After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been able to find the time to bring back my popular series of interviews with authors and editors that I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer over the years; and I’m absolutely delighted to begin again by being able to speak with one of my absolute favourite up-and-coming scifi and fantasy authors, Thomas Parrott. A tremendously talented author, he first came to my attention with his debut novella from Black Library, Isha’s Lament with its assured, confident and action-packed take on the Blackstone Fortress setting in Warhammer 40,000, and then further impressed with a series of short stories across multiple genres. He has a novel – Tom Clancy’s The Division: Recruited – coming out soon from Aconyte Books, based on the popular third-person online shooter and which recently reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer. He was kind enough to find time in his schedule to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspirations behind his various stories; how he manages to write stories across different genres; and what his plans are for the future.
Hi there Thomas, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed onThe Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
It is legitimately always a pleasure, Adam. Thank you for having me.
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?
Well, my mother was an English teacher and my father was a judge, so I was lucky enough to have an environment that encouraged facility with language. I grew up in a small town in middle Georgia, USA where the big event of the year was the Deer Festival marking the beginning of hunting season. I was the nerdy shrimp who never really belonged. Everyone around me loved football and NASCAR, I loved dragons and spaceships. Very stereotypical.
I joined the Air Force straight out of high school and did six years; plenty to decide it wasn’t right for me. I spent the years after that working whatever jobs I could get, starting with bartending and cleaning movie theaters and ending with helping maintain online courses for a community college. I always wanted to be a writer, and on a whim I entered the open submissions window for Black Library. They ended up picking my story, and it was my first sale as an author.
Everything since has just been me running alongside a train as fast as I can, trying to make this author thing work.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
So, so many. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, and my true love has always been SFF. I loved Bruce Coville’s works as a kid. As a teen I adored Ender’s Game and The Hyperion Cantos. Sadly, both Orson Scott Card and Dan Simmons have proven to be very depressing cases of Never Meet Your Heroes. Much more cheerful is my abiding love of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
As an adult, I think I’ve had three books that were just wham-pow inspiration moments. You know, where you read them and your brain is just fizzing with ideas for days afterwards? First one was A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Virge. Second was A Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Most recent was Blindsight by Peter Watts. I could spend an inordinate amount of time gushing about any of the three, but I’d much rather people read them and experienced them for themselves.
Your first novella – Isha’s Lament – was a science-fiction piece based in the popular Warhammer 40,000 universe, as were several short stories; and I understand you’ve written some other works set in that genre. What attracted you to science-fiction as a genre in the first place – and what keeps you around in the genre?
Science fiction is a mirror we hold up to our hopes and fears. You could say that about any kind of writing, I suppose, but modern or historical settings tie you down to certain factual realities. Science fiction cuts those tethers. The future is what we make of it, in a very literal sense when we’re writing about it.
Taking a closer look at two of the scifi settings you’ve written in – Warhammer 40,000 and KeyForge, the latter based on the popular Collectible Card Game from Asmodee – I’m struck by how thoroughly different their attitudes are. Warhammer 40,000 is renowned for its intense, foreboding and consistently grimdark atmosphere, while KeyForge is almost the complete opposite: it features bright, colourful scenery, a distinctive sense of humour, and is as much about cooperation as it is conflict. What challenges did you face as an author, moving between two such varied scifi settings?
Well, I had only just got done training myself to use UK grammar when that leap made me switch back to American. So that was a pain, lemme tell ya.
But the fascinating nuances of two people divided by a common language aside, it was a matter of changing mindsets. Grimdark comes easy to me. I have a mental illness, chronic depression, and it paints the world in black and gray naturally. KeyForge was the one that demanded I work against my own nature. When I was writing 40k, the question in the back of my mind was always “where will things go wrong?”. With KeyForge, it’s not that things always go right exactly, but… “what can my character overcome next?” Maybe it’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important one.
Starting with a short story in the KeyForge anthology Tales from the Crucible, you’ve now written a variety of stories that tie into various boardgame and gaming properties, such as Arkham Horror and now The Division with upcoming novel Recruited. How do you managed to write such compelling and original stories while also remaining within the boundaries of each property, and the requirements of the publisher?
Well, that’s the job, and I work very hard at it.
