E. E. Knight is the author of ten novels, including the dark fantasy Vampire Earth series (Roc), the science fiction adventure novel Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Lost Cult (Del Rey), and the Age of Fire high fantasy series (Roc). He's won the Compton Crook Award, the Darrell Award, and the Dal Coger Memorial Hall of Fame Award. Knight lives with his wife Stephanie in Oak Park, Illinois. His eleventh book, Fall with Honor, hit bookshelves in July 2008, and his twelfth book, Dragon Strike, is due out in December 2008.
Kelle Campbell: You held a number of jobs before you became a full-time writer. What was the most memorable and why?
E. E. Knight: I'd have to say being a McDonald's manager at a corporate-owned store. They were a great company to work for—really good to their people in terms of training and development and trying to make things a bit more fun now and then. But your actual shifts at the restaurant had their challenges. After a while it seems everything you own smells like French fries. Working with the public every day is something of a mixed bag. I got to find feces in places I'd never imagine I'd find them. Damn kids. The occasional robbery or vat fire keeps you on your toes.
I still love a quick breakfast at McDonald's, by the way.
KC: What's your educational background? Has it influenced your present situation in any way?
EEK: I had an average education and was a pretty good student—some of the time. I didn't start auspiciously; for a while back in grade school, I was in half-day special ed with mild dyslexia. In high school, I did a lot of journalism and foreign language with my electives. I went to a community college to save money and finished up at a corn-silo university. I did a double major in history and political science with an emphasis on international relations and graduated with honors. I still read history for research and enjoyment and follow politics for the laughs.
Writing is a trade, not a profession. You can't get a diploma that says you're qualified to be published. Your work is your credentialing, same as it was for a silversmith in Paul Revere's time. You get better by writing a lot and working under a talented editor. I'm sure I'd learn some fantastic stuff by getting an MFA in creative writing or something like that, but frankly I'd rather just work with some of the best editors in our genre.
KC: In the Vampire Earth series, a lot of the action occurs in Arkansas, but David Valentine travels a great deal, for example, to Chicago, Texas, Kentucky, and the Caribbean. So you had to know what those areas were like before the coming of the Kurian Order and also vividly describe the postapocalyptic version. How did you do the research?
EEK: I like to travel. I'm a Civil War battlefield visitor, which can take you to some out-of-the-way corners. As far as the postapocalyptic version goes, of course, that's a lot more imagination-based. But you can get inspiration by visiting any number of places in the Rust Belt. The metal scavengers have done quite a number on a lot of old factories.
KC: Several people have put forth different theories about how dragons would be able to fly and produce fire. How did you come up with the physiology for your dragons in the Age of Fire series?
EEK: I didn't put a huge amount of thought into figuring out ways for dragons to fly. I'm not sure how you'd do it without strap-on rocket packs or JATO units, but that's why they call it fantasy. I toyed with the idea of forcing them to just glide, always launching from a high spot, but discarded it.
As for the fire breathing, I had a scary experience with a grease fire once (see McDonald's section above) and it seemed to me that a dragon could probably put liquid fat into a big bladder and secrete a chemical that would light it up when exposed to oxygen.
KC: The Vampire Earth series is referred to as dark fantasy, and the Age of Fire series is considered high fantasy. Do you have a preference for one of these subgenres?
EEK: No. There are lots of subgenres in SF/fantasy that I like to read; those just happen to be the ones that generated decent novel ideas.
KC: Since the Age of Fire books are supposed to be young adult fiction, were there any constraints or differences you really had to bear in mind while writing those books?
EEK: The constraint is purely self-imposed. I kept getting mail from ten- to twelve-year-old kids who loved the Vampire Earth series. There's some fairly harsh violence in it, sex that some might call explicit (but I think it's fairly tame), adult language—I even mention Grogs having sex with humans. I'm not sure I'd want a tween reading that if I were a parent.
I decided to write something a younger but accomplished reader could enjoy with the Age of Fire series. No language. Sex exists because baby dragons have to come from somewhere, but I don't do sex scenes. There's some violence—my male hatchlings fight each other to the death to claim the nest right out of the egg and the victor eats the losers, but lots of fairy tales have pretty horrible events.
