I had a chat this week with fellow shaved-head enthusiast, top bloke and author of (among other things) the Alex Caine Series of dark fantasy novels, Alan Baxter.
The Alex Caine books were first published by HarperVoyager in 2014, but have just been re-released in paperback and e-book with the spanky new covers you see below, and international editions are on their way from Ragnarok Publications, starting with Bound in December this year. I interviewed Alan just ahead of Bound‘s original launch in 2014, so with the re-launch last week – and having now read all three books myself – I thought it timely to follow up.
So, Alan, when I interviewed you just before Bound came out, I asked if you squeed like a schoolgirl when you sold the books. We quickly established that (ahem) neither of us squee. Ever. You must have made loud manly noises of excitement to have the re-editions happening in Australia and NZ (what seems like) so quickly, not to mention having US editions starting from the end of the year. Fairly happy with your agent at this point?
My agent is the bomb. Like, multiple megatons of awesome. It’s funny, because it doesn’t seem so quick to me, as it’s been two years since the original release of Bound. But to have all three out now in Aus and NZ with those fantastic new covers, and the US (and rest of the world) release starting in December, it certainly does feel like things are moving along at a decent pace now. It’s all very exciting.
Two years? Crikey. Seems like only yesterday. You’ve put in a lot of work in that time promoting the books all around the country, haven’t you? I know you have a beautifully timed guest of honour spot coming up at the Conflux convention in September. Anything else coming up for the new editions? Are you going to be heading over to launch the US editions next year?
You’re right, I have been working hard. It’s the only way I know to do it. The Guest of Honour spot at Conflux is really quite surreal – isn’t that only something real authors do? No plans to go to the US yet, but Bound comes out over there in December and then Obsidian and Abduction together in July 2017. So maybe something in the second half of next year? We’ll see how that pans out.
Also in that earlier interview, not having read the books yet, I asked if you’d ever based a villain on anyone you know, and you told me to look out for the “sexually deviant, nasty pair” of characters called Sparks and Hood. Okay, even forewarned, when I read their first scene in Bound I snorted my coffee through my nose. I’ve Tuckerised people before, but I flat out Ken-Jeong-leaping-out-of-the-car-boot-naked could not fucking believe you’d done that. Did it get weird for you, writing those characters when you know the real Sparks and Hood so well?
Yes and no! It’s funny, because while writing I hadn’t decided what to call the villains. When I got to their first scene, I’d just had a catch up with the real world Sparks and Hood, so I started using their names as placeholders. After a while, the names really started to stick, so I contacted them and asked their permission. I warned them the characters were genuinely messed up, but they agreed. So there it was.
They say you shouldn’t give babies weird nicknames before they’re born. Same principle, I guess.
They say that? I wish I’d known!
While we’re on the topic of your villains, I was very interested in the way you handled your human villains, giving them a lot of page space and making them almost seem like co-protagonists, whereas the Fey and Kin villains were a bit more aloof. What was your thinking behind that approach to the human villains?
You’ve pretty much nailed it. The human villains are indeed co-protagonists in the bigger scheme of the mythology. I wanted layers of conflict, so Alex and Silhouette are against Hood and Sparks, but they’re all against the greater threats of the Fey, Uthentia, and so on, whether they happen to realise that or not. I enjoy giving the villains lots of page space because it’s important to have them as developed as all the other characters. The mythological characters are more removed from humanity, so they’re written that way too. But I like to think they’re further developed as the series goes on, even if they never have the quite the page space of the humans.
Yeah right. It had an interesting effect where, as a reader, I’d catch myself rooting for the villains to get what they want, even when they’re doing utterly horrendous things, and have to remind myself not to. As the writer, did you ever catch yourself wanting to go easy on your villains because you’d started empathising with them as much as the heroes? (If you did, you suppressed the urge admirably.)
No, I didn’t really feel that way. Writing those two I often felt sorry for the Sparks character, given how she fell into her life, but never for Hood. Fuck that guy.
I admired the aplomb with which you handled the magical beings in this universe – eg, explaining that your “Kin” race, the human-fey hybrids, were basically every mythical monster ever because of “lifestyle choices” and that even the fairy queen said “fuck”. A lot. The “lifestyle choices” was such a breezy line that I have to ask: was that pre-planned or a moment of inspiration while writing?
Pre-planned. And it’s a bit spoilery if we go into too much detail, but the basis of the Kin as a race, who and what they are, was the basis of all the mythology in the series. Everything about the situation Alex finds himself in is built initially on the Kin and how they came to be. And what they are in the world. Of course, even that is prone to corruption as well, because no one knows all the truth of their history, and Silhouette in particular learns more and more about herself as the series goes on. I’m glad you found it such a breezy line, as it was important to me to sell it as truth, and that means not over-labouring the mythology. Seems maybe I pulled that off.
