Hi there! Another month, another interview with an up and coming legend of the world-wide writing community. This time, I have the pleasure of introducing British author, Jon Hillman. If dark fantasy is your thing, then Jon is, most definitely, your man! Jon put a lot of thought into his interview, so rather than have me waffling on about it, let’s get stuck in!
So, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? Where did you spring from? What part of the world do you call home and what is your biggest love/pet hate?
As a writer, I didn’t really spring into existence until the middle of 2013. Sure, I’d been kicking about for 30 years prior to that but I lived in a part of England that is notoriously boring. Flat, dry, dusty. Any given look around that area would give you two colours: brown and blue, dirt and sky. Eventually, enough was enough and I moved to Scotland. Going from years of a perfectly horizontal horizon to a land of hills and mountains, lochs and forests, stones and secrets was akin to being dunked down in another world entirely. Biggest love? She turned up in 2016 and is now three years old. Pet hate? It’s a controversial one, but it’s the Internet! A veritable rat king of conjoined personalities and opinions that seems to grow ever more dangerous every day!
What motivates you to write books?
As mentioned, Scotland broke the dam of ideas in my head and they’ve been rushing forth ever since. Everything I have written about has originated in an experience I have had, but has been heavily twisted in the way of fantasy. If you have read Grim Work you might be wondering “what part of that did you live out?!” All of it, in a manner of speaking.
The problem with me is that one thought leads to another and builds itself up into an entirely new story. I don’t want to sit around with all of that pinging around my mind, so the best way to sort that out is to write it all down! I have to say, gaining readership is generally quite low on the motivation scale. I write what I want to write and I would never want to try and manipulate it into something that could be perceived as more popular. That anybody has read anything I have written has come as something of a shock! That they’ve enjoyed it almost keeled me over.
Grim Work by Jon Hillman. What a striking cover!
What’s the biggest buzz you’ve had from your writing so far?
One day, at work, I went to speak with a member of another department that I generally have very little to do with. There he was, sat on Amazon purchasing one of my books! I’m sure that the chances of me being behind him at the same time were about as low as that of a lottery win!
If you had the choice, what would you prefer to do, publish traditionally or self-publish, and why would that be?
First and foremost, writing is a hobby for me. I enjoy hobbies. I spend as much time as I can doing them, be it writing, or hiking, or photography. Once anything becomes more than a hobby, it starts to lose its shine – even if it is working on something I love. I genuinely want to be able see my writing as a hobby in the future, even if the powers that be deem my work fit to be enjoyed by, dare I say it, thousands!
To me, traditional publishing is work. I don’t want to come home after a hard day’s graft and graft again. Self-publishing feels like the like the hobbyist version of traditional publishing. Self-publishing can definitely bring success (though it generally eludes me), but it also allows me to carry on with my work at my own pace, in my own time, and to work on whatever it is I feel you want to. Self-publishing is relatively low on the stress scale (table of contents creation excepted…) and again, I want my hobbies to be fun.
A lot of writing these days, especially with regard to self-publishing, is about marketing. What marketing do you do, if any, and what has worked and failed for you?
Marketing is a tough one! I don’t make much money at all from my writing and any advertising I do work on generally comes when I have dropped my books to the low, low price of zero pence. I am literally paying people to read my stories. Seems perverse, especially given the hours spent on writing the stories themselves!
That said, I have had some degree of success (or at least what I am going call success): my first book, Cold Call, managed to reach number one on Amazon in the free horror e-books on Halloween 2016. My first book! A number one ‘best-seller’. My advertising for that came in the simple form of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram ads. Horror seems to be more widely accepted than dark fantasy, however, and I have not relived such delights since!
Have you always aspired to be a writer, or did the idea just spring into your mind later in life?
Now, while I said that I sprang into life in 2013, I mean in terms of actually telling myself I would get a book out there one way or another; I have been writing for as long as I have been able to manipulate a pen nib into making shapes that look vaguely like letters.
At school, I wrote, illustrated, and printed (kids publishing) short books that I became so inspired with that I went above and beyond the teacher’s request of jotting down some ideas of storytelling, turning them into entire short stories of my own. Recently, I embarrassed myself on Twitter with photographs of The Secret Land of Boglins, an absolutely terrible story about my favourite toys. I made a cardboard-bound book based on Escape from Kraznir, and added an additional three acts to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (all in iambic pentameter).
During my time at school and university, I took writing-based decisions where I could. Focused on language and literature at GCSE and A-Level, did a journalism degree. Back then, I had planned to get into videogame writing. I wrote and published (again, printed) a fanzine at University that earned me work on gaming websites and interviews at magazines down in Bournemouth.
That didn’t pan out, and I’m really quite glad it didn’t as I don’t like the internet and that would be where I’d be working full time today if I had continued on with it.
What are your top five books/authors of all time and why?
If I go with authors, I can get more books in…
Mervyn Peake. Titus Groan and Gormenghast were hugely inspirational to my way of thinking. The castle-scape that Peake showed us was so rich, even in confinement, that each time I read it I find new things and create richer imaginations of Gormenghast itself. His characters were incredible, all mad, but quite fantastic.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. As a fantasy writer, if I hadn’t read Tolkien what on earth would I be? I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine, reading so long and hard into the night that I also experienced my first migraine and temporarily lost the ability to see much of the page on my right! Tolkien’s greatest success for me was the world he created. For years, I wanted nothing more than to simply exist in Middle Earth.
