Wednesday 20 November 2019

Australian Author: Aiki Flinthart

Aiki has 12 published speculative fiction novels and one non-fiction, and has edited 2 anthologies of short stories. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Australian Aurealis awards, and twice top-8 finalists in the USA Writers of the Future competition. When not writing, she does hero-approved activities such as martial arts, knife-throwing, archery, lute-playing, and belly-dancing.

Her latest book, a historical fantasy called Blackbirds Sing (a Ruadhan Sidhe novel) is due for publication on 1st December. Check it out at the end of the interview.

Aiki, thanks for joining us today. What was the defining event that made you start writing? 

I’ve always written stories. Early on it was terrible romances. But when my son was about 8 we realised he was dyslexic and he struggled to read fat stories like Harry Potter etc, even though he wanted to. So I wrote a series of 5 books for him, entitled 80AD. They’re a portal/gamer fantasy series set in an online computer game that sucks two YA kids into 80AD Britain (then, 80AD Sweden, 80AD Egypt, 80AD India, and finally 80AD China). My son and his friends loved them so much that I decided to publish them. Having NO clue what I was doing, I threw them up on Smashwords and Amazon. They went a bit crazy and have had about 400 000 downloads. I still get fan mail from kids of 10 through to grandparents of 60+ from all over the world. 
So then I decided I really should learn how to write better and maybe take a crack at this writing thing a bit more seriously. Which reminds me – I really should go back and re-edit those stories!

What is your writing Kryptonite?

My own insecurities. Even though I’ve learned heaps about the craft of writing since 80AD came out, I still feel like I need to learn how to writer better. Sometimes that makes it hard to write; that feeling of not being good enough. 

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

Neither, to be honest. I just write what I want to read. I’m not in this to be rich or famous. I just like to tell stories. If I can tell a story that explores a theme important to me, then I can be reasonably sure there will be a few people out there who like it, too. I tried writing to market and hated what I wrote. As soon as I start focussing on economics it all goes very badly in the creative side of things. I have to stay true to what I love (Although I do realise there are people who can both write directly to a current economic target-market, AND love writing those stories. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.)

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Great question. Who’s to say what’s a ‘strongly felt’ emotion and what’s not? It’s so subjective. I’m quite logical and pragmatic, myself. While it’s true I do have difficulty understanding people who react very dramatically to things, it doesn’t stop me from writing them as characters. As a writer, you have to be able to write people who are NOT you, otherwise all your characters are just…you. 
Observe how people behave. Study and read psychology books. Ask people how they think and feel. It’s just another type of research. 

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I’m part of a hugely supportive writing group where we actually get together and see each other face to face! Can you believe it, in this day and age? It gives us all people we trust to give good feedback, beta-readers we can rely on, people who can help us nut out stubborn plot issues, or just people who will cheer our successes and commiserate with our failures. We all need a tribe. A good writers group helps you through the tough times and gives you inspiration to write better and to help others succeed.

What’s your favourite scene you’ve written?

In the IRON-FIRE-STEEL series it was the climactic gladiator-style battle scene in the slave-games my heroine was trying to win. A huge stadium full of people. Badguys trying to kill her. She and her companions had to hastily form a combat-ready team from a group of reluctant fellow-slaves and try to defeat other teams of slaves. It involved throwing crappy knives, standing on a pile of dead bodies, and a lot of cool action sequences. My husband, when he read it, actually punched the air and said ‘Yesss!’ at the end.
In the Blackbirds Sing, stories, I think it was the second-last story – the climax again where all the women come together in a last-ditch attempt to save Queen Elizabeth of York and the young baby Prince Arthur. That one made my husband cry, so I figure I did my job.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

When I first read Black Beauty in about Grade 2 and bawled my eyes out over it. And every time I re-read it, I cried again. And when I discovered science fiction and fantasy novels and was transported into other worlds that I could practically see and taste. Plus, I think I learned more useful information from fiction than I ever did at school.

How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

My pet peeve is writing advice that says ‘write everything in very plain language’. I don’t believe in dumbing language down. You can use interesting language and still be understood. I DO think you need to write to your genre and audience. Because I write fantasy and sci-fi mostly, I have no issues with adding in the occasional unusual or tricky word. If it’s well done and in context, your reader will work it out without being jarred out of the story. So for me, the trick is balancing the modern demand for faster books with minimal ‘infodump’ against the need for fantasy writing to be more eloquent and descriptive.

What does literary success look like to you?

