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An interview with Paul Kearney

by Simeon Shoul

Simeon Shoul: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Childhood, family, early literary influences and so forth?The Second Empire

Paul Kearney: Well, I'm 36 years old, and was born in Northern Ireland two years before the Troubles began. I come from a farming family which has roots in County Antrim as old as the hills. (The former owner of the farm which my grandfather bought was beaten up for selling land to a Catholic.)

My family has always bred and kept horses, so I grew up riding from an early age, and basically had an idyllic rural childhood, very much like the character Michael in my second novel, A Different Kingdom. It was not what you might call a 'literary' background, but somehow I was always reading. It was a huge family -- my grandmothers had fifteen children between them, so there was a small army of uncles, aunts and cousins coming and going all the time, a real feeling of community.

There were several authors whose works I devoured in my early teens -- Tolkien of course. He made a huge impact, so much so that I naïvely applied to Oxford University merely because he had been there, and I took "Tolkien's Course" there, studying Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Middle English. But also Rosemary Sutcliff, one of the greatest (and most underrated) of British historical writers. Looking back, I think that her Arthurian novels were in part the genesis of Corfe and the Torunnans. That sense of a revered, but ultimately lonely hero-figure, bearing through life a private agony.

There was also Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, who both had the ability to make the everyday suddenly come alive with preternatural menace. Julian May's Pliocene Exile books, breathtakingly original, and proof that fantasy/sci-fi could be both serious and funny. Stephen Donaldson, of course. I haven't read his books for years, but in Covenant he has one of the most memorable of all fantasy (anti-)heroes.

There are many others I could mention -- Andre Norton, Roger Lancelyn Green and his re-telling of the various world-myths, Robert E. Howard -- hard to better him for creating a sense of barbarous 'otherness' -- and good old Fritz Leiber, the inspiration for many a D&D adventure.

SS: What's your career track been like? Did anything significant come before writing?

PK: I was supposed to go into the British Army -- I jumped through all the various hoops and had several long attachments to regular regiments all over the world. I even went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and got my commission. But I had just finished writing The Way to Babylon, my first novel, at that time, and had a choice to make between signing up to the military long-term or trying to make it as a writer. A London agent, John McLaughlin, took on Babylon, and so I thought I'd give it a go. I still spent the next few years as an Infantry Platoon Commander in a Territorial Regiment, the Royal Irish Rangers, but my 'day job' was, from then on, writing.

The army I had mixed feelings about. I had this naïve and groundless belief that the profession of arms was an honourable calling. For a Northern Irish catholic this was a bizarre and dangerous point of view, and for several years I had to carry a loaded pistol with me at all times.

I found that soldiers gossip and bitch as much as the inhabitants of any country village, but at the same time they all share a strange compulsion to do what they do, one that is rarely mentioned, but is beyond cynicism. I shared that compulsion. I think it's to do with belonging to something, something exclusive, which very few people are privy to in this modern world. It's also a matter of pride. Beyond that, I'm at a loss to explain.

SS: Do you think a military career can actually be 'an honourable calling'? In your SAS novel, Delta One Zero, dubious or dirty behaviour all seems to stem from 'political' contamination; the Big Politics of a Government running a covert 'shoot to kill' policy, and the Little Politics of a superior officer manoeuvring to cover his back... Do you think the Army tends to stray because of these sorts of influences, or is there a more innate danger to the profession of arms?

PK: I don't want to set myself up as some kind of spokesman for the MOD, nor can I realistically speak for those in the Army today. Having said that, I knew well a generation of soldiers who had gone through the Falklands, the Gulf Mark I and Northern Ireland. Soldiers prefer to see things in black and white. You mention the phenomenon of 'shoot to kill' in my book. Well when you're in uniform you never open fire unless you intend to kill -- that's what we were taught. You don't fire for fun, and you never shoot to wound. When you pull the trigger, you're trying to end someone's life, period.

