Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines. Robert H. Schuller

H. Leighton Dickson Interview Published on: 17, Feb 2018

Where did you grow up? What were you like as a child?

I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, on the shores of Lake Superior. We camped and canoed all throughout my childhood, and I found I was really drawn to nature and the wildlife it contained. Even as a child, I was ‘the neighbourhood vet’, and people would bring me sick or injured animals (cats, dogs, birds, mice, etc). I was shy, quiet, happy and artsy. I was always reading, writing or drawing.

Describe an early experience when you realized that words had power.

Because I was so shy, I entered a few public speaking contests in middle school. I wrote each speech myself (one on horses, one on wolves, one on sharks) and I won 3 years in a row. I realized that, while I was a terrible public speaker, the audience had loved what I had to say. That was the beginning of a life-long fascination with words.

What was a dream of yours as a child and have you accomplished it?

I think I have accomplished almost every dream I had when I was younger. I wanted to own a horse. I’ve had 3 now. I wanted to work in a zoo – I worked in the Edinburgh Zoological Gardens in Scotland. I wanted to live with a pack of dogs – I have 3 big retrievers! I wanted kids – I have 3. I wanted to travel the world – the only places left on my bucket list are Africa and Costa Rica, and CR is planned for next January!

How many hours do you write in a day?

I don’t have that particular discipline. I’m not a full time writer, so I squeak time in when I can. That said, when the muse strikes, I can write 8 hours or longer!

Do you design your own book covers? If not, who does them for you? If so, what is the process that you use in order to determine the right cover for a book?

I used to pencil for DC Comics so art is in my blood. Designing book covers is one of my favourite things in the world, and I design them for other indies as well. I generally have a vague idea of what I want and I work digitally now, so it’s a fun process of try this, sample that, add this, photoshop and paint, etc. I usually go through several drafts and I won’t release a cover unless it’s perfect. It’s very intuitive for me, and I love the challenge of designing a cover that a) reflects the story/mood/feeling of the book and b) will sell!

When did you start writing your Tails from the Upper Kingdom series? Did you have any difficulties when it came to blending together modern fantasy themes in Western Society with the Chinese zodiac?

I actually started writing TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER back when I was working for DC Comics. I was imagining a Graphic Novel about genetically engineered people in a post-apocalyptic world (this was waaaaay before the current dystopian/post-apocalyptic trend). I had even begun the pencils on the series but decided to concentrate on the story first and add pencils later. The story took on a life of its own, and became the novel it is today (actually, the full story was almost 1000 pages, and is now represented in Book 1 AND Book 2 of the Upper Kingdom series.) And yes, always Asian-inspired. I don’t know why – it just made sense to me, and I was tired of the western European influence of most other fantasy novels.

Which real-world country/city was the inspiration for 'Khanisthan' in your Tales From The Upper Kingdom series?

If you know the series, you know that all the cities, villages, countries, mountains, lakes, etc. are real places, just with bastardized names that would result after many, many years of history. Khanisthan IS Afganistan, Hiran IS Iran, etc. While reading the first two books in the series, you can literally map their progress by using your imagination. Even words that sound strange like ‘Shagarmathah’ (the largest mountain in the Kingdom) is their version of Sagarmatha, which is the Nepalese word for Everest.

Give us a brief introduction to the character Kirin Wynegarde-Grey and who inspired his creation.

Kirin is the focal point of the series – a strong, noble, honourable man who has grown up in privilege and believes the world to be one of right and wrong, of black and white. He believes in order above all things and at the beginning of the series, he is proud, a bit vain (he IS perfect, after all) and he has many prejudices that blind him to the experience of others. I wanted to write him so that the reader understands why he thinks this way. He is not evil, but he is flawed, and the story is about his character arc and learning curve. He is, at his heart, a very good man, and his journey is about becoming a great one.

Your book "Cold Stone & Ivy: The Ghost Club" has been described as "steampunk". What does this word mean to you and is it what you were gunning for when you wrote the book? Do you often read reviews?

With COLD STONE & IVY, I started out trying to write a historical thriller but it became so boring so quickly, and I couldn’t figure out why. My son suggested I make it a steampunk thriller and suddenly, everything clicked. Some of my favourite authors are Wells, Verne, Doyle, etc, and my house is filled with gears and clocks! The steampunk element allowed my imagination to kick into high gear and I had fun playing with almost every genre in that series. And yes, I do read reviews. I’m just not influenced by them unless they have the ring of truth. Not every book is right for every one, but if someone says there’s a problem with grammar, or editing, or something professional, then I’ll take notice and make a change.

Describe your ideal writing space.

A very small cabin on the shores of Lake Superior, with a fireplace, great views and a bottle of wine. Hmmm, that’s where I’m heading this weekend.. ;)

What inspired you to write a book from a Dragon's point of view? Was it difficult trying to make the dragon a relatable character (seeing as though he isn't human)?

Actually, DRAGON OF ASH & STARS was an easy book for me to write. I’m a zoologist by schooling and worked with predators like lions, wolves, bears, etc. I’ve always hated how fantasy tropes make dragons ‘psychic’, as in they communicate telepathically to their riders, and I’ve always wondered what it might be like if a dragon was simply an apex predator. How would a human tame that? How would you make sure he didn’t eat you? Why would you dare to get on his back? I used real world examples of humans training or subjugating animals (horses, cormorants, elephants, etc) for their own use, and adapted them to a predator.
Also, at the time I started writing, I’d been invited to a Robert Louis Stephenson Challenge. It’s a writing prompt where you are encouraged to write a book based on another book, almost chapter for chapter, and see where you go. I chose Black Beauty (which is the autobiography of a horse), one of my favourites as a kid. The story took on a life of its own and Stormfall, the Night Dragon, was born.

How do you go about doing the research for your books? Are you more of an A to Z planner or a 'we'll see where this goes' kind of person?

I’ve always been a pantser, until DRAGON OF ASH & STARS, which was entirely outlined (because of the RLS Challenge). That actually was surprisingly fun, so I may be switching my loyalties now. However, my characters will always have the final say, so if they decided to change things mid-chapter, I will follow and see where they lead.

What is the craziest thing you've ever done as a writer (to get a book published, to get information for research, etc)?

For COLD STONE & IVY 2: The Crown Prince, I went to Vienna and into the crypts of St. Stephan’s Cathedral looking for skulls! For CS&I 1, I went on a Jack the Ripper tour in London’s East End. I love to travel and my books have given me a ‘reason’, as if one needs a reason to travel…

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