One of the best things about reading is meeting varied casts of weird and wonderful characters, and no one does weird and wonderful like Set Sytes, author of such mean and magical works as WULF: A Weird Sci-Fantasy Western, India Bones and the Ship of the Dead, and How Not to Kill Yourself: A Survival Guide for Imaginative Pessimists. I’m a huge fan of Set’s work, and when I hounded the UK-based gentleman for an interview on craft, he actually agreed!
Beware, what follows gets a little wyrd. . .
Q: I really loved WULF and the follow-up book SLADE. One’s a mean sci-fantasy western and the other is a crazy post-apocalyptic alien adventure. Sounds impossible that one could be a sequel to the other, and yet you made it work beautifully. So, I’ll ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind: When is the third book in the series coming out?
Ahhh I wish I could answer that! I never know when anything is coming out. If I was to have a deadline calendar it would just be a pile of mud with a little cocktail flag stuck in it that said, ‘STOP WATCHING NETFLIX’. The best I can say is that the third book – VOLSYNG – is my No. 1 project now. And I’m not starting from scratch either – I’m always writing for future books while I’m working on the one I’m supposed to be working on, so there’s quite a bit of VOLSYNG already written (admittedly completely out of order).
As for changing genres, I see the books – or at least these three – as all westerns, but each guided by different approaches to the idea of ‘the Old West’, I guess. Different tropes all echoing the same basic concepts. Different ‘Ages of the West’. The first book is deserts and canyons and plains, outlaws and gunfights and showdowns, horses, a Man in Black – it’s the height of the Old West, the thematically archetypal adventure western paired with a lot of sci-fi/fantasy weirdness and (quite literal) darkness.
The second, SLADE, leaps forward and becomes more of an obvious sci-fi-western like Firefly or even Star Wars might be considered such; there’s still long coats and (mostly) traditional weapons, desert, a big dusty shootout in the streets, but it’s all broken, beaten-up, driven to failure. Less post-apoc and more drawn out degeneration. It’s the future of the Old West. The New West?
The third – VOLSYNG – is like the middle child, despite being third in the series; it has a kind of early-modern industrialized urban environment mixed with snowy, mountainous, forested, often unblemished terrain, not to mention the return of horses… It’s got a turn of the century kinda feel at times. Think of the 1900s-1930s when what was once the Old West was dying or had died, to be replaced by a new kind of world. It’s the end of the Old West. There’s a kind of chilly sadness but there’s also a lot of beauty. But again, like the others, it’s paired with a lot of crazy shit.
Q: Setting plays such a huge role in your stories, everything from the landscape to the local culture feels so lived-in and real. What’s been your favorite setting to write about so far?
Oh, I’m not sure I can answer that! It’s probably whatever I’m writing at the time, haha. I love creating worlds. I love describing the environment as it passes. Coming up with places and people and creatures and all that is my favorite thing about writing. As a kid I used to JUST do that, just write all the names of things (and maybe draw them) – but never get around to actually writing the stories. The act of naming is to me the first and most definitive act of creation. I have to rein myself in these days or I could do it nonstop and it would dwarf the plot. I already have way more ideas than I have stories to put them in.
Answering your question, though, I think the world of India Bones might have to take the cake so far. It’s like this weird, semi-magical mirror to our own world circa 17th and 18th century. I love putting completely (almost unrecognizable at times) new twists on things that exist or did exist in this world. It’s like someone took the geography and history of our world and put it in a blender. The act of naming disfigured – names we know attributed to things we don’t. I love that. I’m looking forward to concentrating on the sequel to it, possibly after I’ve finished VOLSYNG. There’s so much more to the world than already mentioned. I also recently came up with plans for another series set in the same world, but land-bound; a darker, more supernatural series for older readers, inspired by things like Sleepy Hollow and Wynonna Earp. I’d say the title but it’s too good a title for me to spoil publicly when it might not be written for a long time!
