With the winner of SPFBO '18 recently announced, I feel now's the perfect time to take a second look at last year's finalists and get the inside scoop on their books! Ranging from YA to satire to high fantasy, there's a real range of stories and a phenomenal cast of authors who've made the cut. For our first guest, I'd like to welcome Steven McKinnin, author of the airship-focused, high-flying fantasy novel Raincatcher's Ballad!
MARTIN: Glad to have you on, Steve! So first things first, the introduction. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your fiction?
STEVEN: Hello! I live in Glasgow and work as an Advising Support Administrator within the School of Law at the University of Glasgow. I’ve been writing in some way or another since forever, at first trying (and failing) to emulate Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. My first book, Boldly Going Nowhere, is a creative non-fiction title about my attempts at online dating and confronting my own mental illness.…It’s funnier than it sounds. (I didn’t know it at the time, but I have a form of OCD called “Pure O”).
My most recent effort is Symphony of the Wind, the first volume of The Raincatcher’s Ballad (and its companion prequel novella, The Fury Yet To Come.) Fantasy is my favourite genre, especially fantasy with a bit of grit, so after writing a personal story and injecting a lot of humour into it, I wanted to go in the other direction and tell something huge, sprawling and action-packed – something similar to the kind of books I read and the kind of movies I rush to the cinema for.
MARTIN: Raincatcher's Ballad is a series that's both epic in scope, and seemingly inspired by Steampunk. It heavily features airships, pirates, and a lot of other stuff not commonly seen in the typical medieval fare. So what inspired your setting? Cogs and goggles, Final Fantasy, or something else entirely?
STEVEN: You’ve hit the nail on the head with Final Fantasy! I didn’t set out to write a Steampunk novel, purely because I don’t know much about the sub-genre. I don’t think of it as Steampunk, I consider it Epic Fantasy, but if people want to refer to it as Steampunk, then I have no problem with that!
I’d say computer games inspired the setting more than anything else. I enjoy the Final Fantasy games where technology stands alongside magic – I liked the worlds where swords and guns co-exist, and where industry thrives but monsters are never far away. There’s a line on the blurb of the PlayStation One UK version of Final Fantasy VII that always struck a chord with me: “An intense adventure where science and sorcery collide!” I liked that a lot.
The Uncharted games are also an influence, especially with the character Tyson Gallows. I love the popcorn action-adventure tone of those games, but I wanted to up the grit and darkness, whilst still keeping the edge-of-your-seat, skin-of-your-teeth feeling that those games thrust upon the player.
MARTIN: Two of my favorite things about fantasy books are the unique magic systems, locations and monsters. These can often be the most iconic parts of a book or series, such as allomancy in Mistborn, or the trollocs and myrddraal from The Wheel of Time. So what unique elements like these can we expect in Raincatcher?
STEVEN: Agreed! I think Brandon Sanderson really broke the mould with allomancy, that’s probably the coolest magic system in all of Fantasy!
I think the world is the most iconic element in The Raincatcher’s Ballad book(s). While we see more of the world in subsequent books, Symphonytakes place in Dalthea, a small kingdom that happens to have particularly potent ignicite reserves. Ignicite is the foremost source of fuel in the world, and it’s led to all sorts of possibilities. Naturally, the powerful in society haven’t all harnessed ignicite’s potential for the purposes of good…
So that kick-started an industrial revolution, resulting in fewer people believing in the Gods and institutions like the Mages’ Guild fading from significance. Some events of the past have slipped into myth – and if magic does indeed exist, then perhaps the secret is separating truth from fiction…
Going back to the setting, I liked the idea of an area of the world that was tough to inhabit, and that no-one would even bother trying to, if it wasn’t for the presence of a naturally-regenerating resource and source of income. So, the entire kingdom was built during an ignicite “gold rush”, luring people from across the world.
So that’s the background of the city, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” from Star Wars (and the movie Casablanca) set the tone for what Dalthea is like now. I like the melting pot dynamic in Casablanca, where exiles from different backgrounds and cultures dwell in a paranoid and potentially hostile environment during World War 2. If you don’t belong anywhere, you belong there.
MARTIN: Right now the Fantasy genre's exploding on indie platforms. As this Forbes article from last year states, "genre is king on indie platforms." So how are you setting yourself apart from the crowd?
