An Interview with Rob J. Hayes

Hey demented ones! This issue I come to you from the Dripping Bucket. It’s dark, the tables smell and the ale is horrible—but I am here with the Hat himself: Rob J. Hayes!

If you don’t know Rob’s work, he just finished his The War Eternal trilogy which is GDAF and is a past winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) and almost made it twice this last year with his ode to old Asian martial arts movies—Never Die.

Now, I know many of you are thinking right now, “finally! We’ll get to the bottom of this cabal thing!”

Sorry, but we won’t be exploring wild rumors like a secret cadre of authors running the grimdark world behind the scenes. That would be outlandish, and uh, fantastic. #NoCabal

I’ve cyber-known Rob for a few years and enjoyed his work, but never interviewed him. Before now that is…

[TS] Rob, thanks for taking the time for a chin wag.

[RH] No worries at all, thank you for inviting me over. Is it over? On? I’m never sure which phrase to use for virtual chatting.

[TS] I’m going to start this off a bit differently. One of the things that we have talked about several times online is our mutual love for whiskey. What got you started with whiskey and which one are you really enjoying lately?

[RH] I do love a good whiskey. Or a good rum to be honest. I like to have a variety in the house so I have a choice when it comes to tipple time. Weirdly it’s just been of a progression for me from spirit to spirit. Used to be a vodka drinker, then switched to rum and drank them with mixers. Then I started sipping rum neat just because I really enjoyed the flavour. A mate of mine was big into his bourbons so I gave a few a try and converted happily. Then last year I started getting into the Irish whiskeys. At some point, I reckon I’ll head on over to Scotch, but I’m not quite there yet.

As for favourites at the moment. Woodford Reserve is always a big favourite of mine, and I love getting a bottle in, though it never lasts as long as it should. Other than that, I recently got myself a bottle of Writers Tears Double Oak and I’m loving the taste of it.

[TS] Rob, you have built a pretty successful library of work and a loyal following and have stayed indie. Can you tell us what your thought process was for staying indie when you could switch to traditional? What are the pros and cons in your opinion?

[RH] I could switch to trad? On a serious note, I am hoping to have a series published traditionally, but I will not be making a full switch. I like the hybrid approach so that’s my goal, a nice mix of trad and indie. As to the pros and cons to either, I believe they are many and varied. For myself, I like the freedom to explore that being indie gives. Traditional publishing, by its very existence is a place of gatekeeping. For a book to be picked up and published, an editor has to fall in love with it. And just because an editor doesn’t fall in love, doesn’t make it a bad book, it might just mean it’s not for them, or not for another editor as well. It might not be for any of the editors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book or that it will not have an audience.

So I guess what I’m saying is I’m an author who likes to write what I want to write. What I feel strongly about and what is galloping through my brain like wild bison stampeding a young lion. Another way of putting it is that I’m a mess who doesn’t know how to write to the market.

From a business standpoint, the two sides of publishing look like entirely different beasts. Sure, you have to start with both by writing a book, but after that they divulge in every aspect. As an indie, the risk is entirely on you as the author. You pay for the cover, the editing, the marketing. In a very real way, whether it succeeds or fails is down to you. You also tend to get a larger slice of the pie. I do like having large slices of pie, but I would also like to have certain aspects taken out of my hands. I’ll refer back to me being a mess at this point.

[TS] I don’t think anyone would argue that most of your books aren’t firmly in the grimdark camp. Yet, you are the nicest, most laid-back guy. Where do you draw your dark side from? Is it Korra the beagle of death?

[RH] I would argue my books aren’t in the grimdark camp. Maybe my debut trilogy (The Ties that Bind) is, but most of what I write? Never Die certainly isn’t, at its core it’s a book about heroes having another shot at redemption. It’s a bit bloody in places, but the characters aren’t morally grey, and they actively pursue heroic goals. With my latest trilogy (The War Eternal), you could argue that book 1 is grimdark, but when you set a book in a brutal underground prison, it’s a little hard not to be. I’d argue books 2 and 3 are more epic fantasy.

But that’s not what you asked. The beagle of doom certainly helps. She has a big purple towel and when you wrap her up in it so it looks like a hood, she looked like a Sith lord. We call her Darth Doggyous.

I don’t think I really have a dark side any more than most people do. Any grimdarkiness in my books comes mostly from looking at the world around us, what’s been and what’s happening right now. There’s plenty of darkness to draw upon right there. As for the morally grey aspect of characters, I just try to make my characters feel as real as possible and a morally grey aspect feels natural. Everybody has dark thoughts from time to time, skeletons in closets, a whole gamut of emotions from the happy, sparkly to the brooding, anger.

