Sonja recently had the opportunity to talk with brothers, authors, and engineers Jim (James) and Frank Hofer about their book, Duck Blood Soup, and how their passions inspired their writing. Don’t forget to enter the contest to enter a copy of their book for Kindle!
~Hofer Brothers and Writing~
How did you two decide to write together?
Jim: Frank and I started blogging at about the same time and would interact with each other a lot through blog comments. For some reason, we were talking about tabloid magazines one time, and thought it would be fun to do a tabloid website, similar to the Onion, but the Onion wasn’t well known at that point.
Frank: From 2003 to sometime in 2004, Jim and I wrote some blog posts we thought were humorous. We kind of lost interest and our half dozen readers were deprived of our wit.
Jim: It was a good creative outlet for us, but it eventually ran its course. I suggested that we team up to write a novel. We could either do his favored genre Sci-Fi or mine, Fantasy. He opted for Fantasy, but on the condition that we didn’t do Sword and Sorcery.
Frank: I guess Sword and Sorcery is a negative influence for me. If we wrote a fantasy novel, we would stay away from clichés. I suggested “Muskets and Magic” with the technology from around the industrial revolution.
Jim: I was a little worried that we couldn’t write descriptive and exciting battles with muskets but agreed to try.
What’s it like to work together on stories?
Jim: It is a lot of fun to write together. It’s kind of like a big tandem story.
Frank: Jim and I live about 1500 miles apart, so together is a relative term. We set up an FTP site where we keep draft documents. Our emails to each other are usually very terse “chapter 2 back to you” sorts of things.
Did you ever want to re-write something your brother wrote?
Jim: We would constantly rewrite each other’s stuff. One of us takes the first stab at a chapter, turns on change tracking, and the other one edits it. It passes back and forth until someone flags it a “Clean”, meaning that all of the changes have been accepted.
Frank: Inside the chapter files we have our notes and edits to each other. Our notes are enclosed in brackets and edits are highlighted as document changes in MS word. Our bracketed comments might be about plot inconsistencies, actions a character might take based upon their personality, directions for new plot lines, and so on.
Jim: Of course there were many instances where one of us would mark it clean, the other would have a revelation, and the process would restart.
How did you feel when your brother critiqued your work? No sibling rivalry?
Frank: We both come from technical professions where everything we do goes in front of peer reviewers who critique our work. We also critique other engineer’s designs and code. We know how to give criticism and how to receive it. We never take a comment as a personal attack. We want the book to be as good as possible.
I think the end result is that we have a book where you can’t tell who wrote what part. There are some parts that I know I did the first draft like the food, the national colors for the two countries, and Jeunelux’s dream for example. Some ideas that I know are Jim’s: paper trees, dragon flies, the giants attacking a town, and anything with Vilmish. But for at least 75% of Duck Blood Soup, I don’t remember who did the first draft and who did what revisions.
How long did it take to write this book?
Frank: I don’t remember exactly. A year for the first draft, maybe?
Jim: And then lots of tweaking from test reader feedback. We’ve both have jobs that pay actual money so writing is still a hobby.
Jim: Getting it onto Amazon took several years, because we kept trying to get an Agent and go the traditional route. Plus personal life and paying jobs got in the way.
Frank: We’re currently working on the second book. There are four or five first draft chapters that are ready for edits. I hope it takes less time to get a version ready for test readers. My hope is to have a solid draft of the whole book for them around August.
Jim: This time we are taking a slightly different approach by trying to move the story along before polishing anything.
What influenced your writing the most?
Jim: That is a tough question. There are writers I admire who I attempt to emulate. There are movies and books and games that send my imagination to strange places. Even the daily news could trigger a thought experiment that comes out in my writing. I had dinner a few nights ago with the parents of one of my daughter’s skating friends and immediately started thinking about the father as a potential character.
Frank: I think one of the surprising influences on our writing is our software background. One of us once commented that we were doing the object oriented development process for Duck Blood Soup. We had chapter requirements, we knew the input conditions and what we wanted for output. Everything else was just implementation.
I think our engineering background also influenced our writing. We both want the technical details correct. We both write technical documents that need to be understood years from now. If I pick up a test procedure written 5 years ago, I better be able to understand what to do. Even if I wrote it, it has to have enough detail because I’m not going to remember what I intended back then. Clarity and word choice is important.
Do you work from an outline? Or does your story just evolve?
Jim: We have basic plot points but it is up to the writer to get from one point to another. Some of my favorite chapters were character driven and completely unplanned in the original story arcs.
Frank: But if the story changes and goes in a different direction, that’s okay. Sometimes the characters are going to do what they do.
