Well after reading Winterbirth, one of this year's very good debuts, I knew I had to interview the author. So here is the resulting Q&A. You'll see that Ruckley has a lot of interesting things to say. If there's still room on your Christmas list, you might want to add Winterbirth to your other gift ideas!
- For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the tale that is WINTERBIRTH?
It’s at the gritty, heroic end of the fantasy spectrum, I guess. The basic plot revolves around an old, unresolved conflict (between two factions called The Black Road and the True Bloods) starting up again, and how various characters get swept up in it. The main emphasis is really on how this cast of characters survive - or don’t - when their world starts coming apart all around them. And in the middle of everything, there’s this one character who eventually turns out to be much more dangerous than anyone really appreciated …
- What can readers expect from the subsequent two volumes of The Godless World trilogy?
Well, pretty much everyone involved finds themselves getting deeper into trouble. Bk 2 picks up more or less right after the end of WINTERBIRTH. There are some fairly drastic plot developments in it that set up Bk 3, so that by the end of that last book, a lot of the characters who thought they had a firm grip on events have found out they don’t. We see (I’m using the word ‘see’ loosely here) a little bit more of one of the other non-human races, and there’s plenty more fighting, death, victory, defeat, all that kind of stuff. And more snow. And shellfish. There are two buckets of shellfish in Bk 2.
- What's the progress report pertaining to the second and third volume of the series?
The progress report is that there has been progress: Bk 2 is nearing completion. Bk 3 exists as notes and thoughts filed away in the back of my head.
- Since WINTERBIRTH is your fantasy debut, could you tell us a little of the road that saw this one go from manuscript to published novel?
It’s been a painless but quite long process. One of the things I really didn’t appreciate when I was daydreaming about being a writer back in the 1990s was just how long the time lags can be. I think from me having what I thought at the time might be a final, complete manuscript, through finding an agent, then finding a publisher, then the book actually being in bookshops has been something like four years. Four years! I think my key pieces of good fortune were in getting an agent quite quickly since that takes some of the pressure off (they get to worry about finding a publisher instead of you) and then getting a publisher who had some good and constructive suggestions to make regarding the text, but kept them general and left it up to me to work out how best to implement them.
- What's been the overall response you've received from readers concerning WINTERBIRTH?
Pretty good - it’s been interesting the extent to which different people pick up on different elements of the story: some people are interested in the Black Road, some in the Kyrinin, some in the characterisation, some in the world-building etc. That’s kind of obvious, I guess, but I’m still the wide-eyed newbie staring around and finding all sorts of things about the process interesting and surprising. The kind of feedback I’ve been most relieved to hear is when people say the pacing’s OK, and the plot keeps them interested. I figure the one thing you absolutely have to do as a writer is get people to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. So long as I get at least a reasonable proportion of the audience involved like that, I’m pleased.
- How does it feel to see that WINTERBIRTH will be one of the first novels published by Orbit's American imprint?
Like I got pretty lucky, really. At the time I signed the contract with Orbit in the UK, there was no such thing as Orbit USA. In between me submitting the final manuscript and it getting published in Britain, suddenly it was: ‘By the way, we’ve decided to set up in the US, and we’d like to take WINTERBIRTH with us.’ It’s all mildly nerve-inducing too, mind you - there’s something simultaneously cool and vaguely intimidating about being part of a ‘launch’ line-up.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
At this stage in my career (i.e. just stumbling off the starting block), it’s no contest, I’m afraid: NYT bestseller. Its impact on my (or anyone’s) prospects of making the whole writing thing work as a career choice would be vastly more significant. I don’t expect either of these things to happen to me in the near future, so I doubt I’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons too carefully.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I’d say I’m reasonably good at giving characters a bit of texture, not bad at creating a certain sense of place and context for the action to happen in, and hopefully I’ve done reasonably well in maintaining a pace and direction to the narrative. People have told me I’m quite good at writing violence too, which I assume is meant as a compliment. I suspect, though, that this is a line of work in which you’re never likely to be 100% satisfied with your own efforts. Even if you think you’ve managed to do something well, you’re still left thinking ‘I’m sure I could do it better …’
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write WINTERBIRTH and the rest of the series in the first place?
Well, if you go back far enough, I guess the very first spark was watching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia on TV in the early 1990s. There were all these people killing each other largely because of hatreds that dated back hundreds and hundreds of years, and it just struck me that it would be interesting to do fantasy fiction that recognised the immense destructive potential of history, and nationalism, and so on. Before anyone starts worrying that WINTERBIRTH’s some heavy historical text, I should say the book that eventually emerged is only distantly related to those very first inklings of an idea, but you can still see some faint traces of that first thought in there, I think.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write WINTERBIRTH and its sequels?
