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A Conversation With Tom Arden
An interview with Neil Walsh
April 2001

Photograph © Tom Arden Tom Arden
Tom Arden
Tom Arden was born in 1961 and grew up in Mount Gambier, a small town in Australia. He wrote his first novel, Moon Escape, when he was seven years old -- a tale of lunar explorers kidnapped by evil aliens. He has been in bands and worked as a disc jockey on a public radio station. Studying English at the University of Adelaide, he graduated with First Class Honours. Later he completed a PhD thesis on Clarissa, the epic tale by the 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson. In 1990, Tom moved to the UK and for some years was a university lecturer in Northern Ireland. He now lives in Brighton.

Tom Arden Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Sultan of the Moon and Stars
SF Site Review: The Harlequin's Dance / The King and Queen of Swords

Sisterhood of the Blue Storm

Kevin Jenkins
Sultan of the Moon and Stars

Kevin Jenkins
The King and Queen of Swords

Kevin Jenkins
The Harlequin's Dance

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In your "Castle Dangerous" column (in Mark Chadbourn's e-zine At The World's End), you seem to spend a lot of effort defending fantasy as a legitimate form of literary expression. Do you foresee a time when such a stance won't be necessary, when the best of genre fiction will be recognized as being just as important as the best of 'mainstream' fiction? Or are genre writers doomed to wallow in the ghetto of stereotyping imposed by the rest of the world?
Probably! The trouble is, when a genre writer gets respectable, that writer is no longer regarded as genre, or is seen as the exception that proves the rule. It's happened with Vonnegut, Dick, Ballard, and it's happening now with Stephen King. A lot of good writing is buried under the genre banner, and a lot of garbage is called literary fiction. But the reverse is also true. There's a great deal of SF and fantasy that just bores me, especially the blockbuster stuff. Fantasy is a major strand in art, always has been, always will be. But I'm not sure I'd defend fantasy as such, as if I thought any old fantasy was good. To tell the truth I've little sympathy with genre writers who spend their lives moaning on about how the mainstream doesn't accept them. Lighten up. If you're getting published and people actually buy your books, then already you're ahead of the game.

You clearly have a great fondness for a wide array of literary styles and periods. In The Orokon series, you seem to be poking fun at some of the classics as much as paying homage to them. Do you think this series will encourage readers with a primary interest in modern fantasy to seek out such works as Robinson Crusoe or the Tales of 1000 Nights and a Night? Do you think your work will have the contrary effect, bringing a few of the more narrowly 'literary' readers to an enjoyment of modern fantasy?
If that happens it's all to the good, but it's not something I'm setting out to do. It's true there are a great many literary allusions in the Orokon books, but I'm not expecting people to play spot-the-reference. This is just the way my mind works. I suppose I start from a basis of pastiche, then tug and twist it in all directions until the material becomes my own. Whether the originals loom too large is not for me to say, but I don't think they do. Besides, you don't have to read Defoe's novel to know about Robinson Crusoe, and everybody knows about the Arabian Nights. I use the classics mainly as starting points for story ideas. I wouldn't say I'm poking fun at them. Having fun with them, yes. Poking fun at them, no.

I'm glad to hear that, because sometimes I find something in your books that will tickle at the edge of memory, but I can't place it. I feel like maybe I'm missing something, but the story just pulls me right along and the feeling passes. In your own mind, do you consider your work to be somewhat elusive, or fairly accessible?
Accessibility is not an absolute thing that a book either has or doesn't have. Sure, you might say that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is more accessible than Ulysses, in that a lot more people can read and understand it. But for the most part a book is accessible to you or not depending on the kind of book it is, and the kind of reader you are. If you hate fantasy, you won't find fantasy accessible, even if it's easy to read. I once heard a panel of critics on the BBC trying to discuss one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. One of the panel was a Professor of English at Oxford, but he still couldn't get on with Pratchett. On some level, he just didn't understand the book. It didn't matter how smart he was, he just didn't get it. Well, I know there are people who don't get my books. Fortunately, there are others who do.

I understand you managed to contract with your publisher to write The Orokon series based on the outline and the first part that you had written at the time. As you near the end of the series, do you have any regrets about the earlier material?
When I sold the series, I had only written the Prologue and the first four or five chapters of the first book (which has 69 chapters in all). Looking back, I am amazed that I managed to get a five-book contract without having any real track record as a published writer. I suppose this was that one piece of phenomenal luck that every writer needs, and like many pieces of luck it was a double-edged sword. I certainly didn't realise what I'd let myself in for, just in terms of the deadlines and the sheer amount of work involved. Also, I like to think my literary skills have increased during the writing of the series, so no doubt there are things in the first book, in particular, which might be better if I could do them again now. But in the end, I have few regrets. Each book was the best I could do at the time, and if I hadn't been working to deadlines, under contract, I could still be messing around with Book One today. Seven years, five books, a million words. I've done my bit. It's up to others to judge it now.

