|An Interview with Fiona McIntosh|
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
Fiona McIntosh is the author of The Quickening, one of the most convoluted and entertaining fantasy series
on the shelves at the moment.
McIntosh weaves her stories from her Australian home and puts her worldwide readers through a maelstrom of emotions as they follow Legionnaire Wyl Thirsk on his adventures through the Kingdoms of Morgravia and Briavel; on a journey of pain and love; with the fates of both Kingdoms to be decided by the actions of everyone involved -- those willing to support Wyl and those bent on murdering him at the next opportunity.
But Wyl has a secret. When he extends a kindness to a condemned witch he is repaid with a magical gift -- in the event of his death, Wyl swaps bodies with his murderer. Then Wyl gets embroiled in the affairs of State, and his own king, Celimus has him killed. Wyl is forced into the body of the assassin, Koreldy and uncovers Celimus's dark plans for the future of his country.
King Celimus also covets the neighboring country of Briavel and proposes marriage to its new Queen, Valentyna. But Valentyna already loves Wyl, now in the body of Koreldy. Wyl has more assassins searching for him and he's trying to gather forces to oppose his King's vicious plans. When one of the mercenaries finally catch up with him, Wyl finds himself in the body of a woman, while Celimus tortures and murders his way closer to his goal.
So how does she deliver such an engrossing tale? Fiona McIntosh took some time out from her new series to reveal some of the secrets behind writing a successful fantasy series.
The Quickening is packed with delightful characterization. What are the most important factors to consider when creating believable characters?
I'm now focusing very hard on building credible characters with the full gamut of human strengths and flaws. I like them to be unpredictable too -- I don't want them following any formula or showing, for example, special intelligence and always having the right answers. Real people can be unpredictable especially in tight situations and don't always show the wisdom at the time like you could if you were (a) not involved or (b) have the benefit of time and space to reflect.
It's very easy to stand back and say 'oh that was an odd decision by Wyl' but this is deliberately allowed by me to ensure he doesn't always follow the 'intelligent' pathway that someone who is utterly objective can. Wyl is not objective most of the time. He's never out of a bad situation in this story and constantly required to make decisions under enormous pressure not just for his own survival but for the safety of others. I like a bit of confusion -- makes it more realistic because life is never straightforward.
My leading characters are usually thrown into torrid circumstances, needing to live by their wits, and I need them making very human errors of judgment now and then. It steps up the tension and gives the reader good reason to go back for more to find out how these characters, that they're now helplessly involved with, solve their dilemmas. By making my characters experience lots of emotions, lots of hurdles, forcing them to essentially dig themselves out of horrendous situations by their own cunning and intelligence, it stops them being fantastical characters of magic and allows the reader to relate very strongly with them. Magic is increasingly my backdrop to a story rather than having individual characters wielding it too much or too often.
I think also I tend to give my stories several layers. At the core will always be a love story of sorts. Love is very important in my tales -- be it of the romantic kind or the love between friends. It's the single richest emotion for me because it can drive a tale and can make people do amazing things. So that particular emotion is always being tested in my characters. Then I usually like to have several tense storylines tying back into the main one -- this gives me the scope of having plenty of characters and lots of action. And finally there's always some sort of epic quality overlaying the first two, where there's something really huge at stake for the world/realm involved. Which means I can give my characters plenty of dimension by having to deal with large scale risk.
How important is dialogue in that creation process?
Most importantly, it is how your characters reach out to the reader and claim them... so it is crucial for me in character development. I consider dialogue to be a hardworking slave for revealing character, driving plot, providing pace, escalating tension.
Why do all the heroes/heroines have to be sooo gorgeous and handsome?
All fiction is fantasy and people's fantasies usually want beautiful or handsome at hero time. My books aren't masquerading as anything -- they are simply to entertain. I promise a huge, action-packed story and a great escape for anyone who picks them up. So my role as an author is purely about entertaining a reader and transporting them from the everyday hurley-burley of life and throwing them into a new world of love, revenge, betrayal, treachery, loss, death -- you name it!
And to get people instantly involved in a tale you need characters who are slightly larger than life and that means they will tend to be exaggerated in all aspects including their appearance. When I want to escape into a daydream it's Colin Firth's Mr Darcy I'm running off with, not Frodo! It's no different with books for that escape. Wyl Thirsk in my tale is not handsome but his personality is and it's his voice that remains strong throughout the three books, no matter what happens to his outward appearance, and I think that is probably the best blend of all. The very plain, short hero captures the heart of his Queen and the readers because of his seductive strengths.
Entertainment in my books is paramount to me and I like them to evoke a similar experience to that of a movie where all the fives senses are on high alert and I can provoke female readers especially to fall a little in love with the hero even though he makes them mad at some of the things he does; and all readers, especially guys, appreciate him for his courage and normal flaws. I'm simplifying it but I'm trying to explain that looks -- the first indication we give to each other -- can stir the blood and that's important when you're seducing a reader into joining you on this massive adventure.
Are you as devious as your books imply you are?
How easy do you find it keeping all the numerous details of who is doing what to whom and where in your head as you're writing?
I don't plan ahead or plot anything in fact. I know lots of writers who have whiteboards and all sorts of things posted around the room to remind them of detail but I have none of that. I rely entirely on memory to keep all the detail right. So I guess the answer is that I do find it relatively easy to keep all the details of who is doing what to whom at the front of my mind but I will say that I'm glad of the tedious editing process in giving me lots of opportunity to pick up inconsistencies.
