Thursday, July 28, 2016
Interview with S. Hunter Nisbet, author of What Boys Are Made Of and The Mercy Of Men
Tell us about the Saint Flaherty Series. What’s the significance of the name?
In chapter one of book one, we meet Simon “Saint” Flaherty, the prize-fighting teenager on the verge of a back alley mixed martial arts fight he’s expected to win. Win it he does—but at a terrible cost. When his opponent pulls a knife mid-match, Simon responds with a baseball bat and swings a homerun.
The kill cements his reputation as a fighter to be reckoned with. It also makes him believe that no matter what he does from now on, he’s going to hell. In the meantime, he might as well do what he can to make sure no one else will. Not if he can help it.
The rest of the series follows Simon’s rise, each book almost a snap-shot of time, a point in his life where momentum and groundwork and pure, gut-clenching chance ignite the powder-keg and decide what is to come. Make-or-break moments, for better and for worse, that define who Simon is.
Can he be Saint Flaherty? Or will the hell he came from claim his soul for once and all?
As for how he got that particular nickname, well. That would be telling, now wouldn’t it?
Your first book, What Boys Are Made Of, introduces us to a dystopian world. What part does the world play in the story?
The dystopian elements create the central conflict for the book. A Mexican-cartel-style kingpin has set himself up in the town of Buchell, ruling the town and all trade coming and going. He’s taken an interest not only in Simon, but his guardian and pseudo-sister, Erin, both whom have every right to fear him.
At its heart, the conflict is simple: how these two can escape this tyrant, this madman. It’s the setting that complicates the story.
Simon and Erin can’t escape through the woods because those have landmines, and they can’t just hop on a convoy out of town because those go through checkpoints controlled by the cartel. They’re being watched, strings are being pulled. Who can be trusted?
And every day they need to survive, to eat, to stay as safe as they can while still searching for this way out. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done in a town that lacks an intact criminal justice system, or a high regard for human life.
To me, setting a book in the future is more than sticking a high-tech weapon in and saying humans are at peace now, or at war with the aliens. It’s all about changing norms, little details like three shells in the bathroom or, in my case, offhand comments about “back when we still had indoor plumbing” and the fact that all guns are 3D printed.
Likewise, the narrators don’t wake up and say “I live in a totalitarian dystopian society with bad evil baddies on the street.” It’s a gradual introduction. Your first wakeup call is when Simon kills someone and the police don’t start asking questions. The second is when you find out there are no police. The third? At a certain point, the creeping realization that the younger characters don’t even know what police are.
We are not in Kansas anymore.
What inspired you to write this series, and where do you see it heading?
This series came from a lot of places. My love of language and idioms, my desire to write something fast-paced and unpredictable. But far beyond those rises my experiences in high school.
For me, high school was a trial-by-fire gauntlet, where the goal was to reach adulthood without making too many bad decisions. Not a great mind-set, right? Even to me, so much of what I did at the time seems inexplicable. Why did I think that my choices in any given situation were so narrow? Why did I do what I did, say what I said?
But the answer is simple. People under duress do not make the best decisions; rather, they make the best decisions they can. Lacking sleep and safety, pursued by demons imagined and all too human, most people are incapable of making choices anywhere approaching the best. They do what they can and keep on.
I wanted to write people like that. I wanted to write those stories, not based on good and evil but good enough and all that entails.
As for the series itself, it has two books published, another three written, and I’m working on what should be the final main book right now. Altogether, that means four main series books as well as two in-between novels that explore side-stories mentioned in the main narratives. I have ideas for a handful more side novels, not to mention another series in the same universe, but no promises on those ever seeing the light of day! For now, six books seems like a pretty good number.
Your bio says much of your writing is based in the hills of Appalachia. How is the sense of place important to your writing?
To me, Appalachia is all about the speech. That was actually one of the first things I knew about the Saint Flaherty series, when I sat down to write those early chapters: that my characters would, as we say here in Southeast Ohio, “talk with an accent.”
That’s a touchy subject, because the dialect used around here is one of the most ridiculed in the United States. You want to instantly show a character is dumb? Give them an Appalachian accent. In media these days you either hear it out of the mouths of red-neck hunters or mystic foresters in tune with mother nature. It doesn’t seem to come from regular people who live unremarkable lives, and so that’s what I wanted to do. As much as I write speculative fiction, I do my best to populate it with ordinary people, those who might be a check-out clerk in Walmart or the guy who does your plumbing with plenty of friendly banter in another life, a more peaceful life.
Around here, we say “him what I was talking to” instead of “that guy I was talking to.” We occasionally drop the various forms of be, slur our don’t knows into dunnos and going to into gonna. Aside from those couple words, I otherwise avoided phonetic renderings, but to me, the speech rings true.
Fifty years ago university students with this dialect automatically got put into remedial speech lessons—it only seemed fair that in the dystopian future it reasserts itself in full force.
You say you like British political snark shows. Which ones and why?
There’s a few of them! I’m a huge fan of Mock the Week—it’s the first political commentary show I got into. I love how silly it gets, and back when I didn’t know much about British politics it was the perfect intro to the main players. Not to mention it features one of my favourite comedians, Dara O’Briain. It’s great to relax in front of an episode and listen to people who aren’t panicking at every political event.
