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A Conversation With Paul Kearney
An interview with Neil Walsh
July 2001

Photograph © Paul Kearney Paul Kearney
Paul Kearney
Paul Kearney was born and grew up in Northern Ireland. He lived for some years in Copenhagen before moving to the United States with his wife. As well as the first four books in The Monarchies of God saga -- Hawkwood's Voyage, The Heretic Kings, The Iron Wars and The Second Empire -- he has also written The Way to Babylon, A Different Kingdom and Riding the Unicorn, all published by Gollancz. He and his wife have recently moved back to the UK and are living in Cambridge.

Paul Kearney Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Second Empire
SF Site Review: The Iron Wars

Art: Steve Crisp
Hawkwood's Voyage, Book 1 of The Monarchies of God

Art: Steve Crisp
The Heretic Kings, Book 2 of The Monarchies of God

Art: Steve Crisp
The Iron Wars, Book 3 of The Monarchies of God

Art: Steve Crisp
The Second Empire, Book 4 of The Monarchies of God

Art: Steve Crisp
Ships from the West, Book 5 of The Monarchies of God
A Different Kingdom
Riding the Unicorn
The Way to Babylon

Paul Kearney is the author of The Monarchies of God fantasy series, from British publisher Victor Gollancz (now an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group). The 5th and final book of the series, Ships from the West, is scheduled for UK release in winter 2001/2002. The series is soon to be made available in the US from Berkley Books.

Kearney is also the author of 3 stand-alone novels prior to the current series, and he's working on several writing projects at the moment, including the last book of Monarchies, an all-new series, and an American Civil War time-travel novel. In spite of this, he was generous enough with his time to answer a few questions...

(Dare I ask...) How goes the writing of Ships from the West?

Well, I believe you're probably familiar with the phrase 'blood from a stone...'  The last book in the series is proving to be quite a headache. It's not that I'm drying up, or running out of ideas -- rather the opposite. I know this is the end of that world for me, and there are so many concepts, places and people I'd still like to pack in there. Also, the whole approach of the book is different from the others. I've always sacrificed the fantastic to the mundane, for want of a better way of putting it -- musket-fire over wizardly fireballs. In Ships, the large-scale battles still happen, but they have blown up into this vast, sorcerous holocaust, where the rational and military reality is all at sea, and a murderous, thaumaturgic wave of horror is making a joke out of every political and diplomatic effort to halt it. The whole trend of the Normannic civilization, in short, has been given a body-blow that shunts it back into the dark ages. I'm having a whale of a time.

At the same time, it hasn't been easy. The first 25,000 words have been rewritten and discarded three times, which is a first for me. It's the end of a series which has been my constant companion for the better part of seven years, and I want to get it right. So to all the patient readers out there, bear with me.

It looks as if sailing ships and battles at sea may be a more significant element than in earlier novels, such as Hawkwood's Voyage, and likewise for the new series, The Sea-Beggars. Where did you acquire your love of the sea and sailing?
There's a simple answer to that: Patrick O'Brian. I've devoured all his novels many times over, and the seafaring terminology sinks into the subconscious. Plus, I wargame Napoleonic Naval warfare, so I know my jib from my spanker, and more importantly, know how well a ship can travel at various aspects to the wind -- that's the hard part. While writing every sea scene, I have a map of the action laid out in front of me. Square-rigged ships were fairly limited in their manoeuvring capabilities, and it's important to keep that in mind. I see red when I read a so-called 'naval' scene where the ships twist and turn seemingly at will. But despite that, and living by the sea, I'm an armchair sailor, and I'm pretty sure I've made gaffes over the years that would make any real mariner snicker.

I'm surprised you haven't had more hands-on experience. With that kind of an interest in the sea, what's kept you so much on land?
The closest I've ever come to being a sailor is travelling on the Larne-Stranraer ferry. It's not so much the sea that interests me as the nautical techniques of a particular historical period, the 'Wooden World' of the old square-riggers. I am very much an armchair mariner, who devours accounts of castaways and storms with ghoulish fascination. In my favour though, when all about me are losing their lunch, I seem strangely unaffected, so perhaps there's an old sea-dog buried somewhere in my psyche...

