Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Bookshelves, worlds within carpets and not being conventional

A big thanks to Deborah Swift and her fantastic start to this round-robin of questions for the Macmillan New Writers.
Deborah was kind enough to put a couple of questions to me, and while they’re not fiendish, they do require a bit of answering, so bear with me!

“What were your favourite childhood books and can you trace their influences in your novels?”

My childhood influences were largely dictated by my parents, though not by any design. They had this bookshelf that I recall towered over me like some extraordinary monolith and it was filled with paperbacks of science fiction, fantasy and horror novels. During the 70's and 80's the covers of these books were lovingly illustrated and that's what caught my imagination first. I mean, who could forget the Bedouin styled Bruce Pennington cover of Herbert's Dune or 1967 edition of The Worm Ouroboros? I remember there was this one hauntingly nasty paperback cover of a ghost ship burning some unfortunate guy in a rowing boat with this green ethereal ray, until half his face had melted and his chest was just a ragged collection of bones. It was gross and the fact I kept reaching for it was reason enough for my parents to put the book on a higher shelf.

So my folks did do their best to keep such horrors and delights from my young eyes, but you know what kids are like once they get something into their heads. I just followed my curiosity and far from being scared witless by the covers, they spoke to my imagination. I guess that's why - when my peers were reading the Hobbit and the Enid Blyton books - I was nose-deep in the words of Frank Herbert and Stephen King. My teachers were quite worried about me, and my own short stories at that age didn't make them any more comfortable.

With regards to direct influences, ones that you can see in the writing, I can’t say that Frank Herbert’s Dune had a particular influence in my stories – no still-suits or Paul Maud Dib – but the sense of epic was perhaps one that stayed with me.
Stephen King, I think, had more of an impact. I guess I wanted to write like Stephen King, or to quote another one of my heroes, Clive Barker, “I didn’t want to write like him, I wanted to give the answers he gave” (with reference to William Blake). King wrote for the everyman who found themselves in unusual places often by chance, and I was drawn to his honesty, that children could be ‘eaten alive’ much like Hansel and Gretel in the original Grim fairytale, often quite nastily. Just look at the urban epic, IT. Children get devoured by clowns - how fucking scary is that? It was refreshing to have that honesty, and its something I’ve tried to repay during my writing though I haven’t been able to display it much in the Secret War books (not yet anyway!).

Later in my teenage-hood I was drawn out of the shadows into more middle-territory of fantasy and wonder, with Clive Barker. Weaveworld continues to be my favourite novel, because of the bravura of the writing and also because of the timing - I was a 16 year old and my future was a bright shining road for me, though a safe one. Weaveworld took me out of the humdrum - it made me grow-up, whilst telling me that it was okay to be an adult and still have a vivid imagination. So if anything it’s Barker who has the most influence on me, especially his depiction of the “weird” and there are moments of Barker in my books, more so than the oft quoted influence of Cornwell’s Sharpe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (of which I have either read none of or watched very little of to be influenced at all).
In more recent years it has been Steven Pressfield who has had the greatest impact, not so much the characterisation or tone of his fiction, but the battle-scenes which allowed me to follow my own method of writing war – using rhythm and pace of the language to imitate the beating heart or adrenalin, and the “dance” of battle. Which is how I look at battle-scenes – simply put they are ‘dances’, engaging and retreating and engaging again, brutal sometimes, while other times quite beautiful and breathtaking.

These days, I’ve been growing beyond the borders of the strange and the bloody, which is reflected in my reading habits and the projects I have on the go and in the pipeline.
So will I ever write a non-genre novel? I think so, one day. Purgatory and a future project called The Fixer of Clocks are steps towards more literary novels. But you know, at the moment I’m having too much fun to step away from the bravery of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Way too much fun!

“What sort of things do you think your readers would enjoy when they've finished your books?”

You know, this should be an easy question to answer, but like my books, it’s a little more complicated. The Secret War novels, even now, are not in a genre that has a spectacular number of subscribed writers. Imagine, then, what it was like when I originally wrote these books! There wasn’t such a genre as “historical fantasy” when I originally sent them around the agents in the Writers and Artists Handbook. Naomi Novik had yet to set out on her Temeraire sequence and Jasper Kent didn’t arrive on the scene until after the Secret War was published.
Because my books cross, perhaps, two or three genres, if my readership went on from the Secret War novels it would be like the fragmenting of a group of partygoers, after the house party has finally come to an end – each going their separate ways. Some would gravitate towards the historical adventure/war genre inhabited by your Cornwell’s, Pressfield’s, O’Brien’s and Iggulden’s. Others would head for the stock horror troupes, vampire books and such (though please, I wouldn’t suggest anyone head to the likes of Stephanie Myer and the legion of “urban fantasy” writers out there – my stuff just aint the same as that!). Others may even head off to the fantasy/science fiction worlds of which there are so, so many.
It’s a tough question to answer because there are many books that exist on the different literary roads, while there are not that many that sit on the cross-roads, thumbing a lift to anyone who would pull over. My books are like that – they’re like hitch-hikers, they have no home until someone picks them up for that long dark journey into the unknown.

