When I approach Brian Ruckley, author of the acclaimed Winterbirth (REVIEW) and the newly released Bloodheir, a couple of weeks ago about an interview, he suggested we buck the system a bit and go
for a more conversational tone. We wanted to tackle some things that you haven’t read in all the other interviews you’ve seen with Ruckley and hopefully have some fun in the meantime.
In the end, Brian and I managed to put together what is probably one of my favourite interviews to appear on A Dribble of Ink. If you’re interested in learning more about Brian and his novels, you can check out his web site HERE. You can also read my first interview with Brian HERE.
Break out the popcorn, this is a long one! Let me know what you think of the new format.
Alright Brian, let’s get the easy question out of the way. Why should readers give a damn about your upcoming release Bloodheir?
Well I imagine those predisposed to give a damn (to whom I am, of course, inordinately grateful) already do so, and donâ€™t need me to tell them why they should. As far as everyone else is concerned â€¦ what can I say? Although perfection remains, unsurprisingly, out of reach, I think Iâ€™m improving as a writer, bit by little bit. Itâ€™s got one or two plot developments that I really donâ€™t believe many reasonable readers will have seen coming (plus, of course, one or two that they probably willâ€¦). And itâ€™s got another lovely cover, just like Winterbirth did, so itâ€™ll look grand on your bookshelf. Come to that, itâ€™ll look great anywhere, so even if youâ€™re only in the market for a cool-looking doorstop, it should fit the bill nicely.
You mention the cover art for Bloodheir, which is a good example of cover art not only looking cool, but accurately reflecting what’s inbetween the covers. Are you able to talk about what the process surrounding cover art is like, how you’re involved how you’d react if Fall of Thanes featured a pink unicorn on the cover because the marketers tell you, ‘Unicorns sell!’?
I submit the manuscript and several months later an e-mail with an attached image miraculously turns up saying â€˜Draft Cover! What do you think?â€™ or words to that effect. At which point, so far, I invariably reply that I like it a lot, maybe that it could be tweaked ever so slightly in such and such a way. And thatâ€™s the sum total of my involvement in the process. Thereâ€™s an absolute ton of work going on behind the scenes, of course. You can see a little bit of it if you check out Gene Mollicaâ€™s website. He produced the fantastic art that currently adorns Winterbirth and Bloodheir, but you can actually see alternative versions of the Winterbirth cover that he came up with at an early stage of the process (HERE).
One of the things I particularly like about the current covers, incidentally, is that itâ€™s open to interpretation who â€“ if anybody â€“ the characters being illustrated are. Everyone has different taste in these matters, I know, but a slight reservation I always have about covers that are clearly depicting specific characters from the book is that they infringe the readerâ€™s ability (right, you could almost say) to visualise the characters as they see fit. It works fine if theyâ€™re great covers, but even so. I donâ€™t actually know whether the covers of my books were originally conceived as being specific characters, but I like the fact that they can just as easily be interpreted as generic warriors from my imagined world.
Pink Unicorn? Somehow, Iâ€™m just not seeing that. Fortunately, Orbit donâ€™t seem to employ lunatics, so the situationâ€™s unlikely to arise. Mind you, if these clearly delirious marketers you propose were absolutely certain it was the way to go, thereâ€™d technically be nothing I could do about it. Like most author contracts, mine is politely but firmly clear that the publisher ultimately calls all the shots as far as things like covers are concerned. Even asking my opinion is a courtesy rather than a strict requirement. If they absolutely, definitely wanted to, theyâ€™d be entirely within their rights to slap a pink unicorn on there, and have Aeglyss or someone standing next to it in a glittery pink dress and ballet shoes. With a wand with a little star on the end. Oh, and maybe a background of a nice flowery meadow with butterflies. Itâ€™s starting to growing on me as a concept. I donâ€™t suppose itâ€™d work for you, but it would certainly bring a new audience to my work.
Early reviews of Bloodheir have been hitting the blogs recently, and most of them are pretty darn positive. Tobias Buckell, author of Crystal Rain and prolific blogger, recently commented on the early review process and its attempt to build buzz for novels. The subject came up when Ken, from Neth Space, asked Buckell if he thought the prerelease hype really helped authors, or if the reviews wouldn’t best be saved for after the novel hit shelves. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Iâ€™m pretty sure all positive buzz about a book is a good thing as far as writers, publishers etc. are concerned, whenever it happens. The publicists and marketers at all the major publishers certainly put a lot of effort, for at least some books, into creating the circumstances in which prerelease hype has a chance to blossom (they canâ€™t make it happen, but they can give it a chance) and Iâ€™m led to believe they know what theyâ€™re doing.
