And now, for something completely different: a chat with Jonathan Wood, author of No Hero — the book Barnes and Noble called one of the best paranormal fantasy novels of the last decade

Cheryl: You have three books in the pipeline right now: No Hero (in stores next week), Yesterday’s Hero (coming in September), and Anti Hero (slated for a March 2015 release). Which is your favorite, and why?

Jonathan: You mean, which of my children do I love the most? What a terrible thing to ask…

Cheryl: I know. Sorry — I couldn’t resist.

Jonathan: Seriously, that is a very difficult thing for me to answer.  No Hero is the book that got me published, got me a deal, so I will always cherish it for that.  And some people have said some very nice things about it.  Yesterday’s Hero was, for me if no one else, a refinement of the formula.  It wasn’t necessarily as easy to write but it felt like I was consolidating a lot of what I learned writing No Hero.  And for me—though I am a terrible judge of my own work—it feels like a better book.  And Anti Hero… well, after my deal with Night Shade books went south, I thought I was never going to get to write Anti Hero. And now it’s coming out next year. It closes out a subtle arc that’s been going on with Clyde, one of the secondary characters, so that was just very satisfying to write. Plus I got to move the action to New York, where I lived for a long time and where I still work. It’s terribly good fun to write about the zombpocalypse happening in areas you normally commute through.

In the end I’ll pick Anti Hero, but that’s probably as much because I haven’t yet had to proof read it as many times as the others.

Cheryl: An excellent reason. It’s a wonder that series writers don’t hate all their characters by the end of the first book.

Speaking of characters: your protagonist looks to Kurt Russell for inspiration. Are there other people, performances or projects that have influenced your writing in general (and the Hero books in particular)?

Jonathan: The Hero books are rife with pop culture influences. The whole series was sort of inspired by my love of pulp novels, but my hatred of pulp writing. I wanted to do something that harkened back to those old stories from the thirties but which had a more modern feel to the prose and narrative. I’m not the first to do that, so there’s a lot of influence then from movies like Indiana Jones and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Also, it’s not like I hide the Lovecraftian influence in No Hero, though that actually comes more from the Hellboy comics than it does specifically from the work of Lovecraft himself.

In terms of specific people who influenced me… While I don’t really write in that subgenre, the New Weird movement/genre had a huge impact on me and my writing. People like Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, K. J. Bishop, Forrest Aguirre. I think that comes through a lot more in my short stories, but I really hope that there’s a weird edge to my novels too.

As for Kurt Russell himself… I guess in my own personal headspace he just personified the idea of “second tier action hero.” I don’t mean that as a knock. I love Kurt Russell’s movies, and I think he tends to be under-appreciated, but he never quite got to that Schwarzenegger/Stallone level of stardom. There was something about that second-stringer vibe that I wanted to reflect in Arthur Wallace (my protagonist).

Cheryl: The Hero trilogy is urban fantasy, but your short stories have explored other genres, like steampunk. Do you see yourself writing other styles of novel-length fiction in the future?

Jonathan: Part of the joy of short stories is you get to experiment with other genres, try things on for size. No Hero actually came out of three pieces of flash fiction I’d written.

As for the long term… I don’t know. So far I’ve sold my books one by one. At a basic economic level, writing a series makes the most sense, so there’s a good chance there will be more Hero books in the future. That said, I’d love to write an epic fantasy one day. That was the genre that really captured my heart as a kid. If I could craft something that captured another kid in the same way, that would be pretty awesome.

Cheryl: Agreed! I love epic fantasy and hope you get to write that book one day.

Let’s pull back the curtain a bit more. Most writers characterize themselves as either plotters or pantsters. (For those unfamiliar with the terms, a plotter plans and outlines before writing, while a pantster discovers the story during the writing process.) Which camp do you fall in – and do you envy your peers who do the opposite?

Jonathan: I think the plotter-pantser thing is more of a spectrum that people say. A lot of people do a little of both. That said, I am at the pretty extreme end of plotting. I can’t write a project without having a few sentences for each scene, letting me know all the major plot points and character moments I need to hit. My typical novel plan runs about eight or nine pages, and I stick to it slavishly. Sometimes, once I’ve written the first draft, I’ll go back and tweak something, but almost never while I’m in the drafting process. On the handful of occasions that has happened, I’ve taken the time to rework the whole plan before I go back to drafting.

To use a term I heard Jay Lake use once, it’s do with “span of control” or how much of the story I can hold in my head at once. When I’m planning a novel, I’m dealing at a very macro level. I can hold all the plot lines in my head, see how they should intersect and build on each other. Once I’m down in the weeds of the draft, I lose all that. I just have to trust that I knew what I was doing at the beginning, stick to the plan and get through it.