And so to Tim Stretton, another writer who likes to go down paths unknown. Tim’s novel, Dog of the North, is a fine example of world building – Mondia is a fully realised fantasy land of epic proportions, which was visited first in the novel, Dragonchaser. But I would like to ask Tim, which came first? The world or the plot? And why? And would he ever consider writing his books the other way around?
Finally, as it is something that effects us all and Tim has had some experience in this area, I would like to ask him whether self-publishing via e-books is something that has become not only more viable, but also more appealing?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

My love affair with historical fiction

Thanks Aliya for kicking off this round robin. Before I hand over to the next Macmillan New Writer with my questions, Aliya asked me how I came to write historical fiction.

Beore I came to write The Lady's Slipper, most of my writing was contemporary. I read a lot of contemporary fiction as well as historical fiction. A few years ago I would have been surprised to find I had produced a historical novel. So why write one?

The answer is that it wasn't a case of me deciding on a period and then setting the novel there, it was more that my characters demanded certain conditions to flourish and tell their story. I started with a character who wanted to paint an orchid - I had seen the rare lady's-slipper orchid myself and wanted to write (initially) a poem about it. This desire was subverted into my character's desire to capture it in paint. From then on the character grew and developed. I thought for the flower to have impact I needed a time when ideas about botany and images of flowers were new and fresh. Perhaps a time before mass printing, a time when herbs and flowers were used for healing. This led me to the 17th century when herbalists such as Nicolas Culpeper were just making their mark on history and the science of botany was in its infancy.

The idea of the medicinal use of the lady's-slipper then sparked the character of Margaret the herbalist, whose views on "the web of the world" were a very different religion from the conformist view of the time. I am interested in the different ways that faiths have shaped the world and this tied in nicely with the burgeoning Quaker movement, viewed in the 17th century as radical and dangerous. I couldn't resist having a Quaker character, so Richard Wheeler was born. In addition, the Quaker movement started close to my home in Westmorland, and visits to the still surviving historical sites fascinated me.

I was also keen to exploit the enmity between two men, and needed an atmosphere of unease where people felt unsafe so that the developing plot would be credible. The English Civil War where the King had been beheaded by his own people supplied the background disturbance I needed.

My second book, The Gilded Lily (on the editors desk) is set in the same period through necessity as it features Ella, one of the characters from The Lady's Slipper. It is a very different book as it is set in restoration London, a choice made so that I could exploit the desire for wealth and luxury which is a part of Ella's character. I will have to apologise to readers though, as the book features the Thames frozen over, which in fact happened in 1662 and not in 1661 as my book would suggest. This is because I didn't know I was going to write The Gilded Lily when I began The Lady's Slipper and unfortunately I cannot bend history - only apologise when I have had to do so.

The one I am working on now will be set in a different period. As with the first two I am looking for a time and place where my characters and ideas will collide in the most satisfying way. At the moment that seems to be turn of the 16th century in Spain. I can't tell you much more about it because I want to keep the excitement about it inside and not let it dissipate until I have a first draft in front of me.

Now though, I find I enjoy the researching period such a lot, and the wonderful excuse it gives me to hang around museums, historic houses, art galleries and libraries. And I have discovered some fantastic writers in the historical fiction genre, who have given me further insights into our rich heritage. So I cannot imagine that I will run out of ideas from the wealth of our history, and I guess that will keep me writing historical fiction for a while yet!

Aliya asked how I communicate my passion for the period to the reader, but I've really no idea. I just loved writing about the seventeenth century, and my revelling in it I hope will somehow be transmitted, maybe through the language of my characters.

Thanks Aliya for your questions.

Now - over to M.F.W. Curran, author of The Secret War and The Hoard of Mhorrer -

On his website Matt says that as a child he had "a diet of fantasy and science-fiction from parents who might have known better but loved to encourage their son's imagination."
So I would like to ask Matt, what were your favourite childhood books and can you trace their influences in your novels?  And I'm interested to know what particular things your imagination feeds on now, as I take it your parents are not still taking you to the library! Perhaps you could talk a little of your influences past and present.

Also your books are not easy to categorize, so I would like to ask what sort of things do you think your readers would enjoy when they've finished your books?

Looking forward to hearing your responses, over to you.....

Monday, 11 October 2010

Round One

The Round Robin interview kicks off today with me asking a question to Dee Swift, author of The Lady's Slipper, a gripping novel of beauty and faith set during the Restoration. I'm very jealous of the skill and commitment that is required by the historical novel. It seems to me to be the pinnacle of writing ability to capture the past accurately and yet make it current and meaningful for the reader.

So, Dee, was it only ever historical fiction that appealed to you? Did you always want to write novels set in the past of England? What is it about the period that appeals to you, and how do you communicate that passion to the reader?

