DS: Today I am honoured to interview author Joseph Sale on my blog. Thanks for taking the time Joseph.
JS: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.
DS: How did you first get into writing?
JS: I was very fortunate that my mother and father were both very passionate about literature, and so, from a very young age, I was inundated with stories. My father loved the classics, and we read them together before bed. My mother read 2000AD (Judge Dredd and Slaine in particular), and also epic fantasy novels. Words cannot express how important this was for me, growing up. One other important thing to note is that though my father was a writer, and my mother an artist, neither of them ever forced me down one path or another. For a time, I wanted to be a professional fencer, and did make the GB team before I realised that it was not satisfying for me; they fully supported this, and didn’t in any way try to coerce me into being “like them”.
I then wanted to become an actor, and spent a lot of time on stage in my teenage years, which I did thoroughly enjoy, but over time I realised that I was even more interested in the words themselves than in how I was supposed to say them, and I wanted to make little changes (except, of course, when I was performing Shakespeare, in which case I merely stood in adoration). It was after this stint of acting that I really began to sit down and seriously write. What I learned from acting I found useful as a way of getting into the heads of my characters, however. Although most of my experience was with poetry and plays, I found that novels suited my yearning to describe the imaginative settings that I conjured in my head. My first “proper” book was a novelisation of the epic Germanic poem The Nibelungelied. It’s still floating around on the web, though I don’t direct people to it these days! You can tell a sixteen-year-old wrote it
DS: Where on earth did Smiley come from? He has tormented my dreams.
JS: Haha, I’m simultaneously glad and very sorry to have caused you such grief. Smiley… where to begin? Undoubtedly, he is the most important character I have ever written. I suppose the truthful answer is that Smiley came out of the mirror. He’s me, though I didn’t immediately realise this. Craig Smiley is an anagram of Mr Cigy Sale – this is again something I only later discovered with a mixture of horror and delight. In my childhood, my friends and I often fashioned ourselves as epic heroes (you might imagine we were real toffs when I say that, but the opposite is true—we were penniless no-hope nerdy sewer boys—which is why we found the heroic comparison so hilarious). One was Achilles, one was Odysseus, and I was Cygnus, an often forgotten Trojan hero, who, upon death, transformed into a cygnet (hence where we derive the word from). My friends therefore affectionately called me “Cigy”. This was another “in joke” as I was the only one of them never to smoke.
When I was writing Gods of the Black Gate, I had been through a rough patch. My initial focus was on creating a detective story in the style of True Detective season one. However, increasingly, my focus shifted from the detective, Caleb Rogers, to the antagonist, Craig Smiley. I realised, quite shockingly, that I sympathised more with Smiley than I did with the detective. And, I began to become aware that though I imagined him to be Texan and a soldier, two things I had never been, Craig Smiley was a ciphered version of me. There was a kind of horror and wonder in that moment. Craig represented a part of myself I’d been repressing in trying to come through my personal struggles. Craig was the part of me that really, really wanted to burn civilisation to the ground, and most importantly: who would let nothing, not even the entire universe, stand in his way. Certain life experiences had led me to feel weak and powerless. Craig Smiley was my rage against that condition. He was a mortal that even the gods of the abyss feared.
The thing about Craig Smiley is that whilst he is undoubtedly evil in many ways, he didn’t just represent my “bad side”. He represented a lot of the aspects of my personality that I liked: reckless determination, an ability with words, monomaniacal focus, self-belief of a certifiably insane degree, and so on. I couldn’t hate Craig, because he wasn’t just all my evil poured onto the page. He was something more. He was a synthesis. I think, in a way, he was my mind trying to pose a solution to the problem of my life: this is who you need to become to succeed. And, in a bizarre way, that became true. Minus the sacrifices, of course.
DS: Your new book Dark Hilarity is a deeply personal book I felt was that intended?
JS: You’re very perceptive, Dan. Thank you for reading so closely. It is a very deeply personal book and the relationship between Tara and Nicola is especially true to the reality of one enduring friendship I have had since childhood, a friendship that has defined who I am, and saved my life, in many respects. Some people were a little shocked by some of the early, distressing childhood scenes in the book, but sadly these are very true to the reality we lived growing up.
