SF /Fantasy writer, Graeme K Talboys
interviewed by Roger Simian & Sarahjane Swan
Graeme Talboys and I first began discussing science fiction, experimental literature and the possibilities of self publishing 10 years ago when we were both studying creative writing through the Open University. As long as I've known him, he's been penning wonderful left-field science-fiction, deeply inspired by the New Worlds authors of the 1960s: Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss etc. Moorcock is a fan and Talboys has even added a new heroine, Charlie Cornelius, to English Assassin Jerry Cornelius's Multiverse. Talboys juggles composing his Charlie Chronicles with penning the ongoing fantasy series, Shadow in the Storm, starring the thief and heroine, Jeniche, which is published by HarperVoyager (an imprint of HarperCollins). Outside of fiction, Graeme Talboys has numerous published works on subjects as diverse as Druidry, Museums, and Drama Games. - RS
Would you mind briefly talking us through your fictional books: the characters, genres, influences and any links you see between each of them? Who are Charlie Cornelius and Jeniche Lusor Remai, Thief of Jhilnagar? Do their worlds intersect in any ways?
All my fantasy books inhabit the same universe, although given that they also range across the multiverse that is a little ambiguous. It would be safer to say that the lives of the characters intersect. My first fantasy was Wealden Hill, set in Sussex in the 1880s, about the experiences of Roland Henty. The Henty family turn up in the Cornelius books. Charlie Cornelius makes an appearance in the Jeniche novels. Charlie and Jeniche will play a part in a future series I am planning. I have a feeling that Jeniche may drop back in time and turn up in Charlie’s world.
So who are all these people? Roland Henty was a soldier returned from The Afghan Wars seeking peace in a teaching post in a Sussex village. Peace is the last thing he finds as he discovers his unusual ancestry.
Charlie Cornelius is the child of… well, we know her mother is Catherine Cornelius and that is all I will say on the matter. If you know the history of the Cornelius family you will be aware of how exceedingly complex it is. Born in Kashmir on 6 March 1968, at the age of 7 she is taken back to London in 1931 (told you it was complicated). There, she is taken in by her Nan, Gertrude Cornell. Not long after the start of the Blitz, she loses what family she had and begins to live alone in the ruins.
Given Charlie’s background, it is no wonder that her relationship with time and the many worlds of the multiverse is relaxed and one she does not at first understand. Despite the ability to move into alternative Londons, many of them with nightmare qualities, she is rooted in the here and now and must face the hardships of life alone. She must also face the predator that stalks the blacked out streets, especially when he threatens a new found friend.
Charlie is eventually adopted by the Simmons family who run a travelling funfair and more episodes of her life will be revealed. The Simmons family (related to the Hentys) have an adventurer of their own in their ancestry as anyone who has read H G Wells will know.
And Jeniche Lusor Remai will be born a thousand years from now in a country called Antar where she will be raised on her own by an old woman in a strange building. Unhappy, she eventually runs away and ends up in the neighbouring country of Makamba, settling in the city of the same name and living a precarious life as a thief.
Her world has grown in the ruins of a cataclysm so all-encompassing, little record remains of the civilizations that existed before the event they call the Evanescence. Life is fairly comfortable for her until the day she enters a house to steal jewellery. There she encounters not the riches she expected but empty rooms and a tall woman who hands her an amulet.
Not long afterwards she is arrested and whilst languishing in prison the city is invaded by Occassan troops. She escapes jail, retrieves her stash (including the amulet), and makes plans to escape to somewhere quieter. In the process she finds herself acting as guide to a group of monks and nuns from the distant land of Tundur, helping them find a way home. Also in their group is a stranger called Alltud.
Nothing goes as she plans, not least because the Occassans seem to be interested in the small group, hunting them as they make their way into the mountains. And so begins the adventures of Jeniche, the places she visits, the people she meets, the long battle with the Occassans, who are obsessed with her and the amulet.
So, with Michael Moorcock’s blessing you have added Charlie Cornelius to the pantheon of Jerry Cornelius, the English Assassin, and his clan. How did you find your way to Charlie as a character? Did she arrive fully formed from your imagination or did you have to construct her, like a Frankenstein’s Monster, pieced together from elements of individuals you’ve known in real life or from previous fictions?
Charlotte Jennifer Grace Cornelius first appeared in a short story titled “…the price is worth it.”, a meditation on the impact of conflict and disaster on children. I had long wanted to write a Jerry Cornelius short story in the style of the originals and the opportunity presented itself in 2006 when I took the Open University’s first Creative Writing course. One of the assignments was for a short story of 2,000 words. It seemed a perfect match, not least because I had been re-reading the Cornelius stories and novels at the time.
Within Moorcock’s work there are several hints that a child of Jerry or his sister Catherine exists. I ran with that idea and how Jerry might react. For all the complexities and nihilism of his character, I believe that he would have done exactly as I wrote – search the time streams for a safe passage through the years for the child and encode this in a way the mother could use. Of course, where Jerry is concerned, plans rarely run smoothly.
That was the extent of Charlie’s existence. A bump. But another short story was called for during the course and I wrote, originally, about a single mother living in London at the beginning of the Second World War deciding not to let her child be evacuated. Part of the story grew out of conversations with my mother who lived in London throughout most of the war (her father was a fireman).
As it stood, the story was complete, but to me it had no depth. In searching for that extra layer, it occurred to me that perhaps this child of eight years of age could well be the same as yet to be born child in “…the price is worth it.”. After a quick rewrite, I had the depth I was looking for. As a short story, that depth may not be obvious to a reader, but I am certain that when an author taps into such deep wells, it resonates in their work.
And once the child was born, I couldn’t leave it there. Even if no one else cared, I wanted to know how Charlie got to London in 1939 as an eight year old when she was born in Jhilnagar in 1968. That, I knew was going to be a long and complicated journey and that I intended to have fun retracing it.
Indeed, once she existed, Charlie insisted that her story was written. At first it was going to be a single novel. That soon went by the board. So much happened to her between 1939 and 1944, that it needed a book of its own.
