Monday, April 5, 2010

Interview with John C. Hocking and John O'Neill

John C. Hocking is the author of the Harper's Pen Award winning story, "The Face in the Sea," which appeared in Black Gate #13, published by John O'Neill. Recently I had an opportunity to ask these two gentlemen a few questions about the winning story, writing, and publishing.

Sorcerer's Guild: According to a note accompanying your story, "The Face in the Sea" is the first of three stories about Brand the Viking. Are the Brand stories closely connected by events? Are they part of a larger narrative, like a novel (finished or unfinished)?
John C. Hocking: The Brand stories I’ve written so far are tied closely together, as Brand and his shipmates reclaim their chieftain’s stolen daughter and try to bring her back home. I was originally working on a novel about the characters, but the elements I wanted to use ended up better expressed in short stories.

SG: How did "The Face in the Sea" and Black Gate meet?
John O'Neill: I think it all began with a book published in 2004 called LORDS OF SWORDS, edited by Dan Blackston. Word went around that it was a pretty good collection of heroic fantasy -- with some standout work by such folks as E.E. Knight, Howard Andrew Jones, Joe McCullough, and others -- when it got a hilariously off-base review at Tangent Online. It annoyed a few members of the staff, including Todd McAulty, who commandeered a chunk of the review section in BLACK GATE 8 to do a lengthy rebuttal, and celebrate the work of some of these emerging talents.

One of the stories Todd called out in LORDS OF SWORDS was called "Vali's Wound," by Mr. John C. Hocking. I took the time to read it, and was suitably impressed. It was the tale of a young and inexperienced Viking named Brand, who dared to defy a Valkyrie when she came to claim a fallen comrade.

I met John just a few weeks later at Windycon in 2005, and learned he had a series of these stories. When I asked John if he would ever send me one, he told me one was already sitting in my slush pile at home. I suppose I'd had know that, it I hadn't been busy having a good time at a convention.

SG: Was it love at first sight?
John O'Neill: Yes, actually. Although the story's actually a little more complicated. Literally, in this case.

The first story John submitted to me was called "The Bonestealer's Mirror" -- a really terrific piece in which Brand and his shipmates discover the rather chilling secret of a particularly loathsome demon haunting a lonely isle. I bought it immediately, and Storn Cook delivered a fabulous pair of illustrations to accompany it (the first work he'd ever done done us, incidentally.) I was all set to unleash it on the world.

John then delivered a NEW Brand story: "The Face in the Sea." I jumped at the chance to buy it, and scheduled it for Black Gate 13. And then John informed me this one occurred chronologically *first* in the series, followed by "Vali's Wound," and then "Bonestealer."

So John's appearance in Black Gate had to wait. I postponed "Bonestealer," commissioned art for "Face" -- which Storn delivered again -- and published "The Face in the Sea" in Black Gate 13.

"The Bonestealer's Mirror" has finally appeared in Black Gate 14, with Storn's art -- over four year after I purchased it. It's been a long wait, but I hope it's been worth it. John returns in our very next issue with the start of a brand new series. I think you'll like it.

SG: What do you like best about "The Face in the Sea"?
John O'Neill: "The Face in the Sea" is a textbook example at what John Hocking is best at -- and indeed, what all great heroic fantasy writers are good at. And that is creating, in swift and sure strokes, a group of valiant characters that we quickly come to care about, and a forlorn setting where the cast must stand alone.

And then, he unleashes the monsters.

SG: You've written three stories about Brand the Viking, so I take it you like writing in this setting. What is it about Vikings that attracts your creative energies?
John C. Hocking: I’m certainly not alone in finding the Vikings and their world deeply fascinating. Their barbaric yet oddly civilized culture, their astonishing drive to explore, their ideal of stoic bravery in the face of death, all capture and encourage the imagination. Brand lives in a slightly off-center, alternate version of the Viking world, where history has played out a little differently and magic works, but I like to think I get a little flavor of the sagas in there all the same.

SG: When I first read "The Face in the Sea," I had recently finished reading Poul Anderson's War of the Gods. Have you read this novel? Was your work influenced by Anderson's?
John C. Hocking: I love Anderson’s work, especially Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but the Brand stories are more influenced by the Icelandic sagas and Weird Tales magazine of the 1920’s and 30’s than anything else.

SG: I detected influences of Robert E. Howard in this tale, especially Brand's Conanesque solution to their monstrous problem. Would you say Howard was a big influence on this story?
John C. Hocking: Of course I would! Howard’s imagination, passion, and seemingly effortless handling of the elements of plot continue to amaze me.