It did get (positively) reviewed as a young adult novel by some publications, but Roc never pulled out all the stops to market it as YA. I look at it as more all-ages. Hopefully it'll be fondly remembered as a book you liked at ten for one reason, at twenty-five for another, and at forty-five for another still. Some of my favorite novels have aged with me that way.
KC: Since you have had both an Age of Fire book and a Vampire Earth book come out each year for the past three years, have you had to work on those books concurrently? And, if so, did you find it difficult to switch back and forth between the mind-set of dragons and vampire fighters?
EEK: So far I've only drafted one at a time. Of course, I'll have to look at a copyedited manuscript while I'm drafting for the other series here and there, but I haven't had to bounce back and forth at the writing stage—though I get ideas for both series all the time and write them down and file them as they hit.
It's a nice mental switch to go from my grim, postapocalyptic Vampire Earth horror show to the more fanciful world of the Age of Fire.
KC: Before you sold your first novel of the Vampire Earth series, you were writing the subsequent stories and could keep handing in manuscripts at a steady pace. However, you must have caught up by now, but you're serving up two books a year. How do you manage to keep up that pace?
EEK: It's not that harsh a clip, but I have pushed deadlines to the breaking point. I picked up a trick from Gene Wolfe where I try to get up and knock out a big chunk every morning. If it's flowing, I can keep prodding it along throughout the day. If not, I can quit and take care of Other Business and still feel like I've done my job.
KC: You've been particularly admired for your worldbuilding skills, and you've said that you like playing strategic and civilization-building games. Do you think that the game play helped you more effectively create the worlds in your novels?
EEK: They teach you the importance of research and how something like clean water, or the availability of cod, or a reliable court system can make all the difference in the world.
Actually, I attribute some of my modest success to tabletop role-playing games. Steven Spielberg says that comic books taught him to frame action via a storyboard. What does a game master do but weave plot, character, and setting in such a way that the players keep meeting new challenges? It's the same job a novelist has.
KC: You've been influenced by Stephen King, Robert E. Howard, C. S. Forester, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, and Ian Fleming, to name a few. Can you say how any of those writers has influenced a particular aspect of your own work?
EEK: Working from that list:
King—King's got dozens of individual talents, but I'll pick one I'd like to mimic: he comes up with rich yet ordinary characters. You feel like you know these people or are even related to them. Then he throws them into absolutely extraordinary situations. It's simple algebra. Because the people are real to you, you believe the rest of it. I've never put down a King novel in disbelief.
Howard—Most people say pure verbal energy or narrative drive or some such, so I think I'll go with his consistently gloomy worldview. Howard had a set of beliefs that he liked to illustrate in his stories, probably the most famous of which is the decay of civilization and ultimate triumph of the barbarian. "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind" (Beyond the Black River) is a thread that weaves several of his recurring characters together. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy yourself. Howard liked a good belly laugh and dancing girls. So do I, come to think of it. My wife is a belly dancer. I think if every now and then you tell your audience something you know to be true, even if they disagree, they'll enjoy your work more. Just try and work it into the story as deftly as Howard.
Forester—Obviously, he's best known for his Horatio Hornblower, who's influenced everything from generations of academy cadets to the creators of Star Trek. Forester knew how to put just enough technical detail in to make the story authentic without making you feel as though you're reading a period article from The Naval Chronicle. Forester's work also showed the mixture of brilliance and blunder—often more blunder than brilliance—that went into even the most successful of military endeavors. I think he also had a tremendous natural feel for what combination of person, place, and circumstance would make a good story—and a story that would do well in the marketplace. There's a reason Hornblower was sent to the Baltic in 1812. Forester didn't want him firing cannon balls at Americans. He and another favorite of mine, Alistair MacLean, loved a good story about professionals determined to get the job done.
Heinlein—I admire and try to imitate Heinlein's triumph of the human spirit, Homo sapiens über alles attitude that's present in so many of his books. He loved mankind and its kludgy manner of overcoming adversity. I started on Heinlein soon after reading my very first SF (E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark and Lensman books) and came away from it thinking they were rip-roaring stories of people first and starships second.
Matheson—He's a dark reflection of Ray Bradbury. I'm always recommending I Am Legend to people as an example of a way to take a tired trope and turn it inside out. But I also admire him for his excellent TV and movie work. Duel, The Twilight Zone, The Night Stalker, and that creepy little fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror. I grew up with Richard Matheson scaring me.
