Henry H. Neff is the author and illustrator of the five-book fantasy epic THE TAPESTRY, along with his newest creation, IMPYRIUM, which Entertainment Weekly named the #1 Middle Grade Book of 2016. Henry lives with his wife and two sons in Montclair, NJ.
For what age audience do you write?
My books are usually classified as middle grade fantasy, but I don’t really write for a specific audience or age group. I simply try to tell a story I find entertaining and figure the audience will sort itself out. While that certainly includes 8-12 years olds, I’d say almost half my readers are teenagers and adults. My stories are categorized as fantasy because they contain magic but you’ll also find lots of history, mythology, and even science fiction. They’re a genre stew.
Henry H.: Speculative fiction goulash. A potpourri of preposterous plot particles.
Tell us about your latest book.
My most recent work is IMPYRIUM (HarperCollins, October 2016). It’s the first in a trilogy that takes place in a distant future when our world is dominated by magical humans, most notably the godlike Faeregines, whose family has ruled the empire over 3,000 years. Unfortunately for the Faeregines, the family’s magic has been fading, and their many enemies have noticed. The story has two main characters: Hazel Faeregine, who is an outcast within the royal family, and Hob Smythe, a non-magical commoner and undercover revolutionary that serves (and spies) within the palace. Some have joked that it’s Game of Thrones—for kids! In addition to writing the story, I create all the interior art and maps. It’s been a lot of fun.
Henry H.: I enjoyed reading IMPYRIUM. My brain unconsciously kept translating Faeregines as Fae peregrines. Elvish falcons!
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
First and foremost, I want them to be entertained. But I also want readers to be challenged, and to make deep and lasting connections with the characters. I rarely work in black and white, and strive to give my heroes flaws and the villains motivation beyond simply being bad guys. There are some tricky topics broached in IMPYRIUM having to do with class, opportunity, the use of power, and institutional decay. As in real life, there are no easy answers to complex questions. Everything involves a tradeoff and there is usually another side to the story.
Henry H.: If we could peek inside villains’ heads, I suspect most of them wouldn’t consider themselves villainous. I agree with you that complex villains are so much more interesting. Gollum is much more intriguing than the uniformly evil Nazgul.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
My rough drafts are painfully slow, as I suffer from a tendency to over-plan and edit while writing them. Having a roadmap is helpful, but excessive planning can smother creative spontaneity. Revising while writing kills momentum and can lead to losing sight of the forest, and instead obsessing over individual trees. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d write rougher drafts and take far less time doing so. If anyone is in possession of such a wand, please get in touch.
Henry H.: Unplug your computer mouse. You can only type. You cannot go back and edit (until the first draft is done). You’re welcome.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
When in doubt, trust your gut — even if it’s telling you to do something that seems weird or risky. There’s no guarantee of success, but I believe this leads to better stories, a more interesting life, and fewer regrets. No one spends their final moments wishing they’d been more conventional.
Henry H.: However, one should take care not to extend this advice too far. Just because your gut says that a 300-page dystopian picture book sounds like a fun project, you should probably skip it.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Does having a family qualify? I reconnected with a former classmate (we attended the same elementary school) after my first book, The Hound of Rowan, was published. Danielle read it, sent a nice note, and we caught up the next time I was in New York (I was living in San Francisco at the time). A decade later we’re living happily in Montclair, NJ with our two beautiful boys. If I hadn’t left the corporate world to teach and write, I’d probably be alone with a bigger bank account and a lot less happiness.
Henry H.: Best. Answer. Ever.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Get your drafts down quickly, grow a thick skin, and truly embrace revision. Also, don’t over-romanticize the profession. This last one is important. Having talked with many aspiring authors, I’ve noticed that some believe publication is the ticket to fame and riches. I can tell you firsthand that it is not, and there are very few children’s authors that can live solely on their writing income, much less amass anything resembling wealth. If being rich and famous is your goal, there are more reliable paths than making children’s books. Write because you have stories to tell and enjoy telling them. If your book becomes a bestseller, GREAT! But don’t allow that to be your goal, much less your reason for writing.
Henry H.: All excellent advice. If I may elaborate, Henry’s thick skin comment refers to both dealing with agent/editor rejections, and unfavorable book reviews. Take solace that ALL authors get rejected. And don’t read reviews of your books. The positive ones don’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, and the negative ones are depressing.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” from Catch-22, and “Just keep swimming” by the ever-buoyant Dory. The former appeals to the wry cynic in me; the latter to my chipper optimist. It’s the Frosted Mini-Wheats of quotation pairings.
Henry H.: “There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.” – Hunter S. Thompson
“Fish are friends, not food.” – Bruce the Great White Shark
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?
When I settle in to write, it’s usually with a pot of coffee, noise-cancelling headphones, and Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Dance” on repeat. There’s something about that piece I find conducive to writing. It has a soothing, almost hypnotic quality that helps put my brain in work mode. According to iTunes it’s been played over 23,000 times, so I’d say that qualifies as a ritual. I also pay tribute to Cthulhu.
Henry H.: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Yeah, that’s soothing…
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Forget flying. My super power would be the ability to write a rough draft in four months or less. I would weep with joy. So would my editor.
Henry H.: A modest, but practical superpower. Well played.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, and Philip Pullman. Tolkien because he’s the granddaddy of modern fantasy, LeGuin because she’s a marvelous writer whose penned iconic works in both fantasy and science fiction, and Pullman because I think “His Dark Materials” is not only brilliant but fearless. The dynamic would be an interesting one. I’d love to hear Tolkien spar with Pullman about whether The Lord of the Rings has merit beyond a basic children’s story (Pullman’s been highly dismissive of Tolkien’s work as anything resembling literature or even a children’s story of moderate depth). It would be fun to witness two opinionated, scholarly writers have at it. Meanwhile, I could ask Ursula how she manages to craft stories that portray both magic and daily life with such lyrical beauty and realism. I was tempted to resurrect Patrick O’Brien whose Aubrey-Maturin are my favorite books, but I’ve heard he was a superior, standoffish fellow. Sorry Patrick, you can’t come. If I could add a fourth, it would probably be Neil Gaiman. I admire his work and he seems the type to bring a good bottle or two.
Henry H.: That is one high-powered dinner soiree. But the pressure! You know they’re silently correcting your grammar.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
There’s a quotation in Impyrium attributed to a long-dead playwright that reads Keep your basilisks and harpies, your trolls and goblins. There is only one true monster and its name is Dragon. I should note, however, that the dragons I’m talking about aren’t overgrown lizards that are fodder for enterprising heroes. The dragons I’m talking about are mythological entities whose being is tied to some aspect of Nature or the cosmos. In my books, there are only a handful of dragons and they are ancient, godlike creatures whose mere presence is utterly overwhelming to mortals.
Henry H.: Dragon Is correct. Would you like to try Mythological Creatures for $400?
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Mostly, I chase my kids around. We have two young boys, ages five and three. They keep me pretty busy. Fortunately, I enjoy Legos, frozen waffles, and toilet humor.
Henry H.: The only thing scarier than a dragon is stepping barefoot on a Lego.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Henry H.: Wouldn’t it be preferable if your tomb remained vacant? Just sayin’.
Where can readers find your work?
You can probably find IMPYRIUM in your local bookstore or library, along with any of the major chains or online retailers. My first series, The Tapestry, can be purchased online and found in the odd bookstore with exceptional taste. My books also have digital and audio versions and some have been translated into a variety of foreign languages. For more information, you can visit my website at http://www.henryhneff.com
Thanks for spending time with us, Henry.