Hello Heather. It’s great to have you here. I’ve enjoyed your books so much. Could you give us an overview of your Tales of the Upper Kingdom series?
Sure! The ‘Elevator Pitch’ would be “Game of Thrones meets Planet of the Apes, dressed up as a Japanese Anime!” It’s a post-apocalyptic saga that reads like high fantasy, with the rise of genetically-altered civilizations that blend elements of Ancient India, Dynastic China and Feudal Japan.
Cool. Why did you choose felines as the dominant species in your novels?
I’ve always had an affinity for the big cats. I’m a zoologist and have worked with predators back in my Edinburgh Zoo days, so when I began roughing out the idea for this book, I knew it had to be from the point of view of the cats. There are other anthropomorphic cultures in the series, and you find out more about them as the stories progress, but definitely, the cats are in a class by themselves. At least, in their not-so-humble opinion.
And probably, because if I was an animal, I’d be a cat. 😉
Me too. Do you have cats?
I do! I have three – an orange tabby male, a brown tabby whom we took in as a stray and a little grey fluffy thing that thinks she’s a dragon.
LOL! Why did you choose Dynastic China, Ancient India and Feudal Japan as the inspiration/base for your feline culture? What is your experience with these cultures?
I have zero experience with these cultures, except for an appreciation of their history, their complexity and their beauty. Most fantasy series are European-based, (best example being Tolkein’s Middle Earth) so with this series, I really wanted a different feel, a different approach. Also, the sci/fi angle really makes sense once you get to the end of Book 2 and you find out WHY the cats are the way they are (ie from Asia). This aspect definitely has its roots in the modern political arena.
Interesting. A predominant theme in your books is honor and duty versus love, friendship and family. Do you feel these themes are still relevant today?
Probably more than ever. I really feel the lack of honour in our modern society and I think Kirin’s journey – one of living a life of honour and duty but trying to blend freedom and relationships – is perhaps the heart of the stories. He navigates some tough roads and we see his rationale change and evolve while his core beliefs really never sway. And it’s a personal thing for me as well – keeping integrity in a fickle, self-absorbed and sometimes scary culture. I’ve had to find my own ‘zen’ core, my own Bushido – one that’s kind, compassionate, strong and fair. At least, that’s what I aim for, and I take it out on Kirin!
Yes, it’s difficult to keep on our true path when we’re bombarded with negative messages.
When you began writing the first book, did you have the entire series plotted out?
I used to pencil for DC Comics (the company that puts out Superman, Batman, etc) so back in ‘the day’, I had this idea for a graphic novel, which is like an extended comic book. I was going to write and draw it, and my inking partner at the time was going to ink, letter and colour it. But as I plotted it out, it kept getting bigger and bigger so I decided to just write it all out before even starting to pencil it. That was the beginning and over the years, it just became a novel. Actually, the two books, To Journey in the Year of the Tiger and To Walk in the Way of Lions, was originally just one very long novel, but I had a literary agent recommend cutting it, so I did. The third book, Songs in the Year of the Cat, came about after the fact, because of readers who didn’t want the stories to end. I have another 3 in mind, as well as two prequels. It’s a rich world!
Looking forward to them. The names of your characters are not common but are not so complex and bizarre as to be confusing, like in many fantasies/science fiction novels. How do you choose your character’s names?
Because the Upper Kingdom is really set in our real world, I decided that all the names would be actually based on real names. Even the locations (cities, forts, regions, provinces, etc) are slightly changed versions of their current names. For instance, the mountain Shagar’mathah, is just a version of the Nepalese word for Mt. Everest. They call it Sagarmatha. It was fun changing things, just a little. Also, I really hate facetious nomenclature in fantasy books. It makes me nuts.
Me too. I appreciate the clarity. Which character would you most like to befriend in your novels and why?
Oh, good question. Kirin would make me crazy, but he would have my back. Kerris would be fun at a party, but re: long term friendship, he’d require too much work. Fallon is too much like me (actually, she IS me. Very autobiographical dialogues, there!) I would love to get to know Ursa, help her onto a path of healing and the same with Sherah. But I think Sireth would be the one I would really want to spend time with. He would be fun, clever and calming.
Yes, Kerris would be exhausting.
Do you think humanity is doomed?
As much as I’m a Star Trek fan, I really have to say I can’t see a positive future for us. Civilizations come, civilizations go. We’ll probably experience our own ‘Dark Age’ soon enough. Does that mean we as a species will die off? I don’t think so – I think human life on earth will just morph and change as it always has. One culture will recede as another one takes it’s place. The planet will change too, but it will survive. One of my thoughts for the series is this – “Is it ‘Dystopian’ where the end of the world is bad for humanity but good for everyone else?”
I hear you. Unfortunately, the next dominate species might be even more damaging to other species than humans. Who knows?
Where can we buy your books?
What are you working on now?
I have three projects currently on the go! Swallowtail and Sword is a collection of short stories from the lives of the seven main characters and should be available in a few months. Cold Stone & Ivy: The Ghost Club and Cold Stone & Ivy: The Crown Prince are books that are being shopped by my agent, Jennifer Udden of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and are currently being considered by Penguin/Random House, Harper/Collins, and the other big Five. Then I have another series called Locke & Keyes that I’ve started – think of a Victorian English Remington Steele. Plus I’m writing now for Bayview Magazine, which has been really fun!
Wow, you’re a diverse and busy woman.
What book have you read recently that you would recommend to others?
I have a hard time reading while I’m actively writing – it commandeers brainspace! I would definitely recommend The Lions of al Rassan by Canadian fantasy author, Guy Gavriel Kay, or anything by him actually. He’s my favourite author. I also love historical fiction and stumbled upon a brilliant Restoration-era spy series by Susanna Gregory. I’ve also always read the classics, even as a young kid, so I would recommend reading The Three Musketeers by Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Leroux, anything by A. Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Jules Verne, Jane Austin. These writers were my addiction growing up.
I loved those classics as a teen, although I suspect a lot of it went over my head. I still think it’s good to read them though, especially if you’re interested in writing.
On what social media can your readers connect?
I have a website: http://www.hleightondickson.com and it has a blog which I do try to maintain, but I’m really active on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HLeightonDickson. I share a lot of fun stuff about science, animals and writing and we have quite a vocal community going on! I also Tweet vicariously – my twitter feed is linked to my FB so whatever FB gets, Twitter gets! I really don’t know what to do with Twitter. It boggles me, but I’m there @hdickson62.
Fabulous. See you there. Thank you for your time and good luck with all your projects.