The British army is, as I've said, as insular as a rural village: everyone knows everyone else, or at least has had contact with other regiments through courses and suchlike. It's a tribe, basically; a high-tech tribe. When you enter it, you leave all your other loyalties and prejudices at the door. Hell, in my company in Northern Ireland myself and my colour sergeant were the only two Catholics out of 120 men, but I never had any problems, despite the fact that some of my soldiers were in Loyalist Paramilitary organisations.

You will try and protect your fellow tribesmen, and they will do the same for you -- that's the way it works. As far as the higher-up pressures go, I never made it far enough up the command chain to find out.

SS: Between the army and writing, were there any unusual or memorable jobs, or experiences, between times?

PK: Working in a chicken processing plant was an eye-opener -- it put me off chicken for years. Bar-work, though hard graft, was fascinating. People say anything and everything to the bartender when they've lubricated their brain sufficiently. I've heard tearful confessions of affairs and admissions of crimes, I've been threatened, flirted with and I've dodged the odd punch. Then there was some TEFL work in Oxford. I also did a fair bit of climbing -- mostly on the Isle of Skye, where I got the inspiration for my first book, and I travelled through the jungle for weeks, in both Thailand and Mexico.

I got married in 1996, and have lived in Denmark, New Jersey, Cambridge, and finally, back to where it all began, in Ulster. I've been back here now for three years, and we're renovating a broken-down old croft on a remote stretch of the County Down coast, so I guess I'm here to stay.

SS: What really inspired the move into writing? Why did you take the plunge?

PK: Getting an agent was the big turning point. It's one thing to come up with a typescript -- I don't know how many people I've met who seem to have one in their bottom drawer somewhere -- but the fact that a hard-headed businessman thought he could sell it, that was a big boost, and it really gave me pause for thought. Then Richard Evans at Gollancz, bless him, decided to take it on, and he gave me a big enough advance that I could sit down and seriously consider writing full-time.

I've been scribbling stories for about as long as I could scribble, and clichéd though it might be, I had always wanted to be a writer -- it was my private Everest. Now here it was, and someone was actually asking me what I was going to write next. I had a book -- I was up there with the Olympians on the shelves. I guess from then on I was hooked on the whole business, and since 1992 I've written eight novels under my own name, and four under a pseudonym [military fiction, as 'Peter Corrigan' -- SS].

SS: Turning to your writing in more detail, let me ask about the influences which shaped your first three fantasy novels; The Way to Babylon, A Different Kingdom, and Riding the Unicorn. They seem to share a common theme; you obviously feel some strong affinity for the isolated, driven hero, who enters (willingly or otherwise) an Otherland.

This experience, of straying over a boundary into a mysterious realm seems reminiscent of some of the authors you've mentioned: Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and obviously Donaldson. Were you at all conscious, when working on these three books, of particular literary influences, or of working in a particular tradition within the genre? There is also, in all three books, a strong element of army experiences, though not always surrounding the principal character -- do you regret leaving the army? Or feel a need to 'talk out' your experiences of it through your novels?

PK: Well I have a pet idea, and it is that the influences on your life within the first score of years or so are by and large the most important and formative of your entire lifetime. Not exactly a groundbreaking psychological insight I know, but I'm thinking particularly of literary influences.

In those first three books I genuinely never set out to create this motif of an ordinary guy sucked into an Other Place -- it just happened that way. Those names you mention were big milestones in my adolescent reading habits, and obviously they had a major input. But there must have been something else at work too, which I'm damned if I can pin down.

I started writing Babylon after a Skye trip -- not my first -- but the catalyst for the book was the nursery rhyme: 'How many miles to Babylon.' I saw it in a children's book, and the wheels started turning furiously -- I hammered out the first fifty pages in one sitting on an old typewriter, and it was an incredibly pure, driven experience. I changed hardly a word from that draft to the published book. I remember Richard Evans telling me he thought I secretly wanted to be writing literary fiction, but I was too much enamoured of wights and werewolves.

He was right. I strain at the leash of fantasy -- incredibly enough, it seems so straitjacketed at times -- but the werewolves and wights are still there. I just need that fantastic element to keep my interest in the story. But I'm coming to the conclusion that the fantasy doesn't have to be right in your face any more -- people are more receptive now to a more subtle breed of fantasy, one which gels more obviously with the real world. (And God Almighty, how I hate the word 'fantasy.')

