Interview with John Gwynne
John Gwynne’s novels have been nominated within all three categories at the David Gemmell Legend Awards. Book one, Malice, won the Morningstar Award for Best Debut in 2013, and since then the series has received more and more praise with each instalment. John joined me over on Fantasy-Faction at the end of 2016 to celebrate the release of Wrath, the fourth and final novel of The Faithful and the Fallen.
(LH): Firstly, congratulations on wrapping up your first series, John! How does it feel?
(JG): Thank-you, Laura. Finishing WRATH, and with it, the whole Faithful and the Fallen series, has been quite a moment for me. There are a lot of emotions tied up in it. It feels exciting, fantastic, a little bit terrifying. And very strange to not be thinking about the next part. Bittersweet is a word I’ve used a lot when thinking or talking about finishing the Faithful and the Fallen. It’s been a part of my life for over fourteen years.
Getting to write Wrath was like present-opening time. When all those threads and scenes I’ve had in my head for so long finally happened. I loved that – writing scenes that I’ve been imagining for soooo long. But writing those scenes was also a bittersweet experience, because it meant it was THE END, and that meant saying goodbye to characters that have become possibly a little too real to me!
Bittersweet is a word I’ve used a lot when thinking or talking about finishing the Faithful and the Fallen. It’s been a part of my life for over fourteen years.
In saying that, it’s not out yet, so saying goodbye to a series in this publishing world is a staggered, lingering, drawn out goodbye. You finish the first draft. Then comes the edit. After that the copy-edit. Then the proof read. And eventually publication. And now finally we’re here. It’s definitely not a clean-cut ending, which in this case is a good thing. It eases the blow a little.
Readers are already saying that Wrath is your strongest work to date. From Malice to Wrath, to what extent would you say your writing has evolved as the series has developed?
The short answer is I don’t really know. I hope that I’ve become a better writer, I’ve certainly strived to. Malice was the first thing I’ve ever written, creatively – up to then the sum total of my writing career was all essays and a couple of Dissertations – so four books later I really hope that I have become a better writer. It’s probably best to leave that up to you and the readers of the series to decide. I would say I think there’s less padding in my writing, now. A little more confidence in seeing a scene clearly and just getting on with it.
As a reader, I agree wholeheartedly. I found Malice (and to some extent, Valour) lacked the sense of straightforwardness and urgency that characterises the later books. Ruin was utterly gripping, and Wrath is even more so!
For me, it wasn’t the reviews that persuaded me to read your books. It wasn’t even the blurb. No, it was the glorious sight of Malice adorning the tables at my local Waterstones. Even in paperback, it’s simply gorgeous!
How did you feel when you first saw Malice in print? (Admit it: you had a major ‘Gollum’ moment, didn’t you?)
It really was like that. The magic of receiving author copies of a book never goes away, I love it, but that first time, it really is special. I remember my editor Julie Crisp – now a fantastic literary agent, by the way – sent me a single copy before I received my box of official author copies. She was so happy with how the book had come out and wanted me to have that moment of glee as soon as was physically possible! Opening that box and seeing the shiny hardback of Malice with that awesome red-hilted sword was utterly amazing. It was definitely a ‘wow, this is a real book,’ occasion. There have been a few ‘dance-a-jig,’ moments along the way, and that was one of them.
Marc Turner said something similar when I interviewed him. Seeing your first book in print seems to be *the* universal ‘milestone’ moment!
I’m sure others will agree that you struck gold regarding your covers. In fact, your books are amongst the most beautiful I own. It’s no coincidence that I voted for Paul Young in the Ravenheart category at this year’s Gemmells: just like the others, Ruin’s art is subtle yet epic, and the design is simply stunning.
How much influence did you have with regards to cover design?
I’m so glad you like the covers, Laura. I LOVE them. Paul Young at Pan MacMillan has done an amazing job on all four covers. To me they really are the perfect fantasy cover; simple, with classic weapons, a sense of gritty history as well as epic fantasy, and the backgrounds, subtle but saying a whole lot about the story. Whenever I see them my eye is drawn to them, and I don’t think it’s just because they’re mine (precioussss).
Opening that box and seeing the shiny hardback of Malice with that awesome red-hilted sword was utterly amazing. It was definitely a ‘wow, this is a real book,’ occasion. There have been a few ‘dance-a-jig,’ moments along the way, and that was one of them.
I don’t know how much influence I’ve had on the cover art. It’s a dialogue, and there has certainly been a lot of that between myself, Julie Crisp and Bella Pagan at Tor UK. Concepts, ideas, attempts at setting the tone of each book, and a multitude of images, all are emailed back and forth. I have to confess it is one of my favourite parts of the publishing process, and seeing what Paul Young and the design team at Pan Macmillan put together is always glorious.
They really are beautiful… and, of course, preciousssss.
John, you’ve spoken on many occasions about the late David Gemmell and the great influence he’s had on your own writing, which subtly emulates many features and themes of the Drenai saga. Arguably, the most distinctive of these (aside from the writing style itself) is the ever-present sense of light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.
The similarities are obvious. But what would you say are the biggest differences between your work and Gemmell’s? (Did you consciously try and ensure that there were differences?)
