First of all I’ll welcome you to the blog, Brian, and say thank you for participating Well done also for producing one of my favourite fantasy novels!
A: Thanks. It’s very nice to be here.
Winterbirth is out now in paperback in the UK and will be arriving in America in September for the launch of Orbit US. To whet the tastes of those as yet unfamiliar, could you tell us about your debut, and what is planned for the final two volumes in The Godless World Trilogy?
A: Well the trilogy as a whole is basically about what happens when an old, unresolved conflict starts up again – driven by the followers of the Black Road, who think they can bring the Gods back by conquering the world – and amidst the chaos that ensues, a rather different and even more serious threat starts to emerge. I’ve seen it described as epic fantasy or as heroic fantasy, and I guess it’s both, really. Winterbirth follows a number of characters who get caught up in an unexpected invasion that becomes much more complicated than it at first appears. In the next two books, we’ll basically see some of those characters struggling, with varying degrees of success, to control, influence or halt the chaos that’s been unleashed.
Your writing style has been compared to that of George RR Martin’s—you both write a gritty, tight story; the magic is somewhat subdued; and you are unafraid to kill your characters, etc. Was it a conscious choice to move away from some of the more common trappings of mainstream fantasy? (Sorry for the ultra long questions—they get shorter later!)
A: Kind of, but I don’t really think I’ve moved very far from the fantasy mainstream. There’s still a lot of relatively traditional stuff in there, even if it’s not always right in the forefront of the story. As you say, there is magic in there, for example, it’s just that it’s not explicitly called ‘magic’ and it’s not driving the whole plot (although it does become steadily more significant in books 2 and 3). And killing characters isn’t all that new – Tolkien was pretty ruthless where Boromir was concerned, after all – though GRRM has obviously used it in rather new and inspired ways to unsettle and surprise the reader. I admit there are a few more deaths in Winterbirth than is common in a lot fantasy. I’ve got a vicious streak, though I’m not sure I’ll ever quite match GRRM’s bodycount.
It’s more a matter of tone and how things are presented than anything else: the internal skeleton’s much the same, but the skin laid over it’s slightly different. I certainly made a conscious choice to go for a gritty, uncompromising sort of tone. That seemed to come most naturally to me, and I willingly went with the flow: better to swim with the current than against it, I figured, especially on a first novel. Whether by design or accident (it’s mostly the former, with a bit of the latter thrown in for good measure), I ended up with a fantasy that’s got a hint of ‘realism’ running through it: it’s a world where horses and men get tired if they have to run for more than a few minutes, where trying to kill someone face to face with a sharp bit of metal is a thoroughly brutal and messy business, and where the participants in a ruthless conflict face the distinct and persistent risk of injury or death. As a style of writing fantasy I don’t think it’s inherently any better or worse than any other style, it’s just the one I’ve chosen to adopt for this trilogy.
It’s been quite a wait since Winterbirth was released in the UK. Any news on the status of Books 2 & 3 that you might care to reveal?
A: Book 2 – Bloodheir – is written. I’ve even seen an early version of the cover, which is a rather nice piece of work. It’s scheduled to be published in the first half of next year. I’m writing Book 3 now (currently sadly lacking a title – I’ve got ‘title block’ or something), and if all goes according to plan it should be published in Spring 2009, I believe.
On your blog, you once mentioned that the weather around you would sometimes work its way into your writing. Has anything similar ever happened—say, a particularly great piece of dialogue, or a character from real life worming its way into your fiction?
A: If the characters in Winterbirth were based on real people I’d met, I think I’d be too scared to ever leave my house for fear of running into them. The bits of reality that made their way into Winterbirth are pretty much limited to weather, landscapes and places (and history, I suppose, but that’s a slightly different thing). Castle Kolglas in the book, for example, is distantly inspired by a real castle on the west coast of Scotland (Castle Tioram, for those who care).
If you want to go back a bit further, though, I had a couple of short stories published in the 1990s, and both of them owed their entire existence to real life, though in very different ways. One – the first piece of writing anyone ever paid me money for – had its origins in a distinctly odd and disturbing dream I had. The second was called ‘Gibbons’ and is set in the jungles of Borneo, and it’s no coincidence at all that a few years previously I had spent three months in the Borneo rainforest volunteering on a gibbon research project.
With what part of your writing are you most pleased that fans have picked up on? Some have criticised Winterbirth for being very methodical at the beginning, which looking back seems unfair. If there was one thing you could change about the book, what would it be? (Question kindly submitted by Raith Rover and slightly mangled by me!)