So I guess I draw my dark side from the dark side of humanity. It’s like an anti-spirit bomb.

People of earth, lend me your dark energy!

Too much. TOO MUCH! Take some of that shit back.

[TS] In book 1 of your War Eternal series, we meet Eska, a young mage who skipped her childhood in service of her government. While dealing with other more pressing issues in her immediate environment, we also realize that as badass as she is, she is still so young and clueless in some ways as far as interpersonal relationships.

She learns some hard lessons.

What was your inspiration for her and what were the challenges for you writing a complex female character as a male author?

[RH] Oh she certainly learns some hard lessons. I sometimes think I should have tortured Eska a little less in those books. She gets put through the wringer.

A lot of the inspiration for Eska really comes from a place of anxiety and depression. I hope it’s clear to most who read it that she suffers from some fairly heavy mental illness issues. Eska is a character who second guesses herself, who looks back on her decisions and calls herself an idiot for making them, who dredges up the stupid mistakes she has made and doesn’t sugar coat them but instead shines a damning light upon them. At the same times, she is a character who does not apologise for who she is, nor what she has done, but owns up to everything. I wanted to give my readers a character they could follow through her journey and see all the good and ill, the mistakes and triumphs, and really see how each makes her grow as a person from a callous foolish youth into the woman known as the Corpse Queen (that’s not a spoiler, she tells you that’s who she is in chapter 1).

As for specific challenges for writing a complex female character, I can’t really name any. Eska really just flew onto the page for me. That being said, it’s worth pointing out that 3 of my 4 alpha readers are women, so if I get anything wrong in an unrelenting male fashion, I get called out on it.

[TS] I have to digress for a minute and say that ONE of my favorite things you write isn’t even a book, but your monthly facebook preview of next month’s indie author new releases. I have taken my TBR to ridiculous heights because of that list. What got you started with that?

[RH] So about 18 months ago I realised I kept seeing lists of books coming out next month. The lists were always on blogs like Tor or B&N, you know small fries compared to myself. And I’d always click to see what was coming and whenever I was releasing a book, some small foolish part of me would be like Wouldn’t it be cool if your book was on there? Of course, it never was. Those lists were for trad books. So it dawned on me that indie authors didn’t really seem to have an equivalent. A list of upcoming books that was all indie. I figured I could piss and moan about it, keep dreaming that I’d one day see my book on a list with all the big hitters. Or I could create my own list of upcoming books each month and use what platform I do have to help shine a light on the little guys like myself.

It’s not quite the same, I don’t have some special way of finding the upcoming releases. I’m mostly reliant on people telling me that they’re releasing a book, but it seems to be working. Plenty of people have come back to me and said that I’ve helped them find new books to read and new authors to follow. And now, if anyone else like me was clicking on those links and hoping in foolish vain to see their books up there, well now they can.

[TS] What is the best book you have read recently, and what was so good about it?

[RH] So many! I’ve been reading a lot the past couple of years thanks to audiobooks, and I’ve found some real crackers. I’ll start by hitting up a fellow indie by saying Paternus by Dyrk Ashton knocked my socks off. I read it last year and was blown away by the way he breaks the rules and makes it work. No idea how he does it, but he has head hopping, exposition, foreign language. You name a rule, and Dyrk has probably broken it, but the books are still amazing.

I also have to mention The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding, a book that doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. I was in a bad spot a while back, struggling to find my interest in fantasy books… which is especially hard when it’s your primary interest. And The Ember Blade really ripped me out of that slump. It’s such a perfect mixture of old school adventure like you seen in LotR along with the more modern style like you’d find in Abercrombie or Lawrence.

Can I pick a third? I’m gonna pick a third. I recently listened to The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin and loved it. Much like with Paternus, I loved the way the book broke the rules. It had a second person perspective which was weird as all hells and such a powerful delivery. It was structured really oddly, and spent long periods of time not going anywhere, and yet I was riveted. Absolutely loved it. And the second and third books kept breaking rules too!

[TS] Who are some up and coming writers and / or books that you think we should be watching out for?

[RH] M.L. Wang of current SPFBO fame, the katana-wielding author of Sword of Kaigen. So I know this isn’t her first rodeo and she’s written previous books (SoK is not her debut), but by her own admission her other books are more YA focused. SoK is her first foray into more general adult fantasy and she nailed it so hard. If she can continue to bring the same level of emotional impact and brilliantly constructed prose that she did with SoK, I think she’s gonna be picking up awards all over the place. She’s also a really lovely person and hilarious to boot.

