Michael Cobley interviewed
by Neil Williamson
In July 2001, Michael Cobley's debut novel, Shadowkings, was launched. The story, set in a fantasy world in which the forces of good have been overrun by Mogaun barbarian invaders, and involving the rebirth of the evil Lord of Twilight in five separate bodies and the various power struggles arising from that event, was widely praised for its grim tone and gritty sense of adventure. July 2002 saw the release of the mass market paperback edition coincidental with the delivery to his publisher, Earthlight, of the second volume in the three book series, Shadowgod. I visited Michael at home in Glasgow's West End. The setting was a suitably book-crowded room, the tea was Earl Grey, the background music was Tangerine Dream, and the writer was in engaging form.
Neil Williamson: How have you enjoyed the reaction to Shadowkings?
Michael Cobley: Mostly the reaction has been very positive. One or two notices by non-genre reviewers seemed to miss the point but generally it feels like confirmation that I wasn't wasting my time.
NW: Can you tell me something about how the story progresses in Shadowgod, and in the third book, Shadowmasque?
MC: Shadowgod begins pretty much where Shadowkings finished, with the leaders of the partly successful rebellion taking stock over winter to build up their forces, knowing that despite having defeated the Mogaun barbarians they still have the power of the Shadowkings to face. Meanwhile out to the west of the land, a new power, in the shape of the Jeffren Theocracy, arises. Broadly, the book describes the efforts of a number of separate forces trying to bring about the unification of the Lord Of Twilight, against which end are pitted the slight rebel forces, and also the warlord Byrnak who is determined to make the most of his Shadowking power while maintaining his sense of self.
Shadowmasque, which I am writing right now, takes place 300 years later. Society is a little more advanced - closer to Renaissance Italy (but without the gunpowder) than the dark medieval setting of the first two. I'm hoping it will be a more cultured novel, and while not necessarily shirking the big conflicts, may be a little less grim in tone.
NW: Shadowkings was written over a number of years. How did the constraints of having a deadline affect your approach to Shadowgod?
MC: It was a bit of a wake-up call. I'd never been in that situation before and as the days went by the approaching deadline felt like rushing towards a dark wall. The only way was to get my head down and get on. I worked for six months without a break, and about three quarters of the way through that period, realised that I was beginning to hate the deadline. Getting to the end of the book, and finishing it in a satisfying and natural way, I found a monumental task. But I made it, thankfully, in the end.
NW: What lessons have you learned during your first year as a pro that you intend to apply to writing the third volume?
MC: I've come up with a writing schedule, with mini-deadlines and milestones, to be strictly adhered to. In addition to that I've decided that Shadowmasque will be a less convoluted book, with fewer characters and plotlines. The theory is that it should be easier to write. I'm looking forward to it. I've designed the trilogy so that I have a (almost) totally new set of characters with a new set of challenges to face in volume three. Traditionally, one of the problems with writing fantasy trilogies is 'middle book sag', so I planned the story to avoid that. Most of the action involving the characters you've met in Shadowkings is resolved by the end of Shadowgod. So writing the third volume should be a new challenge for me too.
NW: As a writer you have something of a varied publishing history - notably a flurry of cyberpunk stories (including the excellent 'Corrosion' published in Interzone). Why did you choose the genre of high fantasy for your debut novel?
MC: I'm interested in all the genres, but fantasy was always something that I want to do. In fact I recently dug out my first attempts at fiction - a sword and sorcery novella written during the time I was helping my parents run their hotel in Dunoon, on the west coast of Scotland. In 1995 I abandoned a space opera that I was blocked on, and at the same time became inspired by the desperate situation in Bosnia. Then one day I simply sat down and started to write Shadowkings, and it was a story that just had to be written as a fantasy.
NW: Would you agree that, rather than, as some might say, being an easy, profitable gig for the writer, the high fantasy genre presents a challenge in terms of dreaming up something original around the trope demands of the fantasy-buying public?
MC: There is a lot of boring - well written, but still boring - fantasy. When I began Shadowkings, I thought I had to do something different to stop myself being bored writing it. The result was the rather dark tone that some commentators have noted. Earlier in my career I had been writing a lot of cyberpunk, as you've mentioned. There's a specificity, a gritty realism, in cyberpunk that makes it distinctive. And I tried to bring that with me into Shadowkings. With fantasy, you are always striking a balance between providing the familiar tropes - the quasi-medieval setting, the magic users, the epic battles - and something different. I tried to use the specificity of cyberpunk to create a sense of tactile reality - muck, blood, wounds - in the world. At the same time I was trying to stay clear of creating a truly realistic setting because I wanted to retain the lyric unreality of the fantasy genre in dealing with things like death and trauma. I was interested in creating a sense of authentic social pain, in which the little people were seen to suffer, just for being alive during a particularly dark time.
NW: So what do you see as the future of the fantasy genre?
MC: It'll probably be self-sustaining as it is - for a while at least. It's done very well so far without the levels of media spinoffery that has transported science fiction into the living rooms of the public.
People that are doing fantasy well at the moment certainly include George RR Martin. He sticks pretty much to the familiar tropes, but he creates great characters and tells his stories spectacularly well. Martin has brought a level of literary skill to the genre that's rarely been seen until now. Steven Erikson is also thinking up new ways to play the tropes. There's a real plausibility of the world teetering on the brink in his work.
NW: In the light of the success of the Lord Of The Rings movies, do you reckon there is scope for a raft of fantasy adaptations?
MC: David Gemmell's 'Legend' was made for the screen, although I can only really visualise the late Ollie Reed playing Druss. Unfortunately, Xena and Hercules have stymied the genre a little bit. They're like the Spinal Tap of fantasy.
I'd love Shadowkings to be optioned. I'd imagine it as being like a mixture of Gladiator and The 13th Warrior - that'd be cool. I'm in two minds, though, whether I'd want to retain artistic control or just take the cash.
Shadowkings is in the shops now. Shadowgod, book 2 of the Shadowkings trilogy, will be published by Earthlight in February 2003.
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© Neil Williamson 7 August 2002