Interview with Author A.J. Hartley, Conclusion

Welcome back for the conclusion in our talk with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.


Airship Ambassador: What story would you like to write but haven’t, yet?

A.J. Hartley: I have several in mind that I just haven’t had time for yet. Too much on my plate. Hopefully. One is a middle grades novel rooted in Japanese folk tales and mythology. Another is an adult mystery about a summer holiday in Greece…


AA: I suppose that would require a visit to Greece? Writing can be a challenge some days. What are some of your methods to stay motivated and creative?

AJH: Stay off social media. Seriously though, staying motivated is generally not a problem if I think people out there are reading what I produce. It was hardest when I had been writing for years and was no nearer to getting published. Then I just had a time consuming hobby that generated a lot of depression and anxiety. Those things haven’t left me completely, but they generally don’t stop me being creative.


AA: Ugh, social media – I agree, it’s a time killer. How is North Carolina for writing? Does location matter for resources, access, publicity, etc

AJH: It’s too hot in the summer, which is tough because I really do like to walk when I have a plot point to work out or something. Other than that, it’s good, and I don’t need much anyway. Quiet and privacy is about all I have to have.


AA: I’m not a fan of hot weather either. The Pacific Northwest is pretty nice in the summer. Just sayin’. In your experience, does it seem like readers prefer a print or electronic format? Do you have a preference?

AJH: I prefer print and I think most readers do too. E-books are convenient, but I feel oddly disconnected from them, and if I’m not reading an entire book in a few sittings I lose my sense of where I was. I like paper.


AA: Ebooks can be so convenient when traveling, but print has sensory appeal. Have you been affected by electronic piracy of your work? Aside from the loss of a sale, how does this affect you/make you feel?

AJH: I have, but to what extent I don’t really know. From time to time I’ll stumble on free downloads of my books, and I’ll notify my publisher. It’s depressing and frustrating. I don’t understand what people think is happening there and I suspect it’s tied to the same impulse that makes people think that an e-book is worth a lot less than a physical book. I want to shake them and say “You know you’re not paying for the paper, right? That THAT’S not the bulk of the cost? You’re paying for my WORK: my ideas, my labor, my words and those of my editors!”


AA: Most of the authors I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job. What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered begin a published writer?

AJH: I’m the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. As such I publish academic writing as well as fiction and my school, which has been very supportive, recognizes the value of both to my position. It also means that as far as creative writing is concerned, my personal bar is set productively but impossibly high, since I deal with Shakespeare all the time. He was the master of telling sensational, popular stories (genre stories, not “literary fiction,” whatever that is) in ways that did not limit him in matters of thought, character and sentence-level writing. That’s something I aspire to do.


AA: Are there people you consider an inspiration, role model, or other motivating influence?

AJH: To name a few off the top of my head: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser, Dickens, Conan Doyle, the Brontes, William Golding, John LeCarre, Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Philip Larkin, Wordsworth, Aaron Sorkin, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Richard Curtis, Ursula LeGuin, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Stephen King, uncle Tom Cobbly and all… Oh, and Joss Whedon, Andy Partridge, and Mary Shelley.


AA: That’s a pretty good list! What event or situation has had the most positive impact in your life? What has been your greatest challenge?

AJH: Going to live in Japan for two years. Both. Best and hardest thing I ever did.


AA: Three quick-fire random questions – what is your favorite play by Shakespeare, theme park food, and wristwatch?

AJH: I could spend hours trying to answer the first one alone and it varies all the time. I’ll go with either Hamlet or Winter’s Tale because I tend to circle back round to them most. Theme park food? Tough to beat a good cheeseburger. Or pizza. And ice cream. (Insert Homer Simpson noises here). I wear my father’s wristwatch. He died two years ago.


AA: When you do interviews, what is something that you wish you were asked about but haven’t been?

AJH: Q: Why aren’t you making millions of dollars?

A: I really have no idea.


AA: Well, looks like I won’t get to ask that one now. Any final thoughts to share with our readers?

AJH: I really hope you like the book. If you do, please post reviews! They matter.


Thanks, A.J., for joining us for this interview and for sharing all of your thoughts.  We look forward to hearing about your next projects!


Keep up to date with A.J. latest news on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.

Published in: on September 29, 2016 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Author A.J. Hartley, Part 3

Welcome back for part three in our talk with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.

Read part one here.

Read part two here.


Airship Ambassador: Every author I’ve talked with has a different journey to seeing their works in print. What was your publishing experience like?

A.J. Hartley: I’ve been doing this a long time. I wrote long fiction for 20 long years before I was first published (this being in the days before self-publishing or the rise of so many small presses)—8 complete novels. I’ve paid my dues. My first novel published (by Penguin/Berkley) was The Mask of Atreus, an archaeological mystery/thriller. That was just over a decade ago. Steeplejack is my 13th novel.