At my wedding, this same enduring friend made a speech in which he said, “Me and Joe grew up inhabiting worlds known only to us.” We both cried when he said that. I think we knew that fantasy, the worlds we shared, were the only thing that had redeemed us from a truly awful fate. In some ways, the entire book came out of that beautiful line.
DS: In my opinion Dark Hilarity is your best work to date. Your growth as a writer is incredible. How long did it take you to write? What themes or ideas do you hope people take from the text?
JS: You are too kind, Dan. I would like to thank you profusely for being such a loyal and dedicated reader all of these years. It is amazing that someone is there to see that growth, and I’m glad you feel that I’m getting better, it makes the hard work worth it!
Writing Dark Hilarity was extremely difficult. Firstly, it’s the longest individual novel (or indeed book) I’ve ever written by some way. Secondly, it is, as you observed, probably the most deeply personal thing I’ve attempted. It took most of a year to draft, and months of editing. Some scenes were painfully hard to write.
In terms of themes and ideas, I think there are three key ones: the book explores the interrelationship between escapism and depression. I am not against escapism, and as I’ve said before, fantasy and imagination saved my life. But, I also recognise that at some stage we need to confront reality, and our history books are littered with people who failed to do that. Depression is an insidious, poisonous plant that grows in the mind and cannot be easily rooted out. We all respond to depression differently, and I know my resort was often to disappear into fantasy worlds, but though it helped at first, eventually it became no different to hitting the liquor bottle: a way to numb the pain rather than confront it.
Secondly, I think the book explores addiction. There are many forms of addition, and the book touches on some obvious ones, such as substance abuse, but I think it also explores subtler addictions: addiction to escapism, addiction to misery, addiction to failure. All three principle characters (Nicola, Tara, and Jed) have addictions to triumph over.
Lastly, it explores friendship, what true friendship is, and how rare it is. I have been blessed with not just one but many incredible friendship. It is, undoubtedly, the greatest blessing of my life, to be surrounded by love that just keeps on giving and shining.
DS: The Gods of the Black Gate trilogy has so many themes it is difficult to know where to start. What inspiration stemmed the initial idea that helped spawn in my opinion one of the best dark trilogies in the last decade?
JS: Wow, knowing how much you read, that is high praise indeed. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much Dan, those words will stay with me forever.
As I mentioned before, Gods of the Black Gate initially came out of the idea of doing a kind of homage to True Detective but set in space. However, I quickly realised that there was no way I could possibly rival Nic Pizzolato’s dialogue, or the charismatic duo of McConaughey and Harrelson. Some initial scenes for the book which did not make it into the final draft, between Caleb and Thom, were very flat indeed. So, I had to do something different. Luckily, I didn’t really have to “think” of a solution, because one was already emerging in the form of Smiley himself.
As you can tell by the ending of the first book, I didn’t really imagine I would write anything further about those characters. However, years later, I had a dream in which I was Smiley… I lay in a field of multicoloured grass. Slowly, I got to my feet. There was an alien wind blowing. A small hill rose. I walked through the hill and suddenly found myself looking down on a phantasmagorical city. A realisation pieced by heart with the keenness of an arrow that this city was real, I wasn’t dreaming, I was walking in another world; and in this world I was him. Then I started awake.
The dream shook me, and over the next few days, I began to reflect on it. One of the strangest things is that Smiley had been different. He’d matured, healed slightly. The old Smiley had died, but now he was living again as something else. I realised that there was another story to be told, one that was even more focused on Smiley, and this was a fantasy epic, not a detective serial. This dream, and its accompanying revelations, became the basis for Beyond The Black Gate.
Each iteration of the Black Gate trilogy took me in a new direction; and introduced new themes. However, it was clear that there were emerging patterns to the themes, that they were organically growing out of what came before. The Black Gate trilogy in many ways reflects my personal development, from a hateful wretch who would blow up the world rather than admit he was wrong, to someone humbled and humanised—a man for the first time in his life. Some people have even read this as an evolutionary metaphor: the primal and ape-like brutality of book one giving way to a journey toward primitive civilisation in book two, and finally to true “humanity” in book three. If I had to name one ultimate and overarching theme for the series, however, it would be redemption, not evolution. I’m glad people see different things in it, however, and their reading is likely more valid than my own, in many ways.
