Henry H. Neff grew up outside Chicago before going off to Cornell University where he majored in history. He began his professional career as a consultant with McKinsey before leaving the corporate life to teach at a San Francisco high school and begin writing fantasy novels.
His first series, “The Tapestry”, is a five-volume epic that follows the life and adventures of Max McDaniels. Published by Random House, its books have been translated into nineteen languages and were finalists for the Texas Bluebonnet, Missouri Truman Award, and Northern California Book of the Year. Henry not only writes the books, but also creates all the illustrations and maps.
Impyrium is Henry’s second series and follows Hazel Faeregine, last of an ancient dynasty of sorcerers, as she confronts forces that threaten her family’s empire. Impyrium is published by HarperCollins and was named “#1 Middle Grade Book of 2016” by Entertainment Weekly.
Today, Henry lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and two boys. He is represented by Josh Adams at Adams Literary.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Did you always know you wanted to become an author?
- Not really. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an animator for Disney. My parents were art historians and thus our house was filled with books, paintings and weird/fun stuff to draw. As I grew up, I made the mistake of thinking “responsible” adults should pursue more practical callings, such as the law or business. Upon graduating from college, I took a job with a consulting firm and spent my days helping big companies do whatever they did a little bit better. It was interesting work and I collaborated with some brilliant people, but I had a nagging suspicion that I was wasting whatever creative abilities I might possess. My brother gave me the nudge I needed. While I was griping to him (yet again) about my life, he posed a profoundly simple question: How would you spend your time if you had all the money in the world? The question helped me identify what I really valued once money wasn’t the chief consideration. My answer was almost immediate: I’d teach and write children’s books. With this in mind, I quit corporate life and took a position teaching history and fine arts at a high school in San Francisco. During that first holiday break, I started writing a story that would ultimately become The Tapestry.
- Why did you start writing books?
- Because I love them. My goal was relatively simple: to create stories that I’d have enjoyed while growing up. Stories with brains and adventure, big stakes, a bit of humor, some history, and real doubt whether the good guys would win—or whether they were good guys at all. I like to mix things up.
- Who is your target audience?
- Myself. I don’t know how to write for other people, much less a narrow demographic. But librarians have to shelve books in ways that makes sense, and they tend to classify my work as middle-grade fantasy due to the ages of the characters, the presence of magic, and the fact that that my stories don’t have explicit language or sexual situations. That’s fine with me. I figure the audience will sort itself out. While middle-grade is typically defined as readers between 8-12, I think half my audience is teenagers and adults.
- How long does it typically take you to write a book?
- It usually takes me 6-12 months to write the draft, and another few months to illustrate it. Including revisions and copy editing, I’d say it’s a twelve to eighteen-month process depending on the size/complexity of the book and what else is going on in my life. I’m trying to tweak my process to speed things up without sacrificing quality.
- Why does it take so long?
- I tend to write big books with a lot of character development, ambitious world building, and twisty subplots. Even when things are running smoothly, that takes a fair amount of planning and time to execute. And of course, writers aren’t machines. Finishing a novel is exhilarating but it’s also exhausting. Many authors need to recharge their batteries between projects. There’s also the publisher to consider. When I submit a manuscript, it might be two years until it arrives on shelves depending on my editor’s workload, their pipeline, and production schedules. Then there’s my family, children, and all that life throws at us. I appreciate that readers want the next installment ASAP, but I’d rather take the time to write a good book than crank out work that doesn’t measure up.
- What’s your process for writing a book?
- I start by brainstorming big ideas that I arrange into an overall story and break down into pivotal scenes. I do this by hand in notebooks with obscene quantities of coffee cranking through my system. Once I have a roadmap, I’ll take a crack at writing a draft on the computer. Once my editor has the draft in hand, I’ll start on sketches for the illustrations. Earlier in my career, I tried to plan and outline everything that would happen in my books. But I don’t do that anymore. Experience has shown that many of my best ideas occur to me while I’m writing—I’ll see a better solution or discover that a character wants to go in another direction (that really happens!). Therefore, I try to stay flexible and have a sense of where I’m going without being tied to a particular path. It’s more important that I have a sense of a story’s heart than its head. No degree of clever twists or inspired prose can compensate for a story that doesn’t resonate emotionally.
