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Interview With Author Zack Riley

Today, I bring you a great interview with fellow Australian author Zack Riley. Zack lives in Sydney and has much to share. Lets find out more.

Tell me about yourself


I’m a bit of an odd mix of things I use to describe myself. I’m a retired Navy veteran with a total of 18.5 years of service to the Royal Australian Navy, over full-time and reserve service. I’m a bit of a car nut, with a love for my Holdens. I have a good variety with nine cars in total. I’m a father of three wonderful kids, my oldest being 17, and I am still not in a position to quit my day job just yet. I’ve travelled the world, been in a lot of difficult situations, and have a perspective on things that I feel a lot of people will never see or align with.


What do you like to read?


This is a bit of an odd one here, but I am actually not a reader. I have a really bad case of dyslexia, and anything more than a tweet becomes way too overwhelming for me. I use text-to-speech services in just about anything, and when I am reading, I usually have my raw text in either Comic Sans or Dyslexie font. I have read a few novels, however, and when I say read, I mean listened to, usually based on video games or something else of interest. Most books I start, I put down almost straight away. I think I have a bit of ADHD or something because I just can’t stay focused enough. Everything I have learnt has been through trial and error, and looking at my early works compared to now, I’m a completely different person.


What do you enjoy about writing your chosen genre/genres?


Interesting question. Since I was a little kid, we’re talking mid to late 90s, I’ve been tinkering with video games: Doom, Dune 2, Warcraft, Flashback, Desert Strike... I always wanted to create my own video game, and I am really into games with stories to tell: The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line, Freelancer, Mass Effect, Halo, to mention a few notables. The storytelling in that form of media is something I don’t think is easily rivalled, giving the player the story to live and experience. I enjoy the genres I write because I try to see them from the perspective of them as a game or living in the world as I write them. Talking with the characters, learning who they are and what they individually want in life. From the main characters to the faceless guard, what’s his backstory, or what is significant about him in the world? I guess that sort of comes from my navy days, where I was the junior rank, and whilst the focus of a story is on the important people, it’s those who are not so important that make the cogs turn. I try to encapsulate that in my words, making things seem less wooden and two-dimensional. I also like incorporating my headspace into my characters. Call me a sadist, but I guess one thing I picked up from video games is there’s a satisfaction in doing things to your characters.


You began your writing journey while sitting aboard a warship in the Arabian Gulf. Tell me about that.


Honestly, I don’t know where to start with this. If you have seen the movie Jarhead, you will get an idea of what I am about to describe. Noting this was 2010/11, there’s not a lot going on up there all the time. When it’s on, it’s on—controlled chaos—and when it’s not on, you’re running laps of the flight deck of the ship and trying not to let the daily grind affect you. About halfway through the trip, we spent a week in the UAE for a maintenance period, when I received a care package from my wife and eldest daughter. In it were a few movies, but one from my daughter (three at the time) was the Disney Robin Hood film, the one with the animals. Shortly after departing the UAE, we went into a 40-day communications blackout in the lead-up to Christmas, with Jordan being our next stop. I had my portable DVD player and went through the movies I had in my off-watch time. Combined with what everyone else was watching on the mess TV, The Walking Dead, which had only just started airing, I decided to try something a little different on the long night watches and start writing a crossover between the Robin Hood film and The Walking Dead. Fast forward to 2016, and with the discovery of the ADF writing forum (sadly now gone as of 2020) and several writers' groups, I continued to upload and learn how to actually write a book. To this day, I am still working on that project, although it’s been through several rewrites, and I finally have one good draft back from the editor. In my last writers' group, we discussed the progress of my writing that I’ve made over the years, and it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come. Every day’s a school day, and if you are not learning something new, you’re not looking hard enough at what that day held. I look back on my time in the military; I miss it, but if I had stayed, I wouldn’t be where I am today with a lot of things, writing included.


Do you believe in writer's block?


