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A Conversation With Mary Gentle
An interview with Rodger Turner
July 2000

© Miriam Berkley
Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle was born in Sussex in 1956. She left Hastings Grammar school at 16 and worked a variety of jobs such as a cinema projectionist, a warehouse clerk at a wholesale booksellers, a cook in an old folk's home, a valuation officer for the Inland Revenue, and a voluntary Meals-on-Wheels driver before finally becoming a self-employed writer in 1979.

In 1981, she began as a mature student at the University of Bournemouth where she took a BA in Combined Studies (Politics/English/Geography). Finding inspiration for her writing, Mary enrolled at Goldsmith's College to take an MA in Seventeenth Century Studies. For Ash, she took another Masters degree at Kings in 1995 in War Studies.

Mary Gentle finished her first novel at the tender age of 15. It wasn't published; the editor to whom she had sent it asked whether she had completed anything else. She sent them the first part of what would become A Hawk in Silver, published when she was 18. Her next novel, Golden Witchbreed came from an editorial slush pile for publication.

Mary Gentle now lives in Stevenage with her partner, Dean Wayland, a keen amateur historian and a teacher of medieval sword-fighting.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Ash: A Secret History
SF Site Review: A Secret History and Carthage Ascendant
Review: A Secret History
Machiavelli, Marx And The Material Substratum: Creating Worlds for Fun and Profit by Mary Gentle
Hunchbacks, Sadists, And Shop-Soiled Heroes or "SF Author's Hunchback Fetish -- The True Story" by Mary Gentle
Gargoyles, Architecture and Devices or "Why write science fiction as if it wasn't?" by Mary Gentle

A Secret History
Carthage Ascendant
The WIldMachines
The Architecure of Desire
Rats & Gargoyles
Ancient Light
Golden Witchbreed

About 3 years ago, I was browsing a publisher's catalogue which carried Victor Gollancz titles here in Canada when I came upon a Mary Gentle book titled Ash. A cancellation notice was the last I heard about it. Now, here it is. What caused such a delay in getting the book to market?
You may well ask! The short answer would, I suppose, be the way that publishing works these days -- for example, Ash has had five publishers and five editors, in the USA and UK, and all without moving from the firms that originally bought it.

Victor Gollancz originally wanted to do Ash as a two volume hardcover, and the first volume was the one that you saw advertised. At that stage, I had a draft of the book where I was moderately happy with the first half, and not at all with the second. So I didn't mind them bringing out the first half while I was writing the second, but I did think it might be a bit hairy.

At that point, Gollancz was bought up, and the title went into limbo. In retrospect, this was a good thing, as I was able to do a complete second draft, and I found enough things in the beginning that needed fixing to make me glad that I had the chance. When Ash came out of limbo, Gollancz wanted to do it in one volume, since it had been written as one single novel originally. And by that time, Avon Eos (now HarperCollins Eos, I believe) had decided to do it in four parts.

Since there are useful cliff-hangers, I don't mind them dividing up the novel, but I'm inclined to think it works better as one volume -- it was paced that way when I wrote it.

But when I wrote it, I had no idea it was going to be this long...

Yes, long, but it sure didn't seem that way. I was immersed in such a vivid world that I didn't notice the passage of time. Many fantasy authors offer a pastoral setting, free of the ravages of nature. Readers almost want to live there. But not in Ash. It's dirty, it's dank, it's full of decay. Was this intentional or did the story drive this atmosphere?
Actually, I wouldn't mind living there! Well, right up until the next time I need modern medicine, that is...

That atmosphere might well come from personal experience: I was brought up in the country quite a lot of the time, in a place with no electricity or mains drainage, where you knew the water from the well was healthy because the newts were swimming around happily in it.

Some of the experience with candles and chamber pots and the joys of being up to your ears in mud day after day are just memories -- a sort of authentic pastoral, I suppose.

And so, sometimes it's dank, and the rain bounces off the battlements, and sometimes it's sunny, and you fry crispy in a meadow waiting for the enemy to march forward. And either way, it's in a world where forges and waterwheels and manual labour provide the only distance between civilization and living in a cave.

Then I get fascinated by how similar and how different people are, compared to us, when they live in that sort of world. And because I'm not just writing a historical novel, then I chuck in strangenesses... which I have to anchor in the 'real' world: so the mud and the sunburn remain.

After spending some time lost in the book's depths, I surfaced with an uneasy feeling of fatigue. You are definitely not easy on your readers. What would you like readers of Ash to come away with?
Well, mostly, not a feeling of fatigue, unless it's a pleasant one! [smiling...]

