International Thrills: An interview with bestselling Australian-British author Alan Baxter
By J. F. Penn
Alan Baxter is a bestselling and award-nominated author of dark urban fantasy novels and short stories. His latest book is BOUND, part of the Alex Caine series.
This month, USA Today bestselling thriller author J.F.Penn interviewed Alan for The Big Thrill. Read the edited transcript below, or you can watch the full interview here, on YouTube.
So, Alan, tell us a bit more about your writing journey. How did you get into being a writer?
The short answer is: I’ve always been a writer, I just didn’t realize it. When I was about seven or eight years old, we were sent home from school on a Friday, and we had to write a story for the Monday. When we came back on the Monday, most of the class had written one or two paragraphs, and I’d written about seven or eight pages about this guy who goes back in time and gets chased by dinosaurs and all sorts of stuff. The teacher got me to stand in front of the class and read it. My friends were coming up to me afterwards going, “Oh, yeah, that was a really great story,” and that was my first realization of the power of storytelling.
I did a lot of roleplaying games in my teens, and I used to prefer being the Games Master rather than the player, because I would get to write the campaigns and learn to tell stories that way.
In the mid-90s, I had a crappy job that didn’t occupy too much time or my brain: I could go and train, I could afford my training fees. But I started feeling like I was in a rut, and I knew I had to shake it up a bit.
About the same time, a friend and I decided to go and visit a mate in Australia and went on a round-the-world trip. While I was on that trip and thinking about things and seeing the world and everything, I decided to pursue writing seriously rather than as a hobby.
Also on that trip, I met my wife and I ended up moving to Australia, and then I started working on Realmshift, which was my first published novel. So that was the big transition period, walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, and deciding to make life changes!
Tell us a bit more about your own fighting experience since your character, Alex Caine, is a fighter.
I’ve been a martial artist forever. I was teaching before I left the UK, and then after traveling, I joined a new school when I came to Australia. It’s just something that’s always been part of my life, and it’s a lifestyle. For some people, it’s a hobby, and that’s enough, but for a lot of people, it becomes a lifestyle, and it informs everything that you do. That’s very much the case with me.
I used to fight in competition before I left the UK but I’ve long since retired from fighting–I never had a professional fight career; everything I did was at amateur level. At the time I decided to ease back on fighting, the whole MMA and UFC mixed martial arts cage-fighting thing was really starting to take off. So I missed that. My fighting was more on the open mat and in the ring, rather than the cage.
I wrote a book with Alex Caine as the protagonist, partly because my previous books have featured fighting and people who knew martial arts, but mainly on the periphery. When it came time to start working on a new series, I decided I should write a character who is actually a fighter. Not a character who’s something else and can fight, but someone who is first and foremost a fighter, and that’s where this story starts.
Alex Caine is an underground cage-fighter; he doesn’t like the big glitz of the UFC, he likes the dirty, gritty underground scene, where he makes good money. He’s brilliant at what he does, his life is sorted, he’s fixed, he’s a great fighter, and that’s that. And then everything comes along and screws up his comfortable world.
So, in terms of the character of Alex Caine, a lot of what drives him, and his philosophy and everything, is very much like my own, as a lifetime martial artist. His character, what happens to him, and how he responds to things, that’s the fictional element.
He’s not an autobiographical character, but I was able to use a lot of my experience of living the philosophy of the martial arts in the book. That’s what he draws on throughout the books to get him through this horrible situation he gets into.
Through the course of the books, Alex is always thinking back to his teacher, his sifu, which is the Chinese equivalent of a sensei, and the lessons that he was taught. He keeps making these connections, where lessons about fighting are equally applicable to life, and to any other kind of struggle.
His experience fighting in the cage actually helps him deal with everything outside the cage. I explore that a lot in all my writing, but specifically in these books, because that crossover, for me, is very true. So, yes, I finally got to pull the threads of my life together!
You mentioned philosophy. What do martial arts and your writing have in common? They seem so different.
They’re parallel and I’m actually writing a book on it. For years, I’ve been jotting things down and making notes, and one day I’m going to write a book, which will essentially be a guide to the creative life based on the martial life.
Just to draw a really simple analogy: If you want to be good at writing, or painting, or music, then you have to work really hard, you have to practice a lot, you have to learn your craft. That’s exactly the same for fighting. You need the discipline to do it. If you want to be good at sport and you want to get onto an Olympic team, you have kids who are in their teens, but they get up and go to the gym for two hours before school, then they do their homework, and they train in the evening. It takes that dedication to become excellent at something. It’s the same with writing, and it’s the same if you want to be an artist.
So those parallels between becoming a good martial artist and living the martial life is the same as becoming a good writer—or a good farmer, or a good policeman, or whatever it is that you put your soul into. If you’ve got that passion for it, then you need to apply yourself that way. So, yes, one of these days I’ll write the book!
