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Minds of the Press, Vol. 8

Shawn Speakman of Grim Oak Press


Grim Oak Press is well known for their incredible productions of classic and modern fantasy books. Grim Oak is run by the multi-talented owner, Shawn Speakman, who also happens to be an accomplished author and runs the websites of multiple high-profile fantasy writers in his time outside of the press. His story of overcoming immense health and financial hurdles in his journey is inspirational and his insights into the industry invaluable. We are honored to be able share the conversation we had with him and hear about what led to the development of Grim Oak, as well as what is coming up in his own personal writing and his other many endeavors.


Q: Many people who have been following your work and the Signed Page will have heard some of your personal story battling cancer, but newer fans to Grim Oak may not know about that pivotal moment in your life. How did this chapter affect the trajectory of your life and work? Did it create a sense of urgency and focus in your work or change your viewpoint in any major ways moving forward?


I see my life in chapters. When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2001, I was already an avid SF&F reader and was the webmaster for bestselling fantasy author Terry Brooks. The cancer diagnosis and treatment forced me to look at my future and what I wanted for it. Without that moment, I’d likely be a biochemist working in a lab right now. That was an important chapter, to be sure. In response, I began writing in earnest then as I found great joy in it and I had Terry there as a mentor.

But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma in 2011 and didn’t have health insurance due to my pre-existing cancer condition that all future wheels were set in motion. I accrued a massive medical debt. With the help of authors, I had befriended over the years like Terry, Jacqueline Carey, Patrick Rothfuss, R.A. Salvatore, Naomi Novik, etc., I published the anthology Unfettered. It paid off those medical bills. I’m forever thankful to those authors and the readers for helping me during that dark time. But as Brandon Sanderson told me a year or two later, Unfettered and my personal story gave me a platform and a readership I otherwise would likely not have. I see both cancer diagnoses as silver linings during dark times.


The other lesson I learned: everything I do now has to be fun. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing. Because life is too short to do things I don’t want to do.


Q: Back in 2000, you started the Signed Page in collaboration with Terry Brooks to help people who could not make it to physical book signings get signed copies of their favorite books. How did these conversations start with Terry and who were the first authors outside of Terry that you were able to get on board with this idea?


Terry Brooks and I began working together in 1999. At that point, I had run an unofficial Brooks website devoted to his works for three years. I approached him at a Seattle book signing and offered my services as his official webmaster. He liked the idea and we’ve worked together ever since.

Once the official website launched January 1, 2000, one of Terry’s readers asked if he could mail a book to me to get it signed by Terry. That’s when the light bulb went off. The Signed Page became real that moment when I saw there was a need for such a service. The first book signing Terry did for The Signed Page was three copies of Angel Fire East. Tad Williams was the next author and he signed five copies of Mountain of Black Glass. I’ve forgotten who followed. Needless to say, Terry, Tad, and others now sign hundreds of copies every year for customers of The Signed Page. I’ve had great fun running the business and helping people get signed and personalized books they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to get. I have some customers who have been with me for two decades. When they post pictures of their signed-book libraries, I always enjoy it.


Now I work with authors and publicists to have authors stop by The Signed Page when they go on tour. And I always take recommendations from readers for authors they’d like me to work with.


Q: The press you started (Grim Oak Press), as well as your non-profit (Grim Oak Shield), bear the name Grim Oak. Where did you get the inspiration for this name and can you tell us a little bit about how each of these entities evolved?


A: At the time, the name Grim Oak matched my mood. I had survived the 2011 cancer diagnosis but had become swamped in medical debt. It was a grim reality to be faced with. But I wasn’t going to let the situation destroy me or my future. I would be strong against such odds. What is stronger than an oak tree, right? That’s where Grim Oak came from. The grim is the reality but the oak is the strength to overcome the reality.


When Unfettered published and it eliminated my medical debt, I was going to end Grim Oak Press right then and there. I’m a writer and I didn’t want to spend my time as a publisher. Brandon Sanderson told me in no uncertain terms that I’d be a fool to do that. He convinced me that few people are given such a platform and that I could do a lot of good with Grim Oak while improving my writing skills. He was right, of course. To pay forward the aid I had received, I started Grim Oak Shield, with the purpose to help other authors that the American health insurance system failed too. Once the Affordable Care Act came into being though, Grim Oak Shield has largely not been needed. In fact, I’ll be closing it this year. Let’s hope it is never needed again in the future.

Grim Oak Press though has grown in ways I never could have imagined. It’s always fun seeing people talk about the top SF&F small presses doing great work and seeing Grim Oak mentioned. I’m proud of that. We’ll continue doing this as long as people love what we do.


Q: You personally wear a ton of different hats and always seem to have a number of different projects in the works. From designing websites of author friends, to running Grim Oak Press and the Signed Page, and of course writing your own books as well, you seem to keep a very busy schedule. What do each of these fulfill in your life and do you find it easy to compartmentalize or do you see them as being inherently synergistic?


