Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed Joe Lyon, the author of the deeply-immersive epic fantasy series, Aster’s Blade, about his writing and his recently released, Kilmer’s Ghost: Astar’s Blade, the second installment in the series. (Read the review here.)
Joe Lyon was born in Springfield, Ohio, on May 13, 1965. He grew up creating monsters and characters for his stories and home-grown comic books. In is his first fictional epic fantasy series, Astar’s Blade, Joe creates a world some have called “wonderfully epic with great texturing and grand scope worldbuilding.” Joe has a master’s degree in business administration, a former Military Intelligence School graduate, and is a US Army veteran. As a musician and prolific songwriter, he has written over 100 songs, a book of Poetry entitled Poetry is Cool, and the first book of the Astar’s Blade series: The Provenance. Joe currently lives in Aiken, SC, with his family.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was four years old, my mother told me that my grandfather had just died of a blood clot. I thought only unlucky people died by accident. When I asked her why he had to die, she told me we all die. Those words were powerful to me. That conversation alone, so long ago, gave me a finer appreciation for life, knowing that the clock was ticking. As a result of those words, I try not to put things off and try to make progress as much as possible every given day I have. Ride hot air balloons, write books, and do other things and have other experiences while I still can. I think we all should.
How often do you base your characters on real people?
I do not so much model the characters themselves after anything in real life, as they are purely fictional. But the things they experience, and express, are often based on real events in my life. For example, my father once had a seizure in front of me and it was the scariest thing I ever experienced. I put that experience in the first chapter of the first book.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have the third, and presumably the last, book in my first epic fantasy series, Astar’s Blade. At least three books were the target of a trilogy when I began, and I have completed 2 of 3, but I will leave plenty of outs for another story, or stories, to build on the initial three if so desired. Other than that, I do have three other first drafts of other stories. Old Man Moyer, a book about luck, fortune, and untimely violent death. Simon, a book about talking to the dead and starting a new religion. And the Hunger, about cannibalism. Eventually, I want to come up with some more original ideas.
What does literary success look like to you?
Literary success to me is like a three-legged stool. I have to write Great Original Stories, people have to give the story Good Reviews, and the market gives Good Sales. Lacking any one of the three legs would not support, and be unable to hold up, my idea of literary success.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Research differs with me, primarily because I do not write non-fiction, and I must create worlds that do not exist. So, in some ways, what I create is nearly impossible to research. But I think about my stories, my world, my character, their personalities, what makes them likeable (because everybody is likeable on some level), and what makes them unlikeable (because everybody is unlikeable at times). I go to bed and dream what is the strengths, the weaknesses, the opportunities, the magic system, the creatures, the topology. I think about how and what to fill the world with, what the characters do in their boredom, in their excitement, and what makes them tick. As a fiction writer, that is the kind of research I must do to create an entire world from scratch. That kind of research is done internally, and not research in the traditional sense of, say, what makes a clock tick?
Do you find writing therapeutic?
I find writing almost a mystical experience. Sometimes I feel the story writes itself. I like having a basic outline of what I’ll be writing to keep the story on track, but also flexible enough to let the characters react to events and the intensity around them. I find it so very satisfying when a character does something completely unexpected and almost out-of-character that leads the story in another way I had not planned. This happens more than I’m willing to admit but feels really good when it comes to a result that gives me that Wow! moment. When this phenomenon happens, it results in my best writing.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
There are a couple of things. The first is tension – striking the right balance of when to reveal and when to suppress – this is truly a craft and skill. The next is just the basics of the obstacles of the English language: grammar, sentence structure, pronouns, comas, semi-colons, paragraph structure – I wish I could be more natural, and I’m highly envious of editors and those who have mastered this written language. I am getting better, and it shows as I grow, but I wish I had that knack of writing in a way that is less self-aware.
How many hours a day do you write?