And yes, I regret not being in uniform any more, particularly at the time of writing this [The interview took place, by email, over the period January -- April 2003, SS]. I have this irrational, but extraordinarily powerful feeling of guilt and shame because I'm not out in Iraq. I know that will sound incomprehensible -- hell, reprehensible -- to so many of the people reading this, but I can't help the way I feel.

Johnson once said that every man thinks the worse of himself for not having been a soldier, and he was damn right. I have in me a bloody-minded Irish peasant mercenary who is as crass and brutal and jovial as any caricature, and also, this intellectual, pipe-smoking aesthete who likes debate, good company and good books. I guess the fact that I'm sitting here telling you this means that the aesthete has won out -- but the peasant still feels pissed-off and bloody-minded.

SS: If there was one fantasy author whom I'd have picked as a key influence on The Road to Babylon it would be Donaldson. There's a hint of The Land about the Rorim Dales, and more than a hint of the Bloodguard about the Myrcans. Do you think you were strongly influenced by Donaldson? Were you consciously following his style or tone?

PK: When it comes to writing, I doubt if I've ever made a truly conscious decision in my life. But yes, Donaldson loomed large in my mind at that time. Not so much in the beginning of the book, but later in Minginish he really came to the fore. I had a story which I knew I wanted to tell -- but I truly didn't have a milieu in which it could unfold.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was making it up as I went along, and thus Minginish was not as well thought-out and original as I would have (later) liked. The Myrcans were definitely based on the Bloodguard -- looking back on it now the similarity makes me cringe, but hell, I was only 21 at the time. (Feeble excuse I know.)

SS: In Riding the Unicorn, it seems to me there might be hints of "Tolkien's Course." The Kristillic culture seems to have a certain Anglo-Saxon tone, and then there is their epic trip into a new land. Did you draw on your university course here at all, or the historical fact of the Angles' and Saxons' trek from Germany to England?

PK: Yes, absolutely. Once again, it was in no way a conscious thing, but these things percolate in the back of your mind until they're ready to see the light in some fashion you've bent for yourself. But that was only the backdrop. The heart of the story was the wife-beating, alcoholic Willoby -- an antidote to the usual neophyte adolescent whose job is to save the world.

SS: In A Different Kingdom, you used a good deal of childhood and professional experience (bar-tending for one), and to very good effect. The most mysterious, and sinister, thing in the book however, is the sense of 'the Forest' and its personification in the Horseman. This has a really mythic ring to it, a sense of the Green Man pagan folklore. Were there mythical roots at work in the writing that you feel you could point to?

PK: Kingdom is my best book by far, and in some ways is the most autobiographical. My father, who is not a reader, makes a point of reading all my books, and Kingdom is the only one he truly loves. Looking back now, I'm thinking I had so much more courage in those days -- at the core of the story an eight-year-old boy forms a semi-sexual bond with his aunt. And yet, I was just writing, just telling this story which I had to get out. I'm way too self-conscious now about what I write, and I have to gulp when I think of the scenes which my father has read in that book!

That farm -- those people -- 90% of that was real, was as I remembered it from my childhood. Some of the names were not even changed. Whatever myth has entered those transcribed memories has, in the main, come from familial ghost stories. In those days a story, properly told, was more gripping than any TV (which was all about bombs and people dying anyway). There were certain folk who took a pride in their ability to spellbind an audience, and by God they were good at their job.

That has all died now -- I guess we're all too sophisticated for it -- but I heard the ban-sidhe, along with my brother, the night before my grandfather died. Guffaw if you will, but I cannot think of any other explanation for hearing a woman wail and scream in a field in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night -- we even went out looking for her -- my brother is a policeman. I think we're probably the last generation who will ever hear her. The modern world is too loud.

My grandfather, among other things, was a faith healer, and he passed it to my grandmother before he died, who in turn passed it to my father, who in turn will pass it to me. I'm hard-headed as hell about most things, but I know that this thing works, and has worked for a century in our family, and it cannot be allowed to die out. (Here we have the Irish peasant grinning in his foxhole, ready for his last stand.)

