Bow, Mortal Dogs!
An Interview with Howard Andrew Jones
interviewd by Graham Thomas Wilcox
Every genre harbors its own champions: early sword-and-sorcery had Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber. Modern sword-and-sorcery has, to its very great boon, Howard Andrew Jones. Author of the Dabir and Asim novels, the Ring-Sworn trilogy and now the Hanuvar novel, Lord of a Shattered Land, Howard has been bearing aloft the flame of sword-and-sorcery for over two decades.
He also edits Tales from the Magician’s Skull, perhaps the greatest extant sword-and-sorcery magazine—and certainly, the most beautiful. There are others who have been in the field longer, and some who have worked just as tirelessly as Howard to promote the genre we all know and love. But there are none, I think, who excel him in his devotion to the craft and the work of sword-and-sorcery, heroic fantasy and two-fisted action.
So pull up a stump, dear reader, and listen as we palaver.
OMQ: How did you get started writing fantasy for publication? If you don’t mind, perhaps give us a brief “history of Howard,” from your first foray into writing until now, with the release of your newest novel from Baen.
HAJ: Like a lot of writers, I’ve wanted to be a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I used to draw sequential pictures before I even knew my letters, and I’d ask my mom to write what I told her was happening at the bottom of each image. I learned to write, and kept telling stories, and wisely abandoned artwork, for which I had little talent. I read voraciously and I kept writing, but it wasn’t until my thirties that I had any kind of frequent publishing credentials, in part because I still had a lot to learn. I could string some decent plots together but my characters weren’t very interesting or unique. And at the time, interest in sword-and-sorcery was at an absolute nadir, which certainly didn’t help me.
Eventually I started getting published in magazines that were more widely distributed, and making connections, and those led to a publishing contract with St. Martin’s, starring the Arabian historical fantasy/urban detective/sword-and-sorcery characters I’d been writing stories about for six-to-eight years, Dabir and Asim. St. Martin’s published two of those books, and an e-book that collected most of their short adventures, but wasn’t really interested in doing more, so I tried my hand at a more mainstream modern fantasy series—although that was all a disguise, for the Ring-Sworn trilogy is more like a Roger Zelazny take on sword-and-sorcery. It was a huge love letter to his Chronicles of Amber. I should add that I also wrote two sets of two novels for the Pathfinder line mixed in there as well, and I’m particularly pleased with the last two.
So, Baen. While finishing the Ring-Sworn trilogy I had been editing The Skull, and writing Hanuvar stories for The Skull, in sequence, and I was frankly having more fun writing those than I’d had writing anything in years. Even though I figured no one would want to publish a serial novel, let alone a series of serial novels, more and more of my spare time became devoted to the creation of its plots and the shaping of the series. And then I wrote the first one, and while my agent was shopping it around, I wrote the second. We showed it to a lot of places, but it was Baen that wanted not just the first book, or the second, but a whole sequence of them, which was astounding, and also pleasing, because Baen had really been my preferred choice from the start.
OMQ: On a similar note, what began your journey as an editor? You edit Tales from the Magician’s Skull, perhaps the finest (and prettiest!) magazine in the modern fantasy market. Before that, you were managing editor at Black Gate. Did the writing come first, or the editing?
HAJ: Thanks for the kind comments about The Skull! He shall be pleased. All exterior and interior beauty that isn’t textual has very little to do with me—publisher Joseph Goodman doubles as our art director and he knows some truly talented people. And that stunning layout is the work of Lester Portly. He never fails to impress. I mean, have you seen the table of contents page alone?
As for the order, writing came before nearly anything else. I went into editing because I wanted to be involved in some way with the industry I enjoyed so much. I actually had proofread and edited non-fiction books professionally for years, so it wasn’t a great deal of effort to transfer over to fiction and start working with John O’Neill. It was just more fun.
OMQ: Your debut novel, The Desert of Souls, takes place in early medieval Baghdad. Your most recent novel, Lord of a Shattered Land, concerns the adventures of Hanuvar, a heroic warrior and general who somewhat resembles Hannibal Barca of Carthage. What draws you towards the history of the Mediterranean and the Middle East as sites for mythmaking and worldbuilding?
HAJ: I fell in love with ancient history at an early age—what can I say? The different cultures and the stories of their people and their leaders were at least as fascinating to me as stories of imaginary places. I poured over books about old Egypt and Sumeria and the Romans and other cultures. I didn’t explore the more “modern” Middle East of the eighth-twelfth centuries until much later, after having read and enjoyed the historicals of Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard set in those places. As a matter of fact, it was after first reading REH’s one tale told by Kosru Malik (the wonderful narrator of “The Road of Azrael”) that I could clearly hear the voice of Asim, the narrator of The Desert of Souls and all his adventures with Dabir.
