Guest Blog — Ty Johnston Q&A

Ty Johnston’s name and his works in epic fantasy had crossed my radar even before I was fortunate enough to make his virtual acquaintance in the fantasist’s collective Monumental Works GroupA prolific writer, Ty’s Amazon author pages runs to 30 entries, and his words can be found gracing the pages of a half-dozen different anthologies. Though his novel and novella cycles The Kobalos Trilogy and the Sword of Bayne are both epic fantasy in their broad strokes, they show off a refreshing diversity of storytelling style — a diversity brought into even sharper focus in his horror and mainstream works.

In this email Q&A, Ty shares some thoughts on writing, genre, and indie publishing as a means to an end.

Your life story in five hundred words or less — can you tell us a little about who you are, where you’re from, and what forces have conspired to trap you in this dark fate we call “writing”?

I grew up in Lexington in central Kentucky, my parents having moved there from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I eventually earned a degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and spent the next 20 years working as an editor and graphic designer at newspapers in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. That’s my basic resume, and like all resumes, it doesn’t say much about who I am as an individual, though it does lay out my professional background.

There is no simple answer as to what drew me to writing, though I can say I do not remember a time when I did not want to be a writer, even at an early age. Comic books of the early 1970s were a huge influence upon me in my youngest days, and then I discovered fantasy literature in the mid-70s, starting with Tolkien. The phenomenon that was Star Wars in the late 70s opened up the speculative genres to a much wider audience, and I was sucked in right along with every other five- to twelve-year-old male of the time.

Part of what tugs me toward writing is the simple act of creation, of having control over entire worlds and peoples. It’s not so much that I feel this innate need for control, but that I get to revel in discovery as I myself am creating. More than anything, writing is discovery for me, I suppose part of my own inner journey in which I get to explore all facets of humanity and the universe. I realize this explanation possibly sounds overly literary, but I find aspects of the human condition in all literature, including the most action-driven pulp fiction.

You’re an indie writer/publisher with a healthy number of works published and some great reviews. When did you make the decision that independent publishing was the way to go, and how have you found the process?

I decided to become an indie writer about three years ago, soon after I realized the capabilities and possibilities of the e-book market. At the time I was trying to become traditionally published, but the economy forced my hand. I lost two jobs in a matter of months right before Christmas, then my wife lost her job, and there was no way I had the time to write a novel then sit around and wait for months or years for publishers to make a decision. Frankly, I needed income rolling in. That was the final push for me. At the time I had a handful of novels and plenty of short stories available, and I saw little reason for me not to publish my own works when I could be making money at it.

At first the money only trickled in, and I’m not getting rich to this day, but the bills are being paid, I get to work from home, and I don’t have to worry so much about losing my job again.

As far as the process goes of being an independent writer/publisher, I’ve actually found it quite easy. Beginning writers tend to fret over details that they’ll eventually find old hat, and I was fortunate enough to be beyond that stage when I stepped out on my own. Formatting digital text has its own quirks, but most of it I find no more difficult than formatting a manuscript for a traditional publisher.

Finding readers is not easy and sometimes frustrating, but at least this is something I control. With traditional publishers, I feel there would have been a loss of that control, and my fate as a writer would have been left to the fates and the whims of a publisher and the bookstores.

On your blog, you describe yourself as writing in “the fantasy and horror genres, but [also having] strong interests in literary writing and criticism.” What is that first attracted you to fantasy as a means of expression, and what aspects of epic-fantasy in particular appeal to you as a storyteller?

I mentioned above that writing is about exploring for me, and I mean that more philosophically and emotionally than literally. But one great thing about fantasy literature is the writer and reader can do both — explore strange worlds while also exploring the inner recesses of our deepest thoughts. I believe this drew me more to fantasy than most other genres. Mainstream literature and often modern science fiction are usually too literal for my regular emotional needs as a writer and reader. Having been a journalist for so many years, I feel I’ve explored the literal world as much as I need or want to, thus fantasy offers escapism while also allowing that mental exploration I love.

Epic fantasy, for me, is the opposite of horror literature. In horror, we often see the worst of humanity or the worst that can happen to humanity. While bad things also happen in epic fantasy, in the end the reader usually gets to see at least an element of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” That is oversimplifying those two genres, obviously, because not all horror literature is so nihilistic and not all epic fantasy has a positive outcome. Another huge difference between horror and epic fantasy is I find epic fantasy characters tend to act while horror characters tend to react. Again, this is an overgeneralization, but I think it basically fits the two genres. This dichotomy draws me to both genres, allowing me as a writer to look into differing emotional depths, and sometimes to mix the genres to see where it will take me.