Everything I do is in the book world, so each job you mentioned work together like puzzle pieces. I’ve learned over time though that I have to be very organized and manage my time accordingly. I tend to write in the morning for a few hours. Then I answer emails for Grim Oak and Signed Page. And/or update Terry's or Naomi Novik’s websites. Then I ship books if there is a need. In the late afternoon, I try to find an hour of reading time. The rest of my night is devoted to family. I enjoy everything I do. I hope to continue doing all of these jobs into the future until I no longer can.


Q: A friend once referred to Grim Oak as the “classic rock” press of the small press world, presumably due to the earlier projects you commissioned being from classic fantasy authors like Terry Brooks, Dave Eddings, Raymond Feist, Anne McCaffrey, Tad Williams and Stephen Donaldson. Yet, you have also released and have announced continued and future works from newer authors like Mark Lawrence, John Gwynne, Peter V. Brett, Naomi Novak and TJ Klune. Does your acquisition of titles stem mostly from when you can acquire rights or are there a multitude of factors when thinking about your release cadence?


Honestly, as Grim Oak’s creative director, I select the projects we do. How do I do this? I have to be a fan of the book in question first. I am 47 years old and I began reading fantasy in the ‘80s. It means those are the books I grew up reading and loving. But over time, I’ve become a fan of numerous SF&F authors, some of whom have only been publishing for a few years. I select the books I want on my shelf. Thankfully, a lot of SF&F readers are like me and like the same books I do.


Interior Illustration from Darkness at Sethanon

Q: Anthologies have been a core part of Grim Oak’s lineup since the very beginning. How does editing and curating an anthology differ from a normal project? What is your approach when soliciting different authors contributions for a new project?


Anthologies are a great deal more work than a normal book. First off, the majority of books Grim Oak produces are established books that have already been edited. We are given files from the publisher and the entire process is fairly easy from there on out. But our anthologies feature new work by SF&F writers. That means I have to bring the author under contract, then give them a date for delivery, and once I receive the short story I have to read it. Then edit it. Then have a copyeditor copyedit it. Etc. Etc. It is a much longer process.

When it comes to how I create an anthology’s line-up, I try to have a number of bestselling authors included that will drum up interest. But I also try to bring in several new authors that people might not know yet. I find anthologies to be a perfect place to find new authors to enjoy. I am obligated to not only publish bestselling writers but also those who may become bestselling writers in the future. And every time I publish an anthology, I received several dozen emails from readers thanking me for introducing them to someone new. Those emails always make my day.


Q: If there was one series or book that you could acquire without regard to rights or difficulty of acquisition, what would that be? Are there any other more easily obtained series that you hope to have under Grim Oak Press in the future?


I am a huge Stephen King Dark Tower fan. I have tried three times over the years to get rights. I’ll continue trying until Roland himself shoots me dead. Ha.


Q: That is one of my favorite series and would love to see a new limited edition of this as well! Artist selection is something you spend a lot of time sharing about and have even started doing live streams with artists for some of your recent releases. What aspect do you enjoy most about choosing and collaborating with artists and do you approach this any differently when thinking about your own books compared to other releases from Grim Oak?


Artists make our books look gorgeous. I’m always looking for artists to work with and I receive one to three portfolios a week from artists who are looking for work. When I see work by an artist that I like, I always ask them to share what their dream project would be. Artists are fans of authors too and I’ve found over the years if I put an artist who is already a fan on a project, the results are stunning. I think our customers can see the passion that goes into our books and that begins with our artists usually.

Dust Jacket Illustration for The Dragonbone Chair by Donato Giancola

For my personal books, I tend to pick artists I want to work with. As an example, my 2023 novel is titled The King-Killing Queen. It is publishing from Grim Oak in partnership with Skybound Entertainment (The Walking Dead, Invincible, etc.). Due to Skybound’s involvement, I wanted an artist that could bring to life my main character. Magali Villeneuve is someone I’ve admired for several years and thankfully she had a bit of time to paint the book’s wrap-around cover. It’s so beautiful I can hardly stand it.


Q: In almost every area of your life you are entrenched in original fantasy material as well as the personal lives of fellow fantasy authors. What do you do to try and separate the content you have consumed with that which you create? Or do you see those influences as being additive and not needing to be separated when shaping your own work?


Everything is additive, in my opinion. I read a lot; I think a lot. I see how an author does a certain aspect of their craft and wonder if it is something that will work for me. But largely, I have too many stories I want to tell and they are simply waiting their turn. They are fairly set in stone even though I haven’t written them yet, so nothing I read truly changes what those tales will look like. The key is to get better at one’s craft of writing. Reading is important to see how others do it.


Q: There was a time not too long ago where fantasy was not as popular as it seems to currently be. What do you think the impetus was that caused studios to begin mining deep into fantasy canon with all the new shows and projects in the works? Is it simply the add-on effect of things like Game of Thrones success and D&D being normalized through shows like Stranger Things or do you think that there is a greater cultural trend that preceded these successes?


