Monday, 15 December 2008

Author interview: Ian Graham

Back in February I got rather excited when I found out that Ian Graham - after seemingly 'disappearing' for several years - was in fact hard at work on a prequel to his debut novel Monument. While I was disappointed to hear that his mooted new novel Blood Echo had been abandoned, I was really pleased to hear that Ian was returning to the character of Anhaga Ballas in this new prequel. Curious to find out more about Ian's new novel, not to mention what happened to Blood Echo, I fired off a few questions that Ian very kindly took the time to answer.

Welcome Ian! For those readers who are not familiar with you or your work, perhaps you'd like to introduce yourself?

My name is Ian Graham; I write dark medieval fantasy. To date, my oeuvre comprises a single novel, Monument, published in the UK by Orbit, the USA by ACE and by Bragelonne in France. I live in a village in the north of England. I am currently working on a prequel to Monument . . .

There was a considerable amount of confusion when, after Monument was released in 2002, you 'disappeared' for six years...before emerging earlier this year with the news that your long-awaited novel, Blood Echo, had been shelved and that you were instead working on a prequel to Monument. Two words: what happened?

With Blood Echo, I made a monstrous mistake: I created a world that I liked but a protagonist whom I found it enormously difficult to do anything with. I liked the idea of the central character, Tredegan; yet he proved more or less unwritable - at least in that stage of my career. When writing about Anhaga Ballas, the antihero of Monument, everything flowed incredibly smoothly: it felt natural. But with Tredegan, I suffered a mental block. So for the six years, I struggled to write about a character whom I liked but who refused to transfer himself onto the page. From this fundamental difficulty, assorted other difficulties inevitably sprang. The plotting became forced; the story's internal logic groaned like a jammed waterwheel. Writing ceased to be a joy; it became a mix of drudgery and self-torment. If I'd have been sensible, I would've abandoned the project much earlier. But I was determined to see it through to the end.

A popular topic of debate in the online community is how publishers react when a writer falls behind deadline. This is perhaps something of a loaded question, but how did Orbit handle the news about Blood Echo?

Orbit were terrifically patient. They understood that I was struggling and saw no point in applying unnecessary pressure - which, I think, is the best approach. They remained approachable throughout, always on-hand to discuss my troubles with the story. But there is only so much a publisher can do, if the problem resides with the writer himself. Once Blood Echo was done, they recognised it was something that I had to get out of my system - rather like some ghastly furball.

Having to abandon a project that you'd spent so much time on must have been very tough. Did the fact that Blood Echo didn't work cause you to doubt your own ability as a writer?

To an extent, yes. I knew from some favourable reviews and bits of fanmail that I was capable of writing a good story - but as the years slipped by, and I grew older, I began to wonder if the Ian Graham who wrote Monument had faded away, to be replaced by an equally dedicated yet inexplicably less capable version of myself. This, I understand, is a common fear amongst writers. Mercifully, once I junked Echo, and started writing about Ballas once more, I discovered that this wasn't the case at all: I'd merely been hobbled by a doomed project.

Why did you decide to return to Ballas and the world of Monument, and - without giving anything away - what can fans expect from the upcoming prequel?

When I was struggling with Blood Echo, my editor at the time, Tim Holman, suggested that once Echo was done with, I should go back to Ballas as he was clearly a character I was comfortable with. At first, I was a touch doubtful: when I finished Monument, I couldn't envisage any more tales centring on the character. Yet whilst I worked on Echo, tiny ideas kept cropping up. I kept thinking, 'Ah yes, I could do this with him. And this. Oh, and this as well . . .' I realised that I missed writing about Ballas. When I set out on the prequel, it was like being reunited with an old friend . . .

In the prequel, Ballas is around thirty years old - fifteen years or so younger than in Monument. He is employed as a Hawk, one of the Pilgrim Church's elite soldiers. He speaks several languages, and is widely travelled. Moreover - and perhaps most surprisingly - he is teetotal . . . He has been sent by the Church to locate Helligrane, a Blessed Master - one of the Church's highest ranking clergymen - who, years earlier, was kidnapped. For a long time, it was believed that Helligrane was dead. Yet the Church has discovered that not only is he alive but translating heretical texts . . .

