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The Joy of Knowledge, the Clash of Arms
An Interview with Mary Gentle
by Nick Gevers


One of the most important and idiosyncratic contemporary British speculative fiction writers, Mary Gentle was born in 1956, and published her first novel, A Hawk In Silver, a Young Adult Fantasy, in 1977. She first gained major critical attention with her Orthe sequence, an SF planetary romance made up of Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987); here, her mastery of historical and exotic coloration combined well with reflections on the relationship of the First and Third Worlds, producing a generous mixture of entertainment and argument, of fantastic atmosphere and rigorous extrapolation.

The next phase of Mary Gentle's career involved the application to fiction of the copious knowledge she had gained in her studies of the history of the Renaissance. That period's Hermetic philosophies and pungent realities gave shape to the masterful White Crow cycle, made up of two initial novellas in her first collection Scholars and Soldiers (1989), the major novels Rats and Gargoyles (1990) and The Architecture of Desire (1991), the title novel of her second collection, Left To His Own Devices (1994), and "Black Motley", another story in the last-named volume. Moving freely through time and space and with equal ease between the genres, these tales relate the strange and metaphysically significant adventures of the scholar-soldier Valentine and her sometime lover, the gross and earthy Baltazar Casaubon. Grunts! (1992) is a lighter and decidedly parodic examination of Tolkienian Fantasy from an orcish perspective.

AshAfter completing an MA in War Studies (she is an avid collector of university degrees), Mary Gentle worked for several years on a massive and seminal Fantasy (or SF) epic, Ash: A Secret History, which was published in a single 1100 page volume by Gollancz in the UK in June 2000. Dealing with an earth-shaking confrontation between the powers of a very familiar 15th Century Europe and their bizarrely extrahistorical nemesis, Visigothic Carthage, Ash is a work of vast imagination, profound understanding of the forces and perceptions governing history, and comprehensively sympathetic insight into war and its effects on human psychology. It may well emerge as one of the classics of modern Fantasy. (In the USA, it is appearing in four paperback volumes from Avon Eos: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy.)

I interviewed Mary Gentle by e-mail in June 2000.


Nick Gevers: First, the question that is obligatory and thus must have been asked more than once before: your books contradict your name in almost every possible way; is this a deliberate act of rebellion against Fate?

Mary Gentle: When I was in primary school, we used to have to sing this hymn that began, "Gentle Mary, meek and mild..."

Afterwards, there were comments.

This may well be why, to this day, I have a wistful attraction for the time when most of life's problems could be solved by giving someone a quick thwack.

In fact, although it's my name, it isn't the name I was born with -- I was adopted, and (as I later found out) christened before that happened. But I don't think it's a "Boy Named Sue" principle: it was obvious from my cradle-feminist days ("What do you mean, girls don't climb trees?") what sort of writer I was going to be!

Nick Gevers: Pursuing the warlike nature of your works: you write repeatedly about soldiers of fortune, military brotherhoods (and sisterhoods), and campaigns involving them. Why this consistent interest in war? Is it simply a result of your particular scholarly background (your MA in War Studies, et cetera), or is it that you see war and the lives of soldiers as significant at some fundamental human level?

Mary Gentle: That's one of those really difficult questions - if I knew why it was so "key", the obsession might lose its power. It's just one of the things -- exile, death, madness, war -- that I used to quote as being the themes I could see in what I wrote. (Mostly after doing Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light.) Fortunately, I added later themes -- comedy, sex, and the fascinating insides of people's heads... in the psychological sense, I hasten to add.

The interest in war came long before the MA in War Studies. That particular MA was designed to be my research into Ash. At that point, I'd had a couple of years of intensive interest in the "play" side of war -- tabletop war-games, and the various Live Roleplay "rubber sword" and replica gun outdoor versions. I found I had a minor talent for tactics. The morality of war has fascinated me as far back as Ancient Light and before (with the military commander in that book, whose views I couldn't find a way to contradict, even though I felt they were ethically suspect), and now I found myself talking through the same debates with game players, ex-squaddies, members of Special Forces, and fans who want to carry their experience of reading books one stage further into re-enacting them.

I'm not sure quite how long all this stuff had been sloshing around in the back of my brain before I became aware of Ash as a person. The part of Ash that now forms the Prologue came to me fairly fast, and I sold the book on that and a synopsis. So, I thought: research. How do I do this?