That said, I suspect that â€˜buzzâ€™ which occurs at the very moment the book is showing up in stores and on Amazon is possibly the most precious of all, for a variety of reasons. Apart from anything else, if the bookâ€™s actually physically available thatâ€™s a plus, since people can act on the buzz â€“ i.e. buy the book â€“ immediately, which I think is generally recognised as a good thing from the marketing point of view. Youâ€™ll know about this more than me, being a book blogger and all, but I think itâ€™s quite common for publishers to encourage reviewers to hold their reviews back until the actual publication is imminent, for that very reason.
However, what Tobias Buckell says about the value of pre-release buzz is also entirely true, especially if youâ€™re talking about a debut. Some positive pre-release internet chatter gives you a chance of getting decent sales very, very early, i.e. in the first week or two following publication. That kind of early sales spike has a lot to recommend it, not least of which I suspect is that it just gives everyone involved â€“ author, publisher, bookshops â€“ a little bit of encouragement. And believe me, encouragement is an unreservedly good thing when youâ€™re just starting out.
Mind you, as Ken implies in his original question (when he mentions the influence of PW and Kirkus reviews on library sales), there are other kinds of reviewing and hype-building going on which sometimes happen a long way in advance of publication, and which I have to report can still ultimately be more central to determining a bookâ€™s fate than any amount of online hype (though theyâ€™re not entirely unconnected to it, of course). The people publishers really, really want to get hyped up about forthcoming books â€“ and if possible look to do so way in advance of the release date â€“ are booksellers. They can make or break a book, and much of the considerable effort that publishers put in to cultivating the key members of that profession happens offline: in print, or face to face. A hefty chunk of the Advance Reading Copies that are sent out, for example, often donâ€™t go to reviewers at all: they go to booksellers.
You’re absolutely correct about publishers sometimes asking for reviews to be held until closer to release. In fact, I had a review copy of your first novel, Winterbirth, sitting around for months because Alex Lencicki at Orbit asked me to time the review.
Speaking of Orbit, I’m constantly impressed by how proactive they are in reaching out to some of the smaller reviewers such as us bloggers. Other smaller publishers (Pyr, PS Publishing, Gollancz) also seem to understand the import of the blogosphere, while some of the larger publishers (who shall remain nameless) are much more reticent to send out review copies to small bloggers.
You mentioned that while the Kirkus/PW reviews are ultimately very important to sales, the buzz created online by bloggers and message board folk is important for a debut author. How you do you feel the success of Winterbirth would have differed if your publisher hadn’t been so proactive in getting review copies into the hands of so many folk?
The honest answer is I donâ€™t really know, because I only got to see this version of the timeline, in which I was fortunate enough to get (and still get, for that matter) amazingly determined support from the publisher. Without that effort, who knows what would have happened? I do know Iâ€™m glad I didnâ€™t have to find out.
Even in the short time â€“ less than two years â€“ Iâ€™ve been paying attention, the online sf/f blogging scene has exploded. There seems to be a new book blog showing up every couple of weeks (though existing ones do disappear not infrequently, too, so congratulations on reaching your recent anniversary!) . Getting a bit of attention in that arena canâ€™t be anything but a good thing, at least in terms of early sales (assuming the attention isnâ€™t a unanimous chorus of â€˜Now this book is just all kinds of suckyâ€™): the audience for all these blogs is still a pretty small proportion of the total sf/f readership â€“ and for that matter it must overlap enormously, though I guess itâ€™s hard to tell to exactly what extent â€“ but I suspect quite a few of your esteemed browsers are potential â€˜early adoptersâ€™, who actively want to know, and are inclined to buy, whatâ€™s new and promising pretty much as soon as it appears.