I did the unthinkable, which is to publish two novels within three months of each other. This was insane, and during that time, I was writing up 6-8 hours a day. Now I take long breaks, and do not write everyday. But think about writing all the time. I am focused on my third novel, I expect it to be the most exciting, the longest in length, and the book I always wanted to write. So, in the beginning of 2022 (after my second audiobook gets released in December 2021) I expect to go back to writing between 2- 4 hours a day during the weekdays, and 8-10 hours on the weekends.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me while I am doing it, and the hours pass very quickly. However, it exhausts me to think of writing that first word. Also, there are times when I am developing the relationship activities that rest in between larger story lines, that I find mildly exhausting. But once I get it going, it often turns out to be quite energizing.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
The biggest trap for me, that is, what prevented me from completing my novel ten years ago, was the dreaded Data Dump. I had too much information that I had to make the reader understand before I could tell the story. I overcame this, not by ignoring it or running away from it, I double downed on it, making the data dump so detailed that it became my first novel itself, The Provenance, or the Origin of the world in my story. It just took me a few years to develop the data dump into an entertaining story. Now that the world is established in a book of its own, I can go on to tell the story I always wanted to.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
I can only speak for myself, but I think having a big ego helps writing both fiction and non-fiction. In the case of fiction, you must be creative enough to “give birth” to every little thing in your world. In the case of non-fiction, the author must do exhaustive research. The notion of seeing your name as the author under the title is a big deal. God knows it is not for the money. It gives me a rush to create and have my name attached to it. Afterall, if any author did not want that, they could always sign the work “Anonymous,” but I have not seen that very often, if at all.
How often you read?
Ironically, I like to read non-fiction. This is mostly because no matter how creative a fiction writer is, nothing can compare to real life events. There seems to be no limit to the depths of human depravity, proofing that monster are real. But I also have a day job, technical in nature, so I read all the time, just nothing too interesting, but I am a voracious reader.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I think to be original and delivering what the readers want are so closely related, that they are one in the same. This being that the reader wants original ideas, they expect it, so they are inseparable. However, I have heard it said that all the music you have ever heard is contained in the same seven musical notes. And all the stories you will ever read are all apart of the same alphabet. I write with the same alphabet that Steven King, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare did, So, what’s a writer to do? I think it is all how you arrange it, and how you tell the story, the characters you make, and the situations you put them in, that is where the originality waits.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I believe there is a certain amount of acting in writing fiction, and acting is a derivative of lying. I don’t think it matters if the writer can feel those emotions if they can imagine them, and in the end lie about them. I remember what Jack Nicholson character, an author, said in “Something’s Got to Give,” when asked how he writes female character’s so well. He said, “I write a female character the same way I write about male characters. I just take away all responsibility and accountability.” A hilarious line, (for some) but also demonstrates that males can write about female emotions, and women can imagine male characters, dialogue, and emotion, without experiencing it internally.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Start earlier and pay more attention in English and Writing Composition classes.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I am not sure yet. I published two books within three months, so I was constantly writing. Now, I am taking a little break and slowing down. The experience and process has been so different between each novel, I have not had the luxury of developing a routine yet.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Without a doubt, for the money, book formatting. I found a great one, Collen Sheehan at Ampersand Bookery. Colleen put together covers, interiors, ePubs, Kindle docs, paperbacks, hard covers, back covers, the whole works. Saved me so much work. Of course, editing was a Godsend. I have had six great editors. And I do not regret using any of them. I understand that even big name/ big time authors leverage editors heavily, so if you are on the fence about editing…do it.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I select character names the same way I write songs. I mumble. I know that sounds weird, but I until I have a solid name, or a solid lyric, I just mumble my way through it, until the right name comes bursting out of my mouth. But that is the prerequisite, it has to be agreeable to coming out of my mouth, and not too confusing. I have read books that have very strange character names, like those without a lot of vowels. Those are hard, and I feel distracting. I like names to be comfortable to say.
Do you read your book reviews? Do they please you or annoy you? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?
