David J Howe talks to fantasy author TOM ARDEN about life, inspiration and Doctor Who!
Every so often a new author comes along and makes an immediate impact. They have that undefinable quality which marks their work out above the others. Tom Arden is such an author. He’s currently working on book four of a five-book series collectively called The Orokon and his work is receiving many plaudits from fans and professionals alike.
Tom is engaging and witty, with a wry sense of humour. His slight accent reveals that his roots lie not in mainland Britain, but in a small town in Australia. ‘It was, I suppose, quite an isolated and intense existence,’ Tom muses. ‘From the first my sister and I lived very much in an imaginative world, constantly drawing, writing, making up songs, putting on theatricals and so on, just for ourselves. I should add that for all those supposedly vital and formative early years we didn’t have a television! Mind you, when we finally got one, virtually the first thing we saw on it was Doctor Who ... that made a huge impact, and soon we were using my mother’s wardrobe as a TARDIS, and so on ... I even remember building a TARDIS console out of cardboard ...’
As Tom and I could probably talk about Doctor Who for the remainder of the interview, I steer him back onto the subject of influences.
‘Unfortunately I read very little Australian literature as a child – it wasn’t promoted as it is nowadays, and there didn’t seem to be much of it – so almost everything I read was English. My early reading in sf was John Christopher, John Wyndham, Nicholas Fisk (Space Hostages remains one of my favourite books) and folk like that. However, what really fixed my interests in sf and fantasy were Frank Hampson’s wonderful Dan Dare comic strip and, of course, Doctor Who. It really pisses me off nowadays when I hear people dismissing Doctor Who, which has opened up immense vistas of imagination and fantasy for several generations. Because people are so familiar with Doctor Who now, they forget what a brilliantly original and offbeat series it actually was, especially in the early days. The Doctor is a great character in the way that Don Quixote or Sherlock Holmes are great characters, and some of the other elements of the series – notably the TARDIS and the Daleks – are creations of pure genius.’
I clear my throat and ask about what it was that inspired Tom to start and to persevere with fantasy writing. The answer is very simple: ‘Iris Murdoch and Britain’s Interzone magazine. I went to university, studied English Lit, and convinced myself that I wanted to be an academic (big mistake). During that period I also became the worst kind of literary snob, turning my back on all the stuff I’d enjoyed when I was young. Naturally my first adult attempts at writing were therefore unreadable and pretentious would-be literary efforts, and I wasted time on this sort of stuff for quite a few years. What saved me was my increasing disillusionment with the academic world and all its values, and also, strangely enough, my discovery of the supposedly very intellectual and academic novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch was a storyteller, and storytelling was precisely what had been missing from my own (almost always uncompleted) novels and stories up until then. Soon I was writing imitation Iris Murdoch; but gradually I got past that and began pushing more and more into my own form of fantasy. A little later I also started reading Interzone, which reintroduced me to the whole world of fantasy and sf after I’d ignored it for so long. Without Interzone, I very much doubt that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.’
I pick up on Tom’s comment that most of his early work was uncompleted. ‘I won a short story contest in Australia when I was a student, but for a long time after that I couldn’t even finish another short story, let alone a novel,’ he reveals. ‘Eventually, during my first year as a university lecturer at Queen’s University, I gave myself the ultimatum that I had to finish a novel by the end of the summer vacation, or I would give up writing. I was sick of constantly thinking I was going to do it one day, and never really getting down to it. I suppose what prompted me was the sense of finally being trapped into a real job, and immediately wanting to escape! Well, I did finish that novel. It was a very weird, genre-crossing gothic which never got published, but it did get me an agent in London.
‘After the first two unpublished novels, I was trying to write a third novel and really getting nowhere with it. A well-known editor told me that what I needed to do was to jettison all these fantasy and sf elements, and write a realistic contemporary thriller. Well, I just couldn’t do it and I became very depressed. Maybe I simply couldn’t write a publishable novel!
‘The turning point came when I went on holiday in 1994 to the Czech Republic. From the moment I got there I had the strange sense of being in an alternative world – somewhere like Western Europe but weirdly different. As can happen, I found myself at one point involved in a rather tedious and incomprehensible conversation with a stranger on a train who was going on about religion and mysticism. In order to demonstrate some point or another, he drew an inverted cross with an arch over it. This simple act planted the seeds of writing a fantasy series set in a weirdly different world, using this strange symbol as a linking motif. Once I had this basic idea, everything came together very quickly. It took about a year between the idea and selling the five-volume series.
‘I wanted to present the publishers with something big, a really bombastic, over-the-top idea. The idea of five volumes came from David Eddings’ epic series and I then thought that if I was going to have a story that went for that long I would need to break it up into manageable units. The idea of the five Crystals of Orok – one of which would have to be found in each of the five books – was actually taken from a Doctor Who season where the Doctor and his companion had to search for segments of the Key to Time. I figured that one segment of The Orokon would be found in each book – and each crystal is associated with a different country, a different race and religion, etc. – and I laid out certain main plot points, particularly those involving the points at which my main characters Jem and Cata will meet or part, the stages of their relationship. I also know the ending. This gave me a basic structure, but within that I have a great deal of freedom. As long as Jem finds a crystal by the end of each book, I can more or less do what I like, and I do. Most of the best plot-developments within each book are as much a surprise to me as I hope they will be to the readers.’