Some of itâ€™s down to the author as well, mind you. Thereâ€™s only so much the publisher can do on their own. If theyâ€™re willing to invest time and money in online promotion, it seems fair that the author should pitch in too, at least in terms of time, and if thereâ€™s one thing you can say about the online world, itâ€™s that itâ€™s an open invitation to the author to pull their weight. Potentially too open an invitation, since the internetâ€™s a bottomless pit from that point of view: itâ€™s a pit I enjoy playing around in, but you do have to keep reminding youself that your actual job is writing books.
A minor aside about Publishers Weekly reviews, by the way, that taught me one small thing about the way things work: Winterbirth got plenty of positive online coverage, but then it got a starred review in PW and within a couple of days of that coming out, a production company made a vague enquiry about the movie rights. Iâ€™m sure they hadnâ€™t read the book; they were curious solely on the basis of that PW review. Of course, things never went any further than that initial enquiry, as far as I know. Which possibly means they did go and read the book eventually â€¦
Thanks for the kind words about A Dribble of Ink, the blogosphere certainly becoming a busy place and I’m proud to have seen an anniversary!
You touch on one aspect that I think is very important in this day and age, but sadly overlooked by many authors, especially those who have been around the block a few times: an online presence.
You have an active blog, where you shoot the shit about more than just your own novels; David Anthony Durham, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Tobias Buckell, Brandon Sanderson and many other new authors also run active blogs that help them connect to fans. Other authors, like Terry Brooks, don’t have a blog, but maintain a solid online presence through their web sites (Brooks, for instance, answers five random questions from fans every months, writes a yearly letter to his fans, and has an active forum). In my mind this is a big boon for those writers, allowing them to reach out to potential readers.
I’m rather vocal in saying that Greg Keyes, the author of The Born Queen, is among one of the most underread authors in fantasy. I heavily attribute this to the fact that he hasn’t picked up the slack where Del Rey, his publisher, has let it go loose. His novels see little advertisement, and he spends little time online spreading the good word.
As for yourself, you can be found on Facebook (HERE) as well as each of your novels, even so far as having Facebook-centric giveaways!), around various message boards, and at your aforementioned blog. Was this online persona something you intentionally worked towards or was it just a natural hangout place for you like it is for so many others? And how do you manage to keep this self promotion/internet surfing from getting in the way of the real job: writing?
Before I got the publishing contract I was a sort of passive browser of the internet: definitely interested, but not terribly actively involved. It was getting my own website that really turned me into a much more active webhead. I pretty much immediately got curious about all the other stuff going on out there: message boards, podcasts, book blogs etc. etc. The Facebook stuff is really a product of that curiousity â€“ itâ€™s so easy to get involved and try these things that itâ€™s irresistibly tempting. (In some cases, anyway: a few writers seem to have gone the MySpace route, at least initially, but any time I dip my toes in that particular pond I just get an overwhelming urge to navigate away from it as a matter of urgency, as much to protect my eyeballs and eardrums as anything.)
Do I think authors who arenâ€™t busily plastering themselves all over the web miss out on some potential sales? Probably, though how many is open to debate. Some of the best-selling fantasies â€“ with sales figures I could only dream of in my most over-excited slumbers – donâ€™t seem to get talked about online quite as much as their rampant sales might lead you to expect, which demonstrates that thereâ€™s no automatic correlation between online â€˜buzzâ€™ and sales.
The thing about writing and the internet is that thereâ€™s clearly some kind of multi-faceted revolution going on, with everything from Amazon to e-books to writersâ€™ blogs to social networks being a factor in it, but itâ€™s happening a bit more slowly and incrementally than has been the case with, for example, the music industry, and itâ€™s seriously difficult to even guess where itâ€™s going to end up. And, by the way, I think it all contains risks to the industry â€“ some of them pretty significant â€“ just as it does exciting possibilities, but maybe we should try to concentrate on the happy stuff for the moment.
Anyway, the point is, if things are changing, my personal preference is to be in amongst it â€“ watching the change from close up, I suppose â€“ both because itâ€™s fun and because if thereâ€™s even the tiniest little chance that doing so can help me establish or prolong my status as a professional writer, Iâ€™m easily desperate enough to grab that chance with both hands.
As to how I control my incipient internet addiction, thatâ€™s easy: I unplug my broadband connection. For a long, long time now, Iâ€™ve been in the habit of literally disconnecting myself from the internet for most of the hours in most of the days. Sounds silly, but its easy, painless and effective.
