Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley

DA3_revCOMPS3Get to know A.J.

A.J. Hartley is the British born author of the thriller The Mask of Atreus (Berkley/Penguin 2006) which spent several weeks on the USA Today bestseller list and has been published in over twenty languages world wide. His second thriller, On The Fifth Day, was published by Berkley in July 2007, and hit the New York Times list in addition to the USA Today list. In 2009 he published two novels, another mystery/thriller called What Time Devours (Berkley) and the first of a fantasy adventure series centering on an eighteen year old actor, Act of Will (Tor). The second in the series, Will Power, was one of Kirkus Reviews top 15 scifi/fantasy novels of 2010. 

With David Hewson he is the co-author of a novelization of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written specially for audio and voiced by celebrated Scottish actor, Alan Cumming. It was nominated for a 2012 Audie in the Best Original Work category and published as a conventional book in spring 2012, immediately becoming a Kindle international bestseller. His co-authored Hamlet, a Novel will come out on audio in 2014. 

The first of his middle grades fantasy adventure series, Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, was published by Penguin/Razorbill in Fall 2011, followed by Darwen Arkwright and the Insidious Bleck in 2012 and Darwen Arkwright and the School of Shadows in 2013. The first book in the series won the Southern Independent Booksellers’ award for best young adult novel of 2012, and has been nominated for state children’s book awards. The second book in the series, Darwen Arkwright and the Insidious Bleck was published in 2012 and the third, Darwen Arkwright and the School of Shadows, in 2013, also from Razorbill. 

2012 also saw publication of A.J.’s latest adult thriller, The Tears of the Jaguar from Thomas and Mercer, which also became a Kindle International Bestseller. 

A.J.s latest project is a young adult science fiction series called The World of Glass, the first of which, Eyes in the Dark, is being shown to publishers in October/November of 2013. He refers to it as Lord of the Flies meets Alien

He has an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University, and he is the Russell Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and works as a scholar, screenwriter, dramaturg and theatre director. He is the author of The Shakespearean Dramaturg (Palgrave/Macmillan 2005), an upcoming performance history of Julius Caesar (Manchester UP, 2013), a book on Shakespeare and political theatre (Palgrave 2013), and an essay collection on campus Shakespeare production (Cambridge UP, 2014), as well as numerous articles and book chapters in his field. He was the editor of the performance journal Shakespeare Bulletin, published by Johns Hopkins UP, for a decade. He is a popular speaker at school and library events, and a frequent presenter at writing and fantasy conventions. 

He has more hobbies than is good for anyone and treats ordinary things like sport and food and beer with a reverence which borders on mania. He is married with a son and lives in Charlotte. He is represented by Stacey Glick of Dystel and Goderick literary management, and by the Gotham group for film rights. For more info, you can visit his website.

Quirky Questions

As a teenager, what was your favorite musical group?

I went through a lot of musical phases as a teenager (all of them intense) but the band I committed to most was a British three piece called The Jam. Lots of angry leftist politics like The Clash, with raucous guitars and some punchy no-nonsense lyrics. They are generally called a punk band, though they have Mod influences and evolved through New Wave into something much harder to classify (part of why I like them: I relate to hybrids). Their front man, Paul Weller, later formed the Style Council, before having a long solo career. But The Jam spoke to where I was as an adolescent, showed me how art could be personal and confrontational and real. 

Is there a story behind your name?

My real name is Andrew. The protagonist of my first book (The Mask of Atreus) was a woman and my publisher didn’t want to reveal that I wasn’t. So I was published under my initials, and with no photo or bio on the book. I got reviews which said “Miss Hartley” clearly didn’t like men very much… 

What was one of the most fun things you did with your college roommates?

Played a D&D type role playing game called Rune Quest. Total nerd fun. I played for years. 

What is the craziest (or stupidest) thing you’ve ever done?

Those records are forever sealed… 

Is the glass half empty or half full? What is in the glass?

Half empty. But if I had my choice it would be full of a very dry martini, Bombay Sapphire with blue cheese stuffed olives. Not that I’m picky… 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Pretty much here but fatter and less mobile. 

What is the worst possible name to call a child?

Aluminum Siding. 

If you could snap your fingers and appear somewhere else right now, where would you be?

The English Lake District…out on one of the high fells with no one but a few stray sheep and an ice cold tarn reflecting the sky. 

macbethWriting Questions 

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?

Not sure I ever really decided. Telling stories, playing with words: these things are in the marrow of my bones. From the day I discovered books, it was inevitable that I would try to write them. As for the “career” in writing… I’m 11 novels in but I’m not sure I’ve made that decision yet. 

What books are you reading right now?

Game of Thrones and Othello (because I’m teaching it). I like to be reading constantly and widely, but I can only manage one novel on my night stand at once.

Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?

Give me a moment to stop rolling on the floor with hysterically anguished laughter… Okay. I’m good. What was the question again? Right: did I ever want to quit? I wrote for 20 years before I found a publisher during which time I wrote 8 complete novels. Every rejection from every agent or publisher felt like a kick in the stomach or a dagger in the heart, and every time I considered quitting. Seriously. But I couldn’t. I’d rail and shout and accuse the world and resolve to never put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking) again, and then a few months would go by and I would have an idea for a book… Ever wonder if you are a writer? Try quitting. It’s a disease. I said words and stories are in my bone marrow, my blood, my DNA. That makes it sound like a disease. Sometimes—particularly when no one wants to know—that’s how it feels. 

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Read a lot and write a lot, the latter with specific goals in mind. Also write (i.e. draft) fast. Edit slow. That way you can get the story down before you start second guessing it, and still allow yourself the necessary time to scrutinize and polish it.

Do you have a specific writing style?

Hmmm… I’d like to think my style is dictated by the genre I’m working in, the point of view of the character I’m closest to, and the tone of the scene I’m trying to convey. I’d also like to think I can at least occasionally make a reader smile when I find just the right word. 

What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.

When I really know my characters I think I do dialogue pretty well, especially if there’s room for a little wit.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Not in my latest book, no, because that’s fresh and I’m still living it. In books I wrote a few years ago? Absolutely. My early thrillers, for instance, are too plot/research heavy. In keeping the book lengths manageable I found myself having to take out some of the character and thematic texture which, for me, was the life blood of the story. I got trapped in my own intricacy of plot. 

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily? 

The longer I write the more convinced I am that it is easier to sell a book with a strong premise but only mediocre execution than a brilliantly executed book with only a moderately arresting premise. Because I love sentences, this upsets me. I also find it frustrating when I’m keen to get to work on a project but know that the big idea isn’t quite where it needs to be. Those ideas are hard to construct. Sometimes they have to just fall out of the sky, and waiting for that to happen can be maddening, especially when you are on a deadline. 

What comes easily, as my previous answer probably implied, is dialogue. Maybe it’s my work in theater, or my fascination with banter generally, but making characters talk to each other is the most fun in the world, doubly so when I’m not worried about straying from important things like plot. Which means, of course, that I then have to go back and cut a lot of it. Hate that. 

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Well, I know it’s a copout but I’m a Shakespeare professor so I’m going to do it anyway. There aren’t many writers whose work still excites, moves, amuses, terrifies, intrigues and so on 400 years after that work was written, not many writers whose stuff seems to find a way to be new and relevant even as we as individuals and as a culture evolves over time. Yeah, I think Shakespeare is pretty good.

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