Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a clever introduction to this interview. Then I made a rookie mistake while closing Word.
Today, all I’ve got is that Steven Savile is one of those prolific writers whose output makes the rest of us weep in envy. He’s also an awfully decent bloke, the sort with whom I chat about our expatriate lives on opposite sides of the pond. Perhaps one day we’ll meet in Prague to share that pint.
Brian I don’t know at all except from the glowing things Steve says about his character and the glowing reviews his readers write about his Godling Chronicles. His sales speak for themselves, and of course the fraternity of heroic fantasy writers demands that I stand him a pint one day. Probably not in Prague, but still.
I sent the boys a few questions on the release of their collaboration, Akiri.
Whether casting your mind back to your own childhood or when playing with your child, what do you think of the role of toys and games in developing storytelling skills?
Brian D. Anderson: Interesting. I’ve never considered playing with toys to be a part of that aspect of development. But I suppose it must have contributed to some degree. When I think back, I don’t remember my games being any more imaginative than those of the other kids. Maybe we’re all storytellers when we are young. I absolutely believe games and toys facilitate our capacity for abstract thought. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember there being a beginning, middle, or end to most of it. I guess my games were more theme based, but without structure. I just played until I grew bored.
If I were to trace the original moment, the ground zero of me wanting to become a storyteller, it would have to be listening to my grandfather tell recount moments from his life during the Great Depression. I can still vividly remember trying to guess how a particular adventure would unfold, long before it reached a conclusion, and more often than not be absolutely wrong in my guesses. He was truly gifted when it came to making the mundane seem exciting. He had a wonderfully dry wit that combined with a southern flavor had me hanging on his every word and more often than not laughing my ass off. One of his adventures focused on the difficulty he had providing food for his family. I can still hear his words in my mind: “If someone would have tied a steak to my head, I’d have beaten my brains out with my tongue trying to get it.” After all these years, I still crack a smile thinking about it.
In the end, I think it’s a combination of many things. Toys and games, without a doubt, helped give me the tools. But everything was in the abstract, without form or function or any understanding of how it all fit together. It was other influences that gave it meaning.
Steven Savile: If I close my eyes and think back my earliest memories all revolve around make believe. I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked, but be it games of cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, my Six Million Dollar Man with bionic vision or my many Action Men replete with Eagle and non-Eagle eyes, their trucks and helicopters, HQs, towers and other stuff, we were always telling stories to each other that involved serious derring-do on behalf of our characters. I can remember when I was maybe seven or eight I had three Action Man tapes that told stories that ran about an hour, acted out. There was a jungle one, and I can still hear the narrator splashing through water and panting ‘Dogs… lose… the scent… in water…’ as gunfire exploded around him. You know what, those tapes were brilliant. They were probably my first exposure to tie-in writing of any variety, and probably one of the only gigs I’d go back into the tie-in pool to do, because of the nostalgia value.
I’m a kid of the 70s in terms of that kind of thing, obsessed with Starsky & Hutch, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Who. Doctor Who and Blake’s Seven got us into the playground on a Monday morning pretending to be these guys. I just had a flashback to orchestrating a lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan (a lad called Dennis I haven’t thought about in decades) and Darth Vader (Scott, my best friend at the time) as they acted out the fateful scene where Darth strikes the old Jedi down, making him more powerful than he could ever imagine. The funny thing was they hadn’t seen Star Wars, and I’d been traumatized by the death, so I was completely making it up. It didn’t bear any resemblance to the movie. Boy, did they complain when they finally saw it, but I still feel my directorial debut was pretty strong,
I’m a weird one though. There’s a strong love of genre going way back, sure, but most of my childhood I was climbing rocks, falling out of trees, playing football and cricket and tennis and any other sport imaginable. When I was 19 I ran a half marathon just because a mate phoned up that morning and said one of their team had dropped out and they’d lose the sponsorship money. I was the first to finish from their group, which had been training for months. I was captain of the football, captain of the cricket for my age range, came second in the cross-country run, took first place in long jump, high jump, 100m, 200m, and 400m, and won the 1500 in the Under 16s age group.
For the longest time I didn’t read, didn’t play games, unless they involved balls, and generally figured my future lay in sport somewhere. Even when the writing bug kicked in it was a decision to be a sports writer, not a storyteller. The urge to tell stories didn’t really kick in until much later. I guess I was 21–22 when I wrote and sold my first piece. The thing is, during one long summer vacation with nothing to do I checked a book out of the library—David Eddings’ Enchanter’s Endgame—and was blown away by it. Of course, I had no idea it was the fifth book in a series, so I went back and read the first four in a week. Then it was Hugh Cook’s Wizard and the Warriors, Louise Cooper’s Time Master Trilogy, Elric, Thomas Covenant, David Gemmell’s Legend, Waylander, and King Beyond the Gate, and with the same sort of relentless single-mindedness that had served well on the sports field I threw myself into discovering all of these new worlds. Then, somewhere along the line, maybe when I was reading Jonathan Wylie’s series or Lyndon Hardy’s (one or the other), I had a moment of “You know, I can do this.” I’d never been a campfire storyteller or a big entertainer, but something just clicked.
