Thursday, 1 September 2011

INTERVIEW: Graham McNeill

We'd had the pleasure of interviewing Graham once before so when we managed to get the opportunity to have another crack at this author we couldn't resist.

This month see's the David Gemmell Legend Award Winner (2010) releasing two, yep count them two, fantasy titles. As such we couldn't resist a word in his Triangle (well its not exactly a shell is it) Like and delved a little deeper. Heres what he had to tell us...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Graham McNeill: I know what they mean. I’ve loved telling stories for as long as I can remember and even when I finish a book or story and think to give myself some time off, I get itchy to get back behind the keyboard within a day or so. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write. I can’t even imagine doing something else, so I guess that’s a good thing.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

GM: From an early age, I think. Apparently when I was a kid and was being strapped into the kid seat in the back of my parent’s car, I turned to my mum and said, “Mother…when I grow up I’m either going to become a writer or a binman.” And even in primary school as a young kid, I was writing stories about a giant octopus attacking a fishing boat, so I think the love of outlandish tales has always been with me.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

GM: A short story has to be a very disciplined affair, with only a short amount of time and space available for you to tell the story, whereas you can waffle to an extent in a novel (though you shouldn’t!), with much more room to play around in. The confines of a short story forces you to be disciplined and really focus on what the tale is about; it’s key points and its theme. It’s easy to go on too long with a novel, but a short story allows you to say what you want more directly and that means you can tell it far more efficiently than in a novel. A short story I wrote recently, called The Last Church, is an example of that. Originally commissioned at fifteen thousand words, it came in quite a bit shorter than that, but I’d said all I needed to say and any more text would have robbed it of its succinctness.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

GM: Sons of Ellyrion is proper high fantasy, with princes and kings deciding the fates of nations. It’s a book about one of the core races of the Warhammer World and has some of the biggest names in Elf history taking to the field of battle, fighting for the fate of Ulthuan and the rest of the world.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

GM: An eagerly-awaited finale to a novel of high adventure, glorious battles and noble sacrifice. And it’s got dragons in it!

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

GM: On my shelves, it’s David Gemmell and Clive Barker. Ordinarily, I’d be camped outside the bookshop for Gemmell’s latest book, but what with him being dead, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. I have the first two of Barker’s Abarat books and have managed to restrain myself from reading them, as I want to read the whole thing in one go. And when you’re a huge fan of Clive Barker’s work like I am, that’s a lot of restraint. At the moment, I’m getting back into the old masterworks, so I’m picking up a lot of Robert E. Howard, M. John Harrison and Gene Wolf.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

GM: A little bit of both. The Black Library will only commission a novel if they have an idea of what you plan to do with it, but my synopses these days tend to be pretty loose, mostly dealing with what the book will address in terms of its themes, where it’s set and what sort of things you can expect from it rather than a slavish recitation of each chapter’s contents. I always have an idea of the shape of the novel I want to write in mind, but it very much forms as I go along and the ideas crystallize during the writing. The best of my ideas only form in a novel once its structure begins to take shape and things start to emerge from the random scribbles on my pad or a line of dialogue that surprises me when I write it. Many of my favourite characters are ones I didn’t know about as the novel began, but who gradually came to life around me and demanded more screen time.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

GM: I relax by reading, going to the gym, watching TV and hanging out with my friends. Normal stuff, really. Though since we spoke last, I now have a young son named Evan, so opportunities to relax are few and far between. I’m reading a bunch of things just now, some work by friends that I’m helping with feedback, Empire magazine and two novels. One, by Roddy Doyle is called O, play that thing, the second in a trilogy of books about an Irishman, Henry Smart, from his days as an urchin on the streets of Dublin at the turn of the century to the streets of New York and Chicago in the early years of the Twenties.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

GM: That I go to a step class on Monday mornings, and am actually getting pretty good at it.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

GM: I don’t have a pet (unless you count the cardboard standee of Buffy in my living room), though plenty of the neighbourhood cats are welcome in my house. One of them is a really tenacious, three-legged cat who is a pal of mine, and he has more guts than animals twice his size. He’s called Findlay, and actually has a role in Courage and Honour.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

GM: I’d have to say Caledor – even though he only has a small part in the story. Or Death, because he gets all the best lines.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

GM: Being that Eldain is a graceful elf and I’m, well, neither elfy or graceful, I think we’re pretty different. Having said that, he’s a person who has made mistakes in his life and is now trying to put them right. Nowadays it seems like we live in a culture where no-one takes responsibility for their actions; it’s always someone else’s fault, someone else should pay for my mistake. Eldain has accepted he did something terrible, and though he tried to live with it for a while, he now wrestles with the notion of making it right again.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

GM: I roleplay each week with friends and that’s always fun and interesting to see how the characters interact. I don’t take anything from these sessions and transplant it to my novels, but watching the dynamic of character interaction is always amusing and helps with creating naturalistic dialogue in my books. Aside from that, I like getting out into the countryside when I can, wandering through forests or rugged terrain to get a feel for the sensations of what it’s like to travel over mountains, through woodland and so on – the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of being outdoors in fantastical terrain.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