Of the numerous works you’ve published, what are your favorites, and why?

Ye gads! That’s a tough one. My favorites? I can tell you I feel my Appalachian literary novel More Than Kin is the best novel I’ve written. I can also say I think my best short story is “Beneath a Persian Sun.” So far, I find Ghosts of the Asylum is the best epic fantasy novel of mine, though I love my characters from my City of Rogues novel more, especially my Belgad the Liar character. That being said, I think my Sword of Bayne series is the most philosophical tale I’ve written, though I do have concerns readers will not see this because it is an epic fantasy story mixed with some allegory.

What sorts of projects are pending for you right now, and do you see yourself continuing to focus on indie publishing?

As I write this, I’m winding up my own edits on my next epic fantasy novel, Demon Chains, after having received feedback from my beta readers/editors.

My next project is up in the air at the moment, which is the way I prefer it. I usually don’t give serious thought about what I’m going to write next until I finish the last project, though I will have a hundred ideas rolling around in my head. Much of my writing, especially my short story writing, depends upon my mood at any given time, so I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into writing something I’m frankly not as interested in at the moment. That being said, I’m pretty sure my next project will not be epic fantasy. I’ve spent the last year and more than 300,000 words writing only epic fantasy, and I’m feeling a need for something else, something different, though I will eventually get back to epic fantasy.

Indie publishing, to me, is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. I would gladly work with traditional publishers, but I have to admit my expectations of a contract would be much higher than they were even a few years ago. I kind of feel I don’t need them, so if they want me, they’re going to have to make a damn good case of it. I’m mainly talking about larger publishers. There are a handful of smaller presses I work with from time to time and will likely continue doing so, and to them I’m not quite so strict about what I will accept in a contract. These are generally publishers I highly respect and have been friends with for some period of time. There’s also the matter that I don’t mind giving a little more to smaller presses because I know who is behind them, and when it comes to finances I feel we are working together as a team. I don’t quite have that feeling of trust for larger publishers, mainly because I’ve worked for the corporate world and I know how they work. Let’s just say, I’m really tired of working to make other people rich — people who don’t bring much or anything to the table, as far as I’m concerned.

Many other writers, even the most hardcore indie writer/publishers, express similar attitudes about working with small press houses. You talk about working as a team within a small-press scenario, which is something hard to come by in the “big leagues” of writing, whether traditional fiction publishing, film and television, or even mainstream comics. Do you think that forging partnerships is a difficult task for some writers, given the solitary nature of what we do? And do you think the rising influence and ease of access to independent publishing is likely to change that?

Writers as a group tend to have a mystique about them. People seem to think we all hunker down in a dark hole somewhere while pecking away at an old Underwood typewriter, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey off to one side. This is an old image of writers, and I do believe it is wavering, but there are still so many expectations of what a writer “is” or does. Writers are individuals, and we all work in different manners. We all think differently. However, the days of the complete introvert writer are over. Salinger couldn’t survive today, for example, though one blockbuster novel might keep him going for a few years (instead of a few decades, as in the past).

I myself am an introvert for the most part, but I feel  interaction is one big key to success nowadays, in large part due to digital publishing but also because of widening expectations of readers and those who enjoy the various entertainment mediums. Over the last couple of decades, the Internet has connected viewers and readers with the creators of entertainment products. Nowadays, those viewers and readers expect interaction, at least until one reaches the lofty heights of an Oprah or a Spielberg, maybe even a George R.R. Martin; once one becomes so famous, the fanboys and the like seem to cut the creator a little slack, as if the fans realize the creator is too busy to talk with everyone.

In other words, writing is becoming less and less solitary. Yes, we still write on our own, but we also have this great big world out there we need to keep in touch with on a regular basis or we will be forgotten. Or, at least, that seems to be the fear of many writers. Instead of introverted writers, I feel today we have a growing number of extroverted writers and those who feel they must be extroverts, which is not an easy thing for everyone to pull off.

So, for some writers, yes, it will be difficult to forge alliances with others, whether other writers or publishers, editors, agents, etc. On the flip side, it is easier now more than ever to build such relationships, which means those who do not fear putting themselves out there will find a smoother road to publication, if not success.

Readers not only want to be entertained by the fiction they read, but they want to like the writers, as well. I think this makes the readers feel connected, maybe even makes them feel as if they are part of some inner circle.

Ha! I’m not sure any of that answers your question, at least not directly. I tend to ramble sometimes.

