Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Jon Skovron?
I’m originally from Ohio, where I was sentenced to an all boys Catholic Prep school. Eventually I escaped to Pittsburgh, where I studied acting in the conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon University. By the time I graduated, the one thing I was certain of was that I no longer wanted to be an actor. Instead, I took up the much more practical profession of author. Over the course of the next ten years, I wrote several failed novels, got married, had kids, got divorced, and had a couple of short stories published. My first Young Adult novel, Struts and Frets, was finally published in 2009. I had three more YA novels published before deciding to write my first fantasy novel for grown-ups, which ended up being Hope and Red, book one of the Empire of Storms.
Your second novel in the Empire of Storms series, Bane and Shadow, is out next month. I’m really looking forward to reading it. How would you introduce the series to a potential reader? And what can fans of Hope and Red expect from this second novel?
I typically introduce the series as my swashbuckling kung fu pirate gangster romance epic, because I think that pretty much covers all the bases. The two main characters are Hope, a young warrior who seeks vengeance for her murdered parents and village, and Red, a charming thief who will do anything to protect his grimy, crime-ridden neighborhood. They come from two very different backgrounds and world views, but find common purpose when Red’s neighborhood is threatened by the very people who killed Hope’s parents.
If you’ve already read Hope and Red, you can expect Bane and Shadow to be quite a bit darker. Hope has taken up the mantle of the dread pirate Dire Bane, so there’s also a whole lot of swashbuckling going on. And with Red stuck at the palace, I was able to bring the reader deeper into the political intrigue of the capital, including a glimpse of what the rest of the world outside the empire might be like.
What inspired you to write series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The initial inspiration for this series was a photographic portrait of a homeless girl by Lee Jeffries. You can still see the collection here and Jeffries’s full portfolio can be found here. There is so much going in the young eyes of that girl, and I wondered what it might take to make someone that young look that old. And that became Hope.
I’ve also always wanted to write a pirate book. My family is big into sailing, and it’s always been something I love, even though (or perhaps because) my small branch of the family was the only one not near water. And Red’s neighborhood is the sort of place I picture while listening to Tom Waits albums, particularly Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones.
In general, I’d say a lot of my inspiration comes from books, music, dance, theater, visual art. But also history. There’s a character in the series named Sadie the Goat who, as far as I can tell, was an actual person who lived in New York City during the early 19th Century.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
As a kid, I mostly read comic books. Batman, X-men, a little Spider-Man. Then in 5th grade I started getting into the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. But I had no friends, so I would create a bunch of characters and settings, and then never get to use them. In retrospect, it might have been a great introduction to writing fantasy, but at the time it was just kind of sad. Then my aunt, who was a cursing, booze-swilling, chainsmoking force of nature (and obviously therefore my hero) gave me a copy of A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. And that was pretty much it for me. Sold for life.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Ha! I like to make a distinction between being writer and being an author. Being a writer is the creative act of writing and revising a book. That part I love more than anything, except my children. Being an author is the business and publicity stuff. I’ve worked with several different editors and publishers now, and the experience (positive or negative) greatly depends on the people involved. I’m pretty easygoing, so I mostly take it as it comes. The bit I struggle with probably the most is the publicity. I think a lot of writers struggle with it, so we chose a profession that mostly involves sitting alone at a desk. Oddly, I love doing events in person. Panels, and cons and festivals. I did used to be an actor, after all, and that siren call of applause never really goes away. But when I’m at home, I have to make make a conscious effort for things like Twitter and Facebook, because honestly, I’d rather just be writing. Except interviews, of course. I love those 😉
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I write all my rough drafts out long hand, usually with a fountain pen. It feels more connected somehow, and there aren’t any distractions. I type my second drafts into my writing software of choice, currently Ulysses, and revise on the fly as I go. I typically keep to a firm schedule of 5 days a week. After the boys are off to school, I’ll go to the gym or go for a run to dispel whatever anxiety has built up since the preceding day, then write for about 6 hours, or until the boys are home from school, whichever comes first.
My research is a little all over the place. I tend to just follow my gut, and I’ll often allow myself to go down weird research holes that don’t seem on the surface to have much to do with anything, but that come in handy later. The opening chapter of Hope and Red, for example, came out of my fascination with parasitic wasps.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I actually used to write a lot in high school, but it never occurred to me to be an author. I remember writing this Douglas Adams ripoff called “Death and Taxis” about a world where the Yellow Cap taxi company ruled the galaxy. I’m sure it was dreadful, but I do wish I still had a copy of it somewhere.
I didn’t actually get the idea to become an author until I was twenty-two and decided that I didn’t want to be a professional actor. I remember sitting backstage for some godawful production of Merchant of Venice. I was reading The World According to Garp by John Irving, of all things. And that’s when I thought, “Hey! I could do this!”
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m particularly excited by the growing diversity in genre fiction these days, both in terms of content and creators. My life has always been pretty diverse, so it never made sense to me when I was younger that if we can imagine dragons and elves, why the books I read were almost exclusively about straight white dudes. The first time I picked up a Nalo Hopkinson book, it was a revelation. I realized, “Ah! This is what I’ve been missing!”
I’m not exactly sure where I fit into the genre. I think it’s hard for an author to see themselves in the larger picture. Maybe I’m a little more sentimental and a little funnier than most?
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on revisions for Blood and Tempest, the third book in the Empire of Storms series. As far as I know, it’s still on track to be published this November. I haven’t completely abandoned children’s literature either, and in my spare time I’ve been tinkering with a middle grade novel. Beyond that, we shall see… I have plans, but we all know how that turned out for George and Lenny, right?
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Since I’ve been messing with a middle grade story of my own, I’m currently reading a bunch of middle grade novels. I just finished Doll Bones by Holly Black, which is gorgeous and heartbreaking and creepy as hell. Now I’m reading The League of Seven by Alan Gratz, which is a joyful mashup of airships, monsters, clockpunk, and magic. On the top of my TBR stack is The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Just one? Yeesh. That’s tough. Also because it would depend on who I was recommending it to. Of course, I’ve already slipped in a few recommendations already, so let’s go with one of my all time favorites that I wish got a bit more attention: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Beautiful, sad, surreal, and way ahead of its time.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I only have nine fingers. I lost one in a boating accident when I was a boy. I suppose the truly surprising thing is that I continue to love the sea and sailing after that traumatic event. Right after it happen, my grandfather, a salty old sea dog, convinced me that since I’d given a part of myself to the sea, as long as I showed her the proper respect, she’d always look out for me. I still kind of believe that to this day.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Twelve months? I can’t even think past twelve weeks! I mean, I’m really excited to get books two and three of the Empire of Storms out there. There is a real closure to the first three books. A full story that I think people will find very satisfying. Like I said, I have many plans about what might come next, and I’m eager to see which one comes out on top.
Also on CR: Guest Post on “Progressive World-Building: Screw Restoring Order to the Kingdom”; Review of Hope and Red