Monday 27 January 2020

Between the Cliffs and the Forest by Steve Gladwin

My interview with Jackie Marchant, author of The Sword of Red.

The mist clears to reveal the cliffs of Jackie's Langrinia

At the age of thirteen I remember sitting down with a notebook to write my epic fantasy - I'd probably read The Lord of the Rings or something! I began a story called 'The Chronicles of Acteon', set to work with a will, before abandoning it a few chapters later. Shame, that, as I had had - like so many young writers - such wonderful names for the twenty five plus chapters, only to find that what seems a great idea at the time, soon became just a stick to beat myself with.

'The Chronicles of Acteon', which no-one else remembers, were inspired by The Trigan Empire,  a serial created by Don Lawrence in the children's magazine Look and Learn, something which I was weekly riveted by, even though I don't remember ever getting to read the end. 

By one of those happy coincidences, we long deprived Trigan Empire fans are living at exactly the right point in time, as the original twelve volume series will be released, beginning March 19th, in just four volumes,

I've also been revisiting my love of seventies Marvel comic book art and the particular writing and drawing talents of the teams who brought everyone's favourite Cimmerian, Robert E Howard's Conan, to life, namely writer Roy Thomas, and artists Barry Smith and John Buscema. This set me to purchasing rather too many of the aforesaid on kindle, including a fascinating volume by Roy Thomas describing how he set about adapting the initial run of Conan comics and thus recreating Howard's Hyborian age for new fans. And like the average Trigan Empire fan, you've picked a fine time to be alive, as right now, any number of Conan Marvel re-runs are available and a whole new series of his adventures to boot scripted by Jason Aaron and in the sort of glorious colours and detail we 70's fans could only have dreamed about.

So how did they do it, these creators of magical worlds? How did your Tolkiens and Moorcocks, Pratchetts and Robert E Howards, Le Guins and Guy Gavriel Kay's go about it building an entirely new world.

Luckily my friend Jackie Marchant is around to give us some of the answers, as the same goddess of happy timing provided me, at that very moment, with The Sword of Red, the first book of her proposed YA fantasy series. I'd been excited about it since she told us about it on a Folly Farm Writers Retreat in 2015, then still a sprawling behemoth she hadn't yet managed to control.

So  without more ado!

Photo by Jo Cotterill

Jackie, the first thing that struck me when I started reading your book was just how much I was enjoying it and therefore how much I must have missed out on all those great fantasy books. Can I ask you first where fantasy actually ranks in your favourite genres of books and if it is high, why is that?

I read a wide variety of genres, but most of my fantasy reading is children’s and YA – How to Train your Dragon, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc etc.  One of my favourite books of all time is The Hobbit.  I absolutely love fantasy films and TV – Star Wars, Game of Thrones, all things Marvel and I’m a huge fan of Dr Who.  So, I suppose fantasy rates fairly high.  I think it’s the escapism that I en joy, or the fact that there are other worlds out there with worse problems than ours!

Most of the time trying to explain someone else's plot seems a fairly second-rate exercise when we can get it straight from the horse’s mouth. So perhaps you could give us all a brief rundown on Neekra’s story without giving anything vital away.

I’m very much character driven in my writing, and I’ve enjoyed watching Neekra develop.  I’m so happy that she’s not yet another feisty heroine!  But then she doesn’t have to compete with the men in her world, because in her world everyone is equal.  She is very slight in build, but her grace and speed have helped her win many sword-fights against far bigger, stronger opponents, both men and women.  And she lives to fight, so she loves every minute of it.  She’s also passionate about the ways of the Forest and would give her life to defend it.  I could write pages about Neekra, but I’d better stop there.

I’ve already said how the whole idea of world building has always fascinated me, and I’ve been somewhat in awe of those who can truly manage it. It’s both a huge responsibility and a great thrill, I think. How did you go about creating your own particular world and within that are there any particular rules you think you need to bear in mind?

Inspiration for Jackie's Yuke trees - the life blood of Langrinia

I’m very much a panster.  That means I start writing and let the story come gushing out – mostly all over the place!  But I learn about my world as I write.  I’ve discovered that Langrinia is an island protected by fierce one-way currents and high cliffs.  It’s covered in thick forest, apart from a tiny patch at the tip, where generations of refugee Rebels have lived.  Sword-fighting is a way of life.  Going to the yard for a fight is like going down the pub.  They hunt with bows and arrows.