Writing? Hell, it's just a bunch of guys -- and girls -- storytelling, with a lot of middle-men making a big profit. The thing is, there are way too few original stories left to tell. And hence we have the fixation with multi-volume blockbusters; the Jackie Collins' of fantasy. And I should know!

SS: Does one detect a touch of cynicism there about the (purely artistic of course...) motivations of the publishing industry? Are there any elements in the way the modern publishing industry treats fantasy that you find particularly difficult to stomach?

PK: I have very little to do with the modern publishing world to be honest. My editors have tended to leave me alone to get on with it, and I'm not a big enough fish to be consulted about the marketing and sales of my books. For the first few years I would go to conventions and so on, but I never felt quite comfortable at them. So I just churn out the books and take the cheques. I read very little or no fantasy these days, and have done so for years.

Stephen King once said that as a writer you always read someone else's book with either grinding envy or withering contempt, and he had a point. When I read fantasy I'm always gauging it, measuring it up against my own work, and I find it hard to lose myself in the story. Of course there are a whole slew of fantasy authors I can still read with whole-hearted, unaffected enjoyment, but they tend to be part of the 'canon;' authors whose names I've already dropped -- all of them so good that envy doesn't even come into it -- just a wholehearted admiration.

As far as the publishing world goes... A few years ago I had just finished Second Empire and I was in a meeting with some Gollancz people who shall remain nameless. There was some discussion about what would come after the Monarchies of God was in the bag. I was handed a book -- a debut fantasy novel which Gollancz had just published. Pretty standard sword and sorcery fare. 'This is what you should be doing,' I was told in no uncertain terms. I'd been writing professionally for ten years at that point, and had just finished my seventh novel for them. It was at that precise moment I knew that I no longer wanted them to be my publisher.

The bottom line in publishing is, literally, the bottom line. It's naïve to assume anything else.

SS: The Monarchies of God marks a clear departure from your prior books. It's a five-volume series, not a standalone. It is very much less a 'single-hero' story. It does not reprise that earlier theme of 'man of our world hurled into Otherland.' It has, in fact, a definite affinity with the more 'High Fantasy' end of the genre. How did you feel about all of those things? Were you conscious of making a break with your past writing?

PK: I guess my reply to these questions is tied into the answer to the last. My first three books bombed. While getting good reviews, they just didn't shift off the shelves. The decision to shift tack was, I have reluctantly to admit, partly a commercial one. I knew that, after Unicorn, I was either going to give up fantasy entirely and write contemporary fiction, or I was going to go the whole hog as it were, and buy right into the whole heroic, epic deal. I was kind of curious to see what I could make of it -- whether I could bring anything new to it.

Also, I had always been interested in Sixteenth Century history and the voyages of discovery, and thought it was an incredibly rich milieu which I had not really seen exploited in fantasy before. At first I had meant to write a purely naval novel, one based solely on a long sea-voyage. But the book ran away from me, and Hawkwood became the template for this whole new series. It was immense fun, the most enjoyable writing experience I'd had since writing Babylon years before.

SS: You described writing The Way to Babylon earlier as very intense, a "pure, driven experience." Did a longer project, one that employed multiple storylines and protagonists, mean a different writing experience? Was there more planning?

PK: It was easier, definitely easier. By the time I was halfway through Hawkwood I knew that this was going to be a long haul, and thus there was less pressure to tie up the loose ends so absolutely neatly at the end of each book. Also, when I tired of one plotline, I did some work on another.

I remember though, after I had finished Heretic and was starting the Iron Wars, feeling this curious apprehension when I thought of all that had yet to come -- just how much story there was left to write. Not until I had finished Empire did I feel that apprehension shift a little -- I knew then that it was winding down at last. I would never write a five-volume series again, but I'm glad I did it for this story, these characters.

As far as planning goes, I had intended Hawkwood himself to be the central hero of the series. Corfe popped up out of nowhere, and his story just would not lie down. I found myself drawn into it, in part because to me he was the essence, as it were, of the embittered heroism which had been developing in my stories for years, from Michael Riven through to Willoby. So a story which had meant to be about ships, which should have been primarily Hebrion-based, shifted towards the battlefields of the east, and the great armies contending there.

