An interview with Steven McKinnon

Steven McKinnon

Symphony of the Wind is Steven McKinnon’s debut fantasy novel, and is Book One of The Raincatcher’s Ballad. The Fury Yet To Come is a prequel novella set in the same world.

His first book - the true-life tale Boldly Going Nowhere - was released in 2015. In the same year, his short story, The Vividarium, was featured in an anthology dedicated to Sir Terry Pratchett, entitled In Memory, for which all proceeds go to Alzheimer's UK.

Steven is 32 years old, and was born in the bathroom of a Glasgow flat in the year 1986.

He has since moved out.

Interview conducted by James Tivendale and Timy Takacs

Hello Steven! Take a seat by the fire, have a beverage of your choice and tell me something about yourself!

Splendid, Timy/James thank you for having me! I’m currently sipping a pint of St. Mungo lager, a German-style beer brewed in my native Glasgow by West Brewery. I work in the University of Glasgow’s School of Law, and my star sign is the Ace of Spades. (As in the song, not the card.) I’m also a massive fan of the metal band Iron Maiden, and I’ve seen them a grand total of 13 times across five different countries.

Say, you can live in the fantasy house/lair of your dreams. What would it look like?

Hmm, I think my fantasy house would be pretty humble – it’d have a spacious living room with a perpetually-roaring fire, massive couches that swallow you, and the walls would consist of giant, overflowing bookcases.

It’d also happen to be located in a colossal flying sky fortress, from which I rule the world with a (light) iron fist. (I’d be a benevolent People’s Dictator.)

What is your favorite fantasy creature and why?

Any Trickster creature. They have enormous power and intellect, but choose to spend their days screwing around with everyone for their own amusement. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’d all do?

What made you want to become an author? Why did you choose self-publishing and what did you learn from it?

Probably a boring answer, but I loved reading as a kid and wanted to create my own characters. A diet of books, games and movies at an impressionable age filled my head with wondrous worlds, and I’ve always wanted to make my own to stand alongside them. I chose self-publishing because I want to retain creative freedom and not have to wait months when a book is ready to be unleashed. Also a good way to engage with readers. Also also, it’s therapeutic; a creative outlet is good for the soul.

For my first fantasy book, Symphony of the Wind, I recruited some very good beta readers to help me work out the kinks. Creative freedom is good, but you need to be grounded, too, and get fresh sets of eyes to look over your work. I think there’s room for both indie authors and the traditionally-published. Plus, these days, a trad-published author still has to shoulder a lot of the marketing burden and be entrepreneurs – if I’m going to develop that skill set in addition to constantly improving my craft, I’d rather not hand a chunk of my royalties away!

Still, not all deals are equal, and any writer should consider their options before taking the plunge one way or the other.

Which author would you say is your greatest influence as a writer?

There’s a question! My first book, Boldly Going Nowhere, is a non-fiction tale about trying out online dating and sorting some of the issues that have plagued me, such as anxiety etc. There’s humour and travel in there too - Danny Wallace was the biggest influence there (specifically his book Yes Man).

On the fiction front, my earliest attempts at books were strongly influenced by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett – though not as funny and nowhere near as insightful! I’d wanted to write a massive, epic fantasy story for a while (more to see if I could, than anything else). After my older brother gave me Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, around the halfway, it ‘clicked’ - and from there I read the rest of that series, Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, Brandon Sanderson, Chris Wooding, Douglas Hulick, Anthony Ryan (etc., etc…). They’ve all had a hand in influencing Symphony somewhere!

If you could go back in time and offer any advice to a younger Steven prior to releasing Symphony of the Wind what would it be?

“Plan books better!” would be first and foremost! That said, I love the messy, getting-your-hands-dirty part of writing a book and discovering parts of the world you didn’t know existed until it spins out in front of you.  I also fully encourage my characters to diverge from who I think they are, which can take a story in a completely new direction.

What SPFBO means to you? What do you hope to gain (fame and wealth aside)? What are your impressions so far?

SPFBO means everything. I’ve been following the competition since around the end of its second year, and I knew I wanted the (then-fledgling) book I was working on involved at some point. My impressions are wholly positive; I wanted to get involved with an indie fantasy community and see what people were talking about and what kinds of books were out there, and SPFBO has provided exactly that. The community has been super welcoming, and even if my entry doesn’t progress to the finals, that fact alone has made it worthwhile. Any indie fantasy author should enter – at worst, your book will fall at the first hurdle, but that’ll just propel you to take another crack, only this time you’ll have a lot authors to give you feedback and encouragement.

What inspired the Raincatcher's Ballad? Do you use music as inspiration while writing?