To begin with I had no overall plan. Having created a character (I can feel her glaring at me as I write that) so let me rephrase. Having made Charlie’s acquaintance, the circumstances of her life were enough to dictate what happened. She was the child of time-travelling adventurers living in a war-torn city. Whilst people have stories to tell, their lives aren’t planned. Things happen. They cope as best they can in their own way. Which is exactly what Charlie did as a child. Whether she tries to steer events as she gets older remains to be seen.
As Moorcock had bequeathed Cornelius and Co to the science fictional world as public domain archetypes, up-for-grabs modern day myths that writers were encouraged to adopt, did you feel you had free reign to do whatever you wanted with your creation? Or were you beholden to run your work past Michael Moorcock first, before releasing those stories into the world? What has his reaction been to your works based in the Multiverse?
Yes and no. This was my story (and that will be true in more ways than one). At the same time I was conscious of a responsibility toward the original. I had loved the stories from the very beginning and felt always that I should try to be true to their spirit. Happily, the very structure of the originals left me free to explore and use my own voice. In addition, as they deal with archetypes (often typified by Commedia dell’Arte), they offer a ready-made framework on which to weave a tale.
Once I had completed my first forays into the Cornelius universe, I did not feel obliged to run them by Mike, but I have known him for a long time and felt it would be polite. Of course, it was an enormous boost to my ego when he told me how much he enjoyed the first story, how I had really captured the method and understood the point. He has also said he’s happy with the novels, which is not only personally gratifying, but makes the actual writing a lot easier as I feel trusted to explore that corner of the multiverse.
Not only that, he has endorsed my other fantasy writing, which means a great deal to me. This is one of the greatest fantasy writers ever and he likes my work. What’s not to smile about.
Do you feel you are writing the Charlie stories and the Jeniche stories for two distinct audiences or for one group with broader tastes?
I hope that, like me, my readers would be comfortable with both writings. The characters interact and storylines intertwine. It is true that the Jeniche books are straightforward epic fantasies, whilst the Charlie books are much more experimental and exploratory in their approach, but I suspect readers will be able to delve into both worlds happily, realising that the form of story telling is important to the story being told. Charlie’s life is horribly fragmented by events and she lives in a world of great complexity and the way her life is related to the reader reflects this. Jeniche, although she lives in complicated times, is firmly rooted in one place and time (at least in the first seven books). The story telling is, therefore, a much more straightforward narrative.
You were obviously a huge fan of New Worlds magazine and the more experimental SF work of Moorcock, JG Ballard and others. Do you have any direct links with New Worlds or the authors associated with it? Did you submit any work to them or to any of the other countercultural publications of the time?
I submitted a number of stories to New Worlds back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They didn’t get published as I wasn’t a good enough writer in those days. New Worlds had really high standards, but Mike always passed my work to other editors to see if they were interested, and it seemed a lot easier in those days to open a dialogue with editors and writers that you didn’t know. That led to introductions and sometimes friendships. I also submitted work (fiction and non-fiction) to other magazines. I didn’t get much published but I was learning all the time (not least how to cope with rejection).
You’ve hinted that the culture you encountered at that time, the late ‘60s, made you who you are today, as an individual in general, and more specifically as a writer. Is this fair to say? What drew you to the counterculture? What did it tell you about yourself and about the world around you? What made it so special and life-altering?
It is a very fair thing to say. Basically, I’m just an old hippie. I went to festivals, met some very interesting people, turned on, tuned in, although never quite dropped out. I thought I could make a difference from the inside through teaching. But trying to teach and write eventually burned me out.
It’s difficult to know what attracted me to that world at the time. Looking back you can always find connections, but at the time that’s what all my friends were in to and my earlier life had no doubt set up the right conditions. As a young child I was a bit of a loner. My siblings were seven years older than me and although it was natural that we moved in different circles, I had the advantage of being introduced to things ahead of time – music, books, magazines, and ideas. Even as I was reading The Beano, The Eagle, and Look and Learn I was reading more adult fare. My mother subscribed to the Companion Book Club and there was always a Simenon or a Greene to dip into. I didn’t always understand these things, but by the time I was eleven I had an adult library card (non-fiction only, presumably to protect me from what I was already reading at home).
From an early age I loved science fiction and fantasy, was fascinated by tales of unusual happenings and mysteries, ghosts, lost cities, UFOs, British myth and legend. It was all grist to the mill of my imagination. Exposure to more adult reading grounded this in the real world that not many children experience.
Perhaps that is why when I stepped into the counter cultural stream, I was happy to be swept away. It was such a heady mix of real world concerns and the fantastical that it seemed quite natural to me. Contemporary depictions of that period can be distorting. A comparatively small number of people grew their hair and adorned themselves with flowers (although when you went to festivals like Phun City or the Isle of Wight you could be forgiven for thinking the whole world had done so). But those were intensely political times, a time when any- and everything seemed possible.
Equally there was an enormous explosion of creativity. You could try anything and there was a community that encouraged that, helped that, nurtured that, and which allowed you to fail. Failure was part of the process. It was accepted. The important thing was you had tried and no-one made you feel bad if it didn’t work. More often than not, they asked you what you were going to do next.
I was lucky in that my home life allowed me to flourish, my schooling was under the tutelage (for the most part) of teachers who engaged with and encouraged me. My school had arts festivals, and I became involved with those, with drama, with the local folk scene. And I was doubly lucky in that I lived close to Brighton. That meant I could get up to London easily and partake of the vibe in and around Ladbroke Grove, witness the early performances of Hawkwind, get to the theatre for things like Peter Brooks’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, and still have a town on my doorstep that was as vibrant as London, yet more intimate.
Hanging out in Bill Butler’s Unicorn Bookshop, going to concerts at the Dome and the Uni, mixing with all sorts of people just kept expanding my mind. And Brighton had a whole previous generation of bohemian folk who shared their wisdom.
It wasn’t all good. Anyone’s teenage years have their downs as well as their ups. And the counter culture itself was riddled with inequalities, especially when it came to women’s rights. But on the whole it was a formative period I am ever thankful to have experienced.
It didn’t last, of course. Just when we thought we could change the world, the world decided it wasn’t time and the establishment fought back. That is a long and painful history that has been chronicled elsewhere. Yet it left a legacy that is still at work. Groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace had their genesis at this time. Many of the young hippies are now old hippies and still working for a better world.