Honestly, no, I can always write something, always have an idea or something new and fantastic in my head. Life is hectic at times, and if my passion for cars has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you have to put something down and walk away to clear your headspace on that project. If you are not in the headspace for what you are working on, you will make mistakes or start to hate what you are doing. Writing is a hobby, not a day job, and I want to be able to enjoy it all. I often have multiple projects going all at the same time. For instance, Cold Heart (the novel I started writing back in the Middle East), Origin of Werewolves, Immortal, Sunrise Over Machu Picchu, to name a few. I write each of these until I no longer feel comfortable in the space. I do, however, ghostwrite at times, but these are usually short 15,000-word works, and I find that’s sort of my limit until I have to re-evaluate my work. It’s something I’ve done my whole life—swap projects—and I guess it’s a stereotypical guy thing to have half-finished projects all over the house, haha. I guess the correct answer would be that writer's block could exist, but you need to be so emotionally exhausted that you have no motivation to do anything. I can’t say I’ve had that feeling before, as writing has helped me through a lot of the struggles and issues I’ve faced over the years.


What is your writing Kryptonite?


I have a few. I’m slow and average about 18–32 wpm, 35 wpm on my best days. My emotional state would have to be up there; some days I just don’t feel like writing, and this ties in with finding the actual time to write, with all the joys of life at the moment—dad life, other hobbies, family health issues. My writing time is usually 10 pm – 2 am, and then I’m up for work at 6 am. Time is probably the big one.


Which one of your characters can you relate to most and why?


I honestly don’t think I have a character I specifically align with. They are all reflections of myself at different parts of my life. There are female characters such as Zoey from Immortal, who I feel is a good representation of the pain I’ve felt, Nathan from Guardians, and Ross from Machu Picchu, who are reflections on my military service. Gina, Kolin, and Kaida from Cold Heart are probably more aligned to my childhood and upbringing. I honestly don’t think, however, there’s an accurate representation of me 100%.


What authors have inspired you in your own writing?


I’m going to break tradition here and jump the fence a little. The authors who inspired me are probably not well known as actual authors. I look to video games and movies for a lot of my storytelling. I’ve been told that my writing style is a lot like Matt Reilly’s. I have, but am yet to read, Temple. But I honestly look at people like Drew Karpyshyn, Mac Walters, Patrick Weekes, and Chris Hepler, the primary writing team for the Mass Effect series; Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us); Walt Williams (Spec Ops: The Line), in particular for the fantastic plot reveal, story, and the dive into a good look at the horrors of PTSD in service personnel.


I think some of the most important inspiration to my development as an author would go towards Dean Dodrill and Alex Kain (Dust: An Elysian Tail). Dean can be found on Twitter/X (@NoogyTweet), but it was one of the interviews at PAX East in 2013. In the interview, there’s a discussion specifically about storyline and characters. As part of Alex’s feedback, he rewrote the first half hour of the game; it’s honestly a good look into accepting criticism and how to handle it, working with an editor. I think my biggest takeaway from that is you get a really good look into the editing process from a story perspective that still applies to writing in its rawest form—how to get an actual story to work. How to receive criticism is a skill, learned and refined. You don’t get a proper insight into things like that too often. The interview can be found here


What’s the best piece of writing advice you have been given?


There has been so much given over the years, I’ll start by saying that the worst piece of writing advice I have found is to read. The literal mental capacity needed to stay focused on a novel when you have dyslexia is something else. I read slower than I write, having to process every word in my head. It’s like knowing a second language and having to translate every word in my head before I can move forward. And that leads to the best advice:


Find what works for you.


What works specifically for you may not be the same as what works for anyone else. There are no set instructions or rules on how you learn. You have visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning, and that doesn’t change for writing. The only way I’ve gotten better is by actually writing, then having my works reviewed, taking the lessons learned, and going again. Whilst there may be faster ways for others to improve their craft, traditional means of "you have to love reading to write" I disagree with. I also wish to have a unique voice, and whilst that may not help me align with any specific author when selling my works, I don’t have any plans to quit my day job, and primarily I write for me. That’s probably the second-best piece of advice I’ve been given:


The first draft is always for you.


As a writer, what animal would you choose as your mascot and why?


I’ve given this one a lot of thought, actually. I did start with a paw print as my mascot when I started Cold Heart years ago. That aligned with what I was working on at the time; however, I don’t feel it’s an accurate representation of who I am as an author and a good reflection of my works. I recently underwent a rebranding to try aligning all of this to something that is more suited to who I am and my past. However, if I were to choose something, I’d probably align more with a horse—a large, powerful stallion, reflecting my love for horsepower, but not immune to things. Still a prey animal, and at times left for the wolves, there’s a good sense of both power and vulnerability. The want to explore and be different, break away from the pack and do things my way, in addition to telling everyone who said I couldn’t, where to go.

Thank you to Zack for joining me on the blog. If you would like to check out Zack's work, click on the links below.


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