Q. Reading The Chosen is like reading one very long, beautiful and disturbing poem, the images are often so dark and so cruel. The world you have created must be incredibly vivid in your mind in order for you to describe it in such macabre detail. Is your perception of the world we live in as dark as the world you have created in your books?
RP: How could it not be? I remember writing a particularly harrowing part of the book during the Rwandan massacre. The Stone Dance, of which The Chosen is the first third, is a book of its time, reflecting aspects of the world as I see it…
Q. You also are able to portray great love and devotion even among the ruins of this world. Is there a message here for your reader?
RP: In the darkest times, love can be all that people have left. Paradoxically, it is then that people are most deeply human. In the West we have forgotten this because our experience of war has either been in the past or at least, until recently, has seemed so remote, so far away.
Q. The protagonist, Carnelian, is very human in both his strengths and his weaknesses, unlike some of the other characters he must interact with. Do you consider him to be a hero in the classical sense of the word?
RP: If he is a hero, he is a reluctant one. Like any one of us, he has only his simple, flawed humanity to set against the monstrous realities of his world. I hope to have made him human enough that, through him, my readers will be able to experience deeply the wonder and horror of the story…
Q. Do you believe in heroes?
RP: Yes, but I do not believe they have to be extraordinary, free from doubt; that they have to win all the time. Compassion can be as powerful as a sword.
Q. Do you have a personal standard of right and wrong that you expect Carnelian to adhere to? Obviously, compassion is one quality he is endowed with. What are some of the others that are important to you?
RP: Carnelian is everyman. His is the morality which I believe is in every human heart.
Q. Many of the participants of the discussion groups here are authors and aspiring authors. Thus, many of them are interested in the process of writing as well as the process that begins after the manuscript is completed. Do you have a literary agent? If so, was it difficult for you to find one to represent you and guide you through what many consider to be the morass of queries and submissions and rejections? Was it difficult to find a publisher after you finished your first book?
How long did it take? Did you begin the next book before you had made arrangements for the first one to be published?
RP: I have been unsually lucky. I have not had to suffer any rejections. I found my agent, Victoria Hobbs and she helped me work up a few chapters – perhaps 100 pages – for submission to some publishers. One of these took on my first book. It was only finished two years after we signed the contracts…
Q. Do you still have the same agent? Has she guided you in your career as a writer?
RP: Yes. When Victoria chose to take me on, she was as much at the beginning of her career as was I. We have grown together. She is now as much a friend as my agent.
Q. How important is the editing process to you as an author? Is it something you enjoy doing yourself, or do you rely upon an editor? Do you rewrite on the fly or do you complete a manuscript and then rewrite? Can you read your own books without wanting to edit all the time? In other words, after the books are complete are you satisfied with them?
RP: The editing process is one of many, each of which I find essential. I do perhaps 6 rewrites – which since each volume is 200 000 words, takes months!! Over the years I have been developing a system. Each book I write uses the latest ‘version’ of this system.
Working on my third book, I have spent the first few months producing a ‘maquette’ – a miniature version of the final book – in which I can more easily manage the characters, the plot and the many themes. When this process is completed to my satisfaction, I will write the book starting at the beginning and gradually working through to the end. Only when the first draft is finished will I begin the rewrites. In the past, because of the lack of the maquette, I have been forced to do major surgery: a painful and exhausting business.
Given enough time, I would eventually reach a point where I would consider the work complete. My publishers are all VERY tolerant, but I cannot presume on them that much. Besides, I want to finish the Stone Dance before I die. So, I get it to the point where, though not utterly perfect, I would have to look very closely to see the abrasions. This is when I hand it in. Even then, the editing goes on in parallel with the last couple of rewrites. After publication, I have a natural reluctance ever to look at the thing again. Unfortunately, this is a luxury I cannot allow myself because each successive book is part of a single, continuous tale. Thus I suffer, as I see with hindsight how I could have made it better…
Q. How much leeway do you allow yourself for twists and turns that come upon you during the creative process considering the lengths you go to in order to prepare before you actually write a chapter?
RP: The Stone Dance is like a Byzantine basilica. The columns, the arches, the great domes, all these structures have to be carefully planned before building begins. The mosaics of the pavements and walls, the guilding, the windows, the furniture and all the myriad decorative details – these occur to me during construction…
Q. You have published two books in your series and you are working on the third. What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a published author? What has been the most disconcerting?
RP: Rewarding – that I am left alone to do something that I want to do; that I know what it is that I am supposed to do, now and in the future; that when people ask me what it is I do, I can tell them and they understand and it does not bore them… well, not unless they trigger a rant about it all…
Disconcerting – that I had imagined that once my first book was published, everyone I knew would want to read it. Most did not. You get used to that. I imagined also that I would feel forever the warmth of the achievement. Instead, within a few weeks, I was nagged by regret at some of the obvious flaws there were in the book which now I could not change. Further, I became only too aware of the sea of books out there into which mine dropped making hardly a ripple.
Q. How personally do you take negative reviews? Do you believe that as a writer your ultimate validation comes in the form of critical success?
RP: Reviews have driven me into depression, but only if they point something out that I know to be true. As for the rest, I have had to accept that my books are not going to appeal to everyone. They may seems obvious, but it is, surprisingly, something I have had to learn the hard way. Novels are written for readers, so of course it matters what they think. Still, one has to keep faith with one’s vision.