GM: From all around me. I watch movies and TV, I read books and talk to people. All these things collide in random fashions in my head and often completely unrelated thoughts will string together in ways that suggest a story or a character or a theme. Sometimes it’s an item on the news that stimulates a thought, other times it’s something I’ll see or hear walking down the street, but mostly it’s all the sensory input I get from the world around me spinning around in my head and combining in ways I hope will be interesting, amusing or exciting. My little moleskin notebook is never far from my side, as an idea will just evaporate if I don’t write it down when I have it.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

GM: Thankfully, I’ve not encountered it as people traditionally imagine it, though I’ve had novels that have fought me until I’ve gone back to first principles and re-examined what it is I’m trying to say. I remind myself of my goals at the beginning of the project, whose story it is, what aspect of the story is most important and how that can be told most economically and entertainingly. I find taking a break helps when you need ideas to flow. The more you force them, the less likely they are to take shape. Though it goes against what you think you ought to be doing, sometimes walking away from your work is the best way to get it back on track.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

GM: I try and structure my working day to be like a day at the office, but since the arrival of our son, that’s taken a beating. I have an office space I rent, and I go there and work most of the day before heading to the gym at around 4pm. So I’m out of the house most days – which does wonders for my productivity. So I essentially keep traditional office hours, so I guess the rest of the household take it in their stride. I like to keep things within a structure that’s flexible enough to accommodate slow days, lazy days and times when I need to actually do stuff that’s not related to writing at all.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

GM: I normally write with movie soundtracks on in the background, as I sometimes end up typing lyrics if I hear them too clearly. Sons of Ellyrion was largely written to the music of Hans Zimmer (Inception and Gladiator) and John Debney (Predators), though I’ll dig out specific pieces if I want to evoke a particular emotion while I write. For example, when I was writing the waking of Orion in Guardians of the Forest, I had Danny Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow soundtrack on – specifically, a piece called The Chase – that really gave that urgency to the writing.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

GM: That it would be easy and that after my first novel, I’d be a millionaire! I’m still clinging onto that one. Even now.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

GM: Writing is a chance to let your imagination fly, to let the crazy, horrific, wonderful, inspirational things that knock about in your head out into the world, because if you didn’t…well, who knows what might happen.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

GM: It’s called The Outcast Dead, and is my latest Horus Heresy novel. It’s set largely on Terra, and deals with the Astropaths of the City of Sight, and what happens when one of them gets a vision of something truly apocalyptic that could change the course of the Heresy. Rather than getting his brains scooped out, he tries to escape in the company of some rather…unusual allies.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

GM: The latest Order of the Stick cartoon, Fantasy Flight Games, Mark Newton’s blog, Zero Punctuation, and the BBC website.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

GM: Nope, not a one. Everything I learned about writing I learned at school and from reading lots and lots and lots of books to see how the various writers had done things. I wrote a lot and when I saw it wasn’t as good as the writers I loved, I kept at it, plugging away at my words and studying the books of my favourite authors to try and unlock how they did things. When I went to work at Games Workshop, I learned how little I knew and began my real training as a writer under the tutelage of various bosses and peers, which made for a steep, but necessary, learning curve. Writing for the GW Design Studio means you have to learn fast or you don’t survive, which is exactly how it should be. Fortunately, I think I learned enough to stand me in good stead for the novels, but I know there’s always something more to learn and ways to improve. After all, any writer who thinks he can’t get any better and that he’s learned everything he needs to know is on a slippery slope.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

GM: One of the first things anyone teaches you about the writing game is that you are going to get rejected more than you get accepted. Hearing that and dealing with it are often two different things and it’s never easy hearing that something you’ve put your heart and soul into is judged unworthy by someone else. Writing is so personal that it’s sometimes hard to hear that, but you have to remember that it’s just an opinion, not necessarily fact (though if you hear is a hundred times, maybe it’s time to really look at what you’re producing…). Lots of books that have gone on to do really well have been rejected many times before finally finding the right publisher for them. Taking criticism is often hard, as it can feel like an attack and you want to get defensive with your work, but you have to get past that and see that it’s nothing to do with you, but everything to do with the words. It’s an art form in itself giving and receiving criticism. Done right, it’s invaluable and the lifeblood of any author’s work. Done wrong it can crush your confidence and rob you of your impetus to carry on.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

GM: When a story takes flight and the characters are really responding in new and unexpected ways, that’s what makes it all worthwhile, the ‘tipping point’ when the hard work put in early on in the process pays off and the novel feels like its going downhill. I love the freedom of days I have, where I can organise my time as I see fit. I know the work I have to do and the time I have to do it. How I work within that timeframe is up to me and I love that I can take a day here and there just to relax, meet friends or whatever else I fancy without having to worry about it, since I know I’ll have days where I make up the balance of words later. As to the worst…well, I miss the company of friends I had at work and there’s obviously no such things as sick days or holiday pay…days like that are just days where money flows from your bank and doesn’t get replaced. It’s hard, hard work, but the rewards of what I do far outweigh the negative aspects. Frankly, there’s no other job in the world I’d rather have than this one.

1 comment:

Angela Addams said...

Another great interview...I envy anyone who can spend most of their time jealous!!!