Kevin Hearne: Writing an Epic for the Modern World

 photo: Amy Ryland

Kevin Hearne is the author of the Iron Druid Chronicles series, which includes Hounded and Besieged, as well as Heir to the Jedi, a Star Wars novel. His newest novel, A Plague of Giants, is the first in an epic fantasy series. Hearne lives in Colorado with his wife, son and much-loved dogs, and enjoys hugging trees, comic books, whiskey, beer and tacos.

This book is told in such a unique way, with Fintan the Bard inhabiting the stories of so many different characters. What drew you to writing in this style? Was it challenging?

Oh, heck yes, it was very challenging, but it was a mountain I wanted to climb ever since my days as a high school English teacher. I taught The Iliad and The Odyssey to kids and was always fascinated by the idea that Homer and bards like him used to entertain people for weeks at a time--extended engagements where they would essentially sing for their supper. And people would come back, night after night, to hear the next part of the serial soap opera, and then they would talk about it afterward the way we talk about television shows around the water cooler. Those epics were the pop culture of the ancient world.

I wanted to replicate that experience in prose form for modern readers, and it took me about 10 years and a lot of failure before I figured out how to structure it properly. The finished book has 11 different first-person points of view in a story that jumps back and forth in time with not just one frame, but two. That's not the kind of structure you naturally go to as a writer; you have to try simpler ideas and crash hard before you realize that sometimes complexity is precisely what you need.

How on earth did you keep this all straight in your head while writing?

I have written books on the fly in the past, but for something like this, I had to outline and keep notes on characters. I used Scrivener for this project, which allowed me to create folders for each character episode and frame and then rearrange them at will, a far more efficient process than scrolling, highlighting, copying and pasting. So when my editorial letter came back and I realized I needed to cut out two points of view (my first draft had 13!) and rearrange the rest, Scrivener made that possible. It also allowed me to keep notes on characters and color-code narrative arcs.

Many of the point-of-view characters emphasize the major ways that everyday lives changed because of the war(s) with giants, and the myriad ways individuals kept going--or didn't--as a means of survival after losing loved ones.

So many epics focus on the heroic deeds of chosen farm boys, crusty veteran soldiers or reluctant antiheroes overcoming the great shadowy evil, and rarely do we see the aftermath or consequences of the wars they fight: refugees driven to the edge of death by starvation and overwhelming grief for those they've lost. Those people have struggles and stories that bear examination beyond a cut scene in a movie to tug at the heartstrings, and they don't exist merely to make a hero feel something, either. So that's one reason I have so many intertwined stories: I didn't want this to be about an individual or even an individual culture, but about how our lives and actions can ripple and have unforeseen consequences for other people we may never even meet. 

I'm also fascinated by the different ways people honor and grieve for the dead: some have rituals in their culture that help them deal with death and move on productively, others can handle it fine as individuals, while some have a really rough time letting go, and one way or another, those people wind up damaging folks they're close to.

Another constant across points of view was the idea of sacrificing oneself for a greater cause.

I'm generally impressed by people who dedicate their lives to serving others--folks who would rather give than take, preserve rather than consume, or even die so others may live. But I'm also interested in what motivates such people: if you look a bit, there's usually something at least a little self-serving about their service, and there's a spectrum there from true altruism to cynical manipulation of public perception--that is, awareness that they're doing something for selfish reasons but pretending to be charitable. I think every point on that spectrum is interesting.

It's clear as Fintan's telling unfolds that the audience listening has particular favorite characters. Do you have a favorite? Do you expect readers to have a favorite (that may differ from the audience's)?

Can I say yes to all of that? I think we all inevitably have favorites in a large cast of characters--it's a natural thing--but I love it when folks have different ones and when their favorites shift as the story progresses. And, of course, it's the characters who aren't current favorites who make the others look great by comparison.

A Plague of Giants is the first in a planned series; can you talk a bit about what's to come?

Yes, there will be two more. I think the bard says at the outset he has about 40 to 45 days before Raelech and Fornish armies arrive to launch a counterattack, and he'll tell his tale until then. A Plague of Giants gives us the first 19 days. The second book will give us a similar number of days, and then, in the final volume, the bard's story catches up to the present, the reinforcements arrive, and they sail into the unknown against the Bone Giants.

Your website now has a ton of goodies for fans of the Iron Druid series; can readers of the Seven Kennings series expect similar information?

Certainly, if something like that comes up! I'll be doing new maps for both the second and third books so I think most everything will be included, but if there is supplementary material to distribute, I'd definitely put it on the Goodies page.

Your bio says you are a fan of "comic books, whiskey, beer, tacos, fresh air, clean energy, and friendly people," so it seems it would be a missed opportunity not to ask after your favorite comic books, whiskey, beer, and tacos of the moment.

My favorite comic series is Chew--it's run its course now but it made me laugh in every issue. For whiskey, I'd have to say my current favorite is Yellow Spot, a 12-year-old pot still Irish whiskey, but that is subject to change as I keep trying new stuff. Beer! Craft lagers and pilsners are what I favor most, stuff with a crisp flavor and not so heavily carbonated like the mass-produced stuff. Right now I'm impressed with the Ace Hill Pilsner out of Toronto. Tacos--oh my goodness. Get thee to Tacos, Tequila and Whiskey in either Denver or Phoenix. They make the best tacos I've ever had. --Kerry McHugh

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