OMQ: Speaking of Hanuvar: what was the genesis of the character? Conan was based on Robert Howard’s interactions with the cowboys and roughnecks of his time; conversely, many of Steven Erikson’s Malazan characters famously began as RPG characters before debuting in his novels. What path led you to this character?
HAJ: Oh, I’ve been fascinated with Hannibal since reading Harold Lamb’s biography of him in 9th grade. The story of this brilliant general and patriot captivated me—his determination and integrity, his Zorro-like wiliness, his laconic wit, his honor—there’s no other great general like him. Alone amongst the famous generals of antiquity, he seems not to have been after territory, but the preservation of his people. He knew that if Carthage were to survive, the growing hegemony of Rome had to be stopped. I read about him and his life and his era for years, never knowing that I was actually researching.
One day I got to wondering what Hannibal would have done if the Romans had come for Carthage during his lifetime, rather than waiting fifty years (if you’re not a student of ancient history, Rome leveled Carthage and sold its people into slavery—they eradicated an entire city-state containing hundreds of thousands of people). In a flash I knew I had a story idea that I, at least, was excited about, one that seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe no one had yet told it. But after digging around a little, it didn’t seem as though anyone had.
To free myself up a bit I decided against alternate history. Writing in a secondary world would allow me to play fast and loose with the events and add in gladiators and emperors and praetorians, as I knew people would want. And then, of course, in a secondary world I could have sorcery that actually worked, and monsters, and make some other changes besides. But the character of Hanuvar remains pretty much as I picture Hannibal, and other students of the period are likely to recognize additional analogs, like ones for Scipio Africanus and Cato the Elder, although these people are shoulder-to-shoulder with imaginary ones.
OMQ: You are famously a champion of sword-and-sorcery, westerns, noir and the many other forms of genre fiction now often lumped together under “pulp.” What first drew you to the pulps? What keeps you invested in them? What value do you see them adding to the literature of our own era (if we accept, for the moment, that art can even be commodified into something approximating “value,” that is)?
HAJ: It all dates back to Harold Lamb. I read and loved that Hannibal biography so much that I wanted to read more about Hannibal. I knew that Lamb had written many more books, but didn’t know enough about swords or history yet to understand that sabers weren’t remotely Carthaginian, and opened his collection of Cossack adventures (The Curved Saber) to discover some of the finest heroic fiction ever set to paper. Well, those, it turns out, were published back in the teens and twenties of the previous century in old Adventure magazine, one of the greatest and most respected pulps, although it’s less widely known these days than Weird Tales, because our culture did an about face and suddenly became less interested in historicals and far more interested in the strange and fantastic. In its day, Weird Tales was always outstripped by Adventure and similar magazines. You might think that Weird Tales’ fame today means that the other magazines weren’t any good, but you’d be wrong.
Naturally I eventually went looking in the old pulps for more great stuff. Very few writers, it turns out, were as consistently excellent as Lamb, but there was lots of wonderful and evocative adventure fiction in those old historical magazines, especially Adventure and Blue Book and Argosy.
When it comes to pulp fiction, I’m much more enamored of the historical swashbucklers and weird fiction from the pulps than I am the westerns of the same time. In that genre, it’s the hardboiled westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s that continue to fascinate me because they’re so lean and propulsive, with backstory worked in on a need-to-know basis and even as a hook rather than the “you must endure my detailed backstory for at least a hundred pages before things get interesting” practice so common today. I also love me some detective novels, but you’re right, some of the pulp detectives were great too, among them the obvious and deservedly famous ones penned by Hammett and Chandler, but also those created by lesser-known writers like Frederick Nebel, whose Cardigan stories and later MacBride and Kennedy mysteries are top notch.
Today these detective stories are a time capsule of different attitudes, worries, slang words, and prejudices. Sometimes the attitudes can be jaw-droppingly offensive to most modern ears and then astonishingly more egalitarian than you’d ever guess, all in the same paragraph. Beyond all this, though, the best are fantastic tales that delight and surprise and invigorate and comment upon the human condition and are full of great writing choices that should be read and emulated today. I feel like studying the cream of this older work has supercharged my own writing.
OMQ: Tales from the Magician’s Skull is, as mentioned above, an incredible magazine: a true successor to the pulps of old, ala Weird Tales and Adventure, and an aspirational hero to many of us in the burgeoning sword-and-sorcery revival. Like all heroes, it must have an origin story. If it does not require the sacrifice of too many minions, would you mind shedding a little light on how the Skull came to be?