Yes, the fatigue of a 10K run or an afternoon in the garden.
I'm hoping that Ash is one of the more accessible books I've done -- and some of the feedback seems to bear me out. One reason for this is the language. The main text of Ash being a "translation" of various medieval documents, I had a choice about how I could do it -- either as a genuine attempt at Chaucerian English, or as something else. Since my Chaucer is non-existent (and no one, but no one, would read it), I went for the something else!

I didn't want to do it as cod-medieval, either -- Ash and her thugs saying "Prithee, my liege lord" and "by Christ's bones!" would make my skin crawl. So I decided to do what Robert Graves did with his "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God": write in straightforward, colloquial modern English. Or, as the translator Pierce Ratcliff puts it in one of his letters at the beginning of the book, "she does say 'fuck' rather a lot"...

She sure does. Why?
But my theory is that, if she and the other people in the book talk like we do, it's easier for us to understand her feelings and her life -- otherwise, there's this faint but imperceptible barrier: the sensation that people in history aren't "real" people, but strange folk in costumes, who don't have real interior lives.

As soon as I realized the story was going to be told that way, it made a number of things easier -- if I need the reader to know about a certain bit of history, Pierce just puts a footnote in.

One of the problems with writing any form of alternate history is that you need your audience to know where it becomes alternate, which means they need to know some of the history as it really happened -- which, in the case of medieval Burgundy, I could be pretty sure my readers wouldn't. With Pierce's footnotes, I can explain (without seeming to) exactly where the alternate history differs...

And I wasn't far into the writing when I realized that Pierce wasn't just a convenient device, but that he was the other end of the story that starts in 1476. And that Ash isn't an alternate history, but a story about the nature of alternate histories, and history itself.

Scenes in Ash are complicated, people are mostly bad only in the eyes of others and the mechanics of society don't seem to follow that which this century expects.
I've tried to replicate what medieval life would have been like, in so far as that can be done with a twentieth century mind. I got very fed up of "medieval fantasies" in which there are, plainly, off-stage, flush toilets and liberal democracies. Ash doesn't have those, and the people (I hope) react accordingly.

And I don't think I believe in "villains," in that sense -- sometimes people are bad in other's eyes (because the others have their own prejudices and judgements). Sometimes they're bad in their own eyes: Ash and her soldiers do things they're ashamed of. Sometimes people are oblivious to their own faults -- the knight Fernando and the Visigoth Gelimer aren't, for example, 'evil.' They're just weak. But weak men do a lot of damage to other people. It's perhaps a sense of people's self-image: what they think they are, and how they're forced to re-think that, when they see the results of what they do.

But not many of them do much to change. Or is this part of the story-telling process -- don't confuse the reader with too much change. They'll just get lost. It seems the case in most other mediums.
I think they change as much as they can, over a six months' span of time (which is what the story covers). Either you see the beginning tremors of complete change, as with Ash and Fernando -- or, at the opposite end, people become more entrenched in being sheerly themselves: Godfrey, Gelimer...

Most deep psychological change doesn't happen completely in six months, or even a couple of years, but I think there's often the moment at which change starts: clear and apparent. That, the story-telling process finds easier to show.

I've tried a time or two to summarize Ash in a few sentences. Mostly I just ramble on until their attention wanders. Can you offer us a brief synopsis?
Erm... [grinning]

Let's see: there's Ash, who thinks she's an orphan, and who grows up in military camps in the 1460s and 70s, and who may be the archetype of Joan of Arc. And there's Pierce Ratcliff, who's an academic in the year 2000 who is translating the documents of Ash's life, and is in correspondence (which we see) with his publisher. And then...

Then there are pyramids in Carthage, and priests who pray to the Green Christ, and the previous editor of the "Ash" papers who went missing, and other hints that our history is not the whole story of what happened then, and what is happening now.

What is still happening...

No, I guess I just wander on until their attention rambles, too. I never was any good at pitching books. I just go "er, um, it's about this woman with a mean sense of humour, who's really good at hitting things," and then I go off and write the book!

I think male readers will find odd that Ash is so smitten with her husband yet she can deal so effectively and immediately with others inside her sphere of influence. Is there something I'm missing?
Dunno -- maybe you're missing that she's only 19, despite being pretty smart when it comes to battle tactics and men involved in war.

She's had what I believe is termed a dysfunctional childhood: abandoned before she could walk, fed with the camp dogs, learning to do anything she could do to survive. And when she meets her husband-to-be for the second time, he's the only man she's ever met for whom she feels straightforward, uncomplicated desire. And she doesn't know how that works. She knows how to be a leader, and an icon, and what men going into battle psychologically need; but she hasn't got a clue how to handle her emotions with him...