A: Most pleasing reader response? Probably that various people seem to like the characters and the way they develop over the course of the book. I was really keen that as many as possible of the characters should have a realistic ‘texture’ – I wanted them to come across as plausible people, with flaws and foibles and capable of change, so whenever a reader says they think I achieved that, I’m happy.
One thing I’d change? My instinctive answer to that is remove some of the apostrophes I used in names, but that’s a bit of an easy answer. The point about the beginning of the book is interesting. It undeniably does have a slightly more leisurely pace at the start compared to what happens later in the book. That was a deliberate choice on my part, going for (in theory) a gradual build up towards an outbreak of violence. I personally quite like it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right and anyone who says they think the start of the book could have a bit more ‘zip’ is wrong. Not sure; most readers I’ve heard from seem to be happy with it the way it is. But to be honest, there’s no point in me sitting around pondering what I might change: the book’s done, published, out there. It has to stand or fall on its own merits. I’m happy to have my name on it, just as it is.
Though it may be a “Godless World” the now-gone gods of the old world obviously played a large part in the book. Are there any plans for the gods to take a more corporeal part in the trilogy? And do you have any plans beyond the Godless World Trilogy? (Question submitted by rhodry the red)
A: The Gods will not be making an appearance, no. It’s important to the tone and sense of the trilogy that there are no Gods around, and changing that would mean I was writing a different kind of story from the one I set out on. You’re right to say they are an important part of the story, but – to my way of thinking, at least – their greatest importance is the fact of their absence, since it creates a vacuum that other things can fill. (I hesitate to add this, but I will, just for fun: I wouldn’t assume that it is absolutely 100% certain that there ever were any Gods, exactly as they are described by the characters anyway, in the first place. I’m not saying there weren’t, but I’m not saying there were, either. That’s very helpful, isn’t it?)
As for what comes after this trilogy – that depends on all sorts of things. If things go well, and I get the chance to pitch some more ideas to the publisher, I’ve certainly got a few up my sleeve. I hope I’m not finished with fantasy; there’s another trilogy already substantially sketched out in my head, for example. I’ve got this neat idea for a scene involving dead beetles …
Winterbirth is also being published in a number of non-English speaking countries. How much say so do you get in the new artwork and the translation of character names, titles, etc? Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?
A: My experience of the translated editions of the book has so far been pretty much that of a spectator. I love the fact that they’re coming out – there’s something peculiarly surreal and exciting about holding a copy of something you wrote in your hands and not being able to understand a single word of it – but I’ve only had direct contact with one of the translators (for the German edition), and no input at all on the artwork front. Mind you, you don’t get huge amounts of input on artwork anyway: I do get to see early versions of the covers for the UK/US editions, but since I’m a writer not a designer my comments go only slightly further than ‘Oooooh … pretty.’
I’m more than happy not to be heavily involved in the translations, to be honest. There are six or seven deals in place so far, and if I was trying to answer questions for all of them I’d probably be starting to get confused. I’m happy just to sit back and enjoy the experience. The Dutch edition (which was re-titled ‘Swords of Honour’ – another surreal aspect to the experience is seeing titles change before your very eyes …) is the only the only one that’s actually been published so far, I think: it’s a really nicely produced book, so I’m looking forward to seeing any others that emerge.
Could you tell us a little about the journey your story undertook to be published? How does it felt now to be a published fantasy author?
A: So far, being a published author is a thoroughly pleasurable experience. It’s the realisation of an ambition that’s been with me – even if only in the background sometimes – ever since I was in my teens. The journey to publication was long, but not excessively painful. The story underwent a lot of rewriting and revising over two or three years, all done in my spare time on evenings and weekends, until I reached the point where I could no longer tell whether the changes I was making were improving it or not. That seemed like as good a point as any to start sending it out to agents.
Then there were more changes once I had an agent and more once I had a publisher – all of which I think improved the text, which just goes to prove how valuable a fresh, experienced set of eyes can be. I went after an agent first, partly because quite a few publishers are only really interested in agented submissions and partly because I just had a preconception that that was what an aspiring author did (I still think it’s a good idea – makes life easier in numerous ways, and there are even fewer publishers around willing to look at unagented submissions now than there were then, I think).
Your novel clearly puts much stock in wordbuilding, but it also has good characterisations that grow and change as the novel progresses. Which would you say was most important—good wordbuilding or good characterisations? (You’re going to say both, I can feel it.)
