Six Elementals Author Interviews will introduce prospective readers to some of the best writers in their genre you may, or may not, have heard of, via a series of six questions. I encourage you to check out the work of these phenomenal creatives! Links to their websites and purchase links will always appear, accompanying the interview. Check them out!
P.L. Everyone, consider this is a must-read interview, because I am very humbled to be joined by none other than the award-winning grimdark / gaslamp fantasy author, current Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) #7 Finalist H.L. Tinsley! H.L.’s current published work is: We Men of Ash and Shadow.
H.L., to be able to interview you is one of the highlights of my 2021! Thank you so much for joining Six Elementals Interviews! Congratulations on your finals debut in the very prestigious, yet grueling contest that is SPFBO! As the saying goes, “Only one can win”, but to make it to be one of ten finalists out of approximately 300 incredible authors is quite the feat! Can you tell us about how you feel regarding your meteoric rise? How are you handling all the success?
H.L.: That is quite the question to kick off with Mr. Stuart! Well, my first feeling is immense gratitude – probably followed by joy and shock. Like any author, I feel passionate about my book, but you can never be sure whether anyone else will feel the same way you do about it. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have received such positive reactions to We Men of Ash and Shadow, and I’m glad so many people have found something in it that speaks to them.
That’s all you can hope for as a writer, isn’t it? Well, that, a seven-movie Hollywood deal and a spot on the best sellers list.
As for how I’m handling it? Again, like most people, I still have moments of doubt – many of them, if we’re being honest about things. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve ‘made it’ or anything like that. Success is such a strange thing to measure. What does it even mean? I set myself goals and strive to work towards them. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved over the last year or so, but more so of the things I’ve learnt about myself and what I can do – the personal successes. I’m not the sort of person that will ever sit back and go ‘OK, well I’ve made it now.’ I’m the sort of person who asks, “What’s next?”
P.L.: With that kind of outstanding work ethic, a lot more accolades (and the seven-movie Hollywood deal and spot on the best sellers list) is practically assured! Can you please give us some insights into the dark and gritty world of We Men of Ash and Shadow? What has inspired the thought-provoking universe that you have created in your novel?
H.L.: When I set out to create the world in We Men of Ash and Shadow, my goal was to build a setting where it felt like you were under the skin of the world. People have mentioned the city felt like it was a character itself – achieving that feeling was very important to me. So much of who we are is defined and influenced by our environment. It comes down to the old nature versus nurture argument. How much does our status, societal standing, the setting we are born into affect what we do and who we become?
I wanted it to feel like D’Orsee was whispering to the characters and trying to influence the decisions they made. Things like the Penny Dreadful newspapers have always inspired me – that obsession with macabre and dark, gritty events that almost become mythical in their retelling.
Reading wise I draw a lot from works by writers like Alexandre Dumas and Alan Moore. I think I like authors whose names begin with A for some reason. I also drew aesthetic inspiration from a mixture of the 1800s and 1900s and places like London, Paris, Belfast, and the north of England. Particularly where industrialisation radicalised the way of life. I grew up in the Midlands near the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and you couldn’t walk half a mile without finding an old canal tunnel or a forge or foundry.
I was obsessed with those old, pre-war structures and still am. My dream would be to spend my days exploring old factories. I could do that quite happily for the rest of my life. Even hundreds of years after being abandoned, those places still buzz with palpable energy. You can feel the history in them. There’s just something in the air. They were the cornerstone of life – good, bad, and everything in between. People worked, survived, and died by them, often in unimaginably bleak circumstances beyond their control. But they very much lived in them too.
It’s fascinating. Every period in history affects who we are now, but for me, that period, in particular, changed everything – revolution, rebellion, the enormous societal and economical shifts. It laid the foundations for modern life. That’s really what I wanted to achieve with D’Orsee – it had to feel like it had come from the pages of our history.
P.L.: I truly felt like I was walking the streets of D’Orsee when I read you book! Along with creating such an immersive world, you handle trauma and grim topics in your book with skill, sensitivity, and realism. Is there a particular skill that you believe a writer needs to be able to deal as adroitly with such difficult aspects as you do?
H.L.: First of all, thank you very much. There is a thin line to be trodden when approaching trauma and grim topics in writing. It is hugely important to realise the definition between a critical message or subject (and pivotal part of the story) and what could be considered gratuitous. I think a lot of it comes down to wanting your characters to be very much real, living people – with all the layers, complexities, and nuances that come from a life filled with good times, bad times, trauma, experience, and everything in between.
Trauma is not, and should never be, the single defining element of a character – it isn’t who they are. They can still laugh and cry and make jokes, and be silly and fail at things. To me, characters should never be used simply as a vehicle for tragedy. There must be more to it than that. They need agency and autonomy and the freedom to make choices, even if they don’t choose well.
Everyone has their way of approaching things like this. I don’t know that it takes a particular skill or anything like that. I think it’s just about listening, observing, learning, and understanding that you might not always get it right – talking to people and educating yourself.