But, in a land covered in forest, where does the iron come from to make swords and arrows?  Where are the mines?  I realised that there aren’t any.  But they do have a very special tree, called the yuke.  Yukes are massive and grow high above the treeline, reaching their branches over the Forest.  Their wood matures to such hardness, its swords could match an iron sword any day, while being much lighter and sharp as a razor.

I spend a lot of time in my world, (which means I stare into space and bump into things rather a lot) – and I absolutely love it there.  So, my ‘rule’ would be to keep asking yourself questions about your world and go live there to find the answers – while trying not to bump into things. 

Let’s talk about influences. Who are the world builders you admire and why? Who are both the older and more modern fantasy writers we should seek out and why?

Jackie finds inspiration while walking her dog in the woods.

As soon as you say ‘world building’ I think Game of Thrones.  Whatever you say about his writing, George R R  Martin knows how to build a world.  Tolkein’s Middle Earth is beautifully realised.  Philip Pullman’s alternative Oxford, the world of Harry Potter, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, to name but a few. 

Now you’re probably best known for your Dougal Daley books and he couldn’t be more different from Neekra in The Sword of Red. What’s the difference in feeling with these characters? I suspect most of us have an inner Dougal for example.

I’m sure many of us have an inner Neekra as well!  As well as being character driven, I also very much go with the flow.  I had no idea that Dougal was funny until a publisher said how much they liked my humour.  I wondered whether my fantasy would be humorous, but it most definitely isn’t!  However, with the two being so different, it means I can work on them both at the same time.  When I need a rest from one, I can work on the other.

In a recent interview you said, I thought very honestly, that the best advice you would give an aspiring writer, apart from read and read and read, would be to forget the idea of approaching a publisher as soon as your book is finished.  Instead you should go away and have a full life, before returning to it much later and imagining your worst enemy has written it. Has it been a struggle with you finding and continuing to find people interested in your work?

I think it’s a huge struggle for everyone.  Not only in finding a publisher, but in staying published.  So, I would always say to rest your work and go over it again before submitting – although once published and subjected to deadlines, that’s not always easy.

Now The Sword of Red has an array of fascinating characters, all of whom I thoroughly enjoy. You’ve said that you start something by having the character first. Are there any characters in the story who you feel particularly close to, or proud of. How did they come about?

I dream them.  I live in my world and meet them.  Sometimes I see someone in the street who looks like one of my characters and have to be very careful not to stare at them.  For me, there is no greater pleasure than living with my characters, whether they make me laugh or cry.  Or scream.  I’ve come across a few of those in Langrinia.  But my favourite character’s journey starts in the second book of the quartet, so I can’t say anything about why without a spoiler!

The essential conflict in Sword of Red concerns the protagonist Neekra needing to have the antagonist Pool as an ally in order to save the Forest. Is a situation where someone is forced to do something they wouldn’t normally consider, something that appeals to you?

Being a panster, I let the story come splurging out and only then do I discover all these themes, mostly because my readers spot them.  You’ve summed Neekra’s particular conflict up very well for me, so thank you!  (and yes, now you mention it, it does appeal.)

Finally, I obviously should ask you if there are going to be more stories. I certainly hope there are.

The Sword of Red is the first of four.  I actually wrote the fourth book, The Swordmaker, first, as a standalone.   But it had such a massive back-story I had to write a prequel.  But that had such a massive back-story, I had to write a prequel to that.  The Sword of Red is the prequel to that book, and where the story begins.  That’s what comes from being a panster, I suppose.

Thanks Jackie, for sharing your thoughts with me and abba readers.

You are welcome, thank you for having me.

The Sword of Red is Published by BLKDOG, as an e-book and POD.  Available from Amazon. 

NB After what turned to be only a brief absence I'm ple ased to say that I've been inveigled back into the abba fold by a promise of virtual cake. I'll be here from 16th next month to continue interviewing as many writers as I can persuade to join me. My theme will be Writers and their Landscape, beginning with Sue Purkiss herself - she who inveigled me with the cake in the first place. I'll be looking forward to talking to all manner of writers in the next few months, including the Lady of Stonewylde herself, Kit Berry, Canada-based US author, Scott Telek, creator of The Swithen, a  vast, psychologically astute and above all brilliantly realised new entry in the Arthurian corpus, with twenty more volumes to come, and Ellen Caldecott, about her unique new novel The Short Knife, which also explores and celebrates the evolution of the language of these isles. But, returning to the theme of landscape, I have a feeling we might be hearing more from Jackie and Neekra's world of Langrinia, between the cliffs and the forest.

Steve Gladwin - Story Magic

Concept, Creation, Editing and Enhancement
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'

T​elephone 01938 500728 Mobile 07485 007189

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