Talking about “literary writing” versus fantasy and other “genre writing,” do you approach different types of stories with different goals as a writer? Does the process of writing fantasy or horror feel different than the process of writing mainstream or realist fiction, or is genre more about the world than the story itself in your experience?

I most definitely approach the genres from different viewpoints.

With epic fantasy, the story is the thing for me — the plot first and the characters second and everything else third, including setting. That’s just me and how I prefer to work in this genre. I might sneak in a little philosophy here and there, but for the most part I’m telling a straightforward tale of action and adventure. The exception to this is my Sword of Bayne series, which is the most linear story I’ve ever told while also being the most exploratory one. In that tale, I intentionally set out to mix a somewhat straight-ahead literary style with several of the tropes of epic fantasy, all while keeping the story within the world and larger plot of my much broader epic fantasy world.

When I set out to write a more literary story, I begin my working process by thinking about what I want to say with a particular project. What thoughtful elements do I want to focus upon? But then I intentionally set out to make that element of the story somewhat obscure. I do this because I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with my own explorations and my own opinions. I suppose one could say “theme” is most important to me when writing literary fiction, with other elements like characters coming in second, followed up by setting and plot — almost the opposite of how I approach my more action-oriented fiction.

As for horror, I tend to start with the plot and characters, then work out the setting and other basics. I probably have the most fun writing horror and dark fantasy, which is somewhat surprising since I write more epic fantasy than anything. I love those “gotcha” moments in horror, and often when I’m reading good horror I will find myself giggling at how awful something is in the plot, just the notion that the author was willing to go so far or to reveal something so horrible. Yes, I can be one sick puppy at times.

As fantasy fiction increases in popularity and pushes ever-further into the mainstream, do you think that popularity strengthens the idea of fantasy as literature? Or does it potentially weaken the brand by making fantasy seem run-of-the-mill?

I’m split on this subject. While I’m thrilled the growing popularity of fantasy has brought it more into the mainstream, thus making it more accessible, I’m also concerned at what the entertainment media will do with the genre. In my opinion, for the most part, the entertainment media as a whole is not run by those who are creative, but by those who count the money. Unfortunately, those who count the money tend to assert their control, as if anyone can guess what “the next big thing” is going to be. That type of thinking tends to stifle storytelling more than urging it toward new heights, which often enough leads to watered down material. Let’s just say my expectations are not high, though there will be a few gems to be found.

Your blog offers some great personal insights and anecdotes (I particularly liked your recent post “Only in America Will a Stranger Hand You a Loaded Gun”). However, your writer-focused content is always front and center. Last year, you logged one hundred of the best websites for fiction writers; you’re currently doing a “Books Read in 2012” series, as you have for years now. Do you find that your work as a writer naturally lends itself to wanting to share resources, inspiration, goal-setting, and the like? Or is blogging a creative outlet unto itself for you?

Ha! I had to laugh because I’m actually quite selfish when it comes to my blogging. I mostly don’t blog for others, but for myself. I have an awful memory, so I tend to be a list maker. I love making lists of my favorite things, such as books read and useful websites. This is a big reason I blog in the first place, and if one takes a look around my blog, they’ll notice I have a lot of lists, such as my 100 Web Sites for Fiction Writers.

Sometimes I’ll post something funny or anecdotal, and I do hope others find such posts of interest, but I do that more to remind myself or to keep certain memories alive by having them written down somewhere.

I do some blogging about my own writing, but mostly that’s just to let my regular blog readers know what I’m up to with my fiction.

I love guest bloggers, and need to work on asking others more often to appear on my blog (by the way, Scott, thanks for your recent appearance). Guest bloggers often bring a viewpoint new to me, or offer ideas about writing which I had not thought of before.

Still, I do hope others enjoy my blog and find it useful. I try not to get overly technical or preachy about my blogging topics, because I myself prefer a human approach that’s more down to Earth.

Winding up my answers here, there is one more thing I would like to add. Looking back over many of my answers concerning questions about my own writing, I realize to some I might come off as overly literary, which is a shame for several reasons. While I do enjoy literary fiction, writing and reading it, I also have a strong love for pulp-like fiction. Sometimes it’s just fun to write about clashing swords or scary monsters and bug-eyed creatures, without going too deep mentally. Most who take part in criticism tend to separate genre and literary fiction, and I try not do this, at least not consciously. To my way of thought, the most action-oriented pulp thriller can have much to say about humanity, sometimes as much as more famous literary works. Pulp fiction is often plot or character driven, and these can tell us a lot about ourselves, about our humanity.