A.M. Obst Interview
A.M. Obst is an Australian living in the UK. He’s been writing and making up stuff about places that don’t exist for a very long time, but has only recently had the opportunity to turn it into a career.
Outside of high fantasy, he’s been known to read science fiction, urban fantasy, dystopian fiction, crime, historical fiction and literary fiction.
An interview with fantasy author A.M. Obst by Robb Wallace
About (Who, why, when, where, what)
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
I’m writing a high fantasy trilogy, set in a world where the existence of an energy we’d think of as ‘magic’ has meant technological advances have been slower than in our world, while social progress is about the same in some places.
The first book of my trilogy, The Hungry Fire, came out earlier this year. It’s centred on a trio of adult siblings who discover their parents weren’t quite the heroes most people believe they were – this leaves them at a terrible disadvantage when evil forces return. Themes include identity, self-determination and self-belief. Book 2, which I’m writing right now, has themes about trust of ourselves and others, as well as embracing the parts of ourselves that we don’t like.
One reason I enjoy writing fantasy is the scope to ask quite big “what if?” questions. What if magic was just another source of energy, like electricity? What if the political influence of organised religion hadn’t played a part in how Western culture evolved?
Where are you based?
I live in the UK, although I lived in Australia for most of my life. Now, I’m based in a town on the east coast of England, which is very different to the city environments I was used to back home.
When I first started writing, it seemed all fantasy stories were set in places where the north was cold and snow was a regular feature of winter, even those books by Australian authors. So I set out to create a world where most of the landmass is in the southern hemisphere. Since that time, I’ve read many fantasy books where the author has decided to change the climate to be less Europe/US-centric, which is good to see. All the action in The Hungry Fire takes place in a semi-desert environment.
Latest releases and upcoming titles?
My debut novel, The Hungry Fire, was released as an ebook in January 2021, and is now available in paperback format. It’s currently exclusive to Amazon so is available on Kindle Unlimited, too—though I’m assessing whether I want it exclusive there forever.
I’m now editing Book 2, though the title is still a work in progress. Ideally, I’ll be able to release it by the end of the year.
I also have an outline of Book 3 of the trilogy which I’m gradually adding to and fleshing out as inspiration strikes. I’m intending to release it mid-2022.
The overall trilogy is called Serpentstone, for reasons that will be obvious after reading The Hungry Fire.
And because these things are never neat and tidy, I’ve got a few ideas for other stories set in the same world but not necessarily with the same characters. To top that all off, I have a concept for an urban fantasy series as well. But at the moment, it’s all systems go on Book 2 of the current trilogy.
What inspires you to write?
I’ve always loved reading, having been encouraged to at an early age by my mother; she was a junior primary school teacher specialising in helping children learn to read. Being a shy and clumsy child (still am, really) I wasn’t very sporty, and reading fiction was my preferred way to spend my leisure time.
I also have a very active imagination, and had many school reports saying things like “would do better if he spent less time staring out the window and daydreaming”. So I guess it was inevitable I would start creating my own stories.
I really don’t know why I enjoy fantasy more than any other genre. I guess the possibility that places exist where there really is magic is just too tempting to ignore.
Who are your favourite fantasy authors?
Like many fantasy fans, I started off reading J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. But fantasy is so much broader than those classics now. I tend to prefer female authors, who seem more willing to imagine societies with different social structures than the ones we take for granted. Also, I like stories where female characters are not all beautiful but mostly decorative – for me, they need to have as much agency and complexity as the male characters. That’s not to say male authors (like myself) can’t write those sort of characters, but it’s the female writers who have led the way.
Personal favourite authors would have to include Kate Elliott, whose world-building is superb – I enjoyed her Crossroads series and Spiritwalker series immensely, but I think everything she has done is great. She’s recently started writing space opera, which I don’t normally warm to, but I enjoyed Unconquerable Sun a lot and am looking forward to the sequel.
Other favourites include Juliet Marillier, V.E. Schwab and N.K. Jemisin.