What kind of response have you had so far from readers & critics?
I've had some absolutely rotten reviews, and some absolutely brilliant ones. I suppose I'm upsetting some people and pleasing others, which is a good thing so far as I'm concerned. On the whole, the standard of reviewing in the fantasy field is very low. A great many so-called reviews are really just superficial round-ups of new and upcoming books, bashed out by people who have probably only skimmed the books in question, if that. There are, of course, honourable exceptions such as Interzone, SF Site, or Cheryl Morgan's on-line fanzine, Emerald City. But reviews are for the benefit of readers, not writers, so I don't take them too seriously. For me, letters from real readers are much more gratifying, and I'm getting quite a few of those.

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I believe arrangements have been made for translation of the Orokon books. Are there plans at this point for wider international distribution of the works of Tom Arden?
There are already German and Russian translations, and there's been interest from several other European countries. So far, however, there's been no American edition. It's been hinted to me that The Orokon wouldn't suit American tastes, being too dark, too unheroic, too ironic and so on. I have to say I've never actually believed that all Americans are thick. The ones I've met certainly haven't been. But, perhaps since I'm from Australia, I'm reluctant to believe the commonplace assumptions about what the inhabitants of any particular country happen to be like. Clearly my books have filtered through to some American readers, who have written to me very appreciatively about them.

Jem & Raj are obviously not typical sword & sorcery swashbuckling heroes, but they are figures young readers might find easy to relate to. And yet, you deal with some very mature subject matter. In your mind, who is your ideal target audience?
I'm glad you say they're not typical heroes. Macho thugs with broadswords (or their female equivalents) don't do much for me, nor am I interested in characters who are just heroic all the time, with never a moment's doubt. My characters are ordinary people, caught up in an extraordinary situation. There's a fair bit of sex and violence in the books, not to mention alcohol and drug abuse, but there's quite a lot of that in real life too. I'm not trying to create a nicey-nicey fantasyland where everything is just dandy except for the occasional bad guy for the good guys to defeat. I'd never read a single epic fantasy until about seven years ago. I immediately loved the idea of such books, but many of the actual books struck me as shallow and wooden. I've just tried to write the sort of epic fantasy that I'd like to read. If other people like it, that's great. But I never think about target audiences. That would be fatal.

The character names often sound like they may be meaningful. Jemany (Jem) is on a quest for the 5 crystals (gem stones); Toth-Vexrah is evocative of Egyptian myth (Thoth vexes Ra by having an affair with Nut, Ra's wife). Is this use of naming deliberate on your part, or unconsciously coincidental?
More the latter. Believe it or not, I was about three books into the series before I realised that "Jemany" could mean "gem many." If I'd known that at the start, I might have rejected it as too obvious. I suppose it was coincidence. Years ago I was in a class with a boy whose name was Jem. I always liked the name, and several of my early abandoned novels featured a hero called Jem, so when I started the Orokon books it was almost the default option. Of course the real name "Jem" is short for "Jeremy," but Orokon names are typically similar to our names, only slightly altered, so I turned Jeremy into Jemany and that was that. By the same token, the wild-girl heroine Catayane, or Cata, was originally Catherine or Cathy, after the character in Wuthering Heights. Naming, on the whole, is an instinctive thing for me, just a question of what sounds right. My favourites tend to be the names of the villains, such as "Umbecca Rench" or "Poltiss Veeldrop." These names don't necessarily mean anything, but I like to think they are strangely appropriate.

In one of your columns, dealing with sentimentality, you quoted Hitchcock on making films: take a blank screen and fill it with emotion. Ditto for books, presumably (except you fill pages, rather than a screen). Your books are filled with the whole gamut of emotions, but which ones do you feel are most important that you instill in your reader?
The whole gamut, as you say. The Orokon series veers between mystical wonderment, horror, farce, suspense, action-adventure and blatant sentimentality, and I suppose that overall it is a kind of black comedy. Although I don't think all this out when I'm writing, I think what I'm trying to convey is something of the complexity of experience. I love the sort of character who is at once lovable and appalling, such as Umbecca or the Caliph Oman Elmani, or the sort of character, such as Polty, who compels sympathy even as he becomes more and more depraved. I don't want my readers to have any simple, black and white moral response to the books. It's not about saying this is good, this is bad, this is funny, this is sad. Ambiguity is everywhere. The signs are hard to read. Just like life, in other words.