From a personal point of view, it was the opening of the mind and learning to look at the world with different eyes, learning to be critical in a positive way, not being afraid to experiment, the music, the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging to an anarchic movement in which being a bit odd was a redeeming feature.
Do you miss that era? The Charlie Cornelius stories seem haunted by a kind of dislocated melancholy and nostalgia for a freer, more open time.
I do. I realise that that’s as much a nostalgia for the carefree time of childhood. I grew up in a loving family. That too wasn’t without its ups and downs, but I felt secure, loved, and trusted. In turn I did little to abuse that. There wasn’t much in the way of drugs (mostly because I didn’t see the point – the mind has plenty of wonderful things to explore without messing with it). I did nip off to festivals a bit further afield that my parents would not have been happy about, but that was the extent of my rebelliousness at home.
That aside, I miss the flowering of creativity, the anarchic vibrancy of the time. I know a lot goes on now in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then, but it seems far more disjointed, individuals and small groups rather than a whole, loose-knit culture.
Students don’t protest any more because the old centres of political ferment were closed down and these days students are loaded with debt. Back then, you could scrape by on the dole, find a cheap hovel to share with others, do casual work to put more than beans on toast on the table and not worry about being harassed by Social Security. You had the chance to write your novel, rehearse your band, make your art. Even if you later put on a suit and got a job, you had the opportunity to get that out of your system. You could say you’d tried.
Now everything seems to be driven by committees and money, where those who decide on who gets a grant or a spot at the festival belong to a very small coterie of folk who are rarely practising artists. Or it is all about instant fame from the TV. Or it is a professional career via a BA and MA in some creative subject that squeezes you into an academic box in order that you can be assessed to an arbitrary standard and strips away any truly innovative approach. I won’t condemn such courses outright as they are better than nothing. But only just.
Or maybe I’m just an old fogey shaking one fist at the modern world whilst clutching a copy of Kropotkin in the other.
Can you still see any whispers or traces of the philosophies and creativity of the 60s and 70s here in the 21st century?
Everywhere. Like the Big Bang can be heard if you know where to look, the echoes of that explosion still resound. I mentioned Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace before. They and many other green organisations were born back then. I went drinking with Robert Hunter when he was in the UK, and we talked about this, about whether counter cultural movements inevitably disappear under the weight of both reactionary forces and their own move from anarchic structure to more corporate organisation. We never did decide. But that initial blossoming still provides inspiration. There are still people travelling and living off grid, building little houses in obscure places and living quietly without leaving a footprint in the sands of time. And ideas are also still alive. Modern technology has allowed music, film making, art, animation, and writing and publishing to take place in a way not seen before. And as I also said before, it is only that they do not take place within an overarching counter-cultural atmosphere that we don’t hear more about them. Even with the internet it is much more difficult to find these endeavours than it was in the ‘60s, much more difficult to connect them.
The current zeitgeist is a much more tenuous spirit, perhaps because it is so much more widely spread and because there is now so much background noise. That migration of folk to centres, and in those centres to rooms where people would sit, talk, listen to music together, come up with ideas, and put those ideas into action no longer takes place in ‘western’ culture.
In your novel, Thin Reflections, we are introduced to Charlie’s childhood in the war-torn London of WWII. Much as JG Ballard’s earliest experiences in the chaos of Japanese occupied Shanghai directly influenced his fictional disasters and dystopias, Charlie’s childhood in a Blitz-ravaged London seem to echo in her unsettled, adulthood as a rootless Temporal Adventurer. In what ways have the landscapes of your earliest memories resonated through your life and fiction? I gather that your early childhood was urban but that you were at some point introduced to a more rural existence in East Sussex?
That’s a really interesting question – the dichotomy of urban and rural. I was born in London and lived there for the first five years of my life. We then lived in Norwich before moving to Sussex. That was a gradual drift from urban to rural (and I now live in a small Scottish village, so the journey is almost complete). Despite leaving London at an early age I still have very distinct memories and, having family there, we always went back. And that side of the family were deeply rooted in London and were, of course, living there through WWII. My maternal grandfather was a fireman who experienced the Blitz at its sharpest end.
As a small child, my mother would take me all over the place, going to parks and museums, visiting aunts and cousins – almost as if she wanted to imbue me with as much experience of that world as possible. It is these memories, fragmented as they are, that are a foundation to my visions of the world – parks and old buildings, railway bridges, tube trains and buses, the roof garden of Derry and Toms – plus that feeling that a city must be walked and explored. That was clearly embedded in me when we moved to Norwich. As a child in the late 50s and early 60s, I had a huge amount of freedom. I would walk the city streets, visit the museums and libraries, play in the still existing bomb sites, ride the bike my brother had made for me out of bits of other bikes. Freewheeling and anarchic, and still finding plenty of time to read comics and books, scribble my own stories.
This carried on into life in Sussex where rural scenery was thrown into the mix. I found walking the countryside (or riding my bike) just as absorbing as wandering about in Brighton. In some senses you had to. About half my friends lived in relatively remote villages, the rest being spread out in the same coastal sprawl where I lived. It was nothing to get on my bike and cycle thirty miles to get to a party, crash for the weekend and cycle home. But my restlessness was just as likely to be solitary, exploring on the beach or walking on the downs.
You cannot be that immersed in your environment without it shaping who you are. My writing draws heavily on these landscapes. And it doesn’t really stop with childhood. I went to college in Birmingham, so there is another urban landscape, one that is coloured by my emerging adult awareness. The college buildings are also deeply embedded in my psyche. They often turn up in Charlie’s world (and play a role in other story ideas I hope to develop). They represent a growing awareness of the world as well as being a place that sits, like so much of what I write about, in liminal space.
The same happened when I started teaching. I lived in a flat in a long modern, complex that was a retreat from the stresses of teaching and has also become embedded in my psyche. More so as the whole complex has since been demolished, existing now only in memory and a few photographs. And, of course, in my writings.
