into two separate entities. The Kurians themselves are immortal, feeding off the life-force of their human subjects, and can do some of the shape shifting tricks of a vampire, though while they can make themselves look like wolves, they still can’t really bite like one. They are physically weak, you could stomp one to death if you cornered it, though they can climb and glide. They tend to be reclusive, even paranoid, and you only rarely meet one face-to-face.

To do the dangerous work of harvesting their food they rely on avatars, called the Reapers. The Reapers are humanoid, acting as the eyes, ears, voice, and appetite of the Kurians on Earth, and they do the dangerous work of harvesting the life-force (vital aura as it’s called in the series). They’re very strong; they’ve been engineered to be hard to kill. As a side benefit, the Reaper is fed by the blood of the victim, which they extract through a stabbing, syringe-like tongue. The Kurian animates the Reaper through a psychic link as it selects a victim and feeds.

Daylight hurts the link between Kurian and Reaper; the Kurian can’t “transmit” as far on a clear sunny day as he could during heavy cloud cover, or twilight. The Kurians and Reapers aren’t killed by sunlight and so on, but they don’t function as well, so they tend to hide out in well-protected areas out of the sun.

What can we look forward to in upcoming Vampire Earth novels?

Valentine is going to be something of an outcast for the next couple of books, starting with Valentine’s Exile in June, which will be my first book published in hardcover. He’ll have to find himself and re-learn why he got into this war in the first place.

How did the Savage Worlds sourcebook come about?

As I’ve explained above, the Vampire Earth series grew out of a role-playing campaign. I thought it would be fitting to bring it full circle and create a sourcebook that would allow others to play in my world. Trying to put together an RPG sourcebook was way more difficult than I thought; it ate over a year of my life.

I used Savage Worlds because it had a system that emphasizes simplicity and playability, and it has a great two-fisted feel with the card deck for initiative and so on. It’s also pretty easily adapted into skirmish rules — I’ve had a surprising number of fans ask for a Warhammer-type game because there is a lot of small-unit action in the books.

What can you tell us about the Age of Fire series?

Now that I’m a little more established as a writer I wanted to venture into areas that I love. High fantasy and Sword & Sorcery were like mother’s milk as an AD&D-playing teen. I wanted to do something with elves and dwarves and barbarians and all that but give it a little twist so I decided to tell a high fantasy story from the point of view of a dragon.

The first in the series, Dragon Champion, is the story of a dragon from the moment he hatches until he reaches adulthood and takes a mate of his own to produce more eggs. He’s neither evil nor good; he’s a dragon making his way as best he can in a world full of beings trying to kill him.

Can you tell us a little more about the main character of the Age of Fire series?

Of course. I’m offering a good old-fashioned high fantasy story written from the dragon’s point of view. The first book, Dragon Champion, tells the tail of Auron, a young male dragon, from the rather violent moment of his hatching (the male hatchlings fight it out until one rules the nest) to the point where he starts a family of his own. The second one will be about his sister…and so on through the surviving members the clutch of eggs.

Auron is kind of an odd dragon. He was born a “gray,” which means he has no scales, just a leathery skin that is easily pierced. But he can change color like a chameleon, which comes in handy when he’s hiding from hunters. Also, dragons with scales have a tremendous hunger for precious metals and gems, they eat them to make their scales grow tight and thick. The fact that Auron doesn’t have a ravening appetite for gold and a desire to hoard it against shortages gives him a little more freedom to travel and have adventures.

What challenges did you deal with working in an established world like Tomb Raider?

I did the media fiction novel in order to earn money, see what writing media fiction is like, and work with my old iPublish editor again, as he’d been hired to helm the novels. The big challenge was coming up with an outline both the book publishing company and the video game people were happy with. They put a lot of strictures on Lara’s behavior – she couldn’t smoke, do drugs or alcohol, use profanity, have sex, or appear nude (“What, I can’t write about her naked in the bathtub? That’s half the reason I took on this job!”). No wonder she raids Tombs, her life is too boring otherwise.

Do you have any advice for hopeful authors out there?

Write first to entertain yourself. Try to make yourself laugh, or cry, or fear, or exult. Chances are that if you can do it to yourself, you’ll do it for an editor and your audience. I’ll also pass on the wise words of Alan Dean Foster, given to me when I wrote him for advice: “Write every day. Submit when you’re done.”

You can get loads more of me from the classes I teach at Harper College in Palatine IL.

Can you tell us about the creation process your novels go through?

First thing to do is get a contract. Except for my Tomb Raider media novel, which was a one-shot, all my contracts have been either for two or three books (I’ve now sold 14 books and had six published. Two more are finished and awaiting publication. I’m writing Vampire Earth #6 right now. That leaves five novels due to be handed in the next three years).

I’m at the happy stage in my career where I can sell a book with just a paragraph or two telling the publisher a little about the story, for example how Vampire Earth #7 is going to advance the series by yadda yadda yadda…

I do outline, not in tremendous detail but from a synopsis that usually runs about three pages. I’ll also have note cards with more detailed information about the people, places, and things in the books, I tend to carry the note cards around with me and jot down ideas when they occur.

Once my first draft is written I show it to a circle of trusted friends, my first readers. After I’ve got their input I hand it over to my editor, Liz. She gives me a 10,000 ft assessment (“chapter three is slow, try and knock thirty pages out of the middle, especially where…”). I do those fixes, and turn it in again, and then we go to the micro level with a line edit where individual sentences are cleaned up and sharpened.

The cover art for a book is often completed about the time the first draft is being edited. They finish the cover way ahead of time as it’s such a key part of the sales process. Bookstores don’t read books; they look at covers and the author’s sales history.

But back to the manuscript. We’re about nine months from publication when it goes to the copyeditor, who checks internal consistency, formatting, and so on. I get it back full of mystic copyeditor notations, along with queries from the copyeditor that I must either fix or ignore with the all-powerful authorial STET. Then it gets typeset and I get a bunch of pages with a rubber band around them, my first galley proof. I work on the galley at the same time the proofreader does, hopefully catching funny little formatting errors, screwed up paragraphs, and so on.

It gets printed about a month before shelf date, and I’m usually deep in another novel through the second half of the editorial process. When it finally hits the shelves I’m usually at least a full book ahead, sometimes two, so it’s not as “present” for me as it is for the readers. At cons and so on fans talk about the one that just came out and I’ve mentally reverse gears and back myself up to about a year ago in order to discuss it coherently.

It’s a fun life. You get into a rhythm, knowing when you have to be writing, when you have to be promoting, when you have to be working with your agent and when you will be talking to your editor a couple times a day.

What’s next for you?

Roc is happy with both Vampire Earth and Age of Fire, they’ve bought three more of the former and two more of the latter. I’m also working on a sf idea, something very much in the vein of Keith Laumer’s Retief series, but it’s at least a year from completion which probably means three years from publication, if I can even sell it.

For more information on the Vampire Earth and Age of Fire series, visit E.E. Knight’s Website.

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