I also love Have I Got News for You, but for the opposite reason. Call me cruel, but there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing some poor politician put themselves in the hot seat for half an hour. It’s like a ritual sacrifice the parties make each season. Part of me feels very sympathetic every time they have some MP on, but most of me loves seeing a little discomfort from the elected ones. Schadenfreude at its best!
Politics are serious, but like all human things, they have their ridiculous side, and these shows do a fantastic job of highlighting that while still being surprisingly informative. The best of both worlds.
How does the gritty realism of your settings introduce speculative fiction elements?
Back in 2011, driving down an isolated road through the woods, my mind combined the brutal events of the recent Kenyan civil war, the total lack of government in Sudan, and the hills of Southeast Ohio to come up with a mixture guaranteed to create conflict. My mind raced. What if you had to take a convoy to safely reach the next town? What if 3D printed guns became something you make in your basement for the war outside your front door? What if modern laws disappeared?
As a kid, I thought the future was robots and space and flying cars, but I only had to watch one democracy fall to a political coup on the evening news to realize that’s not always the case. Sure, sometimes we move forward—but just as often its backwards societies go.
In the Saint Flaherty series, that’s exactly what’s happened. There was a war, a civil war, and as my characters put it, it turned rude pretty darn quick. After all, America as a country relies on free transport in order to function. Cut off a place like West Virginia from the rest of the nation and you’re going to hit starvation point pretty quick.
Not all futures are bright and shining. Some reach back to the roots of society and rip them up.
Are there any contemporary SF/dystopian/apocalyptic writers whose work you admire?
Funny enough, one of my favorite recent works is the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I say funny enough because that series is almost the polar opposite of mine in theme, despite following a similar arc. Both take a young man, give him extraordinary circumstances, and see what he’s made of in a future that’s been simplified from modern life. But the Long Earth assumes humans have one sort of nature, and I assume another.
What I loved about this series was the wonder it brought to the page. I could’ve read descriptions of the various Earths for as long as the authors were willing to write them. The various theories of why one evolved one way and not another, how people were branching out and developing, all of it created such a soothing space in my mind. Some days we want catharsis, but sometimes a peaceful read through an ideal place is a nice change.
Your books sound very noir. They could be about contemporary events. Are they cross-genre?
They definitely are, to all parts of that question! While they’re set in the future, anyone who’s interested in books that deal with abuse would like the Saint Flaherty series. More than being about concepts, it’s really a story that focuses on people and how they deal with trauma, stress, and the dark parts of their own souls. I tend to call the Saint Flaherty series dystopian psychological suspense. The first book has heavy post-apocalyptic tones, while later books branch more into organized crime.
As for sub-genres? It’s noir. It’s grit. Not to throw out spoilers, but as one review points out, it’s more a story with characters who are LGBTQ than an LGBTQ story, so there’s that too, and where to stop?
If you like dark character-driven pieces, you will like this. Genres are only the things I argue with Amazon over.
Are you a Luddite? Or do you prefer to be on the bleeding edge of technology?
I’m a terrible Luddite! Technology isn’t scary to me, but it’s a terrible inconvenience to learn to use, so I’ll stick with what I know until it actually becomes a problem. I’ve had to be dragged to get my last three phones, and I hung onto my previous laptop until it began erasing chunks of documents at random.
That attitude towards technology probably shows in my books rather more than it should. I barely had a cell phone when I began writing What Boys Are Made Of, so didn’t really write them into it. Not from a great grand reason, but more forgetting about them. I had to retcon an explanation about cell phone towers and satellites into the narrative later, so they could show up in later books. Ah well, it contributes to the atmosphere.
Are you--or have you ever been--a gamer?
Oh, the tricky question. I play a small selection of modern Nintendo games. Does that qualify me, or do I need to be more hard-core about it? Either way, I love to relax with whatever cute adventure that’s caught my eye that week. Pikmin, Mario Kart, Yoshi—if it’s adorable and not too difficult, I’m there.
Do you have a garden? Have you ever grown your own food?
What I have is a black thumb. This occasionally worries me. If the apocalypse came tomorrow, I would be in deep trouble, having managed in my life to grow only a single tomato. What skills could I trade on to survive? After all, if I was sent back in time, I could definitely make my way as a teacher of some sort, perhaps even publish a bit, but modern people don’t have as much trouble in that department. As someone who can’t grow their own food and is too squeamish to hunt, I’ll have my work cut out for me if everything goes to heck.
I probably spend too much time thinking about this.
Would you prefer an independent bookshop, or a big chain?
Oops, I guess I’m for big chains, because I do all my book shopping on Amazon! Really, I’m for any place that supports independent authors and gives them an equal shot at sales.
Most of my reading decisions these days seem to be made on whether the book in question hits the right genre buttons, and then is it on sale. Or did a friend write it. I’ve found some fantastic books from buying an author friend’s new release.
On a scale of 1-10, how eccentric are you?
Outwardly? Not very. I’m one of the hyper-competent people who has no trouble dressing the part or acting it—whatever the part may be. I have potluck games nights with my friends, dote on my parents’ dog, eat the fashionable number of avocados a week. So on an eccentric scale, even adding in my crazy author thoughts, I’d probably be about a three.
Okay, okay, I think peanut-butter onion bacon sandwiches are delicious. Four.
S. Hunter Nisbet is a dedicated writer of dark tales. Born and raised in southeast Ohio, she bases much of her work in the hills of Appalachia. When not working on the next novel, Hunter spends her time posting on her blog and watching British political snark shows.