We recently had the opportunity of interviewing fantasy author Mike Shevdon. Mr. Shevdon is the author of two novels, Sixty-One Nails and Road to Bedlam, with an additional two novels forthcoming from Angry Robots (2012 and 2013 respectively). Part of the Courts of the Feyre series, Sixty-One Nails introduces us to Niall Petersen as he discovers a world in London filled with magic, soul-eating wraiths, ancient fey-rees, and much much more.
Niall Petersen comes into his power at death’s door and this changes his life in a way he could not possibly predict. As he navigates London’s world of magic, we travel a dangerous path with him as he tries to stay alive and save the world.
Hello Mike, thank you for sitting down with us and talking about Sixty-One Nails.
SFFWorld: Sixty-One Nails starts out with an intense scene for the main character, Niall Peterson, and doesn’t let up till the very last page. It all happens in an excellent rush, and this one reader couldn’t put the story down till I finished it. What was it like writing the first draft?
Shevdon: Sixty-One Nails was my first novel, and like most debut novels, the first draft was pretty rough and raw. What it did have was a strong story, and I spent a long time learning how to tell that story in a way that is, hopefully, entertaining and engaging. That took years, but I enjoyed writing it, and I think that enjoyment comes through in the reading.
SFFWorld: Tell is a little bit about the world-building for this series. Many of the magical beings are familiar, but we soon realize that humans may have gotten the details wrong. Was that something you created, or something that came out of your research?
Shevdon: Part of the premise of the series is magic in the real world. I set out to create a story based on English folk-lore and I went back to the oldest stories. Faeries were gentrified in the Victorian era, but the tales from long before then speak of a different kind of creature – sinister tales with more grown-up themes. These were creatures who would replace babies with one of their own, or tempt you to a feast under a hill for a single night that lasts a year. I thought about how old tales become distorted with time and how their meanings mutate. I thought about what the motives of such creatures might be, and added my own twist by transporting them into the modern world. That blend of ancient and modern flavours the books and provides the backdrop to the story that unfolds.
Even so, the world of The Courts of the Feyre is our world, with all the modern trappings of CCTV cameras, mobile phones, law enforcement and computer databases. I had the advantage of being able to rely on my readers’ knowledge of airports, telephones and taxicabs, but the problem of explaining plausibly why no-one knew about these creatures living amongst us. Where was the fossil record of their evolution? Where did they live? What did they do for food, or entertainment? You have a choice in such circumstances. You can use the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card and just say ‘it’s magic’, or you can come up with a rationale that has an origin, and consequences, and a back-story that is complete and integrated with the narrative. That’s a lot of work, but it’s worthwhile because when you start to write, you know how everything works, and more importantly, why.
SFFWorld: The story in Sixty-One Nails centers around Niall, also known as Rabbit, and his fey savior Blackbird. A romance between the two soon develops, however, it is plagued with Niall’s insecurities – primarily with his hang-up with her looks and age. Why did you make that a focus for Niall?
Shevdon: That particular aspect emerged from the characters. The Feyre are long-lived and Blackbird has lived multiple human ‘lives’ before meeting Niall. He’s the newbie, and she becomes his guide and mentor from a position of knowledge and experience. When things take a romantic turn there is an inherent conflict between Niall’s view of Blackbird as older mentor and younger lover. It’s outside his world-view and he finds it hard to reconcile. It’s also a reflection that the world we live in sometimes seems obsessed by appearance, and by a cult of youth. By having creatures that are old, but can appear any way they wish, it takes youth and looks out of the equation and allows me to explore those prejudices and preconceptions in the characters.
SFFWorld: Humans are certainly plagued with prejudices and preconceptions, however, because your characters can so easily change their appearance, it seemed to me that the issue was moot, yet Niall still has these hangups. But let’s move on. I enjoyed how you incorporated just a seemingly boring ritual, the Quit Rent ceremony, into something far more immediate and weighty. Why did you choose that particular ceremony to focus your book on? Is there really a ceremony using horseshoes and nails?
Shevdon: Have you never been in the position where something makes sense intellectually but emotionally it still bothers you? Niall doesn’t actually know what she looks like, so he’s not sure he can trust his reactions. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Anyway, as you say, moving on.
