Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Author Interview - Brian Ruckley

You know how it is, you spend all day waiting for a Brian Ruckley interview and then three turn up at once! Aidan and Chris have already done a couple of really good interviews with Brian, now it's my turn!
So, without further ado...

Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to take part in this interview, how's life treating you at the moment?
Life is pleasant right now, thank you. Appropriately, as I look out of my window I see blue skies, which in itself is a rare and mood-enhancing sight in the context of the miserable monsoon that has been Britain’s summer. (Later: the world outside has reverted to its 2007 default setting of grey and wet. Someone, somewhere owes us all one summer. Maybe it’ll be delivered next year.)

'Winterbirth' has now been released, in mass market paperback, is there still a little buzz to be had from seeing your book on the shelves or did the trade paperback edition get this out of your system?
I guess seeing the UK hardback in the shops was probably the high point, but there’s still plenty of buzz to be extracted. I assume that at some stage a writer gets used to all this stuff, but for me that stage is still some way off. Plus with the mass market paperback, there’s the whole quantity issue. I don’t think I ever saw more than half a dozen of the hardback gathered in one place in the wild, but I saw an entire pile of paperback Winterbirths in a bookshop the other day. Admittedly it was a smallish pile, but it doesn’t take much to put a smile on the face a new, still vaguely disbelieving author …

You've got to sell your story to a potential reader but I'm afraid you only have ten words to do it in! What are you going to say?
Ancient hatreds, conspiracies, betrayals, scoundrels, heroes, pursuits. No Gods. Snow.

I'm a big fan of the cover for the new edition.If you had to make the choice, which cover (for 'Winterbirth') would you choose as your favourite, trade paperback cover or the new one for the mass market edition?
Yeah, I really like the new cover. I liked the original UK hardback and tpb cover too, though – I thought it was a striking image, with the whole blood on snow thing it had going on. On balance, I guess I’d pick the new edition, as much because I prefer the title font and the way text is used on the new cover as anything.

How's work going on 'The Bloodheir'? Do you keep a tight rein on the plot or are you finding yourself surprised at where the story takes you?
It’s just ‘Bloodheir’, actually. We’re doing the whole snappy one-word titles thing with this trilogy (temporarily ignoring the fact that I have yet to come up with a satisfactory snappy one-word title for Book 3 …). Anyway, Bloodheir’s written, and consigned to the mysterious state of semi-existence in which the publishers perform whatever questionable, and probably dark, rituals they perform in order to prepare it for publication. I envisage them all gathered in their office by candlelight, dancing round the manuscript in tattered robes, making arcane gestures and muttering dubious invocations.
I’ve had a pretty clear idea of the overall plot for the whole trilogy from the start, so there haven’t been any enormous surprises. A lot of the details change as I go along, though. Some characters muscle their way a bit more to the fore, some recede a little. A couple of events I thought would be in Book 2 have relocated themselves to Book 3. Come to that, one scene that was in an earlyish draft of Book 1 has, over time, migrated all the way to Book 3, in heavily altered form.

What can we expect to see in 'The Bloodheir'?
If my agent’s response is any guide, the answer to that is ‘dark’. I’ve always thought of the trilogy in fairly straightforward beginning, middle and end terms (scriptwriters would call it the ‘Three Act’ structure, I think). In ‘Winterbirth’, the main characters are presented with a set of problems; in ‘Bloodheir’ the problems get worse, for pretty much everyone, and some possible solutions are (faintly) hinted at, and in Book 3, the problems get resolved. Or not.
That’s the long answer. The ten word answer is: Bigger battles, reversals, faltering alliances, assassination, Anain, Highfast. More snow.

