With the second Macht book, Corvus, due to hit the shelves before the end of the month (and a third on the way next year), I thought I'd get in touch with Mr. Kearney at his remote fastness in Northern Ireland and try and persuade him to answer a question or two.
Fortunately, the man was only too happy to submit to my queries, and offered some insights on historical fantasy, writing about soldiers, what authors should be writing about, and Steven Erikson.
Solaris: Hi, Paul. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
You clearly have a fascination with history. Even when you’re not drawing directly on real-world events – the sacking of Constantinople, the Anabasis – your work has a strongly historical feel. So why fantasy? Why not go the route of Cornwell or Iggulden and write historical fiction?
PK: Maybe I will! I have thought about it, almost from day one in the job. In fact Richard Evans over at Gollancz was convinced I would move into historical fiction, especially after he first read Hawkwood. I guess what held me back was the knowledge that once I committed myself to a period and a set of circumstances, then I would be constrained by what actually happened. To take an example, my last but one book, The Ten Thousand had a plot that was very heavily based on the Anabasis, a piece of real history. I kept fairly close to the events of the actual history, partly as an experiment to see what it would be like, partly because the real history was a fantastic story anyway. Ultimately, I found it limiting, so for Corvus, which came next, I resolved not to be so pedantic about it, and it was definitely easier that way. So though I love history, and plunder it shamelessly for ideas, I’m still not sure about coming out of the closet and writing it without the patina of fantasy.
Solaris: If you did, what period would tempt you? Maybe one where less is known, and there is more room for conjecture? Or is there just a favourite era?
PK: My favourite eras have pretty much been in my books from the start. Sixteenth century Europe (and before that), and Classical Greece. I’ve read history books and academic papers on those eras all my life, devouring them with the same shameless rapidity as an Essex housewife will snatch a copy of Heat. I studied the Icelandic Sagas at college, and their mindset is in my work too – when you read them in the original Norse, it’s astonishing how modern the mentality of these chaps was, even down to the quips they uttered as they went into battle. Having said that, if you want to fathom the outlook of the Macht, then all you have to do is read the Anglo-Saxon Battle of Maldon. We will all go into the dark together.
If I were to write about real history, then it would have to be about common soldiers, I know that. And a great era for encapsulating that would be the fourteenth century and onwards, with the rise of the Italian city states and the professionalisation of war. Now that would be really something. I could even keep writing about a guy named Hawkwood…
Solaris: You write a lot about soldiers, actually; about their their superstitions and sentimentality. Do you think these traits are exaggerated in fiction? Or are soldiers that just do their job and are fairly rational and even-handed about it all really as rare as all that?
PK: You do tend to exaggerate character traits in fiction now and again, in order to slap the reader across the face with a character and make him remember who he is in the big scheme of things. It’s not something I like doing, but I have fallen prey to it. The real soldiers I’ve known have, if you want to generalise horribly, been capable, level-headed, and possessed of a ferociously black humour. The better they are at their job, the less gladly they suffer fools, but in general they are a remarkably decent set of people, and compared to civilians, they are completely free of pretence. Plus, most of them possess a built-in bullshit detector with a mile-wide range.
Solaris: On to Corvus, then. Take us through this. It’s twenty-three years later, Rictus is a grizzled old campaigner, and this new prodigy general, Corvus, is uniting the Macht under him. I’m getting an Alexander vibe (or I suppose, more accurately, Alexander’s father Philip)?
PK: Corvus the man is inspired by Alexander the Great; that much is obvious, though the job he undertakes in Corvus the novel is that completed by Alexander’s father. So in the third book, Kings of Morning, Corvus will be leading the Macht eastwards to invade the Asurian Empire, which is still under the rule of Ashurnan. If you remember the retreat of the Ten Thousand, and some of the atrocities they committed, imagine that on a titanic scale. It isn’t going to be pretty. We’ve seen the Macht in defeat and adversity in the previous books, but in Kings, we will see what they make of victory. As with Alexander’s army, the battle with and conquest of a huge empire will rupture and disseminate Macht society across the world.
Solaris: Actually, your central protagonists – Corfe Cear-Inaf, Rol Cortishane, Rictus – all tend to be these strong, charismatic leaders, who rise above their own murky backgrounds to beat terrible odds through sheer force of personality and strategic genius. What was it like writing two such characters, on the same side of the campaign? Did they vie for “screen time” while you were writing?