When it comes to urban fantasy, high on my favourites list would be the Matthew Swift books by Kate Griffin (who has released some other brilliant books under the name of Claire North). Not forgetting Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London books. And I’ve recently discovered Brad Magnarella, whose Professor Croft books balance humour and gravitas in just the right proportions.
The writing process ( Inspiration, discipline, planning, software, editing)
Do you have a process, do you plan or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
My first book took years to finish. My main excuse was that my “day job” involved fair amounts of looking at a computer, and doing that in my spare time felt too much like working.
But in reality, it was because every time I sat down to write, I’d spend most of the time tinkering with the scenes I’d already written and hardly ever moved on to filling in the gaps. It was only once I began to interact with other authors that I accepted it’s OK for the first draft to be a bloated mess that needs lots of editing.
About two years ago I decided to take a risk and quit my day job. Financially I’m in a fairly good place, and I know this isn’t possible for everyone. But now I can focus my emotional energy on my writing, rather than filling my head with other people’s priorities.
While my writing process is still evolving, it seems to have settled into something like this:
- Have a vague idea that “this could be interesting” and scribble it down
- Let idea bubble away in the background for a while
- Write a broad outline of the characters and story
- Add more ideas and maybe do a little bit of writing to discover if it has potential
- Create a spreadsheet outlining what happens in each chapter
- Start writing first draft, thinking about each chapter before working on it, to get an idea of the key plot event and/or character development in it, and adjusting the forward plan as I go
- Finish first draft, then after a break, read through and make notes of what needs to be changed (starting with the story structure and any major plot or character changes)
- Edit, edit, edit!!
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I like the creative flow of that first draft, letting the words just land on the page. I’m still a little surprised and awestruck at how opening that door can lead to some great scenes and dialogue that I never initially planned for, but seemed to just appear spontaneously.
But editing is probably my favourite, the polishing and tightening up and finding better ways of telling the story. The key here is to know where to stop!
Have your previous vocations influenced your writing?
Oh, that’s a very interesting question.
My non-writing career has been in Human Resources, and as a result, I had my eyes opened as to how differently people can see the world and interpret events. That’s mainly through investigating misconduct and performance issues, as well as interviewing people for jobs and coaching managers.
I also managed several large projects, which has definitely helped me to be more organised in both the writing and marketing stages.
As far as writing goes, what do you use? Software, Apps, Hardware etc?
I used to have pleasant visions of sitting in the corner of a café, watching people and writing stories in a beautifully bound notebook. There may have been a rakish hat involved, too (which is weird because I look ridiculous in most hats).
But over the years, the increasing use of emails to communicate with work colleagues and friends has meant I’ve lost the art of writing intelligible sentences without a keyboard.
I use MS Word for writing, and Excel for plotting. When I’m in creative flow, I often write using a tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard, as it’s very portable, but I’ve found the software on laptops tends to have more of the functionality I need for editing and formatting.
Do you do a lot of research for each book? If so how do you conduct your research?
Although setting stories in a world I made up has reduced the amount of pure research I need to do, there are still issues I need to think deeply about to create a credible, liveable world. For example, I’ve needed to decide how the ‘magic’ in that world works – and in particular, what limitations ensure every plot can’t be resolved too easily using magic. Those questions have taken some time to get resolved in a way I’m happy with.
My first novel is set in two main locations, not that far away from each other, which meant I didn’t need to worry too much about distances and travelling times. But the sequel involves a lot more movement, and so I’ve been looking into realistic travel methods and times given the level of technology in that world. That has given rise to re-thinking how big the countries in my world really should be.
Do you prefer to write in silence and or have some sort of sound in the background?
I love music and listen to it a lot when I’m not writing or editing. But if I try to listen while I’m working, I get distracted by the music and end up humming or singing along… and trust me, nobody needs to hear that.
Publishing (formatting, cover design, formats, marketing)
Describe the road you took to publishing your first novel? And how that has changed.
When I started writing in my teens, I believed that all I had to do was finish my book and send it off to a publishing company. Given how brilliant my book was going to be, how could they say no?
It took me many years, and several false starts, to come up with a story I was happy with enough to consider publishing. After starting to talk with other writers and attending a conference run by a group called Jericho Writers, I learned I needed to get an agent first.