As a former B&N bookseller, I can tell you absolutely when fantasy became popular. It was Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire. No matter how people feel about JK Rowling’s politics and the like, she made fantasy safe for everyone. People who relegated fantasy to kids lit were all of a sudden spending hours of their time at Hogwarts. And not only that, they were taking their books out into public — GASP — and reading them without fear of being ridiculed. That was the beginning, in my opinion.


But it wasn’t only Rowling. At that same exact time, Peter Jackson released the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. And Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man also played a part in that. CGI had come a long way. So if I was to guess, I’d say it was the shift in reading practices that Rowling helped with along with advances in technology that allowed these magical stories to be told realistically. Then throw HBO buying the rights to A Game of Thrones by GRRM and doing an excellent job with those first few seasons — and suddenly Hollywood wanted more TV-oriented storytelling. Each success grew on the next, until now we have almost too much content to watch and read. It’s an exciting time.


Q: What are you personally reading right now and who are you inspired by at the moment? What other sources do you draw inspiration from outside of literature?

Well, as of this moment (January 2023), I’m reading a new book by Terry Brooks. No idea if it will ever be published. It is a stand-alone fantasy novel that doesn’t have a publisher yet. We shall see. After that, I’ll be reading another book from Terry, Book 3 of his Viridian Deep series. Which is absolutely wonderful and if you haven’t read Child of Light, do it. It’s great. I’m always inspired by Terry and what he does.


For my own writing, I draw a lot of inspiration from real world events. I know, I know, if that was the case, I’d be writing grimdark every time out. Ha! But my own writing mirrors a great deal what I see and feel around me. It’s just how my process works.


Q: You are one of the few small press owners out there who are also an author, how would you describe your personal writing style and what is the experience that you hope the reader has while reading your different series?


Due to my history with Terry Brooks, it will come as no surprise that I’m heavily influenced by him. And he was heavily influenced by publisher and editor Lester del Rey. A lot of Lester’s writing wisdom has been shared with me. I figure it worked for Terry and it can work for me. The first job a writer has: Tell a good story that keeps the reader turning pages. I think my work holds to that philosophy so that’s what readers can expect. As far as writing style, I think I keep it pretty simple. Commercial is how some people might categorize it. I want people reading fast so that the story plays like a movie in their head and heart.


Q: You recently announced the Kickstarter for your upcoming book The King-Killing Queen. What was your primary inspiration for this series and why are you excited about the release? You’ve mentioned possible interest from Hollywood, can you tell us anything more about that or is it still too early to tell?

I wrote The King-Killing Queen for Adrian Collins at Grimdark Magazine. It originally published as a short novella. Once Skybound Entertainment (The Walking Dead) and I began discussing future partnership opportunities, we decided that the novella should be expanded and published as our first joint project. Then, as I was writing the full novel, it became very clear the story was a prequel to my Annwn Cycle novel The Dark Thorn. Due to the connection with Skybound, Amazon Studios has a first-look right to read the book and decide if it is something they want to buy. A long, long, long shot.



The book is fully edited by former Del Rey editor in chief Betsy Mitchell, features cover art by the amazing Magali Villeneuve, will be published with interior illustrations by award-winner Donato Giancola, and the Kickstarter launches March 14th with a wide release coming in October 2023.


Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Grim Oak what would you hope that it would be?


Excellence.


Q: What should we be expecting to come next from Grim Oak and your personal work? You have recently announced new projects in the work from John Gwynne, TJ Klune and Guy Gavriel Kay, but is there anything in the early stages currently that you can share or are excited about?


There isn’t much to talk about, at the moment. I’m really excited about the projects you just mentioned. And I can’t wait to share our edition of Moon Called by Patricia Briggs — which has been optioned by Amazon Studios. The thing I’m really excited about is my Skybound Entertainment partnership. We have a lot of fun things planned. But the first project will be The King-Killing Queen, the first book of a new trilogy that I hope people will love. My 2023 will be largely working on that project and writing sequels. Hope you’ll follow us at Grim Oak Press to see what we do!



This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Shawn for his willingness to be a part of this series and his openness. If you want to stay up to date on all things Grim Oak then you can check them out at https://grimoakpress.com/ and sign up for their mailing list to get updates on production and future projects. For signed and exclusive deals on select books, check out The Signed Page. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter to stay up with all of the incredible things coming from this press.


Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault

Photography by: Yegor Malinovskii (other than the pictures of The Dragonebone Chair)

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Amazing interview! So glad to have discovered you Zach and becoming a patron!


Chris

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Very Interesting interview! Thank you for sharing the link!

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Great interview. Thanks for doing these Zach!

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Zach Harney
Zach Harney
Mar 21, 2023

Hey Everyone, I just did the random number generator and the following people are winners from the CBV portion of the giveaway:


22 - Ryan Johnson

13 - Alexia Kuiglaars

55 - Jonathan Ryan


Congratulations to the winners and please reach out and contact me for details on how we will get you your ARC (use the contact form on the website or reach out to me on Facebook), thanks everyone who entered!

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Excellent interview! Really looking forward to his sequels and what he has in the works!

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