Ah! Reviews. Those sweet Reviews. I would be lying if I say a less than stellar review does not bother me. I try not to let them upset me. Everyone has their opinion, right? But if the reason I received the review does not make sense, then it just seems mean. Like for instance, I got a one star from someone in a review full of typos, and I was like, come on! If you are going to rip my writing, at least clean up your own stuff. But I also don’t like generic reviews based on previous reviews, those seem empty to me. My favorites are the ones that either like or dislike my stories based on the characters and reactions. I actually agree with less than favorable reviews sometimes, as long as they make sense.
What are your favorite books?
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. A great catharsis about the Mount Everest tragedy in March 1996. Krakauer’s account of the dangers of group think mixed in with high altitude, lack of oxygen, summit fever, guided tourism, crevasses, and climbing through dizzying avalanche prone heights, is a fascinating story.
What is your favorite childhood book?
The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop / Kurt Wiese. The one brother swallows the sea to help a fisherman. But the fisherman takes too long and gets greedy, and the first brother has to blow the sea back into its basin, killing the fisherman. The first brother is found guilty to be put to death, but is allowed to say goodbye to his mother. But instead, the second brother returns. This brother is thrown out of a boat, but this brother had long legs that could stretch down to the bottom, so the brother does not drown. He is order to be beheaded, but the brother with the iron neck returns in his place. Then the next brother is thrown into the fire, but this brother is the one who cannot burn. Love that story.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Chapter One: Finding the most interesting point to start. Whenever it is, I can work around it in time and schedule, but the reader needs to find immersive right at the start.
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
The ideas. These kept me awake at night. At times it felt like they were stretching my brain, and only through the outlet of writing could I relieve myself of the tension.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
When I was in English class in high school, I would often fall asleep, and when I was awake I was a disruption to the teacher. I wish I had not done that and paid more attention. Now, I’m paying for that, and my English teacher should be making fun of me now.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I don’t think I could write 100K word novel in less than six months. It would take me at least that long.
Is writer’s block real?
I am sure it is, but whenever I get blocked with what I am writing, I just move on to something else, and write something I want to write. I usually find I can use it somewhere else. My problem has historically been the opposite, I have to much to write and it all comes out too fast in the dreaded “data dump”. I have to slow myself down for the beginning of anything to make sense.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I have heard that as an author I should read a lot. That is probably true, and I do feel that reading does help my writing. But I also have very strong ideas about what and how I want to write. I do not want to write like anyone. I definitely want to carve out a style of my own. However, as a fantasy writer, of course, I have been influenced by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, G.R.R Martin’s Game of Thrones. But also, Piers Antony, Incantations of Immortality. Helter Skelter by Vicent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Anne Rice, Vampire Diaries.
After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?
I am probably my harshest critic. I read the books and still I get a expectancy of excitement for the story on the page. There are some parts I have written that I just know is good, no matter what anyone says. The funny this is, what I think is good, so many others do too. So, I have that ability to judge the work as a reader, not just as the author.
How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in fiction writing?
At this point in my career, it is impossible. So far, I have consistently spent significantly more money than I have made. The good news is that a book is forever, so once the series is done, and time has passed, maybe the residuals will be better. But I’m not holding my breath in my lifetime. I think about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time becoming a streaming series. Of course Jordan has be departed for many years now. Maybe after I am gone, Astar’s Blade will take off.
Were your parents interested in literature? Did they read a lot? What books did you have in the house?
My parents read non-fiction. Books about musicians or politics. My father read manuals, that is how he was so wise about fixing things around the house, because he did not read a lot of fiction. He read ‘how-to’ instructions.
What in particular attracted you to this genre?
I was driven to Fantasy by the story I had in my mind. There was really no where else for me to turn. Plus I loved the Hobbit, which was my introduction to sweeping fantasy worlds, and I loved them.
What’s more important: characters or plot?
