Anne Lyle Interview
I was fortunate enough to come across the lovely Anne Lyle at Fantasycon this year in Brighton. Anne, whose debut novel is published by Angry Robot early next year, is one of the friendliest authors out there; both in real life and twitterville/the blogosphere, and full of great advice, humour and excellent taste in music! I would like to say that Fantasycon is where this interview took place, but I stuffed up and left my questions and dictaphone at home so we did this electronically instead.
Go crazy and tell us all about The Alchemist of Souls.
“The Alchemist of Souls” is an alternate history fantasy set in London in 1593. The protagonist, Mal Catlyn, is a former soldier turned sword-for-hire who is plucked, almost literally, from the gutter and offered a prestigious position as bodyguard to the soon-to-be-arriving ambassador from the New World. The problem is, the ambassador isn’t human, he’s a skrayling – a member of a fanged, tattooed people who live peacefully alongside the Native Americans – and Mal has reasons of his own to hate and fear these strangers. However Mal’s not the only person with a grudge against the skraylings, and soon he finds himself enmeshed in dark conspiracies and darker magics…
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There’s also swashbuckling adventure and a generous dollop of cross-dressing romance, as befits a story set in Shakespeare’s day. And some rather earthy language, I have to warn you! Not for Elizabethans the clinical, Latin-derived terms for bodily functions 😉
Who or what was the inspiration behind Mal Catlyn, the lead
character of TAOS? Tell us about him.
When I started planning this book, I knew I wanted the male lead to be believably masculine – back in the eighties I read too many fantasy novels (written by women, for women) where the hero was an angsty wimp, and I really hated those characters! And since I loved classic 1950s swashbuckling movies when I was a teenager, what better for a red-blooded hero than for him to be a dashing swordsman?
As for the name, I stole it shamelessly from a real Elizabethan. I was reading a book about spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and spotted the name Maliverny Catlyn – a spy who had worked for Walsingham in the 1580s – and found it so intriguing, I knew I had to use it. You can find out the full details at my website, where I’ve posted a few non-spoilerish background details on the world and characters.
Debut novels tend to have protagonists the same gender as the author, I notice both you and fellow new author Elspeth Cooper have male leads. Would you say this was dictated by your preference or the story and setting?
I can’t speak for Elspeth, but as for my reasons… I could blame the setting, but really, if I wanted to write a female protagonist, I would have chosen a setting and scenario that allowed that. So really it’s personal preference. I was a tomboy from a very early age and, unlike many little girls, never grew out of it; I’ve spent practically my entire life hanging out mainly with the “opposite” sex, so I find men easier and more comfortable to write than women. I do have a female point-of-view character, but since she’s disguised as a boy for the whole book, I’m not sure she counts!
Medieval Europe has been done to death in fantasy, some might say, is it this notion that drew you to the Elizabethan era with your books or is this a part of history that has always been close to your heart?
A bit of both, really. I was bored with fantasy that eschewed gunpowder for no readily apparent reason, and whilst gunpowder weapons were present in medieval Europe they were limited to cannon on the battlefield. I have always loved the Tudor period and been fascinated by the theatre, so setting my book in Elizabethan England was the perfect opportunity to combine the two.
You submitted your manuscript (presumably to agents first) and then a week later attended Fantasycon where you got your lucky break and engaged in conversation with Marc Gascoigne of Angry Robot, which led to them offering you a book deal – do you think the chance meeting was your only window of opportunity or did you ever hear back from the agencies?
I’m sure it wasn’t my only window of opportunity, but I really liked what Angry Robot were doing with genre fiction, so when my agent asked if I wanted to submit the book elsewhere I said no.
Did you get an agent immediately, once you had received the offer from AR? I imagine that must have been an interesting process!
Yes I did. I had queried the Zeno Agency after I got a “revise and submit” request from AR, because they have an amazing client list, and John Berlyne at Zeno asked for the full manuscript when it was ready. However the offer came back from AR before John had had a chance to read my book, so I emailed him the same evening and asked him if he wanted to negotiate the deal. This is obviously not how it normally works, nor do things usually move so quickly. It was really a case of everything coming together at exactly the right time, which is the real element of luck in the writing game. You have to write a great book, of course, but after that it’s a matter of chance whether its the first person, or the hundredth, that loves your book and wants to publish it.
How has your life changed since becoming a professional author? What are the changes that you least expected?
It hasn’t really changed, to be honest, except that I have to be even more focused on writing than I was before. I’d been working on this book 24/7 since early 2010, to lick it into shape for submission, and now the only difference is that I have someone else’s deadline to work to instead of my own. Oh, and I get to do readings and panels at conventions, which is really cool. A bit scary, too, but definitely cool.
Do you blog about different stuff (excluding news about your book) now that you are published, or has that remained the same?
I did reorganise my blog in late 2010 when I started the submission process, separating out my “writing journal” (which is really only of interest to me and a few writer friends) from more general posts, but since then it hasn’t really changed. I try and write about stuff that other readers of historical fantasy might be interested in: book reviews, favourite movies, developments in the fantasy genre, and so on.
Do you think it is important for an author to create a ‘platform’ as it’s called (I ask this as you are a known technophile)?
I think all writers these days need to get out there on the internet and connect with readers – that’s all “platform” really means. Too many writers think that self-promotion means you have to be all “sell, sell, sell”, but nothing could be further from the truth; people respect genuine engagement, not spamming or brash trumpet-blowing. I’ve had so many people say they’re going to buy or even pre-order my book, just because I’ve been helpful or interesting on a forum (or because my cover art is, frankly, gorgeous!). I’ve recently begun a series of blog posts called “Web Presence 101” that looks at different strategies for writers, so do check it out!
TAOS is to be followed up by two more books. Do you think you will continue with this setting and characters in future novels, or do you have your sights on other eras and people?
Well, the two other books contracted by AR are sequels to TAOS, so you won’t have seen the last of Mal after next April! Whether I write any more books in the Night’s Masque universe after that really depends on how well the first trilogy sells, but either way, I have another project on the backburner at the moment – more fantasy, but not Elizabethan. That’s all I’m saying right now!
In your journey from aspirational to professional author, what would you say is the most important lesson you have learned?
Be careful what you wish for. Seriously. Being a writer of commercial fiction isn’t for dreamers and wannabes, it’s hard work, as hard as starting your own business – and that’s how you have to treat it. I have two jobs now: my day-job as a web developer, and my writing job. Of course I wouldn’t swap it for the world – although if I could write full-time, that would be awesome.
Thanks very much Anne!
Anne Lyle’s debut novel The Alchemist of Souls, book one of the Night’s Masque series, is released on 27th March 2012 for US paperback and ebook, and 5th April 2012 for UK paperback. Its sequel, The Merchant of Dreams, is due to be published Spring 2013.