- What tools and materials do you use for your illustrations?
- These days most illustrators work digitally but I’m still somewhat traditional. I start with sketches using a col-erase pencil. I put some time into my sketches and set them within frames that are the same proportions (although always larger) than the dimensions the art director has set for the printed book. Once the sketches are approved, I tape each to a light box and trace the image onto hot-pressed (i.e., smooth) 300g watercolor paper. After a drawing’s been traced, I complete the final illustration using an old-fashioned crow quill pen, waterproof India ink, and a variety of small brushes to apply gray washes for tone. Occasionally, I’ll do a bit of digital touchup but most of my drawings are pure pen and ink. The materials are classic, inexpensive, and reproduce beautifully. And I end up with a handmade original to hang on the wall.
- Which do you like better, writing or drawing?
- For me, they go hand in glove so it’s impossible to say which I like better. I think of them as complementary exercises utilizing different parts of my brain. Writing requires intense and prolonged focus. It’s immensely satisfying, but by the time I’ve finished a novel, I’m ready to switch gears. I find drawing to be a soothing, almost meditative pursuit. I can chat with my family, listen to an audiobook, or even have a movie going in the background. After months of staring at a manuscript, it’s nice to get some interaction again. Once I’ve finished my drawings, I’m ready to start writing again.
- Are any of your characters based on real people?
- I’m sure there are aspects of various people I’ve encountered in almost the characters that populate my stories, but I don’t generally pattern them after specific individuals. Two exceptions, however, are Mum and Bob from The Tapestry series. They were based on an elderly couple I met during college—an incredibly endearing duo that was always bickering in the kitchen yet loved each other fiercely.
- Are your stories a commentary on past or current events?
- My stories aren’t allegorical, but I do enjoy exploring historical and even philosophical topics in my work. Fantasy and science fiction can be wonderfully effective tools to examine issues we see at work throughout the world. But are my books designed to comment on current events or push a particular agenda? No. They’re designed to entertain.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
- Read. Devour everything you can get your hands on, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, biographies, short stories, poetry, whatever. The more you read, the more you’re exposed to the ways in which talented writers structure narratives, employ language, develop characters, craft dialogue, and trigger emotions. When you’re reading, you’re not merely being entertained; you’re expanding your toolkit and points of reference. You never know what will pay dividends down the road. Countless little scenes or moments in my books have been inspired or informed by the thousands of novels, comics, magazines and flimsy leaflets (hooray leaflets!) I’ve consumed throughout my life. So, get thee to a library!
When it comes to writing, I have a few bits of advice:
- Use simple words in interesting ways. Fancy words and purple prose bog down a story.
- Put characters first. Clever plot twists and ambitious world building will never compensate for dull protagonists and villains. Make characters your priority.
- Identify your characters’ deepest desires and fears. What we want and what truly frightens us often drives our attitudes, reactions, and behavior. And don’t forget that bad guys have feelings too. They rarely view themselves as the villain.
- Tell a story only you can tell. It’s unlikely that you will invent a new type of story, but you can still produce original work with a distinctive voice, characters, and scenes. Your best chance to achieve this is by putting as much of yourself into your stories as you can. After all, you are the only you in all of history. Put that uniqueness to work.
- Embrace constructive feedback. Tune out trolls but do seek out thoughtful criticism that strengthens your work. This can be scary since there’s a chance someone you respect might not love what you’ve written. But don’t let that dissuade you. No artist in human history enjoyed universal popularity or didn’t have to work at their craft. If you’re not willing to take risks and grow, you’ll never create anything worthwhile. Be brave.
- Get your story down quickly. This is my biggest weakness. Take it from me and don’t edit while writing your rough drafts. It slows things to a crawl and doesn’t improve the work. Even worse, it can cause you to miss the forest for the trees. Save revisions for the next stage.
- Speaking of revisions, give yourself some time before diving in. Once you’ve finished your story, lock it in a drawer for two weeks. Why? Because it’s impossible to be objective about work you’ve just completed. A bit of time will allow you to assess your work with fresher eyes and a thicker skin. Your story’s strengths and flaws will pop off the page.
- Read your stories aloud. It works wonders for your rhythm, cadence, and clarity.