Yes, her being 19 slipped my mind. I got too caught up in her other activities. But she's able to cope with Floria/Florian, Robert, the royalty and all the rest. But the "Lamb of God" seems to startle her at every turn. How did you develop such an intriguing and enigmatic character?
Now I'm half inclined to say I didn't "develop" Lamb -- he walked on stage all by himself.

I'd prepared the ground, in the sense that I'd been doing a lot of reading about the condottiere in the late 15th century (including the wonderfully nicknamed Gattamelatta -- "Honeycat"), and their careers in Italy, and how they usually ended up: sometimes dead, sometimes Dukes. And then I came across this photo of a man in full Milanese plate -- I have no idea who he is -- and something in my mind just went 'click.' And he walked out onto the page: an Italian mercenary, known for his company banner with Agnus Dei ('Lamb of God') embroidered on it, and more familiarly known by his friends as "Agnes."

And every time he met Ash, I realized that he was ten years older than her, he'd been doing her job ten years longer, and -- as well as getting cynical, and drunk, and religious -- he's got smart. So while she's worrying about whether she can, as a woman, own a title and estates, and support her mercenaries through the winter that way, he's invested his company payments in the English wool trade, thank you very much, at a nice little profit.

Ash always underestimates him; that's why he constantly startles her. [grinning...]

Readers will notice that one or more of your principal characters don't survive the book. It caused me a silent scream or two. Some authors decline to use this device while others use it in the context of character development or plot progression. How do you reconcile readers' dismay when they ask about it?
That depends. I still occasionally get hate mail from people about the end of Ancient Light (except these days they stick it on Amazon, instead of sending it to me, which is a bit dispiriting). But it's worth it for the other people who've said to me that they were moved by the end of that book.

I suppose I don't think of it as a device, although in some senses everything in a novel is a device. My reasoning is that, in Ash, these are people involved in a major war, and it would be remarkable if all of them survived it -- and remarkable in a different way if only the sword-fodder died, and all the main characters came through alive.

There's no suspense if you're cheating; there's no genuine danger if the principle people involved are fireproof, and not in danger of death. I guess this is another part of reactive writing, for me: I see it done with less than verisimilitude, and I want to do it right. Or at least, I want to add another level of mimesis to science fiction and fantasy.

But I'm strange that way. [smiling...]

Mimesis? In what way?
Some of this is to do with being deeply in love with the tropes of fantasy & SF, and wanting to wring that extra bit of belief out of the reader, for an extra amount of enjoyment while they're reading -- for various values of 'enjoyment,' naturally; sad things can be as satisfying as happy things, in that sense. So I want to take standard or cliché things like 'one good and one evil twin,' and 'mastermind with a breeding programme,' and 'antique and evil city,' and 'band of heroes,' and give them all a twist: what would they have to be like, to be believable?

For a start, they'd have to exist in a world where everything else (swords, mud, people's conversations, horses, rain, hot soup) behaves as it does in the world we're used to. The mimesis of action, if you like -- a sword is a three-foot razor-blade, if you hack at someone with it, they probably don't counter with a high-pitched yell and a backflip. (If they do, you're in another kind of story!) People don't go days through rough countryside without their armour rusting, and without needing to take a crap behind a bush. Love doesn't just give you a romantic light in the eye, it can give you the feeling of being slowly sawn in half. All the things that get shoved behind the scenery in more artificial and stylized fantasy.

Not that I don't like the artificial and the stylized, mind you, but they weren't what I wanted to write here; they engender a different and perhaps more poetic version of belief. In short, I wanted the people in Ash to be real people, in a real world; for at least as long as you experience them when you read. That means not cheating, and not lying about the limitations they have -- otherwise, heroism and loss don't mean anything.

It is apparent to me that, in writing Ash, you spent a considerable amount of time rewriting and revising it. Is this the case or does your prose just flow onto the page?
It's not supposed to show: it's supposed to look effortless!

Writing Ash took me five years, of which the first was taken up with doing a War Studies Masters degree. Then I did two drafts of the story, each taking me about two years. I suppose about 50% of the first draft made it into the second draft, but the problem with writing on a PC is that one does a certain amount of revising every read-through. So I'll have tinkered with a line here, and a comma there, and on occasion deep-sixed an entire section because I thought it was crap, or rewritten a conversation, and none of that really shows up in my end-of-day word totals.

