Gordon, what was your inspiration for writing HELLFIGHTERS?
Well the inspiration for the series as a whole came from a few different places, including the fact that I had asthma when I was a kid. It was tough, and meant I had to sit out a lot of stuff. I always remember asking myself the question what would I be willing to trade to be able to breathe properly, and it's a question I've carried through my whole life—although thankfully I outgrew my asthma. The idea of being able to make a deal for super powers, or money, or fame, is as old as the human race, it's one of our earliest stories, and I just wanted to write a modern version of this Faustian tale—complete with a ton of monsters!
The inspiration for this book in particular came from a lot of the stuff I used to read when I was a teenager, mainly books by Clive Barker (Hellraisers, the first book in the series, is a not-so-subtle nod to his influence). I also discovered the world of Lovecraft when I was a teenager, the idea that there are unimaginable horrors lurking just behind the skin of reality. I read a lot of classics, too, like Dante and Milton. I was just fascinated with the idea that there is more to our world than what we can see, hear, touch. The universe is vast, and full of terrors, and this was my chance to explore them!
The hardest scene to write in Hellfighters was also one of my favourites. This book doesn't quite venture into hell itself—you have to hold out for Hellwalkers for that—but it skirts very close to the edge. The Engine of the series title is a monstrous creation, ancient and evil, designed for a single, unthinkable purpose—to open the gates of hell and free whatever lurks there. It's buried somewhere that nobody can find it, guarded by old magic, by dark magic. In order to access it, the characters have to go through something called the Liminal. I don't want to say too much—spoilers!!—but the scene where they're crawling through the nightmare of the Liminal was almost too much even for me. I had to stop several times and go outside and remind myself it wasn't real.
As for a scene I'm proud of, I try to make every chapter something to be proud of, something I would feel happy reading out, something that people will love. It doesn't always work, of course, but I try! I'm proud of the horror in this book, proud of the action too, proud of the lore I created. But mostly, I'm just proud of the characters. They felt so alive to me, and they fight this war with fierce determination, with uncrushable humour, and with hope, too. They never give up.
What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?
Hellfighters is very much rooted in the work of horror writers, especially Barker, like I said. I remember sitting reading Clive Barker when I was about fifteen, losing myself in the depth of his imagination, in the unfathomable darkness and brightness of his stories. There were worlds upon worlds, each more fascinating and disturbing than the last. What I loved was that you always thought you knew where you were going in a Barker story, but you never ended up there. He always spun you around and sent you somewhere else. It was that breathtaking series of mysteries and revelations I loved so much. I tried to get the same feel in this series—you may think you know this version of hell, but you don't!
But really, any good horror book that peels away the surface of this world and reveals something new will resonate with readers of Hellfighters. If you love horror, you'll hopefully love this! It should appeal to comic book fans too, there's a real Marveleqsue vibe to the series—that great blend of horror and action and comedy.
How long did you work on HELLFIGHTERS?
I can't remember, it's all a blur! I think it was about three months in total, for the first draft. It might have been less. I never plot my books, so I write them as quickly as possible so that I can find out what happens at the end! The middle book of a trilogy is always difficult to write, because you have to enter the story as it's flying along, and you can't risk giving away too much, or taking the story too far, because you've still got another one to come. But I'm really happy with it—it definitely feels like my Empire Strikes Back, gritty and disturbing and fun, but really just all about that story and the people unlucky enough to be in it.
I just hope the last book in the series isn't my Return of the Jedi… :-)
What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?
Every book you write tells you a little more about the craft, and about yourself. Specifically, I think, this book taught me about perseverance, and having the courage to stick to your convictions. This was a difficult series to write, because it's big—it crosses continents, universes, aeons. There's a lot to it, and it was difficult at times trying to wrestle it all into a story that people would relate to. I had to stop and pull it all back, pull it in, hitch it back onto the characters. There were definitely times when I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but I think all writers feel like that about their books. It's often tempting to put it to one side and leave it, but I couldn't do that with Hellfighters because I cared about the characters too much, I had to find out what would happen to them. So I knuckled down and fought my way through the story the same way they did (well, kind of, I didn't have any fistfights with demons), and it paid off, it worked.
