The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Richard Kadrey’s “Sandman Slim” series is one of my favorite sets of fantasy books from the last few years, so it’s a pleasure to bring Kadrey back to the Big Idea to talk about its latest installment, Aloha From Hell. This time around, and with a nod to his series’ main character, Kadrey’s here to talk about the value of persistence, even when by all indications you’ve been entirely left for dead.


Before I try to convince you that my new book, Aloha From Hell, is better than pizza or antibiotics I want to say something about writing and publishing: Remember that you’re not dead until you’re dead. What I mean is that unlike your actual rotting carcass, publishing death is largely a state of mind.

My career couldn’t have been deader than it was after the publication of my second novel, Kamikaze L’Amour, a science fictionish magical realist novel about California after it’s been swallowed by the Amazon rainforest. Critics hated it and readers ignored it. My publisher wasn’t pleased and I was wrist-slitting depressed. Kamikaze L’Amour wasn’t exactly the Hindenburg disaster but if a writing career could get food poisoning mine would have been lying on the floor, pale and puking, for the next several years. During that period I wrote one short book, Angel Scene, but it was largely an experiment in style and working methods. While it’s gained a small cult audience, it did less for my career than if I’d become an alligator wrestler.

I thought I’d try breaking into comics so I wrote a mini-series for Vertigo/DC. Accelerate came out to no acclaim and worse sales. Another failure. It took a few years of drinking, therapy and pills before I tried another book.

By the time I sat down to write Butcher Bird I had nothing left to lose. It’s the story of a San Francisco tattoo artist whose life is saved by a blind swordswoman whom he then reluctantly follows on a search for the ultimate magic book.

I wrote Butcher Bird with no thought to markets or readers and with no desire to please anyone but myself. I liked the book but no publisher in New York would buy it. After my friend John Berry designed a nice PDF, I gave away Butcher Bird online for free (It was better than letting it sit around getting dusty). This might sound like another failure but by giving the book away Night Shade Books saw it and ended up buying it. After one major rewrite Butcher Bird went on to become a modest success and continues to sell steadily.

However, I was still broke. I decided to take one last shot at novel writing. I wrote the first hundred pages of Sandman Slim, a violent and funny urban fantasy noir, and sent it to my agent telling her I wouldn’t write one more word unless it sold. If it didn’t I’d know my career was as dead and I’d stick to stories and journalism.

To my shock, the book ended up in a two-day bidding war. Okay, maybe not war. A two-day slap fight. When it was over the book had sold for more money than I expected. Since then we’ve sold a movie option and reprint rights all over the world. My original deal with Harper Collins was for three Sandman Slim books and since then I’ve signed a contract for at least three more.

Does that mean I’d suddenly become a genius? No. It means I kept working my ass off and that for once I had the right book at the right time and the right place. But I wouldn’t have had a book to get lucky with if I hadn’t kept working. That’s what I meant when I said in publishing, “…you’re not dead until you’re dead.” Success isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s a combination of desire, arrogance and a sense of “What the hell else am I supposed to do?” Every pro writer knows a better writer who started out at the same time but you’ve never heard of them. Why? Because they gave up when things got hard. And you know what? Fuck ‘em. They didn’t have the guts to stick it out. If you want to be professional writer get yourself a truckful of guts but a shot glass of ego and maybe you’ll make it. You’re not dead until you decide you’re dead. Look at me. I’m that guy you hear about sometimes. The 20-year overnight success.

Now back to shilling.

In Aloha From Hell James Stark, the magician sent to Hell by Mason Faim in Sandman Slim, finally has to return to Hell to clean up the mess he made by trapping Mason there. Instead of torturing him, Mason spent most of book two, Kill The Dead, recruiting Lucifer’s generals in a rebellion against both Lucifer and God.

Aloha From Hell opens with a magical mystery that turns out to be a deeper, darker mystery leading Stark to discover that Mason has kidnapped his dead girlfriend Alice’s soul and dragged it to Hell. Mason gives Stark three days to rescue her. Of course it’s a ploy to get Stark back Downstairs. Of course he goes. Of course everything goes wrong.

Stark isn’t a nice person. Terrible things happen to him and I’m responsible for that. But I have great affection for Stark no matter how hard I make things for him. It’s my job to drop pianos on his head so he can get up and keep going. And no matter how over the top the story becomes and his hyperbole gets, I take writing his stories very seriously.

I received a great reminder about the power of what writers write. I met a guy who’d tattooed a passage from Butcher Bird on his body. The fact it’s one of my favorite passages in the book doesn’t matter. What I wrote meant enough to him that he had the words etched into his skin forever. Talk about responsibility to your audience. When I learned what he did I finally understood in my bones the old art maxim: “Take the work, not yourself, seriously.”

It’s something I try to remember every day when I sit down to work.


Aloha From Hell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey”

  1. Already bought (literally the moment it was released, mmm electrons…). Spent the next 6 hours reading it. Loved it. If you’ve not read the Sandman Slim series go get Sandman Slim and Kill The Dead which are excellent. You COULD read this on its own, but much of the book will make more sense if you’ve read the first two.

    Oh and go get Butcher Bird if you like this sort of thing.

