An interview with the creator of Morlock Ambrosius on characters, writing, mythology, and fantasy
James Enge’s third novel, The Wolf Age, was very recently published by Pyr Books. As a newcomer to his work, I thought I’d send him a few questions about his novels, writing and influences, and he was kind enough to take the time to answer them. So, without further ado, here’s the interview...
Morlock Ambrosius is quite an unusual protagonist. Could you tell us a little bit more about him, and also how you came up with the idea of him?
He’s the son of Merlin and Nimue; he’s a gifted maker of things (magical and mundane) with some personal issues (e.g. alcoholism and carrying a torch for his ex-wife); he’s a dangerous person who’s attended by an even darker halo of legends or slanders. As Blood of Ambrose opens he’s several centuries old, which is incredibly ancient by one standard. On the other hand, his father was a thousand years old when Morlock was born, so maybe he’s just hitting his stride.
As a character, Morlock had his genesis in irritation, I guess. I was reading (or rereading) Wells’ The Time Machine and I was annoyed at the way he stacked the deck against the Morlocks. Sure: maybe they’re not so pretty; they live underground; they have a meat tooth. But the case can be made that they are human whereas the pretty, vacant and empty Eloi are clearly not. This merged with a parallel irritation I’d long had with Tolkien: that he tries to bias the reader against Dwarves and toward Elves. I mean, here are the Dwarves, travelling on their own business through Mirkwood, and the Elf King locks them up. What does he want from them? Money. Tolkien’s view? “Still, Elves they are and remain, and that is Good People.” I hated the Elves in The Hobbit, and hated still more that Tolkien tried to get us to like them. I’d already read The Lord of the Rings, as it happens, so I knew JRRT could be less ham-handed when he was on his game, but this still bugs me whenever I reread The Hobbit. And the Arthurian stuff I was reading around the same time was full of names that sounded an awful lot like Morlock: there was Morgan, Mordred, Morholt, Morgause. These ideas clumped together in my subconscious until this Morlock Ambrosius guy emerged from the depths, who was somehow connected to the Dwarves and to the Arthur legends.
Shakespeare fans will see a lot of Richard III in Morlock’s literary DNA too – both the historical Richard (a pretty sober and reliable person, as kinslayers go) and the monstrous Tudor legend.
Morlock was originally supposed to be to Merlin something like what Mordred was to Arthur. But there really wasn’t any place for him in the already-overcrowded Arthurian mythos. So I ended up throwing all that junk out and spinning tales of Morlock in this other world where (my version of) Merlin came from, and where he was dragged back after he disappeared from Arthur’s story. Around the same time, I made him less of a Byronic Mary Sue sort of character. The stories worked better then, though it was still a long time before any of them made it into print.
What drew you to the fantasy genre, and who would you say is the biggest influence on your work?
Tolkien to start, I guess. I’d read other fantastical stuff before I came across Tolkien (like the Norse myths in the D’Aulaires’ awesome children’s book Norse Gods and Giants, and some of Asimov’s sci-fi), but reading The Lord of the Rings at a young age was a mind-bending experience that my mind never unbent from. It’s fashionable to spit on Tolkien nowadays, but I don’t get that. Take people who sneer at Tolkien’s style, for instance. If they could write as well as he did, this would be a different and a better world.
After Tolkien, I guess the biggest influence on me would be American writers of sword-and-sorcery (and the allied genre of sword-and-planet): Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance and Leigh Brackett. They are explicitly and unapologetically writing adventure fiction in fantastic worlds, but the adventures and the risks in their fiction are not merely material, and each one is a brilliant stylist (among other things). I like Zelazny’s description of his masterwork, the original Amber series: “a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.” That’s what I try to write: philorohorrmorbmance.
Morlock is now on to his third full-length adventure. What can new readers expect from the three novels, Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way, and especially your latest novel, The Wolf Age? Where do you see the series going in the future?
