Brian Ruckley is a name that has been making waves in the UK and Canada over the last year or so. His first novel, Winterbirth was released in October of 2006 and was accepted warmly by fans and critics alike, acclaimed for its gritty storyling, unique characters and realistic setting. This Scottish author is about to catch another big break, Winterbirth will be released this September by Orbit Books in the USA and is sure to see as rabid a reception by US Fantasy fans as it saw in the UK and Canada.
Brian was more than happy to speak with A Dribble of Ink about the release of his new novel and a whole lot more!
Q. Brian, first things first, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with A Dribble of Ink!
Q. Every author seems to enjoy talking about their rise to stardom/publication and I’m sure you’re no different. Any stories about your rise to fame?
Are you sure you’re not confusing me with someone else? I’m pretty sure if I’d achieved fame or stardom I’d have groupies, wouldn’t I? I’d have some guy from a landscaping company coming in to mow my lawn, instead of me having to do it myself with the world’s cheapest lawnmower. Come to that, I’d have a bigger lawn.
Rise to publication, I can talk about. I wrote Winterbirth over quite an extended period – two or three years probably, can’t remember exactly now – fitting it in around a full time job and the rest of my life, as most aspiring writers do. I then followed the traditional route of finding an agent and going off and doing other things while they tried to find a publisher. I guess the most surprising thing to me as a complete innocent in the ways of publishing was the time lags involved: I actually had a relatively painless experience in finding both agent and publisher – didn’t have to deal with too much by way of rejection – but nevertheless more than three and a half years elapsed between me signing on with an agent and the book actually appearing on bookshop shelves in the UK. Worth the wait, though.
Q. You seem to have taken to blogging on your own web site, something that not enough authors are willing to do, if you ask me! What was it that initially drew you to blogging and how have you found that it affects your relationships with your fans?
Having a website of some sort is a bit of a no-brainer for a new author these days, I suspect. We’re probably reaching the point where you have to think of good reasons not to have one, rather than the other way round (there may be some, but I can’t think of any of the top of my head). I liked the idea of doing a blog as part of the website for various reasons, not the least of which was just having the chance to participate, however marginally, in the vast seething ocean of the internet rather than just being an observer of it. It’s obviously a way to push news out there, but you hope it’s also a chance to give readers a bit of a feel for where the book comes from and to interact with the author. That said, I’m not sure that the full potential of author websites and blogs has yet been realised – my limited experience suggests that, at least for a new writer like me with a still developing audience (and no pre-existing web presence), the technology with the greatest current impact on author-reader contact and relationships is still boring old e-mail. All the other stuff like blogs or MySpace (which I totally don’t get, by the way) or whatever is slowly superceding it, but the real breakthrough in author accessibility to readers came with e-mail, which lets any reader, anywhere in the world, ask the author any question as soon as it occurs to them, and (if they’re lucky) get an answer back within hours: these days, we no longer notice how remarkable something like that is.
Q. How has your life changed since becoming a full time writer?
On one level it hasn’t changed all that much, since for the couple of years running up to publication I was working from home anyway, as a consultant on nature conservation projects (the income from which is the main reason Iâ€™m able to do the writing thing full time at the moment, by the way; I couldnâ€™t have made the switch purely on the basis of the advance and royalties from the books. Wouldnâ€™t want to mislead any aspiring authors into thinking a publishing deal is likely to be the answer to all their financial woes!).
I enjoyed that work, and I undeniably miss some aspects of it: the social interaction, the sense of being involved in a broad, shared undertaking. I’m not so rash as to assume that my current full time status as a writer is permanent, so I’d have no hesitation – and no huge regrets – about getting back into some form of freelance or consultancy work if I had to. Think I’d struggle to go back to a 5-day a week office job, though: I fear I’ve gone a bit too feral for that. If I’m not able to make at least a portion of my living from writing, I may be in trouble …
It’s stating the obvious, but once you become a writer, for the vast majority of the time it’s just you and the computer screen, sitting there staring at each other. The freedom’s great, but it can be a somewhat isolated kind of freedom. Other than that, the downside’s pretty limited so far. It’s impossible to really complain about having the luxury of sitting around all day making up stories. Although one unexpected side effect is that I’m actually reading less than I was when I used to work full time in an office: suddenly I don’t have the hour or two’s commuting time at each end of the day when I used to sit with my nose in a book. Oh, and I’m drinking a lot more coffee and tea (and I was already drinking quite a lot of the stuff).
