Sunday, November 20, 2016

Puppy Talk: An Interview with Schuyler Hernstrom

Schuyler Hernstrom, author of this month's Puppy of the Month and frequent contributor to Cirsova Magazine, is a rarity in the new publishing world - an author without a major social media presence.  While his works are becoming increasingly well known, the author himself is something of a mystery.  Just as his writing harkens back to that of the old masters, Hernstrom typically parcels out information about himself in short paragraphs included with his works.  In what may be the longest interview published to date, he talks about his writing inspiration and shares a few small glimpses into his  adventurous life away from the keyboard.  Enjoy!

Editor: Rabid or Sad?
SH: Ya know, this is corny but I am actually going to pull a quote from my own work to answer. It is a bit early in the career to pull a stunt like this but it is so apropos I can’t resist:
He took a knife from his belt and cut away the flag and a length of cloth from the sleeve and turned to Tyur. He tied the thing to the hunter’s thick arm. Tyur looked down in awe.
“But I am not of your blood…”
“All who fight tyranny are of my tribe.”
The young man grasped his host’s shoulders and the old man returned the gesture.
Hopefully the whole thing will be in the Cirsova Eldritch Earth issue.
When was the moment you realized there was something lacking in today's fiction? Did that coincide with your desire to start writing?
Photo courtesy of
Actually as a young man I was inundated with Vance, Howard, Lieber, Jakes, Anderson, everything. So when I would step out, and this is in the eighties, I would pick up a science fiction magazine from time to time and be sent flying back into the arms of these old paperbacks, or a comic. I didn’t know how to interpret it at the time. I figured there was the good, fun stuff, and the sophisticated, boring stuff. The dichotomy never really made perfect sense even back then. Herbert’s "Dune" is jam packed with all things I wanted when I was 12 but it is also an incredibly deep look at human history.  
I had no idea what the field was like when I finally sat down to write. I still don’t really understand it. I try to read up a bit, I follow Jeffro and read commentary on the state of the genre. I am coming late to the discussion but in the end everything points to much larger issues. I’ve come to find that my thinking on the genre is like putting a magnifying glass on the elephant’s tail. I feel like I need to go back to anthropology, philosophy, and try to understand how cultures create their values and what that means. When I feel as if I am living among ruins, is that just me being maudlin? Medieval Italians took stones from the Coliseum to build houses. What are we dismantling now?
In recent interviews, you revealed that writing is a second career that you started only after your 40th birthday.  What motivated you to start?  Do you have any formal training?
I’ve always wanted to do some writing but the time never felt right. I always felt like I would write a novel one day but how to even get started? But I get older, I get domesticated, and a friend of mine brings up short fiction and encourages me to try it, and here we are. He designs and publishes miniatures games and over the years I got to have fun writing fluff fiction for some of his books. He was thinking about writing some shorts for Pathfinder, I guess they do some short fiction somehow, and he prodded me to try it. I played around a bit and then just had fun with it, forgetting all about Pathfinder and not thinking about venues or anything. When the dust settled I had something I really liked so I just kept going.
When I was 19 I took a creative writing course and it was a bit of a disaster. I don’t want to harp on this because everyone is different but I have gotten nothing out of any formal instruction or written advice anywhere with the exception of one article, a piece written by John C. Wright that had a few paragraphs and explained why they worked. The article was short, I got it for free somehow, and it was gold. Pure gold. With all the how-to books and everything no one had actually explained the sleight of hand, the actual craft, right there, right in front of your face. I found I was doing it, but reading the explanation made sure that I could continue doing it, and do it better. I cannot imagine that info isn’t out there somewhere else. But I hadn’t found it. Now, again, everyone is different, and I have not scoured the earth looking for good advice on writing. So no one be dissuaded from their own research about how to be better.
A number of people have offered up suggestions for authors who have inspired your work ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Jack Vance to Poul Anderson.  Do you have an author that you consider your primary influence?
That’s pretty tough. I write a couple different types of stories but the ones closest to my heart are the ones like "Athan and the Priestess". They happen in a sort of myth world that occupies some nook in my brain, living on despite constant assault from the modern world. The writer who best resembles that inner myth world is Dunsany. Howard and Vance are huge as well, probably in practical terms bigger influences, but Dunsany goes for that sort of transcendent quality I find irresistible
Terronus, by  Scott R. Pyle and
Schuyler Hernstrom
Who are some of your favorite authors writing today?
Cirsova kicked off a real renaissance for me in terms of new writers to check out. That is turning into a deep ocean. Outside of that pool there is Dariel Quiogue, a guy I found through Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, really good sword and sorcery there. Past puppy pick Niemeier is blowing my mind. The aforementioned John C. Wright is incredibly talented. And I am really excited about more stuff from Adrian Cole on the way!
With its strong grounding in epic fantasy, sprawling worlds, and constant action and adventure, your work could stand proudly among the ranks of the Appendix N books.  It’s clear that you have taken considerable inspiration from many of them.  As we all know, Appendix N was an expression of tabletop gaming.  Are you a tabletop gamer?  Did you discover these works through Gygax’s tome, or did you come to gaming through a love of fantasy literature?
Being marked as “N” quality is the highest compliment I could hope to receive. I do play D&D. I run a public 5E game and I have a B/X game for me and my buds. For me gaming and literature have always been intertwined. Appendix N was well represented on the shelves in my home growing up. My dad was into this stuff and I grew up in a house creaking under the weight of all the books. I feel really lucky. There were the books, the Frazetta covers, Savage Sword of Conan, games, movies, tv shows, all boiling in a giant cauldron. It spilled into everything, car and motorcycle culture with a nod to airbrushed panels and tanks, painting miniatures, heavy metal, tattoos, Wagner, everything, even bodybuilding and martial arts. Geek culture likes to arrange everything in little fandom boxes but for me it has always been such a multifaceted thing.  
Do you have a writing routine?
I don’t really have a routine. I have to be in a certain state of mind when I start something. Once it is begun, then I can feed off it to get back into that state of mind, like an engine that has been warmed up. I use a lot of music to get in the mood, and sometimes weed.
Are you planning to write a full novel or, as is common in fantasy, a multi-volume saga?
I don’t want to close the door on anything but I cannot imagine writing one of those sprawling sagas. It just isn’t in me. Those things are written with a different purpose than the one that motivates my writing. Nothing at all wrong with them, it just isn’t me. I have a novel in my head but I keep going back on forth with it. I am having so much fun with the short fiction that I don’t feel a burning need to do the novel, but then I think I really should.
Is there a genre you haven't yet tried but would want to? And, also, is there something you'd never write?
I think multi-volume things are off the menu as I talked about earlier. As far as other genres, sometimes I get the urge to write “literary fiction”.  There are a number of authors I like outside the genre, Ernst Junger, Mishima, Hesse, Dostoevsky, and sometimes I dare to think that I should be working on something to document the particular mental spaces that we occupy today. Then I remember that the things I would have to say would be likely be outside the boundaries of discourse set in place by our betters that it would never get anywhere.

