Monday, December 1, 2008

Interview - Brian Ruckley

Brian Ruckley made his debut in the fantasy literature on October, 2006 with the first novel in "The Godless World" trilogy, "Winterbirth". After his well received debut he published this year the second novel of the trilogy, "Bloodheir", and in 2009 his series will conclude with "Fall of Thanes". I liked a lot the first two novels of Brian Ruckley and now I had the honor and the pleasure to make an interview with Brian.

Dark Wolf: Brian, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
What attracted you toward writing in the first place?
Brian Ruckley: Some mysterious combination of genetics and upbringing. I was a big reader and a big writer – both at home and in school – from a very early age. It seemed entirely natural and normal to me to be creating fiction and thankfully nobody ever told me otherwise. When you’re very young – so long as adults don’t discourage you – you think in terms of possibilities, rather than obstacles or limitations, so being an author didn’t seem like a silly idea at that age.
That childhood notion that perhaps I could get a book published if I tried never entirely went away, even when I got old enough to understand that it probably wasn’t quite as straightforward as the child-me had imagined. Sooner or later, if you’ve got that thought at the back of your mind, there inevitably comes a point when you have to decide whether or not to make a serious attempt at it. I decided to try, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Dark Wolf: Who are your favorite authors and which are your favorite books? Did any of those influence you in your writing?
Brian Ruckley: I’ve got too many favourites to possibly do them justice in a brief answer. In fantasy, the series I’m most thoroughly hooked on at the moment is probably Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. I read a lot of non-fiction, and in that area my long-standing favourite writer is John Julius Norwich, especially for his history of Byzantium. But I think the first book I would pack if I was going to be exiled to a desert island would probably be Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That’s the book I’ve re-read more often than any other. It’s like an old friend.
My own writing is, like everyone’s, stuffed full of influences from books I’ve read, but a lot of it is probably hidden even from me. What you read shapes your thinking and your approach to your own writing in deep and subtle ways. I know all my reading of historical non-fiction affected my writing style, and the way I write about politics and characters; I know fantasy authors like Guy Gavriel Kay and George R. R. Martin made me think a bit differently about what’s possible in the genre. The deeper you dig, the more influences you would find, I’m sure.

Dark Wolf: Why did you choose to make your debut in fantasy? Have you been interested in this genre before you started to write?
Brian Ruckley: I’ve always been a bit of a sf and fantasy geek – the degree of geekishness has varied over the years, but the genre got its hooks into me when I was young and it has never entirely let go. Later, when I got serious about trying to get paid for what I wrote, I very quickly recognised that most of my ideas for fiction – short story ideas at that stage – came to me dressed in the clothes of sf or fantasy or occasionally horror. It wasn’t a conscious choice, really: the ideas, and their style and genre, chose me rather than the other way round. So deciding to write a fantasy novel was hardly a decision at all – it was just what came most naturally.

DW: What was the initial idea behind “The Godless World”? I mean what was that initial seed of imagination that made you say I should write a novel about this?
BR: Honestly, it was so long ago that it’s very difficult to reconstruct the thought process going on at that stage. I know I first started thinking about writing a fantasy novel around the time the post-communist Balkans were in a terrible mess, and it struck me that the real world – both in the past and now – was a lot more complicated and vicious than most fantasy worlds. I wanted to write something where the characters were just as caught up in old and obscure hatreds and resentments and machinations as people in our own world sometimes are.
Once you actually start writing, though, the creative process takes over and it’s possible to move away from the initial imaginative seed: the Godless World is certainly influenced by those origins – it’s dark, I suppose, because my view of the real world back then was pretty dark – but it took on a life of its own to some extent.

DW: At first, when I started “Winterbirth” I was a bit confused by the names and I couldn’t remember exactly who’s who. But also the names of the characters have a unique perfume. Where from did you come up with the names? If it were possible would you change their names in some more accessible?
BR: All I tried to do with the names was make them sound as if they came from broadly consistent cultural groups. So a lot of the names for people from the Lannis and Kilkry Bloods sound a little bit Celtic – some of them are entirely made up, some are loosely based on real Celtic names from history or myth. Similarly, with the Bloods of the Black Road, I made most of the names sound faintly Norse, or at least northern, by sprinkling them with hard consonants – lots of Ks and Gs. It was all done fairly loosely, without much careful thought beyond that.
I would have to be pretty stubborn or dim not to recognise that some people find the names difficult to get to grips with at first. That, obviously, was not remotely my intention, so if I could go back and change it now, I would. No point in making things any harder for the reader than they have to be! The thing about being a published writer, especially a newcomer, is that you learn from your mistakes, but those mistakes are made in public, in front of an audience of thousands. All you can do is try not to repeat them. I’m sure I’ll make all kinds of new mistakes as I go along, but hopefully confusing or inaccessible names won’t be one of them.