Why not do it the intensive way? So I put in for the MA. As a method of researching a novel, it's rather like breaking an egg with a small tactical nuke -- but it's certainly one way of satisfying an obsessive interest! I wanted a taught degree, because what I find most interesting about academic subjects are the seminar discussions. The MA was brilliant in that respect, and Ash owes a lot to it. Any errors, as they say, are mine.

As for war and the lives of soldiers being significant ... yes, but soldiers are people: it's a spectrum of human experience, not something walled off and separate.

On the one hand, war's something ordinary to me -- being the child and grandchild of the elderly, I had both parents in the Second World War, and grandparents in the First World War; and the Cold War (for those who remember the experience) was one of those constants of experience, as were the security measures against mainland bombings. And on the other, it's alien. I've never been in combat. (Although I've had the standard near-death experiences.) I can synthesise the combat experience of others, extrapolate from exercises, and trust to imagination to close the gap, but ultimately, that's all I can do.

When it came to Ash, I had some confidence I might get it right, because of the number of military and ex-military fans that Grunts! has. If you can get the particular variety of humour right, you're on the way to understanding it, I thought -- which is why, for all the drama, Ash is sometimes just funny.

Nick Gevers: Your novels often take place in Late Mediaeval or Renaissance settings, or in milieux reminiscent of that general period. What, for you, is the special attraction of that time as a literary subject?

Mary Gentle: Difficult question, again.

Scratching my head over it for a while, I come up with a simple answer: swords.

The Orthe books are science fiction, true, but the alien race's social structure in them is based on the 17th century English parish system (which is, as far as modern Europe is concerned, pretty damn alien), and their personal methods of violence based on Renaissance sword and dagger fighting. All the White Crow books imply that mode of fighting too -- being badly bitten as a child by Dumas' Three Musketeers might have something to do with that! -- and Ash, even if she loves her poleaxe, has a sword as a secondary weapon (much like an officer's pistol today).

Valentine, in the White Crow books, is a scholar-soldier, and that might be what fascinates me, ultimately, about the Medieval and Renaissance periods -- that combination of thought, learning and philosophy with close-up violence. Part of The Architecture of Desire comes from Hobbes' Leviathan, that wonderful attempt to answer the perennial question: how do we organise society so that we can have a social life, without organised violence making a total hash of it? And the life of man then being, as he says, nasty, poor, brutish and short. And so Fernando, in Ash, has to grapple with the problem: if he's not prepared to fight, in defence of himself and his society, does he have any right to accept the protection that society gives him against the violence of others? And Florian, who has no method of defence -- being unable to fight as Fernando the knight can -- asserts, nonetheless, a desire for a right to live in peace.

Besides, if history comes in periods, and that's not just some arbitrary historian's designation, then the period from, say, 1450-1650 is one that has all the cusp-points that give us the Western Civilisation we experienced for the next 500 years. And besides, it has some really cool stuff like Hermetic magic, and Milanese armour, and rapier-and-dagger fights...

Nick Gevers: Your books and stories partake strongly of the nature of Alternate and Secret Histories (witness the title Ash: A Secret History): you write from a profound knowledge of history, but usually twist it in speculative directions. Why is this?

Mary Gentle: Otherwise it would be boring...

Well, it would bore me.

Which is strange, because I can read the best historical novelists and love what they do absolutely -- Patrick O'Brian, and Dorothy Dunnett, for example, are about as far from "boring" as you can get! But when I come to write, I find that sticking to history as it's written feels like a cage.

That probably comes from my conviction that history is a construct -- one that's expected, as Plato says, to have a higher degree of veracity than other fictional constructs like novels, but a construct nonetheless. Whatever historical research I do for, say, the background of the year 1476, will be obsolete in twenty years' time -- new documents will have been discovered, old sources will have been re-evaluated, the paradigms of history will have changed (yet again). Which is pretty much as it should be: history is a detective puzzle, because the past is utterly non-existent, and leaves only a few clues and relics behind.

In that sense, a secret or an alternate history is as (fictionally) valid as the most rigorous academic study.

That doesn't stop me playing one of the games which I enjoy, which is to fit -- in Ash's case -- a secret history into the interstices of history as we know it, so that you can't see the join. Much of what's in Ash can be looked up in the textbooks and found to be true. Or as true as any history is. And at that point, I hope the reader gets a little frisson about just how fictional the rest of it might be...

