One of my goals as an author, besides writing my own books, is to introduce to you different authors from many genres beyond my own, thriller-crime-mystery. Ross Hightower is a fellow author who has his first book dropping from Black Rose Writing in September. His book, Spirit Sight, is in the fantasy genre, like several other authors I interviewed.
I liked the fact he told himself stories at night when he was supposed to be sleeping. My daughters would read late into the night and like Ross’ mother, it drove my wife and me crazy. Kids need to sleep, right? Perhaps, read and tell stories too. 😊 He is also a Beatles fan, so really, what is not to like about someone, especially an author, like that!
I hope you enjoy his interview as much as I did.
What was it that made you decide you had a story to tell and to become an author?
I’ve always told myself stories at night. When I’m supposed to be sleeping, I lay awake spinning tales. When I was young, my exasperated mother would drag me, exhausted, from my bed in the morning and hustle me through my morning routine to get me to the bus on time.
At fourteen, I tried to write one of these stories down. When I couldn’t wrangle the words around to match what I saw in my mind, I decided I couldn’t write. It became one of my ‘truths’ through school and most of an academic career. I didn’t stop telling myself stories, but that I could be a writer became an unattainable fantasy.
Three years ago, I was lying awake, thinking about how hard it must be for fantasy authors to imagine unique and interesting magical systems. These are the things that keep me up. I read a lot of fantasy, and magic, at its best, adds depth and personality to a story. Somehow, I stumbled on the idea of a world in which, when they are young, the magically adept cause pain in people nearby. What would their lives be like? So, I told myself a story to play with the possibilities.
For reason I’m not clear on, I woke up the next morning, went to a coffee shop and wrote the story down. It took three hours, and, just like when I was fourteen, I couldn’t get the words to cooperate. It was awful. But I fell in love with the characters and the process of storytelling. I left that coffee shop knowing I would keep writing. I suppose life has taught me something after all. Unlike my fourteen-year-old self, I’m not so easily discouraged. I’ve learned the rewards of pushing through difficulties.
As an author or writer, what sets you apart from others?
Time will tell. I’ve only just had my first novel, Spirit Sight, accepted by Black Rose Writing. I can say that, of my beta readers, the women, many of whom are not regular readers of fantasy, loved the book. The story develops the inner worlds of the characters and their relationships. The magic is nuanced, with personality and emotion, and there are two appealing, female protagonists who are not the typical fantasy heroines. I didn’t set out to write for a particular audience, it’s just a product of my sensibilities. I wrote a blog about why I think my story appeals to women on my website. If I’m allowed a shameless promotion.
What genre do you write, and why?
I write almost only fantasy. I’ve read widely in my life, but in recent years, I’ve gravitated more and more to fantasy. The forms and archetypes are comfortable for me. I enjoy fantasy, because you can tell the same human centered stories you can in any other genre, but it allows you to play with the fantastical elements. I enjoy stories with magic that has personality, something that provides a vehicle to develop characters in unique ways.
At some point, I hope to write in other genres. My partner, Debby, and I are kicking about a series of adventure/thriller books. Writing with your partner brings an interesting dynamic to the relationship.
If you were to name one or two books that you deem unforgettable and that had a major impact on you, what would they be, and why?
This is a hard question. I’ve read so many books over my lifetime that had a profound effect on me. I still remember scenes in my first ‘chapter’ book, Little House on the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. After reading My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, I packed, ready to run away to the mountains. At least until supper time. The Hobbitby J. R. R. Tolkien introduced me to fantasy.
There are many more, but I’m going to cheat and pick the two that started me on this writing adventure.
It was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss that led me to speculate about magic systems that night three years ago. Rothfuss’s prose rises to poetry at its best. The kind of writing that makes my brain purr. The hero is the appealing fantasy hero, brash, talented, with a strong moral core. And the tale within a story structure allows the author to couch a traditional fantasy adventure within a tragic story. It sits atop the hill at the end of my personal journey, something I aspire to.
The other is Stephen King’s On Writing. Opinions on Stephen King vary widely in the writing community, but this book really helped me at the beginning. Some of the advice on the mechanics of writing was useful, but the reason I include it here is the message that, through hard work and a willingness to seek and take criticism, you can hone your writing skills. I took from it the lesson that calling myself a writer was not beyond my reach. It was what, once and for all, slayed the dragon I’ve been dragging around since I was fourteen.
What authors do you read regularly? Why?
I read anything by Joe Abercrombie, though his particular brand of dark fantasy, with its relentless pragmatism, is more difficult to read in our troubled times. I had to take breaks while reading his latest. Part of the appeal of fantasy, for me, is the hero taking a stand against evil, even when it seems like the stupid thing to do. Still, I’ll read anything he writes. His characters are clearly drawn, the dialog is clever and real, and the plots always surprise.
I’m always looking for new authors, but I keep an eye out for stories by Michael Sullivan and Django Wexler, in particular.
If you were to have dinner with 5 individuals living or dead, who would they be and why?
It’s probably because I recently watched Peter Jackson’s documentary, Get Back, but I would love to have dinner with the Beatles during their time in Hamburg. I read an interview with George Harrison, the dour Beatle, in which he waxed euphoric about that time. It was one of those ‘bright, shining moments’, as Patti Smith would say.
Five, you say. Well, there was John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best.
What is your writing routine? When you write, are you a planner/outliner or are you a “pantser”?
I’ve never been able to establish anything that could be called routine in anything I’ve ever done. Whenever there has been any sort of regular task I have to accomplish, I arrange it so I have to trip over it to remember.
Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done that I’ve come close to a persistent routine. I write every day, usually in the morning and usually at a coffee shop (my writing goal is to make enough money to fund my coffee habit). I have to arrange writing time around work, but if I don’t write during the day, I feel like I’ve missed something.
