by Sandy Auden
From the British Fantasy Society Fantasycon, there are new releases from attendees. Mark Chadbourn on tent poles
and enduring memories with Destroyer of Worlds; Pete Crowther talks about abducting
the entire world in his Forever Twilight series; Andrew Hook takes on the walking dead
in And God Created Zombies; debut author Rio Youers on being grumpy
with Old Man Scratch; and Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman shares his thoughts on dead cats,
flagellation, and his new short story collection Lost Songs for the Shy and Cynical.
Making his usual brief appearance at Fantasycon, author Mark Chadbourn still managed to squeeze in a few nosey questions about bringing his epic to a close...
It all began with World's End, the first volume of The Age of Misrule series where we met Church and Ruth and the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. Their journey has taken us across the world and across time as the battle against golden gods, the hideous Fomorii and even traitors in their own midst has raged unabated. Now the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons have one final confrontation to face -- the Void has tried to keep humanity repressed in a world of greed and fear but his grip has failed and he is returning to wipe Mankind from the face of Existence...
Destroyer of Worlds concludes his nine volume story so how did it feel to finish a book that's been a part of his life for so long?
"As you can imagine, the emotions were mixed. There was a huge sense of relief at getting to the top of what appeared to be a mountain when I started out. A feeling of personal achievement, certainly -- the story is complex, with a huge cast of characters and locations, and a plot that knits together at lots of different levels across the 'trilogy of trilogies.'
"When I started out as a writer, the notion that I could have completed such a massive project would have made me laugh, but now, I think... okay, I've done that, what next? But there's also sadness too. I've lived with the characters so long they feel like members of my own family. I still want to be spending time with them."
How accurate were your original plans? Did it end where you had expected back when you were writing book one?
"The story always had to end as it did. The thing about these three trilogies is that they're not a linear story -- they connect back and forth across the volumes, often in surprising ways. Such a carefully-balanced structure had to be well-defined from the start. But I don't believe in creating detailed plots, so there's lots of space for the story to breathe and surprising things to emerge from the unconscious. Essentially I had 'tent-poles' -- points in the story that were necessary for the over-arching plot, holding the whole structure up, but lots of space in-between."
Looking back, what memories stand out most about writing the series?
"I remember the start, sitting by the sea in South Wales, plotting the series out and wondering if I could pull it off -- and even if it would find an audience. Most of all, it's the places I visited as part of the research, which brought plenty of magical moments that I tried to insert in the story: in a secret room far beneath the streets of Edinburgh, listening to a ghost story; sitting in a prehistoric cairn not far from Loch Ness, with nobody within miles and feeling like I could have been thousands of years in the past; following a ritual path through the Avebury megalithic complex, and a frosty morning at Rosslyn Chapel."
Will you ever be going back to visit Church and Ruth and the other Brothers and Sisters?
"There are plenty of stories to tell, but I honestly can't see it happening at the moment. The three trilogies tell a specific story, with a big theme, and any more tales could water that down."
What are you working on now?
"I'm currently writing The Swords of Albion series -- Elizabethan spies vs faerie -- which will be out from Bantam in the UK and Pyr in the US. The stories stand alone and so there's much less pressure to keep a massive, sprawling tale and all the subsequent details in my head. But the research load has probably increased tenfold. The stories are told during a specific point in history, when Sir Francis Walsingham established England's secret service network during the reign of Elizabeth, and all the historical fact has to be right."
Pete Crowther Dims The Lights
As the man behind small press PS Publishing, Pete Crowther is a regular attendee at Fantasycon. This year he was understandably excited about the re-release of volume one of his own Forever Twilight series, to join volume two that was released in July and the announcement that volume three is coming in 2010 from Subterranean Press...
"It's got an interesting genesis has Forever Twilight," said Crowther, "I was asked by the wonderful gang at DAW to contribute a story about alien abduction. It was one of those wonderful DAW books that really does what it says on the tin -- good stories by good writers.
"And as I do with every story, I wanted to create something that really rocks the concept and so I thought: there's going to be all these other people doing alien abduction stories so what am I going to do? I know, I'll abduct the entire world apart from just a few people. Well, how am I going to do that? What if the entities that abducted the rest of the world were going to use those bodies as vehicles to come back so they could colonise our planet -- think of The Invaders, the old TV show. And then I thought let's go for broke: when they abduct the world -- and we're talking 99.99% of the population -- they kill them.
"So the people I've got left are the last vestiges of humanity but why would they be left? In most cases, there's no rhyme or reason for things happening, there are glitches. So these entities do this huge trawl of the earth's population and take them all away but they miss a few, who knows why? Sometimes it's three or four people in the same room, sometimes it's only two or three people in an eight million population city. But eventually, hopefully, they'll come together.