BOUND has an urban fantasy edge. Why are you drawn to write the supernatural side?
I think I write the supernatural and a lot of darkness and horror because I think there’s a certain honesty to it. If you’re going to dive into a rabbit-hole, I want to go all the way to the end, and go right down, where it keeps getting darker and darker. If you’re going to have people that are in difficult situations with big threats, and you take out the natural rules, the threats can get bigger. So you can have supernatural rules that give you this fantastic scope for storytelling.
Of course, anything in a story is an analogy for something else, and so when you’re testing characters, you can test them up to a point with human adversaries, and then you can test them even further with non-human adversaries. In many ways, the more supernatural or the more unnatural you make a story, the more you can draw out the human in your characters, because that’s the difference. The more difference you show, the more you can highlight the human aspect of your protagonist.
Apart from anything else, it’s just enormous fun for storytelling to be able to play with monsters and magic. So you get to have this really exciting other-worldly escapism, but you also get to have that far greater reflection of human character as well.
Can you tell us a bit about the supernatural aspects of the story?
Alex Caine is a career martial artist who has this little edge. He doesn’t actually realize initially that he’s magical, and that grows throughout the story. The first book is loosely based on the classic quest, where you have someone who gets taken out of their comfortable life, and they end up going on this journey, and they have to find the thing or do the thing against adversaries.
Then I mixed that with the thriller aspect of other people who also want the thing, so there’s a race to get to it, and all those kinds of elements. I also wanted to do it all with that dark, supernatural horror edge to it, because I love to genre mash, and it’s a lot more fun!
So, what are the themes that keep coming up? What obsesses you?
Over a career of sixty plus short stories, half a dozen novels and other things, I’m starting to realize that a lot of what I deal with in my writing is consequence.
A lot of the time, people develop stories and things happen, but I always want to look at it a little bit further: what are the consequences of that happening? And it’s usually not very good. So often people are playing with things they shouldn’t, or pushing things a bit too far, or messing with things they should leave well enough alone, and I explore the subsequent consequences of that. That bleeds over into other aspects like revenge. Seeing how that can turn against people, and that revenge isn’t necessarily the answer, and so on.
A lot of it comes back to that martial philosophy. Within the martial arts, there’s this concept of Mo Duk or Wu De in Mandarin, which is, at its core, leading a martial life. And that means not only being able to fight, but being able not to fight, and everything that goes along with the philosophy of that. That underlies a lot of my stories—when to walk away, when to stand up and fight ,and what are the consequences of either of those actions.
Has that theme stemmed from any particular incident in your life?
I feel like I should lie on a couch now! Yes, definitely, to some degree, a large part of why I took up martial arts was because I was the geeky, nerdy, wimpy kid, and I got bullied. A lot of the darkness and consequence and brutality of what I write comes from the fact that I’ve seen a lot of that in my life. My brother died when I was young, and obviously when he was young, and those are the scars that create the person you are. You are, basically, just the sum of your experience.
My brother died because he had a disability, so I’ve grown up with all different kinds of bullying, examples of amazing empathy and care, and examples of absolutely horrible lack of empathy. So I guess I tend to draw on those things in stories, because that’s my lived experience. That’s why writers tend to improve through their career, because they live more and have more experience.
We talked about travel a bit at the beginning, and you write a lot about places around the world. The Alex Caine books feature Iceland, UK, and Italy. So, how have your travels impacted your writing, and are there any particular places that you love?
I think the two most important things you can do as a young person, and the two most important things parents can do for children, are to teach them how to read, and to instill in them a love of reading, because that is the best journeying there is. There’s a lifetime, a journey in every single book, and they learn about life and about people and about all those sorts of things. And the other thing is to travel, and encourage them to travel, and show them the world.
I think everybody should, at some point before they’re twenty years old, find themselves somewhere where they’re the different one. Like, for you and I, it would be being the only white face in a crowd. For a lot of people, obviously their entire lived experience is to be the only something in a crowd, and those people tend to have enormous empathy, because they’re always in a struggle. But a lot of people have this privilege of being surrounded by comfort, and I think it’s really important to not be.
You don’t have to be a different color, but to be the only person in a big crowd who doesn’t speak the language and to find yourself standing there, not knowing what’s going on. Or to be standing in a street looking at signs you can’t decipher, because they’re Cyrillic or Asian, or whatever.
That experience is really powerful, and it’s very informing. It’s important when it comes to developing empathy and to developing a broader experience of humanity. And so I always try to explore that with books as well.
It’s important. I don’t just want to write stories about heterosexual white guys in a white society, so I always try to make sure that women are represented well, race is represented, sexuality is represented, and whatever, because in my life, that’s what I see.