Who else? So many again. Evan Winter. Have you read Rage of Dragons? That book is intense! Blistering action, on point commentary, an expansive world, and characters that are so damned believable and broken. Book 2 is coming out soon, I think, and I cannot wait to listen to it. He’s another who’s going to be picking up awards.

One more, I’m working in threes today. Gareth Hanrahan, the author of Gutter Prayer and Shadow Saint. His imagination is leagues ahead of the competition. The bestiary of creatures, monsters, and gods in his series is mind blowing. I love it. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next from him. And hey, his books break a few rules too.

[TS] What is your favorite book that you’ve read in recent years that you would recommend to others?

[RH] Stop asking me to name single favourite books. I can’t do it. Skullsworn by Brian Staveley left a big impact on me. I don’t hesitate to say that Eska and her The War Eternal trilogy wouldn’t exist without Skullsworn to inspire me.

Continuing to roll on the threes. Age of Assassins by R J Barker I happily recommend far and wide. That book and the trilogy just work so damned well as murder mysteries without a murder from the point of view of the murderer. And R J breaks rules in the weirdest of ways with things like formatting and shifting tenses. Truly inspiring.

Last one, I’ll go with Robin Hobb’s latest trilogy starting with Fool’s Assassin. Hobb probably needs no introduction, but to anyone who hasn’t read her books, get on it. No one delivers emotion and devastating character arcs quite like her. It’s a series that will stay with me for life and you all need to feel the same pain I do.

[TS] I have to ask you as a brit, what is it about the old country that enables you guys to crank out so many heavy hitters in the grimdark community? Abercrombie, Lawrence, Smith-Spark, Stephens, Barker, McLean, yourself, just to name a few (and apologies for the ones I left off). Is life really that dark across the pond?

[RH] It really is. We wake up at 5am the previous morning and we’re down in the Pit (capital P) before 4am. A 64 hour work day and all we get to eat is rich tea biscuits coated in marmite.

I don’t know what it is really. British mentality maybe? We’re not told to look on the bright side of life. We always support the underdogs, until they’re not underdogs anymore, then screw them for getting uppity and growing above their station. We don’t complain, until we do and then we complain like there’s no tomorrow.

Yeah, I got no idea. We live on an island with pleasant temperatures, where the most dangerous animal is the wasp, you can get from one end to the other in a hop, skip, and a jump, and there’s a pub every two feet.

[TS] With the insane year we’ve all been having, how has it affected your writing? How about just your life in general?

[RH] It hasn’t affected me in the slightest. I’m certainly not currently writing a new book set in a world where humanity has been all but wiped out and is hanging on by a thread, with a creeping enemy known only as the Doom sweeping across the planet. Nope… no effect at all.

My life really hasn’t changed that much. I was already a hermit who worked from home. The biggest change is not being able to see friends and family, and that’s been a big blow to the mental stability. Depression is ever a thing I fight against and it’s been rearing its head pretty regularly. It’s been tough to cope with, but with the support of a brilliant wife-not-wife and a naughty little beagle-face, I’m getting through it.

[TS] Ok Rob, we’ve reached that point of the interview where you sell us on your new stuff. What is up and coming in the world of Rob Hayes?

[RH] Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I have just recently finished publishing The War Eternal trilogy which kicks off with Along the Razor’s Edge. That’s been a pretty big deal for me. Book 1 has only been out for about 3 months and book 3 less than a month. So there’s that. For those who don’t know, it’s a story about a young woman, a Sorcerer, who is on the losing side of the great war. She has her powers stripped from her and is thrown into the Pit, a prison sunk deep into the earth. But she refuses to give up and refuses to break and refuses to let go of her dreams of vengeance.

And I should probably mention I’ve just signed the audio rights to The War Eternal over to Podium, so the audiobooks will be coming soon!

I’m releasing a sequel (that is not a sequel) to Never Die in January 2021. It’s called Never Die Another Day With A Vengeance. Not really. It’s called Pawn’s Gambit.

I’m writing this new military flintlock fantasy set in the world with humanity on the edge. And I have about 6 other things in the pipeline. Life keeps me busy.

[TS] And the sound of heads breaking tables in the back of the tavern means we’re out of time. Rob, thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

[RH] Always happy to talk books and ramble on for hours. Thanks for having me.

This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine #23

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Tom Smith

Tom has been with Grimdark Magazine almost from day one. He's responsible for all of the awesome interviews you see in GdM's pages. Outside of the SFF scene, Tom is a mad keen UFC watcher and trainee.