Maybe tweak a few conventions, but not necessarily break them. For example, I was going through a brief bout of grumpiness about the prevalence of fantasy heroes whose sole function in the plot is to embody some ancient prophecy or other, since that didn’t seem to leave very much room for free will and choice, so I thought I’d do a story where the closest thing to a prophecy was actually on the side of the bad guys (though I don’t really think of anyone in the book as bad guys, to be honest). And I thought, instead of having a dark lord or something similar, I’d have the key villain emerge, and change, as the story progressed.
More than any specific tinkering with individual conventions, though, I think I wanted to go for a tone or texture that at that time didn’t seem too common in the genre: a bit grittier, a little injection of realism, slightly more shading to the characters, that kind of thing. Of course, I started thinking about the trilogy so long ago that by the time WINTERBIRTH actually got published, the conventions had changed anyway. There’s a lot more grittiness and complex characters, and a lot fewer stereotypical dark lords, about these days. I mean, GRRM, Steven Erikson … kind of redefining some of the baseline, aren’t they?
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
I don’t find my characters too unruly, on the whole. Generally speaking they do what I tell them to do - and if they don’t, I go back and rewrite them to make them more compliant. That’s the godlike power of a being an author! That said, I do find some characters (the Shadowhand and Aeglyss spring to mind) more enjoyable to write than others, and a couple have somehow manipulated me into giving them bigger parts than I originally planned: there’s one called Roaric who looks like he’s going to get a bit more coverage than I expected, and Tara Jerain, the Shadowhand’s wife, snuck into book two as a point of view character while I wasn’t looking.
- For obvious reasons, many authors steer clear of religion. And yet, with the Black Road you have made religion an integral part of the tale. Was that a deliberate choice right from the beginning?
Yes and no - it’s more a consequence of my initial choices than a central decision in its own right. As I mentioned, my first thought was to write about how history and the past shaped events rather than religion specifically. Fairly early on, though, I came up with the idea of banishing the gods from my invented world, and that led to the notion of having a faction who were driven by the desire to bring the gods back. Almost all the choices I’ve made are story-driven rather than theme-driven, to be honest.
Even now, anyway, I’m not sure it’s really about religion - the characters may not see it this way, but I suspect the Black Road is about, not so much a religious desire to bring the gods back (who’s to say there ever were any real gods, anyway?) as a more generalised desire to recover some notional, lost ‘golden’ age, i.e. it’s still about people being fixated on the losses and injustices of the past, rather than on the possibilities of the present or the future.
- The fact that you have your own website is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?
It’s been a real pleasure, as a newcomer, to discover the whole website and interaction thing. I was kind of aware, before I got published, that there was a lot of genre-related stuff going on out on the internet, but it’s been a real eye-opener just how active and lively the community is. I think the whole interaction thing is potentially fantastic, though I don’t think I’ve figured out yet how best to use the technology. I’ve got a bit of a blog going, and a section on the website where readers can get some more background information about the world in the books - hopefully it’s just a start.
- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
Do I think the spec fic genre as a whole will ever be regarded by the arbiters of ‘high’ literary taste as being equally valuable as literary fiction? No. Do I think that matters? No, not particularly. Like most other genres - generalising horribly - sf tends to be more interested in things like plot, narrative, speculation (obviously), commercial success even, than a lot of mainstream fiction is. Quite a bit of literary fiction seems to me to have abandoned the old-fashioned virtues of telling an exciting, engaging story. That said, there will always be a handful of books that cross the divide and achieve wider notice and respect - I suspect they will generally be stand-alones, though, not series. Not many faster ways to alienate the literati than writing a fantasy trilogy. No Nobel Prize for me, then … ho hum.
- In the long run, what will differentiate The Godless World from the other popular fantasy series on the market?
Its unprecedentedly high sales figures. As if. No, I’d settle for people thinking it was an engaging story, well told, and with good, believeable characters. Actually, one differentiating characteristic does occur to me: it is, I promise, only a trilogy. The story has a definite beginning, middle and end, so there will be no Books Four, Five etc.
- Do you have any plans beyond this fantasy trilogy?
I have no shortage of ideas, but no definite plans yet. My publishing contract covers just these three books at the moment. I’d certainly like to write more fantasy - I’m pretty sure I’ll get better at it the more I practice.
- Anything you wish to add?
Only to say thanks for inviting me over here, and to invite anyone who’s interested to have a look at www.brianruckley.com, and use it to do some of that interaction stuff we were talking about earlier, if they feel like it.