Sam Sykes on his influences and The City Stained Red

Author Sam Sykes on how the explosion of nerd culture influenced The City Stained Red

Sam SykesI used to really dislike doing interviews.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of things I loved about them: the opportunity to talk about what went into my work, the flattery of having someone interested in knowing more about my motivations, the supreme ego-soothing delight of having an person take an entire chunk out of their day and reorienting their schedule to revolve around me in a display of hubris-enabling empowerment that I have not seen since the police forced me to take down the 10-foot-tall statue of myself I had erected in my neighborhood park.

Just as well, there were pigeons pooping on it, anyway.

But there were downsides, too.  There were questions that I absolutely dreaded being asked.  No, I’m not just referring to the question every author loves hearing “where do you get your ideas?” (side note: if you’re an interviewer and you ever ask this question, there’s a special layer of hell for you that is populated by people who play acoustic guitar and and have the name “Taffy” tattooed on their collarbones and say things like “hey brother do you have a moment to share a song about the good news.”)

Honestly, the question I dreaded the most?

What are your influences?

This.  This fucking question.  This is the one that made me lock up and sweat for a little bit.

On the surface, it might seem a totally innocuous thing to ask.  Just as harmless as the question “what are you making for dinner?”  A relatively shallow inquiry into your life that is of interest to the people who are asking.

But in an interview, it is as though you are being asked about your dinner by a statuesque blonde woman who has maintained her physique after three children—all of whom are soccer captains and on the honor roll—has perfect hair at all times, looks smashing in her velvet tracksuit and has just told you the handmade high-protein omelette recipe she made with organic egg whites, herb-encrusted chicken and celery grown in her own garden she ate just before she set out on her daily six mile marathon training and happened to run into you.

That is, you might feel a bit insecure if you tell her you’re planning on eating pizza in your underwear while watching Game of Thrones.

I think that’s natural.  I think a lot of authors feel judged when they have to answer as to who their influences are.  I think they fear being laughed at if their influences are deemed too childish (hello, Forgotten Realms novels) or worse, that readers might shy away from their novels if they think their influences don’t sync up.  So they typically mumble something about Tolkien and move onto the next question.

You might call that paranoia.  But this is still a genre where book reviewers praise the author the book in question reminded them of as much as they praise the book itself.  That is, it’s steeped in nostalgia, tradition, tribute.  An author could be forgiven for being nervous about it.

But…times have changed, haven’t they?

city-stained-redNerdism isn’t just popular, it’s really popular.  Conventions are hugely attended.  Game of Thrones is a sprawling epic series watched by millions and The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon.  More people are interested in nerdy shit than ever before, whereas they used to be coveted and nurtured like rare houseplants you kept in your closet.

I think this is a good thing.  It’s good that people feel more free and open to share their lusts and joys.  It’s good that nerdism is accessible and exciting.  It’s good that people are enthusiastic and overjoyed to be nerds.  It’s good that tradition is being expanded upon.

And it’s good that I started writing my latest book, The City Stained Red, around the time this was all happening.  Because god damn if it doesn’t feel nice to be less inhibited about this.

Were you to ask me my influences before this broadening appeal, I’d probably have said Joe Abercrombie (for putting the hero back in “flawed hero”), James Clavell (for teaching me the expanse of plot) and Tolkien (for starting the whole thing).

Not that those names don’t mean a great deal to me today.  But if you were to ask me my influences now?

I’d probably say Joe Abercrombie (for reasons listed above), Alan Moore’s Watchmen (for showing me the horror and appeal of good people doing bad things), and Final Fantasy VII (for showing me the unabashed joy of raising character and plot stakes to ridiculous levels).

And if you weren’t in too much of a hurry, I’d probably add (for a number of reasons): Scott Lynch, Final Fantasy VI, Jet Li’s Hero, Red Sonja comics (the new ones by Gail Simone are really good, by the way), Drizzt novels, Chrono Trigger, Rachel Aaron, and a slew of other anime, comics, movies, video games and, naturally, books.

Nerd culture has expanded.  And as a result, parts of it have begun to touch each other.  I think books will always be at the very top of an author’s list of influences, but the age of Tolkien as the chief and foremost influence has ended.  We’re in the age where Dragon Age and Unforgiven and The Dark Knight Returns are also influential.

And honestly?  That’s great.

Tradition is all well and good up until it starts stagnating.  When it becomes law, then stories start being told the same way.  Digesting a vast amount of stories, and all the ways they’re told, is good for a writer.  It’s a new perspective, a new plot, a new character, a new thought.  It’s a way to simultaneously distinguish oneself and to talk to a lot of new people who might not have otherwise read you.

And it’s all done with unrelenting enthusiasm.

The City Stained Red is the first book I wrote where I was honest with myself.  It’s the first book where I wrote exactly what I wanted to write without consideration for anyone else.

It’s got swordfights where witticisms are exchanged amidst bloodshed.  It’s got ancient demons whose horror defies mortal minds.  It’s got monsters and magic aplenty.  It’s got thieves’ wars, savage cultures, giant monsters, awkward romances and four-armed creatures who wear portraits as masks and have an interest in purchasing bodily fluids.

It is fun.  Its influences are vast and varied.  It is my very strongest work and I am very pleased to have made it in this era.

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes is published by Gollancz, out now, and available for £16.99 at Amazon.co.uk. Keep up with the latest genre fiction reviews with the new issue of SciFiNow.