DW: You have worked on several environmental projects and you have a great experience in this field. Did this experience play a role in your novels? Which aspects of your novels were influenced by this experience?
BR: My interest in (love of, really) landscapes and wildlife and wild places certainly shows up in the books, though I try not to overdo it. I set out to make the natural environment of the Godless World a sort of minor character in its own right, but always as background and setting – although as a writer I could probably quite happily spend paragraphs describing any given forest, somehow I doubt most readers really need or want that much information. But as the ‘creator’ of this imagined world, I can’t help thinking about such things. An architectural historian would no doubt fill their invented world with elaborate and richly textured buildings; I’m an environmentalist, so you get wilderness and wildlife.
On the whole, the landscape of the books is a kind of heightened version of Scotland, which is the landscape I know best. But it’s an unspoiled Scotland, with a lot of the forests and wildlife we lost long ago put back in. Come to think of it, in some ways it’s probably more similar to bits of Eastern Europe than Scotland.

DW: Did the tumultuous history of Scotland have an influence on your series? Did any historical events in particular inspire you in writing “The Godless World”?
BR: I don’t think Scottish history in particular was more or less influential than that of any other country. The biggest influence of ‘history’ in general was just the tone: complicated politics, shades of grey, the influence of religion on war and so on. But specific scenes and details have taken lots of ideas from real world history: the prologue of the very first book is an obvious reference to the Spartans at Thermopylae; the blinding of a rebellious Thane is inspired by Byzantine habits; the relations between Huanin and Kyrinin are somewhat influenced by the history of relations between European colonists and Native Americans; the facial tattoos of the Kyrinin were inspired by Pictish and Maori traditions. I could go on and on …

DW: I really enjoyed the fighting scenes in your novel. How goes the documentation for such scenes?
BR: By instinct and by choice, I try for a fairly ‘cinematic’ style in a lot of my writing, especially the action scenes. When I’m writing a battle, it’s a bit like I’m trying to describe something I have already watched on a mental movie or TV screen. So many recent movies – like Braveheart and Gladiator – have delivered amazingly visceral, high impact battle scenes, and I am trying to mimic that on the page. I vary the point of view from which battles are described – sometimes it’s a single character in the bewildering midst of the violence, sometimes it’s observed from a greater distance – but I am always trying to make it immediate for the reader: short, punchy sentences; a vivid sense of the sights and sounds and even smells.

DW: Throughout my reading I become attached by some of the characters. Also when I was a child sometimes I dreamed to be like some of your characters (at least in play). Were any of your characters inspired by actual persons? Did you try to reflect yourself in one of the characters?
BR: There might be the odd fragment of some real historical figures embedded in one or two of my characters, but they would be very small fragments, and I certainly wasn’t taking conscious inspiration from anyone who’s alive today. Most of my characters are so unpleasant, that I suspect anyone who found out I had modeled a character on them might be mortally offended. I mean, being the basis for Taim Narran would probably be fine, but who would want to be told ‘You know that guy Aeglyss? That’s you, that is.’?
None of the characters are reflections of me, except that in a sense I feel some sympathy for every single one of them. I understand, in my own mind, why all of them are doing what they’re doing – even the ones who are doing terrible things. Part of that is my conscious effort to make them credible and give them vaguely plausible motivations for what they do, but you might argue that some of it is because there are parts of me that would respond just as they do to events and circumstances. Even Aeglyss: if I went through what he went through, and then was granted great power, perhaps there’s a part of me that would do the kind of stuff he does. I like to think it’s a relatively small part, and not the dominant bit of my personality, but who knows?

DW: Many of your characters suffer changes and are growing throughout the story. How difficult is to build a character? Did you become attached by any of your characters?
BR: I made a conscious decision right at the start of writing the trilogy that – within reason, because there are limits to how far you can go with this – I was going to treat all the characters as if they weren’t appearing in a fantasy novel at all: I wanted them to feel as if they were in a piece of historical fiction, or even a contemporary mainstream novel. For that to work they have to have a more or less believable basic personality (which to me usually means that they are neither paragons of virtue nor embodiments of pure evil, but somewhere in between) and they have to be changed by and react to the stuff that happens to them and the political and cultural environment they are living within.
That was my ambition, anyway. I think it worked out well with some characters, perhaps not quite as well with others; so yes, I think it is quite difficult, but it’s also something you get better at with practice (I hope). I’m not sure ‘attached’ is quite the right word for what I felt towards any of the characters. I enjoyed the company of some more than others – by which I only really mean that I found writing them easier.

