Monday 16 June 2008

Author interview: Paul Kearney

Having read and enjoyed The Ten Thousand (check out my earlier review HERE), and also being aware it was some time since I'd done an interview, I thought who better to interview than Ten Thousand author, Paul Kearney. Fortunately Paul very kindly agreed to answer some questions about - among other things - the influences behind The Ten Thousand, how he felt about losing his publishing deal with Bantam and what his next project will be.

The Ten Thousand is clearly influenced by the exploits of the historical army of the same name. What was it about this story that appealed to you?

I think it was the idea of a stranded army, and the fact that they faced insurmountable odds, and yet they somehow prevailed. Also the fact that in a way they were a moving democracy. They voted on everything, and were determined to maintain their ‘Greekness’ in the midst of a foreign, hostile Empire. And of course, the story is a road-movie too, making its way across thousands of miles of the middle-east. It pretty much has everything, right down to the heart-lifting cry of ‘The Sea, the Sea!’ at the end.

Was the writing of, or your approach to, The Ten Thousand influenced in any way by the film 300?

Honest to God, no. I enjoyed 300, but it was so outlandish, so over the top, and so divorced from anything approaching historical reality, that it didn’t even impinge on my imagination when it came to writing The Ten Thousand. 300 is a fable, a myth with a tenuous connection to real events. It’s done superbly well, but for me it’s so stylized that it’s almost the antithesis of the way I work, and the characters I try to convey. I had been thinking about doing a story based on the Anabasis for a long time before I had even heard of 300.

The basic premise of this novel could have worked well in any setting (medieval, steampunk, even sci-fi), but you decided to stick closer to history by setting it in a world that echoes ancient Greece and Persia. What was your reasoning behind this?

Well, I hadn’t seen a fantasy novel based on that era before. It was new and different, and incredibly rich. I’ve been interested in that period for decades and I knew the history of it inside-out. I’ve studied it academically, I’ve wargamed it, and it felt familiar to me, something that I knew I would be comfortable with.

Related to the question above, do you think there are too many fantasies set in feudal medieval worlds? Do you think, to avoid becoming stale, the genre needs novels where the secondary worlds are based on the ancient world and the early-modern world, rather than the medieval?

Well, I hesitate to generalize, but what the hell. The Dark-Age / Medieval milieu was pioneered by Tolkien, and then people got used to thinking of that level of technology as being your ‘typical’ fantasy setting. So much so, that I think a large section of the fantasy-reading public feels uneasy outside that comfort zone of horses and swords and feudalism. Me, I was bored silly by it. I loved it when I was younger, and still love much of it, but it truly has been done to death. When a writer of Martin’s calibre gets ahold of it, you can still see the sparks fly, but for a lot of fantasy, it’s lazy and tired thinking on the part of the author. I will name no names! I think we truly are moving beyond that era now though. Writers all over the place have stepped out of that box, which is a good thing.

In The Ten Thousand, war seems to highlight all that is good and bad about humanity. Was this always intended on your part, or did this aspect develop as you worked on the novel?

War is an extremity of experience, and has always traditionally been assumed to strip away the fluff and baggage of a person’s character, leaving them stark and alone under the unflinching scrutiny of their fellows. For that reason, it’s an interesting tool to utilize in a novel. It also is an engine of change, and can be used to hammer at society and see what remains standing afterwards. In that sense, if you put martial conflict in a book, you’re always going to get characters revealing aspects of themselves which might otherwise have remained hidden. A cliché, but true.

It could be argued that the overriding tone of The Ten Thousand is one of cynicism, both regarding war and the human soul. How would you react to this statement?

I don’t know about cynicism. I’m a realist. I’ve read a lot of history, and I tried to make the characters in the book behave as I thought ‘real’ people would. I wanted them to be authentic human beings. They were not shoehorned into pre-assigned roles, or conjured up to delineate some kind of allegorical truth. They were just men under pressure. I think there’s a fair bit of idealism in the book too; in the emphasis on friendship, on loyalty, and even love.