I believe the characters drive the plot. If you do a good job developing the character’s their own story start to form and seem like a plot.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Digital Marketing. I thought all I had to do was write a book, and that would be the hard part. But it was not. I had plenty to learn about SEO (Search Engine Optimization), Domain Authority (DA) Cost Per Click, keywords, tags, and a variety of other stuff I had no idea about until I embarked on this journey.
If asked, what would your friends and family say about you?
Gosh you would have to ask them. But I would say, they would say, I am a gigantic pain in the ass, and totally obsessed with writing my book.
Would you rather read a book or watch television?
I usually write with the TV on, but sometimes I turn I can’t stand TV and turn it off. Other times, I need to relax and watch TV. It is an even mix.
Tell us some more about your book.
Kilmer’s Ghost is the second of the Astar’s Blade series. This story builds upon the world established in the first book, The Provenance. Many of the characters from book one are explained in more detail, yet there are several new characters introduced to allow the reading of the second book independently from the first.
The story is about a curse, a ghost haunts the youngest child of the Plum family. When war ravages the village, the boy has to become a chameleon in order to survive. But by changing, he comes closer to his goal of killing the king he blames for murdering his family. Yet along the way, a demon possesses his soul. With an outbreak of a new evil, and the mysterious appearance of a new star in the heavens, his life can only be saved by his childhood friend, Kilmer’s Ghost.
What inspired the premise of your book?
I wanted to write a story about a person being haunted. Usually, we hear about stories where a house, or a doll, or some object is haunted, but in this story, it is a family who is haunted.
How many rewrites did you do for this book?
Once a had the first draft, I shared it with a Developmental Editor, who straightened me out on several issues with the story development and plot holes. After re-writing and fixing those, I sent to a copy editor, who refined it even more. After I made a copy editor recovery re-write, I sent to the proofreaders, which caused another fix. Then I sent to the book formatter, in which I found a long list of things that needed to be changed. But each time the efforts of re-write became less and less through each gate of editing.
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
The idea was about a man who was haunted. The ghost would help him, guide him, but left him in a sad way with despairing melancholy. I came up with the name Kilmer because it had the word “Kill” in it. Then, I was hooked on the title of Kilmer’s Ghost. From there, I wrote the story around the name.
Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Aberfell, the Supreme Historian, is a character about a man who cannot forget anything. The power would leave him as a hermit, not wanting to experience anything that he would retain in memory forever. In the end, I had to make a major character, gave him a unique personality, and know he is one of my favorites.
Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?
The emergence of the Demonic and the Vampiric Demons. This storyline was going to be in the third book, but having already written it for that book, I decided to “steal it” from the third and put it in the third. This caused a significant amount of rewrite.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I wanted to write a story that grabbed onto the characters, latching themselves onto the reader, and not to let them go. Like an out-of-control virus, the evil spreads from person to person, and would be worse, if the cure was not found.
How does your faith life/ethical outlook inform your writing?
The balance of the alignment of the story ultimately champions over evil. The more evil the story the more good it has to be to overcome it.
What makes this book important right now?
There are lot of current issues reading between the lines. The story is a cautionary tale of uncompromising behaviors, the dangers of group think, the temptation of evil and of utopian society.
Has this novel changed drastically as you created it?
Yes, it has changed drastically with the introduction of a variety of characters not included in the original first draft. Also, some of the existing characters deserved deeply meaning and explanations, which I added later.
How did you decide on this title?
It is funny but the title came first, and the story was wrapped around it. I just liked the name of Kilmer and I wanted him to be a haunted person. So, Kilmer’s Ghost was the natural title.
What’s next for you?
The audiobook for Kilmer’s Ghost comes out on Audible in December 2021. Then first of the year I will finish the third, and maybe, final book of Astar’s Blade with a book called the Temple of Valor. It is going to be one of the wildest rides yet. I spend two books building, now I can start tearing things down. I expect to finish that last project in May/June timeframe of 2022, as I am currently about 15% complete already. Then I would like to write a single Horror novel. Then maybe some articles for a magazine or two. It would be great to get some kind of award or recognition.
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