But it might be more useful to know that the three books are not a trilogy in any sense. You know how some of these trilogies go: a story begins in book one; the heroes mope around in book two, do a lot of walking and such; stuff actually starts to happen again in book three. I didn’t want to write something like that. So, each one of these books stands by itself. “All you guys say that!” one of my brothers shouted at me over the phone recently, but in this case it’s really true. Some people have read and liked This Crooked Way without even realizing that there was another Morlock book before it. Each of the books has Morlock in or near the center, but each one tells a distinct story (or set of stories) which are complete within one volume.
Blood of Ambrose is a tale of civil war in an empire where the previous ruler has been murdered and the heir to the throne is too young to assume power. Morlock and his formidable sister Ambrosia have the task of defending the young king from a usurper without becoming usurpers themselves. It’s a story about growing up in a world afflicted by magicians and monsters, some of whom are related to you. So, essentially, this is a story of the real world, snuck into an imaginary world.
This Crooked Way is about family, too, in a way: who counts as family, what you should do for them, what you can’t do for them. With extra helpings of violence, miracles, and magic. So, again, very like real life. The story finds Morlock adrift in the world, fending off attacks from an enemy who only slowly reveals himself. It’s an episodic novel, openly modelled on the fix-up books of sword-and-sorcery I loved reading as a kid (e.g. the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber).
In The Wolf Age, I wanted to put the family issues aside and I also wanted to experiment with a government which wasn’t in any way like the usual king-y, duke-y, pseudo-feudal state of Fantasyland. Timocracy was what I decided to go with: a society where you have more power if people grant you more honor (τιμή, in Greek). The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a wolf pack... and I already knew there was a city of werewolves in the northern part of Morlock’s world. So I decided Morlock should get stuck there during an election year, and he eventually does, after breaking out of a werewolf prison. There are elements of horror and humor in all three books, but this may be the grimmest of the three.
As for the future of the series: I have a sense of where it will go – in fact, I have Morlock’s whole bio sketched out, so that I can write stories in whatever part of his life that suits me. So there are stories out there set long before Blood of Ambrose (e.g. “A Covenant with Death” and “The Red Worm’s Way”, which appeared in the old Flashing Swords e-zine; also “The Singing Spear” published last year in the Strahan/Anders anthology Swords and Dark Magic; and, most recently, the novellete Travellers’ Rest, released as a free ebook by Pyr). And there are a couple published that take place after The Wolf Age: “A Book of Silences” and “Fire and Sleet”. But I’d rather not be too specific about Morlock’s future career because my current ideas may be wrong. There was one major development late in The Wolf Age, for instance, that I didn’t expect at all, and will definitely impact tales I tell in the future.
What’s your opinion of the genre as a whole today?
The genre is too big for me to have an opinion of it as a whole... but that, itself, says something, I guess. Fantasy is spreading through all literary categories and is becoming the dominant mode of literary expression, the way naturalism was for so long. This has good points and bad points. The more commonplace fantasy is, the less fantastic it is. A unicorn who’s used as a can-opener (as in Zelazny’s “Unicorn Variation”) ceases, in some fundamental way, to be a unicorn. Elfland is fast becoming a suburb of Poughkeepsie.
On the other hand: it’s a lot easier to find good fantasy fiction nowadays than in my feckless youth, when fantasy novels were relatively rare beasts.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have a specific working practice?
I love writing, and I still get a buzz when someone approaches me with one of my books and wants me to sign it. There’s a lot of anxiety in the life of a professional writer, but most of this is eased for me by having a day job. One thing I don’t know that I do well as a writer is the social stuff. Social networking, online and offline, is a big part of the writer’s job nowadays, and if I could do that capably I’d probably be one of these well-adjusted people who don’t feel the urge to invent monsters or characters that kill them.
Writing is different from publishing, but I’ve had great experiences with editors: John O’Neill at Black Gate, and Lou Anders at Pyr. They’re careful and critical readers who haven’t lost their enthusiasm for genre fiction.
As for my writing practice... I’m a pretty unsystematic person. Usually a story grows in my mind, bugging me and bugging me until I feel I have to write it. This is not the recommended method for serious writers, I know, but it seems to be the way my machinery works. And since there is always a number of stories bugging me, I manage to be fairly productive.