And for what itâ€™s worth, I like Greg Keyesâ€™ Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series too, though Iâ€™ve only read the first couple so far.
Ahh, Brian, do yourself a favour and finish the next two of Greg’s novels, The Blood Knight and The Born Queen, the series is finished and its certainly worth your time.
On topic, though, you mention this sort of ‘digital revolution’ happening in the publishing industry, which is certainly an exciting time to be an author. One of the most beneficial side affects for fans (besides being able to encounter authors in a casual online setting) is the trend of releasing free electronic versions of novels, such as what Tor is doing with their Watch the Skies campaign.
Has Orbit approached you about distributing free copies of Winterbirth?
Nope. Iâ€™d have no problem with it at all if they did suddenly say they wanted to put Winterbirth out as a free download, but as far as I know thatâ€™s not on the cards.
I can absolutely see the logic in giving this stuff away for the writers and publishers who are doing it at the moment, and itâ€™s obviously a major bonus for the readers, but I do wonder where itâ€™ll take us if it spreads and becomes really ingrained as a habit. As far as I can tell, it makes commercial sense at the moment, but perhaps thatâ€™s only because there are still relatively few people doing it and because thereâ€™s no mass acceptance of reading novels onscreen. Those things could change pretty quickly, and if they do, who knows what happens? Moneyâ€™s got to change hands somewhere along the line if you want writers and publishers to keep doing what theyâ€™re doing. Musicians can potentially make money through things like gigs and merchandise: for the vast majority of writers, weâ€™ve not got much to offer apart from the text. If people start to think they donâ€™t need to pay for the text any more, how am I going to buy food? I mean, I could starve to death here, you know.
I expect itâ€™ll end up being fine, one way or the other, but thereâ€™re a lot of grey areas in this digital revolution thing, which is part of what makes it so interesting.
With the rise of the digital revolution in publishing, do you think that hard copies of novels â€“ you know, the ones we love to peruse for hours on end at our favourite bookstore â€“ are ever going to be danger of going the way of the Dodo? We’ve seen a big shift recently in how print media, such as magazines and newspapers, are distributed and integrate with their online web sites. Do you think a device like Amazon’s Kindle will have a similar effect on how we read novels?
I really donâ€™t know enough about this stuff to make a properly well-informed guess about whatâ€™s the most likely outcome. Iâ€™d be majorly surprised if it involves the complete extinction of good old hard copy novels, but it certainly could thin out their populations a bit. More of a tiger than a dodo, perhaps: ultimately surviving, but in smaller numbers, in protected areas.
I really doubt this first version of the Kindle is the breakthrough, mass-appeal device as far as e-reading is concerned, but I imagine oneâ€™s on its way, some time in the nearish future. When that happens, sales of physical books may well start to be cannibalised by e-book sales rather quickly. Readers donâ€™t get to see whatâ€™s going on behind the scenes â€“ which is probably a good thing! â€“ but believe me, there is angst aplenty in publishing, and especially bookselling, circles. There have been reports done for the UKâ€™s booksellers trade association implying that digitisation could wreak havoc on bookshops if they donâ€™t start adapting to the changing environment pretty much yesterday. That pleasure of perusing the shelves at your local bookstore will probably still be available throughout our lifetimes, but maybe itâ€™ll be either harder to track down â€“ because half the bookstores will have closed â€“ or itâ€™ll be rather different, because the store will be full of download booths where people are grabbing the latest e-book or big print-on-demand machines churning out simple hard copies (perhaps with slightly rudimentary binding and cover illustration). And to be honest, Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™ll even take an e-book explosion to wreak havoc on bookstores: the combination of stumbling economies, Amazon and the supermarkets are already at work on that very project, whether deliberately or not.
But equally, maybe as the technology races ahead itâ€™s the nature of the novel itself that will start to change. The novel as an art form is a relatively recent invention, after all. Thereâ€™s nothing sacrosanct about the novel as the way to deliver written fiction, nor about the current payment structures used to recompense authors. How about weekly prose episodes delivered to mobile phones? Thatâ€™s already a big deal in Japan, I believe.
