Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Six Questions for MD Lachlan (Gollancz)


An interview with the author of Wolfsangel

Wolfsangel offers a twist on the werewolf myth, and marks the beginning of a superbly written fantasy epic that spans hundreds of years of our history to bring Norse legends and the myth of the werewolf to blood-curdling life. After reading Wolfsangel, I found that I had a handful of questions I wanted to ask the author, and thanks to the wonder that is Twitter, I contacted Lachlan and was kind enough to take some (considerable) time and provide some answers to them.

1. What drew you to Norse mythology & why or how did you come up with the idea for Wolfsangel, & this particular werewolf 'breed'?

Lachlan-WolfsangelI’ve been a Norse nut since being a kid. I read about them in library books starting at about aged eight. Originally, the series began in World War II and the Norse episode was a flashback to the werewolf’s creation. I realised when writing the first chapter that the werewolf had lived for a very long time and that, as he was drinking a whisky looking at the full moon when the book started, that he wasn’t a conventional ‘skin splitter’ as we’ve come to expect from Hollywood.

My werewolf is nearer to the Norse conception of the creature: someone becomes a wolf either by choice, through sorcery, or as a curse. The idea of werewolves changing with the full moon is a very late one – it doesn’t arrive even in film until the 1950s, although there are a few earlier examples. Even in The Wolfman (1941), the Lon Chaney film, the creature doesn’t change with the full moon. Similarly, the werewolves of legend don’t transfer their curse through a bite. This is something that arrived with horror films and novels.

So my werewolf is nearer to an older, traditional werewolf. These werewolves couldn’t always turn back into humans, either. I think the interesting thing about the werewolf is how his wolf nature intersects with his humanity. My idea of the werewolf was to try to make it truly horrific, in that the wolf consumes the man’s personality, destroys everything he loves.

2. What sort of research did you do for the novel? How did you find the whole process?

I didn’t have to do too much, as I’ve spent a lifetime being interested in this sort of thing.  The magical sections were all things I knew about anyway – stuff drawn from Norse, Celtic and Mayan cultures along with other ascetic traditions. I was very interested in witchcraft and the occult from a very early age and all of that went into the novel. All the rest of it, I research as I write. When I find something I don’t know, I just move on and look it up later. There are difficult things – language, how extensive the deck is on a trading longship, do Vikings wear makeup (yes), the religious climate of the day, but that’s part of the fun of writing.  I very much enjoy finding out about the historical world my work’s set in and incorporating a bunch of other ideas I’ve had down the years. It’s a challenge to make the characters convincingly “of their time”. I want my characters to act and think as people from the 9th Century, not 21st Century people in helmets and armour. For this reason I agonised about putting a love story into the book. However, there are enough contemporary references to love to make it historically possible, if not common, for two people to love each other in a sense we would understand today.

History can achieve one of the aims of fantasy – to show us different worlds, different ways of thinking.  The risk is that if you’re too successful in your depiction of early medieval thinking, characters come over as too alien or unsympathetic but I’d rather have that than having a Viking with a modern outlook. The heroine of my new book, Fenrir, for instance, is a Frankish aristocrat and quite a snob. This doesn’t change, really, throughout the book. She’s a woman of her background. She has many good qualities – she’s brave, resourceful, clever and resilient. But she is still going to expect the peasants to do exactly as she says, when she says it, and never question her commands. She won’t view the death of a farm worker as anywhere near as meaningful as the death of a lord.  I could have made her a modern egalitarian and readers might have liked her more. I could have had her learn the value of humility. But it would have been very unrealistic. It’s simply not how she’s been raised and, to her, there is no value in humility. Her pride is the product of a god-ordained social order. Vali, in Wolfsangel, however, sees himself on more of a level with ordinary farmers. This is because he was raised in a much smaller society and dealt with these people every day of his life, even living in their houses. As a warlord’s son, he farms himself. So there is a marked difference of view between an early/mid-medieval Frankish lady and a late Dark Ages son of a warlord.

You can’t give the daughter of Robert the Strong the outlook of a modern woman just because she will reflect your readers’ views more closely and make them warm to her more easily. We come to fantasy for strangeness, among other things, and it seems a cop-out to ignore that strangeness when history presents you with it. I think fantasy writers are entitled to ask a little of their readers. You come to this genre to be amazed, to be shocked, to be thrilled and even disturbed. So go with that. Don’t always look for easy certainties and cosy, comfortable characters. Fantasy can be a challenging and radical genre. You’re missing out if you come to it just looking for a mirror of yourself.