Like any artist, I represent and interpret at the same time. My visions of the world are fed in part by memories seen through a kaleidoscopic distorting glass. I sometimes wonder how disturbed I might be or, more frightening, just how straight I see the world. In the end, though, whilst I remain aware of the sources of my imagination, I try not to analyse it too much. It is a superstitious fear that if I pick it apart, I won’t be able to put it back together again.
What were the first books that really grabbed hold of you and shook up your world? How did they attract your attention and in what ways did they change who you were?
Oh. First loves. And a bit of cheating because the first reading that was compulsive were the comics I took each week. My brother’s Eagle (Dan Dare), my own Beano and a bit later TV21 (Gerry Anderson) and Look and Learn (for which, I later learned, Mike Moorcock wrote). Much of my juvenile reading was non-fiction (I had a thing about castles for years) and of the children’s fiction I read I cannot remember a single book. In fact, I didn’t get into children’s fiction until I started teaching. There were always plenty of adult books in the house; a lot of my reading choices were a gift from my mother – Georges Simenon, Graham Greene, and Margery Allingham, for example. I read a lot of those as a youngster but didn’t fully appreciate them until I was older. Oddly enough, the one adult book from that early period I remember clearly was Flying Saucers Have Landed by George Adamski and Desmond Leslie. It introduced me at an early age to alternative realities and to people who see the world differently.
The earliest novel I recall that grabbed my attention forcefully and has never since let go is T H White’s The Once and Future King. I was twelve. A teacher at my school, Bill Euston, read us The Sword in the Stone in the weeks before he retired and advised us to seek out the other parts. I knew the Arthurian tales well, by that time, but was completely entranced by this madcap version. It still astonishes me (I reread it on a fairly regular basis) what White managed – not just in terms of storytelling (it is Bardic magic), but in the way he subverts everything without once losing his respect for the source material. As a piece of literature, its importance to me is matched only by its spiritual importance. As a child I had experienced things which, once I read White’s book, began to make sense and set me on a path I’ll write about below.
It was also, perhaps a gateway book. Once I’d read that I wanted more like that. And around this time I started looking at SF&F, partly through the pages of New Worlds magazine. When Mike Moorcock took over editorship, it was like the doors of a whole new library being opened – not just in the writing in the magazine, but in the discussions had within the pages about other authors and the things you could possibly do with words.
Then (as now) I was a voracious and indiscriminate reader. William Burroughs or Edgar Rice Burroughs, I didn’t care. I was fully aware of differing styles and ‘merit’, but it doesn’t matter if you are travelling first class or in a broken down third-hand bus held together by string and chewing gum, it’s the journey you take and the things you experience along the way – although the best experiences are often to be had on that broken down bus as it negotiates the back roads of a foreign country. There are, of course, other books that not only stand out in my own mind as important but which have, I am sure, influenced me as a person and a writer. The brightest of these are: Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head and Report on Probability A; J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition; Barrington J Bayley’s Soul of a Robot; Samuel Beckett’s How It Is; John Berger’s Ways of Seeing; Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths; Albert Camus’s The Outsider; Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance; Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; M John Harrison’s The Pastel City; Anna Kavan’s Ice; Mike Moorcock’s Behold The Man; Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons; Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence; Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers; Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise; Jack Trevor Story’s The Trouble With Harry; Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic; P L Travers’ Mary Poppins; H G Wells’ The Time Machine; Monique Wittig’s The Guerillas; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
And most of that is by the time I’m 16. Add to that, as you have to, the music, the movies, the artwork, theatre, parties, and festivals. As that would take another ten thousand words, I’d better stop now.
When did you begin to write yourself? Were you encouraged in this in any way: by parents, peers, school, the culture at large? How did you learn the skills required to be a writer?
I don’t know where it came from but I have always loved everything about writing and books. Pens, paper, learning cursive (which we did at school in handwriting lessons – we weren’t allowed to use pens until we had completed that), and just generally drawing and scribbling. It has always seemed to me to be an act of magic. My first conscious memory of creating my own stories is when I was seven. My parents had groceries delivered once a week from a nearby store. Each week, my mother would write a list in a red, Silvine cash book the grocer supplied, hand it in to the store and on Friday evening, cardboard boxes would be delivered in a van.
There were always spare red books which somehow ended up in my clutches. And I would write stories in them, illustrated every few pages. They’ve all disappeared now, sadly as I would love to be able to see those first steps. And it wasn’t just stories written in books. There was a lot of world building going on in my head all the time, vignettes to explain things I didn’t understand or which appealed to me. Every journey back and forth from school was an adventure. Every playtime game was an adventure. Exploring the city was both nerdy (I was curious about everything) and an adventure.
All those stories, along with the ones I was taking in via comics, books, cinema, and a television with two channels – well, they had to come back out or I think my head would have exploded. And they did. When I wasn’t out there being a spy, landing on other planets, hunting ghosts, or looking for treasure, I was writing. And drawing. The little red cash books grew to exercise books and larger ledgers that turned up from somewhere (along with pens, pencils and crayons). That, I guess, was the only positive encouragement my parents gave. They saw what I enjoyed and gave me the materials and the space to get on with it. But looking back, that really was the very best encouragement of all. No one in my family at that time was what you’d call a book worm (and I’m not sure I ever saw my father read anything other than a newspaper or technical journal). No one was inclined to the literary life. On the other hand, no one ever looked down on it or discouraged it.
School didn’t mind. I handed in work. One Junior school teacher did place me next to the classroom library and never once complained if I’d slipped a book off the shelf and was reading. So, once again, it was a recognition that what I was up to was at worst harmless and would improve my vocabulary so I was allowed to get on with it.
It wasn’t until my third year in Secondary school, not long after we’d moved to Sussex, that I began to think about the actual craft of writing. My first two years were at a school in Norwich which I loathed. As a result of doing well in the Eleven Plus, I ended up in one school and all my friends in another. The school I went to had pretensions, thought it was Eton or something (despite being a state grammar school). Bullying was rife. My mother later told me that she and dad were happy when he got made redundant and had to find work elsewhere as it got me away from that place.
