Interview with Steven Savile, May 2007.
SFFWORLD: Hello, Steve! I would say ‘Welcome to SFFWorld’, but you’ve been a member for a while, so I guess it’s more ‘Welcome back!’
Steven Savile: Thanks, Mark. I am a perennial lurker – I visit the site pretty much every day but I don’t get involved in much of the conversation – what can I say, I am a shy boy (and if you believe that, we’re gonna get along just fine.)
SFFWORLD: Let’s start by talking about your Tsunami Relief Fund anthology, Elemental, published last year, which may have brought you to many reader’s attention. Though the reason for collecting the stories is obvious, why was it important to you personally to be involved in this?
Steven Savile: Boxing Day ‘04 affected me in a lot of different ways – first there was the horror of it all, then there was the realisation that it would take a decade to rebuild the infrastructure of these damaged areas, building schools, providing counselling for the children suddenly left homeless or worse orphaned, the husbands and wives suddenly widowed, and the parents suddenly childless. There’s an element of hopelessness about the sheer scale of it, you know?
Well, I was in London, watching the city rally – and god, but it was good to see these ordinary people rising to help in any way they could, digging deep, and it was inspiring. Like everyone else I stuck my hand in my pocket at just about every shaking bucket or rattling tin, but my pockets have never been exactly bottomless so I started thinking what can I do? That’s the way I generally am – about ten years ago now I worked on Redbrick Eden, a small anthology whose proceeds went to the homeless charity SHELTER – the answer was not what could I do, but who did I know, and what could we do together?
The abstract became much more personal when I returned home a week later and went in to work – I was in my last few months as a grade 5 school teacher at the time – and was grabbed by the school counsellor who asked if I had heard – Nikki, one of the eleven year olds in my class, had been on the beach in Thailand when the wave struck… the sudden surge of grief was huge, believe me, so much so I didn’t even hear the next line that said she was okay, but that her family had brought home a five year old boy whose parents had died. I talked to Nikki, hearing how she had walked back from the beach through floating corpses and just felt so helpless, you know?
It couldn’t have become more personal without me having actually been there. I’ve heard all sorts of suggestions that I only did it to ‘trade on the disaster’ and rubbish like that, which I think says more about the doubter than it does about anyone involved in the book – we all wanted to do something, as a community.
SFFWORLD: How did it come about? And how easy was it? It sounds like a logistical nightmare – lots of stories from a broad range of fantasy and science fiction writers, with a pretty short deadline, not to mention an introduction from one of my personal favourites, Sir Arthur C Clarke….
Steven Savile: I went home that night and called my better half in this venture, Alethea (Kontis), and basically said: “Hey, I’ve got a stupid idea, you up for it?” We talked to people we knew, writers who became part of Elemental, and others who couldn’t, we got advice and help from unexpected quarters – everyone wanted the book to happen.
We made a few more calls, enlisted a few personal friends, like Kevin J. Anderson, which immediately gave the project some credibility, and went searching for writers we admired, knocking on their metaphorical doors. It was important to me, right from the get go, that the book encompassed every aspect of the community, not simply fantasy or horror or hard SF or cyberpunk or dystopian futures or what have you – it had to be about all of the elements of speculative fiction. That decision raised a few eyebrows, in that SF readers don’t read fantasy and visa versa.
Sir Arthur was one of the first people we contacted – and couldn’t believe it when he agreed to write our introduction, but with him having been in the heart of the disaster it was not only perfect but it highlighted again that aspect of the personal.
What people don’t really see is how many of the authors who weren’t in the book but wanted to help so made donations to Save The Children’s Tsunami Relief Fund on our behalf – I won’t name them because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but a good dozen more writers made donations equal to what they’d make for a short story or more. That meant a lot to all of us.
But a nightmare? Not really – there were a couple of things that I’d do differently now, but you live and learn.
SFFWORLD: Do you have any particular favourites from the book yourself?
Steven Savile: Would you believe me if I said I loved them all equally? I’m more of a fantasy fan than SF in terms of my own quirks as a reader, so Martha Wells, Lynn Flewelling and Jaqueline Carey’s stories leap to mind immediately – but there are so many great stories in there, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s has been selected for the Year’s Best Fantasy, as have several others, and Joe Haldeman’s made it into the Year’s Best SF. That tells me we did our job well. Sean Williams’ piece is excellent. Stel Pavlou’s Vonnegutesque piece had me snort my coffee and laughing out loud. You can’t ask for more than that. And Adam Roberts . . . heck, I even remember how utterly brilliant I thought Michael Marshall Smith’s The Compound was upon first reading – seriously intelligent SF.