When I first spoke with you a year or so ago, you told me that you thought the Monarchies of God series might not find much of a market in North America. What made you think that? And how do you feel about it now that Berkley is going to be publishing the series in the US?
The series was offered to a couple of US publishing houses when I began it, but they were none too keen, and then I think we just stopped trying. The books actually did better in Germany, and now there's a Czech translation coming out as well -- my Czech translator, Robert Capek, is doing a sterling job there. When I moved to the States in 1996, I was put in touch with a New York agent; a nice chap who shall remain nameless. He loved Hawkwood, but insisted that the books would never sell in the States because (and I hasten to add these are his views not mine -- I think that to generalise about an entire nation smacks of the worst kind of patronizing smugness) the US market was not sophisticated enough to appreciate them. It was no good writing about a bunch of middle-aged, cynical heroes, he thought. To really grab the US market, you need an unformed adolescent neophyte -- a blank slate -- so that the readers can identify with him.

To be fair, there may be a nugget of truth in there. I know that Steve Erikson had to fight the 'dumbing down' tendency tooth and nail, and more power to his elbow for doing it. But it's not the readers who are the problem in my view; it's the publishing houses. A decade ago, editors would buy a book on merit -- now it must have marketability. It must have some hook. And the author becomes part of that. Plus, there have been so many mergers and takeovers in the book world that publishers have become mere cogs in the machinery of corporate giants; and in such organizations it's the number-crunchers who have the final say...

Anyway, to climb down from that particular hobby-horse, the books were not accepted in the US, so I thought that if it looks like an elephant, smells like an elephant and sounds like an elephant, it may well be an elephant: my stuff was not cut out for America. The Berkeley deal came completely out of the blue, and I'm delighted.

Knowing Americans as you do, having lived there, do you now believe your work will appeal to an audience there?
While in America, I re-enacted as a Union soldier in the 6th New Hampshire, and in our company there were guys who were policemen, firefighters, mechanics -- you name it. They were a great bunch, united by a fascination for the Civil War. But they fitted into no particular pigeonhole (apart from sharing a slight eccentricity which I think all men share when they become hugely enthusiastic about anything). I think the so-called characteristics of the American readership are an artificial construct made up by men in suits who study columns of figures all day. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have no idea what appeals to an American audience -- or any other for that matter. Writers just work with the ideas they've got, toss them out into the dark and hope someone gnaws on them. I suppose the Eurocentric nature of the Monarchies should, technically, appeal more to an Old World readership -- but then look at the huge US success of Tolkien, the most Eurocentric fantasist of them all. Ultimately, it's all about making people want to turn the next page.

You cite your time spent on the Isle of Skye as having been a big influence on your first published novel. Of all the places in the world you could have gone to, what drew you to Skye? (I ask because I've been there -- pre-bridge -- and I'm convinced the whole island is, or at least was at that time, still steeped in magic.)
If you've ever seen a picture of the Cuillin Mountains from the Sligachan hotel, you'll know it's a view straight out of Tolkien. It looks like a view of the Misty Mountains from Rivendell -- well I thought so anyway. I was pretty keen on hiking and climbing when I was at college, and for a callow country boy from the depths of Ulster, even Oxford got too much sometimes. So I decided one day to go to Skye, because of that view.

In all, I went there five times, and usually spent about a week each time. I always went on my own, and always in the depths of winter (no tourists, no midges). The Skye of The Way to Babylon is a real place -- the description of the hikes, the post-bus, the mountains, is entirely accurate, as are some of the events which occurred there. Camasunary is a real place. The strange thing is that the last time I went back was after Babylon had been written, and as I approached the bothy late on a dark, miserable night I saw a light in the window. I actually felt slightly panicky, for, to me, the real bothy had been overlaid with the fictive one -- I half-expected to walk in and see Jenny at the fire. It's one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had. Turned out to be a fellow climber burning driftwood in the hearth. We sat and drank a lot of whisky and listened to the sea.

