HEROES AND LEGENDS
Best-selling author of heroic fantasy David Gemmell talks to David J Howe
‘Grab a hold of that.’
Fantasy author David Gemmell passes me a massive twin-headed battle axe and I nearly drop it to the floor it’s so heavy. Even with two hands I have trouble lifting it, and yet this is the weapon of choice of Druss the Legend, one of David’s most popular fictional creations.
‘It was made by a fan,’ David explains, ‘and he gave it to me as a gift. Amazing, isn’t it?’
I can only agree, and breath a sigh of release as I place it on the floor. David has two other bladed weapons to show me: first is a long-sword of the type used by the Celts, a beautiful long-bladed creation in shining metal. The other is a Roman short-sword, much lighter than the other two, and the only one of the three that I feel I could carry comfortably, let alone wield in anger.
The reason that David is showing me these with such enthusiasm is partly because it is obvious that he is very proud of them, but also because we’ve been chatting about his new book, Midnight Falcon which concerns the battles between the Celts and the Romans – or the Rigante and the inhabitants of the City of Stone.
‘The idea that I had for Sword in the Storm, the first Rigante title,’ explains David, ‘was bigger than one book, and there’s going to be at least one more before I’ve explored all the ideas that have developed as I went along.
‘There’s no real master plan at work. When I wrote Sword in the Storm, I wanted to look at a situation where the Celts could defeat the Romans. How could that come about without losing the essential Celtic nature of the conflict? So the book’s all about Conovar, the Celtic king who is destined to save his race. Having done that, I wondered what the aftermath would be. I wanted to take a character from the Highlands back into Rome and see things from another point of view. That’s what Midnight Falcon is about: Conovar’s bastard son and how he deals with his hatred of his father. Having done that, I wondered what was going to happen in seven or eight hundred years time. My next book, Ravenheart, covers that: the Rigante now have firearms.
‘The idea of these series all started in my first novel, Legend. I introduced a people called the Drenai, and the next book, being a second novel, I wanted to be somewhere that was familiar to me so I set The King Beyond the Gate in the same place but 150 years later. Then I wrote Waylander which is also set in the same world, so people say, well, that’s the Drenai series. But then I wanted to do something else, so I wrote a couple of books inspired by Arthurian legends – Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince – and they became my Arthurian series … so whatever characters I create, if they’re re-visiting those worlds, then the publishers will say that they’re in the same series. They like to link the books together.’
I mention that the cover of Midnight Falcon proclaims it to be ‘a novel of the Rigante’ rather than being book two …
‘I really don’t like this “Book One”, “Book Two” thing in pure selling terms,’ frowns David. ‘If you think about going into a store, and you see a book you really like the look of, and it says Book Two on the cover, then you look and see if Book One is there. If it is not there, then you probably won’t buy Book Two until you can find Book One. So putting Book Two on actually stops sales, or it only encourages people to buy it who have read Book One. There’s no harm in saying “Book One of …” but now I will try never to have something that says Book Two, Book Three or Book Four. It will just say, as it says there, “A Novel of the Rigante”. And you can read the books on their own as well anyway. I will never write a cliff hanger ending to a novel, so you have to have read the earlier book to follow the plot. My readers will not suffer from not having read earlier volumes. If they have done that, however, then they’ll probably get more out of the novels and enjoy them slightly more.’
This approach certainly seems to have worked for David who is ranked as one of the best-selling fantasy authors in the UK, probably second only to Terry Pratchett. David came to fantasy fiction via the route of journalism. He was expelled from school in 1965 for organising a betting shop, and worked as a building site and farm labourer, lorry driver’s assistant and doorman at a Soho nightclub before joining the staff of an East Sussex newspaper and cutting his teeth in the fields of writing and editing.
‘From the first moment I had a typewriter I tried writing bits of fiction,’ he explained. ‘The simple fact is that they weren’t very good. Writing’s like mining for gold. You have to dig through a great many tonnes of worthless mud and rock before you get to the yellow stuff.