I suppose it's only the standard author's thing of seeing how high the readers can be persuaded to suspend their disbelief, but I find it immense amounts of fun!

Which is probably because of how much I enjoyed, when young, Rider Haggard's She, and Lovecraft's stories; all of which use all the fictional devices they can to ensure that you wonder, at various points, that perhaps this isn't a story: perhaps it's real.

Nick Gevers: It is the case, isn't it, that your "Orthe" books, Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, are set in a future emanating from an alternate past? Why this extremely unusual (and surprisingly understated) twist on Future History?

Mary Gentle: Oh, now, to me that was just background -- "how do I get the British to be in charge of the diplomatic and commercial rights to this little bit of an over-populated galaxy?" Obvious answer -- to me -- "It's an alternate history where the British Empire wasn't dissolved, and economic power didn't transfer itself so comprehensively elsewhere."

And since it was background, I didn't bother to mention it. It's just more of the same thing: needing to make a story believable to me before I can write it. It didn't occur to me that the reader would need to know it too.

The other way to have backgrounded that one would have been to say that I needed to devise a future history, to run from about 1981 (when I was writing the book) to c.2050, to plan how the world might have changed to bring about a resurgence of British economic power. It might say something about the way I think that I chose an alternate past -- but on the other hand, I already had the "Pacific Rim"-dominated Earth as the offstage "home" of Lynne Christie, and I didn't want to change that.

Nick Gevers: After the "Orthe" sequence, you turned from SF in the direction of Fantasy, or sometimes Science Fantasy, producing the "White Crow" volumes, Grunts!, and now Ash. Why this shift? Is Fantasy inherently more flexible to your purposes?

Mary Gentle: Depends if you think it's fantasy or not.

I could make a case for the Orthe books being science fantasy rather than science fiction (unless the former term has dropped out of use now), simply because of the amount of foot travel, swordfighting, ancient ruins, and ancient races involved. But they're written in the tone of SF: a tone that means the reader knows that everything is ultimately explicable by scientific means (no matter how far-fetched); so I'm happy to call them SF.

The White Crow books, on the other hand, have a feel of fantasy, but they're science fiction -- if you allow that the science is the model before the one we currently use: Hermetic science, in which the universe is animistic, holistic, and not at all Newtonian. Hermetic science managed to prefigure quite a lot of post-Newtonian science, including the many-worlds version of quantum theory, while getting everything else spectacularly wrong. However, if the Valentine and Casaubon stories were published as SF, there'd be a lot of confused readers out there. I'm not so sure they shouldn't be historical novels -- if you allow, with Architecture, that history didn't actually happen that way.

And then there's Grunts!, which is my take on fantasy -- genre fantasy, I should say, and fantasy war-gaming, and how "fantasy" ends up being portrayed in the media. And Tolkien. Ursula Le Guin said reading Lord of the Rings made her want to go out and form the Hobbit Socialist Party. It's very difficult to disagree with that. I'd had my "proud, noble, orcish warriors" story in mind since I was about fifteen... but it only really jelled when I realised it was going to be a black comedy, best imagined in animated form; and the "proud noble warriors" told me they were more like "mean motherfuckers with big guns!" And disbelief isn't so much suspended as bounced up and down like a yoyo...

Ash, of course, isn't fantasy at all; but it moves through a number of modes -- ordinary historical fiction, conspiracy fiction, plain fantasy -- to arrive at SF. So you might as well publish it under the label of fantasy, and hope to signal to the readers that there's something in there for everybody!

I can see that as a market decision, but, from my point of view, what a thing's published as, and what it is, are not necessarily the same thing -- and when it is, it's more of a lucky coincidence than anything else. Genres are useful labels, but most books, if you sit down and analyse them strictly, are cross-genre, because life is more complicated than labels...

Nick Gevers: The "White Crow" novels and novellas range remarkably freely in time and space: the characters are consistent, but their environment is fluid in the same manner as the locales of Michael Moorcock's Multiverse. Why are Valentine and Casaubon so temporally peripatetic?

Mary Gentle: Probably because I spent a lot of my teenage years reading Mike Moorcock.

