For Hollis Joel Henry, starting small and building a habit of writing half an hour each morning has bloomed into publishing his second story of 2020—his second published story ever! Read on to learn how “The Last Water Baron” [on sale now] draws on twenty years of ideas, a year and a half of determined effort, and a diverse panoply of SF influences.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “The Last Water Baron”?
HJH: I’ve had aspects of this story in my head for about two decades. I think it started with the character Vladimir. I liked the idea of a bionic/cyborg mercenary/assassin. But it was very basic, simple action hero stuff that I daydreamed about but never committed to paper. Then some years back I read in National Geographic about the potential for a water crisis and was both upset and intrigued. I’m very environmentally conscious now – particularly as the focus is gradually shifting from climate change to our impact on the natural world and planetary health.
However, the thing that really brought the story together was the idea of Tommy and people like him. I say that as if Tommy is somehow so very different to us, but that’s not true. He is very much like everybody else, and that’s really the point.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe or is it standalone?
HJH: It’s part of a group of stories with shared themes. Everything I wrote in the last year and half is unified by certain themes. One is even a continuation of the other. They are all set in the future, not too far but far enough for us to start seeing even worse consequences for how we live as a species.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?
HJH: I think of Asimov’s for everything I write (which might not be too strategic sometimes, as my stories can tend towards the extremely dark and violent). I first read the Foundation and Robot series when I was maybe ten years old, and they made a great impact on me. The character of the Mule is probably reflected in some of the characters I’ve created. I’ve always been imaginative and dreamy, and the work of Asimov was there for me. I believe in bringing things full circle.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
HJH: Oh there are so many. I’m a lifelong lover of Sci-fi and fantasy, the classic stuff—Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guinn—Wizard of Earthsea is more of a friend than a book to me. I’m also a literature student and was impacted by writers like Dostoyevsky, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fitzgerald, and Dickens. I’m also from the Caribbean, and we have a great and inclusive literary tradition of West Indian writers like V.S. Naipaul and George Lamming, and also writers from the Global South such as Gabriel García Márquez, R.K. Narayan, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I’d say for this particular story, the care and compassion I put into Tommy is most reflective of Ngugi’s handling of the colonial officers in his native Kenya. He refused to make them cardboard villains.
I’m also a Gen-Xer. I grew up in the time of the emergence of comic books, kung fu, video games, and action animation. All of these things have influenced me.
“You can’t spot fix your writing. Look at your life. Look at your thoughts. Look at your patterns. Improve those and you may improve your writing.”
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
HJH: I definitely have my themes. A big one is self-deception. For me self-deception is dishonesty plus cowardice. I can abide an honest liar, like Tony Montoya in Scarface—“Even when I’m lying I’m telling the truth.” I have trouble with self-deception. Great evil has been perpetrated in the world because of it. Also, the very bruising journey from naivety to understanding is another major theme of mine.
AE: How did you break into writing?
HJH: I had my own hero’s journey, you could say. I’ve always been a good writer. I remember in kindergarten our class had to do a word exercise where we put a bunch of words into a paragraph. I wrote a short story called “The Little Eagle,” and the teacher went nuts when he read it. They published it in the school newsletter. It was like that for many years. I won the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago short story under seventeen competition with a crazy sci-fi story called The Daydreamer.
But after that I lost my way. I stalled and spent decades with writer’s block. I became a journalist, then a corporate writer. I did, am doing, alright for myself but I had that soul sickness, that feeling of guilt and restlessness writers feel. Then a couple years ago I decided why not? Why not just give it a go?
So I started small, a half hour a morning, every morning. I just wanted to form the habit. Then I built up and gradually spent more time. I started thinking in terms of filling time, not being inspired or writing a particular story, just spending the time every day. It adds up fast. I wrote about seven short stories in that time. I submitted with the same kind of mechanical approach. I wasn’t submitting to get accepted; I was submitting to meet a quota of submissions. I did my best to take ego out of it.
Within a space of a year and a half I sold two stories out of the seven. The first to Clarkesworld and the second to Asimov’s. I’m actually still in shock. But I have much more to do and much lost time to make up for.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you love to see come true?
HJH: I would love to see us reach the point of enlightenment, inquiry, and compassion depicted in the Federation of Planets from Star Trek. I feel like this is the answer everyone gives!
AE: What are you reading right now?
HJH: I’m actually reading the Jonathan Hickman X-men run—House of X and Powers of X. He has really revitalised the X-men universe. There is also a very chilling far future world presented in the comic that I would love to read a series on by itself.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
HJH: Hmm, I think each writer’s journey is so different, even though there are parallels. I would say that what helped me most was to stop thinking of writing as the solution to my life’s problems and also to stop trying to solve my writer’s block separate from other aspects of my life. Writer’s block is a symptom, not the problem, and I couldn’t solve it by focusing on it alone. It’s like how they say you can’t get abs by doing crunches alone. You can’t spot reduce your stomach. You can’t spot fix your writing. Look at your life. Look at your thoughts. Look at your patterns. Improve those and you may improve your writing.