One of the reasons that I enjoyed Monument so much was because Ballas was such a brilliant anti-hero: repulsive in so many ways, yet ultimately inspiring real sympathy. What was the inspiration behind Ballas? Did you set out to deliberately create such a character?

Years ago, when I was twenty one or so, I wrote a novel with a secondary character who was superficially similar to Ballas. He was a fat, greedy, selfish drunkard; but there was a big difference: this character lacked physical courage. Once I gave him a bit steel, he transformed into Ballas. It was quite startling how easily it happened.

I certainly didn't set out to create an antihero; whilst working on Monument, I didn't think of the story in terms of heroes or villains at all. In fact, moral notions of any sort didn't crop up at all. I simply saw a group of characters, acting mainly out of a mix of self-interest and desperation: I considered them no more moral or immoral than wild animals.

However, when Monument was released, I was a tad surprised by how much people disliked Ballas - not as a character but, as if he truly existed, a human being. I actually didn't mind him all that much. Certainly, I would avoid his company. But he didn't seem quite so repellent to me as readers seemed to find him. I suppose there is a difference in how a writer perceives his characters compared to his readers. I loved Ballas because I found him interesting to write; looking upon him in a wholly different way, the readers found him quite a different quantity. Maybe, to an extent, a reader understands a character better than the writer himself . . .

Another aspect that I liked is the Pilgrim Church and the zealous stranglehold that it has over the land, with the Penance Oak a real focus of its power. Was this simply a feature of the world, or was it your intention to make a statement about organised religion?

Organised religion, like any phenomenon, has its good points and bad. I dislike religious militancy of any sort; it seems rather stupid to bully, harangue or otherwise mistreat people over what are fundamentally metaphysical - and therefore irresolvable - disagreements. I certainly didn't have any intention to make a statement of any sort; the Oak was merely something I found aesthetically and dramatically pleasing. Then again, who can say what my subconscious was up to? Interestingly, for all its nastiness and sadism, the Pilgrim Church isn't all bad. Ultimately, the Masters' efforts to capture Ballas are wholly justifiable; they are pursuing him not out of a desire for revenge - he mutilates one of the Masters - but because the safety of Druine depends on his death.

The world of Druine is pretty bleak; the countryside is wild, the towns are decaying and rundown. Was there a particular reason for this? Was it a reaction against many of the more 'cushy' secondary worlds that appear in fantasy?

I think that I rather like the aesthetic of decaying cities! Then again, Ballas spends much time amongst society's lower echelons. By and large, these people exist in places that are rundown and often downright squalid. I suspect there are some opulent, cosy and well-cared-for places in Druine. But Ballas tends not to encounter them. As for the countryside: I grew up and continue to live on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. Consequently, that sort of landscape - haggard, wind-blasted and not at all cheery - is imprinted on my imagination. There was certainly no sense of reacting against the gentler worlds of fantasy fiction. Druine was simply the sort world it felt natural to create.

One criticism I've seen levelled at Monument is that the novel is male-dominated, and that the women are mostly - to put it bluntly- whores. I think this unfair given that Heresh – a young lady - often displays more sense than most of the other male characters. Plus she's not a whore! How do you feel about this criticism?

It is an understandable criticism: many of the women Ballas encounters are either whores or serving girls. But they are precisely the types of women Ballas would run into in daily life: he exists primarily in taverns and brothels. To throw in female characters of a sort Ballas wouldn't realistically rub shoulders with would be dishonest.

I have to ask you about the scene with the eels, which is one of the most evocative and memorable scenes I've read in fantasy literature. What I like about this scene – other than the prose itself – is the way Ballas, for once, finds himself hopelessly out of his depth. Was this a factor in including this scene?

The eel sequence, like any sequence in the book, was written instinctively, with no thought about its greater significance. In hindsight, it did produce the only situation in which Ballas was utterly at a loss. Ballas can deal with more or less any situation. Yet in the marshes he is overwhelmed - as overwhelmed, perhaps, as the other characters are by the violent situations they find themselves in due to Ballas' intervention. He gets a taste of his own medicine, perhaps - though, naturally enough, it fails to instil him with either sympathy or compassion . . .

Before Monument was published, you attended a writing course and had the fortune to be mentored by the late, great David Gemmell. What was he like? How did he help you? How did you react to news of his passing?