Don’t think I'm knocking traditional, epic fantasy here. There’s a place for it, just as there’s a place for the new wave of so-called “gritty” fantasy writing, some of which is very good. It’s a broad genre and if you want to read about a downtrodden but plucky servant boy who turns out to be the wizard/warrior the world has been waiting for and battles the Orcs or Orc-substitutes to take the X to the temple of Y with the help of the Elves or Elf-equivalents and save the world/girl in a clash of Mithril and adverbs, then you’ll get no argument from me. Similarly, if you want to read about a washed-up, one-spell wizard who finds himself running errands for the murkiest of Troll gangster lords and who blunders into a situation way over his head, you’ll probably have to borrow the book off me.  I want to read those stories sometimes. It’s just that I don’t have much interest in writing them. Or rather, I couldn’t write them. You have to really love a story to write it well. You only have to like it to read it.

So, to sum up, as a historical fantasy writer, I’m all for historical accuracy. That said, I believe there is room for characters who do not reflect absolutely the prevalent thinking of their day. There are streams of thought that run through any age and not all of them go in the same direction. The Vikings were a warrior culture who prized strength and skill in battle, ostentatious displays of wealth and who didn’t regard death with the same fear we do today. But that’s not to say everyone felt like that. Our society, for instance, is founded on the acquisition of personal wealth. Wealthy people are looked up to and people seek to emulate them. However, not everyone does. There are plenty of people who swim against mainstream opinion, so I think it’s as realistic to have a Viking who’s ambivalent about fighting as it is a university graduate who’s not interested in making money.

I really enjoy the task of creating a memorable and believable story which gives people an insight into the thinking of characters who may not be very much like themselves. This is one of the reasons I like historical fantasy because I think people get a true sense of strangeness when they read; for instance, someone describing a town of 100 houses as “vast” , or seeing a wolf shaman through the eyes of fearful villagers who interpret him as something from a myth and really believe he is a werewolf.

3. What can we expect from Fenrir and other future volumes in the series?


I’m very proud of Fenrir. I think it may be the best book I’ve written. It virtually wrote itself inside six months, which is a good sign. It takes off where Wolfsangel finishes, and explains more about the magical background to the novel – exactly what the mad god Odin is up to. It’s much faster-paced than Wolfsangel, which is saying something because I think Wolfsangel is quite fast paced. I wrote it as “24 with a werewolf” but it turned into something a bit different, though still with a very fast-moving plot.

Writing is, to an extent, a game of pot luck. You start a story and wonder what sort of characters are going to turn up in it. Sometimes no one interesting appears and you have to start again. Fenrir seemed to bring in a whole bunch of characters who – and I know this sounds pretentious – I enjoyed meeting. It begins with the Viking siege of Paris in 885, and goes on from there. The same mythic forces are operating as in Wolfsangel, but the plot is more linear. There are two main characters – one male, one female and a host of major supporting characters including two Norse shamans, a fat Viking, a Slavic merchant and a few kings. The fat Viking in particular surprised me, because he was meant to have one line in the whole book but he decided somehow to take it over. Saitada did this in Wolfsangel. You really long for a character to do that because, if as the writer you’re fascinated by them, then the chances are the reader will be too.

Future volumes in the series will follow the central struggle between Odin and the Fenris Wolf down the centuries, and chart the stories of those who find themselves caught up in it. I have stories mapped out for WWI and for the modern day. The third book, however, takes place at the end of the 10th Century, so we have a way to go through history yet!

4. How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Frustrations, pleasant surprises, writing process, etc.?

I love being a writer and wouldn’t want to do anything else. It’s what I feel I was born to do, and I take it very seriously. That means reading a lot, thinking a lot about writing and trying always to be better. I try to take on board criticism of my work and to learn from it.  There’s nothing I’d rather do. Given the choice between the TV, the pub, the cinema, a PC game or an evening’s writing, I’ll go for the evening’s writing. If I’m in the flow of a novel I find normal life a very irritating interruption. Luckily, I have an understanding wife.

Frustrations? Hmm. Well, there’s the up-and-down nature of artistic careers. You can’t tell why a book succeeds and another fails sometimes. I was convinced that my third mainstream novel under my real name – Lucky Dog – was very good. It didn’t sell well, though, despite good reviews. Sometimes you can’t explain these things. Perhaps I was wrong about it, and it wasn’t very good, you never know.

Pleasant surprises would include how well received Wolfsangel has been. For good or for bad, it’s not a typical fantasy tale and, for that reason, I was anxious that people wouldn’t get it. It contains two very distinct forms of writing – one an adventure story, and another that operates in the area of hallucination, dream and myth. Putting the two together felt natural to me but I wasn’t sure everyone – or anyone – would feel the same way. There are moments that are deliberately jarring, too. Not everyone likes to be jarred!

