Interview with Ian Irvine

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

This month sees the release of the much-anticipated final volume in the extraordinary View From The Mirror quartet. We first interviewed Ian back when the opening volume was published just a year ago. Now, due to massive demand, he’s back, and answering your fan-questions…

Has writing The View From The Mirror changed your life?
Yes it has; very much. Before I started writing (back in 1987) I was feeling increasingly frustrated and unfulfilled with my work as an environmental scientist. Unjustifiably so, most of my friends used to think, since I had challenging and different work that had taken me all over the eastern hemisphere. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t satisfy the creative urges that I guess had been ignored since I was at school.

I’d always devoured books, as a teenager reading as many as half a dozen novels in a day, and at school I’d been better at English than I was at science, so perhaps it was odd that I became a scientist at all. But that was what I wanted to do and it was only after I’d spent a decade doing it that I began to realise how unsatisfied I was.

So I began writing, having no idea what I was doing and, after years of trying, having discovered that it was impossible for me to plan my book, because every plan I did felt wrong – it all felt as though it was MADE UP! Finally, I just began on the first page with the hero, Karan, in desperate trouble, and tried to write her out of it. (She was always the true hero of the book, and in the first fifteen drafts of A SHADOW ON THE GLASS the story began with her, not Llian.) As I wrote that draft, I never had any idea what was going to happen in the next chapter (often not even the next page). It just flowed out. Well, parts flowed; other parts had to be jackhammered out of me. When I got to the end, I discovered that it wasn’t the end of the story at all. I read the draft through and thought, hey some of this isn’t too bad, and at that point I knew that I was going to become a writer and I would NEVER give up until I got there.

Over the next month or so I came to realise that there were going to be four books, what would happen in them and what their titles were going to be. That was early 1988, a long time ago now. I started sending A SHADOW ON THE GLASS to publishers a year later, while redrafting it over and over, and working on the other volumes as well. It was another four or five years before I finished the first draft of the final book, and even then I was only half way into the work I wanted to do on the quartet.

The View From The Mirror was accepted by Penguin Australia in 1996, they began publishing it in 1998 and I’ve been writing full time since 1999 (though I still do quite a bit of part-time consulting as well, and I’m enjoying that a lot more now).

Writing The View From The Mirror has transformed my life. I write nearly every day of my life, and have ever since I began writing 14 years ago, I love every minute of it and there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all that I want to do.

Could you tell us a little about the worlds and mythology of The View From The Mirror series?
The setting of the quartet is the Three Worlds Aachan, Tallallame and Santhenar, though nearly all the action takes place on Santhenar, a world that resembles Earth in a number of respects, though it has some notable differences. For example, the year is longer (396 days), the axial tilt is a little greater which makes the seasons more pronounced, the mountains are much bigger, and the moon has a longer period and doesn’t have captured rotation, so that the other side, which is darker and more ominous, is also seen. I don’t know where the Three Worlds are in relation to our world. I’ve never investigated whether they were set in our universe, or a parallel universe, or some other construct. The only clue is that the Charon, one of the human species, took their name “from a frigid moonlet at the furthest extremity of the void” ie, orbiting Pluto. The native people of Santhenar are old human, similar to us, and they are the least of the four human species both in longevity and in native powers and talents. I don’t even know where the Three Worlds are in relation to each other, though they’re not close together. They’re separated by the void, and rare travel from one world to another is through portals which are extremely difficult and hazardous to make, so the three worlds could be at different corners of the universe.

Aachan is a small, cool globe with a longer day but a much shorter year, a place of dark, oily bogs, luminous flowers, icy rifts and jagged volcanic ranges. It is home to the Aachim, a long-lived species of humankind, much given to hubris and the pursuit of folly, and bitter because 4000 years ago the Charon came out of the void, a mere hundred of them (The Hundred), took their world and enslaved the Aachim.

Tallallame is an elysian world of mountain and forest whose inhabitants, the Faellem, are an ancient civilisation who live in harmony with nature. Arrogant in their superiority, they believe that the rest of the universe is but an illusion made by themselves. They shun devices of all kinds but are gifted modifiers of reality. They also have a dark and shameful secret…

All the peoples of the Three Worlds keep the Histories. It is the greatest honour of all to be recorded in the written Histories, and every citizen, great or humble, yearns for this. The apex of the Histories is a series of 22 Great Tales, each made by a Master Chronicler of old. Llian, a recently graduated chronicler, dreams of making his own Great Tale from the events of the Histories, though it is many centuries since the assembled masters have considered a new tale to be worthy of the honour.

The Three Worlds are separated by the void, a dark, Darwinian place where the nature of reality is changeable. The void is full of savage creatures, many of them intelligent, and all constantly changing themselves in the struggle for existence. In the void only the fittest survive and the ultimate urge of every creature there is to escape to a world of their own.

Which books have most influenced your work?
I’m not sure I know how to answer this question. In the few years before I began writing, and for four or five years after, I read little fantasy so as to avoid being influenced by other writers. I think my influences go further back, to the books I was reading in my teens and even earlier, and I wasn’t reading fantasy then. Rosemary Sutcliffe springs to mind as an author whose style I particularly liked.

As for fantasy authors, I admire the style of Jack Vance more than any other but I would not insult him by attempting a pale imitation. In terms of storytelling, the ‘darn good read’, my favourite authors include Tad Williams, CJ Cherryh (her fantasy, rather than her SF), Tolkien, Michael Scott Rohan, George RR Martin, and the Empire trilogy of Feist and Wurts, but they all have very different styles and I’ve not consciously tried to write the way that any of them do.

