A couple years back, S.A. Hunt returned from Afghanistan, hung up his uniform and set to writing a fantasy epic that drew upon all the fiction he’d known and loved since a child, salted it lightly with his own experiences while deployed, and wrapped it in a metaphysical, mind-bending bow. The first self-published novel in his series, Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, has been described as “visceral,” “enthralling,” and “effortless and incredibly natural,” by reviewers, and “snappy, sarcastic, and blood-soaked” by me. It’s a gunslinging, wild-west spec-fic roller-coaster packed with faceless monsters, sky-scraper sized automatons, sword-fights, shootouts, hallucinogens, and hilarious banter.
Sam Hunt was kind enough to lend me a couple hours to pick his brain clean, and oh boy, did I pick.
Ruz: Give me your elevator pitch. Thirty seconds until I reach my floor, no stuttering allowed.
Sam: A soldier comes home from Afghanistan and finds out at his father’s funeral that the fantasy-world in dear old Dad’s gunslinger novels is actually a real place…and it’s going to become the battleground for a war that threatens all universes real and fictional.
Ruz: You drew a lot on your own experiences in painting the harsh, merciless world of Destin. Would you actually ever want to visit?
Sam: I actually would like to visit (probably not the Khyirz), mostly for the characters and to visit places like Maplenesse and Ostlyn. The world itself was largely inspired by my deployment to Afghanistan, especially the train ride out of Salt Point, where they pass by all those buildings with people sitting outside. Much of the countryside of Destin is informed by the Middle East. It’s a very similar climate, and “biome”, for lack of a better word. When I was over there, it really struck me that a place like this (and to an extent, an Army visit to Texas and San Jose, California) would make a really good setting for a western-style story. And the other-ness of the country itself really lent itself to illustrating the difference between Earth and Destin. I was able to draw on those day to day changes and use them to influence what made Destin different.
Ruz: Are the motley collection of gunslingers we meet throughout Whirlwind and Law also based upon your friends or squadmates from Afghanistan? The way your characters banter and bicker feels so real that I can’t imagine them being pulled purely out of the air.
Sam: Actually, they’re largely influenced by actors that I have seen or have a particular fondness for – with the exception of Ross, who’s mostly informed by myself. Not to say that he’s a carbon copy of me, but that I used parts of my personality to build him – and the rest of the main characters, actually. They are all basically shards of my own emotional makeup, wrapped around actors and roles that help me visualize each one. Ross picks up a lot of my awkwardness and anxiety, while Sawyer embodies my temper and back injury, and willingness to push forward into danger. So I pretty much just dumped a bunch of actors into a room and wrote down what they did.
Ruz: You mentioned once that you’d sometimes rather be back in Afghanistan than in the US. Is there a part of you that thrives on the challenge and the hardship? Are you a gunslinger at heart?
Sam: Definitely. It goes back to the theme of the “importance of scarcity” that I tried to weave into the story in Whirlwind. When there’s less of something, you appreciate it more. When there aren’t a lot of flowers, it really makes you want to stop and smell the roses. I didn’t see any grass from the day I left America to the day I touched down in Kyrgyzstan a year later. And actually, according to the Dark Tower’s definition, I technically am a gunslinger (military cop). The military pay certainly didn’t hurt, though. Hah!
Ruz: Speaking of The Dark Tower, it’s the work I most often hear your novels compared to. As a writer who believes very strongly in taking bits of inspiration from a huge swathe of sources and moulding them into something unique, what other works of literature or film have bled into the universe of Whirlwind?
Sam: Krull, Beastmaster, The Neverending Story, Masters of the Universe, all those great portal-fantasy movies, as well as the classic portal-fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time and Alice in Wonderland. I’ve always enjoyed those because of their great writing, the character banter, and the practical effects. A movie adaptation of the Outlaw King series with practical effects would be amazing, at least to me.
Ruz: Is the Whirlwind series your one, big, true, story, the thing you just have to tell? Or do you have a hundred other stories that’re waiting for Whirlwind to get the hell out of the way?