From there I had it all pretty much planned out until the last few chapters of Ships, when I knew the story could go in one of several different directions, and the knowledge that I had that series of choices gave the whole thing an added edge? until I was actually writing those chapters, I had no idea which way things would go, and the story itself was in complete control.

SS: Anyone with a decent grasp of European history can't help but notice the similarities between your Normannian continent and 16th/17th century Europe. You've used the great Wars of Religion, the Turkish conquests, the Discovery of the New World as powerful motors for your story. What drew you to use this 'palette' for your tale? Why those particular events?

PK: Because they were the beginning of the formation of our modern world -- the rise of true nation-states, the drawing up of lines between east and west -- and the dominance of new methods of warfare, the beginnings of science and a vigorous new artistic impression. If you think of the baritone voice-over at the start of every cheesy 'epic' film: 'It was a time of change, a time of destiny...' Well, the sixteenth century was the real deal.

But instead of a war between science and religion, I made the conflict between magic and religion. So a wizard burns at the stake instead of someone who contends the earth is round. Men have new ideas about themselves and the world, and those ideas are the death of them -- but the ideas take root all the same. (If I'm entirely honest, I also wanted gunpowder in my world, if only so that I could write about ships going at it broadside to broadside!)

SS: The Monarchies of God, just as a title, is obviously suggestive of a strong concern with religious issues or conflicts. You've already talked a great deal about your past amidst the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but here you reached out further, to draw a pseudo-Islam into your narrative, to point to the common roots between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and Islam, and to deliver a message of reconciliation. Was that a conscious decision? Or just the way the story worked out?

PK: That was conscious and planned from the beginning. The Monty Python crew used to say that Life of Brian was not mocking faith, it was mocking religion -- and the two are utterly different things. I was brought up a Catholic, but I've come to believe that organised religion is one of the greatest evils man has ever invented -- and it was man who came up with it, not God.

I wanted to take two beliefs which opposed each other with all the barbarity that humanity can devise, and then show how utterly futile the contest between them was. The sixteenth-century framework housed that struggle rather neatly -- another reason for choosing it.

SS: What inspired the key characters in The Monarchies of God? You've said something already about your interest in the isolated, driven, Soldier-King figure, of whom Corfe is an example... But we also have Golophin, Hawkwood, Abeleyn, Lady Jemilla, Queen Odelia. Did any of these people suggest themselves to you in specially memorable ways? Or for particular reasons?

PK: Golophin is the archetypal wizard figure who owes much to Tolkien, even down to the pipe. He gained in stature and importance through the books though, until at the end he was one of my favourite characters, and had a life of his own. That's the key to writing I feel -- you introduce this fictional person, you have an idea of what he looks like, and of his general frame of mind and likes and dislikes, but after that it takes some mysterious alchemy to truly bring him alive on the page, until he will do things you never intended him to do, go places you had not even thought of. He will have free will, an independence of action.

I love it when a character does this, because then writing the book is as much fun as reading it, and sometimes it seems you're writing it just to find out what happened. These people you have conjured out of thin air are living their lives, and you are just there to record it.

I recently read an astonishing review of Hawkwood's Voyage at e-pinion on the web. The reviewer went into vast detail, breaking down the book chapter by chapter as though it were all for some form of academic thesis -- incredibly thorough. But he hated my characters, especially Richard Hawkwood. For him, heroes had to be actually heroic in the strict sense of the word, and the fact that Hawkwood buggered his cabin-boy, kept a mistress, and traded on his wife's connections made him a worthless character.

Me, I just thought it made him interesting. I wanted to write about real people with both good and bad in them, so there are no whiter-than-white heroes in my books, because no-one is really like that. I was more baffled than angered by the review, puerile though it was, because it suddenly occurred to me that there are a lot of people out there who probably agreed with it. They read Tolkien and then never grew up. What was it Pratchett said? If, when you're 13, you don't think Tolkien is the greatest writer ever, there's something wrong with you. If, when you're 30, you still think Tolkien is the greatest writer ever, then there's something wrong with you. I don't want to knock the Master, but Pratchett has a point.