A: Both. Actually no, I just said that to fulfil your prophecy (can’t have unfulfilled prophecies hanging around when you’re dealing with fantasy, after all). World-building is a fun and significant part of a certain type of fantasy book – epic secondary world fantasy, I guess you’d call it – and as you rightly say it’s an activity I embraced in the writing of Winterbirth. But developing good characters is a much more universal and more important requirement, I think. Generally speaking, the world you build is the scenery on the stage, the characters are the actors. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy a play with lousy scenery (or no scenery at all); it’s pretty much impossible to enjoy a play with terrible actors.
Ultimately, all writers of fiction are trying to persuade readers to engage with or immerse themselves in a story, and different genres and sub-genres use different tools to achieve that. Good characters are probably the single most powerful tool available, across a wide range of genres. World-building is just one secondary tool that fantasy writers in particular can also use. It can certainly be taken to nerdish extremes, potentially to the detriment of characters or plot. But at the end of the day most of us are nerdish about something or other (I’m a bit of wildlife nerd, for example) and one person’s nerdism is another’s pleasure.
Slightly linked to the last question—which characters have changed the most from your original idea of them to how they’ve appeared on the page?
A: That’s an interesting spin on the ‘characters coming to life’ issue. It’s quite hard to remember what you had in mind the very first time you dreamed up a character, because it gets overlaid by what that character became in the final manuscript. As a rule, my characters are quite well-behaved: they do what I tell them to, and on the whole that means they’ve stayed pretty close to the way I originally envisaged them.
That’s not to say nothing ever changes, though. Particularly in writing Bloodheir, Book 2, one or two characters have assumed a slightly larger role in the story than I originally thought. As a result, they’ve expanded as characters, coming to life a bit more. An example is Tara Jerain, the wife of Mordyn the Chancellor, who’s now a viewpoint character in Books 2 and 3. Another is Aewult, the heir to the High Thane, who I’ve had more fun writing than I expected, and partly as a result of that he shows up in more scenes in Bloodheir than I expected back when I was outlining it. He’s ended up being a bit nastier and cockier than I originally intended, but also somewhat more incompetent. He causes a lot of trouble in Bloodheir, and characters like that are always fun to write.
Again to do with your site– you have a section called The Gazetteer where you post bits of additional background info (such as timelines, ancestry, etc) from the world of your books. When you write, do you have to have all this stuff in front of you to set it all in perspective, or was it just created for your site?
A: I’m actually really bad at the whole making notes thing. I have virtually nothing written down in terms of background information, it’s all just sloshing around in my head. The one exception to that is the timeline, I think. Oh, and I have some lists of Thanes (though I’m not sure I could lay my hands on them quickly) and some rough drafts of various maps. Apart from that, I’m dangerously reliant on my (generally but not invariably reliable) memory, and on what’s contained in the text.
The Gazetteer is there just because some readers might find some of that background stuff interesting. When I want to add something to it, it’s mostly just a matter of organising what’s in my head, though some of it gets expanded and added to as I’m ‘gazetting’ it. None of it’s strictly necessary to understand what’s going on in the books, so it’s more like the extras – deleted scenes or something – you get on a DVD. A bit of light fun for me to do, and hopefully of interest to one or two readers.
I’m sure there are many aspiring fantasy authors out there (most people who run blogs for example!) so are there any precious nuggets of writerly advice that you’d like to share?
A: I’m wary of dispensing advice because my experience is still relatively limited, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Still, there’re some suggestions I think are unlikely ever to be bad advice. Read lots, including stuff outside the genre. Write constantly (and finish at least some of what you write! – the one thing that’s for sure is that you can aspire all you want, but you’ll never be a published novelist if you don’t actually finish a novel).
Patience and practice are at least half the battle: for most of us ordinary mortals it takes time to get the hang of writing, not just because of the requirement for practice, but also because you gradually accumulate more life experience and more reading experience, both of which help. And don’t pay too much attention to the cynics out there who imply there’s some vast unspoken conspiracy amongst agents, publishers and booksellers to prevent new writers from getting published – it’s not impossible, it’s just not easy. I think there were something like six debut fantasy writers, including me, published by major genre publishers in the UK in 2006, which isn’t exactly a huge number but equally it’s definitely not zero.
Thank you for taking time out of your writing to take part in my first (but not last!) ever interview! It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Winterbirth is a terrific read, and I wish you all the best for the following two volumes in the Godless World Trilogy. Is there anything you’d like to add before we say adios amigo?!?
A: Nope, we’ve covered plenty of ground for now, I should think. It’s been fun. At moments such as this, I always invite everyone to check out the website at www.brianruckley.com, so consider yourself cordially invited, whoever you are. Adios amigo.
Interview by Chris, The Book Swede