You've mentioned elsewhere that you're not entirely happy with the standards and values of today's western society: what in particular would you single out as the most important element(s) requiring change?
I'm not sure I think in those terms. Yes, there are particular issues that concern me, such as gay liberation, animal rights, or the environment. And I think everyone should read Autogeddon by Heathcote Williams and No Logo by Naomi Klein. But I don't have any particularly coherent political beliefs. I'm certainly not a typical left-wing person. For example, I dislike political correctness and I dislike the welfare state, which I think is just as corrupting as capitalism, if in a different way. Nor, alas, do I believe that we can bring about an ideal world through a few well-chosen reforms. As Jonathan Swift said, human beings are not really rational creatures, so we aren't going to stop all our bad behaviour just because somebody points out how bad it is. We know, and we do it anyway. As a species, we've had thousands of years to bring about that utopia of peace, love and understanding we all say we want, but we still haven't done it yet. I begin to think we don't really want it at all. Let's face it, we'd just get bored after the first few days.

Some of the sequences in the series, particularly in Sultan of the Moon and Stars and Sisterhood of the Blue Storm, are very dream-like. Are dreams important to you/to your writing?
Yes. The passage at the beginning of Chapter 50 in Sultan of the Moon and Stars, where the narrator appears in person and talks about his own dreams, is straight autobiography. I've always had a vivid and disturbing dream-life, and often my mood for the entire day is coloured by my dreams from the night before. Perhaps because I read Freud at an impressionable age, I can't help but regard such things as significant. Of course, there is a sense in which the entire Orokon world is a kind of extended dream, in which all sorts of elements from our own world are mixed and mingled in strange ways. But you have to be careful with dreams in fiction. You can't just be vague and mystical. There always has to be an underpinning of logic, and a clear forward movement to pull the reader on.

Humour in writing is difficult to sustain at great length, but often very useful in smaller doses. At times, while reading The Orokon, I've found myself laughing out loud (at Aunt Umbecca, at Morven & Crum, with the travelling players, etc.). What, would you say, have been the most notable influences on your style of humour?
It's hard to say, since I never actually plan out the humour, or decide in advance that this or that part of the book is meant to be funny. The synopsis had nothing in it at all to suggest that the series would be anything other than an adventure story. The humour just happened as I kept on writing. Still, Great Expectations is my single favourite novel, so I expect Dickens is a major influence. A character such as Umbecca is obviously Dickensian, though the original model was Mrs. Norris in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. But characters like this have a way of taking over. When I started writing, Umbecca was only going to be a minor character who appeared in the beginning, but of course she waddled on stage and refused to get off. Similarly, Morven and Crum were created at a moment's notice, simply because I needed a scene involving two sentries. Sentries made me think of Shakespeare, which gave me that particular style of bantering, riddling conversation, taken from Shakespearean comedy. And that was it. Morven and Crum started talking and they just came alive, to the extent that they are now among my most popular characters. I've even considered doing a whole spin-off book of Morven and Crum adventures, but I don't know whether that would be stretching the joke too far. In any case, Morven, Crum and Umbecca too will all be back in Empress of the Endless Dream, the final Orokon book.

Any hints about the final volume of The Orokon?
The tone of the books has modulated through the five volumes, from a dark gothic feel in The Harlequin's Dance to camp comedy in Sultan of the Moon and Stars. In the last book, the tone darkens again. There's some very black comedy on the way, some gruesome horror and tragedy too, on a scale far greater than anything before. A considerable part of the book is set in Agondon, the major setting for The King and Queen of Swords, and many characters from the earlier books will be making return appearances. I can promise shocks, surprises, and a very offbeat and unconventional ending. More than one major character will die.

What can you tell us about Shadow Black, forthcoming from Big Engine?
Shadow Black is a relatively short, stand-alone novel (about half the length of an Orokon book) that I wrote before I started the series. It was never published at the time, apparently because publishers couldn't decide what genre it was, complaining that it was "too difficult to categorise." Well, perhaps it is, but I always liked it, so I'm glad it's finally seeing the light of day. It's a sort of gothic novel set in England in the 1950s, and involves a naive young girl, a crazy old woman, an avant-garde artist, and a newspaper magnate who keeps his wife, a former Hollywood star, a prisoner in his remote Elizabethan mansion. Think of Rebecca, think of Sunset Boulevard, then add some really bizarre, fantastical goings-on.

What other projects are on the horizon for you?
First off, I can promise that there will not, repeat not, be any "Orokon II: The Adventure Continues." Of course any fantasy series can be dragged out forever, but I planned The Orokon as five books, and I like it too much to want to spoil it now. From now on, readers can safely start Book One and know that they can actually get to the end. As for the future, right now I'm working on a few shorter projects that I started while writing The Orokon and never had time to develop before. So I hope there will be more stand-alone books. However, plans for a new series are on the horizon. I'm reluctant to say too much right now, but if it all works out I hope it will be something really good, developing on from The Orokon but bigger and better and structured along quite different lines. I want to take the fantasy genre in a whole new direction.

Copyright © 2001 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.


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