And I'm getting off mine... For me, the key to a character's nature is not what he's accomplished, but what he's failed at. Our failures mark us more thoroughly than our successes ever do, and that's my way into the psyche of a Corfe, or a Hawkwood -- or an Odelia.

SS: Speaking as someone who enjoyed all five books very much indeed, I have to ask, why only five? It seemed to me that the last volume had a lot of room for more material. For instance, unlike the first four books, it picks up after a gap of 17 years instead of continuing seamlessly from the moment the last one left off, and from the way you handled the resulting back-story, we know a lot happened in those 17 years, including key events for pivotal characters such as Bardolin.

Then again, in the last third of the book, you chose to skate quickly over several major events, such as the struggle of Nasir and Mirren to cement their control in Ostrabar, or the battle fought by Formio and Nasir in Southern Torunna; plenty of room there for a substantial chunk of another book, surely?

PK: The big temporal gap in the narrative was deliberate, and had been long-planned. I always had in the back of my mind the (perhaps absurd) question: how would this work as history? The events of the first four books take place over a space of two years. That's a lot of stuff happening in a very short time. I felt that Normannia had to have a chance to settle down, as it were, and let all these new dynasties embed themselves, become part of the accepted fabric of the world.Ships from the West

I also wanted Corfe the King to grow into his crown, and specifically I wanted he and Heria to have grown-up children by the time of the fifth book, because the kids were one more way to turn the screw. I don't regret therefore the lack of another book between Empire and Ships, because it would be episodic at best -- sort of 'there was a battle and then nothing much happened for a couple of years.'

The last book is a somewhat different story. Its gestation was prolonged and difficult, a breech-birth for sure. I didn't get everything into it that I wanted because I was severely pushed for time -- purely my own fault I hasten to add. It may not be the most professional thing to say, but I would like nothing more than to take it back and do it again, making it at least a hundred pages longer.

I killed a lot of characters in Ships, too, and I've had it said that I despatched some of them with brutal haste. That's quite possibly correct, but in truth I dreaded becoming sentimental or mawkish so I actually made a conscious effort to detail the death of Hawkwood for instance in as pared-down and clinical a manner as possible.

Also, I've often thought that it's more shocking when a major character is killed off with barely a backward glance, than when the author dwells lovingly over his dying words and speeds him off to Valhalla with clouds of angels or whatever. In a rational world, even that of a book's narrative, major characters are still mortal (just about), and their status should not guarantee them an exemption from the violence and brutality which mows down their faceless fellow men by the thousand. They also must pay.

SS: What can you tell us about your next project? Care to share your short and long-term intentions? What's in the works, and what's just starting to germinate?

PK: I'm currently signed up to write two books for Bantam and I'm halfway through the first as we speak. Entitled The Sea Beggars, it's set in an entirely different milieu, and revolves around the adventures of a fleet of pirates. It started out low-key and light-hearted, but I smell a change in the air...

My brother and I have also written a screenplay based on Kingdom. That's with a couple of film companies at the moment, as well as the BBC, so fingers crossed. And lastly, I've written half a novel about a group of American Civil War re-enactors who in 1997 are transported back in time to the real Civil War, and the battle of Antietam (see an extract from this work-in-progress elsewhere on this site. Whether it will ever see the light of day remains to be seen, but I'm having fun with it.

SS: Finally, if you could write it (and assuming you feel you haven't already), what would be your ideal book? What, combination of theme, character, setting, and message would represent the fulfilment of your ambitions as a writer?

PK: When I think of what kind of thing I'd like to write, I often picture it in terms of Cinema. Think of Donnie Darko, or Jacob's Ladder. A contemporary story with an element of the fantastic in it that may just be explicable, but then again may not. That's the kind of thing I'd relish. But such ideas are far harder to come by than you might think, and there is always the danger of them tipping into wholesale fantasy. Walking the tightrope between the fantastic and the mundane -- if I could manage to do that for the length of a book, I'd be content.

© Simeon Shoul 2003.

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