Reading a story is different from hearing a story. Especially with a work released first (or only) as an audiobook, how does that knowledge affect your writing choices?
Brian D. Anderson: It doesn’t. But I would agree it is different. I was skeptical at first when the popularity of audiobooks began to surge. I’m old school. I like an actual book in hand, complete with dog-eared pages, highlighted sentences, rips and tears from repeated reads, and a cover barely hanging on to the spine because I’ve been unwilling to leave it at home. For those of you who are aghast at such brutal treatment of a book, I only do that to mass market paperbacks. I still don’t own a Kindle, and it’s unlikely I ever will.
Given this, I was surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying audio books. More than that, I really love them. It’s so hard to find time to read these days. And the mountain of books I want to read is growing taller and taller. With audio, I can enjoy a story whenever I want. I’ve read three books—well, listened to three to be accurate—while walking on the treadmill. Two more while just running errands. It’s awesome! Don’t get me wrong. It’s no replacement for curling up on the couch and reading. But if I had to wait around for those moments, it would take me weeks to read one book.
So while audio doesn’t impact the way I write, it has influenced the way I think about my readers. Having a quality audio book is important. More so than I would have thought only a few years ago. Though I can’t see myself writing a book for audio only, neither can I see myself writing one without audio as an option.
Steven Savile: Oh man, I can’t listen to my stuff in audio. I had the privilege of doing one of the first Torchwood audios with the cast narrating—I got Naoko Mori, and I’m told she’s fantastic, but I listened to the first paragraph, heard her put the emphasis on all the wrong parts of the sentences, and turned off. It was torture. In the writing process it had been interesting, too, from an editorial aspect—my first draft was sent back with a note asking if I was a sadist, basically because I’d given a bunch of ‘tough’ names like Katsani (I think it’s easy, but hey-ho) to characters, and written these long convoluted sentences that were tongue-twisters. So I was asked to rewrite it top to bottom and make it short punchy sentences, and to repeat crucial information because people don’t retain stuff when they’re listening.
Akiri‘s interesting in that we got a great deal from Audible, because Brian is basically the audio king when it comes to fantasy—but we always wrote it as a novel to be read the old-fashioned way. It does mean that I’ve had some really interesting emails from the narrator asking how I put the emphasis on these bizarre fantasy world constructions and naming conventions we’ve used. I kinda pity the guy, really. Brian has a habit of throwing a bazillion letters down and saying that looks cool, let’s have that. Honest. It’s him. It’s all him.
What draws you to heroic fantasy when crime novels and other genres have such a larger audience?
Brian D. Anderson: I would say it has to do with what inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I was about eleven years old and my father and I were spending the night at my grandparent’s house. As usual, I slept in my uncle’s childhood bedroom. The headboard of the bed had a bookshelf in the center with a small cubby hole on either side—completely packed with books along with an assortment of odds and ends that my grandparents had never thrown away, and uncle Bob had never cared to take with him. Among the various books was the entire Tom Swift Junior series. The house was deathly quiet at night, and I had a hard time sleeping there. So I would read the adventures of Tom Swift to put myself to sleep.
I had thumbed through nearly every book at one time or another, with the exception of one: A tattered paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Kids get excited by colorful covers and this particular edition was lackluster to say the least. But having read everything else, I gave it a shot. As you can imagine, I was enthralled. The next morning, I called my uncle and begged him to let me take the book home when we left. Naturally, he said yes. From that moment on I devoured any fantasy book I could get my hands on.
We didn’t have a local library, but fortunately the K&B drugstore across the street had a remarkably well-stocked book section. By the time I was thirteen, I was convinced that I would grow up and write the next great fantasy adventure. I suppose that in a small way I’ve realized that dream. I wouldn’t say I’ve written anything that belongs in the same conversation as Tolkien’s work, but I am a writer of fantasy novels. And I love every second of it.
Fantasy novels have a better chance of seeing screen adaptations these days, but it’s still a rare fantasy film or TV series that does the original justice. Apart from special effects, what unique challenges does fantasy pose to live-action adaptation?
With CGI there are very few technological limitations preventing screen adaptations from being made. The challenge for any film based on a novel is how to stay true to the story in a way that works on the big screen. The screenplay has to tease out the essence of a book in such a way that fans are not alienated by the changes necessary for it to translate to a movie. For Example: Peter Jackson did a fantastic job with The Lord of the Rings. But if you really examine the movie closely, it strays from the original plot quite a bit. Even still, Jackson was able to remain faithful to the story enough so that it was very much recognizable as a Tolkien epic.