SFFWORLD: Though your role here was predominantly editorial, you have been a writer of your own work for quite a while now. When did you start writing? When were you first published?
Steven Savile: I’ve been plugging away for about 20 years at becoming an overnight success. My first genre sale was to a small mag in the UK called Exuberance – Coming For To Carry You Home – and it was truly dreadful. Thankfully I’ve improved since… I think.
I can tell tales about the horrors of junior school when I wrote a short story about a serial killer pushing invalids beneath the subway trains – I was 10 or 11… they thought I was traumatised by my parents divorce, I thought I’d written a brilliant story!
SFFWORLD: And what were your influences?
Steven Savile: I’ve made no secret of my love for Fritz Leiber – nor the fact that I was lucky enough to co-edit two collections of his horror stories on behalf of his estate. That was such a huge honour – though today I look at the prices Black Gondolier fetches on E-Bay (upwards of 200 bucks) and I get so damned annoyed because the whole point was to gather these stories together so they were easily accessible to fans, not the locked away in the bastions of collectors with more money than sense. Michael Moorcock saw me through my degree come exam time – I read a book a night instead of studying. It was a great way of relaxing, and hey, I got my 2:2 Beer Drinker’s Degree, so it didn’t hurt any.
SFFWORLD: You know, I think I can see Leiber’s influence in your writing. Not only is there elements of Weird Tales dark fantastique, but also the humour that Leiber often ran through his stories. He also, of course, used to write Dark Fantasy firmly anchored in the reality of here and now: The Smoke Ghost, for example. And I love Our Lady of Darkness and Conjure Wife. Any particular favourites yourself, or stories that have been an influence on yourself?
Steven Savile: You’ve actually just listed three of my favourites up there – both Our Lady of Darkness and Conjure Wife are classic novels, and Smoke Ghost is one of the most seriously creepy stories I have ever read – but you know what is most amazing about a lot of Leiber’s work? It’s timeless. That’s something I hope I have learned from my love of him – I try not to date my own work, anchoring it too closely to a time and place. Interestingly enough, Laughing Boy’s Shadow has just been released in the US for the first time – I wrote the novel over fifteen years ago now, but reading back through it recently it was pretty much impossible to tell it was an early 90s book. It could have occurred today, or in the 60s just as easily. I avoid pop-culture references and other things that would immediately date a piece. Look at The Black Gondolier by Leiber – a story about oil, as compelling and relevant today as it was the day he wrote it – almost 50 years ago! It’s a huge complement that you see reflections of Leiber in my work. I think if I could come close to matching his vision, brilliance and output by the end of my career I’ll be a very happy man. As to a favourite not listed? Hmm… The Belsen Express, The Big Time, A Spectre is Haunting Texas…
SFFWORLD: And any more influences?
Steven Savile: I read Lord of the Rings when I was maybe 11 or 12, over Christmas and didn’t talk to anyone for 3 days until I finished it. Oddly though, I didn’t read another fantasy novel until I was about 17. It was Hugh Cook’s Wizard and the Warrior – the story of Morgan Hurst and the Chronicles of the Age of Darkness – and it was this series that made me WANT to write this stuff – more than any of the others. I was so honoured last year when I was asked for a blurb about Cook’s work – the man was a hero of mine, and to be asked, well it was one of those literary ambitions, you know? I’d urge anyone who hasn’t read them to try and track the series down. I believe 10 of the 12 books made it into print via Corgi, in the UK.
After Cook it was Lawrence Watt-Evans, Stephen Lawhead’s Paradise War is probably my favourite series of all time, and somewhere along the way I discovered David Gemmell and my world was rocked.
SFFWORLD: David is sadly missed, I think. Do you have any more recent writers that you like to read?
Steven Savile: I miss David in ways I never thought I would – I talked about it with James Barclay last year – I couldn’t open the second Troy novel, it was just sat on my shelf because I didn’t want to come to that point where I would know I’d never read another word by him for the first time… I didn’t know him, particularly. I interviewed him once, queued up with about 20 books at a signing in Newcastle the other time, and that was it, but Waylander and Druss, Rek and Decado and all the others are inside me and always will be, fired up to right wrongs and be wonderful.
In terms of modern fantasy writers, I admire the heck out of Steven Erikson and Scott Bakker. Neil Gaiman is the other ‘new’ writer I adore. I’ve just gone and taken a look at my bookshelves – and to be honest some folks might be disappointed to discover that they are filled with the likes of Michael Scott Rohan, Tim Powers, Jack Vance and co., with only a few of the more modern fantasists out there. Jonathan Carroll! I can’t believe I just stared at my JC shelf and forgot him… I’ve got every edition of everything Carroll has ever released, including bound manuscripts. Everyone should read Carroll. Bloody brilliant!
