Author Spotlight: Dorian Hart
Dorian Hart is the author of two fantasy novels, The Ventifact Colossus and The Crosser’s Maze, as well as the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain.
In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.
Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two tween-aged daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.
Thanks for joining us today, Dorian. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I recently read the amazing The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. It’s beautifully written and thought-provoking, a book that combines the brain-bending of a time-travel puzzle box, the reflective meditation of a philosophical character study, and the joy and excitement of a cat-and-mouse thriller. I can’t wait to read more of Claire North’s books!
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Dwarven wizard. Thanks to D&D’s long insistence (thankfully over) that dwarves were inherently antithetical to a magical nature, there aren’t enough dwarven wizards in the world. As such, my weapon of choice would be an enormous boulder wielded telekinetically.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Why?
Type. While I’m old enough to remember writing stories in a pre-Internet age, I’ve become so used to the wonders of the word processor that I can no longer usefully write by hand. It’s almost a physical disability. I’m addicted to the ability to edit and revise as fast as I can think, and the common pen no longer suits my needs.
And how do you like to work – in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps?
Silence is fine. Classical music is fine—I’m particularly fond of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Dvorak, and Copland. But the shrimps…Gods, the shrimps! Have you heard the musical stylings of shrimp souls? Their “serenade” sounds like a cross between a jackdaw in mid-electrocution and Megadeth’s Tornado of Souls played at 250% speed. I appreciated their posthumous enthusiasm, but I had to ask them to stop for the sake of my sanity.
Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit? Tell us something unusual about your writing method!
According to the readout on the centrifuge, I’m 71% architect and 29% gardener.
In more prosaic terms, I outline the broad strokes fairly heavily, and I know my story’s big moments far in advance. I’m writing a five-book series, and I’ve known all the major plot events from the beginning, including the arcs of each book and how the whole series will end.
On the other hand, I usually fill in the details on the fly. For example, the scene I’m about to write for my WIP will have some characters investigating the warehouse district of an unfamiliar city, looking for signs of cult activity. I know for certain that a) they can’t succeed until a specific other plot event happens, and that b) I want them to run into trouble of a sort that will make their eventual success seem highly in doubt. But beyond that, I have no idea what’s going to happen, or what form that trouble will take. I’m kind of excited to find out.
Another example: A few chapters ago I sat down to write a pleasant scene of friends gathering, and 500 words later there was a bloody severed head with its eyes gouged out, resting on the grass. So, that was somewhat surprising.
As for my writing method: Why, exactly, did you present “underwear” and “diving suit” as options exclusive from each other?
What are your most significant non-book fantasy influences?
The source material for my series comes from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign I ran over the course of 15 years, so obviously that’s of some particular relevance.
I’ve been involved in three different gaming campaigns now, two as a player and one as a DM. Two of these took 15 and 17 years, and the third, still in progress, has been going about a decade. I’ve been fortunate that these long interconnected gaming campaigns have unfolded much like novels, full of foreshadowing, recurring villains, and plenty of character development. Granted, the pacing and purpose of table-top games are very different than those of novels, which is why I say “source material,” and not “roadmap” or something more direct. But my long involvement with dice and character sheets is certainly the best answer to this question.
Second place would be the Rankin and Bass animated version of the Hobbit, which I watched a zillion times on VHS, and whose soundtrack I listened to repeatedly on a record player. (Yes, young readers, “audiobooks” used to be played on spinning platters of grooved vinyl scratched lightly with a needle.)
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?
The last thing I watched was an episode of The Good Place, and I watched it because it’s FORKING AWESOME. Seriously. Go watch it, but be sure to view the episodes and seasons in order, and avoid spoilers at all costs!
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write or otherwise do any work. How do you choose to spend the day?
That’s an easy one. I’d spend the day with my family hiking up Mt. Lafayette in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’m 48 years old and my knees aren’t what they used to be, but I can still schlep myself up my favorite hill. I’ve been hiking that mountain since I was 7 years old, and my wife and I try to get up there every year on our anniversary. We do the Lafayette-Lincoln ridge loop that also includes Little Haystack; I recommend it to anyone with a decent level of fitness, a love of nature, and a good pair of trekking poles.
If you could choose one punctuation mark to be made illegal, which would it be and why?
I’d get rid of the pilcrow – that double-stroke backward “P” that marks new paragraphs.