To tell you the truth, I'm always rather sceptical of that type of writing experience described as "the characters ran away with me". Unfortunately for me, that was exactly what happened with the Valentine and Casaubon books -- they walked in, they took over, they pushed me around! (I can only conclude that my subconscious mind was working overtime...) And not only did they push me around as regards their behaviour, they were also very dogmatic about where they happened to be.

I usually begin the actual writing of something when I have a pretty good idea of the starting conditions, and the first line appears out of thin air. With the novellas and Rats and Gargoyles, I got pictures -- Valentine stepping off a steam train into a Renaissance world; a crowd in a cathedral square hanging a pig from a gallows. I wrote that down, with no remote idea what would come after -- and the next scene would arrive -- and I'd write it down, hoping for more -- and the next would come.... Like building a bridge out over a canyon, with no idea that there actually was another side.

So when there was a picture in my head of Valentine in what looked very like the English Civil War (but plainly wasn't), and in late 1980s London, I didn't argue with her...

And although Moorcock was an undoubted influence, the closer one -- or the one I thought of at the time of writing -- was Joanna Russ, and her "Alyx" stories: three of which are Leiberesque fantasy (with some science fantasy included), and then there's the novel, which is plain SF. And she doesn't apologise, and she doesn't explain. And if she could do it, I thought: why not me?

Mental note to self: the basic equipment for being a writer includes an ego the size of Bolivia... (grin)

Nick Gevers: Did the "White Crow" series work out fully as you had intended? I and others had the impression that it might have been cut short for some reason, witness the brevity of The Architecture of Desire and Left To His Own Devices after the much greater length of Rats and Gargoyles

Mary Gentle: It's difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think there would have been more.

I'd finished Rats, and the first draft of Architecture, when somebody wrote off my car in a road traffic accident. That left me in chronic spinal pain (which continues to this day, under medical control), and it pretty much wiped out the next couple of years as regards writing.

To come back from that, I had to teach myself different writing methods -- chronic pain buggers up one's concentration, to say the least. I'd been used to holding ninety per cent of the research and planning of any book in my head, and writing it down in bursts -- three days writing twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours; then two days off; then four days at five hundred words, two thousand, eight thousand...

And I couldn't do that any more. So I educated myself into writing the planning down, in fine detail, and working in small short bursts: a few hours a day, every day. The first major thing I did after that was Grunts!, a black comedy... well, it made sense at the time.

Somewhere in those two years, I think I lost hold of the connection to Valentine and Casaubon. I've never been entirely happy with Left To His Own Devices: bits of it work, but it reads to me like a sketch for a much larger novel. If it didn't have the one thing in it that does work -- Valentine's terrifying mother -- I'd have junked it entirely.

I can't say for sure there'll be no more stories about them, if only because I've learned not to say 'never'; but I do doubt the possibility.

Nick Gevers: From Lynne de Lisle Christie through Valentine and now Ash, you've portrayed strong, hard-bitten, and competent female protagonists, who are also flawed or susceptible in colourfully endearing ways. To what extent does this reflect a conscious feminist agenda? Is the most important "secret history" for you the long ignored or suppressed history of women?

Mary Gentle: I've also portrayed male protagonists -- Casaubon, the orcs, Pollexfen Calmady, Robert Anselm, John de Vere...

I suspect the question only gets asked that way round, and that a male writer would be asked why he wrote female protagonists -- but neither of us would be asked why we wrote male protagonists. Because "male" is the neutral default position.

So in my case, maybe female is the neutral default condition.

As for "feminist agenda" -- oh, definitely, provided you allow me my version of feminism. Feminist thought not being a monolithic block, you understand...

And that form of "secret history", including the secret history of women in combat, is important. But it shouldn't have to be. That's what's depressing: that after all this, it's still a question.

Ultimately, that history has no importance, except in so far as it limits what women do now. When Pierce Ratcliff mentions his thesis, he's describing the dissertation I wrote for my MA, on why and how the women who've engaged in combat throughout history get written out of that history...

There's a lovely cultural example of that, by the way, that didn't make it into Ash, but encapsulates for me the point that history is what you're capable of seeing. If you read the standard Western accounts of Richard I's wife Queen Eleanor on the Crusades, with her ladies done up in armour, you'll find them saying what Eleanor's contemporaries said -- that women can't fight, that the armour and weapons were affectations, and that the Queen and the women were there only as glorified camp-followers. If you read the contemporary Arabic chroniclers, however, you find them reporting "after the raid/battle/skirmish, we stripped the Frankish bodies, and when we took the mail shirts off the warriors we fought, we found yet another Frankish woman in disguise..."

