Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
The first thing you need to know is that Matthew Caine is a lie.
Steven Savile and I met virtually through our contributions to the Pathfinder Tales web fiction, and we also share a mutual history with more warlike shared-world fiction. While we’ve yet to share a pint, we exchange messages of congratulations, commiseration, or general gossip now and then.
Recently, Steven told me about his new venture, a high fantasy series with both a collaborator and a new pen name. Collaborations and pen names are special interests of mine, so I had to know more.
Steven’s partner in the new high-fantasy series is his pal Joseph Nassise. Together, they’re Matthew Caine, and the first volume of their epic is The Ghosts of the Conquered.
1. What inspired the two of you to collaborate?
Steven: Friendship was the main motivator. You know the deal, the whole loneliness of the long-distance runner. We have known each other a long time without ever actually meeting. Right the way back to when Joe was debuting with Riverwatch and people were saying nice things about Laughing Boy’s Shadows (which was on its way to something approaching mythical status in the US because I’d actually broken all the rules and self-pubbed a short run of 250 paperbacks out of frustration). Long story short, it had sold to Gargadillo for a limited edition, they’d gone bust, it had sold to Tanjan for a UK paperback, they’d gone bust, it had sold to Indigo, some yahoo outfit in the US, and they’d gone bust, and it had sold to Dark Tales in the US (who did Secret Life of Colors), and you know what I’m going to say, right? Yep, it was the publisher killer. So I bit the bullet, did the short run, and then sold something like 60 of them to Matt Schartz’s Shocklines Book Store, and they sold out in days, but it wasn’t worth mailing over another batch of 50 or so as the income from the book was basically swallowed in postage, so you just couldn’t get it in the US.
So, right, where was I? Yeah we’d known each other forever, then bizarrely both wound up being Alex Archer. I did five novels with Annja Creed for Harlequin’s Gold Eagle imprint. Joe did—Joe chime in here—eight? So there was something inherently obvious about our styles meshing as if we were basically the same person.
It’s always fun when I meet someone who says Alex Archer is their favorite author. I mean, Al did 53 books in about eight years. He’s one prolific SOB.
Then, a bit randomly, Joe mailed to say, Hey, I’m friends with a bunch of these super-cool paranormal romance writers. They’re doing a big Christmas bundle. Want to write a PNR story, maybe launch a pseudonym. So we thrashed out what I think is actually a pretty damn excellent storyline. Then Joe started writing, and I completely dropped the ball. Real life hit. My dad was diagnosed with cancer, and I lost the plot. Joe carried the day. My input was basically reading it and going, “Cool, you rock.” This was the first in what we intended to be a five-part serial. I was just getting my head back in the game when dad got his terminal diagnosis, and I dropped the ball on Joe again. Seriously, I was the absolute worst partner to the guy imaginable, whilst he was the best friend a guy could ask for when I was going through hell. That’s when you learn a lot about someone.
So that was the start—but that’s a whole different person. We’re not that person any more. I confess I did actually write some of it though—hah!—he wouldn’t let me get away without at least doing a bit of the sexy stuff. Madly, our first ever collaboration wound up charting on the NYT and USA Today charts.
But Matthew Caine, that’s a whole different story. That began with an email from me to Joe saying ‘Have you ever fancied writing an epic fantasy?’ Which you’d think was quite the innocuous question, but I had an ulterior motive—well 150k of one.
See, before I started working for Warhammer, way back before my first Pathfinder stories, I had been working for about two years on a massive fantasy novel which completely got away from me. I mean, it was in danger of being a Song of Ice and Fire before there was a Song of Ice and—well, there was the original A Game of Thrones, I think, but that was it. I mean, this thing was epic in scope, a cast of hundreds, huge back story going back thousands of years, everything as a gamer you’d build into a campaign, and I’d completely stuffed up the writing of it because I wasn’t disciplined or skilled enough at that point in my career. I’d got lost.
So when Joe said, “Hell yeah I’ve always fancied,” I admitted to having this massive thing and started pitching him individual storylines in email.
I think in part it was a way to make it up to him for screwing up so badly with the first collab, so I’d be carrying the lion’s share this time. But the cost of entry was him editing and doing a final pass on my epic to wrangle it into publishable quality, and then thrashing out all those future storylines, nixing ideas I’d had, putting in his own. So while The Ghosts of the Conquered holds absolutely true to my conceived story, The Swords of Scorn—which we’re in the final throes of—is much more Joe helping steer what has become our joint ship.
He and his wife are coming over to Sweden to stay with us over the summer so we can thrash out the storylines for Books Three and Four. We already have loose ideas, but we’ve got absolute faith we’re onto something here, and we’re having a blast. It’s weird seeing all of these old concepts like the Del Carpio, honor-bound swords men and their mythical blades—the idea is there are only ever 50 of these warriors, and if one should fall, the sword picks its new wielder—and if the sword is claimed dishonorably, the remaining 49 are drawn to find the thief and recover the blade for their order. It’s an old idea I came up with for my old roleplaying group in1992.
This makes it sound like it’s all me—it’s not, Joe’s done a brilliant job. I had a blast reading his draft last month.
Joe: Yeah, what he said.
Seriously, Steve hit it right on the head. For years now we’ve been emailing back and forth, cheering each other on and helping each other stay sane in this crazy business called publishing, and so collaborating just seemed a natural thing to do given our mutual respect and our similar tastes in books and genres.
Collaboration is a difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that I could do it with just anyone. I need to know and respect the person on the other side of the page, so to speak, need to know that they will respect and care about the story as much as I do, because when it comes right down to it, that’s all going to show up on the page. I thought Steve’s Laughing Boy’s Shadow was a brilliant piece of work, and when you start with an introduction like that, it can only get better. He’s produced some fabulous work over the last several years, and I knew that a piece from the two of us could only turn out well.
