With the recent US release of the third book in the Time of Legends Nagash series, we sent a zombie emissary through the Diplomatic Undead Embassy (Armless of course) to speak to Mike about this series. Here he talks to us about Historical Wargaming, 1st June 1980 and the food of the soul…
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Mike B Lee: I wouldn’t call it an affliction, certainly. That’s way too emo for my tastes.
Having said that, I think most artistic people would agree that the act of creating something, whether it’s a story, a painting, or a song, is something they feel compelled to do. I personally can’t sit idle for very long after finishing a book before I get the urge to write again. If I weren’t writing professionally, I’d still be making stories for myself, or running role-playing games for my friends, because I need that kind of creative outlet.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
MBL: June 1, 1980, at around 4:30 PM. I remember this because it was my 13th birthday. I was hanging out with one of my friends outside, and my mother was talking to a neighbor close by. The subject of birthdays came up, and my mother asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. The answer just kind of hit me. “A writer,” I said, without a moment’s hesitation. That seemed weird to me at the time, but looking back, it makes sense. I was a natural reader and had a knack for language, and had been making up stories for as long as I could remember.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
MBL: I know from personal experience that writing a short story requires an entirely different perspective and skill set than writing a novel. There are similarities between the two, but the art of crafting the story and its characters is very different. A short story requires you to hone your plot and characters to a razor’s edge; you simply don’t have the space for anything else. Very few writers have the ability to do both short- and long-form fiction equally well. Personally, I’m much more comfortable writing novels than short stories; I like exploring the big picture rather than focusing in on a single, transitory scene.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
MBL: Want to read an epic fantasy novel about the fall of the first human civilization and the rise of the undead? Try this!
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
MBL: “Nagash Immortal is a tale of dark magic, vengeance and war set amid the shifting sands of Nehekara.”
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
MBL: Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erickson and Scott Lynch. I’m also eagerly awaiting the next installment of Richard K. Morgan’s fantasy series, though I’m not as big a fan of his science fiction novels.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
MBL: I’m a compulsive outliner. Before I start a novel, I know how the story breaks down from chapter to chapter, and I have a profile of at least all of the major characters in the book. If I think it’s relevant, I’ll also put some effort into working out the events that lead up to the story I’m about to write. That’s a huge help in tweaking the pacing of a story, as well as working out all the motivations and finding all the potential plot holes before I wind up writing myself into a corner.
Now, having said that, I’m also flexible and open to change during the writing process. I can’t think of a single book that stuck entirely to its outline from start to finish. It’s inevitable that I’ll come up with a new idea or a different approach to a character that I like better than what’s in the outline, and I’ll work that in.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
MBL: What is this word? I’m not familiar with it.
Over the last few years my schedule has gotten so demanding that actual relaxation has been very hard to come by. When I get the chance, I read as much as I can. Once in a blue moon, I sit down and play a wargame (I’m a historical minis player from way back, and also play various sf and fantasy miniature games.) I also used to run pen-and-paper role-playing campaigns for my friends, some of which went on for many years, but that’s become a thing of the past.
The last books I read were Jim Butcher’s Changes, a novel of the Dresden Files, and Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. I’m looking forward to reading Abercrombie’s Heroes next.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
MBL: Really bad horror or science fiction movies from the 50’s-70’s. Hammer films especially. They used to come on TV during the afternoons when I was a kid, and I watched them every chance I could. I still do, much to the consternation of my wife.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
MBL: Our house has been pet-free for many years, but within the last year we’ve acquired two new ones: a cat named Pyewackett and a dog named Odie. Both are rescues: Pye was abandoned by his mother when he was a tiny kitten, and Odie was apparently left by his owners out in the country. They’re a study in opposites: Pye is a very small, Very Bad cat, who thinks he’s ten feet tall and bulletproof. Odie is a 60-pound pit bull who is very strong and scary-looking, but also very sweet and very goofy around people he knows. Neither have appeared in any of my books yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
MBL: Definitely Eekrit Backbiter, the Skaven warlord who is sent to conquer Nagashizzar and quickly finds himself in way over his head. He’s vicious, sarcastic and funny, in a blackly Skaven kind of way.
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
MBL: Well, the protagonist of my novel is an evil, centuries-old necromancer, so I’m going to go with “not at all”.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
MBL: Well, I’m a lifelong historical miniatures gamer, and consequently I read a great deal about military history, from the Ancient period to modern day. Studying historical military campaigns (especially first-hand accounts) have been a great source of inspiration for writing the fictional battles in my books.
FT: Where do you get your idea's from?
MBL: Games Workshop.
Honestly, that’s kind of the tricky thing with writing tie-in fiction, whether it’s for a miniatures game, or a TV show, or whatever: you’re given certain key aspects of the story, and then your challenge is to fill in the blanks to create a compelling story. That’s both a blessing and a curse, sometimes. It’s nice to have a starting point to work from, but at the same time it limits your options as well. And it also can be quite a challenge if the pieces you’re given don’t quite add up to a proper story.
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
MBL: When I get writer’s block, it’s usually because there’s something wrong in the chapter or scene I’m working on, but I haven’t figured out exactly what it is. The gears just grind to a halt while my subconscious tries to untangle things. It used to frustrate me to no end before I understood what was happening. These days when I get blocked, I take it as a sign that I need to step away from the book for a while and do something else. Later, I can go back to the story with fresh eyes and see where I’ve gone off-track. It always works, but some problems take longer to sort out than others.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
MBL: These days I try my best to write on a normal, 9AM-6PM schedule, for the sake of my sanity as well as everyone else’s. Fortunately for me, my wife is a freelance artist, so if my schedule ever gets crazy, she understands. It’s when both of us are working on deadline and no one’s sleeping that things get rough.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
MBL: I’m more of a white-noise kind of person. I do most of my work at a local coffee shop, where I can tune everything out and focus on the story. I’ve tried to work while listening to music, but it’s too distracting.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
MBL: I actually thought that success in publishing rested exclusively on writing a fantastic book. That’s only the starting point. You’ve got to aggressively market yourself and your story at every opportunity. Even then, you can do everything right and the book still fails due to bad timing. At the end of the day, a lot still comes down to luck, and the odds are against you almost every step of the way. Which goes back to your first question about writing: it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
MBL: Fiction is the food of the soul. It speaks to our darkest fears and our loftiest ambitions. It sustains us in hard times, and cautions us in times of plenty.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
MBL: I’m actually taking a break from writing at present. Since mid-2003, I’ve written ten novels back to back, which amounts to more than a million words in print. So I’m pulling back and letting the brain recharge for a little while, and helping my wife with her wildly successful career as an illustrator. I hope to be writing again later this year, but I’m not sure what the story is going to be.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
MBL: Hmm. CNN, Facebook, STRATFOR, The Miniatures Page and Warlord Games.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
MBL: I took exactly one creative writing class in college, and learned very little from it. Honestly, I think I learned a great deal more about writing by taking literature classes and studying the works of great authors than I did by taking an actual course on writing.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
MBL: I don’t know that anyone ever really gets past such things. Rejection stings, possibly more so once you’ve actually published a few stories than when you haven’t sold a thing. But it’s part of the process, and it’s not personal. There are only so many slots in any publisher’s yearly schedule, and they’ve got to choose carefully based on what’s best for the company. The only thing you can do is start working on the next thing. Success in the publishing industry is all about persistence and dedication to your craft. See my response to question 1.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
MBL: The best part of writing is being able to tell stories to other people. If I didn’t have that outlet, I’d probably go nuts. The worst part, of course, is the deadlines.