Jim: Jeunelux, Dramian, and Vilmish had major parts of their plot lines change based on character attributes they had developed. I remember sending emails to Frank saying things like, “There is no way Jeunelux is going to let this happen this way.” Din’s character traits changed his fate.
Frank: Occasionally I pick up a draft of what Jim has worked on and I’m surprised at something he’s done. I usually go with it. So not only are we writing a story, we’re reading a new novel at the same time and trying to get what we write to sync up with it.
Other times we set up problems to be solved. For example, I designed the prison at Genderalt and Jim had to find a way to break in. The description in the book was the same that Jim had to work from. I didn’t give him any back doors or hints.
Ever disagree on where to take the story or character? Do you leave the result to chance? Paper rock scissors or dice?
Jim: We have plenty of disagreements on stories, characters and text to keep or delete.
Frank: I don’t remember any serious disagreements. The biggest disagreement on Duck Blood Soup was the order of the first three chapters.
Jim: Most of the time the problems work themselves out, other times it’s a matter of who has the strongest feelings about it. No screaming fights or anything though.
Frank: I’ve never cared for the part where Vilmish shakes himself like a dog coming out of a lake, but I left it in because Jim liked it and it wasn’t important enough for me to argue.
Some chapters go back and forth a dozen times before we get a clean version. We have the plot points set out, and sometimes the characters insist on doing things their way but there was never anything that threatened to derail the book. Living 1500 miles apart might help with that.
Did the story ever take a turn that you wished it didn’t take?
Jim: There were two characters that I became very attached to while writing the book. In the original story arc, both died. Thankfully I saved one of them, but I couldn’t save the other. I have a story arc started for the character that survived.
Frank: I don’t really remember the story going off in a completely unexpected direction. Sometimes the characters seem intent on doing their own thing but we adapted.
Jim: My son has warned me not to kill off one of his favorite characters, which I almost killed him off in book one, so that was lucky.
Did you intend for this story to be a treatise on racism? Do you think it is?
Jim: When we started building our world, we had to consider what prejudices from our world should carry over. Which should we ignore, and which should ones to flip on their heads.
Frank: I wanted the prince to be somewhat of a bigot and I think we both figured that could be used to manipulate him. I kind of like how we used food so wildly different species could have something in common.
Jim: Racism started as a useful plot mechanic, but when we tried to figure out why certain characters thought and felt the way they did, I think it turned into something more.
Frank: It was never intended to be about racism, but when I started working on book two, I realized how much racism played a part.
How did you decide on the cover for your book? Who designed it?
Frank: That’s a question for Jim because it’s a friend of his.
Jim: I built the cover using a map that a friend of mine created for us. We have other ideas for covers that are more traditional, but my friend has a family life and a paying job too, so we went with this cover for now.
~Diving into Duck Blood Soup~
Why did you choose these four races? Of the four, which do you like the most?
Jim: Frank is very good about pushing us away from clichés, so he immediately shot down the traditional Orcs and Elves along with Swords and Sorcery.
Frank: Giants were the original non-humans. We needed rampaging behemoths to destroy a town.
Jim: I told him that I couldn’t think of any books that looked at Giants being more than lumber thugs.
Frank: Having them be sensitive artistic types came later. I really like how they turned out. I think Sangres were next. They were originally sneakier and deadlier but we wanted something different about them.
Jim: The Sangres were probably because of my fascination with vampires but not sparkly ones. Although I did read those books.
Frank: Having a stereotypical vampire was boring. We kept the blood drinking part, gave them some interesting powers, and tried to develop an ethical system for them that would be in direct contrast to how people think of creatures who dine on blood. I think the Sangres are my favorite.
Jim: I think Frank came up with the S’rephs, the flying race.
Frank: To me the S’rephs aren’t as well developed at the other races. We’re making them more well rounded in the second book and I like them a lot better.
If you could be any race in your story, which would you prefer? Why?
Jim: A human wizard would be awesome, but since there’s only a small percentage of humans that are wizards, I would probably want to be a Sangre.
Frank: Can I be a wizard? If not, then a Sangre. I like their philosophy and ethics. Heightened senses and strength from drinking blood is also a plus.
Jim: Actually, choosing Sangre is almost cheating, because you could still experience what it was like to be any of the other races and even be a wizard if you so choose.
Is it easy to have a Giant for a friend? You know… do they actually fit in the doorway? Sit on a chair? Punch a hole in the roof by standing up too fast?
Jim: It wouldn’t be easy, but I think it would be a friendship worth the effort. If your house isn’t built with Giant friends in mind, it might be best to meet outside.
Frank: You would have to have some rooms to the proper scale. I think we mention that kitchens need to be modified if you’re going to have a giant for a chef.