PK: It brought me up short a few times, I have to admit. The thing was that I really identified with Rictus, and found it hard to figure out how I was going to portray someone whose military genius left him standing. In the end I took the example of Mary Renault. In her Alexander trilogy, which is to my mind the greatest work of historical fiction ever written (you can stuff your Wolf Hall), she wrote from the perspective of Alexander himself when he was very young, and upon his manhood, she only described him from without, through the eyes of friends and lovers. That way she kept his mystique alive, and left the questions we all have about his genius lying there. I liked that – it retains the mystery of the man. In Pressfield’s Alexander, The Virtues of War, we are given a first person view of the man himself, and it’s horrible. He lectures and pontificates and is dry as dust. You can’t break open the mind of a phenomenon like that, twenty-three centuries after his death, and expect to make him explicable.
So that’s what I did with Corvus – I stayed at a distance from him, decided deliberately to leave him lightly drawn, and concentrated instead on those who orbited him.
Solaris: You said very firmly after The Ten Thousand came out that it would be a stand-alone. What changed your mind? Was it just Solaris’s roguish charms, or did you have a rush of inspiration?
PK: Brutal honesty? Solaris said they liked this stuff, and how about I write another? That’s it – seriously. It was meant to be a stand-alone pure and simple. If I had known I was going to be in that world for two more books, there are definitely certain things I would have done differently. I would have beefed up the role of the Juthan, because they are going to be very important in book three, and I reckon I would have kept a few characters alive that got bumped off. But hey, war is hell.
Solaris: Well, we’re happy you managed to find two more books in there. You’ve said before that fantasy writers tend to lazily stick to the pseudo-Tolkienesque, pseudo-medieval fantasy milieu. You’ve covered classical and late-medieval; what era would you like to see more of? Stone-age fantasy? Iron age? Renaissance? Why?
PK: I’d like to see more of that kind of strange otherness that literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I first read Robert E Howard. I’m a massive Tolkien fan, but Howard was able to evoke an entire epoch that was weird and distant and visceral without breaking sweat. I think of him bent over his typewriter in ’twenties Texas, and I wonder to this day – where the hell did he get it from? It was effortless – at least that’s how it seems – and it stormed out of his head fully-fledged and howling. I’d like to see some modern day fantasy author go for that kind of energy – throw the world-building out the window for crying out loud – and just write a good goddamned story.
Solaris: So you’d like to see authors escaping real-world reference altogether? Interesting, given your own strongly historically-themed settings. Are you tempted to try something completely alien yourself?
PK: Nope. People tell me, when they know what I do, that I must have a great imagination, but I really don’t. I just get inspired by some fragment of history and then I run with it. To make up everything, and I mean everything, in the way guys like Erikson do, is unfathomable to me. I come up with the story first, and the world comes later. And I want to get that world out there as fast as I can, so that it can keep up with the story I want to tell. So for me, the worldbuilding comes last. Is that heresy for a fantasy author to admit?
Solaris: Not at all. Having mentioned Erikson... he’s been quoted citing you as an inspiration, and calling you one of the “best writers of fantasy around.” Care to comment on his own work?
PK: Steve’s books leave my jaw bumping along the floor in awe. I remember when I first picked up Gardens of the Moon, and just the opening of the book had me gritting my teeth and thinking you son of a bitch – because he had the courage to get in there, dark and dirty, and chuck his world at the reader with almost a sneer. He takes no prisoners, and expects those who read his work to be paying attention. It takes real bravery on the part of an author to do that. And despite what I said about world building in the previous question, I think Erikson’s is so deep and real that it permeates every page of his books, and gives his world a rock solid gravitas that never – and I mean never – falters or stumbles. He simply never drops the ball. With Erikson, you don’t see the wizard behind the curtain, and there aren’t many writers I can think of today who manage that.
Solaris: Alright, that’s us about done. Before we sign off, do you have anything you want to say?
PK: Just keep her between the hedges.
On which slightly odd note, we signed off. Paul's latest work, Corvus, will be hitting the shelves in a bookstore near you in the next few weeks, but you can have a taster in the form of the free sample chapter right now.
Corvus can be read as a stand-alone book without any difficulty, or you can start with the first book in the Macht series, The Ten Thousand, which is available right now in good book stores and online.
If you want to try some of Paul's other works, the Monarchies of God series has now been collected in two omnibus editions, Hawkwood and the Kings and Century of the Soldier, out now; Hawkwood and the Kings is also now available as an eBook on Kindle, and Century of the Soldier is due to go up in the next week or so.
To find out more about Paul Kearney and his books, please visit his website, Paul Kearney Online, where he provides free extracts from his books and maintains a forum for readers.