Highlights from Sam Hawke’s AMA!

Sam Hawke, author of City of Lies, took to Reddit earlier this month, where she talked about poisons and the Poison War duology, representation in fantasy, animals, Princess Bride references, and more.

Many questions were focused on the fantasy genre and how Hawke approached it differently. Wasdcursor asked,” This genre can sometimes read as if it’s a bit like drawing by numbers and you did a great job of keeping it fresh and unpredictable! It was full of turns and twists—what’s your proudest “original” part of the book? Also what’s your favourite bit from something else which you did a fun reinterpretation of (if we can guess)?”

Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say.

I was holding off on these two for later because I’m actually not sure on the first one. I guess a closed room murder mystery setup wasn’t that common in fantasy, so that’s probably the most distinguishable thing about the structure of the story. Or possibly just messing with the all-too-common Western nuclear family model as the foundational family structure of the society—once you take out marriage as a concept and give primacy to other kinds of non-romantic relationships, what happens? (This is something that you don’t see as often as I’d like in speculative genres. We can imagine the most amazing magical things, but absolutely we must pair off and have strict gender roles etc. There are certain assumptions we carry across from our everyday lives unthinkingly which I’d like to see challenged more often).

There’s a scene with one character being pursued by another in tunnels that I don’t know (well, can’t remember anyway) if I was subconsciously or deliberately drawing on a beloved intro to an old Alistair McLean novel—I can’t remember the title but it opens with a terrific terrifying chase scene in caves that I remember extremely fondly. And as I said in my answer to a different question, there is a Princess Bride homage scene which will hopefully make it into Hollow Empire


On that same topic, Reddit user JamesLatimer asked, “Hi Sam! As you know, I loved City of Lies. I would love to discuss all sorts of things about the book with you, but if I keep it to one question, I suppose it’s—what was your motivation for making this such a positive story? In a genre with a lot of grim darkness lately, it was refreshing to read something set in a more utopian society, with characters who stick to their principles even in the face of overwhelming dangers. Did you know this was what you were writing at the time?

And if I had a second question, it suppose it would be—how do you feel your book was influenced by Australia, if at all? I thought I detected a slightly different flavour than in the American and British fantasy, but it could be my imagination—or yours!

Thanks James! :)

When I first had the idea for the book and started work on it back in… oh, 2006 or so, I think it was? I don’t think, back then, I had any strong feelings about making it a positive story. In many ways the premise is quite pessimistic—here we have these sheltered, privileged people growing in up in what they think is a shining beacon of civilisation, only to have the rug pulled out from under them about what that society really looks like up close. It was a very different world in 2006, though, and I was definitely a very different Sam.

In the gap between then and now, I definitely burnt out on cynical characters and particularly on what I’d call the charming arsehole. I didn’t want to spend any time in grim worlds with only grey characters—there’s only so much edgy nihilism I can take, especially when the world has over the past few years been tipping in that direction in reality. So I’ve definitely found myself drawn more to stories about people trying their best to do the right thing, people willing to fight to try to make things better, and I’m sure that influenced how I ultimately wrote the book even if only subconsciously.

Oh, there are some Australianisms hidden in there for sure! (Some that I only realised were Australianisms when my US copyeditor flagged them) And I definitely didn’t want it to feel like another medieval Europe, though it’s not designed to resemble Australia either. Having said that, certainly growing up in a country with a messy colonial past—and present, for that matter—has been influential in writing about dominant cultures, though.


On the subject of representation, multiple users asked Hawke about writing characters with disabilities. These were a few of her answers:

It means so much to me that the portrayal of Kalina’s illness rang true for you. There’s literally no review that I like getting more than one in which the reader connected to the characters and felt represented. So thank you!

I haven’t fully diagnosed Kalina in terms of an equivalent our-world condition, but she certainly suffers both from an immune disorder which causes chronic pain and fatigue, and asthma. They have pretty good doctors for a fantasy world but they haven’t figured out immune diseases yet.

I’d love to see people do it more often—it’s amazing how disability and illness (especially chronic and mental illness) just kind of magically don’t exist in fantasy societies a lot of the time, or don’t exist except as a problem to be solved. But obviously as writers when you’re writing disabilities the key thing is to listen to disabled people and be observant—how do you see people treated in your circles, in your everyday life? Many people are extremely open and generous about sharing their experiences as well, if you’re listening.

I think mental illnesses and chronic/invisible illnesses and disabilities are generally wildly underrepresented in fantasy considering how common they are in real life, and I wanted both my protagonists to just have these issues but still get to be the heroes without the story being about their disabilities. Both Jov’s OCD and Kalina’s illness were just there as part of their characters when I first had the idea for this brother and sister pair.

