Sunday, 27 July 2008

Interview: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Something of a buzz (bad pun fully intended) has been steadily building over the last few weeks with regards to Adrian Tchaikovsky's insect-influenced fantasy debut Empire in Black and Gold. As promised earlier, here's an interview with the author of what could be the fantasy debut of 2008.

1) Empire in Black and Gold is your first novel and no doubt represents the final product of plenty of blood, sweat and tears. How long in the making was this novel? How much of a struggle was it to get from conception, to finished draft, to publication?

Well, I can trace the original concepts that went into Empire back to 1990, around the time I went to university. The world has been evolving for a long time. That's a different story to the actual writing game, though. I'd been writing all kinds of fantasy stuff for years, some of it quite unprintable. It was a happy marriage of ideas that saw me finally decide to bite the bullet and write an Insect Tribes book or three - Insect Tribes was the original series title, although it got less and less appropriate as the books went on. The first draft took somewhere between 9 months and a year to complete, about average for me for a full-length manuscript. After submitting it, though, I think it was a good many months of sitting on my hands before I was contacted by my now-agent, and again before he got me signed with Macmillan.

2) Every writer seems to have a different approach to writing - some plan everything out in fine detail beforehand, others prefer to just plough ahead and work it out as they go. What is your preferred method?

I tend to start out with (1) a title (2) some key scenes (3) some characters, and (4) the set up for the final scene - although not usually its resolution. Around that I build a kind of scaffolding of a chapter structure, although this tends to expand and contract as the writing goes on, and then gets put through the mill when the first draft gets reviewed. If I set out without knowing either the title or the end diorama then often I'm never quite happy with them.

3) Linked to the above question, have you already got the next books in the series mapped out in terms of plot, or are you still toying with the possibilities? Are you envisaging a trilogy, or a longer series?

Ah well, books two and three are already written, and were before I submitted book 1. This was a bit of a departure for me, but I knew that the initial plot arc needed three books to do is justice, so I sat down and wrote three books, over three years, before I submitted the first. The series will hopefully go on, because there are plenty of questions, and plenty of unresolved issues, by the end of book 3.

4) One aspect of Empire in Black and Gold that immediately stands out is the fact that the human races all possess some insectoid characteristics. Two words - why insects?

I have been waiting for someone to ask me the "WTFinsects?" question since the book hit the shelves. Honestly, if I'd just made them all horse and wolf people I could have produced something like Clan of the Cave Bear and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Seriously, though, insects are very useful as a way of exploring humanity. Because insects themselves are very focused creatures, using different insects for different cultures allows a lot of cultural diversity, and makes the various human sub-races instantly recognisable. Plus I like insects.

5) Characters are the heart of any novel, so how did you go about creating deep, memorable characters? How do you get under a character's skin and get them to connect with the reader?

You have to live your characters. When I write, I'm always behind one pair of eyes or another, feeling their emotions, listening in on their thoughts. The other thing is that if your characters are fully realised, then you sometimes have to let them have their head. I've had characters survive attempts to kill them off, characters fall in love with the wrong people, characters who just refuse to do what the plot demands of them - which sounds all very pretentious, but if your characters are properly fleshed out, then they come with their own responses, priorities and prejudices, and sometimes you have to accept that he just wouldn't do that.

6) The world you've created is also different from many of the secondary worlds that currently litter the epic fantasy genre, as you've used elements of steampunk (airships and a railroad). Was this a desire to try and create something a little more innovative, or were you naturally drawn to including a different level of technology?

I wanted to create something new. Not so new that it would alienate the bulk of my readers, but something that, whilst it had a few familiar tropes(evil empire, lost age of magic) was also a completely distinct creation. Things like the technology follow logically (logically to me, anyway) from earlier choices, such as the insects themselves. I've always been fond of a bit of steampunk, for example, but the inclusion of a whole technology stems just as much from syllogisms like: ants are industrious, therefore the Ant-kinden are industrious, and so what have all those industrious Ant-people been doing. Inventing airships, for one.

7) Following on from the above point, do you think fantasy authors should feel a responsibility to try and be innovative, rather than just creating bog-standard worlds and cliched storylines? Or does it not matter as long as the story is well told and entertaining? Surely for the genre to truly thrive there needs to be some authors that are willing to push the boundaries?

Well, it's true that if your characters are cardboard then the most innovative setting and ideas won't save you. However... well... the genre has a poor reputation, and much of that reputation is based on the large slough of derivative books that fail to do anything with the genre. After all, this is speculative fiction, fantasy fiction, an area of writing that should be unlimited in possibilities. That doesn't mean that every book must throng with the surreal and the bizarre, but it means that each new book should at least try to do something new, rather than repeat the mistakes of history without learning from them.

8) Which authors would you cite as your main writing influences and why?

Mary Gentle, China Mieville, M John Harrison, Mervyn Peake, people who have carved out completely new territory for themselves. Peter Beagle, as well, because his style is so poetic. I wrote my first ever really readable story under the influence of Peter Beagle.

9) Does the cynical portrayal of fantasy in the mainstream media bother you at all?

Genre snobbery does annoy me, especially as where the line is drawn is constantly being adjusted to include or exclude books depending on the most recent fashions and fads. I mean, yes, there is a lot of fantasy fiction that's not worth the candle, but then there's a lot of fiction, and probably non-fiction (celebrity biographies anyone?) that's just the same, but fantasy fiction suffers particularly from the "look at the funny people" school of journalism.

10) Finally, as a writer that's achieved the Holy Grail - getting published by a 'proper' publisher - what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Two key points. (1) Don't give up. Keep writing. Keep submitting. There is a hell of a lot of luck involved, so just keep pluggin' away. (2) Take criticism where you can. It's a hard lesson to learn, but everyone can be improved by outside input.

Many thanks to Adrian for his time. Be sure to check out his new website here. UK readers rejoice, as Empire is available for £4.99 from Amazon.

I'm nearing the end of Erikson's Deadhouse Gates (finally) though I'm going to take a break from epic fantasy by delving into The Inferior by Peadar Ó Guilín, of which a nice signed copy was delivered by my surly postman yesterday morning. Then, hopefully, I'll be delving into Empire...

1 comment:

Chris M said...

Nice interview. Crisp and straight to the point. :)