So, here's the order for the Round Robin:

Dee Swift
MFW Curran
Tim Stretton
Brian McGilloway
Alis Hawkins
Ciara Hegarty
Doug Worgul
David Isaak
Ryan David Jahn
Eliza Graham
Frances Garrood
Faye L Booth
LC Tyler
Aliya Whiteley

An impressive line-up!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Dagger Award

Ryan won!!!! Check it out at www.thecwa.co.uk.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

New Blood

Finally, it's time for the Dagger Awards. Ryan Jahn's "Acts of Violence" was shortlisted several months ago for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, and it's been a long wait. The awards ceremony is Friday, October 8, and I'm staying tuned to the Internet for results. Ryan, best of luck!

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Coming Soon - Interview Dizziness

It's an enormous Q&A that goes round and round in circles... yes, it's the Great Big MNW Round Robin Interview, coming to a blog near you in the very near future! Lots of enjoyableness and insightfulness into the writing process to follow. Yess.

By the way, if you're an MNWer and this is the first you've heard about all this, but you'd like to take part, please leave a comment here or contact me and I'll put you in the pecking order.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Germans are coming!

They are flocking, in fact, to mark the launch of the German edition of Tim Stretton's fantasy novel Serendip (published in English as Dragonchaser).  Len Tyler interviewed Tim about his first foreign edition.

Len: For those of us who have not been involved in galley racing lately, could you tell us a bit about the sport?

Tim: Regrettably my first-hand research was rather limited, the sport these days being somewhat in abeyance.  In  Dragonchaser--or Serendip as I must now call it--we are taken to Paladria, a corrupt oligarchy where galley-racing is the people's obsession.  Ambitious politicans finance their own galleys in the hope of swinging the mob to their own side.  (We can think of Silvio Berlusconi's patronage of AC Milan, or the games sponsored by Roman emperors).

Our hero, Mirko, is a galley-captain from a neighbouring city.  When he agrees to skipper Serendipity, the galley of the unscrupulous Bartazan, he doesn't realise quite what he is letting himself in for.  This being a Tim Stretton novel, matters are complicated when Mirko finds himself attracted to Bartazan's mercurial niece Larien.

Len: The English version is Dragonchaser - the German book is entitled Serendip. You seem to be switching your allegiance from one galley to another. Why is this?

Tim: Dragonchaser is the hitherto unbeatable galley of Mirko's rival Drallenkoop, and I used it for the English title because the name is so dramatic (and also from the outset the reader knows as soon as the galley comes on the page, it means business).  My German translator Andreas Irle felt that Serendip was a title which worked better in German, and not speaking the language myself I was not qualified to suggest otherwise.  The title is in any event more logical, relating as it does to the hero's galley.

Len: How did you find being translated? I know Andreas is a friend of yours in addition to being your translator and publisher.

Tim: Andreas and I met when we were working together on the Vance Integral Edition a decade ago.  I first knew him as a respected publisher and translator of Jack Vance's work, and I figured that if he could handle Vance, my stuff would be easy.  When Andreas asked my permission to translate the book I was delighted.

Len: Did you hit any problems with the translation? - you are after all writing about places and things that don't actually exist and for which there may occasionally be no English word, let alone a German one ...

Tim: Our contact was fairly light-touch. Occasionally Andreas would email me a list of questions relating to expressions he was not clear about (maybe a couple of dozen over the course of the translation).  These were either obscure or obsolete English idiom, or words (and particularly titles) of my own.  I'd send Andreas a couple of sentences for each explaining what I was trying to achieve and he would then render the best German equivalent.  My own German was wholly inadequate to assess his success so I was always happy to trust his judgement.

Len: Are there plans for any of your other books to be translated into German?

Tim: Andreas has a day job, so this translation took a couple of years.  We will see how this one goes, but we don't own the translation rights to The Dog of the North, so there are no immediate plans.

 Len: After the first book in my Elsie and Ethelred series was sold to a German publisher I made some hasty changes to the second one, turning a rather obnoxious German character into a Russian. When you are writing now, are you thinking at all about how The Fall of the Fireduke (the current work in progress) might translate at some future date?

Tim: I'd be delighted to see an English-language version of The Fall of the Fireduke, which is currently 20,000 words into a first draft.  It's another fantasy novel which I think would appeal to fans of my other work, so perhaps there's a German audience for it.  I am never inundated with fan emails, but a disproportionate number of them come from Germany, so it would be nice to think that I am building a German audience.  The plan is to make the English text the best I possibly can, and then hope good things flow from there!

Len: For those who don't read German, can we still pick up the English-language edition of Dragonchaser?

Tim: Yes indeed--you can still grab it on Amazon

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Hoard goes off to Sunny Spain

Big congratulations to Matt Curran of these blog pages: La Factoria de Ideas have bought Spanish rights for The Hoard of Mhorrer.