"But what's going to happen is that the entities are going to take a few of the bodies they've taken and come back to adjust the planet to what they want it to be because they can't function in daylight so they want this kind of gloaming that will be all over the earth.
"By this time, I stepped back and thought: short story? I just don't think this will be a short story. Maybe it would be a novelette like ten, twelve thousand words? But when it got very comfortably up to sixteen thousand words and I was no where near the end of the story, I rang them up and they said sorry but we just don't think that's going to happen. So I said ok and put that story to one side and wrote "Late Night Pick Up" instead, which was five and half thousand words and fulfilled their requirements.
"But then what to do with the first story? I finished it and said to Richard Chizmar, at Cemetery Dance publishers, what about taking this as a novel? And he said well what's it about and what about doing it as a novella series? I said, well the first book is Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Assault on Precinct Thirteen. And he said I'll have it so long as it's not abysmal, which of course one always hopes it won't be. And sure enough he took it, loved it and put it out in 2002 and, within a short space of time, it sold out.
"But I was late handing in book two. I actually handed in books two and three together but we couldn't get into a position where we could sort out when the books were going to be released. In the end, we thought it was perhaps better, because we'd already waited so long for book two (seven years), to move fast with someone else who could slot it in. So I asked Bill Schafer if he could do it at Subterranean Press. He said he liked the first book and yeah we'll do books two and three.
"That left us with what do we do about book one being unavailable? So I decided to do it myself (it's not vanity publishing because it had already been bought, approved and released by another publisher so all I'm doing is reprinting it). But I didn't want to put it out as a PS Publishing book so I came up with the title of Drugstore Indian Press and Les Edwards did me a wonderful logo of an American Indian looking very regal.
"So book one, Forever Twilight: Darkness, Darkness has just been re-released by Drugstore Indian press; book two, Windows To The Soul is out now from Subterranean Press and book three will be released by Subterranean Press in the Spring 2010."
Andrew Hook Spins A New Zombie Tale
Previously head honcho of Elastic Press, Andrew Hook has been picking up awards at Fantasycon for a couple of years now. With Elastic Press now wound up, Hook is focussing more on his writing and his latest title, And God Created Zombies, launched at Fantasycon.
"It's a personal kind of zombie story I suppose," Hook said. "I'm not looking at the zombies themselves but more about how they are affecting one individual and the reason for that becomes clear as you get to the end of the book."
What's the backdrop for the story?
"It's set Now, in the middle of a financial meltdown, when John Baker loses his job, loses his girlfriend and then, increasingly, there's a zombie presence that seems to be centred around him, at least that's how he feels.
"He's very self aware of zombies as a horror trope, like Romero's zombies, but he doesn't understand how it could be happening because it's following the conventions of being inside a horror movie. He can't just blindly go along with it -- there's a lot of questioning about how this could be happening -- so it's been described as an existential zombie thriller, which might put some people off or might draw some people in."
Who do we meet in the book?
"There are four main characters. You've got the central character John Baker; his old girlfriend who makes a brief appearance; a friend of his Roberto who is quite a strong character and then there's the new girl he meets. And there's a love story at the centre which is crucial to John's understanding of everything.
"John is probably a little bit me. The Roberto character is based very strongly on someone I knew who unfortunately died of a heart attack quite recently. I wrote this book afterwards with him in mind. He wouldn't have been a reader, he wouldn't have understood anything about books, but it just seemed fitting to put him in there in that particular role."
So, are you a zombie fan?
"I haven't read much zombie fiction but yeah, I think George Romero's zombies are excellent and I think the most recent one, The Diary of the Dead, works brilliantly. I think the final scene in that one is just as shocking as the final scene in Night of the Living Dead when the guy gets shot because they think he's a zombie."
You can get your own fix of the walking dead in And God Created Zombies, out now from Newcon Press.
Rio Youers On Grumpy Old Men
Another book launching at Fantasycon was Rio Youers' Old Man Scratch novella. Pete Crowther gave the book a great build up at the launch -- as well he should with him being the publisher and all -- but given that it takes a lot of talent to impress someone with Pete's experience, it was time to go digging for more information...
"Old Man Scratch is a revenge story that deals with matters of the heart, matters of the soul," said Youers. "It's about a old fella who moves out to the country to enjoy his twilight years and he just doesn't get on with his neighbour.
"His neighbour's a guy who's been in this house for years and years, he grew up in this town, he knows the lay of the land, and he's also very inconsiderate. Johnny Gregson, who's the nicer of the two fellas, tries to appeal to him but when it doesn't happen then he has to resort to more drastic measures. It's a tough situation for this nice guy to suddenly become so much harsher but I think I managed to pull it off. It really does depend on the emotion and the human condition and matters of the heart."