I suppose the short answer to why war's a feminist issue might be that, once women engage in combat, theoretically you can't deny them the full rights of the citizen. In practice, you can: and in practice you enter the area of debate about the place of the military in liberal democracies, and in other forms of government. I find it interesting that it's one of the areas that women often have walled off in their own minds: "that's war, it's bad, I don't want to think about it". And as ever, the things that must be avoided in thought are the very ones that are going to prove interesting.

Valentine fascinated me because she sees no dichotomy between learning, which is constructive, and personal violence, which creates the situation in which no learning is possible. And Ash, at the beginning, only understands war -- understands it inside out -- but she doesn't understand anything else.

There's maybe an "agenda" in having the protagonist of Ash be female, and much of the story would be the same if Ash were male. But a male protagonist wouldn't have that tension of being simultaneously inside and outside the world of war -- of being good at something she isn't legitimately allowed to do. And it wouldn't have enabled me to look at how she uses being a woman -- uses the imagery of the warrior-women itself -- to help her keep command and control.

If I've done it right, I've done two things. The realistic version of what it would be like to be a female military commander in a realistic 15th century -- which is a reaction in me against medieval women-warriors who exist in sanitised fantasy worlds, and never have to face any serious misogyny. And a psychological investigation of what the pressures of that would be like, and how complicit she is with her society's view of women; how she'll use it -- in a very un-PC way -- to get her own way. And if I've done it right, you can see that she's extremely good at what she does, without being superwoman...

Nick Gevers: Still considering figures such as Valentine and Ash: how much are they informed by your own personality?

Mary Gentle: As much as the rest of the characters. All of them. Male and female, orc and hobbit, human and alien... which is to say: a bit.

If you ask me what goes into a character, it can be a lot of stuff -- someone's gesture, another person's rhythm of speech, a situation you've imagined, something in your own reactions, two words half-overheard on a bus... and at some point all of that crystallises (if it's going to work) and the character becomes a distinct person separate from all the sources.

Personally, I always thought the character I drew on me for, most of all, was Baltazar Casaubon...

It's maybe truer and more useful to say that Valentine and Ash (and characters apart from the main protagonists) are informed by my own experiences. It's for this reason that I find myself learning how to pull a longbow and shoot, or hammer out some munition-quality armour, or fight with a museum-quality replica sword -- sheerly in terms of kinesthesia, smell, weight, balance, adrenaline: experience is invaluable. It isn't the whole story, but it adds a whole level of mimesis to the story.

That said, Valentine is going to react to (say) riding a horse in one way, and Ash another, and neither of them is going to be the way I'd react. Because characters aren't masks or puppets, to me.

Not that it isn't legitimate to write fiction in which characters do function as masks or puppets: just that that isn't what I've been aiming at in the books I've done so far.

Nick Gevers: Ash is an astonishing magnum opus: did you deliberately set out to write the longest Fantasy novel ever, or did the work simply grow?

Mary Gentle: Cue hysterical laughter...

Somewhere back in my notes, I have the one-page synopsis I wrote when I originally sold Ash. It says, "this 130,000 word book"...


And yet, considering I had a complete synopsis before I started the first draft of Ash, it's amazing that I didn't notice. I mean, you have a single-spaced synopsis and it runs to 60 pages, it probably isn't going to come in at 130,000 words, right?

But I missed it, and my editors missed it too, and I kept on writing, and the end kept moving away in front of me... For a long time, it was like an ever-receding horizon -- "I've got to the end of that chapter, and here's another 8,000 words, and I'm nowhere near the middle yet...!" That went on for what seemed like several geological aeons. And the action of the book only covers six months...

And because it reads short, I'd end up feeling as if I'd produced almost nothing. I'd give it to someone to read, and they'd say it zipped along and had barely begun, and where was the rest of it?

If I'd known it was going to come in around 500,000 words, that might have been better, and I might have been much happier during the writing process. Alternatively, if I had known, I might not have had the nerve to start it at all!

On the other hand, having done an epic, I now have the comforting thought that I never have to do another one... (grin)

Nick Gevers: And: Ash has a complicated publishing history, doesn't it? Was it delayed somewhat? And in America, it's appearing as four paperback volumes, whereas Gollancz in Britain has taken the plunge and issued it as one very large hardcover and trade paperback; what editorial and marketing considerations lie behind these different approaches?