‘So I worked in journalism for numerous years, practising and honing my skills, and then around 1976 or 1977 I became ill. I lost a couple of stone in weight and was passing blood. I was terrified and so put off going to see the doctor for a couple of months by which time I’d really lost a lot of weight and had no energy. The doctor sent me off to have tests at the hospital and they tested me for cancer, on the grounds that the first thing they’ll look for is an infection and the second is a growth. There was no infection and so they were looking for a cancerous growth. I had two weeks to wait for the results of the tests and I felt so bad and looked so bad that I was pretty much convinced that I was on the way out. This was terrifying for a young man, so to take my mind off all this, I started to write feverishly. I wrote every day, all day, for two weeks and ended up with a 50 thousand word story called Siege of Dros Delnoch. As I was in many ways externalising my belief that I was dying, the story was all about a fortress under siege from hostile forces. If I hadn’t been doing this within such a short period, I’d have made the story historical rather than fantasy because it was the first fantasy I had tried to write. Before that I’d written thrillers, westerns, just churned out these things at a rate of knots. I got some fabulous rejections along the way …
‘Anyway, I finished this story in two weeks and then forgot about it because, as it turned out, I didn’t have cancer. In fact I’d had an infection in some scar tissue on my kidneys – I was beaten up very badly in London once and this damaged by kidneys, and this scar tissue had become inflamed. Because I’d been too scared to go to my doctor, the infection had actually burnt itself out before I plucked up courage and so that’s why they couldn’t find any infection. We now skip forward a couple of years, to when a friend of mine at work had written a novel of her own and she wanted to show it to me. So I said that I’d written something a few years back so if I looked at her work, would she look at mine.
‘So she looked at Siege of Dros Delnoch and thought it was pretty good, but she asked whether the hero, Rek, was based on me. So I thought about it a bit and said that he probably was. So why isn’t he a poser, she asked? Why isn’t he scared of the dark? I initially got a bit up tight about this, but that night I realised that she was right. Why isn’t he a poser? Why isn’t he scared of the dark? My characters were simply not real people.
‘For example, I had a girl with a wasp waist, beautiful and slim, running along a castle battlement swinging a huge longsword. Was that real? No. So who would I really have in that role? And working on the local paper we had a lady called Alison Bate. She was a big girl, a tennis player, well built. But so clumsy. She could quite easily knock over a desk when she turned round, but she’d have been perfect defending a castle with a sword. So one by one I went through all the characters and wrote the story again. I did this very fast, it took about seven months, I renamed it Legend and it became my first published novel.’
All of David’s novels have started life with a character, rather than with a plot, and David confirms that the characters are what make writing interesting.
‘One of the things I’ve found over the years is that the real magic is in the characters. Now sometimes with characters you have to work continually. You have to think about what they’re going to say, what they’re going to do in any given situation, and others just come to life fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They not there one minute, and then, bang, they’re there, fully formed.
‘A good example of this happened when I wrote Waylander. Most of the time, when I start a novel I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen in it. I don’t plan them out, I just start with a character and I see what he says.
‘Imagine this: the opening line of the original Waylander: ‘They had begun to torture the priest when the stranger stepped from the shadow of the trees.’ Now. You’ve got this really neat setting. And the guy’s going to say something. So in my head I can see there are five men, they’re torturing the priest and the stranger steps in. Now I’m thinking in that split second that he’s going to have to say something really powerful in this scene … and while I’m thinking this, I’ve typed: “You stole my horse.”
‘Hang on … but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. You know in that moment that this guy has absolutely no interest in the priest. You might have thought he was coming to the rescue, but he’s not. He’s here because he wants his horse back. Even as I finished typing his opening line, I was thinking, what kind of a hero would say that? And in my head came the answer: the kind who wants his horse back. It’s obvious. So from that opening it all became very easy. He fights the would-be torturers, and, just before he rides away on his reclaimed horse, the priest asks him to release him. To cut him loose. And the man looks at him and asks “Why?” And again … Why? Why would he do that? Why would he waste his time? He’s got his horse! This priest means nothing to him.
‘So Waylander came to me fully formed as a character. I knew who he was and what his motivations were, and that really helps in later scenes.
‘Occasionally, though, the characters will surprise me. Take Jon Shannow, for example, the Jerusalem Man. I was writing a scene in The Last Guardian where Jon has just walked in somewhere where there’s this villain. He’s put his gun in the villain’s mouth, made him stand up and frog-marched him out to the street. All the villain’s men have followed them out into the street and are surrounding them. I’m sitting in my office typing away and thinking: Good God! I wonder what’s going to happen here … and my wife had just come into the office with a cup of coffee for me. And I’m typing away and suddenly I shout something like “Holy Cow!” and jump back from the desk.
‘“What’s the matter?” she asked.
‘“Shannow’s just shot an unarmed man!”
‘You see I had no idea that he was going to do that. I was working away, typing fast, watching the scene unfold before me … sometimes those things happen. When characters work that well, it is magic. It’s the best job in the world.’
Although characters are certainly important, I wondered if David really did no planning at all – surely for some of the books, it’s important to know where you’re going to end up, especially if they’re an ongoing series of tales.