At one point, my investigations into folk-lore were focused very much on the role of iron in superstitions as a talisman against magic. People used to jump over an anvil, for instance, as part of the marriage ceremony. Following up an article on horse shoes, I came across the Quit Rents Ceremony, an eight-hundred year old ritual which involved the exchange of horse shoes and nails in payment of a medieval quit rent. The ceremony is carried out in the Royal Courts of Justice in London every year and also involves the testing of two knives, one blunt and one sharp, against a hazel rod of one year’s new growth. I knew as soon as I found it that it had to be in the book. It’s absolutely real – I’ve been to the ceremony several times.
SFFWorld: I think that sort of history is fascinating. Why do they still do it? We know your version of why – which I’m sure if far more fascinating than reality – but what would keep this tradition going for so long? Or any tradition, for that matter. I suppose it is our way of linking to the past. You mentioned that you wanted to base the magic in your book on English fork-lore. Do some of the themes of your book, specifically infertility, come from those ancient tales or is that just part of your story?
Shevdon: There are many mysteries around the Quite Rents Ceremony, not least why it has endured. There’s no obvious reason why it should have, which allowed me a certain authorial liberty. When I looked deeper there was also the question of why two knives should be acceptable payment of rent for a piece of wasteland in Shropshire, or why in 1245, Emma of Tewkesbury was allowed to commute the monetary payment for the forge in Tweezers Alley into six horse shoes and sixty-one nails – especially as they carried on re-presenting the same horse shoes each year. And when did the City of London become involved? The more I looked into it, the more mysterious it became.
Regarding childlessness, it is one of the central themes of the series. I mentioned before that some of the old stories talk about changelings; taking a babe and substituting it with a much older creature. I began to wonder at the motive – why would they do that? Then I thought, what if they don’t have any children of their own? Long-lived creatures tend to breed slowly, it’s part of nature, so very long lived creatures might not notice they were becoming infertile until it was too late to do anything about it. It was one of the pieces of the puzzle as to how the Feyre came to be as they are. So maybe they didn’t steal children to start with, but maybe a child wandered off and became lost, and was found by the Feyre, and then maybe they were reluctant to hand it back. Maybe they started adopting waifs and orphans to fill a gap in their own lives, but then as the children grew to maturity, they realised that the union between fey and human is fertile. That has all sorts of consequences – not least the schism with the Seventh Court. Unforeseen consequences is one of the enduring themes of the series as a whole.
SFFWorld: Your descriptions of the magic and magical creatures is very captivating. What were some of your inspirations for the intense visuals (i.e. the moving moonlight that Niall embodies when he uses his power, or Blackbird’s wings) of your magic?
Shevdon: That’s hard to explain because inspiration can come from anywhere. We have big trees behind the house and mould spores drift on the wind, so I have a constant battle with mildew around the windows. That was definitely the inspiration for Darkspore. Other things are harder to articulate. I remember seeing moonlight reflected from water onto a curved roof, but I couldn’t tell you precisely where I saw it. The image stuck in my head and when I wanted a visual for Niall’s magic it just seemed appropriate. I visited Wicken Fen to see the huge and beautiful dragonflies in the sunlight, but that was after I wrote Sixty-One Nails, so that can’t have been the inspiration for Blackbird’s wings, can it? As a writer I think you collect visual imagery, you store away snippets and record fragments of conversation. You realise all knowledge is useful; Cosmology, Biology, Philosophy, Plumbing, Baking, Sailing – anything can end up in a book.
SFFWorld: Yes! Just about anything can end up in a book, and it seems that you packed a good chunk of it in Sixty-One Nails. With the Darkspore, that was a great way to use something so mundane and annoying and turn it into something evil. Though some might think ordinary mildew is evil!
As much as I enjoyed the book, I do have a bone (or two) to pick. Why didn’t you name Niall’s exact profession? By the end of the book, I suppose it doesn’t really matter as Niall has acquired a new, adventurous job, but it kind of bothered me that he was just this vague manager. But I felt you did that on purpose. Why? And I felt you were deliberately avoiding Alex, his daughter. Do we get to meet her properly in the next book?
Shevdon: Niall’s profession is alluded to at the beginning of chapter three when Jackie answers the phone, “Project Management Office”. We know that the Electrical Engineers are waiting for a meeting, and that a Site Manager has been trying to reach him, so while we don’t actually know what his job is we can deduce quite a bit from that, but you’re right, there’s a whole load of stuff that’s alluded to that’s not actually there. This is deliberate – before the heart attack Niall’s life is a monotonous routine. He goes to work, he stays late, he goes home to an empty flat. Periodically he gets to spend time with his daughter, but with the distance in the relationship and the antipathy from Katherine, those visits don’t always turn out the way he wants. He’s walking around, but he’s not living, so when he has a heart attack it’s almost as if he’s expecting it – oh yes, that would happen. When he’s revived, though, he’s given a choice. Do you want to live? Really live? If you do you’re going to have to fight for it.