Iâ€™m conflicted about all this, like a lot of people. Iâ€™m excited by change and innovation, I find the internet and digital revolution as a whole almost magical in the wonders it has already worked and will continue to work. But I love books. Physical, paper and card, warm-smelling, weighty books. When I hold a real, physical book in my hands it feels as though it matters somehow; it is a thing of consequence, and of significance as an object. I donâ€™t get any of those somewhat nebulous kicks from digital text, and I suspect there are enough people around who share my preferences to keep books going for some time yet.
But I freely recognise my feelings about these things were formed in the ancient pre-digital epoch. My brain is now hardwired to respond to physical books in certain insanely positive ways, because I grew up with them and they acquired a profoundly important place in my life. The younger generations coming through may well have entirely â€“ and entirely reasonably â€“ different preoccupations and instincts. They may eventually choose to dispense with the paper-and-card novel, and to engage with other forms of fiction and entertainment. If so, well, thatâ€™s just the way it is. Change happens, and writers and publishers and booksellers will just have to adapt. Or find other other forms of employment.
You recently revealed the title for the third and final volume in The Godless World trilogy, Fall of Thanes. The first thing I noticed was that you changed from the single word titles, Winterbirth and Bloodheir to a more complicated title.
Titles are something that I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating lately, as I received some criticism about the title of my current project, Through Bended Grass, not being “fantasy” enough.
When sitting down to title your novels, and the trilogy they comprised, did you specifically try to come up with impactful titles that would appeal to hardcore fantasy authors? Did you meet any opposition when proposing your titles to your publisher, Orbit Books?
I was certainly trying for titles that had a particular kind of impact: trying, I suppose, to encode a certain sense of drama in them. Itâ€™s just one small way of trying to connect with potential readers. I was aiming to convey a sense that these books were a fairly dark, uncompromising kind of fantasy, in the hope that people who like such things might be tempted. (Although if Iâ€™m honest, â€˜The Godless Worldâ€™ just kind of popped into my head very early on and my reaction was not â€˜Ah, thatâ€™s perfect for communicating with potential readersâ€™, but â€˜Cooool.â€™ So the decision-making process may not have been as rational as Iâ€™m making out.)
Opposition definitely isnâ€™t the word Iâ€™d use to describe Orbitâ€™s role in the titling process. It would be more accurate to say they provided invaluable assistance in digging this author out of a hole. At the risk of disillusioning you, and in the certainty of providing indisputable evidence that this particular author is not nearly as clever as he might occasionally appear to be, the truth is this: I failed miserably in my efforts to come up with a one-word title for the final book that anyone, including me, was entirely happy with. One of the few versions I did play around with was â€˜Thanefallâ€™, but it took one of those nice Orbit chaps to point out that perhaps â€˜Fall of Thanesâ€™ was what I was reaching for. Personally, I think thatâ€™s much better, and itâ€™s a perfect fit for the tone and events of the book. Those same bright sparks had more than a little to do with â€˜Bloodheirâ€™ becoming the title for book 2.
Iâ€™m not overly protective of any of my writing, and that includes titles: if someone else has a good idea, Iâ€™ll listen. My books have been retitled in several of the translated versions, and I wouldnâ€™t dream of disputing an overseas publisherâ€™s right to call it whatever they like if they think itâ€™ll work better in their market. (Within limits â€“ Iâ€™d probably draw the line at â€˜The Frolic of the Pink Unicornsâ€™. Although saying that, wouldnâ€™t that be a great title for a short story?). Winterbirth ended up being called â€˜Swords of Honourâ€™ or something like that in Holland, and I think in Germany â€˜The Godless Worldâ€™ has become â€˜The World of Blood and Iceâ€™.
Oh, and one more unsolicited thought: Some titles manage to bottle a kind of magic, I think. They capture a certain poetry of their own, and can exert a definite fascination. â€˜Stand on Zanzibarâ€™ is my personal example of how a title alone can sell a book. As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to read the book. I had no idea what it was about, had never seen the cover, and had read nothing else by John Brunner, but the title sold it to me the moment I heard it. Iâ€™m glad, too, because itâ€™s now one of my all time favourite sf reads.
I’ll have to check that one out!
Speaking of foreign editions of your novels, I’m always curious about how involved an author is in the translation. Do you foreign publishers come to for clarification and guidance or does a German language edition of Winterbirth just show up at your doorstep one day with a cheque stuffed inside?