In Sussex I flowered. I was still in a boys only state grammar school (which became a mixed comprehensive at the beginning of my fifth year), but the atmosphere was totally different. I began to enjoy school again, especially English classes. That’s where T H White comes in. That’s where teachers began to get me to think about how written work is structured, how the choice of words can alter a piece. It’s also where I made new friends my own age and was exposed to their tastes.
As I hurtled into adolescence, the writing of stories became the writing of poetry. Every day I would free write. Huge amounts of garbage. But it was ingraining a habit. Write every day. And it was ingraining the notion that your first draft, your free write, doesn’t have to be good. It’s manure that makes the roses grow.
In that sense, I was self-taught. I began to take bits of what I had written and I began to work on them, find ways to improve their meaning, their flow, their resonance. I can’t say I was that good at it, but these things take time. And if nothing else, I was prolific. Thousands of poems and bits of prose by the time I was eighteen.
In another sense, I was learning from the very best teachers possible – books. Novels poems, plays. Words. Because they were still magical and I was beginning at that stage to get the hang of it.
Perhaps the only drawback in later school life is that none of my contemporaries was a writer. They were virtually all musicians. I’ll touch on this a bit later, but it still astonishes me how much musical talent there was around me.
It wasn’t until I got to college I began to discuss writing with other writers. By that stage my focus was on theatre and drama, but I was still writing prose. In fact I’d already written a couple of novels by then (one of which I lost on a train).
Formal training in writing came late in the day with the Open University’s Creative Writing courses. By that stage I was already published, but it was non-fiction and I felt in a bit of a non-fiction groove. Working through well designed courses and being able to bounce ideas and general chatter around with other writers was extremely liberating, not just in terms of writing, but in the opening up of a network of people who have become good friends and whose support and advice over the years has been of inestimable value.
You have a strong interest in Druidry and the Celtic heritage. What influence, if any, does this have on the stories you write? Is your particular strain of science fiction and fantasy writing a continuation, in some way, of the Celtic storytelling traditions?
We are back to T H White. The Sword in the Stone was not just an epic piece of story telling, it was a spiritual journey. That’s where my formal interest in Druids and our Celtic heritage began. And what better place? Story-telling, teaching, standing witness, keeping alive the ideas, working for balance... these are all part of what I do. There are many ways to accomplish these things – some obvious, some more subtle. In the end it comes down to a view of the world, a metaphysical stance that governs your actions. The inside of my head is a strange place although I am extremely comfortable there. Outside my head is even more remarkable. The world is a constant miracle, despite the attempts of some to bring it to its knees. My work as a Druid, my involvement in green politics and environmental causes, my teaching, and my story-telling are all aimed at a single end. I want people to appreciate the world in which they are privileged to live, I want them to care for it, I want them to work in ways that lessen our impact on and increase our joy in the world.
My non-fiction is about specific ways in which you can better work in the world, be that through an understanding of what it means to be human and how fragile that existence is or by taking positive action to examine our individual contribution. My fiction goes to some dark places to examine bad things and show how people, be they individuals or groups, can make a difference.
Like the Bards of old I try to tell an exciting and engrossing story that derives from my concerns. And I have not the slightest doubt there are elements of my storytelling that borrow heavily from Celtic sources (like whole books).
I’ve read that every school day in your early teens, you would pass the Mount in Lewes, East Sussex: an antiquated, artificially constructed chalk mound covered in turf. This must have fired up your imagination in a big way. You’ve also spoken about the inspiration for your first novel Wealden Hill: an overheard pub conversation between two wizened Sussex gents discussing a grandfather snatched away for some time by the “fraeries”. Having grown up in an urban space, your later encounters with the landscape and lore of East Sussex seem to have been a rich source of inspiration to you as a writer.
I also passed the spot every day where Virginia Woolf committed suicide, went to school and worked in the town where Thomas Paine was an excise officer for 6 years and which had and still has a very strong tradition of non-conformism is its widest sense. I spent a lot of time on the Mount with friends in that eternal summer of my youth. The local folk and folklore scene was extremely important to me. I think the most wonderful thing was that I lived within easy reach of town and country, both of which were steeped in culture ancient and modern. You could walk on the downs and feel the millennia beneath your feet, see the burial mounds and other workings of peoples whose most advanced technology was the flint they pulled out of the chalk. From up there you could see the setting of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. At the same time you would be walking the paths that Virginia Woolf followed, seeing scenes so wonderfully captured by artists like Eric Ravilious. And there were so many in-between places, both in town and country, and these perhaps are the ones that inform my work the most. The little deserted rural railway halts along with the major railway stations late at night. along with the major railway stations late at night. Places on the downs where the modern world could be seen, thickets of thorn in which it was possible to lose oneself on a hot summer afternoon. The huge figure of the Wilmington giant who has always been, to me, a female figure holding wide the gates to another world. The tiny back alleys of the towns with second-hand bookshops that were clearly connected to L-space. Everywhere you went, there were stories to be heard and stories to be told. And perhaps it was that contrast of urban and rural, along with all those edge spaces, that made it all so vibrant and fed my imagination with such a rich diet.
I had a similarly enriching duality in my formative years. I grew up in a tough grey housing scheme on the outskirts of Edinburgh until I was 10 and then we moved to a village in the Scottish Borders, which had been the hometown of Thomas the Rhymer, True Thomas of Ercildoune. Both locations: the urban and the rural have had huge impact on my imagination and I’ve always found myself drawn to characters like the Arch Drood and Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope (of The Teardrop Explodes), who seems to simultaneously inhabit both the trippy wilderness of ancient Warwickshire and the edgy metropolis of Post-Punk Liverpool. Do you think you would still have been a science fiction / fantasy writer (and, indeed, a lover of the Druid’s Way) if you had not relocated from the city life to the country?
Oh. That’s a big question. And true to the spirit of speculative fiction it is perhaps the biggest ‘what-if’ question of all. It is one I have asked many times, and I suspect that what I have become was set in train from a very early age. My very earliest memories from when we still lived in London are a mix of urban and rural. We lived very close to Richmond Park. The belling of red deer during the rut is one of the earliest sounds I can recall. Visiting the park for picnics ranks equally with walking the city streets in my memory – from a time when smog was a real problem, steam trains roared over bridges, and there were still bomb sites from the war. The path I followed would no doubt have been different, but I believe it would have been roughly parallel to the one I did follow.
