Author Interview – John Houlihan
What better way to start the new year – and get my head back into the book reviewing game – than with an exclusive author interview? That’s why, for the next entry in my series of interviews with authors whose works I’ve reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’m thrilled to be able to present an interview with none other than sci-fi, fantasy and horror author John Houlihan, an absolute legend and one of the first authors whose works I reviewed here. When he isn’t overseeing the development of the Achtung! Cthulhu RPG range from Modiphius Entertainment, which blends together the Second World War and the Cthulhu Mythos, he’s writing the popular Seraph Chronicles and Mon Dieu! Cthulhu series’ of novels, as well as a number of other short stories across multiple genres. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about his writing background and his goals as an author; his experiences in writing both fiction and material for roleplaying games; and what the future holds for him, particularly in regards to his upcoming short story collection.
Hi there John, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer! Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
My pleasure, Adam! Well, I’ve always loved literature, I was an avaricious reader when I was a kid, I remember at junior school, being a bit bored as the class read The Hobbit, as I was already working my way through Lord of the Rings.
After college, I worked as a journalist for many years in news and sport, getting a break with The Times and then Cricinfo, and then latterly found my true calling in videogames, first as a freelancer for just about every PC gaming publication you could imagine. I eventually ended up with staff jobs at GameSpot, and then for many years on the much loved and much lamented Computer and Video Games.com. I’d always wanted to write fiction, though, and Amazon and Kindle opened that up for me and I did eventually publish my first novel, which I’d written way back in my twenties, which subsequently sunk without a trace.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
Oh, an absolute ton, almost too many to list. I actually think everything you ever read influences you to some degree and my first inspirations were many sci-fi and fantasy classics. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Iain M Banks, Harry Harrison, Robert Sheckley, Bob Silverberg, Julian May, Kurt Vonnegut, Fritz Lieber, Philip K Dick, my shelves are absolutely groaning with sci-fi and fantasy authors. But I also love classic and historical literature too, everything from Camus, to Graham Greene, le Carré, Thomas Hardy, Malraux, PG Woodhouse, Beckett, Hilary Mantel. I’m never happier than when reading or discovering something new.
It’s hard to say which influence you. Probably all of them to a degree, writers are great thieves magpies, we take a bit from here, a piece from there, and incorporate it, often unconsciously I would add into our work and technique. But hopefully you eventually develop your own authorial voice and bring a few flourishes of your own, that other people might considered borrowing.
I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away, or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
I can pretty much work anywhere, once I get started, I tune in and everything else just fades away. By preference though, I just sit at the desk in my office at home and with copious cups of green tea, or coffee if I need to really put in a shift. I don’t have music on though, I find that way too distracting as it’s my other great love. I will pick up and play one of the numerous guitars scattered around my office if I need a break, I find it helps you subconsciously work through any issues and come back with a fresh perspective.
I do try and write every single day if I can, even if you just hurl down 200 words that are utter rubbish, when you come back tomorrow, you can usually edit them and find the odd gem buried amongst the dirt. Writing, especially novels, is a marathon endeavour and you really do need to learn the art of patience and to keep chipping away, like a sculptor slowly revealing the figure inside a block of marble.
I think its important to recognise that you can work even when you’re not sitting in front of a computer, the subconscious (or mine anyway) is constantly beavering away in the background and answers and ideas spring up, often when you’re least expecting them. It’s often when you’re occupied with some something mindless and trivial like the washing up and your mind is just given free rein to roam about at tangents and explore weird places.
Turning to your writing specifically, you’re perhaps best known for the Seraph Chronicles and Mon Dieu! Cthulhu novels, such as The Crystal Void and Feast of the Dead which I’ve reviewed previously here on the blog. Those novels tie into the Achtung! Cthulhu role-playing game setting developed by Modiphius Entertainment, which you’re also heavily involved in. How did you come to work with Modiphius – and what are the challenges in writing material for rpg settings?
With Modiphius it was serendipitous, as the most interesting developments often are. I was having a beer with Chris Birch on Baker Street about 6 or 7 years ago. His company, Joystick Junkies had worked with CVG produced some gaming t-, but he was moving on from that and said he was starting up Modiphius, a new RPG and tabletop gaming company, opening with a project called Achtung! Cthulhu. This was going to be a mix of Lovecraftian fiction and world war II, two of my favourite things! I said I’d love to write something, and he said, ‘you should’ and after letting the ideas cogitate for a while I wrote The Trellborg Monstrosities and then developed it into an RPG scenario. It was the beginning of a beautiful thing and after that there was no stopping me!