The truth is Iâ€™ve had negligible involvement in any of the translations. I exchanged a couple of e-mails with the German translator, answering questions she had. (which was fun, actually: she was trying to work out how to translate â€˜the Sharedâ€™ â€“ which is the sort of collective unconscious that forms the basis for magic in my books â€“ so she became the first person to ever ask me â€˜so what exactly is the Shared?â€™, which was surprisingly difficult for me to answer in a helpful and precise way â€¦ not because I didnâ€™t know, but because Iâ€™d never actually had to verbalise it until then.)
Other than that, Iâ€™m a spectator. Iâ€™ve no idea whether thatâ€™s the way it always is, or just the way itâ€™s worked out in my case, but to be honest Iâ€™m comfortable with it: itâ€™d be pretty time-consuming if you were constantly having to answer long lists of questions from every translator. Itâ€™s one of my favourite bits of the wholeâ€™ getting publishedâ€™ lark, to be honest, having these books with your name on them turning up in languages you know nothing about. A bit weird too, since my lack of linguistic skills means I have no clue whatâ€™s being said in name â€¦ My Russian or Polish readers might have been reading about Pink Unicorns all along, for all I know.
Incidentally, the only translated editions Iâ€™ve actually got copies of are the German and Dutch. Iâ€™d love to have copies of some of the others â€“ the Polish one in particular looks rather nice â€“ but they donâ€™t seem to send you them as a matter of course. I havenâ€™t asked for them, mind you. Maybe I should try that.
Hey, asking never hurt anyone, right? Over on the Westeros boards (where you’re known to pop in from time to time), we’ve been discussing the blogosphere and what it can do to improve itself and adapt better to those who read them.
In that regard, from an author’s perspective, what do you look for in interviews (to keep them from getting stale), reviews (besides all the glowing praise), and content in general (besides more shameless promotion of Bloodheir)? How can we bloggers improve things for the authors that allow us to continue this hobby?
Glowing Praise And Shameless Promotion would be a good name for a blog, donâ€™t you think?
To be honest, I think the main thing I look for in any blog, whether as a reader or any other kind of participant, is a distinctive and consistent voice and style. That develops over time, so I guess the single most important thing is keeping yourself interested, and following your own instincts as a blogger. From an authorâ€™s point of view, yes itâ€™s always nice when an interviewer comes up with some questions youâ€™ve not been asked before, but an authorâ€™s preferences arenâ€™t always necessarily going to be the same as those of the most important audience for these things: the blogger and his or her readers.
In terms of general content, thereâ€™s lots of things I like to see on blogs that donâ€™t always turn up as often as they might. Iâ€™ve benefited considerably from the natural tendency to concentrate on new releases, so I can hardly complain, but I do like to see occasional coverage of older books that some fans may not know about. Something that very rarely turns up, but I personally find fascinating is interviews with people other than authors who are involved in the business: editors, cover artists, marketers, that kind of thing. Maybe thatâ€™s my professional curiousity about the industry as a whole showing through, though; I suspect a lot of those folk are rather publicity-shy. Oh, and I do quite like to see an occasional more essay-style post. Ones that donâ€™t concentrate on a single author or a single book, but try to tease out common themes, or put whatâ€™s happening at the moment in a historical context, or, for that matter, speculate about where the aforementioned digital revolution is taking us all â€¦
And from an entirely selfish point of view, Iâ€™d quite like to see comics and graphic novels get a bit more coverage on general sf/f blogs. Iâ€™m going through a phase of renewed interest in them, after ignoring them for many, many years, and there seems to be a lot of original sf, fantasy and horror stuff being put out in that medium. I find it interesting that graphic novels seem to be one of the relatively few areas of print publishing that is really thriving, and that in many ways sf/f is regarded as an entirely natural and respected part of the spectrum: you donâ€™t get quite the same genre ghettoisation that you get with books. Iâ€™ve hardly read any of the modern stuff, so itâ€™d be handy to have some tips on where to look for quality.
I think one of the things that helps Fantasy and Science Fiction thrive in the Graphic Novel and Comic book world is that they’re a visual medium. Fantasy and Science Fiction, in a lot of cases, work best when they’re doing something wonderful or fantastical, when things appear exciting and different than the world we’re used to.