Q. Writing is often a rough business, what has been the toughest obstacle to overcome in your writing career so far?
So far Iâ€™ve had a pretty easy ride, to be honest, for which Iâ€™m very thankful. But Iâ€™m certainly mindful of the fact that things can easily go wrong. â€˜Businessâ€™ is the operative word here, and as in any business the wind can change direction, so I try not to make too many assumptions about the future.
Those obstacles I have encountered have been essentially internal rather than external. Making the switch from writing as hobby or aspiration to writing as (hopefully!) job or career is a big psychological adjustment, and itâ€™s been a learning process. Organising and disciplining yourself are important skills to develop, as is an ability to make faster and more targeted judgements about the quality of your own work. Once youâ€™re writing to a timetable, you donâ€™t have the luxury of waiting months for the answer to some problem in the manuscript to emerge from your subconscious: you have to proactively go and find an answer and implement it. But you do get better with experience: the first draft of Book Two was a lot better than the first draft of Book One. Still in need of extensive revising and rewriting, of course, but at least I could see the intended target from where the arrow landed; with the very first draft of Book One, all those years ago, the arrow landed several fields over, close to if not actually in a big heap of manure.
Q. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is being adapted for the big screen, a fact that you didn’t take kindly to on your blog several weeks ago. The changing and bastardization of novels in their transformation
to the big screen is almost universal, and yet so many authors continue to allow their babies to be massacred. I’m interested in how you would react if a big production house approached you with a movie deal?
Watching that trailer for The Dark is Rising was a traumatic experience – may have scarred me for life – but it’s a bit of a special case. I absolutely loved those books as a child. They’re precious to me in the particular way only those half-remembered, formative books of your childhood can be. When I saw that trailer it was a bit like someone kicking in the door of your house, making straight for the cupboard where you keep the best-loved toys of your early years and beating on them with a sledgehammer.
As far as I can see, pretty much everything that made the books distinctive and special – especially the British setting and the innumerable connections to British myths and folklore – seems to have been casually thrown away, presumably to make the film more ‘commercial’. I’ve got nothing against changing novels in order to get them to work in movie theatres, but whatâ€™s happened here just seems to suggest a basic lack of interest in and sympathy for the source material (and Iâ€™m far from alone in thinking that: the producers have recently changed the title of the movie to â€˜The Seekerâ€™, in what the cynical might suspect is a feeble attempt to shake off the pack of vicious pre-release critics that has been snapping at their heels).
Of course, I’m very unfairly judging the film on the basis of a single brief trailer, so I might be doing it a terrible injustice and it will in fact turn out to be a resonant and pleasingly textured work of genius. I’d be surprised, though.
Anyway, now that Iâ€™ve got that off my chest (again), as for how I’d react if someone dangled a movie deal in front of me: once I’d picked myself up off the floor and got over the sense of utter amazement, there’s a good chance I’d grab it with both hands. I wouldn’t really have the luxury of casually turning away that kind of offer unless I had a really, really good reason for doing so. If the production company said ‘We love the book; we see it as a comedy musical, with a few big dance numbers, how does that sound to you?’, I might hesitate. But even then, if the financial inducements were sufficient â€¦
Q. There was a long period of time (almost a year) between the publication of Winterbirth in the UK and the US markets. Can you explain how the reason behind this?
Well, when I was trying to get first an agent and then a publisher for the book, all I was thinking about and hoping for was UK publication. Orbit UK duly signed me up, but they bought the world rights, not just the UK rights (something that seems to be becoming more common, at least in the UK).