I understand it has its uses, but the only times I ever see it is when Microsoft Word is ardently preventing me from formatting a document to my satisfaction, such that I find myself in some arcane editing mode where the pilcrows seem like they ought to be helping. But they never do.
I would banish them in anger.
In no more than three sentences, tell us a little something about your current work in progress!
I am about halfway finished with a five-book epic fantasy series – two books published and the third in mid-first-draft. The Heroes of Spira is an ensemble-cast adventure full of exploration, monsters, mysteries, wizardry, evil rats, talking gemstones, arena battles, dream-walking, baffling magical artifacts, evil mathematician-priests, and a giant [spoiler redacted] that steps all over a city. My current WIP—book 3—is the first where my heroes have to split up and go their separate ways in order to stop the Big Bad from doing Big Bad Things.
If you could co-write or co-create a series (like The Expanse, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen), who would you choose to work with and why?
I’d choose to work with Neil Gaiman. Not only would I learn more about writing and story-crafting in one week than I’ve scraped together over my whole life, but also I’d get to listen to his soothing voice every day. (And it would increase the chances I could get him to sign my Sandman collection, since I could bug him incessantly until he relented.)
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I know this has become almost a cliché, but the most useful piece of advice I’ve heard, from many quarters, is: Your first draft exists only to exist. Just get something down, secure in the knowledge that you’re going to back and fix everything you don’t like in edits.
Second most useful piece, which goes hand in hand with the first: write every day, no matter what, even if it stinks. My minimum daily word count is a very modest 500 words, but even sticking to such a paltry goal, I’ll have a first draft done in just over half a year. Sure, parts of it will be embarrassingly suspect, but see Piece of Advice #1.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
Assuming this ability came with the relevant knowledge of language and customs, I’d like to visit ancient England and hang out with the people building Stonehenge. How did they build it? Where and how did they gather the knowledge of astronomy that guided its construction?
Similarly, it would be cool to visit ancient Egypt, observe how the pyramids were built, then come back to the modern day and put that mystery to rest.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I am most inspired to write by reading. If I’m feeling unmotivated or stuck, I’ll pick up a book. There’s so much in others’ work that can light a spark for a writer. Maybe it’s the tone or the sentence-crafting. Maybe it’s a character or plot device. Maybe it’s something as trivial as a name. But nothing makes me want to get back to writing like reading a good book.
Caveat: a small percentage of the time, this backfires horribly. I’ll read something so good* that my reaction is to curl into a ball, rock back and forth, and mutter about how I’ll never amount to anything worthwhile.
* Damn you, China Mieville!
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Collections of short stories tend to get overlooked, so I’d like to mention Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney. I wouldn’t call it obscure—it did win a World Fantasy Award—but I don’t see it mentioned much in online forums and such. Since I’m lazy, here’s more-or-less what I said about it recently on my own blog:
I was fortunate enough to hear C.S.E. Cooney narrate a bit of one of her short stories (since published in Ellen Datlow’s anthology Mad Hatters and March Hares) and I knew right away I should find more of her work to read. This stories in this collection are re-imaginings of folk tales, and each is rapturously original.
All of the stories are absolutely fantastic, crackling with imagination. The eponymous story The Bone Swans of Amandale (a retelling of the Pied Piper tale) is the crown jewel of the collection, but each one is worth a close read. (Warning: The Big Ba-Hah will seriously mess with your head.)
I’ve said this before, and now I’ll repeat it: I’m a decent author with serviceable wordsmithing skills, but any sentence taken at random from Bone Swans would almost certainly be among the ten best sentences I’ve ever written.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what we like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Which, by the way, is currently picking between its rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto its elevator.)
Ahem. So: why should readers check out your work? A shark elevator pitch of your own book(s) in no more than three sentences – go!
Greetings, M. Shark! I hear you’re in the market for an inventive epic fantasy series, but that you’ve grown dissatisfied with the recent trend toward the relentlessly grim and cynical. Would you like something that features heroes who are flawed but fundamentally likeable, characters who you’ll root for unabashedly, who are swept up in events far beyond their humble origins and tasked with saving the world? My books are full of adventure and magic, humor and mystery, and while they’re targeted at adults, you’ll swim easy while your young teenaged sharkling reads them too.
Dorian Hart is the author of The Ventifact Colossus and Crosser’s Maze, both available now.