SG: Speaking of Howard, you published a Conan novel with Tor in 1995. How did that come about?
John C. Hocking: Long story. In short, I wanted to write for Weird Tales in 1932, but since that was impossible I tried to write a tale with its roots in that period. The Conan pastiche novels I was reading back then seemed to me to have an overly distant relationship with REH and Weird Tales, so I tried to bring that back together. It was a strange way to spend my time, as I had no way of knowing if the book I was working on would ever be read by anybody but me. Some have pointed out that Conan and the Emerald Lotus is a less than entirely successful experiment, but 15 years later it’s still in print and I can still find reasons to be proud of it.

SG: You wrote that novel without a commission from Tor Books, yet they accepted it for publication? That's a pretty incredible authorial feat.
John C. Hocking: It's true, I wrote Conan & the Emerald Lotus all by myself, with no sanction from TOR, Conan Properties, or anyone else. Ridiculous thing to do. Like an amateur animator spending years in the basement making a cartoon about Mickey Mouse. I had no right to put down a word of it but I was inspired by trying to pay tribute to Conan, REH, Lovecraft, Smith, Bloch, and the whole Weird Tales circle, and kept working away until it was done.

And THEN I wondered what I should do with it.

Figured I might as well see if it could even be considered for publication, but didn't even know how to do that. Sent out a volley of letters to anybody I thought might know and got a response from L. Sprague de Camp. He told me they got unsolicited Conan manuscripts all the time and that they were uniformly poor and summarily rejected, but that he would look at my book if that's what I wanted. I sent it to him and he liked it enough to back it for publication.

SG: What's on your launch pad right now? What's in your future?
John C. Hocking: The third Brand tale, by far the longest and most ambitious, is in Black Gate #14, which just came out. Five years back, when Howard Andrew Jones was editing the Flashing Swords e-zine, I wrote a trio of stories for him about a different set of characters. I’ve written two more tales of the Archivist and his friend Lucella, and Black Gate has accepted them. I’ve been stalled on both a novel about the Archivist and the final Brand story, Home to Midgard, but I hope to get both into action before too much longer.

SG: One of your more recent projects was co-editing a book called Detroit Noir. With a title like that, it's not hard to guess, but go ahead and tell us about the book, what's inside the covers, who published it, and where we can find it.
John C. Hocking: I love noir and hardboiled fiction almost as much as I love Sword and Sorcery. My friend Eric Olsen and I noticed that Akashic Books acclaimed Noir series featured anthologies of stories set in specific cities, yet there was no volume for Detroit. We convinced the publisher we were for real and, over the course of a couple years, solicited a fearsomely tall stack of brand new manuscripts from Detroit authors. Then we had to select and arrange our favorites into a book. The tales range from gentle mood pieces to savage hardboiled thrillers, and I was somewhat overwhelmed by the quality of the material we received. There’s work from established masters like Joyce Carol Oates and Loren D. Estleman, as well as memorable tales from authors who have gone on to make a name for themselves, like Megan Abbott and Michael Zadoorian. Desiree Cooper’s haunting Night Coming was selected for inclusion in Best African American Fiction 2010, and Estleman’s Kill the Cat was up for the Shamus Award for best private eye short story of the year. Detroit Noir is still available at many bookstores and all the major on-line booksellers.

SG: Do you consider yourself primarily a short story writer or a novelist?
John C. Hocking: Neither. I write what I can. I’d like to produce more novel length work, but the process is as arduous as the end product is uncertain of publication. Right now, shorter work suits me.

SG: Have you always been a writer, or did you come to it gradually? Or suddenly?
John C. Hocking: I’ve always been a writer, always told stories. There is little that makes me happier than learning someone who I’ve never met read and enjoyed something I wrote.

SG: Putting together a magazine is no easy task. Putting together a magazine as enormous as Black Gate must be Herculean. What inspires you to sit down every day and work on it?
John O'Neill: First, let's dispel this myth that it's "Herculean." What I do to create Black Gate is simple: I read fantasy stories, and select the ones I like the most. Nothing to it. Anyone who's read an anthology or magazine and said, "I liked these stories the best" has done what I've done.
Physically creating the magazine is only slightly more work. But with modern desktop publishing programs such as Quark or Microsoft Publisher, even that is a cinch. Quite a bit easier than putting together a web page, for example.
No, the only hard thing about producing a magazine is finding a printer, and a way to distribute and sell it. And you really only have to do that once.
But I'm dodging your question.
Yeah, it takes time -- a lot of time, in which I could be playing with my kids, or watching BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with Alice. What keeps me going? There's a real joy in finding new authors -- folks like James Enge, Joe McCullough, and Peadar O Guilan -- and giving them a stage. Few people remember the editor who first discovered a promising writer.
But editors do. And that's enough.


  1. "But editors do. And that's enough."

    Great endline John!

    Nice interview Jeff; way to weave both Johns throughout and hit on some interesting aspects.

    Congrats to all involved!

  2. Awesome interview and discussion!

    I'm actually looking for contact with John C. Hocking...any chance you could pass word on to him that I'm looking?