Of course, it was never planned as a trilogy, and I almost didn’t write the last book. In fact, I can honestly say that without Christa Wojciechowski and Steve Stred’s encouragement, I might never have attempted it. With the final book, Return To The Black Gate, many times people told me not to do what I was doing: the plot sounded ridiculous, mixing the two multiverses I’d created was a mistake, there was simply no way Beyond could be continued. These doubts were like the vulture that daily savages Prometheus, punishment for his audacity in stealing fire for humankind. I pushed through them, and I will be forever proud of what I produced as a result. And, to be fair, many of the doubters admitted they were wrong, subsequently.
DS: You write both novels and short stories. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
JS: I write far fewer short stories than novels, which is quite funny! However, I often find that the ideas which come to me generally tend towards more expansive themes and concepts. My strength is in the “long game”. I think I’ve come to view myself as a writer who rewards patience. I’m of course working on improving my books and making them compelling from word one to the final page, but if you look at my earlier work, many people commented that those books are slightly hard work but worth the effort in the end. I’m quite happy with that, if I’m honest. I’d rather be that way around than gripping from the start but with a disappointing finale. I maintain that the ending to any story is it’s most important part.
Short stories are great for capturing a “moment in time”. They are a deep plunge into a particular feeling. They leave lots to the imagination, which is both their strength but also their weakness. I probably write fewer short stories because I am not as big a fan of reading them. There are some writers out there who write masterful short stories, stories that can take you on an immense journey in just a few thousand words; that is one of the most tremendously skillful things a writer can ever do and I freely admit that I feel I’ve rarely, if at all, ever achieved that level with a short story. However, on the flip side, I often find many writers use short stories as a veil to hide the fact they do not have an ending or answers in mind.
Novels are hard to write, there’s no question. They are marathons, not sprints. They require you to occupy one frame of mind for an extended period of time. When I wrote Return To The Black Gate, I had a piece of music, “Dream 3” by Max Richter, playing over and over again on repeat for months, hypnotising myself into the right frame of mind to tackle such an emotionally heavy story. However, novels are also easier than short stories in some ways because they allow you space and time to work with. I am not a great artist, though I do paint and sketch, and I guess one comparison would be the difference between having a 4’ by 3’ canvas versus an A4 sheet of paper. No doubt that you can do a lot with an A4, but the 4’ by 3’ gives you a lot more room!
DS: Which 3 books do you think everybody should read in their lifetime and why?
JS: Now you’re asking very hard questions, Dan! This is a tricky one. Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, perhaps even one of the greatest novels ever written. The ending harrows and releases me. I should say that My Best Friend’s Exorcism was definitely an inspiration point for Dark Hilarity. The way Hendrix handled the friendship between Abby and Gretchen gave me heart and courage to tackle my own portrayal of a deep friendship. Masterful, human, and unbelievably well-written— this is a book everyone, even those who don’t normally read horror, should read before they die.
The Lord of the Rings has to be on there too. I mean, there will always be people out there who hate on it, who say it’s just silly fantasy, or who say it’s not well written (the Michael Moorcock brigade) but we all know it’s more than that. It’s one of the most profound stories about addiction and friendship ever written. It never fails to reduce me to sobbing. “I can’t carry it for you, Mr Frodo. But I can carry you.” Was a more heroic line ever written? Possibly not.
Lastly, every single person on Planet Earth should read the Sick trilogyby Christa Wojciechowski. Christa is one of my favourite writers of all time. She is one of the greatest writers alive today; a Gothic master reborn in our modern age. Her prose will shake you to the very root and rewire your brain. She has not yet received the credit she deserves for the power of her storytelling and prose, but I think it’s coming.
DS: What does a typical writing day look like for you and how would you describe your writing process?