Haha, I know, I know, that’s not insightful. It’s the truth though. As a tie-in writer, I’m always playing in someone else’s playground. More importantly to me, I’m dealing with things that someone cares about. Fans are passionate about these properties. I have no time for abusive and/or gatekeeping behavior, but I have all the time in the world for sincere enthusiasm. I love watching people’s faces light up when they talk about their favorite settings. I want a fan of any universe I work with to pick up a story I wrote and at least know I took it seriously.
So I do my research. I read wikis and fan blogs and I watch videos. I immerse myself until I find something that hooks me, that makes me a fan too. And then I write from there.
And to be clear, I make tons of mistakes too. Most of these properties have people who work on them full time who help me get it right. As a specific example, that person was Lauren Stone (@laurenistone on Twitter) for The Division. She is the living encyclopedia of Division knowledge, and helped me take the verisimilitude to the next level.
Speaking of Recruited, which is set in the wartorn, near-future world of The Division, had you had any experience with The Division as a game prior to beginning to write the novel? Or any of the other worlds created by Tom Clancy, and then formed into video games?
Oh, god, I’m going to get myself into trouble.
Okay, so I had obviously heard of The Division before I wrote this. But no, I had never played it.
I’ve also never read a Tom Clancy novel. 😬
I’ve seen Tom Clancy movies! Um, several of them! And I watched all of the Amazon Jack Ryan series! And, and I played Rainbox Six in 1998 on my N64! Do those things count?
And what did you make of The Division, both as a general setting and its potential for storytelling? On the surface it seems like quite a dystopian world – but the back-cover blurb for Recruited also makes it sounds like there might be some hope to be found as well?
Let me tell you the moment that The Division got its hooks in me.
I was reading and reading and reading, trying to grok this thing I had agreed to write about. Technothrillers aren’t normally my thing, and as I’ve already admitted I’m no Tom Clancy expert. Ubisoft had very kindly provided some documents to help familiarize me, and there was a passing comment in one of them that caught my eye.
“Though the green poison has decimated the population there are still 33 million Americans who need food, water, shelter, heat and a way to pass the time.”
33 million, I said to myself. The population of the United States in 2015 (when the book is set) was 320 million. That means 287 million dead. Think of 10 people you know. 9 of them are dead. That’s a catastrophe beyond reckoning. It makes the Black Plague look like it wasn’t even trying.
And that’s something I can dig into. What that does to people. What it does to society. It’s a world that’s never going to be the same. It can’t be.
But at the same time, as horrifying as it is, it’s a slate wiped clean. And for all the loss that represents, it also means a change to do things better.
Turning now to some more general questions, 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 write alone. Honestly I’d write in a sensory deprivation tank if I could.
No, that’s hyperbole. But I do hide away in a room by myself and try to eliminate all distractions. At least for when I’m actually typing. If I’m cogitating about where to take the story next, I usually pace around the house and lounge in strange places. It’s probably unsettling for anyone with me, to be honest.
And yes, music, definitely. I make a playlist for every project. The right song can prove miraculous as far as helping me get into the proper headspace for a given setting.
Following on from that, 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 am constantly in the process of learning when it comes to writing. I have no illusions that I have attained any level of mastery. At best, I might call myself a journeyman, hah. I’m always alert for new tricks and styles and methods to make my work more effective. So my writing style has absolutely changed with every single project, and will continue to do so, because there’s always something new to learn.
So far you’ve written scifi, fantasy and near-future thrillers – are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
Truthfully, no? My love is the sea, and in this case the sea is SFF. It’s probably the stupidest focus I could have from a commercial viability standpoint — have you seen the money people make doing romance and litfic? — but the heart wants what it wants. I will always be here trying to write about dragons and spaceships, I just have to hope I can keep tricking people into paying me to do it.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? The Division: Recruited is due to be published soon – is there a potential for you to return to that world anytime soon, or perhaps KeyForge or Arkham Horror? And what about anything self-published, perhaps?
I can tell you with absolute honesty that I am not currently contracted to work on any projects. I hope to have that remedied soon. And that hope is what counts, right? The future is what we make of it.
The future is indeed what we each make – and I strongly believe that for Mr Parrott, it will lead onto even bigger and better things!