Is it true that you grew up with Wreckless Eric? What was he like? What did he teach you about the Rock ‘n’ Roll world?
I did. When we moved to Sussex a pupil in my class was allotted to act as my guide for the first few weeks to make sure I knew where all the classrooms and toilets were and to make sure I got the right train and bus home. That was Eric Goulden. He was given the unenviable task of baby-sitting because he lived a bit further along the same bus route from me (you did a great job, Eric – I never once got lost). We ended up in different tutor groups later on, but we are still in touch. It’s difficult to think of folk you grew up with being internationally recognised stars – they were just kids you mucked about with on the train, copied homework from, saw at parties.
As I mentioned earlier, there was an astonishing amount of musical talent in the school that was clearly going to go places. Contemporaries of mine were people such as Andrew Ranken (Pogues), Pete Thomas (The Attractions), and my good friend Tom Morley (Scritti Politti). Notice a theme? – drumming was popular. And even those who did not go on to be professional musicians still perform regularly (especially in the folk scene). I made efforts to play bass but I have stubby arthritic fingers and could never quite get it. Music did not lose out by my failure. But it has always been important to me.
And if there is a lesson to be carried away from this, it is that no matter what hype surrounds such people, they are ordinary folk who went to extraordinary lengths to perfect their art.
Music seems to have been hugely important to you. Who are your Rock Gods and Goddesses? Is there any essence of their work reflected in your books?
Oh, I could go off on another very long list, so I’ll try to be good. As far as bands go, Hawkwind have always been there (I’m listening to them as I write this), the Nice, the Deviants (and later incarnations of the band and its various members – especially Mick Farren, a great writer and a true rock ‘n’ roller who died on stage). A lot of blues/rock from Cream, Hendrix, Ten Years After, Groundhogs, Steamhammer, and Chicken Shack.
A more contemplative side can be found in the work of the incomparable Sandy Denny, with an echo of that melancholia found also in Nick Drake. Roy Harper was a particularly strong influence (to the point of Charlie Cornelius novel titles deriving from his lyrics, with his permission). And to prove I’m not stuck in the past, the Smoke Fairies are a contemporary folk/blues outfit I love.
For more ‘progressive’ work King Crimson, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, Peter Hammill, Porcupine Tree, Van Der Graaf Generator.
I like film music as well (most of it more than the actual films). It is ideal to write to as it is composed specifically to hit emotional triggers. Jablonsky and Zimmerman do this well for mainstream films. Sometimes you get a perfect match of director and composer as with Tarkovsky and Artemiev.
And, of course, classical. Lush and romantic orchestral music mostly – Sibelius, Mahler, Rachmaninov… you get the picture.
My work is riddled with references to music and other cultural items, often obscurely, and simply because it pleases me that something resonates with a memory of my own. My musical tastes and the things I write are a reflection of each other.
I gather, from reading some of your work, that you spent part of your later formative years in Brighton. What drew you there? Was there a strong countercultural presence? In your short story This Side of Winter from the Charlie Cornelius volume, Stormwrack, you describe an underground journal, Garden of Albion. Is this inspired by a real publication and real characters you encountered in Brighton?
When the family moved to Sussex, Brighton became the nearest place with a choice of bookshops, music venues, and hangouts for a growing lad like myself. Just out of town was Sussex University, in the town itself was an Art College of the type that got closed down or subsumed because they tended to be hotbeds of radical thought. There were blues clubs, folk clubs, spaces for open air concerts, and the Dome. Bookshops seemed to line the streets. New and secondhand volumes abounded (as did LPs – this was the almost prehistoric first vinyl age). There were quirky shops left over from another era. And I knew them all.
One particular haunt was the Unicorn Bookshop, owned by the poet Bill Butler. It was more than just a bookshop. He ran a small press, and there were always interesting people in and out – Moorcock, Ballard, William Burroughs. It also engaged with its customers. People would talk about books or what they had read in IT or Oz, about concerts they’d been to. As a result of all this, the place was also always the focus of police attention. Put hippies and a small press together and the establishment would lash out at it on a fairly regular basis. And just as Nasty Tales and Oz had their obscenity trials, so too did Bill Butler for publishing Ballard.
The Unicorn Bookshop was a fascinating place. It is no surprise it resurfaces in an alternative form in my Cornelius books as Octopus. It seemed to me to be the perfect place for Charlie to take refuge during those late days of the ‘60s whilst exploring something of the social history of the period – in particular the police/state hypocrisy of pursuing such places for obscenity when you didn’t have to walk very far to find photographic and film studios churning out pornography and appearing to have the protection of the local police.
The Garden of Albion has no direct counterpart, but it is a generic product of the underground press of the period. Long before all the tools made available by desktop publishing, hundreds, if not thousands, of magazines and papers were being printed at the time – providing an outlet for the counter cultural voice. I still have a number of periodicals from the time, from the professional New Worlds, and IT, to publications like Nasty Tales. Many of these are now exceedingly fragile. They weren’t aimed at posterity. The layouts are wonky. Photographs are often poorly reproduced. Cartoons hastily drawn. Yet they have a vibrancy that many modern small publications seem to lack.
How did you end up living in Scotland? Has the new landscape and culture you find yourself existing in had an influence on your work?
We moved here when I took up a post at the museum in Stranraer. Within months, I fell ill with ME and FM and eventually stepped aside from my post. Ironically, we came here because of the promise of walking and exploring the countryside. Prior to moving I had spent a year’s paid leave (courtesy of a grant) researching a book on museum education and not long after being diagnosed I was offered a publishing contract. Writing full time seemed to be a way forward.
Despite my problems with mobility, I have always been conscious of landscape and fascinated not just by how it forms but also how it acts on those who live within it – the way the psychologies of those who live in desert regions, for example, differ from those who live in well-watered landscapes. Even when the landscape is urban, it affects those who live there. City dwellers have different outlooks to village dwellers. Different cities affect people in different ways.