SFFWORLD: With such a varied introduction to the genre, would you now say that your writing career has been varied? If so, does this just show that you have eclectic interests and tastes? Do you have a particular love that given the choice you would prefer to write? (Here is our chance for us to discover your so-far-hidden desire to write romantic fiction!)
Steven Savile: Oh yes, I mean I started with my first paperback in 1997, tied in to Jurassic Park: The Lost World. About a month later my children’s adaptation of Return of the Jedi came out – both from Dorling Kindersley’s imprint Henderson. Then there was a pretty weird novel, The Secret Life of Colors, which mercifully is long out of print, about a native American P.I. on the hunt of a serial killing thing that might well have been an angel… then we have Warhammer, Slaine, Dr Who, more magical realist short fiction in Angel Road, my book about Houdini… a post-apocalyptic serial novel… Yes, I think it is fair to say my interests are eclectic, my career varied, and hopefully interesting!
I tend to write what interests me – and what interests me varies wildly – but here’s my confession, my deep dark desire is to write a romance novel. I’ve been toying with this idea for a good five or six years now, not a bodice ripper, but a true love story. It’ll happen one day. I’ve even got the pseudonym sorted, Madeleine Carr. I’ve had dinner with the Harlequin sales guys a few times, and thus far resisted the temptation to throw myself on my sword and grovel – but one day when the workload isn’t so huge I fully expect to sit down and tell a story about love.
Actually that’s not entirely the truth – I’ve just sold The Song Her Heart Sang to the Solaris Book of New Fantasy, and that’s a love story set in my own fantasy world, and my last Dr Who story, The Sorrows of Vienna is another love story, Doctor style… but Madeleine will be let loose one day and god help the world of romance, heh.
SFFWORLD: I’ll keep an eye on those romantic fiction shelves then, Steve! How was it writing and editing stories about the good Doctor? He seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment…
Steven Savile: I can’t even begin to describe the kick I got out of it – or the pressure I felt doing it. Forget ANYTHING else – Dr Who has 40 plus years of history and expectation, and you so do not want to be one of the guys who destroys the legacy of what you grew up with. Like most writers, I am a fan. In particular I am a fan of Dr Who – Saturdays hiding behind the settee from Zygons, Sontarans, Sea Devils, Cybermen and Daleks… it’s funny, I was in a book with Stephen King recently (On Writing Horror) and my mum didn’t bat an eyelid while I was jumping up and down, but when I called to say I had landed the job writing my first Dr Who story (Falling From Xi’an, which appeared in The Centenarian, edited by Ian Farrington) she got all excited and blurted: “I guess this means you are a real writer now.” Gotta love mums for bringing you crashing back down to earth every now and then.
I’ve done four stories so far, and edited the anthology, Destination Prague, which is due out any minute now. I hope there will be many more to come – it’s stuff like this that reminds me how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing.
SFFWORLD: Thinking around the genres then, as a writer of both short stories and novels, how do you feel the market is for short stories these days? And generally?
Steven Savile: I’m in the rather luxurious position of only writing shorts when I am commissioned these days, so I am not entirely helpful here – but with online venues like Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons and a few others paying very decent rates, that’s great. What I despair at is the abundance of non-paying markets that offer copies or royalties only and promise exposure when they are only selling 20 or 30 copies to friends… when I first started writing there was a very healthy small press in the UK – Exuberance sold around a thousand copies – that was exposure.
I had a serial novella run in Apex Digest last year – about 35,000 words I seem to remember – Apex is a lovely little magazine, with 3,000 circulation selling from stores like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and other news stands, which is frankly brilliant for a small press mag.
As ever, it is a case of researching your market, don’t sell yourself short, if you are good, people will pay for what you do.
SFFWORLD: That’s good advice. My take on it, though, is that the short story market, both here in the UK and in the US to a degree, is in decline – or at least contracting. And the idea of anthologies, like Elemental, for example, is a very difficult one to sell at the moment. Would you agree?
Steven Savile: Well, it’s hard to argue – look at your own boards here at SFFWorld and see the traffic discussing George RR Martin, Tad Williams, Stephen Donaldson, China and whoever, and compare it to the paucity of discussion on short fiction. Folks don’t really want to read it, in terms of genre they want to get lost in the massive Big Fat Fantasies. The thing is for me, the more I write the less time I have to read – it can take me anything up to six months to get through a novel now, snatched two or three pages at a time – I WRITE faster than I READ which frankly scares me. But then I read like a dyslexic, I pour over every word, slowly. Short stories give me some form of instant satisfaction. Try taking pitches to Daw or Tor or Eos or Roc (ever noticed how they’re all three letters? It’s a conspiracy I tell ya!) there are no easy sells, even with big names behind the books.