Mary Gentle: Editorial and marketing? No, no, I never meddle with the Black Arts!

Well, if not "Black", they're certainly arcane -- I kind of assume everybody knows their job, and that the different ways of doing it are right for the different markets.

Ash was always intended as one novel: it was conceived and written that way. Originally, when they saw what size it was eventually going to be, Gollancz decided they would do it in two hardcover volumes, a year apart. I had the first draft done, so I could have done the first part of the second draft for the first volume's publication, and then carried on with the second half -- but it was going to be a bit hairy, I felt, with part one "fixed" because it was in print.

At that point there was a publisher buy-out, and the title went into limbo for a while. When it came out, Gollancz decided it should be published as written, in one volume, with a simultaneous hardcover and trade paperback. By then, the US had decided to do it in multiple volumes -- since there are useful cliffhangers in the relevant places, in four volumes, in fact.

Personally, I think it worked out better this way from a writing point of view: I could do a very thorough job on the second draft. Although the first Avon Eos paperback was out before I'd quite finished with the end, so that was fun...

I'm still not sure what it's like for the reader to read it in four chunks -- it's paced as a long novel, so maybe the first volume is a little slow, I don't know. I am encouraged by the number of people who bought A Secret History and Carthage Ascendant, and vilified my name because they had to know what happened next, and when was the rest of it coming out --?

That's the point where the writer gives an evil grin...

Nick Gevers: Ash is a very ambitious, and in some ways quite experimental, narrative. You include a frame of near future scholarly translation and investigation of the "Ash legend", and the main tale of Ash is a "translation" from texts of apparently never certain reliability. Does this emphasis on the fluidity of historical truth reflect your own experience in historical research? What judgement are you delivering on the "science of history"?

Mary Gentle: Experimental in some senses, perhaps...

The aim of the narrative was nothing more, in the beginning, than reclaiming the clichés of fantasy (and historical drama, and melodrama!) by adding a layer of mimesis to all of them. Logically, that mimesis must apply to the presentation of the story, too. Rider Haggard presents "documentation" in the first chapters of his She, so that we'll believe the existence of this two-thousand-year-old woman; and in the same way Lovecraft creates his Necronomicon -- and the letters, journals, and newspaper reports he adds in -- to buttress belief in a world that might at first seem weirdly supernatural.

So what better way to buttress belief in Ash's story than to have the documentation that was written about it in the Fifteenth Century presented to the reader?


Framework. Cliché. Boring, I thought. But there is something in that...

And then I realised that what would at first appear to be a framing story, providing academic legitimisation, was actually the other end of the story itself, which only began in 1476, and didn't end until the first decade of the 21st century.

So, in a sense, I had to use history -- or the apparatus of the science of history -- to create a branch on which the readers could sit. And then I could use the actual nature of history to saw the branch out from under them. (Which may sound like persecution of the poor reader, but the reader signed up to be surprised, startled, and amazed, didn't they? Or to put it another way: if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.)

It followed naturally from that, that the story was going to be about the nature of history itself, and time and causality -- or, at least, it seemed natural to me. I knew what Ash would do, and I knew it came out of her damaged self; but it wasn't until I worked out the nature of history that I knew why she'd do it, and what it means.

Nick Gevers: Ash makes much play of the nature of the Duchy of Burgundy as a lost Middle European Kingdom, which indeed it in retrospect is: effectively a fully-fledged state separating France and Germany; a powerful ally of England in her Hundred Years' War with France, and much besides. What made you choose to highlight this "forgotten" area of history?

Mary Gentle: The fact that it is "forgotten".

I can't remember how long ago it was that I first came across the key fact. Which is, as Pierce Ratcliff says, that Burgundy does disappear, as far as history is concerned. The Grand Duke of the West, Charles of Burgundy, gets killed on the battlefield at Nancy in 1477, and from being the kingdom in Europe that everybody's watching, suddenly it's just -- gone.

And that fascinated me: how does something so central, so key to the medieval experience, just get written out of history -- as if Europe was an airbrushed Soviet photo? Truth told, the territory gets eaten up by France and the Germanies, and life goes on; but there is still something strange about the way in which Burgundy isn't even mentioned. It vanishes from the popular conception of European history almost instantaneously.