AA: What do you think puts this story on someone’s must read/have list?

AJH: It’s weird J I mean, generically. It’s a mixture of a number of different styles and narrative types which—I think—work well together because they fit the story. The result is pretty unusual.


AA: Oh, ha! Weird could be a compliment to a great many readers! If Steeplejack were made into a movie, who would you cast as the main characters?

AJH: People I haven’t heard of. So long as the racial casting is done right, I’m good.


AA: OK, readers, start making your suggestions for casting! What kind of attention has Steeplejack generated?

AJH: I’ve had some amazing reviews, particularly in the trade journals like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Shelf Awareness, all of which gave it starred reviews, which is pretty remarkable.


AA: How are new readers finding you – conventions, website, word of mouth, etc?

AJH: All of the above. My own website is but I’m also easy to find on facebook and twitter. I’m appearing at a number of different conventions and festivals including DragonCon in Atlanta, the Texas Teen Book Festival in Austin and Fall for the Book in Virginia.


AA: For the aspiring writer, what lessons did you learn about having an agent and editor, their feedback, and your writing?

AJH: Seek out the opinions of people who know what they are talking about, and trust what they tell you. I wrote in a vacuum for far too long and it delayed my getting an agent and published. The more you learn the importance of reader response the netter you get. Authors who think they are too smart for the public never get anywhere.


AA: That lesson could apply to all of us in one way or another. There’s always someone who knows more and can help us, if we let them. Have you been on book tours and to conventions? What has that  been like, and the fan reaction?

AJH: I have been doing conventions and such for years, but since this book is new I’m only just starting to meet people who had already read the book. It’s pretty great. Writing can be a lonely life. It’s nice to meet people who appreciate what you do and have been—in some admittedly tiny way—changed by your work.


AA: What do you do to keep a balance between writing  and the rest of your life?

AJH: Ha. I walk a lot, though that is often followed by frantically scribbling down whatever I just came up with. I travel a good deal too (but see above re, subsequent scribbling). I play piano and guitar, neither especially well, and I read, of course. Never trust a writer who doesn’t. Oh, and I’m a Shakespeare professor. So there’s that J


AA: Shakespeare is classic for good reason, and there’s a lot people can learn by reading his work. Do you get to talk much with other writers and artists to compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas?

AJH: Yes, I have a lot of writer friends and we constantly compare notes about the business and the writing process. Usually over a beer .


AA: As a reader, what has made you stop reading something before finishing it? How do you try to avoid that issue in your own writing?

AJH: Bad writing. I mean, at the sentence level. If the prose itself doesn’t interest me, the story wont hold my attention. I like writers who have a sense of verbal precision and nuance, writers who can show me things through their voice, writers who will occasionally use a phrase that might be poetry or a detail so vivid that I really see or feel the moment. How do I do that myself? Practice, I guess. Revision. Putting the book away for a while and then rereading it to see if it’s any good.


AA: Oh, yes, bad writing is a big obstacle to keeping a reader’s interest. What do you consider your first real writing experience? Was it the back-to-school exercise of “What I did this Summer” or something you just did on your own?

AJH: I wrote a “book”—a short story, really—about a witch when I was abut 8 and illustrated it myself. I don’t know what happened to it. And I wrote a poem about Autumn leaves when I was a couple of years older than that, composing it at a type writer. It was pretty generic, doggerel even, but it had an ear for rhyme and rhythm and I remember my parents asking me where I’d gotten it from. It set off a little light bulb in my head.


AA: How have you and your work grown and changed over time?

AJH: Well, I’m better now J The more you write, the more you learn. It’s faster for me too. I think I can get in a first draft something that used to take me two or three. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I know what I’m looking for and what it should sound like. You also grow in confidence. You know you can write a book because you’ve done it before, and that takes some of the pressure off and allows you to be freer, more open to ideas. I still can’t commit to one genre though…



Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part four when he talks about writing, and inspirations.

Keep up to date with A.J. latest news on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.

Published in: on September 28, 2016 at 7:38 pm  Comments (1)  
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Interview with Author A.J. Hartley, Part 2

Welcome back for part two in our talk with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.

Read part one here.


Airship Ambassador: What passage, paragraph, or scene was really memorable to write?

A.J. Hartley: I like this because it presents the world in all its grit and loveliness at the same time. It’s in the first chapter when Ang is working alone on of the tallest factory chimneys in Bar-Slehm:


It had once been beautiful, this bright, hot land rolling down to the sea. In places, it still was—wide and open savannahs where the sveld beasts grazed and the clavtar stalked; towering mountains, their topmost crags lost in cloud; and golden, palm-fringed beaches.

And sky. Great swaths of startling, empty blue where the sun burned high during the day, and night brought only blackness and a dense scattering of stars.