I spend an enormous amount of time in the Chinese community, because I live and teach Chinese kung fu. I live in a very multicultural country so I want my characters to have that world experience and go to different places. I want readers, through reading my stories, to go on those journeys.
So, like you said, even in BOUND, Alex starts in Sydney, he goes to London, he goes to Canada, then ends up in Italy, and then to Iceland. It’s important for me to give readers those experiences as well as I can.
What do you love about writing short stories and how do they differ from your novels?
At a fundamental level, a short story of under 5,000 words has to be the same as a novel of 100,000 words, to a degree. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has to have a point.
You have to have characters who encounter conflict, and there’s some resolution to that conflict, whether it be good, bad, or ambiguous. So, short stories and novels, in those terms, have to be the same. You can write almost vignette-style short stories, but that’s more an exercise in writing than in actual storytelling, and really, I’m about storytelling. I want to tell whole stories.
I’ve always loved short stories. I remember when I was a kid, reading the short stories of Roald Dahl—they got televised in Britain as “Tales of the Unexpected”—and stuff like that as well. They were amazing. My favorite was the one about the tress, when he made the device that could hear the plants screaming, and he could hear the roses being cut. They blew me away. And the Conan stories, and H.P. Lovecraft—I just love the form of short story.
It’s a difficult skill. It has actually improved my novel-writing as well, because it really teaches you a brevity and a control of language, and the idea of story and sub-plot. I just love the exercise of exploring themes. With sixty-something short stories now, I’ve gotten to explore so many more ideas, themes, and genres than I would have if I only wrote novels. It’s basically just another excuse for great exploration in storytelling!
I wanted to ask you about the gaming side, because you said, when you were young, you would do the role-playing and I know you’re still a gamer. What I love about gaming is—literary purists might argue that writers shouldn’t be gaming, and that people who read serious stuff should not game—but what we find is, it’s story, right? Tell us about your thoughts on gaming and whether there’s any conflict with books.
Some of the best storytelling in the world at the moment is happening in games.
You have epic stories, like the Mass Effect games, or Halo; you have just heart-wrenching stories like The Last of Us; you have hilarious, clever storytelling, like with Portal. When you game, you get to be a part of the story. You don’t get on with the narrative just by turning a page, you have to interact, you have to solve mysteries or solve puzzles. With role-play and video games, as well, you make dialogue choices that can affect the outcome of the story, which means that you can go back and play that game again and get told a different story, with the same characters, the same set-up and everything else, but a different result.
Story is powerful: story started with people sitting around a fire, a) entertaining each other, and b) learning and passing on knowledge and important stuff through stories that had to be remembered and told again.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no medium that has the total grip on storytelling. Books, novels, tend to be the deepest form, inasmuch as you can get the most information and you can get the most insight into characters, because through reading you get internal monologue. But you can have stories in short stories, or in games, or in anything else, that are equally powerful.
Comic books and movies are massive influences on me, partly because I love the visual medium involved, but also because some of the best stories are told that way. I was massively influenced in my mid to late teens by Garth Ennis’ “Hellblazer” comic books and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” cycle and “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore, people like that. Those kinds of writers really influenced me in terms of writing and storytelling.
There are people who would say, “Oh, comic books, that’s not serious, that’s not real storytelling,” but there are some amazing, and adult, and deep, and heart-breaking stories told in comics, just the same as games, just the same as movies. And of course there’s a lot of pulp out there as well, but that applies to books, as well as movies, as well as games, as well as comics.
There is some competition, inasmuch as, if we want young people to grow up and love books as much as we do, we have to show them what there is to be experienced from reading a book, because it’s much easier to sit with an iPad or to sit with an Xbox and play a video game and interact that way.
Especially in this day and age, kids are digital natives. They grow up with gaming, and computer gaming is used in the classroom now. GBL—Game-Based Learning—is a massive factor. I’ve actually written for the New South Wales Department of Education and worked on a video game purely to teach teachers how to use video games in their classrooms with students. My job in that was to bring narrative to the game, to make sure the teachers didn’t get bored, and so they had a narrative, an emotional connection to continue playing.
This stuff is just an omelet now—you can’t unscramble it.
I don’t see it as competition, but I do think it’s very important that we make sure kids understand that to go and sit quietly and read a book and have that totally immersed experience is important, as well as playing a video game, or watching a movie or anything else.
Where can people find you and your books online?
The Alex Caine series is available everywhere in e-book now, so wherever you shop for e-books, go there. It’s here on Amazon. You can also find all my work at my website. You can also find me on Twitter.
J. F. Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Arkane thrillers and the London Psychic series. Joanna is passionate about international travel, psychology, and the supernatural, and she weaves these obsessions into her fast-paced novels. She also likes a few gin and tonics. Free ebooks and audio, as well as more author interviews on her website or connect on twitter @thecreativepenn
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