So my last interview of the year is with Pat of the eponymous Pat’s Hotlist:
This is one of the oldest and best known fantasy book blogs on the internet! Pat’s Hotlist has what we call in the writing game 'a very distinct voice', and that’s a big plus in a field where new book blogs are springing up daily. The site’s longevity is result of persistence, but its popularity is all down to the content.
Pat gave me his interview sheet way back, and the first question of my own Frankenstein’s Monster of an interview I stole from the first question on his. When he sent it to me it read:
So what's the 411 on Peter Orullian? Tell us a bit about your background?
… Peter having been interviewed immediately before me. In fact, when I sent my replies back Pat very kindly enquired if I wanted to add any more, presumably because Peter had done such a good job on his interview and my answers looked rather scrappy in comparison J and such pointers to newbies are genuinely appreciated. Peter’s replies occupied nearly 2000 words more than mine!
Pat has missed out the infamous Falacata Times (quite possibly a good choice given some of the pathways it’s led us down recently, Justin Landon!) but I’m sure you’ll find the answers provided very interesting. I found Pat’s answer on plot vs prose to be particularly enlightening.
Anyhow, enough from me, with great pleasure I turn the tables on the estimable Mr St-Denis! On with the questions!
So what's the 411 on Patrick St-Denis? Tell us a bit about your background? (from Pat's Hotlist)
Well, I fell in love with the genre when I first read Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight during my first year of high school. That sets us back to 1986. Man, I ain't getting any younger, that's for sure!
And the rest, as they say, is history. I've been an avid SFF reader ever since. After countless TSR offerings, I "graduated" to David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Stephen King, and many others.
Interestingly enough, in a genre that's supposedly 99% crap, over the last 25 years I've always found terrific speculative fiction novels to read. Given this literary background and the fact that I was an active poster on various SFF message boards in the good old days of the internet, the transition toward becoming a blogger/reviewer seemed kind of natural.
Why should we read your blog? Convince us?
After nearly 3700 blogs posts, over 300 book reviews, innumerable news and articles, hundreds of giveaways, I don't know how many interviews, and millions of readers, there is nothing I can say or do to convince people to read my blog. The content is there. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is what it is. Some will love it. Some will hate it.
That's the way love goes.
Thankfully, there are more lovers than haters out there. . .
What inspired you to start a review site?
I'll quote a portion of the answer I provided for a similar question I was asked in my very first interview (http://fantasylibrary.blogspot.com/2007/10/interview-with-patrick-st-denis-of-pats.html): Well, the funny thing about my blog is that it was never meant to exist for more than a week or two. I have a very short attention span (whether it's with girls, tv shows, bands, etc), and unless I'm hooked from the very start I will lose interest fairly rapidly.
Truth be told, I had never before shown any interest whatsoever in creating a website, or in reviewing books per se. After all, I had never written a book review in my life. Hence, there was no urge within me to create what became Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.
If you want to blame someone for my polluting cyberspace since January of 2005, then your scapegoat should be my friend Pat. He created what became the most popular political blog in the province of Québec, and ranked as high as number 2 in Canada. One day at work, he was telling me that I should consider doing the same (in retrospect, he was probably hoping that I would join him in the political sphere). But even though I use a computer every day to accomplish an assortment of tasks, I'm a terrible computer-illiterate. Aware of that particular shortcoming of mine (he would in all likelihood point out several others, if given the chance!), he explained how easily a blog could be set up and then run. Claiming that even I could manage to get the hang of it was really saying something, so I decided to give this blog thing a shot!
Thus, on January 5th 2005 (if memory serves me right), bored out of my mind and for want of a better idea, I sat down in front of my computer. And instead of downloading porn or midget sex clips, I resolved to discover if creating a blog was as easy as my friend made it sound. To my dismay, it was. In the space of a few minutes, the whole thing was up and running. The problem was that I now needed to give the blog a name and a purpose in order to continue. Which threw me off-balance, for I simply wanted to see my template on my computer screen.
Racking my brain for inspiration, I suddenly remembered my friend John Fallon, the actor/producer/director/critic, who created what became the most popular horror website in the world (http://www.joblo.com/arrow/). We lost touch for a few years, but I recalled when he told me that he got into that because no mainstream critic reviewed horror movies seriously. A couple of years went by, and all of a sudden he found himself on top of the horror movie entourage. The studios now fly him on location to meet and interview actors and directors, etc. He attended two Playboy parties and countless film festivals around the globe. Note to all the editors and publicists who will read this interview: I am willing to forsake a year's worth of ARCs if you can get me into a single Playboy party!:p I mean, come on, throw me a bone here!