The world of the The Ten Thousand is notable for completely lacking magic of any sort. Was there a reason for this? For example, were you concerned that the involvement of magic could detract from the focus on the physical battles and the overall impact of them?

Swift answer; yes. I wanted the emphasis of the book to be on sweaty, muscle-tearing physical struggle, and magic would have just clouded the issue somewhat. I don’t like the ‘easy’ use of magic in books; I prefer it downplayed. Tolkien, again, got it just right, hinting at hidden powers rather than having wizards casting firebolts across battlefields. It was far more effective. I write fantasy, but my main concern is, oddly enough, to make it ‘realistic.’ Also, if you want to be pedantic about it, The Ten Thousand is actually science fiction. It’s set on a planet which is clearly not earth, since it has two moons, and it has alien species co-existing with mankind. In that setting, magic would be out of place. I actually have a full back story for the origins of the Macht, but am forbidden by my publisher from revealing it, because it’s pure science fiction!

One of the strongest aspects of The Ten Thousand is the way you portray human emotion and the relationships between the soldiers. Were you able to draw on your own personal experiences of the army here?

Yes. Soldiers, I think, have been in some ways the same all down the centuries. I have an inkling of how that works, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

The Ten Thousand is your first novel for Solaris, as until fairly recently you were without a publisher. How real was the prospect that you might have to seek alternative employment and, as a full-time writer, how did that make you feel?

In some ways it was oddly liberating – and scary as hell of course. I already had a decent ‘other’ job lined up, but I knew that it would not be the same. There’s an element of ego in it of course – the thought that I’d never see my name on another book-cover – childish but true. It was about seven months between bantam and Solaris, so it really wasn’t much of a gap; but it was a fair old jolt to the system.

Any more plans for another novel set in the world of The Ten Thousand? If not, then what next?

No. No more Ten Thousand books. This one is a one-off. I’m now trying to come up with an idea for a whole new epic series – this time with gunpowder, and a more ‘modern’ feel. Plus, I still have to finish the Sea Beggar series at some point.

With the themes and the various concerns that you deal with in The Ten Thousand – and those I’ve seen other fantasy authors deal with – it seems that fantasy is far more substantial than the “orcs, elves and wizards” portrayal of the genre in the mainstream media. As an author, does it bother you that fantasy generally gets looked down on?

It makes me spit with rage. I look at what passes for ‘literary’ fiction, getting all the space in newspaper reviews, on cultural review programmes, and the major prizes, and I feel like throwing something. What really galls me is when authors who are clearly writing science-fiction or fantasy, such as Margaret Atwood, refuse to admit that this is what they do, and come out with weaselly self-justifications to keep themselves from being contaminated by contact with the genre. The advent of the LOTR films has helped a little; all those Oscars were not awarded on a whim. But there is still an infuriating snobbery abroad. All the more irritating when you see the same people who scoff at fantasy delving into Harry Potter, and finding no hypocrisy in their outlook. Ah, I could go on, but now I have to get up and kick something…

Many thanks to Paul for his time and enthusiasm. Incidentally, The Ten Thousand has received some glowing reviews so far from my fellow bloggers. Check them out at Realms of Speculative Fiction, The Wertzone and Graeme's Fantasy Book Review.

For further info on Paul Kearney, and for a full bibliography of his novels, check out his website.


Unknown said...

Crisp review, I enjoyed it very much; tnx for this James, and for the link.

Did I get that fiction? *chuckles*

Oh, and I'm "borrowing" the badge/seal thingy too ::

James said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I do try to keep interviews sharp and concise, I'm not a big fan of long-winded interviews that are more like conversations. I like short questions and snappy answers.

Yeah, science fiction...would love to know what the story is behind the Macht!

Feel free to borrow the badge/seal thing. I stole it from Dark Wolf anyway! ;)

Aidan Moher said...

Nice interview!

I'm always interested in hearing what Paul has to say.

A Dribble of Ink

James said...

Thanks Aidan. I like to hear what Paul has to say too. ;)