Q. Do you think that your sexual orientation has had any influence on the sales of your books? Though there has been a tradition in fantasy of authors utilizing gay and lesbian characters, it is not prevalent. Were you concerned that most readers of fantasy, who we all know are passionate about the genre, would be unwilling to accept gay relationships? Your books are certainly not sexually explicit in any way. Your characters are natural and human and either quite likeable or detestable, as the case may be. The fact that some may be gay is peripheral to the story and not any more or less important than whether they are male or female. Did you expect that your books would be perceived as being so controversial nonetheless?
RP: I am gay. It seemed to me impossible to write my first book in such a way as to deny that. Of course, I worried about what the reaction of my readers might be. However, I had to be true to myself. The sexuality of my characters is as, you say, peripheral to the story, as it is to the lives of real people when they are not being subjected to prejudice. If readers of speculative fiction cannot handle this issue, then who can? As for controversy, I am vaguely aware that some people have got a little hot and bothered, but then others have complained about the violence in my books… to each his own.
Q. Do you think that you would have a broader readership if Carnelian’s love interest was a woman instead of a man? Has your agent or editor or publisher ever pressured you to be more mainstream?
RP: At this moment, perhaps, but I hope that in time the Stone Dance will gain the readership it deserves. Victoria and my publishers have never seen this aspect of the books as an issue.
Q. Did you know that Carnelian was going to fall in love with another man when you began writing the first book, or did this storyline come to you as plot unfolded? Were you hoping that readers would accept this relationship as they would a heterosexual one or did you want to set yourself apart from most other writers of fantasy thereby?
RP: The society of the Masters, like many others that have repressed women, lead to their young men finding love among themselves – with or without sex being involved. Left alone on his island, Carnelian might well have developed a relationship with some concubine, as his father did. In Osrakum, stultified by the restrictions of ritual, it was far more likely that he would be mostly in the company of his peers, all men. People fall in love with those that fascinate them. It is difficult to be fascinated by someone you never see.
There are countless aspects of my created world that intoxicate me, that posssess me, that fill my dreams. It is immersion in this world, the movement of deep currents in the story that are what the book is about. If in the midst of all this, two men falling in love is offensive, well, so be it.
Q. Who do you consider your readership to be?
RP: People who hunger for a story that will burn as brightly in their adult minds as stories once did when they were children
Q. Are you satisfied that you have accomplished that?
RP: That I have sincerely pursued this aim with all my heart and mind is enough for me. In the end, whether the book succeeds, only time will tell.
Q. Who are your favorite authors writing today? Who are your favorite authors throughout history? Do you read fantasy yourself? If so, do you like series or stand alone books? Who are your favorite fantasy authors?
RP: I have to admit to not reading much fiction. Perhaps this comes from a need to have some escape from my work – though it might also be that powerfully written novels have sometimes intruded on my own ‘voice’. Favourite authors: Stanislav Lem, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Robert Louis Stevenson… though if you were to ask me tomorrow, you would almost certainly get a different list.
I don’t really read fantasy… though that is as much from ignorance of what’s out there than anything else. Like everyone else, I suppose I like series if I’m enjoying a book – not wanting it to stop. Favourite fantasy authors: Gene Wolfe, Tolkien (of course), Frank Herbert – specifically Dune – which I believe to be a peerless masterpiece.
Q. What motivates you most when you write? Do you write in a specific environment? Does writing enrapture you?
RP: In the early stages of a book, I love the excuse to bury myself in obscure research and the exploring and invention of my world. When I am writing, I enjoy ‘seeing it’ – the action of the book plays through my mind as a ravishing film. I generally write at home in my huge and dishevelled study beside a window, amidst (dangerously) tottering piles of reference books, in front of my Apple Mac, playing Shostakovitch, Tibetan ritual music, Tangerine Dream etc… Writing can result in me leaping around my room with delight or sink me into a well of despair and everything in between…
Q. The world you have created is quite unique. What inspired its look and structure? Many have said that it seems almost oriental, and yet to me it has the feel of ancient Egypt. What about for you?
RP: It is a wide swathe of history as seen through the lense of my mind. I have devoured history since I was perhaps 8 years old. East and West, the modern and the ancient are now so deeply mixed in me that I can no longer tell where anything might have come from…
Q. Readers are very anxious for your next book to come out. Can you tell us when that will be?
RP: If you are talking about the final book of the Stone Dance – then it will be at least a couple of years… I am sure you can believe me when I say that I wish it might come far sooner. I have at least a dozen books planned after this one and would like to get to them. However, the structure of the Stone Dance is extremely complex and demanding. Everything has to be done right. Once it is complete, I am pretty sure that people will see the Stone Dance in a wholly new light…
Q. Would you suggest at that point that readers go back and reread the first two books? Will they be recast as well?
RP: I am convinced that a second reading of all three books will give the reader a completely fresh experience…
Q. After you complete this trilogy, what are your plans? I know that you worked in the gaming industry before you became a writer full time. Have you thought about creating a video game based upon your books?
RP: Though I have been saying since the 80s that I believe computer games are going to perform the same role in the 21st Century that film did in the 20th, I turned my back on them because I find their capacity for narrative sadly limited. Until this is remedied, books are the best virtual reality that we have. There are many other worlds that I want to give birth to – hopefully less painlessly and faster….
Q. First of all, I want to thank you for being so forthright in your responses. I found your comments to be as fascinating as the world you created. It should be obvious to everyone that writing for you is not merely a commercial exercise. The intricacies and passions that are revealed in your books certainly reflect your personal desires as a writer. If there could be one simple piece of advice you could offer all the aspiring authors who frequent this web site, what would it be?
RP: That they should keep true to their own vision. There is no better book they can write than the one that comes wholly from within them.