Fleming—Ian Fleming's something of a guilty pleasure with me. Fleming was a great travel writer who just happened to find his fame writing spy thrillers. He had his share of duds, but I'll put On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Moonraker, and From Russia with Love up against any thriller. It's easy to roll your eyes at the explicit racism, and sometimes Bond's car has more personality than the women, but Fleming had a knack for creating memorable villains. Doctor No, Hugo Drax, Red Grant, Ernst Stavro Blofeld—they're tough, scary enemies, all far more accomplished than Bond in their own way. He also had a way of putting you somewhere with just a few concise lines, though his love of a new environment sometimes ran away with him—Japan pretty much takes over in You Only Live Twice.
None of the above should be construed to mean that I'm saying my work approaches theirs in these respects. They're models I try to learn from and emulate.
Other favorite authors are Richard Adams, Jane Austen, Michael Crichton, Alan Dean Foster, Zane Grey, Joe Haldeman, Robert Harris, Frank Herbert, Louis L'Amour, H. P. Lovecraft, Brian Lumley, George Orwell, Tim Powers, Leo Tolstoy, E. B. White, and Tom Wolfe, but I expect readers would rather move on to the next question.
KC: Have you seen your writing change or improve over the years?
EEK: I think it has. I'm slowly getting a better handle on characterization, and my plots have grown more complex. I've trained myself not to write long digressions into some minutia of interest to me but not important to the story because my editor will just have me chuck it anyway. I've also learned that readers love it if you leave some minor point explicitly unresolved but give them ample evidence to make a good guess.
KC: What do you think is your best work to date and what made it stand out for you?
EEK: That's kind of a Sophie's Choice question for every author, you know. It depends on what you're talking about. I like the way the plot turned round on itself in Dragon Champion. I'm very proud of Ahn-Kha, Grog resistance fighter; he's a reader favorite, and I think he rather shines in Valentine's Exile. Dragon Outcast has my most nuanced point-of-view character: I think the copper dragon's trying to fill a bottomless pit to make up for what happened to his family, but I don't know if he'll ever see or really understand himself. Valentine's Resolve is a favorite of mine because my main bread-and-butter character finally figured himself out and got back some of the idealism he'd had when he first started fighting.
KC: Do you ever consider writing in another format, like the short story?
EEK: I've written a few shorts; so far I've only been published in anthologies. I've got a recurring character called the Blue Pilgrim coming up in Black Gate magazine. He first appeared in the Lords of Swords sword-and-sorcery anthology. I'm also working on a novella from Ahn-Kha's point of view.
KC: What have you found to be the most frustrating part of the writing or publishing process?
EEK: I always start out with this wonderful vision of what the novel's going to be, but by the end it's never what I saw in the marble when I was imagining it. In that sense, everything I've done is a failure. But I'd rather have my failures sitting on bookshelves than in a trunk in my bedroom waiting for a perfection that's never going to come.
KC: Do you have any rituals for before, during, or after writing a novel?
EEK: Sometimes before a novel, I'll do a good digestive system fast or cleanse. During drafting, I'll indulge my awful taste for junk food, to the despair of my wife and doctor. After I've turned it in, I like to go to this spa-gym and spend the better part of the day rotating among wet sauna, dry sauna, cool pool, and hot pool. It's popular with eastern Europeans, and they like it so hot you feel like a basted chicken. I crawl out of that feeling wonderful and rubbery.
KC: What are you working on right now? I think you're doing a project for Image Comics—is that right?
EEK: That's sort of on the back burner. We had trouble getting an artist and the thing just lost momentum.
At the moment, I'm fulfilling contracts for the Vampire Earth and Age of Fire books and toying with some ideas for a book bigger than anything I've written so far. But, so far, I've only got a world and a few characters. I need a much better plot. None of the outlines I've tried for it yet have made me happy.
KC: Do you enjoy giving readings? What's been your best experience at a reading? What was your worst experience?
EEK: My best experience at a reading is having someone show up. My worst experience at a reading is having no one show up. The "no one shows up" happens quite a bit.
KC: You're pretty faithful about daily posts to your blog and some posts are extremely entertaining, for example the archvillain's memo to his minions, which in some ways brings to mind the evil overlord lists by Anspach and Butler. How much of your day is devoted to posting and corresponding with fans and friends?