The Orokon series is set in the imaginary Lands of El-Orok, which share a religion based on five gods, the five children of the Ur-God Orok. Tom takes up the story: ‘Long ago, or so the holy scriptures have it, these five gods lived on the earth; humans of all races lived together in the paradisial Vale of Orok, and the world was in harmony. Then, thanks to the intervention of an evil being called Toth-Vexrah, the gods went to war with each other, and wreaked havoc. The Ur-God made his children leave the earth, and the peoples of earth, who had each rallied to the standards of a particular god, could no longer live together in harmony, so they were all sent off to live in separate lands – except for one tribe who were condemned to be wanderers. When the gods left, the five crystals which embodied their powers – crystals formerly united in a circle called The Orokon – were scattered. Now, aeons later, the evil of Toth-Vexrah threatens the world again – he has grown much more powerful in the interim – and only the power of The Orokon can defeat him.
‘Cue our hero Jem Vexing, whose task it is going to be to find and reunite the five crystals. Since they’re scattered all over the world, and protected by all sorts of dark and strange magic, he’s got quite a task before him – especially since, when the series begins, he is literally a cripple. The series is set in a world based on the eighteenth century, or rather begins there – by Volume 3 we’ve gone to exotic lands, and ended up in Arabian Nights territory. Basically The Orokon is a heroic quest fantasy, but also the love story of Jem and his beloved Cata, whom he first meets when he is just the little cripple boy from the castle and she is a wild child of nature, being brought up in a cave in the forest by her father, a seemingly crazy, blind hermit.
‘Cata is probably my favourite of the good characters – she goes through the most appalling, devastating experiences and is a really strong person both physically and emotionally but is also very loving and fiercely loyal. I also love Jem’s friend Rajal, who spends much of the series trying to come to terms with being gay, and being in love with Jem. (He’s going to have to get over that, but he will.) I’m also particularly fond of my villains. Jem’s Aunt Umbecca, who conceals her wickedness and crazed ambition under a facade of fundamentalist religion, is my favourite, along with his arch-enemy Polty, who goes from being a little boy who breaks the spines of cats to an adult monster who regards rape and murder as all in a day’s work. There’s nothing I like more than a really grotesque, monstrous, depraved villain.’
In fact, there is. Tom loves writing. ‘It’s often easy to forget that the great pleasure of writing really does come in the writing itself, when you really get going and the thing starts to take on reality. Planning can be exciting at first, but it soon becomes boring. When in doubt, it’s always best just to plunge in and write. It’s amazing how many problems, which seem impossible when you’re just thinking about them in an abstract way, will actually sort themselves out in the writing. The writing is what I like most. And the characters.
‘As for why I write fantasy … I suppose it’s because my imagination is completely saturated in fantasy. I don’t mean that I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, rather that I find reality a little boring and am an inveterate daydreamer.’ Tom smiles and presses home his point: ‘But fantasy is all about metaphor; it’s not attacking a subject head-on but finding symbols for what you want to say; the magic and the strange lands are not important in themselves. Colin Wilson says somewhere that it’s no criticism of a novel to say that it’s unreal; the real question is what depth of human need is symbolised by the fantasy.’ I look puzzled. ‘Exactly,’ says Tom and grins. ‘Besides, I love the excitement.’
TOM ARDEN BIBLIOGRAPHY
The Orokon Series
The Harlequin's Dance: First Book of The Orokon (Gollancz, 1997)
The King and Queen of Swords: Second Book of The Orokon (Gollancz, 1998)
Sultan of the Moon and Stars: Third Book of The Orokon (Gollancz, 1999)
Sisterhood of the Blue Storm: Fourth Book of The Orokon (Gollancz, 2000)
Empress of the Endless Dream: Fifth Book of The Orokon (Gollancz, 2001)
‘The Driver’ as David Rain, in Ash 8, 1982
‘Memories of Marlene Dietrich’ as David Rain, in Unsettled Areas: Recent Short Fiction, 1986
‘The Mandala Ceiling’ [written 1985] as D.C. Rain, in Critical Quarterly 32, 1990
‘The Indigenes’ in Interzone 136, 1998
‘The Volvax Immersion’ in Interzone 143, 1999
Tom Arden can be visited online at: http://freespace.virgin.net/tom.arden
He is also writing a controversial monthly fantasy column called ‘Castle Dangerous’ for Mark Chadbourn’s new net mag At the World’s End - The Magazine of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror which debuts at http://www.markchadbourn.com on 14 January 2000.
David J Howe