Trauma isn’t a one size fits all kind of deal. It isn’t always graphic, or explosive, or even that noticeable in many cases. Often it is quiet and unnoticed, becoming a part of the background of everyday life. The key is to ask yourself – why is this important to the story? What is my motivation for including this?
P.L.: I completely understand, and once again commend you on how you dealt with something so challenging. You have created a lot of fans for your work (including me of course), and a lot of writers who already look up to you, as an influencer. Who were your writing influences, and why?
H.L.: I’ve mentioned his work before, but Robin Jarvis had a massive influence on me as a young reader and writer. I still have some of his books now. The Alchemists Cat and The Woven Path will always be amongst the first books I think of when people ask me this question. Reading stories as a young pre-teen that didn’t hold back any punches when it came to death, violence, grief, etc. was mind-blowing. To find that level of bleakness but also honesty was so refreshing. There was no pandering about it. These characters suffered and died, and you felt it right in your gut, but it was never wantonly grotesque. There was a reason to it and a sense of truth.
You ask later about the first line of We Men, but honestly, for the greatest of all openers, you have to read Patrick Suskind. The first sentence of Perfume is magnificent – ‘In 18th-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.’
That’s the kind of opening line a writer would sacrifice their soul to write. That right there is pure poetry. I already mentioned Alexander Dumas earlier.
At this point, I’d be reluctant to say he was an influence, purely because a lot of Conan Doyle’s characterisation was extremely problematic but, I will forever be obsessed with the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Theirs is one of the best relationships in literature. If we are talking modern writers – Mark Lawrence, John Gwynne, Nicholas Eames – I enjoy their work a lot, so I would say they have influenced me in different ways.
P.L.: I concur, Suskind’s opening line is incredible! That said, as you referred to it in the previous question, and I know you must answer this in every interview, yet I beg you, please tell us (because it is becoming legendary in fantasy circles) about you own now-famous opening line of your book:
“It was the most highly recommended venue the city had to offer. It was called the Ring O’ Bastards, and it had the lowest patron-to-murder-victim rate in a five-mile radius.”
This has to be one of the absolute most memorable opening lines of any book, anywhere that I have EVER read! What do you feel about your amazing hook that has sucked readers helplessly into the world of D’Orsee?
H.L.: To be honest, I feel under immense pressure. Now I have to make sure the opening line of everything I ever write from here on is equally as memorable. The bar has been set. Joking aside, I think it’s great. I love that people have found it so quotable. I don’t even know where it came from, I was out walking the dog (incidentally, that’s when I have most of my ideas – when I’m as far away from my laptop as it’s possible to be), and I thought, oh that could be a funny but sort of bleak opening line to a book. It turned out a lot of other people agreed, so I’m happy with how it worked out.
P.L.: It certainly did work out and has helped catapult you to fantasy glory! Please tell us a little bit about the background of H.L. Tinsley, fantasy author, and what helped make her a rising star in the grimdark world! How long have you been writing, and when did your passion for writing begin?
H.L.: I’ve always found it difficult to answer questions about my background. The route from wherever I started to where I am now wasn’t particularly linear. Bouncing around projects and ideas was always a problem for me in my younger days. I always had a lot going on in my head – I still do. It’s been more of a creative journey than anything. I had an overactive imagination as a child, so I was always looking for ways to be artistic or creative.
My sister and I used to write comedy sketches and film them on my dad’s video camera, so I used to write a lot of what I thought was incredibly funny at the time. It wasn’t. I come from a creative family so it was sort of inevitable I was going to try a bit of everything. Singing, dancing, theatre that was all the sort of stuff I had going on for years. Writing was always in the background, never really in the forefront. My attention span doesn’t so much wander as it does go off on massive fifty-mile hikes by itself. So I was always wary about anything I couldn’t master in a matter of weeks.
Quite a lot of people around me were encouraging me to write long before I did it. I’ve always been passionate about stories and how we tell them, but I didn’t sit down to write my first novel until about four years ago. I was going through a rough time in my 9 to 5 ‘career’ and I felt like I was at a turning point where I could either take a chance or carry on being miserable and stressed out. So I wrote my first book – which, as is tradition for all authors, was pretty terrible. Then I wrote another one. Then I wrote We Men and, as corny as this sounds, I felt like I’d come home.
I don’t have writing qualifications; I’d not had any experience to the literary world beyond writing stories for fun now and again. So it was pretty much a case of throwing everything I’d got into what I was doing. There was a lot of pushing myself, making mistakes and getting out of my comfort zone. There has been a lot of time over the last three or four years where I’ve been working twelve hours a day seven days a week. But the support and love from the writing community has been unbelievable.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve gone from zero to one hundred miles per hour in a very short time, and now and again I have to sit back and take stock. Writing is my life now, and I’m in the position where I don’t have to do anything else to support myself if I don’t want to. That’s an amazing place to be so I’m excited to keep on learning, growing and enjoying the journey.
P.L.: And we can’t wait to follow along on your amazing journey, and see your continued success! It has been simply fantastic to speak to you H.L.! Again, thank you so much for joining me on Six Elementals Interviews!