I had the good fortune to take a master writing class with Henry Neff at this year’s 2016 SCBWI Carolinas Conference, “The Power of Story.” The class was on world building, and boy is he a master at it. His much-anticipated latest novel, “Impyrium” came out in mid-October, and Henry was kind enough to agree to give me an interview in the midst of what I am sure was a whirlwind of a month. I loved the book, and will be reviewing it as soon as NaNoWriMo is done 🙂 In the meantime, please enjoy this interview. It gives honest insight into this very successful and relevant author, who also happens to be a really nice guy.
Q: You are such a wonderful world-builder. Where does your affinity to this come from?
Thank you. I think it’s a combination of having loved immersive fictional worlds while growing up, and later acquiring a history teacher’s perspective on how to analyze civilizations at specific points in time. The former fueled my interests and imagination; the latter gave me tools to start building worlds of my own.
Q: Why do you write fantasy?
A variety of reasons. First and foremost, I really like fantasy. No one should write a genre that they don’t enjoy. The other reason is that fantasy presents challenges I find fun and engaging. It’s one of those genres that fools people into thinking it’s easy (I can just make stuff up!) but it comes with traps that make it difficult to write well. Two of the biggest are magic and, funnily enough, world building. If you’re not careful, magic can be overdone and lose its impact, unbalance the world, or create gaping plot holes. With world building, many writers invest considerable time and energy in their worlds. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some writers to become Tour Guides from Hell where they insist on showing the reader every aspect of the world they’ve so lovingly created. I enjoy the challenge of writing fantasy that’s got some grit, realism, and leaves you wanting more.
Q: How important is it to you to follow your own instincts as a writer?
You never want to ignore your instincts but it’s important to recognize not all your instincts are good ones. We all have blind spots when it comes to our writing style, character development, and plot structure. In my case, I have a tendency to lean too dark, to make things too bleak for my characters, etc. There are times when that makes sense, but I’ve come to realize that I tend to veer in that direction like a wonky shopping cart. Being aware of that tendency helps me keep it in check. That said, I do think it’s important to trust your instincts in situations where you’ve heard conflicting feedback and need to make a decision. I try very hard to listen to my editors, digest their suggestions, and act upon them. 95% of the time they’re right. But there are situations where I simply don’t see it the same way—particularly when it comes to quieter scenes that focus on character development rather than plot advancement. In those scenarios I trust my instincts and I’ve never regretted it.
Q: What was your favorite childhood book?
Ack! So many to choose from! Some that come to mind include: The Ant and Bee books, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Fourteen Bears, The Spooky Old Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Danny the Champion of the World, The Soup books, Tales from a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising, and Sherlock Holmes. Yes, I realize that answer is a cop out 😉
Q: If you were on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with your favorite authors (from any time period) – who would those authors be?
Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Patrick O’Brian (author of my favorite historical fiction novels), Ursula LeGuin, and Susan Cooper
Q: What is your writing Kryptonite?
Momentum. Once I lose it, it’s difficult to get back—particularly on rough drafts.
Q: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal (homunculus J?)
Ooh! I’d choose a lymrill (a creature from my books). They’re tough, lovable, and demanding — the perfect muse.
Q: There is a spiritual undertone to the magic in Impryium. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
I think there’s something spiritual about finding your passion and acting upon it. To some degree, I think that’s true of magic within IMPYRIUM. Part of Hazel’s journey is understanding herself, embracing who she is, and that does play a role in her ability to tap and channel the magic within her. So, yes, there probably is a spiritual/reflective component of magic within my stories. It’s definitely not just supernatural science—it comes from somewhere deeper and soulful.
Q: Hazel is a very well-developed character. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I wanted Hazel’s character, persona, and dialogue to resonate as authentic. We’ve all read stories where the author’s attempt to portray a character or demographic fell short. I didn’t want that to be the case and really tried to put myself in Hazel’s shoes—particularly in situations where I thought her reaction (both inner and outer) would differ from someone like Hob’s. Her relationship with her sisters really helped bring that out — the dialogue between them flowed very naturally.
Q: Dàme Rascha has a very human dimension somehow to her character. Was she based on any real person or persons in particular?
I enjoyed writing for Rascha. She might be cranky and demanding, but she also loves Hazel like a daughter. Ironically, I think Rascha’s “human” characteristics are heightened by the fact that she’s not human. Vyes look like wolves, like some sort of fairy tale monster and there are times I make a point of emphasizing that they have a feral quality that can be unsettling. But when we see that “monster” speaking quietly with Hazel or giving a grudging laugh, it registers as surprisingly human. Rascha isn’t based on any one individual, but I’m sure she’s an amalgam from people in my subconscious. I think most characters are.
Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Write rough drafts quickly. To this day, I take too long with mine and I really don’t think there’s much benefit. Just get the story down, step away from it, and start revising. It’s always easier to react to something that exists than to try and pen perfection as you go. The latter takes too long and it doesn’t result in better writing—just slower submissions.
There you go. (I can totally use that last piece of advice.) Thanks so much, Henry. We look forward to to more of the series, so hurry up — I’m not sure I can wait too long for the next installment.