STEVEN: I guess the short answer is I’m not – at least, I don’t intentionally look at what other indie fantasy writers are doing and think “How can I do something different?”. I don’t know, maybe I should be. I’m not great at writing to market – I write the stories I want to write, then ask myself: How can I make this book the best it can possibly be? How do I improve as a writer?
While I hope my books offer something unique, I really enjoy being part of the crowd of indie Fantasy authors – albeit as a small fish in a large pond! It’s encouraging that genre fiction is booming on indie platforms – they’re the books I enjoy reading the most, and readers only benefit from as much choice is possible. It might be a crowded market, but the way I see it, there’s always going to be more books than anyone can possibly read in their lifetime, so just focus on making yours the best it can be.
MARTIN: Earlier you mentioned Final Fantasy as an inspiration, which is something that recent breakout star Nicholas Eames has also claimed. Not too long ago I did a breakdown of an anime series called Rising of the Shield Hero, which I picked as an example of both japanese fantasy and LitRPGs. In it, I suggested that western perceptions of fantasy (especially among the latter half of Millenials and the emerging Gen Z) are increasingly being shaped not by Tolkien and Howard -- but by distinctly Japanese and even Polish and/or Russian media. As an author, do you feel these sorts of stories also influence your work? And where do you see the future of the genre going in the following years?
STEVEN: Great question. I think because I’m quite visual when I work, I lean more towards movies, games and TV shows when I think of the kind of feeling or emotion I’m trying to evoke. (That’s not to say I’m not influenced by books, too – I absolutely am, and reading trumps other forms of media in so many ways.) I’ve only played a handful of Japanese RPG games – and only Final Fantasy ones at that – so I’m probably still primarily influenced by Western media.
Sticking to computer games, Uncharted is a big influence on The Raincatcher’s Ballad. That series’ protagonist, Nathan Drake, has been criticized for being an everyman, loveable-rogue archetype who reels of jokes and one-liners – whilst slaughtering hundreds of people throughout the course of the game. I’m not sure how much I buy into that particular criticism, but I was interested in writing this archetype, but have him be more damaged from his life- and war-time experiences. And that’s how Tyson Gallows, one of Symphony of the Wind’s protagonists, was born!
MARTIN: Aside from video games and fantasy novels, what other elements (especially unconventional ones!) inspired your works? Were there any particular life experiences or trips that made you want to write a story about airships?
STEVEN: I can’t say I’ve ever been on a trip that inspired me to write about airships, but music influences my writing - specifically the songs and stories of Iron Maiden. They have a massive, 18-minute epic song called Empire of the Clouds, which is about an airship disaster (the R101). The song puts the human emotion in the heart of it, the ambition and the sorrow. (The title of the Raincatcher’s Ballad prequel story, The Fury Yet To Come, takes its name from a lyric in this song.)
Being a working class lad from Glasgow has influenced much of the world in Symphony of the Wind. The Raincatchers toil and labour for the greater good and put in hard graft, all the while exchanging banter to make the shift go easier, which I think is a universal experience – I’ve worked jobs that required early starts, long hours and a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s the people working alongside you that make it more bearable. I hope that sense of camaraderie is apparent in the writing.
MARTIN: I've talked a lot about settings and inspirations, but let's talk characters for a bit! You mentioned Tyson Gallows being one of Symphony's protagonists, but what about the other POV characters? How'd you come up with them and (without spoilers) do you have a favorite, and why?
STEVEN: Haha, is it too much of a cop-out to say they’re all my favourite?
I came up with Gallows and Damien through my experiences with mental illness, such as the intrusive thoughts that come with “Pure O” OCD. I wanted to write “strong” male characters who were also vulnerable in some pretty serious ways, or whose internal struggles negatively impacted their day to day life.
For Fitz, Tiera and Veronica, I wanted characters who still struggle, but who’ve made their peace with their role in the world and realise that things could be much, much worse. (Which, of course, invariably happens.)
MARTIN: Last question! Let's say you got transported to a fantasy world in mere seconds. There's no way back, and you have a wealth of knowledge from the real world you can bring to this new place. What do you do?
STEVEN: Honestly? I’d probably dick around with people and fashion myself as some kind of genius trickster-god for my own amusement.
Interested in some swashbuckling action? Then head on over to Steven's Amazon page to check out Raincatcher's Ballad and other books! And if you've already read his works, consider leaving a Goodreads review if you haven't already. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!