JS: Recently, my writing process has changed quite a bit. At the moment, I’m actually writing by hand, luddite as that sounds! But I’m finding it very rewarding. I type up what I’ve written after I finish a chapter and then I correct it. This is a very slow process but it is producing a higher quality result, I think. I used to write in the mornings, but that has changed too, and I generally do other work: editing for my wonderful clients, administrative tasks, etc, in the morning, and then I tackle personal creative projects in the afternoon.
In terms of talking about my writing more broadly, I used to be a very meticulous planner, hence why I outlined the Five Act Structure, but now I think that I write in a slightly more “pantser” way, though I prefer to think of it as allowing the subconscious mind to populate the page with ideas. Really good writing can’t be forced. Stephen King once wrote that “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work” and he is right in one sense, but he is also wrong, in that writers do need space and down-time to generate their best ideas. Real writing doesn’t come from the intellectual “head”, it comes from somewhere deeper. The universe itself operates on this principle. Lightyears of dead and meaningless matter all serve as the necessary emptiness to produce the single fertile pinprick of Planet Earth and human life. The greatest inspiration comes from the void, when we’re listening to the internal voice, not allowing it to be drowned out by the endless chatter of modern life.
DS: Who are your influences in your writing?
JS: Tolkien has to be mentioned. Of course, he has influenced so many fantasy authors, but I think more than anything it isn’t Tolkien’s worlds that have influenced me but his writing style. I am more drawn to dark and Lovecraftian worlds that the high fantasy landscapes of Middle Earth, if truth be told, but Tolkien’s way of writing, in turn influenced by the oral poetry of the Anglo Saxons, as well as the Nordic and Germanic epics, is simply sublime to me. There is poetry and meter in virtually every line. Also, The Lord of the Rings is another book about transcendental friendship. There are more than a few parallels between Tara and Nicola and Frodo and Sam.
I’be already mentioned that Grady Hendrix was a huge influence on Dark Hilarity, but another would be China Mieville. You were one of the first people to compare me to China Mieville, Dan, long before I read any of his work, and now I have fallen in love with him, particularly his Bas Lag series, such as The Scar and Perdido Street Station. So, you once again have proved prescient! Mieville’s worldbuilding heavily influenced the scope of Dark Hilarity’s world: Dae’eshta.
I’m also hugely influenced by Clive Barker. I regard him as one of the most powerful and fertile writers of the age; the way he combines horror and fantasy into startling visions is simply awe-inspiring. His prose is spellbinding. And I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any writer, living or dead.
One final life-changing book for me was Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s an epic poem, so it’s not an easy read, but for lovers of fantasy, this is what I regard as the original English fantasy epic. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling that sprawls over an epic, bizarre landscape whilst also deftly weaving in an allegorical moral framework. It has some of the most incredible heroes in it, such as Britomart, who is a female knight with an enchanted lance. She sets off from her homeland ravished by the idea of a man she’s never met, whom she glimpses in a dark mirror made by a wizard. It’s Arthurian but far darker than any of the better-known incarnations of those legends. Spenser’s imagination is vast and disturbing, and his feminism is pretty astonishing, especially considering he wrote it in 1590. The monsters in this book will also give you nightmares. I regard Spenser as one of the first writers to truly bring horror and fantasy together in a compelling way.
What’s really fascinating is whilst many have mistaken Spenser’s work for an attempt to butter up the royals and the Queen (the book is, after all, inspired by and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I), something far more interesting emerges when you read between the lines: let’s just say every glorious light casts a shadow.
DS: Who were the easiest and hardest characters you have wrote and why?
JS: I’m going to cheat a bit, because Smiley was simultaneously the hardest and easiest character I’ve ever written. I joked recently in a writer’s mastermind group I’m a part of called Let’s Get Published (which is amazing, by the way, and anyone reading this should definitely consider joining if they’re serious about their writing) that, “It was a lot easier when I had Smiley around: he would just tell me what to write.” And there’s a degree of truth in that. However, sometimes Smiley would occasionally either elude me, or want to take me down paths that would completely destroy the story, and those times were when he was hardest to write. Also, writing him was tiring. He’s a manic depressive, in many ways, as I was, and so he only occupies emotional extremes: frothing rage, soul-crushing despair, galactic triumph. He has no in-betweens, no intermissions, no brake pedal. He is absolute, in every sense of the word. That’s exhausting, after a while!
