Q: Without giving anything away, can you give us a taste of the story that is THE WANDERER’S TALE?
Despite the basic framework of the plot (the “epic fantasy quest”) being far from original, that, I reckon, is where the unoriginality of my story ends. According to the quote I was kindly given by LE Modesitt Jr., “…Bilsborough has imbued the quest novel with a gritty realism…” Right on! That’ll do for me. Yes, my heroes are foul-mouthed, go to the pub, smoke roll-ups, get divorced, do ca-ca in the woods, and, truth be told, after all that time on the road, smell pretty high. They also fight out of desperation and fear rather than bravery or honour, like thugs or butchers, and there’s no glory, only blood and vomit.
Nevertheless, it is a work of IMAGINATION; each character, creature and place is described in fine detail, either realistically or fantastically. Though clearly influenced by Nordic, Celtic and Central Asian folklore, I’ve endeavoured to sub-create a world of many new, diverse landscapes, cultures, languages and bizarre inventions.
But the main inspiration for my writing comes from a lifetime of walking the Malvern Hills, one of the most fey and hauntingly beautiful places in the world, and the source of inspiration for writers, artists and composers for centuries. It’s this facet, above all, that I want readers to enjoy.
And maybe the odd bit of British toilet humour I’ve thrown in for good measure.
Q: According to some, THE WANDERER’S TALE might be the fantasy debut of the year. Are you happy to have such a positive buzz surrounding the book, or are you afraid that this might raise readers’ expectations too high?
Happy? God, yes, I should say so. I’ve been dreaming of seeing this story in print for over 25 years, and considering I’ve spent most of those years scraping a living from some of the most soul-sapping, lowest-paid, least-appreciated and generally crappiest jobs in the whole of Christendom (e.g. string maker, pie-meat squasher, pork-scratchings inspector, to name but three) something like “fantasy debut of the year” could only ever be the greatest inflator of my hitherto flaccid ego imaginable. Honestly, I’m so nauseatingly SMUG at the moment, loving every bit of it, and making the most of my delusions of greatness while I can. Let’s face it, it may not last that long…
Q: What can readers expect from the sequel, A FIRE IN THE NORTH?
For a start, it’s set in the North. So it’s a lot colder. Probably why they lit the Fire in the first place. And it’s a lot darker, in every way. Twisted, even. Annal Horribilis. I’m quite proud that there are bits in it which almost made my hardened editor spew. It’s really in this second volume that the story starts to depart from the more usual ‘fantasy epic’, and strike out in a style of its own. Subsequent annals will continue this trend.
And unlike some books these days, this story does not suddenly finish with the sort of disappointing abruptness that always leaves me wondering just how committed the author was to writing a great tale, as opposed to getting it over with before the deadline. Indeed, the epilogue is my favourite part of the entire duology.
Q: What the progress report on A FIRE IN THE NORTH? Any tentative release date yet?
February next year, definitely. (Not sure about the US version.)
Q: The cover blurb mentions that there will be many Annals set in the world of Lindormyn. How many different story arcs are planned at this point?
I’m working on several different ideas at the moment, all very different in content to the first two annals. No wars, no quests, these stories should prove to be far more innovative. I’m hoping to break totally new ground. If I don’t, there seems little point in writing. I’m determined to avoid churning out an endless slew of clone-like sequels (“The Wanderer Returns”, “A Fire In The South”, “Lindormyn 3: This Time It’s Personal”, etc.) like some kind of Lindormyn-o-matic. I’ve had quite enough experience of the production line in my life as it is.
Q: Since THE WANDERER’S TALE is your fantasy debut, could you tell us a little of the road that saw this one go from manuscript to published novel?
I finished the entire 441,000-word book – originally entitled “The Saga of Bolldhe the Great” (don’t laugh) – in 2005. I started submitting synopses/samples to agents in July of that year, and after many rejections I thought I might as well have a go at submitting direct to publishers. By February 2006 I had received a grand total of 130 rejections from agents, and 60 from publishers. I gave up trying, quit my factory job (inspecting 1000’s of little plastic tubes – boy was that fun) and decided to head back to Indonesia, where I’d taught in the 90’s, to try to get my old job back.
Two weeks before flying, I got a letter from Peter Lavery at Pan Macmillan – one of the first publishers I’d approached -apologising for the four-month delay in replying, and asking me to send in more sample chapters. The ‘slush-pile’ had worked! But at that stage I was cynical about my chances, so sent in the entire MS. The day the 9kg package arrived at Pan Mac, Peter was afraid to open it, thinking it was a bomb. Luckily, a month later (St. Patrick’s Day) he offered me a contract. The Guinness did flow…
It was decided to split it into two volumes. Peter and I worked together on editing Book#1 in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair. There we got the US deal as well as the French and German translation deals. (Russia and Greece have recently been added.) The second volume was then edited, and checked by me here in Java, where I moved to in March.
Q: Will you be touring to promote the book this summer? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?
No, the only holiday of any reasonable length I get is during Idul Fitri. (Bilsborough teaches English in Java)
Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Descriptive writing is my real passion; it’s what I’ve been doing since I was ten. It’s important for the reader to be ‘transported’ into the story-world. So I go for ambience, be it sylvan beauty, shantytown seaminess, ghostly chill, or horrific aberration.
Q: Do you have any plans to create a website or a blog where potential readers will have the opportunity to read sample chapters and learn more about you?
