A stereotype holds that brawling, rule-breaking biker gangs like to call their motorcycles “hogs.” Norcross author Jonathan French gives that idea a fantastical spin in his new novel “The Grey Bastards.”
The book’s boisterous antiheroes patrol their desolate turf atop massive, razorback boars about the size of horses. And the steeds fit the riders: The titular “Grey Bastards” are a cadre of “half-orcs”: part human, part members of the warrior race known from “The Lord of the Rings” and “World of Warcraft” for their tusks and toughness.
The Grey Bastards have a slogan “Live in the saddle. Die on the hog,” which suits a book that resembles “Sons of Anarchy” by way of “Game of Thrones.” You don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy the book’s fast pace, high-impact action scenes and bawdy humor. Like the popular image of biker gangs, the Grey Bastards relish their freedom and independence from the constraints of more civilized society.
Superficially, French’s characters reflect little of the author, a native Atlantan conspicuously lacking in giant fangs. Nevertheless, the book’s June 19 publication by Crown blazes new territory for him. At 37, French self-published three books, including the original edition of “The Grey Bastards,” before signing with the division of Random House last year. His journey as a self-published author seems to share a little of the Grey Bastards’ independent, adventurous spirit.
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French began writing in 2008, having moved to Chicago with ambitions of starting an acting career. “Out of boredom and desperation, I just started writing a story and got pretty deep in it,” he says. “Eighteen months later, I had my first manuscript done.”
He felt little enthusiasm for the traditional route to publication, querying publishers and literary agents. “Why don’t you self-publish?” suggested friends who were fans of punk rock’s “do-it-yourself” ethos.
He published his first novel, “The Exiled Heir,” in 2012 but knew that that the actual writing was only the first part of his job. Having an interest in art design, he commissioned eye-catching posters for in-person appearances. For his 2013 Decatur Book Festival debut, he rejected the idea of having a table in the Emerging Authors Tent and paid for his own booth.
“I was told I’d be lucky if I sold seven books,” French says. “I sold 54. I ended in the black. That told me that I had something. So I quit my day job at a veterinary hospital to write and hit the con scene for almost a year. My wife and parents were very supportive.”
He networked and learned tricks of the trade, such as the importance of participating in panels to draw attention to his work. But his momentum seemed to stall with his second book, “The Errantry of Bantam Flyn,” the continuation of his Autumn’s Fall Saga, which he describes as a melding of the Oz books and Jim Henson’s films “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth.” “The first book was well-received with good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, but book two wasn’t selling or being reviewed. My wife told me, ‘Every time you’re done with a panel, the (sales) table gets swarmed’ — but that amounted to a cash influx one weekend a month.”
For his next move, he literally changed the game. “I was obsessed with the idea of half-orcs as a biker gang and was planning to run it as a Dungeons & Dragons game. Why not write it as a book?” The idea quickly seemed like his most commercial concept to date.
French made an investment to help “The Grey Bastards” stand out from its competition, which often only have their covers to distinguish them from each other. “For the cover I had in mind Raymond Swanland, a well-known fantasy artist who did the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual: He was more famous than me, and wanted him to draw attention to the lesser artist — who was me.”
The book came out in October 2015, but received a significant boost from an online contest called The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, established by successful fantasy novelist Mark Lawrence to support newcomers. French entered, telling his wife, “I will never make the Top 10 — but if I do, I will win.” He was wrong about the first prediction, right about the second.
During the contest’s rounds, French received an email from Julian Pavia, an editor at Penguin Random House, and during their subsequent phone conversation, Pavia mentioned that he edited “The Martian” and “Ready Player One,” both by writers that began as self-publishers who became international best-sellers. “I almost fell out of my chair,” French says. “I felt like I was going to have a heart attack and a coronary.”
“I came away from my first read of the ‘The Grey Bastards’ thinking that it was the most fun I’d had reading a fantasy novel in months, if not years,” says Pavia, who was impressed by the contest judges’ admiration for the book. “It pulls off a really difficult trick — it’s over-the-top, crazy, pulpy fun, yet is also very smart and completely engrossing as a story, with real heart and sincerity to it.”
Pavia adds, “One thing that ‘The Grey Bastards’ has in common with ‘The Martian’ or ‘Ready Player One’ is that it’s very clearly coming from an author nerding out on something he loves. This book is completely steeped in Jonathan’s love of fantasy and is his love letter to the genre.”
Using a fantasy genre to comment on contemporary themes of sexism and racial tension, French says that “The Grey Bastards” has received only modest changes since its original publication. “I was happy to polish it and make it a little better, but not change it so much that someone who bought (the original edition) would feel like they had to get the new version. There’s some plot tightening, some additional scenes like DVD extras. People who read the original can still have ‘Before the bandwagon’ cred.”
As he waits to see if a much larger potential readership embraces “The Grey Bastards,” he denies that self-publishing is a shortcut to getting a traditional book deal. “There is no shortcut. Self-publishing is no more a gateway into publishing than querying agents. I still have two self-published books out, but I don’t think ‘Now I’m a writer’ because I have this deal. It can be a path, but it’s not a guaranteed path. You’re still going to run into people who think you have professional leprosy because you self-published.”
French next plans to publish the sequel to “The Grey Bastards” in 2019, but doesn’t want to neglect the Autumn’s Fall Saga. “I’m happy to keep self-publishing and am looking forward to getting back to those books. I don’t want my fans to think I’ve abandoned them — all 700 of them.”
And while early reviews of “The Grey Bastards” have been promising, French will keep writing even if the new readers don’t bite. He has no intention of riding off into the sunset.
“The Grey Bastards”
By Jonathan French
432 pages, $27
7 p.m. June 19. Free. Eagle Eye Book Shop, 2076 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. 404-486-0307, eagleeyebooks.com.
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