With Den Patrick, Jen Williams, Peter Newman, Francesca Haig & Stephen Aryan
Ostensibly a book launch for the final novel in Den Patrick’s ‘Erebus’ trilogy, ‘The Girl on the Liar’s Throne’, tonight’s event evolved into a unique discussion with a panel of four other successful contemporary fantasy writers, all of whose work has two elements in common:
1: Their works are trilogies, with at least two books out currently
2: The novels are ‘second world’ fantasy
[For the uninitiated, second world fantasy involves getting stuck right in to the created world without journeying there via portals after wasting time setting the scene in somewhere like Penge]
Here then are some interesting observations about genre and the creative process from people who know their stuff:
Upon the bittersweet joy of ending a fantasy trilogy
The panel agreed there was a degree of relief, coupled both with delight at the prospect of drawing up blueprints for fresh new worlds and also sadness at the loss of characters with whom the authors had spent a combination of years and many, many words (about 360,000 in Francesca’s case).
There were more specific observations as well; Stephen’s trilogy featured different characters in the same world, so he did not have a single set of characters on a very long journey and was considering extending the series into more books.
Francesca had been uncertain exactly what the climax to her series would be, but then remembered she had devised a particular character earlier in the story whose completion would resolve the overall narrative. She said it was as if she had prepared for the end without being conscious of doing so.
Jen was happy to not continue writing about particular characters ad infinitum with the inevitable diminishing returns of ideas and intensity, and was relieved to finally have the books on the page, in the shops and out of the inside of her head.
Den viewed completion in a more political way; his books tend to be on the side of the people working in the fields, to whom mere replacement of one king by another is both creatively and socially pointless.
Upon social realism
Francesca pointed out that fantasy is more than capable of dealing with ‘real world’ issues, even secondary fantasy whose milieu may be markedly less familiar than our own. The setting of her dystopian trilogy is post-apocalyptic, and her stories deal with contemporary themes of marginalisation and oppression. Not only does the fantastical not preclude this exploration, the most effective dystopias are those which convincingly project the present.
Jen gave NK Jemisin’s Hugo Award-winning ‘Broken Earth’ novel as a great example of using fantasy tropes to deal with current issues. Jen then came up with the quotation of the evening, which was a criticism of portal fantasy in which the inevitable conclusion is that the characters come back to the ‘real’ world. Who would want that? She favours the movie ‘Labyrinth’, in which characters who do return to our world bring the magic with them.
To ensure the reader does not get lost, Den has a cast list of his many characters at the beginning of each novel. This device feels appropriate, given the Italian Renaissance style of his created world. He also uses characters who are on the outside, looking in, which serves a dual political and expositional purpose.
Peter described the importance of relatable faces, giving the example of the Copper Cat character in Jen’s novel ‘The Copper Promise’, whose struggle is relatable and whose language as she banters with other characters is recognisably contemporary. Peter’s own character, the Vagrant, from his novel of the same name, inhabits a tricky world to convey, in that it is not set in a medieval landscape but one in the distant future. As if that wasn’t enough, he has destroyed it with a demonic invasion. The reader is held by the plight of a mute man looking after a baby and accompanied by a goat, who apparently required the most research of the whole novel.
Stephen’s novels explore the ever current theme of people who use and abuse power. His Mage characters exist to inspire people who are scared, which the way things are going globally is most of us these days.
For a while I wondered if that was it, until Jen talked about the influence of Fritz Leiber’s stories about the Grey Mouser, and Jen’s early love of books by Terry Pratchett. Although his work is often mocking and satirical, it is also a great primer for both fantasy and humour.
Den lists Scott Lynch, the first two Gormenghast novels and the work of Joe Abercrombie as formative, while Franscesca didn’t even know she’d written an SFF novel until her publisher told her. Francesca talked about how the development of her Scorched World was informed by reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.
Stephen made no secret of his long admiration for David Gemmell, especially in the first Mage book. However, he also talked about how differences between the novels in his trilogy revealed other influences, from crime procedurals in the second book and Stephen King, Dean R Koontz and Richard Matheson in the third
Upon ways of completing the first draft
Stephen advised to keep writing; to always go forward and never go back until the first draft is complete. The first draft is the ‘vomit draft’ in which you tell the story to yourself. It must then be made comprehensible to others. One helpful development is that by the time you have written the end, it will be far more obvious what needs to be changed at the beginning.
Fran took this idea further, saying it was important to give yourself permission to write a crap draft. She added that if you are bored with what you are writing then the reader will be too. Peter suggested that if there is a part of the story you are excited about then either cut to that or get there as soon as possible. It isn’t necessary to repeat all the tedium of life in a story; quite the opposite.
Jen strongly advised to make judicious use of peanut butter Chunky Kit-Kats. She also rates the National November Novel Writing Month (NaNoRiMo) as both a great community and also a source of discipline, although it’s important to remember that what one has at the end of the month is not a finished novel. Agents, apparently, dread December.
Upon obtaining of the original idea
Den’s first novel, ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Sword’ was originally (and adorably) called ‘The Boy with the Porcelain Ears’. The boy has porcelain ears because a mutation has left him without real ones. Den, who said that he writes for his fifteen-year-old self, described these mutations as being analogous to teenage self-consciousness.
Once Peter had decided on a baby character, he had to come up with a source of milk, since her protector, the Vagrant, is a man. Peter had to decide on an animal tough enough to survive his harsh apocalyptic world and since the only other candidate was a cockroach, arguably even worse at lactating that the Vagrant, the goat got the job. There was an added genre requirement for some kind of noble steed, a role the goat subverts with distinction.
Jen wanted to subvert tropes in a different way, especially ones that annoyed her. Her rogue character is a woman, while the big tough knight is secretly gay. Jen had self-published some fantasy and wanted to do something new that was lighter in tone. As a result she saw fantasy genre conventions as toys to have fun with, while simultaneously making them modern and edgy.
Inspired by David Gemmell’s ‘Legend’, in which a retired hero is called back for one last adventure, Stephen wrote a similar story of his own but featuring a wizard. The source of the novels was when Stephen then found himself thinking about what that character would have been like earlier in life.
Francesca’s inspiration was from her own youth, when her sister was seriously ill and Francesca was worried that she would die. Due to their closeness, Francesca feared that if her sister died then she would too, as if being cancelled out. Although her sister recovered, the idea that there is someone in a person’s life without whom they would cease to exist eventually became the seed for a fantasy world in which only twins are born, and when one dies they both do. It’s ironic that the most fantastical element was the most personal and grounded in reality.
This was a great evening. I got so caught up in it, and the free wine, that I forgot to take any photos other than this one of the poster at the end. Enjoy.