And I'll never forget the first time I went. The train got into Mallaig so late that I just hiked up into the hills, climbed into my bivvy-bag and went to sleep. And woke to the most bright, marvellous winter-dawn, and saw the Cuillins towering like white titans over the Sound of Sleat.

There's a bridge there now, and Skye is no longer an island. But yes, it had a real magic, and I'm too scared to go back. I don't want to see it changed from memory.

You've said that you feel A Different Kingdom may be your best book. Will that or your other two early novels be coming back into print anytime soon?
Quick answer: no. Babylon has done fairly well over time, but the other two bombed. Kingdom is the best book I've ever written, and may well be the best I ever write, so seeing it sink so ignominiously is painful, to say the least. It, like Babylon, is to a large extent autobiographical, and details the farm of my grandparents in rural Northern Ireland at a time when their world was changing irrevocably. I suppose you might call it an Irish Mythago Wood.

You've written stand-alone novels and you've written a series; you have more of each type planned for the future. Which do you prefer to write?
The stand-alone types. They're more satisfying, and ultimately, more testing. One of the reasons the latest book is so difficult to finish is that I feel, like an inverted pyramid over my head, the weight of the four previous ones bearing down. On the plus side of the series-type, there are greater resonances -- a richer sense of history and characterization. One can indulge the author's natural urge to 'like' his characters when they have been around for a longer time in print. Of course the next step is self-indulgence! I've tried hard to avoid that.

Which do you prefer to read in the way of fiction, stand-alone novels or series?
It's a strange fact that ever since I started writing fantasy, I've largely stopped reading it. Stephen King once said that, as a writer, you read with a sense of either grinding envy or cold contempt, and he had a point -- at least if you're reading within the ghetto of your own genre. It's impossible for me to read new fantasy without judging it to death, so I end up re-reading old favourites like Julian May and Robert Holdstock.

I was on a panel at a convention once. With me were Katherine Kurtz, George R.R. Martin, and Guy Kay. (The first question addressed my way was: who are you?) I was asked for my favourite authors, and replied with some aplomb Patrick O'Brian and Cormac McCarthy. There was a blank silence in the hall, but Guy Kay leaned over and whispered to me, 'Good choice.'

So what are you reading these days?
As far as my current reading goes, very little is fiction. My bedside table supports Giles Milton's Big Chief Elizabeth, some James Lee Burke, John Keegan's Battle at Sea (he lectured me at Sandhurst by the way -- I was too tired to be inspired, which has irritated me to this day), and Lawrence James' The Raj. In fact, when I look at my bookshelves, they're 80 percent non-fiction. 19th century history fascinates me, both British and American, as do colonial wars of any shape or form. Coming in a close second are the voyages of discovery, and 16th century history of course. I can have a dinner party asleep in minutes.

Where do you draw your greater inspiration: from your reading or from your travels/experiences?
Once-upon-a-time it was personal experience, as I think it starts out for almost all writers. Write about what you know was the watchword, and I think almost everyone does it to some extent. (Look at John Irving -- he took six novels to work the bears out of his system.) It seemed at one time that every trip I took inspired a story. Nowadays, I work off other things, but those wells of experience are still plundered -- just not in such an obvious way. A man can work in a job for 20 years, leave it, and find it sloughs off him like a snake's skin, leaving no trace. Or he can experience something in 15 seconds which will mark him for life. I've found that to be true. And it all comes out in the writing, in the end. I've never read any Robert Jordan, and I've heard him disparaged by a wide range of bright people, but he's a Vietnam veteran with a beard and a pipe, who likes archery, so to be honest, I can't help liking him. You don't have to know what you're talking about when it comes to writing -- especially fantasy -- but it helps if you experienced at least something akin to what your characters are going through. Me, I know about mountains and the army -- that's about it -- and I find it helps.

Could you tell us a bit about your military experience; how has it influenced your work?
I grew up with the rather quaint notion that to be a soldier was an honourable calling. For an Northern-Irish Catholic growing up through the Troubles this was not the most popular of ideals, to put it mildly, but I was nothing if not stubborn. All told, I wore a uniform for the better part of nine years, and saw bits of Germany, Cyprus and Denmark (where I later lived). It was part-time for the most part, though I had several attachments to regular regiments such as the Royal Greenjackets, the Grenadier Guards and the Queen's Regiment. I finally ended up in the Royal Irish Rangers, back in Ulster, and quit so that I could move to Copenhagen with my then fiancée.