The plot is very tight -- no story tangents or dallying anywhere. How do you achieve this style?
I want to slow down but I don't know how to really. In a very lucky accident I fell hopelessly in love with a man who refuses to be hurried in anything -- you should see us walking through an airport together... I'm the one always doubling back every few minutes with a snarl on my face. He is keeping me sane, though, I'm completely sure of it. The upshot of this is that I couldn't possibly write a story that doesn't rip along, although I'm trying really hard to loosen the pace slightly on my new series, Percheron. I have to learn to give the reader time to breathe.
There are some harsh moments in Blood And Memory when an innocent young boy is tortured. It's a very moving section. Why do you include such scenes in your stories?
It may sound preposterous but I do hand over responsibility to the characters, and their decisions and where the story goes is as much a mystery to me as it is for the reader. I usually set out on a trilogy with little more than the thinnest of story threads, sometimes little more than a single scene in my mind. This is a terribly scary way to write -- imagine how terrified my editor is! -- but I can't do it any other way. I write on pure instinct and emotion with no idea what's going to happen each day and I had not even an inkling that the boy would have to die. I actually thought he would end up in Argorn with Ylena so you can see how way off I was from what the characters had in mind.
The boy wasn't even an important player and yet his tiny role was pivotal and the effect he has on the reader is massive, probably because he's such an innocent. No one likes injustice and what was done to him was appalling -- even the chancellor was totally unsettled by it. I'm not surprised readers find it difficult especially as he's so brave despite being so incredibly frightened.
Blood and Memory is the most ghoulish of the books. Myrren's Gift I consider tense and exciting. Bridge of Souls is intensely emotional. But Blood and Memory is the harrowing one because Celimus is really on the rampage and Wyl is living on wits and adrenalin to stay one step ahead of all the people hunting him down.
For me this medieval period in our own history is a dark one, when life was cheap and torture, untimely death, and suffering were part of the fabric of life -- and I do draw on real events. I allow these harsh passages to occur in the books as it does get the reader involved far more deeply and this is probably because the characters are really tearing at reader emotions.
I got myself quite upset over several scenes in Blood and Memory so the depth of sorrow I feel even as the story is crafting itself beneath my rattling fingers is huge and I am very much at one with the reader in being moved and finding some scenes difficult. I think the one that strings me out the most emotionally is at Rittylworth and I remember feeling quite weepy as it happened. But if it can stir my passions then it will do the same to the reader. So long as we all remember this is fiction and that I don't deliberately set out to shock/upset then I think those memorable harsh moments add richness to the reading experience.
How much research did you do into medieval life to depict it with so much atmosphere?
I think I evoke the medieval period mainly through mood, and a cunning suggestion of all things medieval but don't ask me to give you technical names of the bits that make up a castle or what the structure of government might have been in medieval history. I'm no scholar and I'd far rather get on with the writing of a story than giving over months and months to research... unless it involves travel and then, of course, it's essential (grin).
Actually for my latest series I did go to Istanbul for a couple of days so I could soak up the atmosphere and because I have the ability to just dismiss the modern stuff and look beneath to the medieval times I'm interested in. It was a very rewarding experience and the story has so much more texture as a result.
What's the trick to writing romance without it becoming gushing and pathetic?
In a movie you can use expression and very few words. You can use music and lighting and setting... and all of those other assets at the director's fingertips, not to mention the skill of the actors, to convey emotion -- especially love -- without saying a single word even.
But in a book all you have is words and the author has to handle a love scene with great care to avoid that sense of the pathetic. I think in my medieval settings it's a little easier to have the characters speak in a slightly more intense manner than people of today might but that's the only break I get. The rest is all high trauma in trying to get the words and the feelings of the characters to hit the reader as being true.
I also limit my romantic scenes deliberately so that they offer the wonderful counterbalance and relief from the tension and high drama that is swirling around for most of my story. And because they are few and far between it really heightens the moment for the reader to have these two people finally confronting one another and the love that exists between them.
I know I keep harking back to the Darcy out of the lake scene (who can blame me?) but that was the absolute high point in 12 hours of television viewing. It's the moment everyone remembers in the Pride and Prejudice series. I'd even go so far to suggest that it was that moment that made Colin Firth an A-list actor... and even though nothing happened I think everyone watching it was all but holding their breath, whilst the two characters stammered their way through that awkward, deliciously romantic scene particularly as that was the moment when you know they privately admit their love for one another.
The director of the television series led us all beautifully to that breathtaking minute. And in a way I try and do the same and in fact I take almost two and a half books to get to that high point. It's coming... look out for Bridge of Souls (grin).
One more thing. I really enjoy undeclared love or love that is forbidden or somehow difficult because of circumstances. I tend to use this in my stories to give the romance great impetus.
Now that you've completed The Quickening and it is gradually being released around the world, what are you working on now?
I'm leaving my comfort zone of medieval Europe and dragging everyone off to more exotic climes into a make-believe mix of Persia and Istanbul. Another dangerous love story of course between Lazar, the Spur of Percheron, and Ana, an odalisque from the harem of the new Zar. Around these two circle a diverse and entertaining cast. Pez, the dwarf and clown of the Zar will no doubt be a favorite.
There are also some villains to enjoy, including the devious Salmeo who is Grand Master Eunuch, and the oh so cunning Herezah the Valide and Mother to the Zar.
Overlaying the love story is massive tale of a clash of religions and a cyclical battle between gods that will tear Percheron apart. Magic is once again a sinister backdrop rather than the main player and there's plenty more ghoulish scenes coming the way of readers.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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