There is a strong Scottish/Celtic influence running through events in the north. Do you intend for this influence to encompass all areas of your map or will the Southern Kingships be different?
For some bizarre reason, that question puts a smile on my face. It’s like I’ve unconsciously been waiting for someone to ask it. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of those rare questions I know the answer to without having to think about it.
Yes, there are different influences in different parts of the world. The north, where the Black Road hangs out, I always envisaged as more Nordic than Scottish (possibly a subtle distinction to everyone except Scots and Scandinavians?). The southern Kingships are more different. One of them (Adravane) has a bit of a Byzantine Empire thing going on. And there’s a gigantic Kyrinin clan who are nomadic warrior-herdsmen rather like the waves of horse-riding invaders who kept coming out of the Central Asian steppe for centuries. Oh, and Tal Dyre is culturally a sort of early version of Venice. I could go on, but my world-building nerd is getting over-excited and needs to go and lie down in a darkened room. (Come to think of it, that’s probably why I got a kick out of the question – my world-building nerd got to come out and play briefly).
Very little of this stuff, by the way, shows up in the trilogy in a major way. Bits of it get referenced here and there, but not much more than that.

Talking of maps, other authors have expressed a preference not to use maps in their books (saying that these can distract a reader away from the story itself). You've included a map at the beginning of the book, do you have any feelings on this (either way) or was this something that the publisher requested?
Whether or not to include a map did get discussed in the run up to publication, but it was a pretty short discussion, to be honest. For better or worse, the general feeling was that this was one of those books where a map was advisable. I know they’re frowned upon in some quarters. I think sometimes maps are seen, generally by those predisposed to such a view, as one of the markers (along with things like glossaries and a certain type of cover art) that identify fantasy as an infantile or repetitive genre. Occasionally, I suspect, they’re omitted from a fantasy book because it’s feared their inclusion will deter potential readers who think that way.
As it happens, I like maps as objects, so I’m never likely to complain at the presence of one in a book. I think in most cases they’re a perfectly reasonable and useful aid to reader comprehension: no one complains about the inclusion of maps in historical narrative non-fiction, where they serve a similar function (not exactly the same: a map in a fantasy book is clearly not solely serving a utilitarian function).
Equally, I’m perfectly happy to do without one if it’s not necessary to following what’s going on in the story. I don’t at all see them as an essential requirement in all cases.

Reading 'Winterbirth' it became apparent that you were building up a real air of moral ambiguity over the tale, no-one is truly innocent or evil. Is this something you intend to resolve, in the future, or are you going to let the reader make up their own mind?
There’s no external, absolute good and evil in the trilogy – in the absence of any Gods, what’s left is only what resides in each individual. Not many people are wholly good or wholly evil, either in real life or in this story, but it’s still possible to recognise good or evil acts. Even then, though, I’ve always figured that even people doing pretty despicable things tend to have some kind of internal rationale, however warped, or some reason in their personal or cultural history why they’re doing them.
So do I intend to resolve the ambiguity? In a way, yes, though not necessarily in a clear-cut good vs. evil sense. As the story progresses, I personally think it becomes clear that some of the possible outcomes would be really pretty grim for almost everyone involved. It’s fine to have an element of ambiguity or complexity, but sooner or later the reader has to have some kind of a preference for how each of the various struggles should turn out, otherwise why would they keep reading?

Without spoiling things too much, you spend the first part of 'Winterbirth' introducing the reader to a host of well drawn sympathetic characters only to kill off a large number of them during the initial stages of the Black Road invasion. I was surprised (even a little shocked) at your choices. How did it feel to kill off characters that you had obviously put so muck work into?
Well I knew from the start who was going to make it to the end of the book in one piece and who wasn’t, so it wasn’t too difficult to let them go. The Black Road (some of them, at least) have a very ‘total war’ kind of mindset – it’s all or nothing with them – so it seemed to me that once they get a bit of momentum going, the consequences are inevitably going to be serious for the folk on the other side. But you still have to write every character as if they’ve got a long life ahead of them – they, and those around them, usually don’t know what’s in store, so as a writer you have to try to make all of them convincing and sympathetic (or otherwise).
I’ll admit that, looking ahead, there’s one character (possibly two) whose fate at the end of the trilogy I’m having second thoughts about, so there’s at least one of them whose survival hangs in the balance of the author’s decision-making process … can’t be very comfortable for them.