That meant they were entitled to sell on things like translation and US publication rights. I didn’t think much more about it (other than being pleasantly surprised each time they came up with a new translation deal – there’s something excitingly surreal about getting published in other languages when you’re new to all this), but in due course there were some corporate changes in the company Orbit is part of, and all of a sudden I was getting e-mails saying ‘Actually, we’ve decided to launch Orbit in the US, and we’d like to take Winterbirth along for the ride and publish it there ourselves’. That sounded like a fine idea to me, and then the timetabling of everything was determined by Orbit’s bigger plans for their launch in the USA.
Q. What sort of intentions did you have when you first sat down and decided it was time to put Winterbirth to paper? Do you feel that you met the expectations you set for yourself with the first novel?
Oh, tough question. Partly because I find it quite hard to get back inside my head as it was then. On an obvious, practical level I had one general intention: I had decided to find out, after years of idly thinking about it, whether or not I could write a commercially publishable novel. I was far from certain of that, so in that sense I’ve exceeded my expectations (Of course, now that I’ve got the answer to that question, I get to fret about the much more alarming question ‘Okay, can you write another publishable novel, and another after that, and another after that, etc. etc.?’)
As far as the specifics of the book are concerned, I was aiming for something with a gritty, realistic tone to it and a bit of a cinematic, visual feel. As far as I can judge, I hit the target on the grittiness; the visual quality I was hoping for is there too, though it’s stronger in some sections than others. The story works, I think, and it has enough pace and interest to keep a healthy proportion of readers reading, which is the one crucial quality it has to have above all others. I’m a relatively harsh critic of my own writing, so I’d never suggest the book’s perfect, but equally it’s not a million miles away from what I was hoping for when I
started the process. I’m happy with the way it turned out, and where I detect imperfections, hopefully I can learn from them. I suspect each new book you write is a chance to correct past imperfections and discover whole sets of new ones; if you can exterminate the old ones faster than the new ones breed, maybe you’re getting somewhere.
Q. You say you are a harsh critic of yourself and your own writing, so I pose you this question: where do you feel your strengths as a writer lay and in what areas do you wish to improve?
I imagine most authors are a simmering stew of both pride and insecurities, and on the whole I think itâ€™s best not to parade either too blatantly in public. My own interpretation is not automatically going to be any more accurate or illuminating than any readerâ€™s. Anyway, even though there are plenty of things I think I do well as a writer (I mentioned some in my previous answer), all of them would still count as areas Iâ€™d like to do even better: perfection being unattainable, thereâ€™s always room for improvement.
Oh, all right, a couple of minor examples. I think Iâ€™m pretty good at writing characters who at least hint at the complexities and contradictions of real people: most of the major characters in the trilogy are recognisably shaped by both their past experiences and by what happens to them over the course of the story, and many of them are plausibly capable of doing good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. On the debit side â€“ and this is a bit trivial, but it does illustrate how your perspective changes with just a little bit more experience â€“ I regret making even the quite limited use I did of apostrophes in names. Every unanticipated apostrophe is an obstacle to the easy flow of the text in the readerâ€™s eye and mind, and each such obstacle at best strains immersion in the story. In hindsight, it was (in my case, this is no criticism of any other authorsâ€™ use of apostrophes â€“ no doubt theyâ€™re all using them wisely!) a shorthand way of trying to make things sound exotic and unfamiliar, when actually those qualities are best evoked through description, behaviour or dialogue (something that I think does happen in the book, making the use of apostrophes doubly unnecessary).
Just to prove thereâ€™s no black and white in these things, though, Iâ€™ll say that thereâ€™s at least one of my apostrophes (in the word naâ€™kyrim) that Iâ€™m quite attached to. Makes the word sound a bit exotic and unfamiliar.
Q. You mentioned earlier that your days before being a writer were filled with acting as a consultant on nature conservation projects. Has this past experience and obvious interest in the well being of nature (something Tolkeinâ€™s novels are famous for) had a hand in molding Winterbirth and its sequels?