- Err toward concision. If you’re not certain whether a scene is necessary, it probably isn’t. Strong writing has great bones and little fat.
- FINISH your stories even if you think they’re terrible. All writers get stuck, discouraged, and want to abandon a project at some point. It happens to me on every book. Successful writers persevere. I’ve met hundreds of people who have said they’re “working on a novel.” It sounds romantic and daring and is often coupled with a covert glance to see if their audience is impressed. That’s wonderful and all, but do you know what impresses me? People who actually finish that novel. You’re not a marathoner until you’ve crossed that finish line and you’re not a writer until you’ve completed a story. Those who start but never finish aren’t marathoners or writers; they’re wannabes. Don’t be a wannabe. Finish.
- Who is your favorite author?
- I have so many: Patrick O’Brian, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, Anthony Doerr, Maurice Sendak, Frank Herbert, and P.G. Wodehouse are just a few that leap to mind for various reasons. Tolkien was a peerless world builder and really the granddaddy of contemporary fantasy. Wodehouse is hysterically funny while no one writes magic with the lyricism of Ursula LeGuin. I respect Philip Pullman’s creative clarity and envy Anthony Doerr’s ability to craft prose that’s so achingly beautiful I’ll go back and re-read entire chapters as soon as I’ve finished them. But if I had to choose one book or series to keep me company on the proverbial desert island, it would probably be Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which follow an English naval captain and an Irish physician (and spy) during the Napoleonic Wars. They’re exquisitely researched, wildly entertaining, take you all over the world, and contain brilliant insights into the human condition. Stephen Maturin might be my favorite character in all of literature. I never grow tired of those books.
- Which of your characters is your favorite?
- An author’s characters are like his children—no decent or reputable writer could possibly choose among them. Ha! I’m just kidding. We all have our favorites and mine start with Max McDaniels, David Menlo, Hazel Faeregine, and Hob Smythe. If your protagonists aren’t among your favorite characters, they probably shouldn’t be your protagonists. But I definitely have favorites among the secondary players. They stand out because I get a jolt of pleasure whenever I’m about to tackle their scenes or dialogue. Some of these characters include Astaroth, Mum, Bob, William Cooper, Toby the Smee, Bellagrog Shrope, Hannah the Goose, Prusias, Pietr Lanskova, Isabel Faeregine and her sassy homunculus, Pamplemousse.
- I want to write books. How can I get published?
- Write the very best story you are capable of producing.
- Find a reputable agent who is interested in representing you and your work.
- Let them do their job (i.e., selling your book) while you start on the next thing.
This sounds simple, but each step requires hard work and patience. If you are serious about children’s publishing, I recommend you join The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The SCBWI is a wonderful organization whose membership spans everyone from newbies to Newbery winners. Their website (www.scbwi.org) has lots of resources to help aspiring authors navigate the path to publication.
- Henry finds sharks both fascinating and terrifying. You won’t find him anywhere near water at night—not even a swimming pool. Don’t judge.
- No one builds a better Lego spaceship.
- Henry sings to his boys at bedtime, which sounds nice until you discover that he’s foggy on the actual lyrics. He’s butchered all the classics. Need someone to improvise new words to “Silent Night” while a toddler gives the side eye? Henry’s your man.
- Henry likes to whistle and believes others enjoy it, no matter what they say or throw.
- For reasons unknown, Henry cannot pronounce the word “epitome.” No matter how often he encounters it, his brain assumes it’s a heavy book that grows on the outermost layer of the skin.
- According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, he’s an “ENTP” which is a fancy way of saying he likes to argue for sport. His wife would have paid handsomely for that knowledge when they were dating. Now it’s too late.
- Speaking of his lovely wife. Henry has known her since the sixth grade when she was the MNG (Mysterious New Girl) at Harper School in Wilmette, Illinois. They didn’t run in the same circles but reconnected as adults. Life is funny that way, so be kind to new students, random lab partners, and that kid at the next locker. You might end up marrying them.
- Henry is a long-suffering fan of the Chicago Bears. Don’t ask him why. Jacob Marley has his chains; Henry has the Bears. Loyalty can be an admirable quality. It can also be an affliction.
- Henry is convinced that all lists must have three items or ten. No exceptions.
- Point proven.