Old Man Scratch may start out innocent enough but Youers' stories always tend to end up on the darker side of fiction. "It's just the way my mind leans. I can have a lovely idea for a story that anybody else could turn into something romantic and whimsical and fantastical but when I write it, it tends to veer off down this left hand path. It's just the way it goes. I don't know why. You'd probably need a psycho-analyst to give you that answer.
"I just write what comes into my mind, and I don't even think it comes into my mind. I honestly feel that the story is there to begin with, I'm just channelling it, just transcribing it."
And how long has Youers been transcribing those stories? "Ever since I was able to form sentences really. It's a terribly cliché answer but it's true. Even in school -- in math class and science -- I wasn't interested. I loved English because those were the actual lessons you could write stories in legitimately and not get told off for doing it. I used to put my school bag on the desk and behind it I'd be scribbling away writing stories or reading a book, not interested in anything the teacher was saying. I was terrible at school. It got to the stage where they just left me alone to do that as long as I wasn't interfering with anybody else."
And the result is the touching and twisted Old Man Scratch along with a couple of other new titles. "Next year I have End Times coming out with PS Publishing. It's probably my darkest work. It's about a reformed heroin addict who's cut off his own fingers. He chases the dragon so he inhales fumes and he cut off fingers when he was with this self amputation Cult in the past.
"It's told in the first person, it's where he is now. He meets a woman who reawakens these memories in his mind. This is a whole time of his life that he wants to forget. It's a darkness he's trying to move away from, back toward the light and a future and the good things he knows he's capable of. He thinks he's well on the road to that when he meets this woman but she takes him back. So he has to go within and answer some deep questions about himself.
"It starts in England and takes him on a journey that ultimately culminates on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota so it's quite a journey, from a geographical sense and also in a personal sense."
Youers also has a story, "Alice Bleeding," in Postscripts (#21) and his novella Mama Fish was released recently by Shroud Publishing.
Rob Shearman on Lost Songs for the Shy and Cynical
The following interview with Rob Shearman was just one of those happy coincidences that occur at conventions. He'd come over to talk to Rio Youers while we were discussing Old Man Scratch and he stayed to share some details about his new upcoming collection. Shearman's background is in writing for theatre but he's also written for the Doctor Who series ("Dalek" with Christopher Eccleston) and has also moved into prose writing, winning a World Fantasy award for his collection Tiny Deaths.
The overriding impression he left behind was of someone who didn't take life, or even interviews, particularly seriously...
"This new book is quite exciting for me really," said Shearman. "I'm fond of short stories, they're rather fun to write. Much more fun than television. It's quicker for a start and you sort of feel quite free. Radio and theatre's like that too, and there's a sense when you do those that they believe the writer is god. In TV they know the writer isn't god and you're prepared for the fact that a script is going to take x number of drafts and be put through x number of people. It has to be because TV's so expensive and it's inevitably going to be a massive collaboration.
"One of the joys of writing prose is that deep down although people are going to suggest things you can always tell them to sod off. You just say: no, don't publish it then. You can behave like an arsehole which is really nice. When I wanted to be writer as a kid I just thought that it would be great if I could be some sort of, you know, great artist like Mozart or Beethoven or Van Gogh who can behave really, really badly in public and just act like a genius. And I'm exactly like that -- except for the part about being a genius."
"I would cut off my ear if I thought it would sell a book. I thought a good limited edition would be if you could put your own ear inside the copy of the book but then they told me I only actually had two ears and it would be a limited edition of only two so it was pointless. Someone has done a cover with human skin but they didn't use their own skin. I'd have to use my skin realistically or you're not really engaged with the whole process. I think it really ought to be that the artist suffers because I suffer everyday as a writer. I go and sit in my garret eating gruel and flagellating with my dead cat. I sort of whip him and then he whips me and from that I get my ideas as a comedy writer. Cause my stories are basically quite funny, but quite horrific too."
What kind of themes are in the stories in the new collection?
"They're love stories. They're stories about love in fractured ways. I think they're very helpful. They're stories about what to do if the husband you love is on a business trip in Luxemburg and vanishes overnight; they're love stories about what happens if you wake up and find that you're a pig in the garden of Eden who falls in love with Eve. Or what to do if your wife, when leaving you, gives you back your still-beating heart in a Tupperware box that begins to ossify as you look at it. So they're takes upon love and some are quite funny and some are a little bit nasty but I think some of them are quite sweet.
"My wife was thrilled when I wrote it. She said oh thanks so much darling for this take upon our marriage. I said that's alright sweetheart you just try and learn from it. Read this, realise what it is I'm into -- you know the cat flagellation obviously -- and I think we could have a better marriage if you just listened to what I wanted."
And what are you working on next?
"I'm doing TV, I've got a radio series starting for the BBC, I'm writing a novel, I'm writing my new collection and I'm doing a West End Play next year. So I'm actually doing all the media at the moment." Lost Songs for the Shy and Cynical will be released in November 2009 by Big Finish.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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