I still don't know why this happens. The reason in Ash, I have to say, is probably not the correct reason; but it's a reason that I like...

Nick Gevers: Carthage is another submerged empire, powerful in Punic and Vandal times, but now utterly vanished, even as a city. Why Carthage as Burgundy's antagonist? And why Visigoths rather than Vandals?

Mary Gentle: The latter comes from a line I scribbled down in a notebook.

About six years ago I was going to a history course, run locally. (It doesn't now -- cuts.) At that point, it could teach the less well known parts of European history, rather than the "Bermuda Triangle" of England, France, and Italy. When I saw their next course advertised, I didn't know anything about the Visigoths and the medieval Spains, so I decided I ought to.

And about halfway through, a line popped into my head out of nowhere, which I wrote down -- it's what the master gunner Angelotti says to Ash, when he's describing how Carthage governs itself: "Elective monarchy -- a method which we may call succession by assassination!"

The Visigoth form of government continued to fascinate me, and I followed them through Iberian history, until the Moors arrived from North Africa and began to kick the crap out of them, in the war that runs right through the medieval period, on and off, until 1492. Being me, I thought, what would have happened if it had run the other way: if the Visigoths had invaded North Africa instead?

I'm not sure why I thought of Carthage. Perhaps because, like Burgundy, Carthage vanishes...

Although there isn't any mystery about it: the Romans conquered it, razed it, and sowed the earth with salt. (You can tell they were pissed off.) I thought: what about if it hadn't been, if Carthage were still there, for the Visigoths to inhabit up until 1476?

When I came to do some research, to see if I could buttress this ridiculous idea of a Germanic tribe conquering Carthage and settling down there, I found that it had happened -- granted, it wasn't the Visigoths: it was the Vandals. And it was a thousand years too early for my purposes. But I was cheered, because when history starts playing ball like that, I know I'm on to something with the novel!

By that time, I was very fond of the Visigoths, so I decided that in this alternate version their expedition to North Africa -- some thirteen years before the Vandals: a storm sank it -- would be the one to succeed. There'd be some Vandal names, to indicate that settlers moved over there from several tribes, but the main civilisation would be Visigoth.

Well -- Visigoth, plus H P Lovecraft...

Nick Gevers: One of the paradoxes of the mercenary companies you describe in Ash is their simultaneous function as instruments of intra-European conflict and character as cross-national entities, microcosms of the larger unity Christendom could never achieve. What are you saying about the nature of Europe here, and the nature of European wars?

Mary Gentle: It's not so much a matter of being cross-national as it is of sharing a profession. One of the things that tends to happen, with soldiers, is that they're more like other soldiers than they are like the civilians back home. Hence Ash's Welsh and Burgundian and Italian and English contingents get on okay, all the while they've got unit cohesion to hold them together.

And Ash herself, when she meets some of the "enemy" Visigoths, finds herself reasonably comfortable with their military, for the same reason. It even saves her life. What she comes to think of that similarity, that brotherhood, when she comes to break it down and look at its function... that's something else again.

If anything, I'm not saying anything about Europe so much as putting in an analogue of a unity that is very difficult to get across to the modern mind -- the unity that being part of Christendom produced. Granted, it was unity only for certain classes and genders...

But I did have great fun playing with medieval national stereotypes -- including the one prevalent on the continent, which was that the English were the most melodramatically emotional race in Christendom, who could be relied on to burst into tears at moments of high drama. This is obviously well before we developed the stiff upper lip. (grin)

Nick Gevers: Ash is composed mainly of "translations" of different "mediaeval manuscripts", which however form a very consistent, homogeneous narrative, told from Ash's third person perspective. In writing the novel, were you tempted at any stage to use a variety of narrative voices (Del Guiz, Angelotti, and others, in addition to Ash herself)?

Mary Gentle: What I thought I was going to do, originally, was tell the story in four voices and four parts -- Florian, Fernando, Godfrey, and Ash herself. Each of them would have been a different historical document. (They're the ones Pierce mentions in his list of sources.)

That was fine -- except it became apparent to me, while planning Ash, that people weren't necessarily going to be neatly where they had the best view of events in "their" part of the story... and that, by its nature, the only person who knows the whole of that story is Ash herself.

So, when Pierce says at the beginning that he could have done what previous editors did, and translate each document individually, but instead he's going to weave them into a single narrative as he translates them -- that's my decision, too.