It’s an interesting contrast writing material for RPG compared to writing straight fiction. With a fictional piece, you’re totally controlling the narrative and you get to pull all the strings, move the pieces around, decide what goes where and send the reader on an exciting if linear journey.
With RPGs, you have to give the players much more agency and make it fun and rewarding for them to get involved with what you’ve created, allow them to make it their own. I think of it as guided narrative, where you collaborate together to tell a story and share the creation together. When it goes well, it’s tremendous fun, and as a storyteller you have to be prepared to improvise and adapt. It’s very interactive but a really good test of your writing skills in a way. As part of writing RPGs, I’ve actually got back into playing and especially GM-ing to test out my creations to see what works and what doesn’t when you put them in front of an audience of players. It’s has been really enjoyable and the perfect way to pass lockdown, GM-ing a game over Discord or Zoom.
And how did the novels evolve from that work with Modiphius and the Achtung! Cthulhu setting? Was it something that had always been planned, or perhaps evolved more organically?
Well I guess they evolved a lot more organically at first, because I was feeling my way back into writing fiction and experimenting and learning as I went. There was no great over-arching plan, much like writing itself, I was making it up as I went along. Hah! But it’s been extremely rewarding to do that, you learn something every time, every day almost, and your style and especially your craft keeps developing as you go along. That said, I feel really lucky to be able to do this, it’s pretty much my dream job. 12 year old me, playing D&D for the first time, probably wouldn’t believe I would make a living at this.
Looking at the two series, the Seraph Chronicles are quite serious works, looking at Major Seraph’s ageless (and endless) fight against the many factions of the Cthulhu Mythos. However, by comparison, the d’Bois Escapades are still action-packed, but have quite a mischievous undercurrent at times, with a particularly amusing protagonist. What were your goals with both series – and how did you come up with the idea of protagonist Gaston d’Bois in particular?
That’s a very fair and flattering summary of both series. When I started with Trellborg I had no plans really beyond seeing if I could finish it, but the one character that really stuck with me, to my surprise, was this rather irritating sorcerer chap and when I came to think about what was next he was the one who kept whispering to me. So I thought a bit about his backstory and who he might be and came up with the concept of humanity’s champion, someone who would help fight mankind battle against the horrors of the Mythos down the ages. It’s definitely a more straight Lovecraftian series, but Seraph can be a problematic character, because he is so powerful and knowledgeable, so you have to tell it from the perspectives of the lives he affects, to make it relatable. Hence why he disappears half way through Before the Flood.
As for Mon Dieu and Gaston, well my favourite period after WW2 is Napoleonic, so it just made sense to have a play around in that era and also there didn’t seem to be many, if any, Mythos works set during that time. But it was also definitely a chance to break away from the conventions of Mythos fiction too, and have a bit more fun.
I wanted to change the tone and emphasis to make it lighter and more comedic even romantic at times, and capture a bit of the chivalry, glory and honour of that age. There’s still plenty that’s dark and sinister, strange plots, ancient horrors and Mythos malevolence, of course, but it gives you more opportunities for contrast, more light and shade. I also wanted to be able to write something funnier and a bit more humorous and the dashing but dim hussar certainly gives you an opportunity to do that. It was also of course a chance to create a Mythos universe all of my own.
You’ve also written a lot of fiction that isn’t focused on the Achtung! Cthulhu and Mon Dieu! Cthulhu settings, moving from the occult to science-fiction and even fantasy. What do you find appealing about writing stories in those genres in particular? And are there any genres or sub-genres that you’d like to pen stories in, but haven’t had a chance yet?
Well I suppose it’s just a chance to extend your range as a writer and I love and read so many other genres, that would be strange not to explore them in my work. I heard an interesting take that fantasy is about the past and sci-fi the future and I quite like that definition. I’m a historical saddo, so I love exploring what happened in the past, as it has shaped where we are now. Sci-fi is a good lens for examining the present and seeing how what we do now, might bear fruit in the future, for good or ill.
I find I’m getting more political in my writing as I get older, and feel a greater need to comment on how society is being shaped currently. No surprises to find I’m not a big fan of recent political developments in the country, or abroad and the path some are imposing on us. But writing in any genre, should hold up a mirror to what’s going on around us too. It would seem a dereliction of duty not to offer some thoughts and comments on that.
