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Interview: October 25, 2016

Summer may be over, but there's no reason you can't take a magical journey this fall with IMPYRIUM, the first installment of Henry H. Neff's new high-stakes fantasy series. Set three thousand years after the events of Neff's Tapestry series, IMPYRIUM expands upon the same world that his fans have come to know and love, but with all sorts of new characters, conspiracies and betrayals. The Faeregine dynasty's magic has been fading, and with it their power over the empire. Hazel, the youngest member of the royal family, is happy to leave ruling to her sisters so that she can study her magic. But when Hob, a commoner from the remote provinces, is sent to the castle to spy on the Faeregines, the two unlikely allies discover that Impyrium's history may be darker than they could have ever imagined. Complete with illustrations from Neff, this book has all the qualities of your new favorite book --- with more on the way.

In celebration of the release of IMPYRIUM, we spoke to Henry about worldbuilding, writing from a female perspective and the very real origins of his fantastical stories. Read on to learn more!

Kidsreads.com: Although IMPYRIUM is not your first book, it is the first book of a new series. What was it like branching away from your Tapestry series and starting something new?

Henry H. Neff: It’s been a pretty smooth transition since IMPYRIUM’s world is a distant descendent of the world I’d created in The Tapestry. I get to play with established elements of the Tapestry mythos while introducing new concepts, characters, and milestones that emerged during the subsequent millennia. Within the Impyrium series, The Tapestry’s heroes belong to a distant, essentially mythic past that is regarded as literally prehistoric. To most commoners, New York City or Paris is no more real than Atlantis might be to us. Three thousand years is a long time and quite a bit can change. Just think how different our world is today from when the Iron Age began.

KRC: When you initially got into writing and were publishing your first book, did it change your writing process?

HHN: The biggest change is that once you have a publishing contract, you have deadlines. When I was writing my first book, THE HOUND OF ROWAN, I’d just started teaching at a San Francisco high school and simply worked on the manuscript whenever I had some free time. Once I’d signed a contract, however, there were due dates for future installments and I took a more regimented approach. After outlining The Tapestry’s second book in excruciating detail, I discovered it was killing my spontaneity and sense of discovery. While I like to have an idea of where my story is going (it’s vital in epic fantasy with its larger storylines and character arcs) I’m now careful to leave myself some room to improvise. Many of my best ideas occur to me while I’m writing, so I’d be foolish to cling to “the plan.” For example, in IMPYRIUM I decided mid-book to expand the role of Mina IV, a tyrant from ages past and Hazel Faeregine’s distant ancestor. I won’t give spoilers but her importance grew exponentially during the writing process. And the story is better for it.

KRC: Since reading IMPYRIUM, we've been doing some research on your previous books and it appears that writing epic fantasies is where you really shine. What was the first fantasy or adventure book that really bowled you over? What are your favorite fantasy worlds?

HHN: Every author has their sweet spot and I think I’m wired to write epic fantasy. The scope of possibilities and the depth to which one can explore them holds tremendous appeal for someone who enjoys playing with characters, concepts, and even worlds. My first memories of fantasy and science fiction go back to The Chronicles of Narnia (Turkish Delight remains a massive disappointment), Tolkien’s work, and even something like Frank Herbert’s DUNE. It blew my tween mind to discover that the struggle in THE LORD OF THE RINGS was just a footnote in Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth, or that DUNE’s narrative spanned tens of thousands of years. These works didn’t simply detail interesting or fantastical stories; they opened my mind to larger possibilities. While I’m a fan of many fantasy worlds, those that really stand out are Middle Earth, Narnia, Dune/Arrakis, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros/Essos.

KRC: Your world in IMPYRIUM is so rich and exceptionally detailed. How do you work on world building? Is there an element you feel is more important than the others?

HHN: When writing IMPYRIUM, it was important to me that the world wasn’t simply a cool place to visit, but that it also made sense. I wanted to have a clear understanding of how and why the empire had evolved to its current state. While fleshing things out, I found it helpful to apply an acronym I used as a history teacher. S.P.R.I.T.E. stands for society, politics, religion, ideas/culture, technology and economics. I also throw geography in the mix, but that tends to ruin catchy references to elfin spirits or bubbly soft drinks. While S.P.R.I.T.E. doesn’t build my world for me, it does help me organize my ideas so that I’m sketching out the major elements and figuring out how they might influence one another.