I’ve been back and forth with myself on this topic. Having been in the industry a while now, I’ve come to realise that it’s a fool’s game to chase any kind of external measure of success. But it’s not easy. We’re naturally a tribal animal. Approval of others is hardwired into our brains because (historically) without the approval/acceptance of our tribe, we die. I try to keep my WHY in front of mind to subdue the little voices telling me success is more good reviews and acceptance by bigger publishers. As long as I remember WHY I write – to explore themes that are important to me and tell stories I love – then that’s literary success to me.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I’m a scientist by training, and a highly logical, organised person by inclination. So my tendency is to over-research rather than under. But I’ll usually research the basics before I start writing, then details as I write and need to worldbuild. When I was writing IRON, I had to spend quite a bit of time researching alternative technologies for things like building materials that didn’t require iron, chalk, fossil fuels, flint, etc, because the planet of that series was terraformed and had no history of life - therefore no significant iron deposits and no other resources resulting from a history of life. 
But my next book that’s coming out – Blackbirds Sing – required a LOT of research and planning. It’s set in 1486 London, and I wanted to get that right. I researched so much that I found a mistake in the official map of London for 1520. To confirm it I contacted the Tower of London Archivist, then sent the evidence to the mapmaking company. The cartographer agreed (he was lovely) and is now changing the map.

All ridiculous amounts of research and so much of it never makes it into the story. But such deep rabbitholes of interesting stuff!

How do you select the names of your characters? 

All different ways. Alere, the heroine from IRON, came from the name of a work customer’s company. Her story jumped into my head full-blown with her name. Jade and Phoenix from the 80AD series are deliberately-chosen Easter eggs that are significant to the entire plotline and their own, personal character arcs. Rowan, in the Shadows trilogy, has several layers – the Irish version, ‘Ruadhan’ means red-headed child, and she has auburn hair. But Rowan was also a wood meant to help ward off the fae/faery folk – the sidhe – of which she turns out to be one. And the names of all the various women in Blackbirds Sing took me ages to research as I had to find at least 24 medieval/Tudor female names that were distinct from each other so they wouldn’t get mixed up.

If you didn’t write, what would you do for work? 

Wait, what? You mean there are authors who get to JUST write and don’t have to work? Damn! I run a full-time business as well. No rest for the insane writers, unfortunately.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find? 

Oh, yes. That part of the fun of research. Hiding Easter eggs is such fun. Especially when you get emails from readers who DO find them. Sometimes I forget I’ve done it, then a reader points it out and I get a little thrill as well and get to think – hey, that was pretty damned clever.

Does your family support your career as a writer?  

Definitely. My husband is amazingly supportive. He’s always my first (and very biased) beta reader. I know if I can make him cry, I’m probably on track with the emotional content. My son loved my 80AD series and his enthusiasm helped convince me that I could do this writing thing.

How long on average does it take you to write a book? 

The 80AD series was very parttime, so it was 5 books written over about 3 years. IRON, FIRE, and STEEL took about 2 years because it involved so much research and I was learning a lot about writing. The Shadows trilogy took about a year and a half for all three. Because the first one got re-written three times as I learned about story structure. Blackbirds Sing took 7 months. It’s made up of 25 interlinked short stories that each affect the overarching plot of an attempt to kill Henry Tudor, King Henry VII. Which was VERY tricky to get right.

I have a quick quiz for you, Aiki.

Favourite food: heart-killing heavily salted hot chips/fries

Favourite drink: Non-alcoholic – oldfashioned lemonade (not softdrink); alcoholic, a good gin & tonic with cucumber

Silliest saying: Mine or someone else’s? You’d probably have to ask someone else what mine is. No idea. 

Best holiday spot: Venice was pretty good. As was Florence. But China was pretty amazing, too. 

Favourite song at the moment: Pretty much always : Broadsword, from Jethro Tull.

With writing, are you a plotter or (seat-of-your) pantser? In between. I know what the major story beats are likely to be, and I have a clear idea of the ending (like a big movie set-piece in my head). The bits in between though…

Star Wars or Lord of the Rings: This is not an Either-Or question. Both. And Star Trek. And and and and

Best superpower: Invisibility, combined with kickass martial arts skills (which are not a superpower). (as long as the invisibility included all clothing and weapons)

Number one thing to do on your bucket list: Go into orbit around Earth in a shuttle and see the Earth from space. Unfortunately, I do get VERY motion sick, so that one might not happen.

Blackbirds Sing (a Ruadhan Sidhe novel)
Genre:  Historical fantasy

Four-and-twenty extraordinary women; one chance to save a kingdom. Early in the reign of Henry Tudor, King Henry VII, his seat on the throne of England is threatened by York loyalists. The only thing standing in their way is a four-hundred-year-old sidhe who just wants to be left alone, and a group of London women with a lot to lose if England is plunged back into war. But it is 1486, and women have no power, no money, and no ability to fight back against injustice. 
Become immersed in the perilous lives of these women, as told through the medium of 25 interwoven short stories. A baker who can’t pay her church tithe; a prostitute selling her daughter’s virginity to pay her debts; a nun forced out into the world after 30 years; laundress whose son is murdered; a lady’s maid hiding her Jewish culture; a blind musician running a frightening marriage; a child-thief protecting her brother; and more. Each story is a piece in the puzzle. Each woman faces her own trials and sacrifices as she contributes her small part towards the attempt to protect King Henry and his wife, Elizabeth of York. 
Because if they fail, England will once again be thrust into civil war between the Yorks and Lancasters.

Aiki's other books.... Click on the books to check them out.

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