Absolutely not. I loathe the internet beyond all loathing and everything it stands for. Seriously. I sometimes feel I’m the only sane person left in the world, everyone else having become bedazzled by that mindless, flashing, bleeping box of electric trickery, wizardly lies, pseudo-values, and misinformation that is as laughably inaccurate as its readers are gullible. Thanks to the internet the entire human race is now walking around with that sappy, inane smile on their faces, praising the wonders of this new god that has come into their empty, gadget-driven lives, and spouting the most risible cobblers I’ve ever heard this side of Bedlam. Especially those with enough brains that they should know better. Grrr…
Sorry about that. I just had to get that off my chest. I feel better now. Next question?
Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write The Annals of Lindormyn series in the first place?
Sorry to be so unoriginal, but it has to be Tolkien. At the age of 15 I just had to write my own version of LOTR (as one does at that age) but came up with the idea of writing it in the style of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which we were studying at the time. I combined this with a not-too-serious idea my fellow nerds and I had been discussing all year, that of going on our own real-life D&D quest to Cheddar Gorge, complete with pseudonyms, costume armour and bicycles instead of horses. (Oh Lordy, am I really telling you this?) Seven years later it had turned into a 375-page epic poem, all in rhyme, and all of it the most unoriginal tripe imaginable.
But I’d grown so fond of this tale and its quirky characters that I started rewriting it as a novel. I always tried to be as innovative as possible this time round, wiping out as many of the clichés as possible, but obviously being tied to the original poem I’d written, with its UNoriginal framework, the basic premise of “Wanderer/Fire…” is, I admit, somewhat ‘traditional’.
Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write THE WANDERER’S TALE and its sequel?
Good vs. Evil. Heroes who are either “reluctant”, “unassuming”, “handsome” or (gag!) all three, who are always Good, always single/unattached, and always get the girl in the end. Beautiful heroines, skinny femme-fatale ninjas/sorceresses who wear nowt but brass brassieres and chiffon, or willowy, long-tressed Arthurian maidens who stand atop cliffs gazing out to sea contemplating their role in “a man’s world” (Blech!). Gypsies who wear colourful silk and speak in rhyme (?!) The short, stocky, salt-of-the-earth sidekick who loves a good brawl and a pint. The strong, silent, mysterious, hooded stranger who sits alone in a darkened corner of the inn smoking. The quirky, croak-voiced and cowardly comic-relief character. Dashing rogues with wry smiles. Baddies in black. Evil magic-users. Slap-headed, bandy-legged, smart-arsed gurus who are always right. Exploding castles at the end out of which the heroes only just escape.
But above all, people who pronounce “warrior” as “war-year”. (Give me strength!)
You know. The usual.
Q: In light of the current market, are you tempted to write one of those enormous fantasy epics which continue to be the most successful series at the moment?
I thought I just had.
Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
Rather than either of those, I’d love to have my stories recognised in Scandinavia, the British Isles and Germany, as it’s those cultural/folklore traditions that have inspired me, and those I really hope to be a part of.
Q: What authors make you shake your head in admiration? Many fantasy authors don’t read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?
There are only two authors who have truly inspired me: Richard Adams, and – of course – Tolkien. J.R.R. in particular wrote with such unearthly, poetic beauty that I can’t imagine any other author coming even close to him. (He was a frequent walker of the Malvern Hills, too.)
Apart from that, I can only think of two others I look up to. Graham Greene’s concise summation of the human condition in all its boundless stupidity, need for self-delusion, and varying shades of evil, are themes I try to reflect in my own writing. And Michael Frayn for his sheer cleverness.
So unfortunately I hardly read fiction at all now. Not because I don’t like to, but simply because 90% of it is so disappointing – uninspired, predictable, cliched, and written mainly for money, i.e. all that Tolkien’s writing is not. Like him, I teach for a living, and write for the love of it. I only ever write when inspired, or at least enthused; I will not hurry, compromise, or write for a target readership. Many people in the publishing world agree that there are far too many books being written nowadays, and maybe this is why. Even the most lauded bestselling authors seem to me to write as if they have a bland Hollywood film deal in mind.
Q: Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that grace THE WANDERER’S TALE?
I never stuck my oar in during the cover design stage; I always wanted it to be a complete surprise, like a Xmas present, seeing it on the day of publication.
That said, Peter did show me the initial design a while back, and I was very relieved that it didn’t conform to the stereotypical fantasy designs I hate so much. Both Peter and I always wanted to avoid standard clichés, wanting this story to appeal to a much wider, more general audience. So this cover, though having a wonderful and entirely apposite ‘misty romance’ about it, certainly does not scream “Fantasy” or “D&D”, thank Grud. And the cover for “A Fire in the North” is even better.
Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction 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.
I don’t see why it should be respected. With the obvious JRR exception, (and possibly Bernard Cornwell’s “Starkadder / Vargr Moon”) I have to say that I’m not the greatest fan of fantasy, at least not the swords & sorcery tradition with all its preposterousness and banality. I’ve read a fair few fantasy books in my life, and am always surprised that such stale, hackneyed and vapid pulp should get published at all. I particularly have problems with US fantasy; there are definite exceptions, of course, but in my opinion the Americans just don’t get it, with their phoney Olde-Englishness, green tights, bucket boots, square-jawed ‘Rone Garet’ heroes, pretty-but-with-a-hidden-fire ‘Fern Leah’ love interests, hissing insidious black-robed ‘Sith Mordax’ villains, or whatever it is they harp on about in their hollow regurgitations of Conan, Star Wars or Buffy.
Is it any wonder spec. fiction has so little respect?
Q: Anything you wish to add?
My favourite colour is puce.
Interview by Patrick