Identifying which elements to prioritize really depends on the world and the story I want to tell. With IMPYRIUM, I began with S and P since the empire’s defining trait is that it’s an extremely hierarchical society dominated by a relatively small group of magical humans. Once I’d established this as the anchor, I brainstormed how this aspect of the world might shape and permeate others. For example, it’s unlikely that the idea of “natural rights” would exist in such a society, or that its rulers would allow advanced technologies that might help non-magical humans to level the playing field. Titles would be of tremendous importance, as would one’s family and lineage. Public education would be aimed at identifying the best and brightest subjects who would then be whisked away to state institutions where they would be trained to serve the ruling class. This would provide the empire with capable administrators while neutralizing potential threats and maintaining the illusion of opportunity and social mobility…

The process enabled me to develop a world that I found interesting, but also plausible. It was also invaluable when it came to identifying ripple effects that might occur if an event upset the world’s equilibrium. It’s important to note, however, that while I love world building I also recognize its limitations. It cannot substitute for great and memorable characters. They’re the soul of any story and what bring readers back for seconds. 

KRC: Do your new protagonists, Hazel and Hob have direct influences in the real world? Are they based off two very real people? Or are they an amalgam of people you've worked together?

HHN: Any similarities to any persons, fictitious or otherwise, is purely coincidental… Kidding aside, neither Hazel or Hob is based on a particular individual but I’d imagine each must be some hybrid of people or characters I’ve stumbled across. When I think of Hazel, I picture a songbird in a gilded cage. Her physical appearance --- small, superficially weak and albino --- was essential to her character as it marked her as an outsider within her family and fueled rumors that have surrounded her since birth. I remember reading MOBY DICK and Melville’s remarkable chapter concerning the unnatural “whiteness of the whale” and Ishmael’s belief that it marked the creature as something profoundly "other" --- perhaps even divine --- but certainly beyond the proverbial (and literal) pale. Something in that stuck with me. I thought it fitting for Hazel to be a white crow at constant risk of being attacked by the flock for being different. Her sense of isolation and not belonging plays a critical role in the story and her obsession with Mina IV, the only ancestor she resembles.

With Hob, I suppose you could say there’s a little Good Will Hunting and Owen Wister’s THE VIRGINIAN in his character. He’s exceptionally bright, tough and capable but lacks a stage equal to his talents. As the bastard son of a soldier and a shaman’s daughter, he straddles two worlds and neither quite accepts him. His natural gifts, longing for identity and desire to have an impact make him an ideal recruit for the Fellowship, a group intent on overthrowing the Faeregines and securing equal rights for muir (non-magical humans). But for all his gifts and eagerness to prove himself, Hob learns that it’s unwise --- even dangerous --- to assume you’re the smartest one in the room. I’ve seen a few people make that mistake and it never ends well.

KRC: You've mentioned a few times before, most recently at BookCon/NYCC, that you had fun with the challenge of writing a girl. Could you expand on the difficulties that posed for you?

HHN: Writing for a girl wasn’t wildly different, but I’d never done it before and wanted Hazel’s voice, actions and perspective to resonate as authentic. We’ve all read books where an author’s portrayal of a particular demographic rings false and consigns the character to a literary version of Uncanny Valley. The reader instinctively rejects such characters as imposters. Best case, it’s a distraction. Worst case, it ruins an otherwise compelling story. I didn’t want that to happen with Hazel and tried to do a bit of acting behind the keyboard. When I’m writing for her, my goal isn’t to write for a 12-year-old girl; it’s to be a 12-year-old girl and let Hazel’s voice flow from the character. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it Method Writing but it’s somewhere in that ballpark. Anyway, I’m fortunate to have a wife whose ear for such things is excellent along with an agent whose daughters gave Hazel a thumb’s up during the early chapters. That gave me confidence I was on the right track.

KRC: The relationship between Hazel and her sisters is probably one of the best sibling relationships I've seen written. Where did you pull this from? Do you have siblings of your own that added to the authenticity?

HHN: I’m happy to hear you say that. Despite the extensive world building in IMPYRIUM, my priority is always characters and the bonds between them. As a middle child, I’m intimately familiar with the banter, rivalries and funny little rituals that can define sibling relationships. They have a rhythm that’s unique and I wanted to capture that with the triplets. Isabel’s humor and loyalty brings out Hazel’s best, while Violet’s disdain cuts to the bone. Anyone with siblings can relate to that, but few can identify with the pressures of growing up in such a famous family. I once read a biography of Robert Kennedy that detailed his fierce, even desperate need to measure up in a household where anything short of being a star brought ridicule from every side of the dinner table. Some of that edge and expectation tinges the triplets’ relationships --- after all, they’re not just sisters but Faeregine royalty. And yet, despite the pressure, rivalry and ribbing there’s love too. And that’s why we care.

KRC: The protagonist Hob has tribal markings of his family's tribe. Have you any sketches or renderings of them? Are they like identity marks of the Maori or Samoan people? Or are they influenced by our current society's tattoo art so to give it the same cultural growth?

HHN: An interesting question for several reasons. Hob’s tattoos aren’t simply marks of the Hauja people; they’re symbols of his struggle for identity and belonging.

