|A Conversation With Mary Gentle|
|An interview with Rodger Turner|
| July 2000 |
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...
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.
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"...
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.
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.
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.
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!
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...
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...]
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...]
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.
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]
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...)
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.
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...
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...
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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