So, there are things in Ash that have been written, rewritten, and rewritten again, and there are passages that are almost intact from the way they just "arrived." I'm always wrestling with the words to get them to say what I want them to mean, in the way that I want it said, and very rarely it'll happen the first time... because it's hard, for me, not to find myself putting some sort of gloss on things, or avoiding the emotional pain: I have to make sure I haven't skimmed over things I wasn't confident I could do well. But it's my hope that none of this actually shows on the surface... [grinning]

I know this is a hackneyed question but it is one that I always wonder about when talking to authors. Is there one novel you wish you'd written?
You mean, apart from whichever one is currently top of the bestseller lists and earning the author millions? [smiling...]

There's plenty, actually -- Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, Rider Haggard's She, Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels; and then The Worm Ouroboros and The Revengers Tragedy and The Three Musketeers... And pretty much everything that came out in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the 1970s. And Patrick O'Brian's sea novels. And Narnia. And Lud-In-The-Mist...

But it's a bit misleading, because as soon as you say that, there's a little thought at the back of my mind: I would have like to have written (say) James Branch Cabell's Jurgen -- but only if I could have added X, and done Y differently, and taken out Z. Which I think is just part of the writer's urge to take any story and tinker about with it to their own satisfaction, until it becomes theirs, and it's done 'right.' Because a writer always has their own individual view of what would have been right, in any story. (It's why I wrote Grunts...)

Many writers struggle for years before one of their books is published. Yet at 18, your first novel, A Hawk in Silver, appeared in print. Often it is quite a struggle to write the next one. Was it this way for you?
Well, life was a bit difficult then, in any case. I'd written the last part of A Hawk in Silver while I was nursing my mother, when she had terminal cancer. She died before it was finished, or accepted. After that, I wrote a second YA book. Looking back, it wasn't a good book, but I wasn't really in a condition to be writing well. I did a couple of rewrites, but it still got turned down.

After that, I had a couple of stabs at novels and short things, took on part-time jobs, and wrote Golden Witchbreed. It bounced a couple of times. I decided that -- since I obviously wasn't a writer -- I should prepare to get a real job, and I went off to university for some sort of qualification. Halfway through the first year, Arrow Books phoned me up to say they wanted to publish Golden Witchbreed...

Since then, there's been short and not-so-short gaps between books; partly because I keep doing my research by university degrees, partly because some books just take longer than others, partly because I'm not as mobile as I might be.

I understand that you have a unique way of doing research for your writing -- getting university degrees in areas that interest you. How did you decide to us this method?
By accident!

It never occurred to me that I was intelligent enough to go to university. By the time I did go, I'd been out of school and working for nine years; and I went with the idea of qualifying myself for a job. By the time I'd heard I'd sold a book, I'd discovered that I liked doing the degree -- and I was getting plenty of ideas for novels from various things on the courses. So I stuck with the course and finished it.

Since then, I've done two Masters degrees -- I prefer taught degrees, because I like the arguing that goes on in seminars... One was Seventeenth Century Studies, which is a fairly bland title, and never warned me that I'd be getting enough of the history of science, and weird baroque art, to start me on the White Crow books. And then, for Ash, I did a War Studies MA.

It's not just the research angle; there's something about academic work that I enjoy just for itself. And I suppose that at some point in the future, I'll get the itch for another go at it...

I read somewhere that you've written a series of erotic fiction novels under a pseudonym. Any truth to this story?
Oh, that's true enough. I had to take on some commissioned work, while writing Ash, because it was financially necessary. When I looked at the options, writing for one of the women's erotica lines appealed to me -- I'm all for women having the same access to sexual fantasies as men have had in the past. Moreover, the written side of pornography isn't tainted by the exploitation that can sometimes be found on the media side, because if I didn't want to be writing it, I wouldn't, and if the reader didn't want to be reading it, she wouldn't. I say "she," but I'm told there's a 25% crossover male readership...

It's good writing practice, too. Erotic writing has to make the reader feel they're involved in all their senses: what they see, what they touch and smell, what they hear and taste, it all has to be presented with as much immediacy as possible. Plus, I also thought that if I was going to have to write more explicit sex scenes (which I could see I was), it would be good to do them under a false name, first, in case it was an embarrassing failure! But the books seem to be selling okay, so I guess they mostly work...

I know it is early to ask but what do you have planned for your next book? Can you give us a teaser of what it will be?
I never know how far from the "story seed" these things are going to stray, so I don't say too much about them. This next one comes from a picture I've had in my mind for a while, of a man being washed up from a shipwreck onto the coast of 17th century France -- and he's a Japanese samurai. Then, I know there are some weirdnesses to do with seeing the future; and how do you catch someone who can accurately predict (in detail) where you'll be, every minute of the day...? At the moment I'm tending to think of it as "Shogun meets The Three Musketeers" -- with some weird shit involved!

Copyright © 2000 by Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."

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