Itâ€™s certainly influenced it, but in pretty indirect and tangential ways. I tend to think of the landscape and environment as minor characters in the story: ever-present in the background, and realistic enough to have plausible â€˜personalitiesâ€™ of their own. The terrain and the climate and even the wildlife of the Godless World are more or less exaggerated versions of British â€“ mostly Scottish â€“ originals (it rains a lot in Winterbirth, for example, so anyone who has experienced the 2007 British summer should feel right at home!). And the Anain, one of the races mentioned in the book, do owe a little something to the green man and other traditional conceptions of the spirit of the wildwood and wilderness.
Q. Without spoiling us, what can you tell us about the upcoming sequel to Winterbirth, Bloodheir, and the trilogy overall?
Itâ€™s a single continuous story, so thereâ€™s a fairly natural beginning, middle and end structure to things. In Bloodheir, the battles get bigger and the stakes higher and pretty much everyone involved finds events spiralling out of their control. The overall narrative of the trilogy is partly about a descent into chaos, and in Bloodheir a lot of the characters who think they are controlling or influencing events discover that the unexpected has a way of humbling such intentions. As things progress, thereâ€™s a bit more â€˜magicâ€™, a bit more non-human involvement and one or two new(ish) characters who assume significant roles in the story, but the overall tone and style stick very closely to whatâ€™s been established in Winterbirth. Book Three (as yet unnamed) will basically describe how a few key characters try (whether successfully or otherwise, Iâ€™m not saying) to fix the horrible mess everyone has gotten themselves into.
Q. Any ideas floating around in your head for what you will work on after the completion of the Godless World Trilogy?
Oh yes. I was once told â€“ canâ€™t remember who by, unfortunately â€“ that if youâ€™re really cut out to be a writer, ideas are the one thing you will never be short of; itâ€™s separating the good ones from the bad ones, and knowing how to turn a good idea into a good story thatâ€™s the hard bit. Quite true, I think. Iâ€™ve definitely got some more epic/heroic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it fantasy in me â€“ Iâ€™m regularly distracted from whatever Iâ€™m supposed to be doing at a given moment by ideas for cool scenes â€“ and various barely formed ideas for other stuff too. No ideas will solidify into actual plans for a little while yet, though: Iâ€™m working on book three in the trilogy, and exactly what happens after that depends on many variables that are not entirely under my control, such as how many good folk actually buy these books and what my publishers make of the whole experience.
Q. Every writer always has inspirations and favourites (both classic and contemporary), who are some of yours?
Iâ€™m hopeless at answering this kind of question – there are far too many different answers to it â€“ but Iâ€™ll have a go, accepting that itâ€™s inevitably an incomplete response. The inescapable JRRT obviously, but beyond him: the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were what turned me on to â€˜modernâ€™ fantasy when I was an impressionable teenager; Guy Gavriel Kay then got me interested in it again in the 90s, after Iâ€™d drifted away from it. Iâ€™m way behind in reading the newer genre stuff, but of those I have read, current favourites amongst the ongoing series are those by GRRM, Steven Erikson, Greg Keyes and (based on the first book, at least) Scott Lynch. Outside fantasy, the biggest influence on my writing has been historical non-fiction, of which I read ever-increasing amounts, and the work that really got me hooked on that stuff was John Julius Norwichâ€™s stunning history of Byzantium â€“ makes you realise that nothing any fantasy writer comes up with is ever likely to match the strangeness, brutality and drama of real world history. The all-time favourite, though, the book Iâ€™d probably want with me on a desert island (at the moment anyway; it changes frequently), is War and Peace. Those Russians really knew how to write a novel.
Q. Any last words, Brian?
All of a sudden this sounds more like an execution than an interview. No, Iâ€™ll do without the blindfold, if thatâ€™s your next question. Anyway, itâ€™s been fun, and I hope of some interest to folk out there in internetland. Anyone who feels like visiting my website at www.brianruckley.com would be very welcome. Thatâ€™s it, I think.
There we go! I’d like to thank Brian for being such a good sport and implore you all to check back for my review of Winterbirth coming in a couple of weeks to coincide with the US release of the novel!
Make sure you head over to The Book Swede and check out his 3(!)-part interview with Brian. He took a different approach to the interview than I did, so you’re sure to get some answers you might not have found here! You can find the interview HERE.