Today I’m super honoured to bring you an interview with Sean Grigsby, author of Smoke Eaters, a sci-fi-fantasy-horror-thriller mash up you do not want to miss!
As well as being a serving firefighter and writer, Sean also runs the Cosmic Dragon podcast over on his website, on which he chats to people from all aspects of the publishing industry, including authors, editors and agents. Check it out!
When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defence, in this wild near-future fantasy.
Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters.
Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the crosshairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.
Now come on, seriously, who doesn’t think that Firefighters V Dragons sounds all kinds of badass? And believe me, it is. I had huge fun reading an ARC of this novel, and the goodness doesn’t stop there – just look at the cover!
So, without further ado, here’s what Sean has to say about life, love, and the pursuit of dragons:
- Hi Sean, and welcome to the blog. First off, it’s no secret that I come from a family of firefighters and think that firefighting and writing are two of the coolest jobs on the planet. And here’s you, a serving firefighter who’s about to publish his debut novel! Wow! So, for a non-book-related question, why did you decide to become a firefighter?
The parties and group massage sessions. Ha!
Seriously, before getting into the two greatest jobs on the planet, I was stuck in a miserable banking gig. Necessity being the mother of invention, and how I needed to get the hell out of the bank, I started writing short horror stories and then met a firefighter who asked why I hadn’t considered joining the fire service.
Then it hit me. When I was a kid, I wanted to become two things: a writer and a firefighter. Backdraft was one of my favourite movies and I would also dream of being like Marty McFly’s dad at the end of Back to the Future, opening a box containing a book I’d written.
I love the action and the unknown of firefighting. You never know what craziness is going to come over that loudspeaker. But ultimately, I became a firefighter because I wanted to be the guy who did something when people were hurting or needed help. I can’t stand on the sidelines. I love being proactive.
- Did you always want to be a writer as well?
Oh yes! I’ve been a huge reader all my life , growing up on Goosebumps books and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I’m a total 90s kid. I would write stories to annoy the teacher, which would get back to my mom and annoy her even more. One of my stories, which was really a first chapter of a novel I never finished, was about kids who get sucked into a videogame (I beat you to it, Jumanji!) The school paper printed it and I was totally pissed that the teacher in charge had retyped it from paper and had made several typos and grammatical errors. I couldn’t believe I was a better writer than a grownup.
I dabbled in short stories as an adult, but didn’t get serious about it until my son, Owen was born. I’d been wary of novels because of the length and having to get an agent, etc. Looking back, I was a damned idiot. But I’m here now and can’t imagine life without writing.
- Now, clearly you’ve written a novel that draws on your particular strengths and skill set, and it’s always awesome to see writers do that. You include little details in Smoke Eaters like how the different colours and smells of smoke indicate different materials burning. As a debut author (and I’m speaking from experience here) was there an urge to infodump stuff like that throughout to ‘prove’ yourself?
I HATE infodumping. It wasn’t until a later draft that I decided to add certain pieces of information to show that Brannigan knows what he’s doing. And I’d just read The Martian, and he’d put a lot of science into that. I didn’t want to go as far as he did with it, but with Smoke Eaters being both fantasy AND science fiction, I wanted to put science into it– Fire Science! And dragon and ghost science that I pulled out of my ass. But I hate when books basically become a textbook for a few paragraphs. My goal was to implement this stuff where it’s interesting but not distracting.
- What’s scarier – your first structure fire or your first novel being published?
First novel for sure. Walking into a burning house is easy. But how the hell do I get people to read my book!?
- Now, from your photos (yes, I’ve been stalking you) you seem like a young chap. Why did you choose to make your protagonist, Cole Brannigan, an older man? Was there a specific reason for that?
When I first got the idea for the book, I was in the middle of my second fire academy. I’d moved to a bigger city’s department and they required me to go through the same stuff again. It got me wondering how a very experienced firefighter would deal with becoming a rookie again. Plus, having a young buck would have been so old hat to me. I love being different.
- The story is told from Cole’s first-person perspective. Was there a reason for this? Why not third person or multiple perspectives?