Robert E. Howard. Without Conan, there would be no Marigold. Without Crom, no Greldin. Among my favourite memories of Conan is a time he emerged from a battle with a spirit that cut like knives. We don’t see the fight, but Conan appears wide-eyed and shredded, but alive. That was where Marigold was born. I wanted to take that moment in Howard’s tales and turn it into a series of my own.
Joe Abercrombie. The grim and dark works of Abercrombie are perhaps the most directly inspirational to the writing I do myself. He doesn’t shy away from violence, from language, or from vile scenarios. The sense of reality in his books is practically tangible thanks to this, and I strongly believe that writings of foul misdeeds, violence, and subterfuge is being done incorrectly if it doesn’t include a hefty a dose of words that make folks wince.
Howard Philips Lovecraft. The master of the impossible. Lovecraft brought us stories that frequently left us on the side of the loser. Only The Dunwich Horror seemed to suggest any form of victory for humanity over the cosmic almighties, leaving the score somewhere around 95-1. If you have read any of the books I have written, you may well see a hint of Lovecraft in them; fearful odds and vast powers.
Gareth Hanrahan. Earlier this year, Hanrahan released his first novel, The Gutter Prayer. It is written in an oddly present tense, everything is unfolding alongside you in a way that initially made reading a little uncomfortable, but now seems an almost natural way to write (and now I have to edit that to bring it back in line with how I write). The world on offer here is deep, chewy, and perilous. You wouldn’t want to live here! But, if you have read this fantastic book, you now also have Tallowmen permanently etched into your memory.
Tstutomu Nihei. Nihei is a manga artist who brought out this incredible series called Blame! The story takes place in The City, where construction began on earth by beings called Builders. The City grew and grew and at last count had reached Jupiter’s orbit. Blame! is very much the story of a manga artist. Dialogue is scant, visuals are the main feature here. Grotesque features heavily!
Oh, that was seven authors! Seven is a lot like five, only it is two more. That’s fine, yeah? Looking at these authors, it is clear to see that worlds are what draws me into a story. Guess that’s what I get for spending so long in a county of flat horizons!
[Editor’s Note: Okay, Jon, I will let you have a couple of extras, simply because I am merciful and your selection is so fascinating!]
Map of Traverne, the world where Jon Hillman’s dark fantasy novels are set.
Are you a plotter, someone who maps out a story before writing it, or a panster, someone who just writes and sees how it goes? And would you change the way you write, if you could?
When I first began writing with the aim of releasing a book, I pantsed my way into a corner and ended up with some rubbish that couldn’t really go anywhere believable. After that I became the plottiest plotter that ever plotted. I have hundreds of thousands of words of worldbuilding, maps, full notebooks, creature designs, histories, and glossaries. I love plotting and designing, and I’ll readily admit that I can get thoroughly lost within it. I have stories everywhere, and nearly all of them take place in the world of Traverne, which is where Grim Work, The Crystal Keep, and my unpublished behemoth Havelock’s Path take place. I would never want to write any differently to how I do now, unless by some means I can stop time and do more with a single day!
If you couldn’t write, what would you do instead?
Scotland is a wild place, and I could happily spend the remainder of my time poking my nose into each and every one of its countless nooks and crannies. I soak up the atmosphere of this place, sit on mountain summits for hours and take it all in, leave the beaten paths and come back riddled with ticks and the threat of Lyme disease several times a month. If I couldn’t write, I know what I would do. I’d also be carrying my camera with me, and in many ways, photography is its own little method of storytelling.
Jon Hillman, somewhere in Scotland, I would imagine.
What’s the most uncomfortable thing that you’ve had to do as an author?
Hmm, tough one. Does answering this question count? I think I’ve had it easy. I actually enjoy giving myself a challenge and writing something that should make me uncomfortable so I don’t think I can look to my actual writing here.
I’m going to have to go with physically uncomfortable, and that came when trying to write on a train during Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Bloody nightmare, and it’s just around the corner again…
The Vile Realm. Coming soon…
Are you working on anything at the moment and if so, when and where can we expect to see it?
I am indeed! The Vile Realm will be the next book I release and will continue the legend (yes, legend) of Marigold the Barbarian. This entry takes place several months after Grim Work, and we find Marigold working through a heavy sense of loss; what is he now that he has nothing? Well, it turns out his run in with another dimension in Grim Work wasn’t quite the end of that story…
Marigold’s stories tend to be quite “small” in their scope. This is a character that finds himself in situations while the world carries on around him. The Vile Realm will open up the world a little bit more, the stakes are higher even if nobody else understands the true scope of the impending disaster.
Fun fact, perhaps: there is a land called Simmermund featured in The Vile Realm, and this area was named simply so that I could call those that hail from it “Simmerians”. I’ve got to thank Robert E. Howard one way or another!
Finally, do you have a message for your fans out there and also any sage words of advice for aspiring authors?
I suppose it sounds a bit silly coming from such a small-time author, but simply the confirmation that you should write if you have a story is all I really have to offer. To quote a friend of mine (with a slight twist), it is better to have scribed and lost, than to have never scribed at all.
Thank you, Jon, for a fascinating peek into your world. As I mentioned above, if dark fantasy is your kind of thing, then Jon’s books are most definitely worth a look. You can find them all on Amazon and if you would like to connect with Jon, then check him out on Twitter.
As always, thanks for stopping by. I hope that you enjoyed the interview. Another one will be along soon, but in the meantime, why not have a look at some of the others in the list, here.
Thank you and happy reading!