Fantasy is only a small component of my reading these days. I read in most genres except horror and those books which rely heavily on graphic violence or general nastiness. I particularly admire the novels of Robertson Davies, the sea stories of Patrick O’Brian and, for lying in the hammock on a lazy Sunday, one of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries. My aim as a writer is no more than to entertain my readers as best I can.

Have there been other major influences on your writing?
No doubt my upbringing, which has to do with ‘treating other people the way you would like them to treat you’ and finding the best in people rather than the worst. And my outlook, which is a positive rather than a negative one. And my education. My training and work as a scientist leads me to look at the world in a slightly different way to non-scientists, and there aren’t that many scientists writing fantasy. And even then, my outlook seems to be rather different to most scientists I know, which leads back to my answer to the first question. I’m really a humanities person who has trained in science. Most scientists who write SF (and occasional fantasy) seem to drip science from every pore.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Hero or Villain?
Well, he’s given pleasure to untold millions of readers for more than 60 years. When I first read THE LORD OF THE RINGS (Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1972; it’s engraved on my memory) I thought it was the most enjoyable book I’d ever read. Of course I was 22 then, and now I’m 50, but I still remember being captivated by it. I’ve read The Hobbit to my four children (in fact using it to teach them to read) and they all loved it. What more can we ask of a writer?

I suppose the problem with THE LORD OF THE RINGS was that it created an ideal in reader’s minds which other authors, for many years, were not able to equal. (Again I’m talking about the ‘darn good read’, not about the qualities that literary critics go for). The public wanted more books like it, but what they got for many years were clones. I guess we’re all to blame here: the writers, the public and the market, though in the last decade or two a number of genuine challengers to Tolkien have emerged, and the genre is better for it.

If The View From The Mirror were to be filmed, who would you cast in the starring roles? 
I’m poorly equipped to answer this question, not being a great movie watcher. Hmn, thinks! No, sorry, I just can’t bring the names to mind.

How do you think the fantasy genre will develop over the next ten years? In my view, the major problem that fantasy had from the mid-sixties, when it suddenly became popular, to (say) the mid-eighties, was that it had become popular too quickly. There was a great demand for fantasy literature, which meant that it was relatively easy to get published (compared to other genres) and a lot of writers and publishers who didn’t really care about the genre jumped into it. The quality of writing in ‘popular’ fantasy, in my opinion, was the worst in any genre and a lot of big selling books were so badly written that it was embarrassing to read them. That situation has changed over the last decade or two as fantasy has become a mature genre and there are now many good writers at the ‘popular’ end of the genre.

I think the fantasy market will continue to grow for a while yet, aided by the Harry Potter phenomenon (which has greatly increased the sales of a number of fantasy classics) and hopefully by the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. I think fantasy will become a mainstream genre, but at the same time it will become harder to get published. I hope it will continue to develop but I know the public’s tastes can change, as they have with other genres such as westerns and horror from time to time. Genres can quickly go out of fashion due to changes in our society, though I think fantasy will persist. It is, after all, the oldest of all genres, as well as the broadest.

What do you do when you’re not writing?
Apart from driving the kids to one venue or another? I read, watch comedy re-runs on TV, do a bit of gardening (as little as I can get away with), wander around and look at all the trees I’ve planted, mow the wretched lawn (we live on 7 acres in the mountains of eastern Australia, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. The soil is rich, it’s a wet climate and the grass grows like blazes), sit in coffee shops, wander around bookshops. That’s pretty much it, really. Oh, and as I said earlier, I still do some scientific work. I’m an expert in marine pollution and I wrote some of Australia’s national guidelines for the protection of the marine environment. I’m presently revising these, and doing related consulting work which has me travelling to various parts of the country. So when I’m home and doing nothing else I just like to ‘veg out’. Afternoon naps are good, too!

What are you reading just now?
I’ve just finished MISTRESS OF THE EMPIRE by Feist and Wurts. A terrific read though in parts a bit bloodthirsty for my tastes. I’d saved it up for a couple of years, knowing I’d really enjoy it. Before that I read THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundati Roy, about as different as one could get. I enjoyed that too, though she has an unusual style which occasionally became irritating.

I’m also reading, intermittently, GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL by Jared Diamond, which is a history of humanity over the past 13,000 years, and THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by Brian Greene, an exploration of modern physics – string theory, the 11 dimensions of space-time and our present understanding of how our universe actually works. It, and another book, Michio Kaku’s HYPERSPACE, have given me ideas for the working of portals, and the magic behind them, in my fantasy novels.

What next for Ian Irvine?
A trilogy called THE WELL OF ECHOES that’s also set in Santhenar, but some two hundred years after The View From The Mirror, when the world is greatly changed as a result of what happened at the end of THE WAY BETWEEN THE WORLDS. It’s mostly about new characters, though one or two of the long-lived old ones do make an appearance. THE WELL OF ECHOES is a slightly harder edged fantasy than my previous books, though it’s the same style of book. I completed the first volume, GEOMANCER, late last year and am checking the proofs at the moment. I’ve written two drafts of the second book and presently I’m halfway through the first draft of the third book.

When I’m writing a series I prefer to have it all written, at least in draft form, before the first book is published. That way I can go back to the first book and make whatever little changes are necessary to ensure consistency through the series. I find that it’s a better way of working than writing the first book, having it published and then working on the second with no freedom to make necessary changes. It’s required long hours at the keyboard though; the last two years, since THE WAY BETWEEN THE WORLDS finally went out of my hands, have been the busiest of my life.

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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