How do you juggle being a writer with your responsibilities as a university instructor? Does this work inform your writing in any way?
University teachers get a lot of time off, so I get a lot written during the summer and other breaks. It’s not too tricky to balance the workloads, even for someone as lazy as me.
But the day-job definitely has an impact, not least because it’s not just a job. Classics is a lifelong obsession of mine, like fantasy, and the border between the two obsessions is extremely permeable. I seriously think Ovid and Vergil are best understood as fantasists, for instance, and when rereading the coarsely-detailed battle-scenes in Iliad recently I was forcibly reminded of Joe Abercrombie’s fiction.
One of the things I teach regularly is myth (Greek and Roman myth usually, Norse when I can sneak it in) and I steal from that stuff constantly when I’m telling a story. For instance, there’s a stretch of The Wolf Age that has Morlock taking a trip to the underworld and back. Mythical heroes do this sometimes: the technical term is katabasis. Odysseus does it; Heracles does it; Aeneas does it – Luke Skywalker even does it (in The Empire Strikes Back)! So Morlock passes through a kind of underworld, and in the process I stole a bunch of stuff from Vergil’s Aeneid. The two main principles govern this sort of theft: (a.) never do it to something that’s under copyright, and even more importantly (b.) the borrowing has to work within the context of the story or it’s no good. Whatever you borrow has to become a native part of your own fiction. People will enjoy this stuff only if it’s impactful storytelling and not because they say, “Aha, I see that allusion to the classics.”
Another thing I get to do as a classics lecturer is to tell stories to a live audience. It’s a tremendous experience that I strongly recommend to writers. Telling a story aloud is different in kind from literary storytelling, but you get a vivid sense of the kinds of things that work and don’t work for the listeners – what moves them, what makes them mad, what makes them laugh, what shocks them. Storytelling in front of a live audience is scary because you’re working without a net, but it’ll teach you a lot about audiences, stories, and yourself.
The Author & A Great Big Foot
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I have a couple of book-length non-Morlock projects that I’m hoping will see the light of day – a mythological fantasy about the Trojan War and a piece of straight-up historical fiction set in the late Roman Republic. I wrote a mythological fantasy about Vergil, a novelette which should see light this year in an anthology from Drollerie Press, Trafficking with Magic/Magicking with Traffic (edited by Sarah Avery and David Sklar). Meanwhile, more Morlock stories stew and bubble in my subconscious.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction), and which books of 2011 are you most looking forward to?
I usually have several books going. Right now I’m rereading Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, about the endgame of the U.S. Civil War, and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which is a fantasy novel from before fantasy novels were invented. I’m also reading a YA fantasy novel which I can’t talk about but which someday everyone will be. [You tease! - CR]
As to stuff I’m looking forward to: it may look like logrolling, because we’re both Pyr authors, but I really want to read Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels. It sort of looks like Crawford Kilian’s Empire of Time or Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium – my favorite parallel-world novels from decades past. Another book due out soon is Howard Jones’ The Desert of Souls. I’ve already read it (because the writer is a friend of mine) but I’m looking forward to buying and rereading it. You’ll only like it if you like deftly written historical fantasy that’s drenched in mystery and adventure. Another book I’m hoping to read soon is a collection of older work, Shannach the Last: Farewell to Mars. It’s the last in Stephen Haffner’s series of monumental collections of Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances.
Any final comments/thoughts?
Thanks for this opportunity to rant at you and your readers. Anyone who’s read this far might be interested in my page of online stories, where they can read some of the stuff I mention above. (It’s not the burial ground of stories I couldn’t sell, by the way: all the fiction there was accepted by an editor.)
A big thank-you to James Enge for taking the time to answer these questions! I would certainly recommend his work to any fan of fantasy, and I look forward to reviewing the adventures of Morlock Ambrosius on the site in the very near future. Knowing that they are not a sequential series of novels, I will probably start with the Wolf Age – werewolf politics? Sounds awesome.