‘I really don’t in general terms,’ he smiled. ‘The only book I had to plan was the Lion of Macedon as that followed a historical character. With a book rooted in real life, you have to do masses of research and the story, rather than being a free growing thing like a rose bush, had to be something that grows up around a stake and touches on all the historical aspects along the way. So that was the only one I had to plan out in that way.
‘I’m as eager as the readers are to find out how the books end. I do take trouble to try and make sure I surprise people, though. I’ll give a 20 thousand word chunk to one of my test readers in order to see how it’s going. I ask the reader where they think it’s going from then on. When they come back and say “I think it’s going to do this and this and this”, then if they’re right, and that was the direction I was planning on taking events, I won’t do that, and I’ll find some other way of twisting the story.
‘Somebody once said that if you want to get real tension into a story, you think of everything you need the hero to do, you think of everything that would stop the hero from doing it, and then that’s what you do. Because somewhere down the line you have to come up with something so unusual … for example you can have your hero being chased by a score of things that he can’t kill, and if they catch him then he’s dead. He’s running up a hill because he knows that there’s a rope bridge running across a chasm at the top, and if he gets to the rope bridge, he can hack that bridge down and leave his pursuers on the other side – that’s the only way he can possibly escape death. But when he crests the brow of the hill and arrives at the chasm, the rope bridge is already down …
‘What do you do? And it’s what you do then that gives the story the excitement and twist.’
David seems to be able to supply that twist in everything he writes, and, as the author admits, his stories do all follow the same broad themes.
‘I write stories which are about love, honour, redemption and courage. You can set those stories in adventures, in thrillers, in westerns, you can set them in histories or fantasy. There is not a great difference between the worlds of the Rigante and the worlds of the Drenai except for the characters. The Drenai has its own history so when I write a Drenai novel I have to be aware of the history of the people and what they stand for. With the Rigante, they are largely Highland people – they are the Celts basically – so the book is fundamentally the Celts versus the Romans, but an alternative version of it. I just happen to like Celtic history and the Drenai’s culture is not Celtic so that’s why I created a different world.’
With the obvious success of David’s many worlds, I wondered if there was pressure brought to bear from publishers for him to return to places that are popular with the readers. He shakes his head. ‘I’d never do that. I’ve been very lucky with publishers. I’ve not had that sort of problem. No one has ever specifically asked for anything other than Drenai books, and that is because if the word Drenai appears on the cover, the book will sell 15 per cent more than if it doesn’t. This is apparently because there are people out there who will read my Drenai books but no others.
‘A guy came up to me at a signing once and said: “I’m your biggest fan. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.” So, because I’m always interested in my readers’ views, I asked: “What do you think of Lion of Macedon?” And he replied: “Never read it!”
‘“I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you said you’d read everything I’d ever written …”
‘“All your fantasies, yes,” he replied.
Puzzled by this, I said: “But Lion of Macedon is a fantasy.”
He shakes his head: “No,” he said, “It’s got Greeks in it.”
‘So what does this tell us. If you’ve got Greeks in, it’s not a fantasy? By that token if it’s got English, or French, or Americans in then it’s not a Fantasy. It would be presumably partly historical. But if you’ve got Drenai, Rigante or whatever then that’s a Fantasy.
‘It’s great in a way that people love the Drenai books, and I can quite understand why publishers will come and ask if there is a Drenai novel coming soon.’
Readers are not going to have to wait too much longer as the new hardback, Hero in the Shadows, returns to those people, and to one in particular …
‘It’s a Waylander book,’ nods David. ‘There are probably three characters that I get more fan mail about than anything else. There’s Druss the Legend, Jon Shannow – people constantly ask me when there are going to be more Jon Shannow books, and the answer is that there aren’t – and there’s Waylander. The original Waylander novel first came out in 1986 and was very well received – it’s another book that has never gone out of print. Six years later I did Waylander 2: In the Realm of the Wolf which was a massive paperback seller as everyone wanted to see how the story continued. Since then, more and more people have asked when there’s going to be another Waylander book, and I like the idea of doing things in threes. So this is it, it’s the last Waylander book.’
With over twenty novels to his name, I wondered what David had planned for the future, aside from the aforementioned third book about the Rigante.
‘Nothing. I just do whatever comes into my head. The Americans actually commissioned a new Druss book from me last year, and I had to phone them up and say that I was sorry, but the new book had turned out not to be a Druss one. I have to write whatever I feel is going to work. One thing is certain, they will be about love, honour, redemption and courage.’
(c) David J Howe