Current trends never even entered my mind. Tattoos and body art span many cultures and go back thousands of years. Hob’s are Hauja symbols, a northern tribe that formed after the Cataclysm. Their culture is a mix of Inuit, tribes from the Pacific Northwest and a bit of the warrior ethos of some Polynesian peoples. Hob’s markings indicate he completed séyu, a grueling rite of passage that Hauja boys undergo at adolescence. Survivors receive tattoos representing four of the tribe’s sacred spirits. The first is always Morrgu so that the Raven can ferry one’s spirit to the afterlife. The rest are chosen to reflect the boy’s character. Hob’s are Kayüta the Fox, Fenmaruq the Wolf and Vessuk the Salmon.

Séyu tattoos have tremendous significance to the Hauja. They’re not just badges of honor but symbols of one’s soul, chosen by the shaman himself. But Hob’s are bittersweet. No holy man inked his markings --- they were made by Hob’s mother after the shaman refused to acknowledge her son and had him driven from the camp. What was Hob’s crime? He’s a bastard of mixed blood whose mother was exiled from the tribe for falling in love with an Impyrial soldier. And Freyka Nansook isn’t just any Hauja --- she’s the shaman’s only daughter. Hob’s own grandfather denied him a place in the tribe and had him hunted and left for dead at Dusk’s doorstep. Hob’s tattoos are beautiful and a source of pride, but they’re also painful.

KRC: What scene in IMPYRIUM (while doing your best to avoid spoilers) was the most difficult to write?

HHN: The scene at the Lirlander vault. With opening pages, there’s always pressure to quickly grab a reader’s attention, introduce characters and convey vital or intriguing aspects of the world. Those are almost always the scenes that get the most rewrites.

KRC: What is a normal day of writing like for Henry Neff? How much time do you apply at once? How do you decompress/take breaks?

HHN: On a typical weekday, I drop my wife at the train, take my three-year old to daycare and then walk my kindergartner to school. By nine o’clock, I’m flying solo and ready to start work. What I do and where I do it depends on what I’m working on that day. If I’m in brainstorm mode, I like to be around activity so you might find me in a café guzzling way too much coffee and scribbling away in a notebook. When I’m writing a draft or making revisions, I’ll be in my office wearing noise-cancelling headphones and staring at the computer. Ideally, I’ll have enabled Freedom the minute I sit down. It’s a program that that cuts off your Internet. Eliminating distractions early in the day helps get things moving in the right direction. Momentum is everything when I’m writing a book. If I really get going, I can write for five or six hours without having a clue that so much time has passed. If I’m stuck, I’ll go for a walk or try drawing a character or creature.

KRC: After writing and really working on a book do you come away from it wiped out or invigorated? Does it energize or exhaust?

HHN: Both. There’s nothing better than finishing a chapter or manuscript and feeling like you’re on to something. The endorphins are real and intense. In my case, however, the rush typically comes on the heels of some major stress and sleep deprivation. By the time I’m ready to submit a full manuscript, I’m ready to weep from any number of bizarre and often conflicting emotions.

KRC: If you could tell younger Henry anything about writing, what would it be? Would you give the same advice to your fans?

HHN: I take too long on my first drafts. It’s better to write them quickly than to creep along with the hope of penning perfection. The latter is painfully slow and doesn’t necessarily yield better results. In fact, I’d wager the output’s often worse since your focus is always split between creating and editing. It’s easy to lose the spark and essence of your story when you’re constantly stopping to tweak the writing. Just get the story down --- even if the draft is really rough --- so that you can assess the work as a whole, identify its merits and flaws, and prioritize what needs to be fixed. Give the revision stage its due and let your editor and/or critique partner do their job. You won’t just write faster --- you’ll make better art.

KRC: What have you been reading since writing IMPYRIUM?

HHN: I cringed while reading this question. With two young boys (ages five and three) I’m not reading nearly enough these days. If you’d like to talk Elmo potty training, hallucinatory purple crayons, radioactive carrot seeds, or nudist tigers then I’m your guy. Opportunities to read for my own pleasure and enrichment have been relatively scarce. That said, I have managed to devour a few books of late and truly enjoyed them. Some of these include ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (achingly beautiful prose), DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (cool concept written in a lovely, painterly style), THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI (well-crafted and researched), and WE ARE NOT OURSELVES (a moving, multi-generational tale of a family in Queens). I enjoy all kinds of books, not just middle grade or fantasy.

KRC: Finally, can you give us any clues about what to expect from your next book?

HHN: At the moment, I’m busy working on Book Two in the Impyrium trilogy. I don’t want to give away too much, but rest assured there are political upheavals, an ancient sect of demons, a machine that can dispel magic and two friends trying to keep the realm from splitting at the seams. We might even visit another world. In my biased opinion, Book Two is a really fun blend of fantasy, horror, and even humor. Several chapters are written from the villain’s perspective and I’ll only say that necromancers have a dark but surprisingly funny take on the absurd situations that can arise in their profession.

It can be rather awkward to forget whose identity you’ve stolen, or to be flirting with a barmaid and suddenly realize that you smell like a three-day corpse…