I find any written work that does not understand this and reflect it in the characters and story to be psychologically two-dimensional. It is fantasy where environment is most obviously used (although even there, writers often get it wrong). We are, of course, treading the edges of pathetic fallacy here in which environment is endowed with human emotion and conduct. Yet it is impossible not to recognise this as part of human understanding of the world. We cannot understand it in any other way because it has shaped us and our thinking; if we tend to ascribe or project our own emotions and motives, that is how we function and make sense of things.
Certain stories rely heavily on the landscape in which they are set. Thomas Hardy springs to mind. And certainly in my more rural fantasies, the landscape is ever present as an influencing factor. Not just in the sense that a journey through mountains will be hard, but in the psychological presence of mountains. Having spent time in the Alps, I know what a weight they can place on the psyche.
The same is true of the weather. A desert dweller will know the joy of the rainy season, no matter how short, and be prepared for it. But to move into a region where it rains 250 days of the year, often non-stop for weeks on end (I’m looking at you, Scotland), is to introduce an element (excuse the unavoidable pun) that will undoubtedly affect that character.
Of course, as a writer, I should be able to conjure this no matter where I live, but it is so much better to have experienced these things for yourself. In my past I travelled a lot and have lived in both those urban and rural settings. Even now with limited mobility I try to get out as much as possible.
Contact with the landscape and the objects you write about brings a veracity to your work be it fantasy (and having worked in museums I know about armour, swords, living in roundhouses from first-hand experience) or contemporary urban literature.
Your earliest published books were non-fiction. What subjects did these cover and how did they come about? Did these help give you the discipline you needed when turning your pen to longer fiction?
When I was a Drama teacher, I used a lot of games in my work as warm up, and sometimes just for fun. I collected these over the years and compiled a collection. Spent years trying to find a publisher and eventually did so. It was a set text in Ireland apparently for a while. But my first published full length works were derived from my time working in museum education.
I worked a lot with student teachers during my time as a museum education officer as it seemed better to train teachers how to use museums than constantly repeat work with children. I received a substantial grant from the St Hild and St Bede Trust to carry out research into this. Much of the book work was done at libraries at Durham University in the mornings and (weather permitting) I’d spend the afternoons in the botanical gardens writing up notes and drafting parts of the book.
The intention was to provide a comprehensive guide for student and practising teachers on how to plan visits to museums and make best use of the resource once there. This ended up with the snappy title of Using Museums as an Educational Resource. It’s now in a second edition with Routledge. The original publisher (Ashgate – since bought out by Routledge) liked it so much they commissioned a second book. This was written for museum education officers and was a handbook on how to set up and run a museum education department and has the equally snappy title of Museum Educator’s Handbook. This one is now into a third edition and still selling. It’s not a big market, but I’m proud of both.
Not wanting anything to go to waste, I’m currently working on a book for writers on how to get the best out of museums for writing research. I’ve also drafted a much broader book on the craft of writing aimed at older teenagers that I’ll get round to sorting out one of these days.
It must be the teacher in me, but if I have an interest in something, I invariably write about it to pass on what I have learned. So it was inevitable that my interest in Druidry would lead me to write about that as well. I co-wrote two books with a good friend of mine, Julie White. That was a remarkable experience. I have never understood how anyone can co-write fiction (although I am glad some can because the Strugatsky brothers produced some of the finest science fiction ever) but non-fiction seemed a perfect fit allowing books that covered a wider range of knowledge and experience. I have also written on the subject on my own and have plenty of research material piling up for future books.
Although I had written sustained pieces of fiction in the past, I’d only ever once reached the kind of word counts needed for commercially viable fiction. Publishers are wary of anything shorter than 70,000 words unless you are well known. So, from that perspective, completing substantial works of non-fiction meant I knew I could do it again.
However, I found that the discipline of writing all that non-fiction had blunted my creative edge. That’s where the Open University came to the rescue, giving me the space in which to explore what I wanted to do with fiction in small chunks with lots of guidance and critical input from a lot of other wildly creative people. It didn’t take long. The fiction had clearly been dammed up. It took one little crack and a distinct absence of meddling Dutch boys poking their fingers where they weren’t wanted.
Have you any interest in writing in any other genres, e.g. Mainstream Lit or "Tartan Noir"?
I write spy novels as well. Some people find that odd, but all my characters live in shadowy worlds on the borderlands and spy novels (as opposed to shoot-em-up thrillers) have always seemed to me to be the essential literature of the 20th and 21st century – Graham Greene, Len Deighton, Anthony Price, Ted Allbeury, and John le Carré. What attracts me is the fact that in the real world of intelligence you often find ordinary people doing (mostly) ordinary things, yet their work sits in the dark heart of contemporary politics. It is a wonderful place in which to examine questions of morality and survival in a world where the work and the people are deemed both essential and pariahs at the same time.
Do you have a fairly strict routine as a writer? How do you go about composing your prose on a day to day basis? What keeps the words flowing? How many words do you aim to write in a day?
I try to have a routine, but life… well, we all have that. I much prefer to write when everyone else is asleep. It’s not just the actual fact that I’m less likely to be interrupted, but also the psychological factors – I find it much easier to focus when the world is dark and I’m in a small bubble of light with music in my ears. Sensory deprivation makes my internal world easier to access.
Writing (in common with other creative endeavours) involves studying the world until one finds the ways to access the many realities beyond the mirrored surface of everyday life. Having found doors, we are compelled to step through, explore, and bring back reports of the people, places, and events we have encountered. It is a complex and magical endeavour, the hardest part of which is the last. Breaking through into other worlds and exploring is quite common. We all daydream. So is returning, although some never do. Creating a report takes not only an understanding of what you have experienced, but also the ability to communicate that to anyone willing to engage with what you create.
The first draft of a work is something I try to write as quickly as possible. I plan everything. It saves work later. My plans are never rigid, but I need to know where each chapter or section is going and how my characters are meant to respond. Sometimes the characters and events surprise me, but for the most part I like to have overall control.
It’s a bit like planning a road trip. As an example, I might want to go from home to Brighton, visiting Carlisle, York, Clun, Stroud, and Upper Dicker on the way. What happens between those specific destinations depends on many other factors. This allows me to know where the story is going without having too tight control before you start. Things that are plotted too tightly aren’t much fun to write as you’ve already made the whole journey before you begin.