  2. I LOVE the Sandman Slim books. Dark, violent and (at times) funny. I really enjoyed this latest installment and I will say the ending took me a bit by surprise (to my delight). In retrospect, I guess I should have seen it coming, but it was still a surprise and more importantly made absolute sense within the overall narrative.

    I’m also enjoying the world building here, with each book exposing and exploring a little more of the myth structures. The idea of and existence of Tartarus as a sort of sub-hell was inspired.

  3. I met Richard this weekend at WFC in San Diego and heard him read a passage from ALOHA FROM HELL. Fantastic stuff. I’d highly recommend reading SANDMAN SLIM and KILL THE DEAD first, as you’ll get more satisfaction from the conclusion of the story arch.

    Anyway, great book, cool guest post. It’s nice to know everyone has their own failure/success story, and most of the time it’s one-in-the-same, depending on if you gave up or not.

  4. “It took a few years of drinking, therapy and pills before I tried another book.”

    I hope he’s not serious, but if he is, more power to him for picking himself up, dusting himself off and moving on.

  5. In support of Richard’s advice to writers, I will kick in a comment that I heard a while back from another writer whose favorite genre is murder mysteries. He was signing his fourth novel at a MWA event, and commented that it had taken him almost 11 years to sell his first novel – eleven years in which he fed his family as a smoke breather in the Seattle Fire Department. (He still does that even though his writing income is now more than adequate – he says that he can’t live without the adrenalin rush of fighting fire, and the six months he was on medical leave due to an on-the-job injury had him climbing the walls.)

    When asked how he managed to keep trying for so long without success, his reply was that he had discovered early on that it had taken Louis L’Amour over fourteen (14) years to make HIS first sale. He said that he decided that if it took that long to make the first sale for someone whose sales were in the hundreds of millions of novels, there was no way HE was going to give up any sooner.

  6. Inspiring and insightful story! and the books sound good too – I’d heard of Sandman Slim but not read them; will rectify that.

  7. I just finished Sandman Slim last week. Going on vacation next week and went out to get Kill The Dead for the trip. It is sitting on my counter and it is just about killing me not to read it. But I will, on vacation, where I can just savor it.

    I was sucked into Sandman Slim very quickly but laughed out loud and was thoroughly hooked when I read the line about how waking up after having slept on a beanbag chair was like getting worked over by a pillow case full of cans of tuna-fish. (hope I remembered that approximately right)

    Great story excellent writing.

    Looking forward to getting Aloha when I get back from vacation!

  8. Hmm. Unfortunately, for Kadrey, I tried the Harry Connelly books first and now Kadrey’s books seem like an echo of Connelly’s books. It would be easier if one author used a different viewpoint, rather than both using “I” as the main character. And, both main protaganists were not previous convicts.

  9. A couple of years ago I went on a book-buying binge (my favorite kind of binge!) and grabbed books I’d never heard of. Sandman Slim was one of those books, as was NK Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was a good trip! Kadreys books are fun, I like the characters, the plot moves, and he really “gets” LA. I live here and learned early on that it was best not to get too involved with these books before bed; the city (and suburbs) is so well described that I can picture every place referred to, which is kind of nightmare-fuelly. Highly recommend!

  10. “Hmm. Unfortunately, for Kadrey, I tried the Harry Connelly books first and now Kadrey’s books seem like an echo of Connelly’s books. ” — You mean, of course, other than the fact that Kadrey’s Sandman Slim was published roughly 2 months before Child of Fire by Connelly?

  11. @ha…

    Um… Kadrey’s work isn’t like Connelly’s. And Stark’s not a convict. He’s a hitman when we meet him. Who’s spent rather a long time in Hell. This did not improve his outlook on life.

    Oh and really? You’re complaining that they both happened to use first person as their point of view? Aside from the fact that there aren’t all that many options to begin with, ask our esteemed host if first person’s a poor choice when writing a novel. Go ahead. Please.

  12. This was inspiring – Richard, you’ve got thick skin to keep going through all that hardship! And I’m glad you did, because your books sound brilliant and I’ll have to pick them up. I love the title ‘Kill the Dead’.

  13. Have been a fan of Kadrey’s work since Metrophage (ranks up there with Neuromancer as one of the great cyberpunk novels), read Butcher Bird (a.k.a. Blind Shrike) and followed up closely with the Sandman Slim novels, reading Aloha from Hell at the moment, thoroughly enjoying it!

  14. I found Kamikaze L’Amour on the remainder rack in ’97, read it three times and then spent the next gadjillion years scouring Amazon for signs of your next book (yes I loved Butcher Bird in pdf). Thanks for sticking with it!

    To all of you out there laboring for years in silence: don’t forget that you may have hidden fans out there too.

  15. My teenage son LOVES LOVES LOVES The Sandman Slim books and has encouraged, nagged, harrassed and championed his friends and relatives to read them immediately. He has the audios downloaded onto his Ipod and listens to them repeatedly.

    I got him the latest, Aloha from Hell, on a Friday and he only stopped for swim practice and to hit the john. One can eat while reading.

    Great books. Glad to hear there are going to be three more.

  16. Reminds me of a saying back home in Ireland, “You need a neck as hard as a jockey’s arse to get by around here”.

    Just finished the first two books, downloaded Aloha today.
    Great stuff.

    Coincidentally I read Iain M Banks’ Surface recently, another great book on Hell (even if it’s virtual).

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