For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the story that is THE SEA-BEGGARS series.
Paul Kearney: Well, in many ways it’s a very traditional story – I deliberately took a hoary old fantasy template to kick off the series, basically to see if I could liven it up a little. So you have the young hero of uncertain parentage, the magic sword, the mysterious patron and so on. But I then kicked the whole thing into left field, with the addition of ships and the sea. The story changes gear and milieu completely – especially in the second book, when things become a little more epic, and much, much darker. The books are essentially a narrative of one man’s life and times, with the proviso that he may not be a man at all, but something entirely different, and his times are about to transform beyond recognition.
What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
PK: I think I can handle descriptions of certain things with a measure of knowledge and honesty. When it comes to horses, and mountains, and to a certain degree, soldiering, I have had some useful experiences which I hope can make that sort of thing seem more authentic when I’m typing it down on a page. And also, I try to make characters as psychologically realistic as possible. Men are not all good, or all evil. They will compromise and agonize before doing both the right and the wrong things, and I hope – I hope! – That my stories reflect that.
What author makes you shake your head in admiration?
PK: Many, many authors have me weeping and wailing in abject envy at their skills. Patrick O Brian is up at the top – for his sheer humanity, his humor, his massive erudition. And also because you quite simply want to read his books again and again – which is the best compliment you can pay any author. The man was a genius, and made it look easy.
Are there any lesser known or new writers you’d like to tell us more about?
PK: Rosemary Sutcliff was one of the favorites of my adolescence. A historical novelist, she wrote the finest treatment of the Arthurian legends I’ve ever read, Sword at Sunset, as well as a whole slew of other novels. When she writes about sub-Roman Britain, you can smell the woodsmoke. She beats people like Cornwell into a cocked hat, and yet has largely disappeared from print. Such are the vagaries of publishing.
Do you feel there is a difference between European fantasy fans and their North American counterparts?
PK: I’m not well informed enough to comment, to be honest, not having met too many American fantasy fans. But I do know that my first US agent told me the Monarchies series was too sophisticated for a US audience – a pile of claptrap, obviously. If there is a difference (he volunteers, ill-informed, but jumping in with both feet), then I think the UK audience may be slightly more ready to give the quirkier ends of the fantasy spectrum a hearing. Having said that, I think both US and UK fans are far too obsessed with the necessity for multi-volume doorstoppers. I’ve talked to fantasy readers who choose their next book more or less by the thickness of its spine.
What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THE SEA-BEGGARS in the first place?
PK: The Monarchies series should have been the Sea Beggars. I wanted to write a nautical novel, purely about a long sea voyage, and that novel eventually appeared as Hawkwood’s Voyage. But to my surprise, I felt I had to flesh out the world Hawkwood was sailing from, and in doing so, I found its shenanigans more interesting than the voyage which was the point of the book in the first place. And also, Corfe appeared, and shouldered Hawkwood and his ships out of the limelight. The Monarchies became something entirely different to what I had first envisaged, but still I felt I wanted to write about the sea, and make an authentic seafaring novel out of a fantasy setting. So the Beggars series is really my second go at it.
Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
PK: I’ll take the bestseller – I’m not proud! As O Brian’s Jack Aubrey says passionately at one point; ‘I have always been poor, and I long to be rich!’ Every author wants to be read – more than good reviews or literary prizes, he want to see people buying his book – and dare I say it’s not just for the sake of filthy lucre – it’s for the satisfaction of communicating your own vision of the world to others. Sounds pretentious, but in essence I think it’s what lies at the heart of writing. The money, well that’s a nice little fringe benefit.
Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
PK: Yes and no. In some respects we’re halfway there already. Tolkien is literature, as is C S Lewis. I believe John Crowley is literature, and James Blaylock and Graham Joyce and half a dozen others. But I think the multi-volume series is what anchors fantasy firmly in the literary gutter (and I should know, since I’ve been churning it out with the best of them!)
No matter how good the series is – and I agree that there are some spanking good ones out there at the moment – it will still be dismissed as a Tolkien clone. I think the most inventive books in publishing are in the fantasy and sci-fi genres at the moment. Look at what is published these days – crime thrillers, chick-lit, celebrity tie-ins. And then there’s the Booker stuff, which in a way is as formulaic as anything else, since it’s written with such self-conscious cleverness. At least fantasy still has blood in its veins, enthusiasm, vigor – and that’s something to be thankful for. On the other hand, there is a hell of a lot of crap out there too? I doubt if that answers your question, but I’m in two minds about it myself. I read something like Deadhouse Gates, and am filled with optimism, then catch sight of Eragon, and realize there’s a long way to go.
Now that you are at Bantam, are there any plans to re-release your older novels? The Way to Babylon, A Different Kingdom and Riding the Unicorn are all well-regarded critically but have been out of print for many years, and the earlier Monarchies of God books also seem to be out of print as well. And do you still plan to bring out a revised edition of Ships from the West?
PK: Gollancz at one point promised to bring out an omnibus edition of the Monarchies, but truth to tell, the logistics of getting all five books into one volume are pretty formidable, so they gave up. Bantam have expressed an interest in reissuing all five books (with the last one revised) as soon as the rights lapse from Gollancz, which will be another year or two. So they will see the light of day again. As far as my first three books go, I doubt they’ll be reprinted, which is a shame, as Kingdom is the best thing I’ve ever written. But business is business.
What impact would you say has the patronage of a well-known author like Steven Erikson on the sales and awareness of your books?
PK: Certainly Steve’s enthusiasm for my books has given them a higher profile – especially in America. We were corresponding for a while a few years back, and I was moaning on about how unhappy I was at Gollancz, so he said I should give Simon Taylor at Bantam a call, and the rest is history. He’s a damn fine writer, not to mention a very decent chap.
How many books do you envisage in The Sea-Beggars sequence? And do you hold to your statement in a previous interview that after it is done you may start writing ‘mainstream’ fiction, possibly instead of fantasy?
PK: At present, the plan is for the series to go to four, but though they are a ‘series’, they are all stand-alone novels. Certainly, a reading of previous books in the series will be a help, but I intend that readers will be able to start with any one of the four.
As far as the future goes beyond Beggars, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a proper historical novel, and also at a ‘magical realism’ type of story which I’ve been working on for years. So to be honest, I don’t know. There was a time when I intended to give up writing altogether, but I found I just couldn’t do it. It would be like losing a limb. So, for better or worse, I guess I’m destined to keep turning them out.
Your books are noted for their brevity, to the point of leaving the reader crying out for more. How do you avoid the pitfalls that seem to dog many writers of letting their stories get out of control and expand across thousands of pages?
PK: It’s not a conscious decision. I think it’s mainly to do with the fact that my plotting is very rudimentary – I basically make it up as I go along. So as I’m writing, I’m as keen as the reader is to find out what happens next. For that reason, my books tend to run along at a fair old clip. There is also the fact that I hate ‘wordiness.’ There is no reason whatsoever to have info-dumps every few pages, or to linger lovingly on descriptions of ball-gowns, or even on the appearance of characters. If you cannot get across your intent, or paint a picture, in just a few sentences, then you have not got what you want to say clear in your head yet, and you should step away from the keyboard until you do. Or else write all the purple passages you want, but go back and prune them away afterwards. Stephen King once said that you should lose 10% of the wordcount with every draft, and I couldn’t agree more.
Interview by Patrick