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Wizards In Warfare
Juliet E. McKenna
interview by Jim Steel

Juliet E. McKenna is the author of 13 novels set in the world of Einarinn which, along with a score of short stories, have established her as one of today's most potent writers of epic fantasy. She is also a highly-regarded critic in the science fiction and fantasy field and is one of the judges for the Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction novel of 2011.

JS: Your first book was The Thief's Gamble back in 1999. Was it originally planned as part of a series? And how much of the world of Einarinn was planned in advance?

JMcK: No, there was no plan for a series. Getting one book published was the sum total of my ambition until Tim Holman at Orbit explained that a two-book deal was standard and asked if I had any ideas for a sequel. Clearly, I did. That's the thing about writing epic fantasy; there are always unanswered questions and loose threads spun off the main yarn. Once I'd written The Swordsman's Oath, there were three more books worth of those questions offering me the chance to explore more of this world. Each subsequent series has followed on from different 'what if...' questions about this world and the consequences or implications of the story I've just written.

Is there anything you wish you could now change?

Anything I would change? Deciding to throw in two favourite characters from an old AD&D game called Sorgrad and Sorgren. I'd have changed their names to something more easily differentiated from the outset, if I'd had any idea just how persistent and recurrent a presence they were going to be in these books!

You've been with Solaris for a while now and your current series, 'The Hadrumal Crisis', is based on a short story, The Wizard's Coming, that first appeared in The Solaris Book Of Fantasy, in 2007. Was there always an intention to expand it?

Once again, the honest answer is 'no'. My impulse here was to look at a corrupt wizard; a really nasty, venal, dishonest individual. By that time I had written about a broad range of mages in this world; modest, arrogant, insightful, blinkered, you name it - but never a really bad one. So I coupled that with another idea already established; the rule that wizards don't engage in warfare. The thing about rules is, there's always going to be someone who breaks them or at very least, looks for loopholes. How would that work out, for the wizard and for someone trying to hire one? At the time I didn't see a novel in that idea but it was ideally suited to a short story.

I ended up expanding this particular narrative as I found myself thinking more and more about just how that 'no wizards in warfare' rule might be challenged, what the consequences might be, and after a good number of readers had been asking what had happened to these characters whose personal tales had been left unfinished in The Wizard's Coming? I realised how well the two things combined to give us the Hadrumal Crisis.


'Chronicles Of The Lescari Revolution', your previous series, takes what I feel could almost be described as a Marxist approach to epic fantasy - I certainly can't remember seeing anything else like it in the genre - and uses a large cast of characters to take us on a sweeping narrative. How much of it was a deliberate attempt to subvert the genre conventions of world-changing heroes?

I was very deliberately setting out to turn the 'affairs of kings and wizards' cliché on its head, by looking at the actual causes and effects of world-changing upheavals from the perspective of the common people and through the prism of historical reality, not least the economics of revolution. I adore epic fantasy with its high heroics, hair's breadth escapes, battles, treachery and human drama. But that's not enough for me these days as a reader or as a writer. I want to play to the core strengths of the genre at the same time as writing a story reflecting both the modern world and the growing maturity of speculative fiction. The time for unthinking copies of an inadequately understood Tolkien template is long gone.

You've had around 20 short stories published. Is there a collection on the horizon?

Quite possibly, now that e-book technology makes such things so much easier. When time permits; that's the one thing that's still in short supply.

You're a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke award, the James White award, you have a review column in Albedo One, you're a regular reviewer for Interzone and, in the past, you've also worked as a bookseller. All in all, this must give you a very good overview of the field. Has this influenced your own work in anyway, maybe either by moving you towards themes or pushing you away from them?

Interesting question. I would say that my writerly mindset and my critical mindset are two very different things. I do certainly note when other writers are exploring similar issues or trends that crop up in my own work but I don't honestly think I'm influenced by their work, not least given the lead times in publishing. After all, I'll be reading something another writer has worked on anything up to a year before. What I do definitely see is the way in which several writers, including myself, can all be exploring facets of the same real world dilemmas or events, which will have been in the news or the zeitgeist when we were all working independently on different books. That's always very interesting. I don't generally set out to write to a theme; those tend to emerge in the latter stages of writing a book for me. Am I influenced subconsciously? Who can say?

Which up-and-coming writers should we be looking out for?