Steven Savile: You’re asking the man whose latest novel is a collaboration with the excellent Robert Greenberger called Sherlock Holmes and the Murder at Sorrow’s Crown, released by Titan basically now… and whose next novel out in January, also from Titan is a standalone crime novel called Parallel Lines? Honestly, I’m my own worst nightmare—I write where the interest takes me. I’m an idiot in that regard. If I had any business sense I would have written Gold, the follow up to Silver, which was my best-selling novel by miles, when I wrote London Macabre (a sprawling dark Victoriana novel of golems and magic that really wasn’t steampunk when steampunk was hot) instead. I’ve got a bad habit of making weird choices. Fantasy though is where my heart is. It’s what I keep coming back to. It’s what shaped me. It’s where I feel most at home.
The first story I ever sold, “Coming for to Carry You Home,” was published twenty-five years ago. I sent a copy to my dad. He read the first line and locked it in a drawer, telling me it was filth. It was a riff on the careful-what-you-wish-for Faustus idea, but it was from the point of view of a woman in the deep south in the fifties and opened with her recounting some of the names she’d been called by white kids. Mum read it and said, “Well, it’s a bit… strange. You’ve got a funny imagination.” Neither of them read anything I wrote for years after that, but now my mum’s pretty much hooked. I love the fact she’s always like, “That was really good!” as if it’s a surprise that after thirty novels I’m beginning to get the hang of making shit up.
For the past couple of decades, “Grimdark” and antiheroes have become popular. Do we need an antidote to that gritty fantasy? Or do morally ambiguous protagonists make fantasy more legitimate somehow?
Brian D. Anderson: I don’t think we need an antidote. Nor do I think anti-heroes legitimize a fantasy novel. Readers like what they like. It’s that simple. My first series was considered young adult. Sex was always fade-to-black and there was very little profanity. The hero was very much a goody-goody and his friends people with strong moral convictions. It sold quite well and gained me a very strong fan base.
The next series had far more adult content. This did in fact upset a few of my readers. But overall, people didn’t seem to mind the grittier aspects. Some actually thought it to be an improvement. I have to admit that initially it felt odd writing sexually charged scenes to their natural conclusion. It was difficult to balance hot and steamy with tasteful and romantic. And strong language needed to be distributed in such a way that it didn’t lose its impact and didn’t read as if I was using profanity just for the sake of being vulgar. The situational content was probably the trickiest. Subject matter such as the abuse of women, murder, and torture needed to be relevant to the story. My intention was not to be shocking or edgy. I just wanted the story to ring true. And that meant adding a bit more realism than I had done previously.
My latest work with Steven is in some ways rather dark. Akiri is a pragmatic badass. He’d kill you without hesitation and not feel the least bit guilty about it. Yet he is not cold-blooded and needs to have a reason to kill beyond simple bloodlust. So in that respect he might be one of those anti-heroes you mentioned. But his sidekick, Kyra, offsets the brutality with idealism. She’s a bit of a crusader. I guess in a way she’s the antidote for what would otherwise be pure slash and hack, dark fantasy.
I personally enjoy stories that can strike a balance between realism and idealism. I suppose it reflects the way I try to live my life—taking a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Then washing it down with a double Jack and a Heineken. There are worse ways to live.
Steven Savile: You know, last time I was on here with Joe we were talking about Ghosts of the Conquered which came out under the Matthew Caine name—I think I told you how I wrote the original version in 2001/2 right? It was rejected by every publisher at the time who described it as great, but too unremittingly dark, too bleak, too nasty, fantasy isn’t meant to be like that. I’ve got great rejection letters for it. Then something changed and fantasy became grim and dark. I’d originally done a lot of horror stuff. so I brought my horror sensibilities to the fantasy novel. You could say I was ahead of my time, I guess, because a handful of years later Joe Abercrombie and others were turning the genre on its head and Grimdark was cool.
Me, I think I’m just a contrary bastard, because now I want to go back to a kind of writing where heroes are heroes, they face morally compromising problems and do the right thing, they’re the guy you hope has your back when the shit hits the fan. I want to go back to the wonder of first experiencing Eddings and Feist and Brooks, and see the marvelous, not just the mundane reality of shit and blood when someone dies. I’ve been talking with my agent for three of four years about it, and I’m constantly moaning about it, and she, wonderfully, says the same thing every time: “Maybe you should do something about it.”
Which is one of the great things about partnering with Brian. He’s got that kind of Eddings/Feist sensibility. He wants his stuff to be fast-moving, action-driven excitement, opening more and more doors to more and more trouble, though of course in Akiri we’ve got something of the R.E. Howard’s Conan about our hero, the stranger who rides into town, kicks ass, takes names and moves on. We’re looking forward to exploring more of the world with him as the series progresses. Audible have bought four novels initially, all to come out over the next 12 months, so we’re focused on the world right now, so maybe—just maybe—I’m doing what my agent kept telling me to do and offering a bit of an antidote to the unremitting gloom.