In the winter of 1992, I attended a 5-day writing course at Fen Farm in Norfolk. Dave was the writer-in-residence for the course. After the course we stayed in touch. And it was Dave who eventually put me in touch with Orbit Books . . . He was a remarkable guy. Very generous with his time and advice - and an extraordinarily acute critic of manuscripts. I can remember being grilled by him about various aspects of my first - and unpublished - novel. I had to justify everything in the story: why a character behaved in a particular way, how the various institutions functioned and so forth.

I visited his home on numerous occasions. He was a terrific conversationalist. One moment he'd be talking about some incident from his time as a doorman; the next, he'd be analysing the political dimension of the Biblical King David. He was incredibly dedicated to his craft, too. Whenever he watched a movie, he'd be analysing the interaction between characters, the way the plot was structured and so on. And I can remember watching a football match on television with him: he dissected the psychology of various players as if they were characters in a novel . . . His death came as a big shock, of course. He was in real-life exactly what you'd hope for, if you'd read his novels. There was no discrepancy between the man and his writing. He believed in what he wrote; it wasn't 'mere' fiction, but a rendering of his own moral beliefs.

In more general terms now, who are your literary influences? Do you read in the fantasy genre much, and if not is there a particular reason why?

Wow. I have a huge number of influences. Everything I read, I suppose, has some impact. The names which spring immediately to mind are Dostoevsky, Graham Greene, Ted Hughes, Dickens, David Gemmell of course . . . Too many to list, I fear! I don't read much in the genre any more. When I began reading fantasy, I did so because it scratched a certain psychological itch; now, that itch is being scratched by the writing of fantasy . . . Also, after a day at the writing desk, I tend not to feel like reading fiction of any sort. I've read part of the first draft of SF writer Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire fantasy trilogy, which looks as if it'll turn into something amazing. Otherwise, though, I tend to read a lot of poetry, history, philosophy . . . I've just finished a book on Anglo-Saxon medicine. Apparently, if you want to avoid being pestered by mad women, you've got to eat a radish before breakfast . . .

Better stock up on the old radishes! How do you feel about the literati and much of the mainstream dismissing fantasy as a genre?

It is a great shame. Perhaps part of it is snobbery; another part of it, I think, is a tendency to look at the surface elements of the genre - the magic, the pseudo-medieval settings etc - and ignore, wilfully or not, the deeper aspects of the genre. In truth, though, it doesn't bother me very much. I rather like being misunderstood . . .

In this online age, how important do you think it is for an author to have a web presence? Do you read any blogs, genre-related or otherwise?

I guess that the web is a useful advertising tool for authors. I know that now and again, if I am curious what a certain writer is up to, I'll check out his or her website. But I am not a great user of the internet, to be truthful. I don't read many blogs - though Speculative Horizons is amongst those I take a peek at now and again. No doubt I am missing out on an awful lot of good reading...

As something of a writer myself, I'm interested to hear about the writing habits of authors. Do you write every day? Do you have a daily word target? Any peculiar habits?

No peculiar habits, alas - though at the moment, I've taken to lighting a candle at the start of every writing session. Not sure why: there isn't much atmospheric or inspiring about a measly little t-light, but it seems to help.

I write every day. If I take a day off - which is occasionally necessary to remedy burn-out - it can be difficult to get started again. I used to set myself word counts; but I discovered that depending where I was up to in a story, and what type of scene I was writing, my ability to produce a particular number of words varied enormously. Also, some days it is necessary to simply think about where the story is going, rather than actually lay down any words. A word count can be comforting, as long as you are hitting the target; but personally, I prefer to make sure I work hard each day, and trust that I am doing enough.

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Many thanks to Ian for giving such an informative and interesting interview! Ian can be found on the interwebs at his website.


Swainson said...

Nice interview. I'm really pleased to see there will be more from Ballas. Monument is one of my read this one a year books.

James said...

Glad you liked the interview, Swainson! I really need to re-read Monument at some point.

Martijn said...

I rarely read the same book twice but I actually just picked up my copy of Monument again and began reading! So I'm surprised that I run into this recent interview now, and excited that there's more Ballas coming. Thanks for the wonderful interview!