Kalina hasn’t got a formal diagnosis but she’s got both something like asthma and also an immune disorder which gives her effectively chronic fatigue and pain symptoms—at this stage I haven’t narrowed it to the specific disease.

Jovan came to me more or less as he is, and the OCD and anxiety were always there. Apparently, subconsciously or otherwise, I wanted to write a main character with that issue. Like I said in relation to a question about Kalina, I think invisible disabilities and illnesses, including mental illnesses, are underrepresented and often badly portrayed in media, which is very irritating—I particularly feel quite strongly that OCD has found its way into pop culture as like a quirky superpower or a series of cliches and is often played for laughs. It’s not a fun condition, it’s not about liking things tidy or washing your hands a lot, and I really wanted to portray it as an incredibly intrusive, difficult condition that really has your own brain working against you. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be writing a book about illnesses, they were just parts of the character that informed how they might respond to things, and what they could and couldn’t do, but didn’t define them as people.


DevinMadson, who had also asked about Jovan as a character with OCD/anxiety, asked about the fantasy animals in City of Lies.

Dev! Thank you for stopping by!

Bless you, I love my dumb fictional animals and no-one ever mentions it—I think this is the first time anyone’s ever asked me a question about them :) As you know, City isn’t really heavy on the magic/supernatural elements, especially in the first half of the book, so one of the ways that I tried to make it feel like fantasy, like a different world entirely, was by making a lot of new flora and fauna. Some of them were entirely made up but others I was influenced by extinct animals—I’m still hoping to manage to get some Australian megafauna (giant wombats!) in there in some form. I tried to make my fauna work for the geography and climate and the historical settlement pattern of people in the country, and I’m very gratified to hear that it worked for you! :)


lizziecatstar asked, “I have heard other authors describe themselves as planners or pants-ers (fly by the seat of their pants). Which one are you? Do you plan out aspects of the story in detail before you write, or do you start to write and let your characters go where they want you to go?”

I’m probably a pantser by inclination but a planner by design—I hate plotting in advance, and moan about it a lot, but I am always extremely grateful that I’ve done it when I come to write. City was the first book I’d ever outlined, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it was the first book I ever finished and thought hey, this isn’t bad! So now what I like to have is an outline that will help me with what needs to happen next (so that I don’t stall) but work to it in the knowledge that I’m also going to leave myself plenty of wiggle room as I go.

Sometimes I will think of some twist or change or revelation and feel very proud of myself, then go back to try to seed it and find that I’d already left myself clues which seemed to set that up, because Past Sam can be a mysterious arsehole, really.


Finally, tctippens asked these three questions:

  • Are there any trivia tidbits you can share about the world or characters in your books that you don’t think you’ll be able to include in the written story?

Look I am a slow worker and I hate wasting my painstaking efforts, haha, so I will always try to work things in if I can get away with it, even if it’s just a throwaway line. On the other hand, I did have to bin an ENTIRE BOOK so hell yeah there’s gonna be some stuff that now won’t make it onto the page. I promise that if my Princess Bride homage can’t find its way into Hollow Empire in its new form then I will come back and tell you all about it.

  • What drove the decision to have both POV characters be in first person?

I used to be aggressively against first person narration for some reason, until in my mid teens I found Robin Hobb and realised what could be done with it. All my writing had been in third, until this book. Jov’s voice in this story always wanted to be first person. When I first conceived the idea—and the first line—I couldn’t see it as anything but a first person story. So I was going to try to write the whole thing from Jov’s POV, but quickly realised that Kalina wanted a voice too. I thought it would be confusing to have two first person narrators, so I tried, oh man, I tried SO HARD to switch Jov to third person and it just didn’t work. The story flattened, the voice died, it lost all its energy. I actually think this was a big factor in me setting aside the story 10+ years ago. When I came back to it so much later it seemed painfully obvious that I had to tell Jov’s part in first person—but I persevered with Kalina in third as I thought that would be less confusing for readers (they are, after all, close siblings often sharing scenes). And then I started subbing to agents, and every agent who offered me representation said straight up that Kalina needed to be in first person too, that I was holding her at a distance without it. So I had to change her back. Not a process I’d recommend if you can avoid it, it’s way, way more work than just shifting some pronouns around.

  • Did you learn anything surprising when researching for City of Lies?

One of my most fun random discoveries was in relation to prehistoric animals—did you know there were prehistoric giant ground sloths, who made massive burrows in hard rock that are like enormous tunnels now? Check this out! There are, as you know, some tunnels under the city in my book, and although this will likely never make it into the text, I want some of those tunnels to be the remnants of ancient giant sloths.


You can read the rest of Sam Hawke’s AMA here.


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