Indeed. In fiction as in politics, I suppose: say it quickly, say it with confidence, get a laugh, keeping it moving. Mm. Do you think anyone’s used that as a rule for world-building before? We can call it the ‘Alan Baxter Lifestyle Choices Rule of Fantasy World-building’.
I’m into it! It is now a thing.
Something that struck me reading all three books was the number of risks you took with the storytelling. For example: In Bound, Alex’s first proactive decision was cold-blooded murder, and the sex scenes between him and Silhouette, his Kin love interest, were kinda furry S&M (also, in the car was hilarious). Then, in Obsidian, you lock the characters into a closed-room secondary world for a completely different kind of story. And in Abduction you actually take Alex off stage and make Silhouette the protagonist for the first few chapters. I think those choices all come off, and they all have solid in-story reasons, which either are apparent or become apparent, but at the time they were surprising. Did you have any qualms about any of those riskier choices? Did any of them change along the way?
No, it was all planned that way, really, in broad strokes at least. I write dark and gritty, where good and bad people all make good and bad decisions. Sometimes the right decision is morally reprehensible and so on. All those things are stuff I like to explore. And as for the thematic stuff, that was deliberate too. Bound is the high fantasy quest corrupted into a dark, fast-paced modern thriller; Obsidian is a play on the lost city trope, again turned upside down as much as possible; Abduction is the classic Clash of the Titans, or superhero battle, but before that it was important to establish the importance of Silhouette, the truth that no hero succeeds alone. That’s a trite convenience in so many stories, so Abduction started that way for a reason.
I was really surprised when I got to Obsidian by how different a story it is to Bound. Bound is an all-action race-against-time, while Obsidian is a classic mystery box. Then Abduction is different again, an on-the-run story. You mentioned inventing other worlds in that 2014 interview, but after reading Bound, I’d mentally put Alex Caine in the same part of the genre as the Harry Dresden or Peter Grant series, so I was expecting Obsidian to be broadly similar in style. How did you come to the decision to write such different styles of story for each book?
Yeah, I think you’re right about Alex in that Dresden/Grant style, but I think the “world” is bigger than that. The Fey, the various other creatures and magics, they all come from places beyond this world, the various realms that exist beyond or within our own. So it’s fun to develop those worlds alongside our own. It also allows greater scope for stories – if I’m restricted just to the world I know, it can dead-end certain story ideas. If I can use our world as much as I like, but then also have the option to go beyond that, it’s far more encompassing. Ironically, it’s more real in terms of the stories I’m telling! And the different styles are like I mentioned above, deliberate explorations of thematic styles, all tied back into my own extended mythologies.
There’s a lot of stuff in those extended mythologies beyond the human-Kin-Fey triangle that drives the stories, a good part of which even the characters can’t (and don’t need to) explain, which I thought added a certain realism. For your own purposes, in your notes or story bible, are all of those apparently untidy bits of weirdness fitted together in their proper cosmological places?
Yes and no! In places they are, where I had a good idea of what I was doing. Other things less so, and I have various notes about stuff I need to follow up and flesh out. The depth and variety was important to me, but only certain aspects are deeply known in my own mind at this stage. But I’m looking forward to building that stuff more.
As may be obvious from the previous question, I didn’t twig that I was reading a “Trilogy” rather than a series until the big revelation halfway through Obsidian. I was really impressed by how you managed information for the reader, so that I didn’t see the reveals coming, but they made total sense when they arrived, and each one escalated the stakes and step-by-step tied the three books together as a single story. Great stuff and I imagine a great deal of thought went into it. How much of it was planned and how much was fixed in editing?
The big picture was all planned out by halfway through Bound. When I started writing Bound, it was going to be a standalone novel. By halfway I knew I had to explore the further mythology, the history of stuff happening, and I knew I had the potential to develop Alex Caine far more. So by the end of writing Bound, I had all kinds of notes and plans for books two and three. Once I realised it was a trilogy, I went back through Bound and made sure the foreshadowing and precursor details were right. A lot of small stuff was fixed in the editing, but hopefully it runs smoothly because I was always playing catch-up to the ideas, not the other way around! And with any luck there’ll be more Alex Caine novels. I’m keen to continue the Series if these three do well enough. I’ve left enough threads hanging, and got notes for numerous other plots and adventures, so fingers crossed I’ll get to write those too. Like Bound, Obsidian and Abduction are each a standalone novel in their own right, but there’s an over-arching story that’s wrapped up in Abduction, I’d like to write more in the Series, each a standalone, but maybe with more big story arcs across several volumes again. There’s so much more scope in the Alex Caine universe yet.
Here’s hoping! Thanks heaps, Al. Look forward to seeing you at Conflux.
Thanks for the chat, and yes, see you there! First beers are on me.
You can find out more about the Alex Caine Series and Alan’s other books and short stories at his website, including links to Amazon and other places where you can buy them.