Back then I was still relying on Amazon.com reviews for the most part, which also featured brief PW and Kirkus pieces. But none of those reviews satisfied me, for none of them elaborated on facets that interested me. Most of the time, those reviews consisted of a short version of the cover blurb, with a few extra sentences thrown into the mix. I remember being irritated a whole lot by that sort of reviews at that particular time, which compelled me to turn this new blog into my own little fantasy book review site. Since nobody seemed willing to explore themes such as worldbuilding, characterization, pace, yada yada yada, I decided that I would give it a shot. In addition, with so many websites and blogs focusing on the negative back then, I wanted to share my love of the genre with fellow readers and raise awareness in all the good things fantasy and science fiction have to offer. This has remained the blog's objective since Day 1, and I would like to believe that I've achieved my goal.
Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?
There are various sources, to be sure. I'm on several mailing lists, which means that I receive a shitload of books every week. Well over 600 novels in 2011. I give each of them a quick glance, sometimes read the cover blurbs, and once in a while a book will pique my curiosity. When that happens, it goes on my "maybe" pile.
I've worked with a number of editors and publicists for a few years now, so they kind of know what I'm usually into. When they get in touch with me to discuss the possibility that I might want to check a certain title out, I'm always willing to listen.
Then there's the hype coming from SFF publishers. Advance reviews sometimes create a lot of noise, which in turn might catch my interest and make me want to see what the fuss is all about. That's how I actually became interested in Prince of Thorns, by the way.
Like most readers, I also have my own trusted reviewers. When a number of them all write positive reviews of a work, it usually makes me want to read it too.
What's your favourite book and why?
I don't have one, as it is impossible to put my finger on a single book that blew my mind in a way that trumped all the others.
In no particular order, here are those SFF titles which rank among my favorites: George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, Ian McDonald's The Dervish House, R. Scott Bakker's The Thousandfold Thought, Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (even though it's not speculative fiction), and the list goes on. . .
Everyone says they understand that people's tastes vary, but not everyone truly accepts that. If someone adores a book you hate ... does that give you any pause, emotionally or mentally?
Not at all. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I'm smart enough to know that enjoying or disliking a novel is a very subjective process. The qualities I use to praise a book might be the exact same facets of a work that another reviewer will use to savage it.
Early on, I sort of thrashed a book that did absolutely nothing for me. About a week later, a reviewer I had come to trust implicitly gave that same novel a rave review. As a matter of course, the opposite has happened quite a few times as well.
Again, that's the way love goes. That's why you never see me defending divisive authors such as Hal Duncan, R. Scott Bakker, or Steven Erikson on message boards. I happen to love what they do. That others don't doesn't make me lose any sleep. And yes, it's possible to like Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker. Live with that, bitches. . . ;-)
Do you ever hold back when you might want to villify a book, or put a more positive spin on it in an attempt to be even handed and not colour the review too much with your personal reaction?
Reviewers would like to believe that they are thoroughly objective, but one can never truly be 100% objective. Most online reviewers are huge genre fans, and hence they sometimes get overexcited regarding certains authors and titles. It comes as no surprise that I have my own preferences and favorites, and in my excitement I may unconsciously overlook or downplay certain aspects of a work that casual readers may well find off-puting. And yet, I do my damnedest not to let this happen. But as I said, no matter how much I try, I'm persuaded that it doesn't always work.
Like most SFF fans, I read for the love of it. And as fun as it can be to occasionally villify a book (my review of David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale (http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/2007/06/wanderers-tale.html) is still remembered fondly in certain circles), but in the end it's simply a waste of my time. So two years ago I elected to stop reading a novel that does nothing for me after about 150 pages or so. Which is why you rarely see truly negative reviews on the Hotlist anymore. Life's too short to waste on crap. As a matter of fact, I'd rather raise awareness and spread the word about what's good out there.
Your question brought to mind a correspondence I exchanged with Gollancz editor Simon Spanton in 2008 which came to be known as the Hype Files (http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/2008/06/hype-files.html). My lukewarm review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains caused a bit of a backlash within the SFF online community, and Spanton and I discussed the nature of hype. And I did elaborate on the fact that sometimes our overexcitement can color our reviews:
I think the hype regarding TSR remains comes from within SFF readers, at least a large part of it. It's Richard Morgan, for fuck's sake, and we want him to blow our minds! So we are already predisposed to be "influenced" by any positive buzz. Heck, people on message boards were getting excited about the damned book last summer, a full year before it was even released. We didn't even know what the novel would be about, and yet we were jumping up and down in anticipation.
When the advance praise from Joe and Darrin came, we were all salivating! Then the blogger reviews went up, and things reached a new level of excitement. I'm not saying that those bloggers wrote false or exagerated reviews. But I think that in their excitement, they may have, consciously or unconsciouly, overlooked some of the story's shortcomings. I'm guilty as charged of having done that in the past concerning titles that I was really looking forward to, and I was called out on it. Nothing wrong with that. We are only human, after all, and sometimes we really want some books to be so damn good. Just to give you an example, though he wrote a glowing review, [name withheld] came out and said that TSR had nothing on Altered Carbon and Black Man. I believe that, had I read it when you initially sent me the ARC, I would probably have enjoyed it more. As it is, all those positive reviews made my own expectations go up a few notches (and they were high to begin with), and in the end no novel could have met those expectations. . .