EEK: Well, if you look at all my blog entries, you'll see that about eighty percent of them are just a link, or a couple of quick lines, or short paragraphs, or a funny graphic, or lolcats, or some actress I think is teh hawt. It's not that much of a timesuck.
As to my correspondence, I check email throughout the day, especially when I'm in a revision stage with my editor. Like everyone else, I'm mostly deleting spam. Except some readers just put "Greetings" or "Hi There!" or "Thanks" in the subject line, God knows why. Please, put series or book titles in your subject lines if you're going to write authors, people.
KC: You've posted several blog entries discussing the craft of writing and you just had a DVD made of your presentation "Three Pillars of Popular Fiction." How did that come about and are you considering writing a how-to book or article?
EEK: The DVD is just an edited-down version of a presentation I did at a Chicagoland library for local cable. There's a "Library Channel" in Chicago. Very Wayne's World but it shows the variety of stuff we've got going on in our libraries. Hopefully I can buy a case and sell them at conventions or something. Nothing classier than an author hawking merchandise to everyone he meets, don't you think?
I've done a how-to article that's a slight expansion of my popular "How To Write A Novel" blog post. The article has come out in an anthology by the guy [Jason M. Waltz] who is continuing those S&S [sword and sorcery] anthologies. The antho's called The Return of the Sword.
KC: What should aspiring writers know about the publishing industry?
EEK: That it's like Dante's Inferno without the celebrities. Seriously, though it may not seem like it, agents and publishers are desperate for voices they can sell. That means knowing how to write clearly and evocatively and having a feel for story—not just what makes a good story but how to tell it. They're always looking for new material because so many of us are getting chewed up and spat out for poor sales. I'm a bad book or two away from no career at all, because I've never had a hit, though I've put together some really good numbers over the long run.
I thought my old editor Liz [Scheier] had some great advice when she wrote this for my genre fiction class:
If the letter is addressed to "Dear Gentlemen" (keeping in mind that publishing is a 90% female industry) I will drop-kick it right into the circular file.
If my name is misspelled, I will use it for kindling.
If the letter is polite, I'll give it ten pages.
If within that ten pages, I've been smoothly drawn into an interesting world, I'll give it twenty-five pages.
If within that twenty-five pages I've been introduced to a character I'd like to have coffee with, I'll give it fifty pages.
If within that fifty pages I've been introduced to a character I'd like to split a pitcher or six of margaritas with, or who I'm so frightened of that I'd run to the ends of the earth to escape, I'll give it seventy-five pages.
If within that seventy-five pages the writing style has impressed me with its succinctness, freshness, and depth, I'll give it a hundred pages.
If within the first hundred pages I discover a plot that moves quickly, makes logical sense, advances the characters, and doesn't rely on random coincidence or the stupidity of characters I've otherwise grown to like, I'm hooked. I'll read the rest. And if the rest leads up to an exciting, satisfying ending . . . I'm probably already on the phone to your agent.
KC: What trends in genre fiction or publishing technology do you see or hope to see?
EEK: Well, the blurring between genres continues apace, and that's a good thing. An involving story is an involving story, whether it's got a ton of romantic elements in it or satisfies the reader of DurAlloy-hard SF.
I'd like to see a little more art and illustration. Great cover art draws readers, interior art makes it a collectible. I think the technology exists so that it would be a good deal cheaper to throw in six or twelve "plates" of line art. I love my old Kiplings and Arabian Nights and so on that have some illustrations breaking up the text. I like what they did with that reissue of King's The Stand some years back with illustrations by Bernie Wrightson. Centaur did it with some old Solomon Kane collections of R. E. Howard that I own, why not others?
KC: On another note, I believe you and your wife have three cats? Have you always been a cat person?
EEK: Ever since I saw Nastassja Kinski in that porny remake in '82. Actually, I grew up with dogs and guinea pigs and assorted Minnesota wildlife that found their way into our house (like a Cooper's hawk who crashed through the window to get at said guinea pigs). I also like horses and cows and pigs and goats and sheep and turkeys. Not chickens, though. Evil birds and dumb as paint. But when you're in a smallish vintage condo just outside Chicago's city limits, you can't keep livestock, or even a decent-sized dog.