DS: What advice would you give to writers?
JS: Everyone has to follow their own path, so I don’t mean to prescribe. However, here are some things that have helped me:
(1) Read a lot. Read the genre you’re writing in. Read outside the genre you’re writing in. Keep reading. So many young writers come to me for feedback on their work and it’s clear from the first two pages that they have no idea what’s out there. We can all fall prey to cliché, but when we read widely, we can broaden our awareness, and circumvent it more readily. It also means that your work will have more influences which will give it more of a unique flavour. I am influenced by everything from Japanese anime to epic poetry; everything I absorb is then transmuted into a fuel I can use for writing. The process of discovering your writer’s voice never ends and my writer’s voice has changed over the years and will continue to change. In fact, perhaps the biggest change yet of my entire literary career is about to happen with what follows Dark Hilarity… But still, the more you read, the more informed that voice will become.
(2) Write regularly. I used to advocate writing every day (and used to write daily after my twelve hour shifts at a call centre, without fail) and for some people writing every day is a good practice. Nowadays, however, roughly three times a week works well for me. If you write regularly, you begin to train your mental muscles in the same way as an athlete regularly training before a competition. You cannot expect to write at your best if you leave it months between sitting down to write. You need to be kind to yourself and warm those muscles up and practice. Of course, I understand that time (and indeed energy) is limited for many of us, but writing is worth making the time for, as it will improve every other aspect of your life. Or at least, it has for me. Writing has undoubtedly been a healing therapy. It helps me focus. It de-frags and cleanses my mind. When I stop making time to write, other things begin to fall apart.
(3) Join a writing group. This is quite important. It will give you accountability partners, but it will also give you good times sharing experience and sympathy with other like-minded writers. It generates creative frisson. I’ve mentioned it before but I highly recommend Let’s Get Published. It’s affordable, friendly, and there’s an amazingly good community there. They do weekly write-ins (which makes carving out time for writing even easier), as well as courses on the craft of writing and also the publishing process. Even if you don’t sign up for a professional and paid group like this one, I recommend any writer having some kind of writing community around them. Like I said, without the support of others, I might never have written Return To The Black Gate.
DS: Finally, what is next for Joseph Sale?
JS: I’m currently working on a new book called Virtue’s End, which is unlike any book I have previously written both in terms of style and substance; I think it will be a big surprise for some. I can’t say much more about it other than it’s fantasy and undoubtedly the most imaginatively ambitious thing I’ve ever done. I won’t say it’s my best work, because my readers get to decide that! But I’m very excited to share it with the world and see what they think.
This year I’m also going to be releasing Dead World: Desecrated Empires, which is my dark fantasy narrative role-play game; although to say it’s a “game” is to diminish just how crazy it is and all it encompasses: lore tome, bestiary, world-building toolkit, and a way of taking friends on epic, cathartic journeys, all in one! I should say that an earlier version of this game formed the logic that underpinned my novel Save Game. It’s co-written with my two awesome friends Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. For anyone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, it’s simply a must (this is very cheeky, but I honestly think it’s better, and I’m not the only person saying that). There is also going to be some non-writing related Dead World content in the works; I can’t say too much, but look out for some unusual storytelling issuing from the Mindflayer’s domain in the future!
Lastly, I’m going to be doing some pretty cool things with my Patreon, The Mind-Vault, this year. Patreon has been an awesome way for me to connect with fans, to share never-before-released content, and to show a little bit more of my personality and life; to show people what’s behind the social media veil, the real person informing the fiction. If you’re subscribed to my Patreon, you get to hear about all these awesome projects first, and sometimes participate in them! You also get a monthly dose of never-before-seen fiction and videos. There’s already more than 30,000 words of content on there and it grows month by month. If you would like to have a front row seat, and possibly become a co-conspirator, in Mindflayer’s attempt to take over the world, then the Mind-Vault is the place to be!!
I’d like to thank you profusely for taking the time to interview me, Dan. You have asked some of the most searching questions of any interview I have ever done. Thank you.
This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Joseph enough for his mind-blowing answers, and for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an absolute pleasure getting to do this. Please check out Joseph’s work today.