As far as influencing my work, I think the experience taught me something about how men behave en masse, without the civilizing influences of 'normal' life. And also, it taught me just how hard it is to be a good leader. I don't know about managing armies, but looking after the 30 guys in my platoon was plenty for me! I'm glad that, since so much of what I write is about soldiers, I had at least some grounding in what makes them tick.

What about your hiking and climbing experience. You must have found your way to one or two other fairly exotic locales...?
I hiked a lot in America, in upstate New York -- though it was an unsettling experience realizing that, unlike Scotland, in the American countryside man is not at the top of the food-chain! I also did a fair bit of walking and riding in Mexico, which is a fantastic place, and in Thailand and Egypt. I am a very amateurish climber -- I usual blunder about alone, scaring the hell out of myself now and again, but generally muddling along to where I want to go. Of late, my vacations have become more holiday-like than the expeditions they once were -- anno domini creeping in I think. But there are always more places beckoning beyond the horizon.

The Renaissance flavour of the Monarchies of God series sits well on the palate. Did you do much in the way or research, or just adapt freely from your existing knowledge. What are the origins of your interest in that period?
I studied 16th Century European History for my A-levels (in the US I think it's SATs) and I loved it. Religion, heresy, and war -- with gunpowder beginning its ascendancy. Charles V's landsknechts sacking Rome, Cervantes losing a hand at Lepanto, the siege of Rhodes, of Vienna, the Armada, the (re)discovery of America -- what more do you want? It's beauty and brutality. They burned people alive for reading the bible in the vernacular, and at the same time Michaelangelo and da Vinci were producing the greatest works of art in history. I love the dichotomy. I was married in Rome, and recently revisited it; history there can almost be smelled in the air. The 16th century was the crucible of modern civilization -- why bother with the staid old dark-age milieu of most fantasy? It's been worked to death. Stick sorcery and lycanthropy in there along with gunpowder, and you're talking an interesting brew.

The forthcoming series, The Sea-Beggars, is to be set in an all-new world. What will this world be like?
Big. Big, and unknown and full of all the ideas, peoples and cities that never made it into the Monarchies. Normannia was a civilized continent. The world of the Sea Beggars owes more to Robert E. Howard. It's full of perplexing mysteries, and all the maps have a lot of blank spaces at the edges. My characters Rol and Gallico are going to spend their time looking out for the main chance, but it won't always work out that way. Have you ever read a fantasy book and loved the world it presents but thought just how much more interesting it would be if it were tweaked a little in some way? That's what made me come up with this world, and these heroes. Think Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser meet Hornblower, and you have some idea. I don't know about the readers, but as a writer, I'm having immense fun with this stuff. That's not to say that some more serious element is buried there too, but all the books are self-contained -- no more series for me -- and I feel like I'm 18 again, with a rucksack on my back. I want the same sense of wonder I first got upon reading Tolkien -- the sense of undiscovered lands, lost histories, vanished nations. We'll see how it goes I guess.

I've been calling it a series all along. It seems you're proposing a "sequence" of related books that each stand on their own merits, rather like what Steven Erikson is trying to do with his Malazan books. Don't you think that may present even more challenges for the author than either a series -- where you can generally expect the reader to have read what came before -- or a true stand-alone?
Yes and no. I think that a series of related books can be a win-win situation. The hooked reader becomes slowly more familiar with the world in which they unfold, but is not chained to the tyranny of successive volumes. And the story should be strong enough that there's no need for an info-dump -- one thing about Gardens of the Moon I very much like is the way Erikson pitches you full tilt into the action and leaves you floundering for answers -- it assumes a more intelligent approach on behalf of the reader, which I think is justified. The author works harder to bring each volume to a rounded close perhaps, but he is also left free to (generally) whatever he wants in the next one. To be honest, after spending the better past of seven years writing a story that could actually be published as one giant novel, I'm ready myself for something a little more compact.

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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