Q: Let’s talk about pirates. I just started reading India Bones and the Ship of the Dead the other day (it’s FREE right now on Amazon, and you should all go get it). It’s gorgeous, so magical and yet so full of excitement. From westerns to post-apocalyptic to swashbuckling, it seems like you could write a crocheting handbook and make it a roller coaster ride of adventure and emotional turmoil. Is there a genre you haven’t written in yet that you really want to? And are there any genres you would never want to write in?
Thank you! I read “crocheting” as “crotcheting”, which gave me a very different idea as to what that handbook would be about. Hmm, genres I haven’t written in that I want to. In terms of broad genre, probably not. Maybe a straight western at some point, one that isn’t blended with other genres, or an epic fantasy or sci-fi by the same measure. In terms of subgenres, there’s a LOT I want to write. I came up ideas recently for a genre I dub “jungle gothic” that I’m excited to get to one day. Same with Ancient Egyptian mythological horror. Or a disturbing blackly comic character-study set in Hell.
Couple of days ago I decided I really wanted to write just a balls-out fun shlocky horror series, very much like Ash vs Evil Dead with a cocky, drunk, demon-killing Native American/Chinese/Japanese/red-blooded All-American-Patriot protag. He’s descended from all these great family lines, historical figures and dynasties tracing way back in both American and Asian history, yet he’s just a carefree dick who barely listened to any of the shit they tried to teach him. I often get dragged down into grim, weighty things in my books, so that’d be a nice treat to myself. Although I’d probably end up dragging that down too. I expect it’ll end with the world ending.
I’ve also been encouraged to write Bizarro fiction – I’ve written some semi-Bizarro things in my short story collection Born to be Weird, but it can always get weirder. Checking my Word doc on future ideas, I have 34 concepts and plans for new stories and series. So that’s a lot to get through, and it only ever grows. I’ll be long dead before I make any headway, let alone finish!
Genres I don’t want to write – romance, supernatural romance, romantic thriller, erotic romance (worst of all), spiritual, true crime, or anything that could be described as an airport novel. I have zero time for sap or sop. I also don’t really want to write straight drama – like, there’s books out there regarded as classics, but I rarely want to read them. If the world isn’t fantastical in some way, or dealing with some historical culture or exotic (to me, in rainy England) setting, I’m probably not interested. I want escapism, not to drudge through someone else’s boring life.
Oh, and I don’t want to write Tolkienesque high fantasy. With the notable exception of Tolkien himself, I rarely like those derivative novels. I pick up the book in a bookshop, read the blurb, I see eight different ridiculously named people and places in a single paragraph, talk of wizards and magic, a coming storm or Dark Lord, warring empires etcetera etcetera, nothing of which gives me anything to ground myself or relate to, and I put the book down. And if I see the world elves then the book immediately goes down. In fact I’m going to introduce elves at some point in one of my stories, probably in India Bones’ world. But I’m gonna remake them completely. They’re one of my least favorite fantasy creatures (although I’ll grudgingly accept Legolas) and I’m going to turn them into something dark and savage, just so I can see the word in future and be okay with it.
Q: Are there any common themes or threads running through all your stories regardless of genre?
I reckon there are, yup. It’s always me writing them so I think those themes and thoughts often get in most of my stuff. Self-determination paired with self-admonishment, (comic) tragedy, desperation, egotism, fatalism most definitely – absurdism and fatalism are big factors in the Fifth Place series. A lot of humor, especially when everything is going wrong. A need for escapism, for escape, for something “more” – this has been present since my first ever book, and the biggest factor in my second novel, Moral Zero. I guess, also, and this more the author than the story, a desire to reinvent things, to spin worlds and creatures and people in new, different ways. Oh, and anti-heroes absolutely. I don’t know if I could write a goody-two-shoes, it would bore me, unless they’re a stiff-necked foil to someone else. Anti-heroes are always so much more interesting to write.
I think one fundamental thing is – I love fish out of water stories, perhaps my favorite “genre”, but I have always gotten annoyed at the trope that as soon as they’re in this strange new world, they want to return, they want to go back to the mundane world they left. It’s in so, so many books, and it’s extremely frustrating. It’s okay if they get homesick later on. But time and time again, no sooner have the characters arrived in this completely new setting, with so fantastically much to explore, then they’re looking for a way to get home. For the love of God, WHY? It’s so, ugh. It’s so un-adventurous.