The way it’s tended to fall with my novels is that I switch off from third person to first with every book. I don’t think this is conscious, but before I start a book, I listen to what I feel is the best way to tell the story. Brannigan’s personality is so damn massive, there was no way I could do anything but tell it through his perspective.
The novel I wrote before this, Daughters of Forgotten Light, has several POVs, so I like doing both.
- Smoke Eaters has something for everyone – dystopian 22nd century America, sci-fi level mech suits with laser swords, fantasy dragons, humour, horror. Do you refuse to be categorised?
Absolutely. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into any certain genre or anything else. I have a plethora of stories inside me, and the way my mind works, I could go from Urban Fantasy to Space Opera and then to something else. I love mixing things together to create something totally different. It’s creative alchemy.
And I certainly don’t want to be stuck being known as a firefighter who writes. I’d rather be viewed as a writer who also happens to be a firefighter.
- Your best piece of advice (as a firefighter) to the public?
Many of our calls are medical in nature. With that in mind, don’t call 911 or its equivalent for dumb shit. A headache or something you’ve had for months isn’t an emergency, and it takes away manpower for something actually serious, like a baby not breathing. Emergency services are here for you, but we’re not a mobile WebMD.
- Your best piece of advice (as a writer) to aspiring authors?
Persist and adapt. Writing is a long game. After you finish a work and send it out, start something else. You get better with each book and you learn how to pitch and query and everything else. I made up my mind that I‘d rather die than not be published. You really have to become almost obsessive about it without being desperate. That might sound strange, but it’ll hit you tomorrow or something.
- Smoke Eaters and its sequels become bestsellers and make you fabulously rich – what’s the first thing you do?
Lawd. I’ve wondered this myself. I’d love to write full time, but I’m fortunate to have another career that allows me time to write. Plus, the fire retirement is great. Although, much like Brannigan, I have a slight dislike of authority, and it would be great to be my own boss and wake up whenever the hell I want. I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I get there.
- The electric wraiths – ghosts of people burnt or eaten by dragons – was a plot element I was not expecting in the least, and definitely not when it became more apparent for their reason for being. I can’t wait to see how this develops in future books, but can you tell us a bit more about that plot device?
When I first set out to write Smoke Eaters, I kept seeing this gnarly ghost floating over an ash-covered wasteland. I don’t know where it came from, but I knew I wanted to start the novel that way, and they ended up becoming a big part of the plot. I’m a pantser/discovery writer. To me, it’s so much more fun to uncover the novel as it goes along. The wraiths make a bad dragon problem even worse.
- Is Smoke Eaters the first novel you’ve written, or did you write ‘practice novels’ first? If you did, did you ever try and get them published?
I average about two books a year so far, and Smoke Eaters is the fifth novel I’ve written. I’ve tried to get them all published. I signed with my agent on the novel I wrote before this, Daughters of Forgotten Light. There still might be a chance it gets its day in the sun. It’s a dystopian sci-fi about all-female motorcycle gangs in space. They ride laser-wheeled bikes and shoot laser balls from guns on their wrists. It’s very grindhouse pulp and my favourite book I’ve written.
That’s why I’m so big on persistence. You never know what book is going to strike gold.
(ED: I would sure as HELL read that – it sounds awesome!)
- How was your road to publication? Any lessons learnt?
Besides what I’ve already talked about, I think networking is something that can’t be stressed enough. Writing is a lonely business and you’d do well to make friends. You’ll not only learn a lot, but you’ll have a pool of folks you can ask to blurb your book and hang out with at cons. I’m a very social creature and I crave interaction with other people who get me.
- What can we expect from Smoke Eaters 2? Does it have a title yet?
If it’s going to happen, the next book will be called Ash Kickers and will be told from the POV of Brannigan’s fellow rookie, Tamerica Williams. This time, the smoke eaters not only have to deal with dragons and wraiths. This time there’ll be a phoenix and a cult of arsonists.
(ED: Ash Kickers! Snigger)
- And finally … which of your own dragons would you most – or least – like to fight? How would you do it?
They’re all so damn scary. Especially the Behemoth. The first thing I’d do is evacuate the area. Then I’d try my best to contain the dragon and use big, big laser swords and cannons. But how do you combat something that not only can take to the air, but can burrow into the ground right under you?
I’ll stick to fire.