This interview first appeared in London Tribe. The interviewer is Robert Lightbody.
When did you first realise you wanted to write?
I’d started writing fiction when I was at ‘primary school’; ghost stories mostly. My Grandfather was a wonderful story-teller — very ghoulish tales; and many stories about his experiences in the First World War. Apparently, he was told not to frighten his grandchildren. But I loved being frightened! I’m glad to have inherited his imagination. He and I watched Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit on the TV together. That was, when, 1960? I was already writing my own stories by then.
How did you decide upon the fantasy genre?
Almost certainly because of the influence of my Grandfather, Quatermass, Dan Dare, H.G.Wells and Jules Verne. You always find your right place in the Universe! H.G.Wells’ novels Kipps and The History of Mr Polly are wonderful social observations, but The Time Machine and First Men in the Moon were mind-blowing to a ten year old! All my early stories were combinations of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, but involving such sinister aliens as the ‘Jupiterians’ (I didn’t know at that time that ‘Jovian’ was the accepted name for creatures from Jupiter).
Who were your writer role models?
More or less answered above for the early years; in my SF years I fell into Robert Silverberg’s work with gusto — Downward to the Earth, Time of Changes and so on — but according to Kim Newman, a wise and insightful man, I’ve never thrown off the influence of Nigel Kneale! Two novels (The Boat of Fate by the late Keith Roberts, and The Conquered, by the late Naomi Mitchison) are always in my mind when I’m writing mythological fantasy such as Celtika.
Are your characters based on anyone in particular? Your novels have a very rich mix of different mythologies how do you develop this?
All characters are based on elements of a writer’s personal experience; but what do we mean by experience? I have several characters in different books (e.g. Necromancer) based on Jack Nicholson’s early performances in film; I have a French archaeologist in several books who is an old friend of mine in accent, looks and laughter… but nothing beyond that! The character Merlin, in Celtika, is me myself in every way except for his selfishness (no more details!) If you mean are my characters based on historical characters, then the answer is yes and no. I’m not interested in legend and myth as we know it, but in what went before! What events, what terrifying and wonderful tales, now forgotten, were remembered sufficiently in darker ages to create what we think of as legend now. My passion for the above leads directly to the mix of mythologies that you’ll find in my work, especially Lavondyss in the Mythago Cycle. At one time there were very few stories; perhaps not as few as the ‘monomyth’ that Joseph Campbell writes about, but certainly a variety of tribal experiences that were enriched by Time, absorbing the new heroes and adventures of those who were telling them.
How did you come up with the idea of mixing Merlin and Jason together?
Walking in the hills one day… I heard my fevered hindbrain say… if Merlin was immortal, he’d need no strange time-portal…to sneak on board the Argo as a charming stowaway! It just happened.
How regimented to you have to be to complete a novel?
You just have to want to complete it. Regimentation comes with the urgency of the need to complete. I start slowly: the brilliant beginning! Then months of thinking, of shaking people by the shoulders in the street and crying delightedly “I’ve got it! I’ve got the next scene!” Only to return home and discover that it doesn’t work. Then despair, disillusion, boredom; then panic, crisis, the tearing of shirts, the endless watching of Barton Fink crying out “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what the life of the mind is like!” The family counselling. The whispering behind your back. Then the Damascene inversion! It’s not so bad after all! The banishment of denial, the return of determination, and the two months of illuminated writing to finish. Sad, eh? But if the end product works…
What are you reading at the moment?
A novel by Thomas Sanchez called Rabbit Boss, which is disturbing me greatly even as it illuminates the life and mind-set of the American West, and Paul McAuley’s The Secret of Life, which is gripping me totally and at the same time adding to my frustration that Mars is still so far out of our grasp. Non-fiction: A biography of Clint Eastwood (well, why not?) and several ‘refresher’ reads on Avebury and the so-called ‘sacred sites’ of Europe; I’m really enjoying The Avebury Cycle by Michael Dames.
With Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons being made into films, is this something that would interest you, maybe Mythago Wood, have you been approached?
Yes. Often. TriStar held an option on Mythago Wood for several years in the early Nineties; this has sold on to another studio. Good things are happening. I agree with you: with Dungeons and Dragons about to assault us, it’s the perfect time for fantasy film that addresses issues other than, well… dungeons. And dragons. And Orks!
From the book world, which fictional characters would you like to have to a dinner party?
Actually, the Time Traveller from the Wells story; and Professor Quatermass himself. Provided they were prepared to do all the talking.
If you had to be a character from fiction or your own books or from someone else’s who do you think you would be?
Someone very different now to twenty years ago in many ways, but he would certainly be a dreamer, and too curious about the unknown for the good of his own mind. A scientist-adventurer. Failing that, Long John Silver.
What are you working on at the moment?
The second part of Celtika and a new Mythago Wood novel, though this is still in its ‘dreaming’ stage.
Do you have a favourite film, TV programme, artist(music)?
The two Leone films, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a time in America rank very high. I go through obsessions with film, as with music; right now, Gladiator is still strong in my mind and I’m such a fan of Ridley Scott that it will never lose its strengths by thinking through, even though it has weaknesses. He’s so clever in his use of allusion and metaphor, which appeals to me greatly. Bladerunner and The Duellists are fabulous films. Of the several films I can always watch, no matter how bored or tired: The Lion in Winter! What a fantastic screenplay! What acting! It’s probably the truest vision of the past I can imagine.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
If you’ve got to do it, do it, and do it your own way. If you’re doing it for the money, do it any-which-way they ask, and remember to keep that heart golden. Who was it said, “We must create the taste by which we are appreciated”? That feels right too.