I wouldn’t say I’m a pure ‘pantser,’ because I like to have mileposts to aim for, but to me, discovery is the best part of writing. I’m often as surprised as I hope the reader will be with what appears on the screen. I love starting a new scene with characters I know and a vague idea of what the scene must accomplish. If you know the characters well enough, it just flows and is pure joy. After two or three hours deep inside my character’s heads… it’s a drug.
When writing, how much do you read? Do you read in or out of your genre?
I read little outside fantasy now because I just don’t have time. Between writing, work and family, I’m stretched.
Is there something you set out to do, but somehow, it didn’t work out for you? (In terms of writing, or something else you felt was important to you at the time?)
I majored in chemical engineering as an undergraduate. I chose it in high school because I was told it was easy to get a high-paying job. Turns out, I hated it. Unfortunately, I’m too stubborn for my own good, so it wasn’t until I graduated that, faced with the prospect of actually doing it for a living, I admitted my mistake. Still, it was a tough program, and I learned a lot of intangibles I’ve found useful in my life.
What tips would you give to new or even experienced writers?
I’m not sure I can give advice to experienced writers, but for new writers, I’d say the best way to improve is to seek and heed regular, objective feedback. Find someone who can critique your work who is honest but kind, someone who is in your corner but will tell you the truth. It’s difficult to do. In my experience, you won’t get it from family and friends. You rarely get it by submitting stories to publishers, as few of them provide feedback.
In my case, I was lucky enough to find a great writing coach. Kathie Giorgio has been fantastic, shortening the time to publish my first novel by years. If you can afford a coach, I recommend it, but be careful. The writing industry has more than its share of scammers.
If you can’t afford or find a coach, find a good writing group.
How do you handle a negative critique?
I melt, rather dramatically, into a puddle. But then I pick myself up and learn what I can from it. I made a conscious decision to become the best writer I can be. Taking advantage of feedback, positive or negative, is part of that. As I gain more confidence, negative critiques are easier to take. Early on, a negatively shaded word would send me into a spiral. But I’ve seen that I can improve when I know what needs improvement. That knowledge shortens the recovery time, anyway.
Is there a type of writing/genre that you find difficult to write? Why?
Apart from some short/flash fiction, I’ve only ever written fantasy. I will say the adventure/thriller novels Deb and I are planning are somewhat mysterious to me. I’m not sure how to get started. The advantage of writing in a genre you’ve read extensively is you know your readers’ expectations, and how you can bend those expectations to create something fresh. I suspect once I get started, it will be about the same, but I may need more of an outline to get started.
How important are the elements of character, setting, and atmosphere to a story, and why?
They’re all interlinked. For me, stories spring from characters and setting. Plot arises from the characters’ response to one another and events in a particular setting, and story without atmosphere would be rather sterile.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters you create? How/Why?
There is a little of me in all my characters. Even the antagonists. I haven’t found many of the suggestions you find in various sources for developing characters that useful. When I started, I tried filling out extensive character sheets and interviewing them. It felt like I was describing someone I didn’t know. So, now, I just put a character in a scene and see how they respond. That feels more organic to me. It feels like it’s coming from somewhere inside me.
Having said that, there are characters I identify with more than others. I would like to think I’m Aron, the carefree trickster with the silver tongue. Unfortunately, I think I’m more like Harold, the embittered inquisitor seeking redemption.
Is there an unforgettable or memorable character that will not leave your head, either of your own creation or from a book you’ve read?
It’s an odd choice, but I would have to say Nara Flynn, one of my characters. Nara is fearless, brash, and funny. It’s an odd choice, because her one scene in Spirit Sight didn’t make the cut and a short story I wrote for her has received only apologetic rejections, so far. But when I write her scenes, they flow so easily, it’s almost like typing. Why is she unforgettable to me? She’s my partner, Debby. Someday Nara/Deb will star in her own novel.
Tell us about your most recent book. How did you come up with the concept?
It all came from that night I speculated about a world in which young adepts cause pain in others. Contemplating what their lives would be like led me to the inquisition and witch trials.
The magic has its roots in Viking mythology. To the Vikings, the world was filled with a variety of spirits that influenced the world and people in different ways. My favorite was what could be called a person’s luck spirit, a spirit you could loan to others if they needed a little extra luck. The scribes of the Middle Ages who chronicled the Norse Eddas, didn’t know how to explain spirits, so they used concepts from other traditions like giants, dwarves and such. But to the Vikings, they were spirits.
Throw in a corrupt empire and an oppressed minority and you have the ingredients for an epic fantasy.
My main protagonist, Minna, is a girl with extraordinary gifts. She grows up in a remote village and escapes the notice of the Inquisition, who would execute her as a witch. Her neighbors, not yet infected by the empire’s Draconian religion, tolerate her presence. As she enters her teen years, while she and the spirits grope toward understanding one another, forces are set in motion which force Minna to leave her small life and seek a greater destiny. It’s the hero’s journey at its epic best.
How did you come up with the title?
It arose naturally from the story. Spirit sight is the ability to see and commune with spirits.
From your book, who is your favorite character? Who is your least favorite character? Why?
Minna is my favorite. She is the kind of character I love in fantasy. Powerful but unassuming, thrust into troubles she wants no part of, but she always rises to the occasion.
Stefan, one of my antagonists, is my least favorite. He’s a coward, which by itself is not a reason to hate him, but he’s venal and a bully. But wait a minute, didn’t I say there is a little part of me in all my characters? Well, Stefan also has a severe case of imposter syndrome, so I get him.
I hope you enjoyed the interview, and I hope you give his book, Spirit Sight, a read!
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