Good question(s)! I’m a big fan of fantasy fiction across books, TV, games and movies, so my favourite stories across all media have probably influenced it in some ways. In terms of the world and its aesthetic, Final Fantasy VII and VIII were the biggest influences, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica; I like worlds where technology and magic co-exist (though there’s not a whole lot of magic in Symphony of the Wind). In the Raincatcher’s Ballad, the presence of almost-everlasting ignicite has led to an industrial revolution that’s resulted in leaps in technology but not necessarily of social conscience, so the technology has – of course! – been utilised for war and weapons of mass destruction and weird experiments, rather than actually making life better for the people who live there. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: “You were so preoccupied with wondering if you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” 

Music-wise, it changes; I have a YouTube soundtrack playlist I go to, but I also listen to a personal playlist of soundtracks that includes the Batman themes, Final Fantasy and Uncharted themes, Dredd, The Punisher’s theme from Daredevil season 2… The list goes on. Oh, there’s an amazing violinist called Taylor Davis whose stuff is great.

So while it’s primarily soundtracks, I’d like to point out that Motörhead are really good to listen to for action sequences!

What real life events influenced your world building? If any.

There is an attack in the middle of a civilian populace at one point in the book, and the kingdom of Dalthea is mired in post-war paranoia - while nothing specific like that influenced the world-building or story, there are definitely real-life parallels.

The only “real world” event that did influence the story and world were the horrific experiments carried out in World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 - it makes for some horrific and deeply upsetting reading, and is a dark chapter in human history. (I first heard about it in the Bruce Dickinson song “The Breeding House”).

Which character of your book do you identify with the most and why? 

Ha, really good questions! I identify with so many characters in Symphony.

Firstly, Myriel – she loves tea and books, so that’s me right there.

Tyson Gallows – he’s depressed, tortured and wracked with guilt after the trauma he suffered in the war with the Idari, but he doesn’t know how to deal with it. It’s a tragic fact that suicide is the most common killer of young men, and we need to learn to talk more. Mental illness has definitely been an issue with me, and in my day job, I see young men and women struggling with anxiety and the pressures of student life. There needs to be more help offered for those who suffer from mental illness. Thankfully, I think we’re getting better at tackling the stigma.

The other influences for Gallows are Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake from the Uncharted games; there was criticism about “ludonarrative dissonance” (or something) for Nathan Drake, who is a funny, easygoing, wisecracking kind of guy who slaughters dozens of enemies in each game. Gallows’ back-story doesn’t get much “screen time” other than the last couple of years prior to the book, but before he was a soldier, he was a treasure hunter *cough* thief *cough* with an interest in history. I wondered what that everyman, serial fiction-style archetype would be like after going through the things that Tyson Gallows has gone through.

I’ve been treated for “Pure O” OCD, which is the mental rituals that come with intrusive thoughts (it means “purely obsessive”, i.e., the symptoms are mostly internalised, rather than outward, but it’s not a separate illness to other forms of OCD, so it’s something of a misnomer). The reason I mention that is because there’s a character in Symphony who’s completely different on the inside than what the front they put on…

The only one of the main cast I don’t identify directly with is The Raincatcher’s Ballad’s top-billed star, Serena—and that’s because she’s much more courageous, resourceful and resilient than I am. She has the weight of the world on her shoulders and she keeps persevering, whereas I’m often tempted to give up. She trusts her instincts and isn’t afraid to jump into the fray if need be.

What would be your job in Dalthea? Who would you like to switch places with?

I’d probably be a Raincatcher! I used to work in a supermarket, setting up produce at the crack of dawn, so that would transfer well to getting people their essential water supply. Sadly, my experience with swords, knives, chasing criminals and leaping out of burning buildings is somewhat limited, so a career in the Hunters’ Guild would is probably just out of reach…

What was the hardest scene to write in Symphony of the Wind? What made it difficult and how did you overcome those complications?

Probably the collection of scenes that mark the turning point in the story at a certain social event in the city, where our characters’ destinies intertwine, the villains make their move and our heroes are hurled knee-deep in danger… (I don’t want to get too specific and venture into spoiler territory!)

It was difficult because all the threads at to connect organically – or at least feel organic – so there was a lot of back and forth and note-taking and ironing things out. It may also be my favourite moment of the story, coincidentally…

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the good or the bad ones?

At this early stage, yeah – it’s a good way to find out what’s working and what’s not working. I deal with the good and the bad in the same way – there’s that initial high/low and thinking “Wow, people love/hate my work”. Neither feeling lasts, so when it levels out, I can look at it with a more critical mind and ask myself what I can take away. I’m not sure how much attention an author should pay to reviews in the long-term; early feedback from beta readers before a book is unleashed is more useful, but at the same time, you need to get used to the things that come with people loving and/or hating your work. How else do you adapt to a crushing review? How do you keep a level head if the world adores you? What kinds of pressure do those things thrust on you? It’s a process -- and, at the end of the day, one person’s ice cream is another’s poison, so it’s not useful trying to please everyone.

Are there any books that have been/ are being released in 2018 that you are excited to read?

Hells yeah! Chris Wooding’s The Ember Blade is very much on my radar, as is Priest of Bones by Peter McLean. I have so many books to read before I get to them though, like Ed McDonald’s Blackwing.

On the SPFBO front, just about everything!

Steven McKinnon books reviewed