Honestly, I don’t envy pantsers. I’m glad it works for them, but it so doesn’t work for me, that it’s not something I spend any time dreaming about.

Cheryl: What length of fiction do you enjoy writing most: short stories, novels, or somewhere in between?

Jonathan: I think my favorite length is the completely unpublishable novellette. Something in the 15,000 to 25,000 word range. For some reason, that seems to be my most natural length. Unfortunately, nobody wants to read or publish anything that length.

One of the toughest things I’ve done as a writer is learn to beat my natural tendency towards bloat to a minimum. I remember I’d written a 6,000 word short story. I showed it to a friend, and she said, that’s great, now get it down to 3,000 words. It was awful to do, but I managed it (or pretty close any way) and that was my first pro-market sale.

Cheryl: A fun question now! You have three books and you have to put one in each category: buy, borrow, or bin. The books are The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams; and The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft. Which book would you put in each category?

Jonathan: Wait, I have to put a book in the bin? I’ve never put a book in the bin…

Cheryl: Sorry! I know it’s tough.

Jonathan: OK, give me a moment… I think the keeper is actually The Hobbit. That was one of the first fantasy novels I ever read. Or, more accurately, that my mom read to me. I was around 8, and I think a lot of my current genre tastes can be traced back to that book. It’s important enough to me that I think I’d want to have it close.

That leaves binning Cthulhu or Hitchhiker’s

Given the Lovecraftian overtones of No Hero, this may seem a little odd, but I’m going to bin Cthulhu. I have a lot of love for the mythos. The RPG Call of Cthulhu has a ton of good memories for me.  But I’m honestly not a huge fan of Lovecraft’s prose style. The whole of what he created is monumental, but the individual parts appeal to me less. Honestly most of my Lovecraft influences come second hand.  If it was a Hellboy anthology, for example, things might not be look so rosy for The Hobbit.

And that leaves me borrowing Hitchhiker’s. But that’s a book I love enough that I’ll probably end up owing a fairly hefty library fine…

Cheryl: Speaking of your reading preferences… Author E. Catherine Tobler recently blogged that it had been over two years since one of her male writer friends had read a book written by a woman. Admittedly, women aren’t as well represented in the SF/F field as men, but I’m curious: do you keep track of your reading stats, and if so, did your reading over the past year include books by women?

Jonathan: I had never considered my reading stats until this question. I just tend to grab the next thing that looks interesting. Thinking back over the past few years, I’ve read Natania Barron’s excellent Pilgrim of the Sky (I know that one because I blurbed it), Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, Courtney Schaeffer’s The Whitefire Crossing, and I was fortunate enough to be a beta reader on a novel by my friend Michelle Muenzler, which led to my agent taking her on as a client (seriously, she’s going to be tearing up the charts in a year or two, it’s an amazing book).

However, it would be remiss for me to not also say that the vast majority of the books I’ve read have been by male authors.

I think the most dangerous thing about our biases is how blind to them we are. I have always been conscious to try to populate the Hero books with kick ass women. But when I stop thinking about it, all my third tier characters tend to be male. I have to go back and fix that sometimes. By consciously addressing a bias, that’s how we train ourselves to unconsciously fix it. So, I don’t think I come out of this question spotless by any degree, but I am very grateful you’ve asked it.

Cheryl: Since that was a tough one, let’s close out with a light-hearted question, based on a recent controversy that J. K. Rowling stirred up: in your opinion, should Harry and Hermione have ended up together?

Jonathan: I loved the Harry Potter books. My wife and I started reading them out loud to each other very early on in our relationship. Reading book 5 constituted a large portion of our honeymoon. The first movie is the only movie we’ve seen in the theater twice.

That is all to say that I am, essentially, completely happy with the books the way that they are. Of course, they are problematic on a number of minor fronts, but overall, I had a ton of fun reading them.

J. K. Rowling is, like any author, entitled to regret decisions she made, and wish she’d done things differently. But she can’t actually change any of that. It’s done. This attempt to ret-con the stories reminds me of George Lucas’s increasingly awful attempts to canonize Star Wars. Sometimes it’s better to just let things lie.

(That said, in 15 years time when I want to fix all the mistakes I made in the Hero books, I’m going take this all back and do it.)

Thanks to Jonathan for sharing his thoughts here! If you want a copy of No Hero, you can pre-order it now on Amazon — or check your local bookstore next week.

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