I’m lucky in that I straddle genres, and get to write SF, Fantasy and Horror, as the Horror small press is much more active, meaning there is much more opportunity for short fiction and more eclectic projects…
SFFWORLD: The small presses then may be the way forward. What is your experience of them?
Steven Savile: I’m a big fan of the small press – Horror World, Bloodletting Press, Apex Publications, Delirium, Bad Moon Books, these guys are producing truly beautiful products, lovingly hand stitched, smyth-sewn, foiled, spot varnished, you name it, they’re doing it – now most of these are for the collectors markets, but for instance, The Hollow Earth, coming from Bloodletting will have two states, one retailing at 13 bucks, the other at 75, so the collector is appeased and the casual reader. The same with the Machineries of Silence, from Bad Moon. What I never want to do is a limited edition that is out of the budget of readers who like my work – I always want there to be a cheap version of everything. That’s important to me.
SFFWORLD: The other point I’d like to take up is one you’ve touched on here, in that it seems to me to be very difficult to get an apprenticeship in writing these days, where you can find your voice and hone your craft. You’ve said that your early work was in the small mags. How important was that in you becoming a professional?
Steven Savile: I’ve been really lucky over the years to serve a proper apprenticeship in terms of my craft, with some brilliant mentors, including Kevin J Anderson, Tim Powers, and Mort Castle – you will never find three more generous individuals, or more knowing ones. Thanks to technology, a lot of writers are getting to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot by rushing to get sub-par work out and expecting to be adored for it. PoD publishing has a lot to answer for in that regard. It’s hard enough being a young writer and growing up in public when its only your best work that sneaks out, but when you can run to Lulu or LSI or wherever and find someone that will print anything, no matter the quality, well then even if you have the potential to be brilliant in one million words time, if your potential audience reads you now, raw, chances are they won’t give you a second chance later – you’re completing not only against other books for their money, you are completing against DVD’s, the cinema, beer, cigarettes, McDonalds and every other convenience/frippery out there. People tend to want to enjoy their indulgences, not suffer for them.
There’s an adage that the first million words of a writers career are crap – I am not completely sure I agree with that – but when I look back at say, Similar Monsters, a good 70% of that book embarrasses me. I’ve got a novel in the trunk, 185,000 words. It’ll NEVER see the light of day, and just in case some bozo related to me wants to make a buck off it after I am gone, I’m going to have a clause in my will to toast it. Right now I keep it as a reminder of what practice and patience and learning a craft can achieve.
Those small press mags in the UK, Peeping Tom, Exuberance, The Third Alternative, Kimota, Phantoms, etc, all had editors who loved the genre and really wanted to offer something in return – they may have been saddle-stitched, photocopied things, but they were done with love, and were actually read by people. I am super-sceptical about online reading habits – especially when websites claim hit counts and unique visitors and click-thru’s, indeed I doubt very much that these online venues are actually read in any great depth… and to be honest, it is a huge buzz at a signing when someone shows up with an issue of Kimota to be signed – or Exuberance. You try turning up with a website…
SFFWORLD: More recently you’ve been writing books for Games Workshop. Your books, Inheritance, Dominion and Retribution (in all good bookshops now!) are tales of vampires and demonic families within the Warhammer realm. Was the experience different? How did you find writing for a company to a franchise format rather than for yourself? Some writers I’ve spoken to have found it liberating and fun!
Steven Savile: The Vampire Counts trilogy was a blast – and I think you can tell I was having fun when I was writing it. I sat down and decided from the outset to put my own name on it, not try and hide that I was writing Intellectual Property tie-ins, and because of that, determined that each novel needed to be something I would be proud to have my name on. I went back to my roots, the writers I loved, like David Gemmell, and aimed to write the kind of heroic adventure he was so good at, something gripping, page turning, filled with larger than life characters, real heroes, real villains. And oddly, because it was in someone else’s playground so to speak, it really was a liberating experience. I cut loose, really letting the fun fly. Considering I had just published Angel Road, which is me at my most pretentious, Inheritance was a breath of fresh air that reminded me what it is all about – entertaining readers. As of today all three have gone into second editions, and have sold into Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic and Spain so far, with hopefully more translations to come.