DW: Why a world without Gods? What made you decide to create this theological aspect of your novel? Would any God make an appearance in “Fall of Thanes”?
BR: It’s difficult for me to remember the exact order in which ideas occurred to me, but I think it started with me wanting to have some motivational belief for an invading army. I had already decided that those invaders were believers in fate and predestination (because one of my original vague ideas was to set up a conflict between the forces of fate and free will), but I still needed a cause for them to fight for; something that all this fate they believed in was leading up to. The idea of making that cause the return of Gods who had abandoned the world just seemed to fit neatly with the kind of story I wanted to tell.
As to whether or not any Gods show up in the final book – the answer is No. Or possibly Yes, depending on how you look at it. But probably No.
In my own mind, though perhaps not in the minds of most readers, there is room for a different interpretation of some of the stuff in the books about the Gods. I live with two different versions of the past history of the Godless World in my head: in one, the Gods were real, and all the myths and stories about them are literally true; in the other there never were any Gods, at least as they are thought of by the inhabitants of the world, and the stories of their disappearance are really talking about something else. I deliberately did not get into that sort of question very much in the books, because I figured it would just complicate and confuse everything unnecessarily, but either version of the past works well, I think, and each is interesting in its own way.

DW: Would you like to reveal something from the upcoming novel “Fall of Thanes”? What the lovers of your series should expect from the last novel of your trilogy?
BR: Well, at its most basic, I’ve always thought of the trilogy as the story of three characters: Orisian, Kanin and Aeglyss. They have been following a path that eventually has to bring them into confrontation, and that’s mostly what ‘Fall of Thanes’ is about: the last part of their respective journeys and what happens when they have to test themselves against each other. Those three characters really dominate ‘Fall of Thanes’.
I don’t think histories ever have perfectly neat and tidy endings, so the end of the trilogy arguably points the way to possible futures rather than defines a single one that is definitely going to follow. But it is a very definite ending to this particular story. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether it counts as a happy one or not.

DW: I know that you stated that “The Godless World” will remain a trilogy. But would you someday in the future write another novel or series set in this world?
BR: There is certainly some scope – even back when I was writing the first book in this trilogy, I was having ideas for other tales I could tell in this setting. So I won’t say it’s never going to happen. Right now, though, I have no plans to revisit the Godless World. Apart from anything else, it’s a pretty bleak and grim place (at least it is in this trilogy. I like to think there are perhaps places within it where it never snows and no one ever hurts anyone else). I could really do with spending some time in an imagined world that has a bit more sunshine and a slightly longer life expectancy for its inhabitants. It’s an exhausting business, being grim and gritty all the time.
Anyway, I’ve told the story I wanted to tell, and the world was only ever really intended to serve as the backdrop and setting for this one particular story. At the moment I’m more interested in the possibility of new worlds and new stories.

DW: Today it seems that the ecranization of fantasy novels are quite in fashion. Would you like to see your novels put on the big screen? If yes, do you have any particular actor or actress in mind for your characters?
BR: This kind of fantasy is incredibly difficult to turn into movies, I think. There are indeed a lot of fantasy movies around recently – and more in production – but on the whole they’re not this kind of fantasy. Epic, heroic fantasy, aimed at adults and set entirely in an imagined world has never had remotely the kind of box office pull that science fiction does. Not quite sure why that is, but it’s an undeniable truth. The Lord of the Rings movies are the most obvious exception, but they are a special case.
Any aspiring fantasy author who dreams of movie deals would be well advised to steer clear of large scale epics, and ideally I’d suggest they set at least some – and preferably all – of their story in the real world (and possibly include some vampires – the love affair between vampires and the cinema seems to be never-ending). In fact, ideally I’d suggest they stop thinking about movie deals entirely, and concentrate on trying to write a decent book. That’s plenty hard enough as it is.
That said, there are individual scenes in the books that I think would be good on a big screen (I’d like to see the big battle in a snowstorm in ‘Bloodheir’, as directed by Ridley Scott, for example). I had never really thought about actors to play my characters until very recently: I was sitting watching Quantum of Solace, and it suddenly occurred to me that Daniel Craig would be quite good to play Taim Narran. He might need to be a few years older, but other than that he would fit rather well.