As Steve noted, his life turned upside down when we were doing our first collaboration. I picked up the ball and kept the project going for one simple reason—I knew he would have done the same had our positions been reversed. Life being what it is, I’m sure he’ll have to return the favor at some point. I think the trust we had in each other’s professionalism and ability to produce good, solid work was the most important thing we brought to the table.
When he asked me about doing a fantasy project, I was all in even before I’d seen what he’d done on the project beforehand. And after, there was no doubt.
A reasonable facimile of Steven Savile.
2. What’s your process as the series continues?
Steven: I’ve covered a lot of Book One up above—but for Book Two we’ve divided characters a little. We’re in the final passages of the novel at the moment, and I’ve taken Kane to write his part in the epic battle we’ve taken two books and 200k to lead up to, and Joe’s taken Jenn. These are our two honor-bound warriors, Del Carpio. They’re the force of good in a universe of mad gods and beggar kings. For Book Three, I imagine we’ll carry on with divided storylines, weave the stories together, plotting them out beat for beat, then when I’ve wrapped my line turn it over to Joe to edit, and when he’s wrapped his, he’ll swing it my way for the same abuse. One good thing is neither of us is precious. We’ve worked in media properties a lot, and between us have sold about a million books or so, lots of different franchises as well as our own worlds. We’re used to playing nice with other people’s toys, but we’re also very much dark/horror writers at heart. It’s where we both got our starts, so as you can imagine the world we’re playing in here is pretty grim.
Joe: A good collaboration, in my view, is a seamless merging of the individual writer’s styles. In order to pull that off, we are constantly trading the work back and forth. If Steve writes a section, I’ll then go over it with a fine-toothed comb, adding and smoothing things out in the process. I will then continue from that portion moving forward and send it over to him to the do the same. By the end of the project, we’ve both gone over it several times, so it is no longer possible to see where his work begins and my work ends or vice versa. Instead, we have a new, blended style that results in a voice all its own.
3. For each of you, what’s some creative strength that the other one brings to the table? Or what’s a lesson the other one often teaches you?
Steven: Joe’s a powerful, muscular writer. He’s disciplined and he’s fast. I’m not. I’m a slow methodical writer who will write 1,000-1,500 words a day, and those words may take ten hours to get down. I obsess about the little details and sentence-level stuff. So I try consciously to be a little more like Joe and a little less insane.
Joe: Ha! I’m disciplined and fast because I tend to procrastinate and then have to write a lot in a short period of time! Steven gets his words done every day, like clockwork, and inspires me to be more regular in my production. If I know he’s waiting on a section that helps push me to get it done on a timely basis. He’s a bit more of an atmospheric writer than I am, so I know he can take my action scenes and add another layer to them. At the same time, I can take his lovingly crafted paragraphs and cut them back a bit to make them drive the reader forward into the tale. In short, we complement each other well.
4. How do you deal with creative disagreements? Can you describe a time when one of you said, “This character would never do that!” and how the other partner responded?
Steven: You know what, as of now, we’ve not had one. No BS. We’ve had adversity, like my dad’s death and my wife’s subsequent diagnosis a few weeks later, which believe me tests the strength of a friendship as you feel like you’re taking advantage of your partner’s good will, but it’s also where you realize it’s forged in fire and can take pretty much the worst life can throw at it. However, on the whole, ‘Ah, man, they’d never do that,’ we bounce ideas, escalating each other with ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t that be cool?’ which stirs up, ‘Yeah, but this would be so much more intense.’ and several of those go back and forth until we hit on a through line that’s ours, we both love, and which serves the story. I think it helps I respect the hell out of Joe, and I figure he puts up with me.
Joe: Steven’s right—the issue hasn’t come up. And when it does, I suspect we’ll deal with it the same way we deal with everything else, by talking it over until we are both satisfied. That’s one of the cool things about collaborating with someone. The end result is often bigger and better than you might have come up with on your own.
5. What’s the difference in how you look back on your solo work compared with your collaborations? Does the former feel more genuinely “you”? Does the latter feel more like a marriage? Do you take different sorts of pride in the solo and collaborative work?
Steven: Yeah, I confess when I write a list of books I’ve written I always write my solo novels first, when friends ask ‘what of yours should I read?’ again it’s the solo novels (generally Silver to be honest) that I recommend. Because it’s me. All me. 100%. That doesn’t mean I’m not immensely proud of the collabs. I am. But you nailed it, it’s more like ‘I’d never have written that by myself, it would have been so different’ and I’ve done a lot of them, from HNIC with Prodigy from Mobb Deep, through a bunch of stuff in my own thriller universe, Ogmios. I’m a mean collaborator there, in that my guys write a first draft, and then I rewrite every word into my voice. I think I’d hate that if I were them, but I’m ridiculously possessive of the IP. It’s got to be right. This Matthew Caine is different again. I think it’s probably harder for Joe to feel ownership on it as it stands with just book one out, as so much of that was in place, but as the series progresses with Book Two and beyond, more and more of it becomes the perfect marriage.
Joe: To be honest, I don’t differentiate too much between them because there is a fairly wide gap genre-wise between what I write solo and what I write in collaboration or as work-for-hire. All of my solo material has either been urban fantasy or alternate history. All of my collaborative works have been epic fantasy, paranormal fantasy, or action-adventure. I direct the person I’m talking to the genre that they are most interested in. My website breaks my books down by series so it follows the same kind of approach. And honestly, I’m proud of everything that I’ve published—solo or collaborative. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t let it out in public in the first place.
For more on Steven Savile, check out his website. For Joe Nassise, ditto. And just in case you haven’t snapped up a copy already, you can find Ghosts of the Conquered right here.