With an outline in front of me, I can then pound out a rough draft (aiming, usually for three thousand words a day – a full-length novel in a month). Even though the rough draft is going to be rough, speed is important. It stops me getting bored with the story, it ensures I complete the project, and it gives coherence to the story because within that time frame you can hold all the details in your head. This is, of course, an ideal. Some books have taken a lot longer, but this is the method I tend to use these days.
The craft aspects, all the editing which takes much longer than compiling the first draft, is much more easily accomplished in silence. Me, a typescript, red pen, notepad, thesaurus and dictionary. I love this bit just as much as pounding out that first draft. This is where you take the rough lump you’ve hacked out of the mines of your imagination and start refining its shape. And this is another reason I like to get the first draft down as quickly as possible. It means I have the whole book in front of me to reference when I’m editing. If you try to polish as you go, it can be a lot wasted work. You can write and polish a perfect first chapter only to find that half way through chapter three you need to go back and rewrite part of chapter one because you have had an idea about a character than enriches the story.
For me, the first edit is reading the rough draft and making notes about all this sort of thing, thinking about where things should be introduced, how characters should develop, sorting out plot holes, and so on.
As for what keeps this all going… I don’t know. I have never been stuck for ideas. I have more than I’ll ever be able to use in my lifetime. There are days when the brain cannot handle the current project. I used to fret about these, which simply made the situation worse. Nowadays I have come to accept that there are days where your daily diet of mint-choc ice-cream gets a bit much and you need a day or two of baked potatoes. So I switch projects and work on something else, tidy my desk, or tackle one of the many manual jobs on my list (the bathroom needs decorating, for example). Long before one of those is complete I’m itching to get back to the computer.
Here at AvantKinema we are very much interested in the zero-budget, DIY, self-publishing ethos of the post-punk years: fanzines, home recording, indie labels run out of bedrooms and the cartel of micro-distributors working collectively to further the cause for everyone involved. Have you self published any of your work, or used print-on-demand to help get your work out there? What was your experience of this? Would you recommend this as a possible route for writers to take?
I have done this. Indeed, I run two small imprints (Grey House in the Woods and Monkey Business). My published work is still a mix of traditional and self-published, with some of it crossing over (Jeniche began life as a self-published project and was taken up by HarperVoyager by way of Roundfire). I have also produced e-books and use print-on-demand.
It was a lot to learn. When I first self-published you had to send stuff to a printing firm and to make the unit costs worthwhile, you had to have 500 or more copies printed. It’s a huge investment in something that may never sell. Print-on-demand means that each book printed is a bit more expensive, but you don’t have hundreds of copies piled up in boxes stressing you out each time you look behind the sofa.
Nowadays the process is so simple it takes a matter of days to get your finalised piece of work ready for electronic and paper press. And it is relatively cheap. Even if you avoid using Amazon as your e-publisher, costs are minimal. To set up a book for paper printing is about £70 if you do all the work yourself.
The real problems faced by any do-it-yourselfer are two-fold. The first is ensuring you put out a professional product. It doesn’t matter if it is mainstream or so far off the wall it’s in the next street, it has to be finished to a professional standard. Now that is not always easy to judge. It’s your work, after all. Bound to be a masterpiece. So it helps, in the case of writers, to have beta readers – people you trust to give you an objective assessment of the work as a whole and (if you are extremely lucky) who will point out typos and other errors. I have a couple of friends like this and I do the same for them. It is why arts community is so important. And the presentation has to be spot on as well. A properly designed cover with attractive artwork, well set out text, and all the other things you expect of a book.
The second problem is selling your work. I work with a distributor in the UK (which is as far as my p-books reach) who, for an extra small percentage, does a lot of marketing. The books I print are never going to reach the best seller list, but they do sell steadily and have long since paid for themselves.
Most self-published books that reach large audiences do so by accident or because the authors have risked a small fortune on advertising (or who have parents prepared to do that for them). Publishing is a risky business, as is writing and any other creative endeavour.
There is, of course, a lot more to it. ISBNs, getting copies to copyright libraries, paying authors their royalties, and so on. But I have learned a lot about writing by being involved in the other side of the business. And if I could crack the magic that is marketing…
By contrast, what has your experience been like with regards mainstream publishing? How did you find your way to your agent and to HarperVoyager? What difference have these made to your life? Do you still intend to self-publish any works which are not quite suitable for HV? Is this something they are happy for you to do?
Landing a contract with a big publisher doesn’t guarantee success, of course. The Jeniche books have not sold well enough for Harper to want to buy the rest of the series. Where we go from here is yet to be decided, but my agent and I will continue to plug the first series in concert with Harper whilst looking for a home for the second series.
On the plus side, I got some fabulous covers and editors who understood the genre and read the works with an almost frightening attention to detail. Also, I get to put ‘published by HarperVoyager’ on my CV, which is no mean feat.
What will you be working on over the next year?
There is a long list of work to be done. The second Charlie novel needs its first draft completed. Then I have two more Jeniche novels to be drafted, and another to be properly plotted. That will round off the Jeniche series. I’ll take a break then and draft up my book for writers on how to use museums as a research resource. There will doubtless be Charlie short stories. And I may have to drop everything if my agent sells any of my other work. And there are other projects that will go forward to the next stage of development (a grimepunk, time-travelling mystery that also manages to mash up Wells and Dickens; the outlining of a nine/ten book epic space fantasy that charts the two thousand year history of two galactic empires that rise, clash, and diminish; and there are the usual glimmerings of other ideas that may, or may not develop further).
It looks ambitious, but I lost a lot of time this year to ill health and other intrusions from the outside world so I want to catch up a bit.
Thank you, Graeme.
My pleasure, and thank you for the opportunity to lift the lid a little for others to peep inside.
Stealing into Winter
Exile and Pilgrim
Players of the Game
Aaargh to Zizz: 135 Drama Games
Using Museums as an Educational Resource
The Druid Way Made Easy
Stealing into Winter
Exile and Pilgrim
Players of the Game
Aaargh to Zizz: 135 Drama Games
Using Museums as an Educational Resource
The Druid Way Made Easy