Interview with Sam Hawke (CITY OF LIES)
I have wanted to write books ever since realising as a child that they didn’t just breed between themselves in libraries. Having contemplated careers as varied as engineer, tax accountant and zookeeper I eventually settled on the law. After marrying my jujitsu training partner and travelling to as many countries as possible on very little budget, I now live in Canberra, Australia, raising two small ninjas and two idiot dogs.
My debut novel, City of Lies, was released in 2018. It won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel, and the Norma K Hemming Award for excellence in exploring issues of gender, race, disability and class in SFF, and long listed by the British Science Fiction Awards.
The sequel, Hollow Empire, is scheduled for release in December 2020.
Hi Sam, welcome to the Hive, and thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks for having me! As I wrote that I realised that I probably wasn’t meant to treat that as a question, but what can I say, I’m excited to be with you guys 😉
We’re excited you’re here!
We love great world-building at the Hive, could you tell us about the inspiration and process behind yours? What made you focus on a city-state style setting?
There are people who create very detailed and elaborate maps and worldbuilding notes and such before they start populating their story with people, and then there are people like me, who are still going through their manuscript the night before its final final final due date muttering ‘south? What did I say was south? What’s the name of that city again?’. Which is all to say that I started with the characters whose story I wanted to tell, and I reverse engineered a society and a world in which they made sense, and gradually built it out from there.
So I had a job – poison tasting – and a set of relationships – a tight brother/sister and their best childhood friend who is also their responsibility – and I built a culture and a setting that I thought could have created those positions and those people. This is largely a process of asking myself questions — why are sibling relationships so important to them? Why would they need a secret poison taster, and why would that person be a valued and honoured friend, not a disposable servant? What kind of society would that be? I guess you could say I made a world to make sense of the people.
And that’s also how City of Lies came to be set in a single city. I knew I wanted to tell what was effectively a closed room mystery in a fantasy setting, as a kind of homage to my two favourite genres of stories growing up. I love the transportive sense of possibility (and impossibility) in fantasy, but also the suffocating tension and sense of danger you get in a good closed room murder mystery, where you don’t know who to trust and everyone’s lying all the time. So knowing the feeling of the setting I wanted, I built the world to make it happen – in this case I figured what better way to trap my characters and their enemy in a closed room setting than having the city besieged? So then the city itself, and its history and character, become an intrinsic part of the story too, and that factored into my worldbuilding and particularly in the cultural history that brought it to that point.
Which authors have influenced you over the years? Are there any authors you would love to collaborate with? And you can’t say Robin Hobb!
Oh gosh, too many, and probably a heap who influenced me cunningly without me noticing. My very earliest novel-writing ventures were all Enid Blyton-esque adventure type stories with a lot of mysterious islands and smugglers, or shameless Gillian Rubenstein rip-offs with people falling into computer games or portraits or mirrors. I also obsessively read my grandmother’s collection of Alastair McLean spy novels from a frankly inappropriately young age and though I never tried my hand at writing in that genre I definitely learned a lot about structure, escalating tension and pacing from those books.
I think by the time I was about 13 or 14 I had decided I wanted to write epic fantasies and I was basically devouring anything in that vein, and I probably bought everything the Australian Voyager label put out in that era. I definitely would have been influenced by the suite of Australians writing SFF in the 90s and early 00s like Sara Douglass, Trudi Canavan, Kate Forsyth, Glenda Larke, Garth Nix and Jennifer Fallon, but also international writers like Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Mercedes Lackey, JV Jones, Holly Lisle, Lynn Flewelling, Guy Gavriel Kay, Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, and, of course, Robin Hobb, who’s been my favourite author since the first time I read Assassin’s Apprentice and always will be. (Once I read Farseer I remember thinking shit, this is it, the perfect books have already been written, is there really any point doing this whole writing thing?). Everything I wrote in my teens was painfully derivative and probably just a mishmash of elements of books by all those authors. (Hopefully the stuff I’m writing now is less so, but I’m not exactly an unbiased judge of that).