That’s how it had been, and how it still was, not so very far away. But not here. Not in Bar-Selehm. Here were only iron and brick and a thick, pungent smoke that hung in a perpetual shroud over the pale city, shading its ancient domed temples and stately formal buildings. A couple of miles inland, down by the Etembe market, the air was ripe with animal dung, with the mouthwatering aroma of antelope flesh roasted over charcoal braziers, with cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper and, when the wind blew in from the west, with the dry but fertile fragrance of the tall grass that bent in the breeze all the way to the mountains. In the opposite direction was the ocean, the salt air redolent with fish and seaweed and the special tang of the sea. But here there was only smoke. Even all the way up the chimneys, above the city, and at what should have been the perfect vantage on the minarets of Old Town, and on the courts and monuments of the Finance District, I could see little through the brown fog, and though I wore a ragged kerchief over my mouth and nose, I could still taste it. When I spat, the slime was spotted with black flakes.

“If the work doesn’t kill you,” Papa used to say, “the air will.”

I sat on the dizzying top, my legs hooked over the edge, and below me nothing for two hundred feet but the hard stone cobbles that would break a body like a hundred hammers.


AA: That’s very descriptive, and certainly makes it seem like the smoke was the more formidable opponent. Was there any scene-passage-text-etc that you loved but which just didn’t work and had to be cut?

AJH: There was a very dramatic action sequence which got cut because the book was running long and it wasn’t essential to the story. I won’t say more except that it involves an animal pack in an unexpected place, because I was able to retool the section for use in Firebrand.


AA: At least you were able to reuse it elsewhere. What kind of back story is there for Steeplejack which didn’t make it into the final book?

AJH: There’s a lot of world building which I try to only reveal when necessary or when it makes sense that Ang is thinking or talking about it. Because it’s a first person narration, character is all and drives all revealed information. If she’s not thinking about it, it can’t go in. That means I have a swelling “Bible” file on my computer, a document into which I put everything I discover or invent about the world—whether or not it makes it explicitly into the novel—in order to keep it consistent.


AA: I’ve often wondered if writers kept a story bible handy. When people read Steeplejack, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?

AJH: Two related things: that we need to recognize how people’s life circumstances shape who they are and what they can do, and that we can, as individuals with luck and the right opportunities, push beyond those circumstances.


AA: How did elements of your own life and experiences play into Steeplejack?

AJH: Well, as I said, I grew up in Lancashire (the heart of industrialized Victorian England) and travelled to Africa while I was writing the book, but the most personal aspect of the book is probably the way the main character always feels between categories, always struggling to escape what people assume about who she is and what she can do. I don’t feel it in terms of race or gender as she does, because I’m white and male, but I feel it in other ways bound to class and geography and the way my own interests/abilities have frequently made me feel like an outsider.


AA: What was one memorable story while writing this story? Any laugh out loud or cry in the corner moments?

AJH: Cry in the corner might be a bit strong, but the book took a long time to sell—maybe nine months on active submission, I think. People just didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’m kind of used to that because I often write in hybrid forms which editors don’t know how to position (what “shelf” in the store it would appear on), but this one had become very personal to me, so the fact that I got a lot of positive feedback but no actual acceptance (contract) for such a long time was tough.


AA: I can see how that could create some anxious and frsutrating moments. Are there any plans for a sequel or spinoff?

AJH:  Yes, the second (of at least 3) is already done. It’s called Firebrand and will be out summer 2017.


AA: Very good, readers won’t have to wait too long at all. What kind of research and balance went into creating the Steeplejack world?

AJH: I was embedding a thoroughly developed Victorian industrial city in the African “wilderness” so I needed to understand both, and come up with a way they could co-exist. I settled on making the white conquest a couple of hundred years earlier than actually happened so that the city could develop like, say, Manchester in the UK, and that meant that the racial dynamic began to align more with something closer to apartheid era South Africa than the nineteenth century which was my technological frame. And because of what Ang does for a living when the book opens, I did a lot of research into architecture and construction, as well as into the trade of the steeplejack, some of whom were still using these Victorian methods in Lancashire when I was a boy.


AA: How long did it take to write, and rewrite, Steeplejack? What were the deadlines and publishing schedule like for you?

AJH: The book took the best part of a year to write, which is long for me, and went through a number of radical rethinkings. The major editing work I did after the book was acquired by Tor added about five months to that and almost another year for polishing, cover design, pre-release marketing etc. It felt like a long time, and I had already drafted the first version of book 2 by the time book 1 came out.


I’m always surprised how long it takes to release a book, but I guess it can be like a movie with plenty of work still being done after initial filming.

Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part three when he talks about lessons learned and the writing journey.

Keep up to date with A.J. latest news on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.

Published in: on September 27, 2016 at 7:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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