You do get to see a little more of Alex in The Road to Bedlam, though mostly through Niall’s eyes, but that book is really about dealing with the consequences of losing someone and what that means for Niall and the people he meets. It’s a story of hope against the odds, and it’s structured quite differently from Sixty-One Nails. Where you really meet Alex, though, is in Strangeness and Charm. Here you get to meet her properly. In many ways,Strangeness and Charm is Alex’s book.
SFFWorld: Okay, back to themes. I don’t want to give too much away, but Niall dies at the beginning, is resurrected, and then almost dies again at the climax of the book. Were you trying to emulate themes of death and resurrection you found in English folk-lore or is this something from more modern religions?
Shevdon: I don’t see it as being about resurrection, though maybe those themes are unconsciously there. I see it as being more about exchanges and deals, which is a theme in folk-lore. The idea that you don’t get something for nothing is threaded through the series, and the choices characters make to sacrifice one thing for another tells us something about them as people. There’s a fundamental question: what would you give to save everything that matters to you?
In this series I have mostly avoided direct comparison and intermingling of folk-lore and religion, (though there is a vicar in The Road to Bedlam with some very interesting talents). That was a deliberate choice to focus on the old stories coming from folk-lore rather than biblical themes. Christianity is culturally and historically important in England but it brings in a whole load of christian mythology – demons and angels, heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. I made a choice early on that this series was not about those things. It seemed to me that the Feyre would have their own culture and faith, and that I would find it reflected in the their tales. The value of place, harmony with nature, the importance of keeping promises and being true to your word. You don’t need miracles when you can perform them for yourselves, but you still need purpose, and meaning.
SFFWorld: In Sixty-One Nails, given names, true names, nicknames are all really important to your characters and can affect the power one has over another. That idea is something that we’ve seen in fantasy fiction a lot. Is that true in English folk-lore as well?
Shevdon: Names are important. By naming something you give it status and presence. By removing a name, you deny identity. Think of the line in the TV series, The Prisoner, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” If you really want to isolate and de-humanise someone, deny them their name.
There is a strong tradition in English folk-lore that you can bind someone with their name, or that you can discover their name through magic. There are numerous rituals for discovering the name of your true love, or your future husband (who may or may not be the same person) through various forms of divination. By naming a thing you have power over it, but you also accept its power. Naming demons, for instance, or powerful spirits, is considered unwise.
SFFWorld: The story in Sixty-One Nails spans only a few days, but your characters get up to all sorts of things in that time period, and Niall is pursued throughout the book – right up to the very end. It gave the book an intensity and immediacy that I found very intriguing. Can we expect just as wild of a ride throughout the Courts of the Feyre series?
Shevdon: Sixty-One Nails is quite an intense book because it leads up to the Quit Rents Ceremony, but there are different kinds of intensity. With The Road to Bedlam, I didn’t want to write another Sixty-One Nails. I wanted a different book that had power and impetus for different reasons. At the beginning of The Road to Bedlam there’s a particular scene which has had a very strong emotional reaction from my readers – you’ll know it when you find it. As a father, it was very difficult to write, and you’ll understand why when you read it, but it lends an emotional power to the book. That scene, and the events that follow, lead up to a climax where Niall is taken well beyond his comfort zone and we explore the limits of what he will do, both for himself, and for his daughter. It comes back to that question – what will you do to save everything you care about?
SFFWorld: It’s been great talking with you, Mr. Shevdon. Is there anything else you would like to tell your readers here at SFFWorld.com?
Shevdon: I’d love to tell them all about the World of the Feyre, about how the genetics works, and how magic is possible, and what’s going on between Blackbird and Niall, and what the prophesy means. I’d like to explain about the different kinds of magic, and about the treaty with Guillaime, and how that came about, and what happened on the night the Seventh Court rebelled, and why Garvin remains ultimately loyal, and what’s up with Amber. I’d like to expand on the role of The Department, why there’s a castle hall completely covered in horse shoes and who Secretary Carler really is, what Sam Veldon’s job has to do with it all….but I guess you’ll just have to read the story.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the books and the world. I hope people enjoy the books and enjoy following Niall’s story. It’s great fun to write and I hope that’s reflected in the reading.
Sixty-One Nails and The Road to Bedlam are available from Angry Robot Books.
© 2012 N.E. White / Mike Shevdon / SFFWorld.com