SFFWORLD: What sort of guidance are you given to write when writing for someone like Games Workshop?
Steven Savile: There’s a very rigid structure of what can or can’t be done in terms of the game’s mechanics which means that you’re forced as a writer to really exercise your imagination to find ways around certain things, or ways to turn something like Van Hal’s Danse Macabre, a spell from the rule book used by just about every player of the undead armies, into something alive – so those same players sit down and go ‘cool’ when they realise just what is possible with something that mysterious gives a +1 bonus to a dice roll… it’s about taking mechanics and making it exciting. Because of that I was regularly mailing Games Development with questions – can I do this? what about that? And these guys would sometimes say yes, sometimes no, and then come back with – but what about this…? and ‘this’ was something utterly excellent once filtered through my writer’s brain as opposed to the game player’s one, if that makes sense? It was a very symbiotic experience.
SFFWORLD: And then there’s Slaine the Exile, which has been reviewed here at SFFWorld. What can you tell us of Slaine? How much of a fan were you of Slaine when he was just a character from 2000AD? How easy or difficult did you find it turning a comic strip into a novel?
Steven Savile: I think like most people my age I was a fan of 2000AD growing up – I have such fond memories of those early comic strips, so when the offer came to do it, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t until I returned to the comic 20-25 years on and looked at those old episodic strips with a more critical eye that I began to understand exactly what I’d taken on. Slaine was a weekly strip, only 3 pages sometimes, and it leapt from action to action relying upon cool dialogue and art to facilitate the story. A prose version was by necessity different. I sat for months reading every episode over and over, trying to get a handle on what aspects of the story to use, what to drop, and my publishers Black Flame were keen for the novels to be a re-invention, not a slavish retelling of what had gone before… so I gathered 13 different story threads and wove them around characters from Slaine’s youth that were never explored in the comics. The result is a slightly episodic novel that captures the spirit (I hope) of the comic without being a slavish copy. The second novel, Slaine the Defiler, however takes a single three-page strip and develops it into a complete novel and was much easier to write because of it.
Of course, because there are changes from the original comics I have plenty of folks tell me I got it wrong and berate me for not being bothered to actually read the comics before writing the book, or what have you – which of course they are perfectly valid in thinking, though they can’t know the hundreds of hours spent pouring over the source material or the agonizing over the actual decisions of what to cut, what to change, and what to leave untouched… especially when you know it is going to cause raised eyebrows at the very least – like the fate of Macha…
SFFWORLD: To the future: what have you been writing about recently?
Steven Savile: I’ve recently finished a number of Dr Who short stories for various incarnations of the Time Lord, and have edited Destination Prague, again for Dr Who.
I’m currently working on a non-fiction book, Televisionaries, which is about cult tv from the Twilight Zone through to Torchwood, which should be out for next April – which means I am watching A LOT of tv right now.
There’s a new Games Workshop novel, provisionally titled Sacrifice, and most excitingly from my point of view, The Machineries of Silence, a collection of novellas filling in some of the back story/history of my world, Thera, which is really firing my blood right now.
SFFWORLD: Can you tell us more about Thera? Is it something that you’ve been working on a while?
Steven Savile: I’ve been world-building on and off for a couple of years now, just accumulating stories and building my own mythology. There will be a number of Thera stories cropping up in various places, The Solaris Book of Fantasy, Intergalactic Medicine Show, a small press anthology, Touched By Wonder from Meadowhawk Press, each of these are character arcs, backgrounds for guys who in some way get drawn into the central conflict of the novel. I don’t want to give much away about the world itself right now, except generalities – it is dark, the actual idea for it came up in a conversation with Tim Powers – imagine fantasy land where the would be saviour never showed up and the world went to ruin… He refused because he was a coward, he was too young, whatever, he just didn’t stride out to save the day… imagine that ruined land fifty, one hundred years on…
SFFWORLD: And then what?
Steven Savile: Well, there are a couple of things I can’t talk about in any detail right now – which are exciting to say the least, but I have a coming of age horror novel, One Summer, currently on the drawing board, and of course the actual Thera novel itself, and a nice little limited edition coming from Bloodletting Press called The Hollow Earth, which is fantastic Victoriana’s Extraordinary Gentlemen meets HP Lovecraft’s Elder Gods… I am hoping to do several more in this rather wild past that never was.
SFFWORLD: I think they show that your interests remain varied, Steve! Thanks very much for talking to us at SFFWorld. Very best wishes.
Steven Savile: My pleasure, Mark, thanks for letting me ramble on!
Steve’s website is at: http://www.stevensavile.com/index.htm