HAJ: Thank you again for that. Someday I will go into greater detail about how Joseph was hiking in the Hindu Kush, escaped a ravening beast during a great rainstorm and took shelter in an ancient cave, and… well, I dare say no more. As for how he recruited me, I had gifted him with a copy of The Desert of Souls and a few years later he said he’d liked it and asked if I wanted to contribute a story to the Goodman Games GenCon booklet, and I handed him the first Hanuvar story. A year later he asked if I wanted to contribute another tale for the next booklet and I said sure. Then he asked if I knew any other sword-and-sorcery writers, not realizing how many I had known for a decade or more (we laugh about that now). I said sure. A few weeks later he said, you know, I’m thinking about starting a sword-and-sorcery magazine, and I said please, pretty please, I should ever so much like to edit that. And then he recruited a mighty band of heroes, including Lester the Layout Wizard, whom I believe materialized out of a crimson cloud. And here we are.
OMQ: You’ve been a huge fan and proponent of the works of Harold Lamb, a noted (but somewhat obscure, to many modern readers) writer of historical fiction from the early twentieth century. How’d you discover Lamb’s work? What’s the appeal of his stories, in your opinion?
HAJ: Before Stormbringer keened in Elric’s hand, before the Gray Mouser prowled Lankhmar’s foggy streets—before even Conan trod jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet, Khlit the Cossack rode the steppes. He isn’t the earliest serial adventure character, but his adventures are among the earliest that can still be read for pleasure.
Lamb’s fiction exploded with cinematic pacing. Expect slow spots when you’re reading even the best historicals from Lamb’s time, but don’t look for them in his work. It drove forward at breakneck pace, paused briefly to gather a breath, then plunged the reader back into suspense. It rang with the shouts of battle and the clang of swords. It swam in atmosphere as heady and exotic to western eyes as Burroughs’ Mars.
For more details, follow this link, where Howard from the past expands upon what I’ve said here and tells you even more about what’s awesome about Harold Lamb, including some choice excerpts from Lamb’s own stories. Really, if you dig sword-and-sorcery, you need to read him. He’s just so good. I believe in his work so much I spent a couple of years of my life getting him back into print.
OMQ: Many of our submitters are new authors; many, no doubt, might also be submitting to the Skull: as an experienced and successful author of sword-and-sorcery, you’re more familiar than just about anyone else (barring a few other authors) on the state of subgenre in relation to the wider fantasy world. What advice would you give a new author of sword-and-sorcery looking to publish their first sword-and-sorcery short stories? What advice would you give a new author trying to publish a sword-and-sorcery novel?
HAJ: Things have really opened up over the last five years. Suddenly the small press is flush with outlets welcoming sword-and-sorcery. Scout them out, see what they like, and then start submitting!
There’s more to it than that, though. Study the great work that’s come before. Soak it up. Figure out what makes it tick by taking it apart. See what your peers are writing. Find your own character(s) and your own road.
As far as novels, man, I don’t know. There are more and more small press outfits out there, DMR probably the best well known, and those are a good route, and until recently, the only one. The mainstream publishing industry has been down on sword-and-sorcery for decades. That I get to write not just one book, but a whole set of them, for a mainstream publisher, still astonishes me. I’d like to think it’s a sign that things are finally changing, and that soon a whole slew of publishers will stop trying to find the next Sanderson or Martin and instead be looking for sword-and-sorcery innovators, but a lot of what happens next will depend upon whether or not the wider market embraces what Baen is doing with me and a few other writers. If our books sell… All it takes is one breakthrough and then the market will pay attention and open up a little. Baen is going in whole hog right now not just with me, but with Larry Correia and D.J. Butler and Gregory Frost. I hope the market changes, not just for me, but for this genre, which I’ve been shouting needs more attention for about a quarter century now!
OMQ: Thanks for taking the time to answer our (lengthy) questions, Howard! Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to tell us about upcoming releases you have in the pipeline?
HAJ: Apart from The Skull, which I hope will be quarterly this year (and please, please, buy issues—we need more readers!) I’m pretty much all Hanuvar, all the time. Book 1, Lord of a Shattered Land, comes out August 1; book 2, The City of Marble and Blood, comes out only two months later, on October 3, and I am hard at work revising book 3. You can pre-order books 1 and 2 right now, which will please both me and The Skull. And believe me, you really want to stay on the good side of The Magician’s Skull. The “Last to be Immolated List” is a good place to be.
And there you have it, dear readers! Howard Andrew Jones: a true gentleman and a scholar (and thus a favored minion of The Skull!). We feel very lucky to have had him onboard for an interview. If you missed any of the links above, you can check out Howard's newest sword-and-sorcery novel, Lord of A Shattered Land, out here. If you're curious about his work with Tales from the Magician's Skull (and wish to avoid imminent immolation), check out the Skull's digital abode here. You can find Howard via his website at https://www.howardandrewjones.com/ and on Twitter @HowardAndrewJon.
If you're interested in further interviews with excellent authors, check out Old Moon Volume II, where we interview both modern horror titan John Langan, and sword-and-sorcery publisher extraordinaire, D.M. Ritzlin.