What do you hope readers will take away from HELLFIGHTERS?
I want them to finish the last page, close the book, and go, "Whoa…" It's a roller-coaster ride through hell, this series, and it doesn't let up. I want readers to come away with their hand to their chest, their heart hammering. But it's more than that, it's a journey of courage and of hope, and hope is always something I want people to come away with. Hope is the most important thing in the world, I think. I want readers to reach the end of Hellfighters and know that however bad things are, they can get better—if you're willing to fight for it.
And I want them to be excited for the sequel too!
How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?
I've spoken about this before here, I was quite lucky really that I fell into publishing pretty easily. But I've been thinking about this more and more recently. I think you make your own luck in life. I was lucky that my book got picked up on the back of a competition, that a publisher took a chance on it, and that it started my career. But I was also "lucky" that I wrote the book in the first place, "lucky" that I entered it into the competition, "lucky" that I spent twenty years of my life trying to write as much as possible so that I would eventually be good enough to get published. Writing is like anything, you need to work at it. I know so many people that tried to write a novel once, then got disheartened when it wasn't published. It's like learning to play the piano. The more you practice, the better you get. It took me a long time to figure that out for myself (I gave up writing for seven years when my first novel was rejected). You just have to keep writing, and keep writing, and keep writing. Whatever happens next will only happen if you've laid the foundations.
What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?
Haha, ritual! That implies some kind of organisation… I am pretty scatty. I do try to write every day but it's so difficult. I always work at home, in my office (or in the living room if everyone else is out). I do sometimes listen to music (the Stranger Things soundtrack is my go-to music right now), but not always, it depends on the scene. I usually write in the morning, up till about mid afternoon. But not always! Having kids makes things infinitely more complicated. I have three girls, the youngest of which is just nine months old, and they don't always leave me much time to write! But I do find time, because writing is one of life's great joys and I just can't imagine my world without it.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?
So much, but mainly this: never give up. Writing is a craft that you improve with every single thing you write, so just remember that everything you write has merit, nothing is wasted. I used to think that everything I wrote had to get published somewhere, and when it wasn't I was so disappointed—especially when I was a teenager. But I didn't understand back then that I was laying the groundwork for everything I would write in the future. The books and stories I wrote when I was younger, even though they were never published, are the building blocks of what I write now. Without them, I wouldn't be here. So keep writing, keep reading, keep dreaming, and never give up. Anyone can be a successful published writer, you just have to have grit.
And a good sense of humour...
What are you working on now?
I have just finished the third and final book in The Devil's Engine series!! I can't wait for you all to read it!! :-)
ABOUT THE BOOK
by Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Thrown into a relentless war against the forces of darkness, fifteen-year-old Marlow Green and his squad of secret soldiers must fight for control of the Devil’s Engines―ancient, infernal machines that can make any wish come true, as long as you are willing to put your life on the line. But after a monstrous betrayal, Marlow, Pan and the other Hellraisers find themselves on the run from an enemy with horrific powers and limitless resources―an enemy that wants them dead at all costs. Failure doesn’t just mean a fate worse than death for Marlow, it means the total annihilation of the world. And when all looks lost and the stakes couldn’t be higher, just how far is he willing to go?
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ABOUT THE AUTHORAlexander Gordon Smith is the author of the Escape from Furnace series of young adult novels, including Lockdown and Solitary. Born in 1979 in Norwich, England, he always wanted to be a writer. After experimenting in the service and retail trades for a few years, Smith decided to go to University. He studied English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia, and it was here that he first explored his love of publishing. Along with poet Luke Wright, he founded Egg Box Publishing, a groundbreaking magazine and press that promotes talented new authors. He also started writing literally hundreds of articles, short stories and books ranging from Scooby Doo comic strips to world atlases, Midsomer Murders to X-Files. The endless research for these projects led to countless book ideas germinating in his head. His first book, The Inventors, written with his nine-year-old brother Jamie, was published in the U.K. in 2007. He lives in England.
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