Sam: Right now it’s my “opus” but who knows, a year or five down the road maybe I’ll get it into my head to do the Fiddle and Fire series, and that will become my Big Thing. Or maybe I’ll expound on Malus Domestica. I actually have a huge chunk of a horror novel that I wrote a few years ago that I might try to finish at some point… sort of like Rust, actually, though a bit more cracked-out…more like Silent Hill, abandoned-town, etc. I keep trying to remember to pull it out and look at it but I keep forgetting. There’s also a YA fantasy novel that I started, but that one I thought about using it to supplement Whirlwind’s story… Perhaps have the characters knocked into another world by the antagonists, another world in the mind of another writer. Can you imagine characters trying to knock on the inside of your head to get out of the world they’re in?
Ruz: I’ll step away from the you, you, you questions for a second. If given the chance to hook up any two (or three) authors, directors, creators, whatever, to some terrible Cronenbergian gene-splicing machine, who’d you duct-tape and plug in?
Sam: Last year I would have said Tarsem Singh for a director, who did The Cell and The Fall, Fall being much more thematically close to Whirlwind than Cell, but now I’m pretty entranced by Cary Fukunaga and Guillermo Del Toro. As for a writer, I’d have to say Stephen King or Joe Hill – they’re still my literary heroes. The third, I’m not sure. Frank Darabont, maybe. He seems to really know what to do with King’s material more than most, when it comes to producing.
Ruz: Your manuscripts are trad-pub quality. You have decades of writing experience, and it shows. Why did you choose to self-publish instead of a traditional publishing route?
Sam: I’ve actually gone at it in a hybrid fashion: I self-published at the very beginning, but I also queried on the side…spreading my bets, so to speak, just in case one failed, I could pick up the other rope and keep going. I never really considered self-publishing “the easy way out” like so many people seem to do. It honestly is more work than just querying and doing it all the trad-pub way. I like to analogize it this way: you’re going on a trip, and don’t have a car. Traditional publication is like sitting at the bus stop waiting on a bus, and self-publishing is like just puttin’ on your walkin’ shoes and marching the whole thirty miles yourself. I’m walking the long walk, but I’ve got my thumb stuck out for a ride too. It does afford me a lot more creative control, though. I can also put out my work a lot faster than I would be forced to release under a traditional-publishing contract.
Ruz: If you’d known just how hard those miles would be, would you still have self-pubbed?
Sam: I probably would have. I think I expected it, subconsciously, but didn’t really understand the fine details of it until I was up to my knees in it. I’ve always had a pretty hardy work ethic, and the faster release ability has always been a key point anyway. And I was making covers before I finished Whirlwind at any rate, so that just naturally segued into what it is now.
Ruz: In an age where I’m still buying trad-published books featuring straight white men shooting other straight white men on a quest to save straight white women, it’s refreshing to see the breadth of characters in your work – people of colour and varied sexualities. Why do you think so many authors are still so reluctant (or just too lazy) to break out of the straight white male mould?
Sam: I’m honestly not sure, and I’d hate to tick anybody off with rampant speculation. I think it harkens back to “write what you know”, and many authors expect higher authenticity from their work when they keep to the surface streets of their experience. A lot of subcultures I honestly don’t know much about… I have no idea what it’s like to be black, or to grow up in Iraq or Indonesia. I think to truly understand that realm I’d have to immerse myself in it for a very long time, and many authors just don’t have the means to do that. As for creating a varied cast, it just happens naturally. I’ve always been surrounded myself by a varied collection of personalities in life, even if they weren’t culturally dissimilar, and I enjoy watching differing spirits bounce off of each other. I like surrounding myself with strange people. I enjoy strange food and strange entertainment. I guess I have a thing for strangeness.
Ruz: One final question: what do you want to see more of in literature, and what would you prefer to see less of?
Sam: Atmospheric creep-out horror with protagonists older than eighteen, and freakin’ vampires.
The first novel in Sam’s series, Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, is available at Amazon and other ebook retailers in a bundle with book 2, The Law of the Wolf. The third book, Ten Thousand Devils, has just been released and is honestly my favourite of the lot. It costs less than a cup of coffee. Enjoy, readers!
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(this interview was originally published on The 42nd Parallel).