An interview with Phil Tucker
By Matthew Cropley
[MC] The Path of Flames harkens back to traditional fantasy. What books inspired it?
[PT] In many ways I’ve gone back to my childhood favourites, namely David Gemmell’s Drenai books, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, and Raymond E. Feist’s Magician. While I didn’t deliberately set out to emulate any one aspect of them, those works are part of my fantasy DNA.
[MC] Why did you choose to write a fantasy book in the traditional style, rather than joining the grimdark trend?
[PT] Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a choice. I set about world building first, then created the characters and used them to explore the world, to examine how our religions and cultures shape our realities – and from where these institutions derive their weight and authority. The high fantasy tone was set by the nature of the tale, though I think there’s some dark edges to it as well: the Bythian people’s systematic oppression, the cruel politics that engulfs Lady Kyferin, and the sacrifices and choices they’re forced to take.
[MC] What’s your opinion of grimdark fantasy and sci-fi?
[PT] I love them both! I’m planning to write a grimdark series in the near future.
[MC] The book features a lot of fantasy tropes, such as magical swords, innate magical ability, and knightly honour. How did you incorporate these tropes without becoming derivative?
[PT] I’ve tried to employ them in a way that serves my interrogation of the world in which the characters live. Take knightly honour, for example: I spent a lot of time reading about how real world knights justified their use of violence with their Christian piety, how they saw their own suffering on the field of battle as a mirror to Christ’s suffering, and through their privations they believed their killing was not only exonerated but glorified.
In my world, only one caste, the Ennoians, are allowed to wield weapons, and it is from their ranks that my knights emerge. They are supposed to defend the Empire, yet in truth they are often brutal and self-serving. The Black Wolves, amongst whose number our hero Asho begins the novel, are infamous for their misdeeds, and their leader Lord Enderl is both the paragon of knightly accomplishments and a monster. What does this say about knighthood? Can a military order that is given such lethal authority ever remain pure to their purpose? Are the very grounds upon which their chivalry is based capable of resisting corruption?
I try to explore all my tropes along the same lines, setting them up to further my world building but then mining the ramifications they have on society and religion. I hope that by using them toward an end rather than having them be the end, I manage to avoid being derivative and find something new to say about them.
[MC] What inspired the setting of the Ascendant Empire?
[PT] A phone interview with Google. They’d emailed me out of the blue and asked if I was interested in a random gig in the Googleplex. I said sure, so I went through a gruelling interview process, during which at the end of one call they asked me to brainstorm out loud on how the invention of teleportation machines would change our world.
Well, I rambled on for a fair bit, and a lot of my ideas stuck with me. I never got the job, but the ideas for a non-contiguous empire stitched together by teleportation portals resurfaced when I sat down to write my series, and from there it all developed as I began to ask ever more detailed questions about its effect on the economy, culture, religion, and so on.
[MC] How much work was it to create such an interesting setting and history, and how did you go about revealing it to the reader in such a mysterious, engaging way?
[PT] Is it fair to call such a fun process work? I spent a lot of time looking at fantasy concept art online, brainstorming, piecing together elements and seeing whether they fit. For example, say you’ve decided your empire is connected by teleportation portals. Do they go both ways? Say they do. Is there one portal per city, or as many portals in each city as there are total cities in the empire? What if nobody has ever returned after passing through one of the portals? What if that portal was black and underground, and another was white and in the clouds? What might people infer? How would that affect the world?
You start asking those questions and almost at a whim answer them as you see best – but then ask another set of questions, and another, until your world has unfurled before you like one of those dragon tea balls.
As for how to reveal, well. That was hard. I bought an old paperback of Game of Thrones and went through the first ten chapters with a highlighter, picking out where and how often GRRM revealed his world building. How much in dialog, how much in exposition? I didn’t want to rebuff readers with too much terminology, so I decided to kick things off with a big battle, and then go introducing elements and characters gradually. A minimum of exposition, with Audsley (my librarian character) having a fun scene early on where he’s studying maps and thinking out loud to his pet cindercat.
[MC] Where do your characters come from?
