Interview with Tom Holt

This Interview has been provided by Orbit, and is printed with their permission.

Tom Holt is the author of no fewer than seventeen hilarious comic fantasy novels and three historical novels. Described as ‘dazzling’ by Time Out, ‘brilliantly funny’ by the Mail on Sunday and ‘wildly imaginative’ by New Scientist, his novels never fail to bring a smile to even the most weary soul. But there’s one thing that Tom himself has, in the past, had very good reason to find decidedly unamusing: computers. One unfortunate incident (see below) even led him to pen the following ode.

Ode to Windows 95

Like a trouser needing hemming,
Like a nose that longs to sniff;
Like the squealing of a lemming
As it totters off a cliff;
Like a maggot in an apple
That you notice once you’ve bit;
That’s how I feel when I grapple
With this useless piece of shit,
Reinstalling on my hard drive
Bloody Windows 95

So, for our first Electronic Newsletter author interview, we thought we’d pose some technologically-challenging questions to one of Britain’s funniest and most inventive comic writers:

What was the first computer you used? Do you still have it?
The first computer-shaped object I used was the basic model Amstrad. I wrote about 18 books on it until somebody pointed out that it was Bronze Age technology, and even owning such a thing made me a major Luddite and an abomination. So I bought an old 386, which worked fine, until somebody pointed out that in many respect, old 386s are even more of a stench in the nostrils of God than Amstrads, and unless I stopped mucking about with industrial archaeology and got with the program, I was in grave danger of waking up one night to find a bunch of techies in white sheets burning a Commodore on my lawn. So I bought a proper computer, which immediately crashed, taking three month’s work with it. That was several computers ago.
The extremely fine Pentium on which I’m typing this is nearly 4 months old, making it the longest serving and most reliable Proper Computer I’ve owned so far. All its predecessors have died; none from old age.

My favourite computer joke is the one that maintains that if cars had evolved in the same way as computers, a Rolls Royce would cost 650, do 5,000 miles to the gallon, cruise at 250mph and explode without warning after six months, killing everybody inside.

How much do you use e-mail?
Incessantly. It’s the only way to get a response out of me, short of sticking needles in my ears. I find it curious but significant that three of my five closest and dearest friends are people I’ve never met.

Do you think that the Internet has changed the world?
Changed the world, yes (but so does the fall of a sparrow). Changed it significantly? No, not really. It has the potential to do more good than any other major invention since the 1830s; given the attitude of the British and other governments, however, I doubt it’ll get the chance.

Which Internet sites do you list as your Favourites?
Apart from the dazzling plethora of Tom Holt fan sites, you mean? A couple of engineering discussion forums, Jim Wright’s ‘Voyager’ reviews, a bunch of online bookstores and the like.
The aspect of the Net I use and love most is Usenet; I post to at least half a dozen newsgroups at any given time, and lurk on several others.

Is the Internet useful for research?
Yes indeed. Everything is out there if you know how to find it, and have the patience. I don’t and haven’t, but that’s my problem. I find the easiest and most effective way to do research online is via Usenet; find the relevant newsgroup and ask a civil question, and sooner or later some American will give you a civil, concise and helpful answer.

In general, do you embrace new technology or throw it out with the Sunday papers?
I don’t read the Sunday papers; or the dailies, either. New technology is useful, but it’s inefficient and ugly; it knows it’ll be obsolete by lunchtime tomorrow, so it has no incentive to be anything else. Old technology – a water-wheel or a longbow or a scythe or a blacksmith’s anvil – has beauty and grace, and more often than not is a masterpiece of ergonomic design, refined by centuries of evolution. Modern stuff is just grey boxes.

In SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN SAMURAI, out this month in paperback, a computer crash leads to a major corruption of files in the world of fairy-tales and legend. Discuss.
I wrote ‘Snow White’ on my first Proper Computer (see above). Then I wrote it again, from scratch, on my second Proper Computer, after my first Proper Computer answered the call of the cyberlemming and blew its own brains out. This may have influenced my attitude towards computers just a tad.

In VALHALLA, the new novel out this month, we discover what really happens to great heroes when they die. What has influenced your attitude towards the afterlife?
An overwhelming desire not to find out about it at first hand…

The idea for ‘Valhalla’ came from an SCA song (the SCA is a huge American re-enactment group, with something like 100,000 members; they dress up in armour and spend their weekends discussing the finer details of twelfth-century shoe buckle designs and hitting each other with rattan sticks; fine people generally, and more clued up about the minutiae of medieval daily life than a warehouseful of college professors) about a Viking who died just as the Christian era dawned, which meant he was a tad too late for Valhalla; so, as a consolation prize, he was reincarnated in the 20th century as an SCA member. Curiously the viewpoint of the song was that this was, on balance, a slice of luck for the dead Viking.

It led me to consider what it’d be like if each of us got precisely the afterlife we deserve. Not a comforting thought, in many respects.

In addition to 17 comic fantasy novels, you have also written a number of historical novels set in the ancient world. Do you see any parallels between these and the comic fantasies?
Hmm. There’s quite a bit of humour in the historicals, mostly because the main characters tend to have a sense of humour. They need to, given the awful lives they live and the ghastly things that happen to them.

Both genres are eminently suitable for making backseat-driver comments about modern, relevant issues. As far as the comedies are concerned, this is mostly because a diagonal cut slices deeper than a square-on assault. As for the historical novels, classical Greece and our own era share such a strikingly similar pathology that it’s pretty much instinctive to consider the two in parallel.

Put another way; both genres appear to distance themselves from the here and now, but in fact allow you to get closer to the point than you could ever manage by conventional means. This is an arcane literary device known as ‘being sneaky’. I’m all for it.

Your most recent historical novel, OLYMPIAD, tells the story of the first ever Olympic Games. Tell us about your own sporting achievements.
The only sport I’ve ever either enjoyed or been any good at involves almost imperceptible movement and the exercise of only one muscle. Make of that what you will.

Do you know any good e-mail jokes?
Strangely, no. All the good jokes are about conventional communications and the Post Office (eg; a proposal to produce a series of postage stamps depicting Famous Lawyers Through The Ages was withdrawn after it was pointed out that people wouldn’t know which side to spit on). I guess this is because the e-mail of the specious is more deadly than the mail.

Copyright© 2002 Orbit. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. The interview has been provided by Orbit and is printed with their permission.

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