Interview with Jan Kotouc
Jan Kotouč is a Czech author of space operas, military SF, and alternative history. His first novel was published in 2009 and since then he has written a number of novels in Czech. Frontiers of the Imperium is the first book in his latest series, the Central Imperium. He is one of the handful of Czech writers who has found success in the English-speaking market. Apart from writing, he teaches at a university and is a popular speaker at a number of conventions.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Well, that's hard, because we became friends since then, but I didn't much like the first books I've read by Kevin J. Anderson. Then I watched some interviews with him and decided to try his other stuff. Kevin has written over 150 books, so he has all kinds of stories. As a working writer, I especially appreciate his books about writing productivity and professionalism, they are one of the best around on this topic and I reread them regularly.
What character do you think readers can relate to most in your book?
In my Central Imperium series, I think the main duo of Daniel and Hila are the most popular with it being about evenly distributed between who loves more Daniel and who Hila. Daniel because he is the smart analyst who can figure out problems and people rather fast and accurately. Hila is a tough ex-commando who can kick ass and prefers simple solutions to problems. Readers like those things.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I don't think those two are mutually exclusive and never have been. The thing is that if you today write something that's 100 % original, human beings probably won't understand it. What I try to do is to look at the classical settings, clichés, and problems in a fresh way. I have a planet ruled by a theocracy that worships Voodoo and the leader believes he is Baron Samedi. I have a hero helping finance his fleet's movement by hosting a huge poker tournament. I have "starship troopers" that drop from low orbit in big mecha suits, but they all love Scottish culture, their mechs wear kilts and they play "Scotland the Brave" during the attack. All of these "differences" make it actually more popular with the readers, not less.
Do your covers give clues to scenes in your books?
Usually no, the covers for the Central Imperium were done by a great Polish artist Tomasz Maroński, but they didn't reflect on any specific scene in the book. The exception are my Czech alternate history books "The Czech Lands", which haven't been published in English yet. With them, I usually exchange a few e-mails with the artist, Tomáš Flak, and we discuss what should be on the cover. Since the series are alternate 1940s, we usually focus on World War 2-style warships and planes.
What are your favorite genres to read?
I love sci-fi, of course, but I read a little bit of everything. I love mysteries or thrillers. When I like an author, I usually follow them even if they write in more genres. My big inspiration was David Weber. I also love books by Lois McMaster Bujold or Timothy Zahn. And tons of other authors across genres. On the Czech side, I really like what Julie Nováková writes (she has published a number of stories in English and recently a great book) and also next door, I really like novels by a Slovak author Juraj Červenák, who writes historical fantasy and historical mysteries.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I love big space fleets and I love to give each ship a name. So when I start writing an outline for a new book, I usually relax and get into the mood by naming ships. If I have a huge fleet of 200+ vessels, I cannot name all of them, but I want to!
Your series has 4 books so far (two are out in English), at any point did you ever get stuck during the plot wondering what would happen next?
I'm an outliner, so I like to map the big important events in advance, and as I write I figure out the small details. Sometimes a good idea won't fit in a particular story, so I have to modify it. For example for the upcoming Book 3 I planned for some of the heroes to be captured and sent to a POW camp, but that ultimately didn't fit into the big story, so I saved that idea for a later time. I plan a sequel series after Book 4 as well as a short prequel series. So I have lots of ideas what to do. To your question, I sometimes wonder "what would happen next" in the smaller things. For example "this character is going to get wounded and would sacrifice herself... okay, how exactly would she do that to be really meaningful? How would she be wounded in the first place?" Those kinds of things I often figure out on the spot.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
The problem with "writer's block" is that some writers give it almost mythical powers. There are many reasons an author doesn't feel like writing today. It can be problems in real life, not knowing where to go next in the story, self-doubt... maybe the upcoming scene is boring... I'd say simply push through it. I love writing but it's not always fun, sometimes it just needs to be done. Like with any other job you love. I know it won't work, always, but the most useful advice is "just write, anything, don't worry if it's bad, you can fix it later." Usually, when I force myself through the first few difficult paragraphs, the writing energy gets back to me. So I'm not sure I "believe" in writer's block but I believe in various reasons author's may not have the writing energy and each can be overcome in some way.
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