As one of Cirsova’s regular contributors, has all of your work for that magazine been submitted blind, or do you do spec work to fill in holes in the editor’s line-ups?
It was pretty much blind but I got on the list for the Eldritch Earth issue so that is nice.
You’ve done an admirable job straddling the line between self-publishing and securing work through Cirsova magazine.  How has self-publishing worked out for you?  Any advice for the recent crop of authors picking up the pen and throwing their own hats into the self-publishing ring?
My strategy comes from Dean Wesley Smith. Get into some magazines and then have some self-published stuff on the rack for people who like your work. If it wasn’t for people like him giving us wanna-be’s the straight dope I would be pretty clueless. The publishing industry does a really good job of controlling the frame but between the internet and Amazon things are opening up. Larry Correia also dishes out a great deal of hardcore info about how the whole thing works. My only advice to people starting out is do some homework and be fearless. Considering the work I have done to promote myself, my venture into self-publishing has succeeded much better than I dared hope.
Unlike other contemporary self-published authors, you seem hesitant to advertise yourself or to have a social media presence. Why is that so?
I think it goes back to that little bio of Vance in the back of the book. That was enough back then. I take my work very seriously. I want my work to be more out there, more known, more prominent than me. I don’t want to have public stances on every event or issue that comes up. I don’t want to spend time creating content other than my writing. A great many writers are doing that, and I do not begrudge them any of it. They are doing what they want to do, putting themselves out there, partly to market their work and because they have something to say. I think that is awesome. It just isn’t me. When it is all said and done my career may suffer for this, but I just have to do it my way. Otherwise I would be faking it. I’ve been contacted by people that wanted to let me know they like my stuff or ask a question and I love it, I love meeting people. I am just not going to maintain any sort of real presence online.