DW: How do you consider that your novels were received so far? What signs did you receive from fans, readers and publishers? Also, what do you think about fantasy genre? Do you think that fantasy novels are underappreciated?
BR: On the whole, I’d say the reception for the books has been pretty good. I’ve had plenty of positive feedback from readers, and it’s difficult to explain just how encouraging and rewarding every single e-mail like that you get is, even if all it says is ‘I like your books’. Sales have been good enough to give a bit of encouragement to everyone involved (but not so good I’ll be buying that Aston Martin supercar I’ve had my eye on any time soon). The publisher still responds to my e-mails, and that can only be a good sign, right?
As for the fantasy genre as a whole, it seems to be doing pretty well at the moment. The last few years have seen a steady stream of debut authors turning up, a lot of them evidently bringing new and distinctive voices to the genre (although I have to admit I have not read many of the recent newcomers: it might seem odd, but for a variety of reasons I think I’m reading less fantasy now that I’m an author in that field than I was before). The biggest sellers in the genre are selling huge numbers of books, and plenty of the rest of us are selling respectable numbers.
Do I think fantasy novels are underappreciated? Perhaps, but I honestly can’t get too worked up about it. It’s kind of traditional for readers and some authors to bemoan the lack of respect their genre gets from outside it, but the more I think about it the less convinced I am that we really have too much to complain about. Sure, there are lots of unfair preconceptions out there about what fantasy is and the kind of people who read it, but the same is true of many genres.
If I wanted to get attention from mainstream literary critics, for example, I should have written a mainstream literary novel. I didn’t, so it would unreasonable to expect to be taken seriously by those who use the standards and traditions of literary fiction to assess worth. And if those standards and traditions were used to measure the worth of my work – and the majority of commercial fantasy like it – frankly, I would fail the test. And that’s absolutely as it should be, because I didn’t enter myself for that test in the first place, and wasn’t trying to satisfy those kind of criteria. I wrote the trilogy for fantasy readers, so they’re really the only people whose opinion I care about.

DW: Your name is associated with authors such as George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell and other heroic fantasy authors. How do you feel about this association? Do you consider that in the future such an association can act as a burden on your writing career?
BR: Well, you can’t really complain about being mentioned in the same sentence as such giants of the fantasy field. If I ended up having half the career, or half the talent, of people like Martin or Gemmell, I’d count myself extremely fortunate. People use descriptions like this as a shorthand to try to convey the tone and feel of the books, I suppose, but I don’t think it means much beyond that.
To a large extent, you make your own burdens in writing, as in much of life. I can’t really control what comparisons reviewers and readers choose to make, and as many wise people have often said, if you’re going to worry about stuff, worry about the stuff you can control not the stuff you can’t. All I can do is write what I feel inclined to write, and what I feel capable of writing, and try to improve as I go along. That’s the only burden I’m really prepared to acknowledge (and it’s plenty big enough, especially the bit about trying to improve!). It may or may not turn out to be a successful career plan, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment so fingers crossed.

DW: In the future would you like to write or experiment other genres too or would you stick to the fantasy genre?
BR: Like most writers, I have far more ideas than I have time to implement them. Fantasy is such a broad genre (so broad, in fact, that it serves almost no purpose as a label) that it offers immense room for experimentation: enough to keep any writer busy for a lifetime, if they wanted. Do I have ideas for non-fantasy stuff too? Certainly. Will I ever do anything with them? I don’t know. Maybe one day. And what about other forms of fiction? There is nothing sacred about the novel as the only or best way to tell fictional stories. The idea of writing for film, or TV, or radio, or comics appeals to me (both creatively and economically!). But liking the idea and actually deciding to do something about it are two different things. I might never do any of it, and that would be okay too.

DW: After finishing “The Godless World” trilogy do you have any immediate plans? Do you know already what your next novel would be about?
BR: My very immediate plans revolve around short stories. It’s quite refreshing to go back to working at that much shorter length.
I have yet to finalise plans for what comes next on the book front with the publisher, so I don’t want to make too many assumptions. My best guess is that it’ll be a stand alone fantasy novel, set in a new world. But who knows? The future is never set in stone. Anything is possible. Well, not anything. Me winning the Nobel Prize for Literature any time soon is probably not going to happen, but aside from that …

Thank you very much for your amiability, time and answers. It has been a pleasure :)


Mulluane said...

Great interview! I have my eye on this one for a series review.

Jeff C said...

Nice interview, Dark Wolf. Though it sounds like it will be 2 years after Fall of Thanes is published before we hear from him again, since he isnt yet working on his next novel.

Hopefully Fall of Thanes sells like crazy and we get another book in that world next.

Mihai A. said...

Mulluane, thank you very much :) I will look forward to your interview :)

Jeff, thank you very much :) Let's hope that Brian will publish a new book sooner. I really like his writing so far :)