It seems that all Aeglyss wants is to be loved and accepted but he is denied this for the whole of the book, even by those who are like him. As a writer, how does it feel to be in a position where you can give your characters what they want but have to hold it back for the sake of the story?
Ah, the God-like power of the author! To be honest, I don’t really think Aeglyss deserves to get what he wants. Not at the time of the story, at least – he might have been an undeserving victim as a child, but once he’s grown up he’s not a very lovable or easy-to-accept kind of guy. I know I’d be edging surreptitiously but rapidly away from him if I met him in a bar.
It’s pretty rare, in any genre, for all the characters to get what they want. An awful lot of fictional narratives (a majority, I suspect) depend in part on characters being denied their desires in one way or another for at least a substantial portion of the story. It’s a very standard way of developing plot and conflict. Stepping back and pretending to be ‘author as calculating, cold-eyed manipulator’ for a moment, all the characters are playing pieces on the board of the story and you move them about and bash them into each other to create friction and conflict. In that sense Aeglyss is the victim of my machinations as author. From the start, my idea with him was to try to create a damaged and bitter character who was that way for specific, plausible reasons in his personal history, and then work him into a position where the whole world gets to feel the consequences of how messed-up he is.
I should add, since I don’t want to sound too cold-hearted, that I like him as a character: I enjoy writing his scenes, and I do actually have a little bit of sympathy for him. He has every reason to be thoroughly annoyed at all the stuff I put him through.

An elf by any other name will still always be an elf. The Kyrinin definitely have elfish traits but you've managed to avoid the obvious fantasy cliches. Could you tell the reader a little more about the process behind the creation of the Kyrinin?
I think you called them ‘feral elves’ on your blog, which I thought was quite a neat description. They obviously borrow from the traditional elves of epic fantasy, though it doesn’t go far beyond their slightly fey physical appearance and the fact that the ones appearing in the trilogy have bows and happen to live mostly in forests. They’ve got no magic and on the whole they’re more likely to spear you than sing you a beautiful song or anything like that.
The immediate inspiration for them was certain pre-Columban Native American and even prehistorical European cultures. I thought it would be fun to have a more or less hunter-gatherer kind of society, to contrast with the (mostly) settled, agricultural humans in the trilogy. That’s a real-world dichotomy and conflict that goes all the way back to the dawn of civilisation. There are other Kyrinin elsewhere in the Godless World who have much more settled, urbanised lifestyles, as well as the horse-mounted nomads I mentioned earlier, but they don’t get to make an appearance in this story.

How do you feel about being one of Orbit's 'debut authors' for the launch of their imprint in the States? Is this going to involve a trip over there at any point?
It’s a very nice position to be in, of course, though also slightly nervous-making (that’s not remotely a proper word, is it?). Being one of the first out of the starting gate for the new imprint means I’m getting a lot of support from Orbit, and it’s good to feel your publisher is making an effort. I can’t help but be slightly nervous about it, but on the whole I’m quite good at not worrying too much about things I can’t control. The book’s what it is, Orbit are working to get it a bit of profile on the internet and in US bookstores: what happens next depends entirely on what readers think of it, which is as it should be for any book.
As for a trip to the States, not much chance of that in the near future, I fear. Author publicity tours, especially ones that involve crossing large bodies of water, cost substantial amounts of money and the economics of such things (for either the publisher or the author) don’t remotely make sense unless the author is much more successful and well known than little old me.

Thanks for your time Brian. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next with Orisian, Taim and Aeglyss…


Chris, The Book Swede said...

Wow, nice interview! You focused much more on the story which was great, I wish I'd asked quite a few of those questions!

I can quite imagine the people in the Orbit office doing that dark "pre-publication ritual"! :P Nah, they're nice, really.

Thanks for linking to me also, I'll add your link to my interview :)

I particularly liked the "ten word" question, and the ones on maps and moral ambiguity within the story.


Angela/SciFiChick said...

Looking forward to the release of Winterbirth in the States next month.

Aidan said...

Good stuff, Graeme!

It's nice that despite the fact that the three of us all interviewed Brian in a short span of time we all took a different approach to the interview.

Between the three of us I think we've forced Brian to pretty much say all there is to say! I'll be sure to link from my interview with Brian to this one here (along with Chris')

Well done,

A Dribble of Ink