The other option would have been to do it from Ash's point of view all through, but to do it in first person. For two reasons, I decided not to -- one was that I'd done all of Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light in first person, and while that was fine, I couldn't stand to do it again. And if I couldn't, I was damn sure the reader couldn't stand it either!

The second reason was that first person wouldn't have been right for her -- Ash isn't introspective: far from it. She's damaged, early in life; she partly eradicates emotion from herself, and doesn't understand it in other people. I thought you needed to see inside her head, but you also need to see how other people react to her -- so that her friends, lovers, subordinates, etc., put her in perspective.

I suppose one of the reasons is that, for believable fiction, you need to use the same techniques as a good liar does.

And if you want to tell a good lie, then you give accurate circumstantial detail, a lot of truth mixed in with the falsehood, a high level of plausibility, and you keep it as simple as possible. And you don't bring other witnesses in to confuse the tale. So, in the end, the higher the level of impossibilities in the narrative, the more important I found it to have only the two narrative voices -- one for each time: Ash in 1476, and Pierce for 2000/01. And the main bulk of the story is Ash herself.

The downside to that is that if the reader doesn't like spending time in her company, the book's a total waste of a tree. On the good side, if the reader does like taking this journey with her, there's a lot of it to enjoy!

Most importantly, if I was using a single voice, I could do what I did end up doing with the language -- translating the "medieval" 15th century English, or Latin, or German, into modern English. Which means, as Pierce remarks, that she says "fuck" an awful lot.

This is a technique that I thought about a lot before I started, in terms of making the book accessible. With stuff set in another century, you've got basically two choices -- write it in their language (and while I can do moderately good Shakespeare, my Chaucer is non-existent), or write it in some modern analogous language. Which in far too many cases is "Prithee!", and "doth", used without regard for grammar, and people talking as no normal human being ever spoke!

So I decided to follow the method of Robert Graves, who, when he wrote the Claudius books, wrote them in the same English that he spoke. Consequently I find his Claudius and Livia and Tiberius sound like real people -- they don't have that distancing effect of being "historical characters" in funny clothes with weird accents.

And I wanted that for Ash: I wanted her to sound as if she'd walked in off the street, not out of 1476. The variety of high fantasy that involves (as Lin Carter once titled a book) dragons, elves, and heroes, is fine when you want some distance between your reader and your characters; when you want them to partake of the mythic. But Ash is SF at the root, and I wanted that world and those people to be mundane, believable, and their heroics to be qualified human ones.

So she has to talk like we (for certain values of "we") do...

Nick Gevers: One stylistic question: why is it that the action of Ash, usually written in the past tense, at times switches to the present tense, even in mid-sentence?

Mary Gentle: That's interesting -- sometimes I get asked that, and sometimes the reader doesn't even notice it's been done.

I do it for immediacy.

It's not an unusual technique, it's just one we're more likely to use in speech than in formal narrative -- "So I went down the shop, and I met Maggie, and she says to me, "Did you hear about Dave?", and I chuck a can of beans in the trolley, and say "No, but --" and so on. Some things, it seems to me, have to happen in real time, as if they're being experienced at that very second. The combat in Ash is one of those things.

Nick Gevers: Finally: are you contemplating creative projects beyond Ash? Or is another advanced degree in the works?

Mary Gentle: I'd love to do another degree, but if I suggested taking time off to do it, I have this strange feeling my agent and my editor would staple-gun me to the wall!

In practical terms, I can't afford the time right now, but I expect to do another degree at some point in the future. Depending on what obsession has grabbed me by then...

At the moment, I'm deep in the notes-and-plans stage of a novel I've had at the back of my mind for about fifteen years. Where Ash was long, this is short -- well, shorter: say about a third as long! And where Ash is a cast of thousands, 1610 is pretty much the story of three people.

It comes from something I scribbled down in an exercise book in 1985 -- a down-at-heels thug and a disguised woman, wandering along a beach in the spring of the year 1610, find the unconscious body of a shipwrecked man... who is a Japanese samurai.

In 1985, I knew I didn't know enough to write it, but since then I've done an MA in 17th century Studies, a great deal of investigation into the Renaissance concept of time, and run into samurai re-enactment, so the weird stuff is piling up...

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© Nick Gevers 1 July 2000