These days the SFF being released is of such quality and in addition to the consistently excellent Hobbs and Elliotts and Bujolds there are so many newer writers I am inspired by and admire so deeply who write all across the genre spectrum; people like Jen Williams, Fonda Lee, Alix Harrow, Seth Dickinson, Robert Jackson Bennett, SA Chakraborty, Tasha Suri, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Josiah Bancroft, to name just a tiny few, have all blown me away with the calibre of their work in recent years, and that’s just a fraction of the names I could list.
But collaboration? Ahhhhhh I would never inflict myself on any other author, let alone one I loved and admired! I am an unreliable disaster and they deserve better.
What was it like holding a physical copy of your book for the first time, or seeing it shelved in bookshops?
There is no way of describing this that doesn’t just sound like a cliché so I’m gonna lean right into it: surreal, amazing, like the literal dream of my childhood coming true. And also kind of like I’ve somehow pulled a trick on everyone and at some point people are going to notice?
Every stage in the process was incredible that first time – the first ugly early proofs that weren’t typeset and had just a plain paper cover and were heavy enough to kill a man with* but were BOOK SHAPED and HAD MY NAME ON, then the pretty arcs that had a blurb from Robin Hobb printed right on there (at that point I had to genuinely wonder if I was in some kind of simulation because shit was getting unrealistic), and then finally the real books in their various editions – I loved every bit of it. I still get a buzz every time I see City in a bookshop, or a picture of it on a bookshelf in another country. Maybe one day it’ll feel normal but I can’t even imagine what that would feel like.
* I didn’t test that, I swear
Your characters aren’t perfect by any means, but which was the perfect one to write? Pick a favourite Sam!
Aw, my girl Hadrea is easily the most fun to write. Jov and Kalina are such heavy thinkers and worriers, they’re both in many ways stuck in their own heads, Jov fixated on his duties and obligations and being incredibly self critical, Kalina being so conscious of how she’s perceived. It can be pretty exhausting to put myself in their heads all the time. And (in City at least) they’ve got a really skewed worldview so it was just a delight to introduce a character who calls them on all their shit and makes them look at things in a new way, and who throws the other characters off balance. Hadrea makes conflict – and I don’t necessarily mean that in the fighty sense (though there is always a bit of that, too) but rather she’s a different shape to my other three main characters and so she creates different reactions. So yeah, she’s the most fun to write.
Without giving spoilers, my other favourite character to write is an unrepentant baddie who I wish I could give more page time to. I could write that person just taking joy in being an arsehole for scene after scene…
If your book was to be adapted to television or film who would you cast as Jovan and Kalina?
I am pretty hopelessly non-visual so I don’t have strong views on what my characters look like, and I didn’t write any of them as being super attractive, but I assume that if there was a show the TV producers would hit everyone with the hot ray, so… um… maybe Sean Teale as Jov, Natalie Simpson as Kalina, Dev Patel as Tain?
Dev Patel is such an excellent actor.
What do you most love to do, other than writing?
I am a lazy soul who I can now say definitively, given the whole covid disaster, is apparently pretty content to just hang out at my house with my husband and kids and dogs, doing very little. I love reading (obviously), and listening to music, and cooking (just fractionally less than eating) and good TV, and some bad TV, and in recent years it turns out I kind of love gardening?? My 10 year old self, bitterly resentful of the seemingly endless gardening tasks assigned to us kids by my parents, would be very shocked to learn this.
Since this is our Women in SFF month, who were the women in SFF (or beyond) that influenced or inspired you? (Authors and/or characters!)
I think I’ve listed a positive buffet of women writers in the answers to the other questions, [sorry for asking you same question twice *facepalm*] but I will note that so many women I have encountered in this industry are not only great writers but incredibly kind and generous people who’ve been so welcoming to me as a newbie; be it online, at conventions, or in local communities. I can’t list them all for fear of missing people by accident but I am so grateful to my author buddies, you are all amazing friends and writers and just general models of behaviour, honestly, and you know who you are.