Lore, Vol. 2, No. 5 contains Hernstrom's
short story, "Palace of the Androgyne"
"Thune’s Vision", this month’s Puppy of the Month selection, is your first independently available title.  Can you tell us what you have in store in the near future?
I don’t know! Ideas for stories keep popping into my head but I have a novel cooking back there somewhere and I honestly have trouble deciding where to concentrate my efforts. Whichever way I go I just want to keep making things. I’ve had a blast so far, I’ve met some amazing people, and I expect it is only going to get better.
The Puppy of the Month Book Club has given you their take on your work – do you want to take a few shots at our reviews?
Oh no. Anything that I disagreed with simply boils down to a matter of personal taste. I was surprised "Movements of the Ige" was so well liked. I imagined it would be thought of as a palette cleanser. Obviously I love it, but you just never know.  It comes as close as I can to an “idea” story. In Star Trek and other franchises, you have your warrior races. I like Star Trek, not knocking it, but I just wanted to take the warrior race to its limit.  Thus warfare is actually part of their ecology. And I like beauty, so let’s make it all beautiful. Why not?
Your Amazon bio mentions that you were enlisted twice and have been "a paratrooper, sailor, janitor, bouncer in Roppongi*, librarian, and a dozen other things, bringing a world wise slant to his tales of the fantastic. " There must be something funny or interesting there with such a life you could share with the Puppy of the Month Book Club.
Oh man. I have more stories than people have time to hear. When I was 19 I was bouncing off the walls. Remember before the internet when the only stuff you knew about an author was from a paragraph at the end of a book? I took note that Jack Vance was a well-travelled man. I decided to join the military and my mom begged me to go into the navy, the least dangerous one. I don’t know what she was worried about, this was after history had ended when the Soviet Union closed up shop but before the neocons had seized complete control. Vance had been a sailor so that was good enough for me. So I went into the navy. I can keep my mouth shut and obey complicated instructions so I did well in boot and got a school out of it. I picked intelligence analyst after watching the movie “Patriot Games”. I blame Polly Walker. At intel school I was the best at memorizing Russian weapons platforms so I got choice of station and picked Japan. I had an incredible time, got to visit a dozen different countries and sail all over the western Pacific.

After my enlistment was up I stayed over there. I had a job on the base and on the weekends I did the bouncing. It was pretty farcical. I think I got the gig based on my tattoo sleeves.  At the time I was built like an otter, very lithe, about 180 probably, and I’m 6’3”. But my comrades there were all very large, very fit men. Some of them had come over to get on the K-1 circuit. They were kickboxers. So as we settled into our roles it became clear that I was there as comic relief, a role I accepted with grace and seriousness. I worked in two different clubs, one in Shibuya and one in Roppongi. I never had to lay anyone out the whole time. There weren’t any bikers or skinheads over there, at least in those clubs, and when the Japanese party they just want to party. If anyone was going to be causing trouble it would have likely been me, and I was working, so there you go. My manager was a mountainous black guy, a true giant. He was a good natured man but one night the drink called up demons in him. As the club was letting out he got into it with a big group of natives and things went really south quickly. I will never forget the sight of him, bellowing his battle cries as a dozen Japanese men crawled all over him. People didn’t really “fight” fight over there, it is difficult to describe, more like a pushing match punctuated by the occasional pulled punch. In societies with high cohesion and homogeneity I think you are less likely to want to kill your foe during altercations. Anyway, it was like watching a tribe of goblins storming castle walls. Me and the other guys just pulled the Japanese off, one by one, and carried them to where “Big Al”, another large black man with hands like Christmas hams, was corralling them. The whole time the women were screeching and screaming. Even in mild distress the noises they make are still “kawaii”.
I travelled for spectacle and I got it. When I finally got back stateside I kicked around for a little bit and then went into the army, 11B, airborne, but a bout of Hodgkin’s Disease ended my military career right as Iraq was kicking off. It gets more and more boring after that. But I have my memories, tons of them, and I still manage to find some spectacle even after being domesticated. If you are stuck somewhere, fear not, just try to squeeze everything you can from the environment around you. I traded sunsets on the South Pacific and the thrill of parachuting for the hills of my home in Western PA. But they are beautiful hills and if they were all I could have it would be enough.
Great advice for all of us.  Any parting thoughts?
Thanks to everyone out there for the support. People have a million ways to spend their precious free time. If you’ve spent any of it on my writing you have my sincerest gratitude. And to all the other writers and content creators and bloggers, thanks for the help.  
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1 comment:

  1. I knew the question about your biography was a good one. That was a fascinating read.