Anyway, I’ve always subverted that and I guess always will. In WULF, the protagonist does get sad about what he’s left behind, but he also recognizes that, despite everything, this life is so much more amazing and vital and new than the one he left behind, and so he never really displays any eagerness to get home. I think what’s missing in a lot of these kinds of stories is showing a real passion and enthusiasm for the world, through the leading character, rather than presenting the world as a bad piece of business to get away from. I think the Harry Potter series succeeded in part, because of that. It was unrepentant escapism. “You’re a wizard, Harry.” And didn’t he fucking love it?
Q: Do you outline your stories before you start working on them or do you just sit down and wing it? And to go back to the cultures and worlds question, do you spend time before writing laying out what your world and its inhabitants are going to be like?
I just sit down and write it, admittedly in an all-over-the-place manner. I call it patchwork writing. The ideas in my head do not come in a reasonable order, and I can’t hold them back, so I just let them win and sort it out later.
The ideas are worked out in my head beforehand, they get developed there and on paper (well, Word doc) over time. I’ve still got the basic, semi-coherent elevator-pitch idea for a couple of my finished stories – Moral Zero and WULF – jotted down in a stream of conscious ramble of a paragraph, which I think were written as an excitable Facebook post, and it’s interesting to see what eventually resulted from that. Moral Zero I remember I just came up with on a car ride. It’s quite a lot to have a whole book in your head and no way to write anything down for hours. So yeah, generally I wing it, although with all the crashing ideas in my head not waiting their turn, I’m often writing bits for other books at the same time. Sometimes books I won’t get to for years. It’s no wonder my memory when it comes to the real world is notoriously poor. It’s already filled with demons and monsters and cowboys.
I’m not a planner. I’ve never been really been able to do that, nor found it useful. I’d only ignore the plan. For me, the process of on-going invention is what makes it writing. Planning is just planning. I find it boring and restrictive. With The Fifth Place and India Bones series, though, I did eventually have to have novel-separate documents where I haphazardly contain my scattered future ideas, plus names of places, creatures etc. They’re probably not very coherent to anyone else reading it, more like a madman’s encyclopedia. But those are worlds I found I needed to start keeping better track of.
Q: What do you think you get out of writing? And what do you hope your readers get out of reading your books?
I’m not sure. Haha. When I first put my website up, I said in the bio that writing for me is like an exorcism. I have to get it out of me. Actually, the words are probably still there, and still true. I have so much to tell. I wouldn’t say being an author of fiction is like having split personalities, it’s not that bad, but I think you do often feel like you’re containing a lot in you. Not just stories, but people, characters, all the things you could or couldn’t be, the worlds and lives you could or couldn’t ever have lived, all the things beyond your reach, either because they don’t exist, or they do but you never had that opportunity, or you already made your choice.
I do enjoy writing, too, although I have to push myself into starting it each day. I enjoy it when I’m in the flow, or when I’m the raw process of creation, that’s my favorite. The pre-writing, when you’re just thinking about the world, and you hit on some new thing, some new idea, and you’re like YES. Or something in your story, you realize the link, the amazing link that had never occurred to you before, and you feel like a genius (even if a reader will only shrug their shoulders at it).
Regardless, writing is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at, so that’s what I do. I like being able to give something to the world, something that only I could have made, and can’t just be replicated by another, replacing and essentially erasing my own product. Something that will be around after I’m long dead. An imprint on the universe, even if it’s a small one. Most people just throw stones into pools, and eventually the ripples cease. I want to launch a fucking aircraft carrier into the same pool, and a thousand years later it can stay there, a rotting derelict filled with moldy treasure for future explorers to find, and say to themselves, “This guy is not right in the head.”
Yeah, I have an ego. It’s hard to find writers who don’t, but then I haven’t yet met anyone else who plans to be Emperor of the Known Universe. To start with, I mean.
Q: So, I have this theory that the first novel or series a writer puts out is in a lot of ways exploring the characters of their parents and the second explores themselves. What do you think? Does that apply at all to your writing?