For characters, probably far more than I can name, but some old favourites that will always be with me include Talia from Arrows of the Queen (as an often unwisely empathetic fixer by nature, god I could relate) – Althea from Liveships (Malta has the more dramatic arc but Althea has my heart), Patience from Farseer, Jill from Deverry and Angharad (Harry) Crewe from the Blue Sword.*
* Now I’m sitting here certain that I’ve forgotten crucial characters and worrying that it’s going to hurt their feelings when they realise that I’ve left them out, because apparently I am a madwoman?
Nah I do that too Sam, of course fictional characters have real feelings, why else would we get so worked up about them?
What’s a good SFF book (written by a woman) you’ve read recently?
Oh boy. Listen I’m drowning in amazing books. I’m in the middle of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, which is coming out with Tor next year and I am loving it. The only reason I didn’t read the whole thing in about 2 sittings was that my page proofs for Hollow Empire came in and I have to get them done first. Before that I got my paws on an early copy of Anna Stephens’ The Stone Knife which is so good also (there are perks to being an author, and this is probably the best one of them!), so look out for both of those when they’re out. And to be less of a jerk and recommend something you can actually read right now, how about the excellent Devin Madson’s We Ride the Storm which came out a few weeks ago, and Megan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon? I have Empire of Gold by SA Chakraborty for when I deserve a treat (I’m holding off a little on starting that because I’m going to be so sad when it’s over) and itching for Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun and Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter later this year.
I am so psyched for The Stone Knife and insanely jealous you’ve already read it! It’s on preorder.
If you had to be poisoned, which poison would you hope they’d go for?
Look I gotta tell you, as someone who has read a lot about this stuff, I absolutely have a strong preference against being poisoned. Are we assuming fatally poisoned? Even the quick ones like cyanide or a big dose of aconite are still horribly painful, and the slower ones like arsenic usually have a protracted period of sickness and general unpleasantness. And I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for my family. There’s no good way to go via poison, really.
How do you feel about interacting with your readers? Do you enjoy hearing their response to your book?
I love interacting with readers – aside from the aforementioned getting my paws on my friends’ books early perk, it’s the best thing about this whole being-published shebang. Readers are amazing! I save every letter I get sent, I cannot tell you how much it means to me when people love the work or connect to the characters. It’s the actual best. Honestly, maybe there are authors who are so big and famous that they’re desensitised to this and it’s just exhausting hearing people say they love your work but if so I don’t know any of them. Like, there’s an Incorrect Poison Wars twitter account that I just want to die with how much I love it. Readers are the bomb.
(I should say I have been very fortunate not really to have dealt with the Other Kind of reader in that so far, touch wood, I have mostly yet to be told directly that my work is shit and I should die or given ‘helpful’ criticism unasked. Undoubtedly people think this stuff sometimes but they have so far been gracious enough not to expect me to engage with them about how much they hate me, and that’s all we can ever ask! Perhaps I am being cynical but I suspect this largely positive experience may be partly because my name does not scream ‘I’m a woman on the internet’)
There’s plenty of anticipation for Hollow Empire, due to hit shelves in November. What can readers expect?
You are very sweet to say so – I live in fear that the 2 years between the books means that everyone will have forgotten me!
Hollow Empire picks up a few years after where City left off, and readers can expect more mysteries and murder, new mysterious magic, an ever worsening conspiracy of assassins, witches, drugs and of course my sweet and well-meaning but sometimes idiot main characters earnestly doing their best while getting themselves into more trouble.
And finally, for fun – what’s your favourite mythological creature? If you could ride any into battle, Jen Williams war beasts style, what would it be?
I am an absolute sucker for mythological creatures of all kinds, and Jen Williams’ war beasts may be one of my favourite things in the world, but I’m going to cheat a little here and go with actual history instead of mythology because I feel that Australia was largely robbed of its chance to enjoy our excellent array of prehistoric megafauna. I would ride the Diprotodon, which was a giant prehistoric wombat, into battle and I would rate its chances. It may not have your glitzy wings and scales and OK, it didn’t breathe fire or spit poison, but I like to think that, like its modern ancestors, it shat in cubes and anything that ran into it came off the worse for wear.
That would be a powerful weapon fair play.
Thank you, Sam!
Thank you so much for having me, and for hosting this excellent month of women in SFF!