By that time, self-publishing had really taken off, and at the conference, I went to a talk by a self-publishing expert. That really opened my eyes to the possibilities and gave me an idea of what was involved in terms of the work I would need to do in addition to the actual writing.
I sent off about five queries to agents just in case, but I had a growing sense I wanted to have more control over my books and career, so when none of those agents told me they wanted to take me on, I decided to forget querying all together.
It can be hard work, but I enjoy investing the time trying to create a successful author brand and business. For now, being an independent author is what I want to do, but I’m not averse to considering any lucrative offers from publishers.
Would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring authors, or would you suggest a more traditional path?
It all depends on what you’re comfortable with. Self-publishing is not for everyone. Then again, I’ve heard that even trad published authors are expected to be more active in marketing and promotions than they used to be.
You also need to be prepared to spend some money upfront on important aspects such as editing, covers and advertising. So think carefully about it – books don’t tend to sell themselves, no matter how good your writing is.
If I have one key piece of advice for those intending to self-publish, it’s to get your book edited professionally. Spelling and grammar are important, but more fundamental is whether the story structure works, whether the characters work and develop as they should, and whether there are any plot holes. I found that help vital in my work, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
Marketing is so important nowadays, what’s your best advice to fellow authors?
I’m still feeling my way and listening as much as I can to the experts when it comes to marketing. As a result, I’m keenly following people such as David Gaughran, Mark Dawson and Bryan Cohen, and soaking up any advice they give. It seems experimentation is the key – trying different things to see if they work for your particular book and market. And don’t expect instant success; it all takes time to build up a profile.
Ask me this again in five years!
Must Read Fantasy novels?
Fantasy is such a broad genre, and that makes answering this really hard. But the books/series that have impressed me most recently are Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy (starting with The Tethered Mage) and Sabaa Tahir’s Embers in the Ashes series.
‘Classic’ books I re-read from time to time include The Lord of the Rings, the Axis books by Sara Douglass, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.
Must read non-fantasy novels?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I read a number of different genres including Sci-Fi, historical fiction, crime, thrillers and general/literary fiction. I don’t know if any of them are ‘must reads’, though.
Do you read digital, paperback or hardback or do you listen to audiobooks?
I’ve been mostly reading ebooks for a few years now, as they are extremely convenient to purchase and take away on holidays/long journeys. It took me a while to get used to the reading experience. I also buy the occasional second hand paperback and borrow from the library.
Audiobooks is a whole world I’ve not gotten into yet. I like the idea, so who knows?
What are some encouraging words you’d give to another author/writer?
Just do it! Write as much as you can, when you can, even if you don’t feel in the mood. Identify all the times in your day/week where you feel you could be doing something better and make writing your priority. Find the right environment and tools you need to be able to write wherever and whenever you can.
But perhaps most crucially, if you want to get published, get other people reading and critiquing your work. It’s amazing what you will learn, and how much confidence you’ll gain.
Get in touch
I’m intermittently active on Twitter @amobstwriter. Please follow me. Some of my tweets are about writing, some might be more political when I feel passionate about something, some are just a way to indulge my sense of humour and interact with others.
I also have a Facebook author page which I need to get better at posting on – find me at AMObstWriter.
At the moment, my book is exclusive to Amazon, and is available as an ebook, paperback or in Kindle Unlimited – https://tinyurl.com/4d5trxct.
I have an email list which you can sign up to and get a Newsletter! And there’s a freebie short story in ebook format that’s exclusive to those who sign up. The sign up page is on the Keep In Touch page of my website https://amobst.com/index.php/contact/
I do have one caveat though. The free short story contains major spoilers for The Hungry Fire, so I would strongly recommend – nay, command! – that you leave reading the short story until you’ve read the full novel. Please.
Any final words for the readers? (Anything, open platform)
I want to give readers an exciting story with 3D characters they’ll enjoy and a satisfying conclusion. And maybe a few surprising twists along the way.
While The Hungry Fire is Book 1 of a trilogy, I thought it was a standalone novel when I was writing it, and it can be read that way. So why not give it a try?