The writing process, for me, just involves writing the book as quickly as I can and then meticulously rewriting it, trying to be as savage and unsparing as I can with my own work. I’m not an author who thinks “oh well, the story’s a belter, I won’t worry too much about the odd cliché here and there, or a bit of wooden dialogue or bad description.” Or, as one author I know said: “Grammar? I leave that to the editor.” To me, it’s important that every word in the story earns its keep. If it doesn’t, it goes. I’m lucky enough to work with a truly excellent copy editor so, if I miss lines like “he froze and drew his sword”, at least I know someone is going to put a blue pen through them.

The one piece of advice I always give to new writers is, “Remember, it’s only ink on paper.” Or pixel on screen. If something isn’t working just throw it away and start again. And listen to other people. Samuel Johnson once said,

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

If you think something’s brilliant and your editor thinks its overblown pretentious muck, the chances are it’s overblown pretentious muck. I once fell in love with the word “calefaction” and used it in a novel. I should have been whipped for the offence and if I could go back in time and chop it away to replace it with the word “heat”, I would. Too late, though. If in doubt, chop it out.

I do love revising the work. Very often – when I’m rewriting fantasy – I’ll then try to listen to music that seems appropriate to the writing, or read poetry that’s in the same area to try to really get in the mood to put some energy into the language. Fenrir was written to The Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and while I was rereading Ted Hughes’s poetry. I also – and I know how pretentious this sounds – reread Macbeth. Shakespeare was a terrific fantasy author and a name I often mention if people say genre is incapable of producing great writing. I want that mythic quality in my own work; the sense that this is part of a story that has been told for a very long time and says something fundamental about us. OK, I might not quite reach the heights of Shakespeare, but it’s that sense of myth-making I’m aiming for. Paradoxically, if fantasy is to work, I think it needs to feel real and rooted.

5. Do you have plans for any other novels outside/beyond this series (different genres, different worlds, different times)?

Yes. I am writing a thriller and a “literary novel” (whatever that means). When I say I’m writing them, the first chapters have spilled out of me and I hope to get time to complete them this year, when I finish the third in the Wolfsangel series. They are all, in some way, novels about transformation. They say you only ever write the same novel in different ways.

6. Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction), and which books of 2011 are you most looking forward to?

I’m reading all of Ursula K Le Guin – or quite a lot of her. I think she’s a very good fantasy writer indeed. I’ve just finished the book Tehanu, which is excellent and, to me, shows what fantasy can do as a genre. It’s really about post-traumatic-stress, viewed in one way, and brilliantly and sensitively done. What I love about her writing is the complexity of her characters. If you take the priestess Tenar from The Tombs Of Atuan, for instance, it’s very difficult at first to know if you’re meant to sympathise with her or not. She’s been abused, taken from her family to serve terrible old gods in the sightless darkness of the tombs. But it has made her monstrously cruel. In fact, she’s willed herself to become cruel. However, there’s the sense that she’s redeemable. This is a living, breathing character, not a broad type. Le Guin can also write – that is, turn out interesting, clear, striking sentences that are free of cliché, hokiness, corn, or flab.

I’m also embarking on reading A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I loved the first one and am hoping the second will be as good.

I’m not an early adopter in anything – technology, books, or music, and I’ve only just got a mobile phone, so I probably won’t read anything released in 2011. I’m too busy catching up on the stuff I should have read ten years ago.  I’m planning to read The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Q by Luther Blissett, and Ash by Mary Gentle next year, so once I’ve chewed through those slabs I’ll probably be in the mood for something short and light.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl looks interesting, so I may have a look at that, along with The Silent Land by Graham Joyce and New Model Army by Adam Roberts, which I haven’t read yet. I’m not implying those books are short and light, by the way, but they look interesting.

Children of Húrin [by J.R.R. Tolkien] is on the list, too.


Thanks very much to MD Lachlan for taking the time to provide such in-depth and interesting answers to these questions!

This is the first interview done for Civilian-Reader, and I would like to start including similar interviews alongside future reviews whenever possible.

Wolfsangel is in stores now. Fenrir will be published by Gollancz in May 2011. Here is the synopsis for the second novel:

The Vikings are laying siege to Paris. As the houses on the banks of the Seine burn, a debate rages in the Cathedral on the walled island of the city proper. The situation is hopeless. The Vikings want the Count’s sister, in return they will spare the rest of the city. Can the Count really have ambitions to be Emperor of the Franks if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his people? Can he call himself a man if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his sister? His conscience demands one thing, the demands of state.

The Count and the church are relying on the living saint, the blind and crippled Jehan of St Germain, to enlist the aid of God and resolve the situation for them. But the Vikings have their own gods. And outside their camp a terrifying brother and sister, priests of Odin, have their own agenda. An agenda of darkness and madness. And in the shadows a wolfman lurks.

M.D. Lachlan’s stunning epic of mad Gods, Viking and the myth of Fenrir, the wolf destined to kill Odin at Ragnorok, powers forward into a new territories of bloody horror, unlikely heroism, dangerous religion and breath-taking action.


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