Den Patrick interviewed by Gillian Redfearn at the BSFA, 22 April ’15
Den Patrick has written the comedic ‘War Fighting Manuals’, the ‘Erebus’ fantasy novel trilogy and maintains a popular blog. One of the best-known entries in the latter is ‘The Gentleman Geek’, which details ten dos and don’ts of the geek about town. It’s good advice, mostly about considering or even simply involving others, which seems to be a theme with Den. No writer gets anywhere alone and it was heartening at the BSFA to see Den’s agent and a good showing from publisher Gollancz, including interviewer Gillian Redfearn who is a director there.
Interdependence is implicit in the existence of three ‘War Fighting Manuals’ rather than just one. The idea for the Orc manual came about during a conversation with an editor at a Gollancz party but it was quickly realised that a world with Orcs must also have Elves and that Elves cannot do without Dwarves. This pop-culture symbiosis is not without its tensions. The three races famously don’t get on and indulge in spot of fantasy intolerance, which is always tricky given the propensity for ironic racism to quietly give way to the real thing. The books sidestep that worry with gags like the supernaturally long-lived Elves being constantly surprised that the shorter life-spanned human narrator is still breathing every morning.
Den’s writing process seems to reflect this communal world-view. He says all fictional characters are based on an aspect of the writer, explored thorough a series of ‘what-if’ scenarios. Of least interest to Den is the Heroic Loner aka ‘the American Dream in sandals’, who Journeys Alone to the Dark Place and kills the Great Evil. Den’s work embraces the need for others, most strikingly in Book One of the Erebus trilogy, ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Blade’. In one memorable sequence the young protagonist Lucien escapes a burning stable with the help of a group of allies including his best friend, mentor, cook and horse (itself a gift from the mentor).
The cook is Gillian’s favourite character with the kitchen that rare thing in fantasy novels: a safe space. Not only a haven, it is somewhere characters can go and process their often harsh or troubling experiences. It also perhaps represents an aspiration of Den’s; he spoke interestingly about how author anxiety is an unacknowledged stress in the profession, with its requirement for fast transit between the intensity of a solitary writing process and other kinds of employment or communication.
Gillian asked about the unique pressure of physically being with readers and Den was clear that the worst fate for an author is not high expectations or even bad reviews but obscurity. He encourages marketing despite innate British reserve. After all, the writer pulls readers into a story and the promotion of that story is just an extension of the same principle.
Writers engage with commercialism in all kinds of ways, which must be one of the reasons for the many different routes into publishing. Den describes these individual journeys as being ‘like fingerprints’, a reassuring idea given the tendency of author communities to fixate on one success paradigm as if that is the only way.
Den’s work is similarly complex. He gave an example of spiders in ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Blade’. There are the actual creatures, their related symbolism that runs the gamut from nightmare to trickster and also the human spiders, particularly the ambiguous eight-limbed Majordomo and his mandible-featured graveyard sidekick.
Like the sensuous Italian Renaissance language and imagery that root the fabulous world of Landfall in a recognizable reality, these complexities feel instinctive and born out of personal obsession rather than academic research, which Den admits to disliking. It is as if imagined worlds have greater validity, possibly because the absurdities of our own realm seem too restrictive and isolating.