Anne Lyle, Mark Charan Newton, Gaie Sebold, Michael Cobley, Kari Sperring, Alexey Pehov, Emily Gee, Pierre Pavel - those are just the first few talents whose books catch my eye as I glance around the study today. This is a marvellous time for breadth and depth across the speculative fiction field.

This, of course, leads us on to the next question. Who are your biggest influences both inside and outside the field?

Always a nigh on impossible question to answer. If I try listing SF and fantasy writers, I always end up realising too late who I forgot to mention. I have been reading SF and fantasy one way or another for 40 years now, so let's just assume that list starts with Asimov... expect that comes after Adams (Douglas) so - you see what I mean?

Obviously Tolkien is significant in epic fantasy terms but I also read writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard who were writing the popular fantastic fiction that's at least as much a foundation for our genre as The Lord Of The Rings. Then there's all the myth and folklore that I've read since I was a child, from all around the world, not to mention the 'proper' English lit that I studied at school and the Greek and Roman plays and poems from University.

Outside the field, I read a lot of crime and mystery fiction and that's definitely influenced me towards a dialogue-driven, fast-paced style and my very first female hero, Livak, derived from a conscious decision to put the 'independent, strong-willed, female private eye character into a high fantasy setting - and to see what happened...


How much has reading Classics at Oxford shaped you as a fantasy author?

A good deal, though not necessarily in the ways you might expect. Only the most basic level, I learned how to sit on my own in a room and focus on the work I had to do without succumbing to distractions. I learned to read a great deal of research material fast as well as thoroughly and how to pick out the most relevant information for my weekly essay questions. That now applies to research for my books. Those essays had to be cogently argued from a solid foundation based on that research. I now use those skills for plotting a story with rigorous internal logic and consistency offering the least possible opportunity for nit-picking. The history and literature which I studied gave me both practical facts and in depth studies of human nature, all of which I can draw on for my fiction. Finally, since the Oxford tutorial system requires you to read your two weekly essays aloud to your tutors, answering their questions and challenges off the cuff as you go, being reviewed holds no such comparable terrors.

You've recently written about the gender disparity in SF and fantasy. This goes right through the industry: the books published, the books reviewed, the reviewers and so on, and it is backed up by the statistics. What are the solutions?

The solution comes down to every individual taking responsibility for their own actions. Readers can check their own choices and if they find they're ignoring women writers, ask themselves why and make a conscious decision to try something new. Reviewers should ensure that they are seeing the full breadth and depth of the genre by checking their own balance of coverage. Anthologists must make every effort to balance their calls for submissions and tables of contents, to give women writers equal opportunity of visibility. Agents and editors must be alert for anything in their websites or corporate attitudes that might suggest some unconscious bias which deters women writers from submitting to them. In creative writing circles, men and women alike should strive to overcome the expectation and habits of female self-deprecation and deference that are still so ingrained in our culture.

You are someone who can address the issues raised by a patriarchal society without silencing the female characters whereas many other writers seem unwilling or unable to do this. Is this something that may be a cause of, or is a result of, the imbalance mentioned above?

I think it's a natural consequence of my education at an all-girls' grammar school and then at an all-female Oxford college which meant I was never expected in my teens and early twenties to defer to male presence and/ or authority in classrooms or conversation. We were always expected to speak our minds, to have our opinions tested and then treated with the respect they merited. Not that I was educated in any kind of idealist feminist bubble; growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the wider debates in society on the inequalities of gender and race were impossible to miss. When I left college and worked in personnel in car manufacturing, I got firsthand experience both of deliberate and of unconscious, institutional sexism and racism. I saw the harm that resulted, all the way down to the bottom line of a company's profits and learned that the only way to tackle such bias is to challenge and debate it. Since that's how I look at life, my writing inevitably reflects it.

Just in case we are scaring off any potential readers, I would also like to point out that your books contain a lot of bloodshed and brutality. These scenes reek of authenticity, whether they concern large-scale tactical campaigns or hand-to-hand combat. What research has gone into this side of your writing?

Studying history inevitably involves a lot of battles, though at school, that was often limited to 'there was a battle and here's who won, so moving on to the consequences...' Once you get into reading primary sources though, the reality of warfare is soon driven home. I also had friends serving in the Royal Navy during the Falklands War and read a lot of the biography and autobiography written in the few years after that conflict, which led on naturally to reading military memoirs by the likes of Andy McNab and Chris Ryan.