As for other genres I’d like to explore, wow, so many! I’d love to do a noir detective novel some day, or a cyberpunk work and I’d also quite like to some a radio plays or even for the stage. Those definitely appeal, as it would be intriguing to bring in others and see actors and directors interpret your work. I’d like to collaborate a lot more with other people too, one great lesson I’ve learned is that you can always achieve more working with others, than on your own.
Would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novels and entire series?
I think I’d probably say I’ve found my voice, rather than my style, as I tend to adapt language and tone to what I think works best for a particular writing project (probably a legacy of my freelance journalism days when I had to adapt to each publication’s house style while writing in my own peculiar way).
But you definitely do learn as you go along, it’s a craft that you continually hone throughout your career. I never see it ending to be honest, there’s always something new to learn, something new to see. Writing can be a slog, but it also has its hidden joys too, that you can surprise yourself when a new idea, character, piece of dialogue or scene just suddenly materialises from nowhere to slot in and add something new to the narrative. It’s a lifelong journey, but that’s what keeps it interesting.
Speaking of short fiction, I understand that you’ve got a new short story collection coming out. What can you tell me about it, and some of the content readers can expect to see in it?
Yes indeed, I’ve got a new collection of sci-fi short stories called The Constellation of Alarion. A few of the stories have been published in various anthologies but there’s plenty of original ones too, which have never been seen before, and even a debut radio play called Bomber Command. It’s quite a mix, there’s no overall theme, but a variety of shorter (sub 1000 words) and longer tales (15000) but all sci-fi focussed. Here’s a few snippets from the back cover, which will hopefully intrigue you:
· In Most Exalted, the hero of the seven systems now resides in retirement, but when a series of suspicious deaths rock his veterans’ home, will his dubious past catch finally up with him?
· In Charioteer, countries settle disputes the old fashioned way, trial by combat. As the eve of a great contest draws close, will charioteer Soola finally step out of her brother’s shadow and embrace her true destiny?
· In The Constellation of Alarion, a fabulous treasure lies hidden in the midst of a deadly labyrinth. Can three galaxy-hopping rogues overcome the maze’s lethal traps and their own bumbling inadequacies to claim it?
And finally – it would be an understatement to say that 2020 was an incredibly difficult year for authors and writers, what with delayed or cancelled book launches and huge changes to publishing schedules. What have your experiences been? And what does the near-future hold in terms of your writing?
It was a tough year for everyone, but many much more so than for me. Weirdly, my schedule and working practices didn’t have to change too much, who knew that beavering away on your own in a darkened room, would be the ideal preparation for surviving a pandemic? It’s one saving grace of being a writer, there’s always something to do, for which I’m very grateful. My day jobs with Modiphius and consulting on videogames were busier than ever, weirdly, and I also started script work on Exoplanet First Contact too, an intriguing video game being developed out east, so there was very little down time. I didn’t have anything coming out publishing wise, which meant I could do more background work here and there and I managed to do a couple of short stories in the Weird Tails Collection and for Stygian Fox’s new Nyarlathotep anthology. So it was pretty busy, looking back.
As for 2021? Well, I’ll have my hands full with the new Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20 RPG, which I’m really looking forward to launching. It’s been gestating away for a few years and I can’t wait for people to start playing it and to see what they think. There’s a Quickstart, Player’s and GM’s Guides at launch, with a couple of adventures I’ve written, Operation Vanguard, and Assault on The Fuhrer Train, plus a massive Ardennes Battle of the Bulge Campaign which I designed and which should arrive later in the year.
Work also continues apace on Mon Dieu Cthulhu 3, Keeper of the Hidden Flame as it’s provisionally entitled. This will probably be a pretty big one, 100k + length wise, as I’m doing a lot of world building in it, setting up and establishing the defining meta struggle for a Napoleonic Mythos world, both for the book series and the forthcoming RPG. If I manage to finish that in first draft by the end of the year, I think I’ll have done okay.
Elsewhere, I still have A Late Flowering Deity a big sci-fi novel from a few years back, I need to get around to editing, and if any short story collections come up, I love doing those as a bit of a break and light relief too. Nagging away at me is the sequel to Before the Flood (second part of a planned trilogy) and I must get back to another WW2 Cthulhu book too, at some point.
No rest for the wicked, huh?