Q&A with A. J. Hartley, Author of Firebrand

A. J. Hartley is the internationally bestselling author of the Steeplejack series, set in a fantasy version of South Africa. Recently, Mr. Hartley was kind enough to answer some of CrimeHQ's questions about his latest novel, his literary heroes, and what he's currently reading!

Describe Firebrand in 5 words. 

Intrigue/adventure in Victorian Africa.

What kind of research did you do for Firebrand?

Firebrand is the second book in my Steeplejack series, set in a fantasy world that looks like a steampunk version of South Africa. That means I researched Victorian architecture, living conditions, and technology (steel smelting figures significantly in this book), but also how hyenas hunt and the various calls lions make. For the latter, I spent some time in South Africa and Swaziland and had some remarkable experiences—including when a baboon got into my kitchen. The book also draws heavily on past and current political issues, particularly those concerning racial conflict and refugees. 

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I’m a word guy. I love knowing where I want to take a story and letting it just flow, particularly in dialog and action sequences. I don’t understand those writers who think of actually putting the words down as a chore. That’s the fun part. Nothing makes me happier than feeling like I really nailed a phrase, captured a character, or made—I hope—the reader feel what the character feels.

Where do you like to write?

Anywhere quiet and private. Mostly I write in my study, but I can work anywhere so long as I’m not disturbed and can read aloud to myself without freaking people out. It has to be pretty much silent. I don’t understand writers who work with music on. That’s too distracting for me. Pretentious though it sounds, the music has to come from the words on the screen as I type them. I have to hear them in my head.

What are you currently reading and/or what did you just finish? 

Just finished (re)reading Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, and now I am on Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door.

Who are your literary heroes?

Well, I’m a Shakespeare professor, so he’s top of the list—and not just because I doubt there’ll be many current authors who we still read and study in 400 years. What I love most about Shakespeare is that he’s the perfect antidote to the idea that quality writing has to be dull and firmly realist or that genre fiction is necessarily trash. His stories are, in every sense, sensational, built as they are around murder and ghosts, witches, fairies, pirates, and the most extreme of human feelings and relationships. Plus, he pulls all that off in some of the richest and most evocative language ever written. Quite an achievement. And then there’s his ability to layer those stories with political, psychological, religious, and philosophical strata without ever letting the narrative lose its edge. Something to aspire after.

What’s next for you?

Well, the third book in the Steeplejack series is already in the works, as is a new realist adult thriller called The Lies that Bind Us (out next spring) and the second volume in my X-Files-esque sci-fi collaboration with Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge, Sekret Machines. After those, I’ll be writing the second in my Cathedrals of Glass YA sci-fi series. Busy couple of years…

What is your murder weapon of choice?


Read an excerpt from Firebrand!


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A. J. Hartley is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels, including several archaeological thrillers, the Darwen Arkwright children's series, the Will Hawthorne fantasy adventures, novels based on Macbeth and Hamlet, and the Steeplejack series with Tor Teen. He is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte.

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