[PT] A mixture of necessity and inspiration. I wanted to tell my story from a variety of points of view: a character at the bottom of the social caste, and one at the very top; an intellectual who could plumb the mysteries of my world and a brutal knight who could challenge and cut through the old ways of living. They literally were points of view into my world, and once I had a sense of whom I needed to tell my tale, I set to fleshing them out.
I’m a big fan of seeking inspiration on Pinterest. I’ll browse fantasy character portraits for hours, marking those that catch my eye, and then try to figure out what about that particular portrait intrigued me. For this series I did just that, collecting images that resonated with each role, and slowly allowing them to coalesce in my mind like a soup left to simmer for several weeks.
[MC] How many books will the series be comprised of, and how epic will the story become?
[PT] I’m planning for this to be a five book series, with Book 3 nearly finished and the broad strokes already outlined for Books 4 and 5. I’m hoping to make it pretty epic – I’m going to push my world as far as I can without breaking it, and don’t yet know what it’s going to look like when the dust settles. That’s part of the fun in writing the series – seeing how everybody recovers (and who survives) after all the horrible things that are set to happen.
[MC] What do you draw from your real life?
[PT] I’ve travelled a fair bit, and lived in a variety of different countries, so perhaps my outsider’s point of view may have influenced not only Asho’s being a pariah but also my fondness for comparing and contrasting cultures. I’m fascinated by how people’s languages and upbringing shape their world view, and can’t help but wonder how many of our core beliefs are objective and how many of them are dependent on our circumstances. Hence my fun in playing with them in the Chronicles.
[MC] Your self-publishing career started out with The Grind Show, an urban fantasy, back in 2014—what challenges have you met in self-publishing since then to get to this point where your latest book is kicking arse in the Self Published Fantasy Book Blog-Off?
[PT] I’ve made so many mistakes over the years. Abandoning series after a successful Book 1, designing awful covers myself, failing to hire top notch editors, picking lousy titles – all such basic and elementary aspects of self-publishing. Everything changed for me when I discovered the Writer’s Café on KBoards, and started plumbing its archives for wisdom and asking questions of the local success stories.
I think the most fundamental things I’ve learned is to pay for the very best cover you can afford, make sure your title resonates with your readers, and publish as frequently as you can in the same genre to build momentum with Amazon’s algorithms.
Luck has also played a large role in all this, especially with my success so far with SPFBO. I have absolutely no illusions about being any better than anybody else in my cohort, but am instead simply very grateful that the judge of our group enjoyed reading my book as much as he did.
[MC] From your perspective, what is the general reality of self-publishing vs. chasing the tradition dream?
[PT] I think that anybody with discipline, drive, and thick skin has a chance to make it now as a self-published author. The resources are out there. If you’re willing to invest under $1,000 on cover, editor, layout and any other services that you need, you can launch your book in grand style and compete with the very best that traditional publishers have to offer.
This isn’t for everyone though. Many authors simply don’t want to function as small business owners. They don’t want to do marketing and design and oversee freelancers and wear all the hats that go with being an indie. For them, sending a book off to a trad publisher might be the way to go, though it’s apparently becoming increasingly hard to get noticed and compensated for your work.
I’d encourage anybody who is serious about making a career out of being an author to do their research first and ask themselves if they can’t take on these duties in order to increase their chances of success. Check out authorearnings.com, buy Chris Fox’s how-to books on Amazon, browse Writer’s Café on KBoards, and jump right in. The odds have never been better.
[MC] Did your time spent living and working in Australia help develop your writing and themes?
[PT] It did! It was while I was in Australia that I wrote my first serious piece of fiction. I entered into NaNoWriMo while there, and managed to cough out an atrocious 50,000 words that, while pretty objectively terrible, showed me I could actually write something approximating a novel. I never looked back thereafter.
[MC] What can we expect to see from you next?
[PT] Book 3 of the Chronicles, The Siege of Abythos, is slated to come out in late October. I’ll be publishing Books 4 and 5 right after, and hopefully have the whole series wrapped up by early next year. Then? I’m not sure. I’ve got plenty of ideas. One thing’s for sure, though: I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.