Words, for all intents and purposes, are a terrific way to get across incredible imagery, but the reader has to be willing to make at least a bit of an effort. And, let’s be honest, most people are lazy. A visual medium like that takes away the work of interpreting the words and allows the reader to, very quickly and effortlessly, experience these vivid and surreal scenes being played out before them. The tradeoff for this, of course, is the ability to really get in and explore what’s going on in the character’s heads.
This is probably similar to why, for the most part, Fantasy and Science Fiction movies succeed on a visceral level, but fail to hold up when put to their novel counterparts.
Yes, comics are a whole lot closer to film (maybe even closer to TV) than they are to novels. And yes, in a lot of ways theyâ€™re an â€˜easierâ€™ medium for the reader. But in some ways I think itâ€™s invidious to compare and contrast them too attentively. Theyâ€™re just so different from prose fiction that I think they have to be evaluated and interpreted on their own terms and by their own standards rather than in comparison to novels. At their best, I think graphic novels can achieve extraordinary things. To trot out the most tired of tired old examples, â€˜Watchmenâ€™ is a pretty sophisticated piece of work, that rewards a reading thatâ€™s neither quick nor effortless. Mind you, the fact that it came out better than twenty years ago and is still regularly cited as a high point of the medium does suggest thereâ€™s still a lot of unrealised potential. (And I do think itâ€™s got a slightly unconvincing conspiracy as itâ€™s underlying premise, if Iâ€™m honest).
And in defence of movies, letâ€™s be honest, visceral is the only plausible level to shoot for if youâ€™re trying to make a blockbuster. The things cost so much money to produce that youâ€™ve got no choice but to go for mass appeal impact, otherwise youâ€™re heading for bankruptcy. Novelists have the luxuryâ€“ and it is a luxury, really â€“ of trying for more subtle, complex narratives in part because the amounts of money involved in producing them are so much smaller. A book can be profitable for everyone involved with a tiny fraction of the audience a big movie has to ensnare (which is just as well since the audience, unless youâ€™re JK Rowling or similar, is going to be all but microscopic in comparison), so you can afford to try different things.
But I wouldnâ€™t put novels on too much of a pedastel: a high proportion of the big sellers in most genres (though perhaps less so in sf/f than some) are actually relying on pretty much the same visceral, instant appeal as big movies do. Many of the most successful authors are just telling decent stories in clear, high impact ways, going for easy access and mass appeal, giving the reader a quick hit of action, or romance, or whatever. The visual media are by no means the only ones that sometimes try to make it as quick and effortless and painless as possible for their audiences in their (entirely understandable) quest for sales.
Alright Brian, one final question before we wrap things up. You’re a full time author now, with two novels to your credit. Winterbirth is successful and Bloodheir only promises to be more so. Since stepping into the world what has been the most exciting and the most banal thing about being a writer?
The most exciting thing is probably the most basic: having your stuff read by total strangers all over the world, and getting the occasional message from some of them telling you they enjoyed it. Everyone so often I remember that thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening, and I remember how wildly improbable that is, and what a privileged position it is to find yourself in.
On the banal side â€“ oh, thereâ€™s a whole heap of banality associated with being a writer. The most basic, and I suppose obvious, truth is that when you become a published author, everything changes and nothing changes. You are still the same person, with much the same problems, all the same stuff going on, all the same bills to pay (and quite possibly less money to pay them with). It will not suddenly usher you onto some elevated, sunlit plain where all is perfect. The carpets still need hoovering, the bathroom still needs cleaning. Life will not stop throwing you curve balls just because youâ€™ve got a little badge saying â€˜published authorâ€™.
But you can at least polish that badge, and admire it, and think â€˜Heh. Thatâ€™s kind of cool. Funny how things turn out.â€™ Iâ€™ve enjoyed it pretty much without reservation. Iâ€™m not one for counting chickens, so I make no assumptions about what the future holds, but itâ€™s been a great ride so far.
Brian, it’s been a pleasure. Any last words?
Danton, the French Revolutionary: â€˜Be sure to show the mob my head. It will be a long time before they see its like.â€™
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: â€˜It has all been very interesting.â€™
General John Sedgwick: â€˜They couldnâ€™t hit an elephant at this dist â€¦â€™
All probably apocryphal or invented, but classy, sensible and funny nevertheless.
Iâ€™ll settle for: â€˜Hasta la vista, baby.â€™