Jim: And you might want to be in a tree or on your roof, because they would feel awful if they accidentally stepped on you. I would worry most about the mood swings, and I certainly wouldn’t want to pick up the tab for dinner and drinks
Which character did you find the easiest to write or relate to?
Frank: Groenendael. Whenever I talk to someone from a different culture, the conversation invariably turns to food. If something isn’t too far out there, I’ll try it. I think Groenendael is the same way, although I don’t know if I’d try duck blood soup.
Jim: Jeunelux and Dramian were the easiest for me to write. For book two, I’m working on the Jeunelux chapters. I’m also digging into Chowmach’s head. It is an interesting and disturbing place.
Which character are you most like?
Frank: I’m a foodie. So I’d have to say Groenendael.
Jim: I kind of modeled Garimet off of my interactions with my daughters and nieces, but he is also based on my father-in-law.
Do you ever want to slap your characters for being silly?
Frank: Vilmish needs to pull his head out of his rear, and in book two I suspect he’s going to get that pointed out more than once.
Jim: I’d probably smack Beauceron at several points, but then I would likely get a death sentence.
There are several strong female characters. What’s the inspiration? Why female?
Jim: Strong female characters were Frank’s idea, but once he suggested it, I ran with it.
Frank: One of many reasons was Hermione Granger. I thought she was far more interesting and competent than Harry and I’d rather read a book about her. When we started writing Duck Blood Soup, one of the positions going in was that we wouldn’t have traditional, rigid gender roles.
Jim: There are plenty of strong females in my life: my wife, my daughters, my sisters, my mother, as well as my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Gender stereotypes and limitations really rub me the wrong way. My daughters and nieces are very intelligent people who could offer a lot to society. I try to let them know that they can choose whatever career they want, to ignore anyone who tells them otherwise and not let gender-biased influence hold them back.
Frank: We didn’t want female characters who sat around waiting to be rescued or who were nothing more than decoration. We would have women in combat, in positions of authority, or out doing stuff while trying not to make a big deal that they were women.
I think writing Jeunelux was the hardest to write because neither of us has ever been a teenage girl. For the other female characters in the book, I could pull traits from women I knew in the military or at work.
Book two introduces a female lieutenant leading Petrev Avidita’s old combat unit. She was inspired by someone I learned about from the 1950’s radio show Tales of the Texas Rangers. I was so impressed with how a mousy little guy could order around a bunch of huge Texas Rangers and they would gladly take his orders that I grabbed his leadership, changed his gender and popped her in to the new book.
You’re stuck on an island and you can have two items plus one of your characters. Pick & why?
Frank: All I need is Greoenendael. Then he could get us rescued.
Jim: Can I have my smart phone and a solar charger? That way I have tunes, books and games. I’d take Tervuren for the conversation and the likelihood that he could come up with a way to get us off the island if we choose.
If you could play with any magic-tech device, what would you choose & why?
Jim: I’ll have to come up with one in book two so I have a decent answer the next time someone asks this question.
Frank: The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. That would really be handy! I know that’s not in Duck Blood Soup, but that’s the device I want. Or a TARDIS. Yeah, make it a TARDIS.
~The Love of a Foodie~
Do you plan to name all the books in the series after food?
Jim: Frank has proposed a working title for book two that involves food, but he’s indicated that he has a better title idea now. Maybe his response will tell us both.
Frank: I don’t know. We have a working title for the second book but that’s probably going to change. The title Duck Blood Soup didn’t show itself until after the state dinner chapter.
What is your favorite meal in the book?
Jim: I would have loved to have been at the state dinner. Unlike Beauceron, I would have eaten everything they put in front of me, and been looking longingly at the meals the other races received.
Frank: That is a difficult question. I love the tomato soup with the frozen tomato sorbet in the middle. It’s been a long time but I believe it was prepared by Chef David Kinch of Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos California. Chef Kinch’s food was the inspiration for most of the gourmet dishes. Fans of Food Network’s Iron Chef America may have seen him destroy Bobby Flay in Battle Cabbage in 2009. It was one of the most lopsided victories in the history of the show.
Ever thought to include any recipes? If so, which?
Jim: We have talked about it, although some of the dishes are ones that Frank has had at high end restaurants, so I don’t know if he could recreate them.
Frank: I’ve heard that David Kinch is writing a cook book. I’ll leave that to him.
So, I guess they will not be writing a cookbook soon, but they did provide us with a link to some recipes. And, thanks so much to Frank and Jim for taking the time to do this interview.
For your chance to win a Kindle copy of Duck Blood Soup, identify the breed of Frank’s dog from the pictured above!
Check out Sonja’s review of Duck Blood Soup.
Look at the handy Races & Character Glossary for Duck Blood Soup provided by Frank Hofer.
To find out more about the co-authors, James & Frank Hofer and their work, check out their website.