On the hand to hand aspects, I've studied the martial art aikido for nearly 30 years now so that's directly useful experience, as is the live-action role-playing I did as a student and for some years afterwards. That hobby grew out of my tabletop gaming as did my growing interest in what you might call 'proper' war gaming; playing Squad Leader and re-fighting Napoleonic battles with little lead soldiers. All this (and the aikido) is how I met my husband, who'd come to fantasy gaming from traditional military war gaming. His instincts and knowledge of strategy, tactics and weaponry are invaluable and we sit down to go through every major battle and campaign together. We even drew up full orders of battle and casualty lists for the Lescari Chronicles campaigning.


Some of your favourite characters seem to be the mountain men and the woodsmen (they certainly come across as some the people one would most want to spend time with in real life) and yet they rarely come to the fore as viewpoint characters. Why?

That's another very interesting question that I really hadn't considered before. Giving it some thought, I'd say I want to retain some mystery about the 'forest' and the 'mountains', for there to be some unexplained, even potentially unnerving facets of this world, both for the main characters and for the readers. Certainly for the moment. That may change. Who knows?

Your magic blends with our science at the edges, and there is a slow but constant increase in knowledge through experimentation. This suggests that, unlike many fantasies, your secondary world is not in stasis. Where do you see it heading over the centuries?

One of those things about the pseudo-Tolkien template that really irritates me is these unchanging societies and cultures. You cannot study history without being aware of the constant tides of change. Where will this world go? That's a fascinating question - and the answer is likely to be influenced by how the current Hadrumal Crisis plays out. The Aldabreshi culture is vehemently opposed to wizards and if they decide the time has come to root such evil out, then the results could be devastating.

Wizards have incredibly destructive magic while the Aldabreshi have been known to wage alchemical and biological warfare. That could throw the world into a new age of chaos. Though of course, there is a new continent being explored across the ocean. Perhaps the centre of civilisation would shift and with all the old certainties and structures destroyed, new orders could emerge, for good or ill.

On the other hand, if the mainland kings and rulers and the Aldabreshi could come to some accommodation, then technological and scientific advances could well accelerate. As stargazers, the Aldabreshi are superb mathematicians. Would there still be a place for wizards in that world? If so, on what terms, exactly? They are always going to be in a minority after all, whatever their powers might be.


Hadrumal, your wizards' island, is, as the title suggests, at the forefront of your new series. Is this the first time your readers have spent any time in the isle? Because its hierarchy is based on merit and is not dependent on a slave or feudal underclass, it also comes across as the place most like our own world. Is this just a consequence of the conditions that prevail on the isle or is there a deeper message for us?

Yes, this is the first time characters, readers and I have spent such extended periods in Hadrumal. It's been fascinating for me to pull together the hints from visits in previous books and to create a wider context for such references. I didn't set out to make it a more 'modern' society though. You're quite right; it's a natural consequence of life on an island that focuses on the study of magic above all else, where a wizard's proficiency is largely unaffected by age, gender, sexual orientation or any of the other things that have led to and perpetuated historical, social and cultural inequalities in our own world.

Not that Hadrumal's some utopia of equality; it turns out that wizards are avid gossips and not above speculating about undue influence and preference as consequence of who's sleeping with whom. That might seem very modern, except that such things go all the way back to the ancient Greeks and earlier. In some ways, human nature is remarkably consistent across the millennia.


What are you planning after 'The Hadrumal Crisis'?

In the short term, I have a couple of magazine pieces to write and two short story commissions due before the end of the year; a steampunk fable and a contribution to a new shared world project. That's probably all I should say at this point.

As for novels, I'm contemplating quite a few things. The key question for writers is never 'where do you get your ideas?' but 'which of the ideas clamouring for your attention is the one best suited for writing now?' There are still plenty of aspects of my established world to explore, literally in the case of Solura which is no longer just an unknown realm on the edge of the map. Then there's that newly rediscovered continent on the far side of the ocean. What's going on there? I've already had an idea for a new short story there, thanks to a throwaway line in Darkening Skies which turned out to be a boomerang, smacking me on the back of the head with unexpected inspiration.

In much the same way, a short urban fantasy story which I wrote for a forthcoming anthology 'The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity', has prompted a whole novel's worth of ideas. Then there's an entirely new and different epic fantasy scenario that I've been playing with, in a few short stories here and there. The time could well be ripe for some full length fiction in that world. We'll just have to see what readers, agents and editors care to contribute to that debate and decisions.


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Juliet E McKenna

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