Huh. I’ve not heard that before, that’s interesting. I’ve always been on good terms with my parents, and because I’m fueled in that regard more by negative things than positive, I don’t think they’re going to make their way into my novels in any sense, even as some oblique parallel. My very first book was arguably a very loose metaphor or analogy of sorts for where I was at in my own life. Loose and fantastical, but also too on the nose at points. It became too cringing to think of it, eventually, so I took the book off the internet and all but disavowed it.
I’ve written since I was a kid, but that was the first book I actually managed to finish, because I’d always had difficulty finishing anything before that point. So in that sense it was an achievement, and I achieved it in part by writing – in highly abstract terms – of my own situation or mental state, some of my own needs and desires, miseries and angsts.
Since then, exploring myself, or more accurately, writing from the perspectives of all the people and perceptions that seem to exist within me, comes more naturally into the rest of my work. It’s no longer the focus, or the thrust of the stories in any way. Which is absolutely for the best. But I don’t think any writer can help but put a little bit of themselves in their plot and characters. It might not be who they are now, but as I said before, who they could be, or want to be, or don’t want to be, or a fanciful creation that exists only in their mind, but nonetheless may as well still be considered a buried, abstracted part of who they are. I believe that a writer’s characters are part of the writer’s identity. Even when they seem absolutely nothing like us, our exact opposite. Even when they’re horrible, twisted and evil. It doesn’t matter. What’s the saying? Write what you know.
Q: In addition to your genre-hopping fiction, you also write nonfiction. Does nonfiction require you to get into a different mindset than fiction?
When I wrote How Not to Kill Yourself, it was just a short piece, and unlike my fiction, I didn’t bother spreading it, sending it to people. I put it online and left it at that. I didn’t think anybody would care, and I didn’t particularly either. Fiction was my baby, not that. Naturally, the one thing I didn’t put out there, the one thing I didn’t spend any more effort on, was the one thing that got noticed and picked up! It’s always the way, isn’t it? While you’re hammering on doors till you’re red in the face somebody is quietly coming up behind you to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir, you dropped this about a year ago…”
I find it significantly harder to write non-fiction. There is no act of creation to draw upon, and little to no imagination. It’s also more personal, more real. I try and focus far more on advice and general thoughts, rather than talk about myself, but obviously my stamp is still all over this book and its sort-of spiritual successor, How to be Nice to People. You can’t hide behind characters and fictional worlds in that. You have to get real.
Reality is, unfortunately, not my forte, and rarely something that excites me. So I definitely prefer to write fiction. I prefer the mindset, the act, and the final product. I don’t really read non-fiction, even though I often convince myself I want to (there’s quite a few growing dusty on my bookshelf), and it can be difficult to write the kind of book you, yourself, probably wouldn’t read. Dealing with the kind of heavy subjects that I get into can also drag me into negative and frustrating thought bubbles, with little prospect of release while the writing is ongoing.
That said, I owe a lot to the publication of How Not to Kill Yourself by Microcosm Publishing. And I’m very glad that it helps some people out there. I get fan mail about it, which is really nice and very welcome. It might not be the “mark” I intended to leave, but it’s still a mark.
Q: If you could ask any person, living or dead, just one question, and they would have to tell the truth, do you think your heart could handle the answer?
What a peculiar way of putting that question! I thought you’d finish with, “Who would it be?” And even then, that’s a hard question that would require some thought. But could my heart handle the answer? I’m sure it could, but then I have no idea what the question would be! Haha. I’m an extremely curious (some would say nosy) person, and I have to know everything, ever, but I can’t think of anyone out there who knows something I need to know that badly.
Oh, I guess if I could talk to a dead person, if that could actually work, then I’d ask them about life after death. Is that too obvious an answer? I don’t know what specific question; whatever the answer I’m sure only a million more questions would arise from it. My heart could definitely handle it though (I’d force it to). It doesn’t matter what the question is, having an answer is better than not. I cannot think of any situation where I would not want an answer to a question I asked. Even if the answer would be awful. I still have to know!
Thank you very much for the interview, Eden. It was a pleasure!