We, as readers, in a way create and magnify the hype. We want this book to be great, and when reviews keep telling us that it is, well we just keep hoping for more, and more. So I'm not saying that you and the folks at Gollancz did anything wrong. Man, you're riding that wave for all its worth, and so you should! We rarely so such a buzz for a book, especially when you're not named Martin, Gaiman, or Jordan. So I see nothing wrong in the way you guys played your card. And I don't think anyone of those bloggers can be blamed of anything but overexcitement at the thought of finally reading that new Morgan fantasy book.
Personally, I never try to hold back when the time comes to villify a book. But there is a way to do it, I guess. And in the end, no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, a negative review remains a negative review. For instance, I like Brandon Sanderson. He's a big fan of the genre and a standup guy. I started blogging the year his debut was published, and I reviewed Elantris, did an interview, and interacted with Brandon quite a bit back then. When the first Mistborn volume was released, I said that Sanderson was the brightest new voice in the genre. Unfortunately, the next two Mistborn installments really did very little for me, and I was forced to write my reviews accordingly. In a way I felt bad, for I genuinely like Brandon Sanderson. But I had no choice but to be honest with my readers. The same goes for Steven Erikson's Crack'd Pot Trail.
As far as putting a more positive spin in an attempt to be even handed in a review, though I can't provide any specific examples, I'm pretty sure I'm guilty as charged from time to time. . .
Does your personal opinion of an author ever sway a review in any direction?
No. I let the novel stand on its own merit.
Every time I'm perusing a message board and see readers bitching about Terry Goodkind, Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, or John C. Wright, and see them go on about how they'll never buy/read any of their books again, I can't help but shake my head and marvel at the silliness of it all.
Terry Goodkind is a dumbass and a crackpot. About as bad as they come. But that's not why I don't read and review his books anymore. It's just that he writes crap. Period. I would still hate his books if he was the nicest human being out there. . . Sadly, he's not. . .
Are you all about story, or does the beauty (or otherwise) of the writing count for much? Or more broadly - what is it, between the covers, that's most important to you?
I'm a plot kind of guy. Always have been and always will be. To me, it's the story that matters. In my opinion, this is what captures the heart and imagination of readers.
Decades later, people are still talking about Tolkien's LotR because of Frodo's tale. J. R. R. Tolkien may not have been the greatest of authors, but he was a great storyteller. The same thing goes for Robert Jordan. I'm convinced that fifty years from now, people will still be reading and enjoying The Wheel of Time. Some have called Jordan a pedestrian writer and that may not be far from the truth. And yet, he's a top notch storyteller. Millions of readers have fallen in love with Rand, Matt, Perrin, and company, with millions more to come.
To me, it's all about the storylines. The beauty of the writing can enhance the overall reading experience, true, but it remains a secondary aspect that can never satisfy me if there is a subpar plot to begin with. Lyrical prose is all well and good, but the absence of a good and multilayered plot will kill any novel for me.
What is it that's most important to me? Well, the way I break down my reviews is a good indication. For speculative fiction titles, the facets I'm most interested in are worldbuilding, characterization, depth of the plotlines, and the pace. In light of all this, the quality of the prose remains important, for it can break a novel. If the ideas are unreal but bad writing kills the execution, a book can be nothing but shit. Yet in an of itself, the quality of the writing can never make me appreciate a book if there is an absence of an interesting plot. Which is why I could never finish Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. . . This one made me want to open my veins. . .
What are you goals and hopes for the Hotlist & how does it feel to be read across the globe?
Truth be told, I no longer have any hopes or goals for the Hotlist. I guess it's safe to say that Pat's Fantasy Hotlist went well beyond my wildest expectations. I've never been able to really get used to this. Thousands of visitors from 105 countries accounting for millions of hits, all to read the drivel I put up on an almost daily basis. It's unreal!
I have my share of detractors, of course. Honestly, I have more than my share, or so it seems sometimes! :P And yet, whatever the haters might say, the Hotlist today is basically everything I ever wanted the blog to be when I began doing this. Reviews, news, articles, interviews, giveaways, etc. I'm cool with the fact that some people can't stand my little corner of the intrawebs. Trying to please everyone has never been an objective of mine. But Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is exactly the sort of blog I'd like to read.
After nearly hanging them up and retiring at the end of last year, I'm not sure just how long I'll keep blogging. But as long as I'm having fun, what the heck!?!
My motto has always been "Wasting technology since January 2005!" Seems that I've achieved a lot since then with the Hotlist, not the least of which was getting a character based on me getting butchered in George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons. When an asshole of a knight known as Ser Patrek of King's Mountain gets dismembered by a giant after having his head smashed to a pulp, who needs a Hugo award?
I'm sure you realize I've always been doing this for the right reasons.
I'm still dreaming of the Playboy Mansion, though. . . ;-)