David Gemmell is one of my favourite authors, and it’s true that a disproportionate amount of my teenage years was consumed by his books. Legend was the first book that I stayed up all night to read, because I just had to know what happened next! When it comes to comparing my writing to Gemmell’s, though, I have to say I’ve never thought about it in terms more detailed than I love Gemmell’s work. Much like you are what you eat, I suppose, there is an element of you write what you read!
Occasionally I will receive an email from a budding writer asking for tips and advice. I don’t feel overly comfortable in dishing out advice, but the one thing I can say is what worked for me. Write what you want to read. That’s what I did, and I guess the writers that you love to read will have an influence upon what you create. I loved Tolkien’s epic-ness (is that a word?) Cornwell’s historical grittiness (and no-one writes a battle scene like Cornwell) and Gemmell’s flawed, human characters who still manage to say something about courage and heroism. When I sat down to write I made no conscious decisions about similarities or differences from my favourite writers, but I suppose I hoped I might capture something of those elements that stand out to me. Epic and intimate was my mantra, what I strove to create. By epic I mean sweeping, grand vistas and a conflict that rose above border disputes or politics, and by intimate I mean connecting with characters, caring about what happens to them.
A tough balance to strike, but somehow you make it look easy!
Just one more Gemmell-related question:
Your agent is, of course, John Jarrold. I’m curious to know what he first said to you all those years ago. What was the main reason he gave for him scooping you of all people from the top of the pile? (Is it a first-name thing? It is, isn’t it?)
John is a complete professional. He’s worked with just about everyone in the business, whether as editor or agent. He has a lifetime of knowledge and a terrific reputation in the publishing world, and I was over the moon when he took me on as a client. I won’t put words into his mouth, but loosely paraphrasing he said something along the lines of this. To take on a new client, firstly I have to love the manuscript on a personal level. Secondly, I have to believe that it has commercial legs, that it will fit well in the current fantasy market.
Also, he only works with people named John.
I knew it!
Switching the focus to the future: eighteen months ago, you announced that you’d re-signed with Pan Macmillan for another epic fantasy series. You’ve since announced that the first book in this series will be titled Dread (which is VERY cool). When can we readers expect to get our grubby mitts on it? (Also, which drawer do you keep your super-secret manuscripts in? Asking for a friend.)
DREAD is finished. Well, the first draft, anyway. That means there’s still the edit, copy edit and proof read to go. I haven’t been given a publication date yet, but I would guess at the latter half of 2017. But don’t quote me on that. (Editor’s note: John’s latest novel, ‘A Time of Dread’, hits shelves on January 9th 2018!)
The manuscript is locked in my office drawer, watched over by a stuffed crow who may or may not shout STEALER at anyone brave enough to open the drawer!
Nice! Bet it’s no match for Craf, though. 😉
John, you’ve also confirmed that the new series is set in the Banished Lands, aka. the same location as the Faithful and the Fallen. What else can you tell us about it without giving too much away?
Yes, indeed. I couldn’t quite prise myself away from the Banished Lands! DREAD takes place 130 years after the events of WRATH, and is really about how the world has changed as a result of those events. It also explores parts of the Banished Lands that we didn’t see so much of in The Faithful and the Fallen. And of course, not everything is rosy…
Sounds ominous… but not entirely unexpected from a book titled Dread! Speaking of titles… Malice, Valour, Ruin, Wrath, and now Dread. How long do you plan on continuing the tradition of kickass one-word titles? And what happens when you run out of cool nouns to use?
I’ll carry on with one word titles until I can’t think of any more, or I have no more books set in the Banished Lands left to write. I think all ‘Banished Lands,’ Tales should have one-word titles. It’s a little strange, because the original title of Malice was ‘So Deep a Malice,’ which is part of a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I still like that title, but Bella Pagan at Tor UK suggested the shortened version, for multiple reasons – the punchiness of it, plus the marketing perspective – back then books sales were shifting towards thumbnails, which has only grown, and so presented another set of criteria to consider in the complex science that is book covers. I have to say, Bella was right, Malice and the continuing one-word titles feel perfect fits for the series.
They’re certainly very striking!
Now, you’ve also written one or two short stories based on characters from the Banished Lands and featuring in anthologies such as Blackguards and Legends II. Do you plan on writing more? Enough for, say, a Joe Abercrombie/Sharp Ends-style collection?
I loved that book! I’m writing a short story set in the Banished Lands at the moment, a tale about how Balur the giant became Balur One-Eye. Because I’m a bit weird and think of the Banished Lands as a semi-historical reality, there are endless stories to tell. It’s a bit like plucking moments from history! So, yes, I think the short stories could go on indefinitely. A bit like Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I suppose. I do have some short stories set in other worlds in the pipeline, as well.
The Banished Lands feel so real – I’m not surprised you (and your readers!) think of them as semi-historical. I look forward to eventually glimpsing these other worlds and characters, too. But for the time being: if you could choose one character from The Faithful and the Fallen to take on a spinoff adventure, who would it be and why?
Alcyon, the giant. He’s got a story that has a lot of room for exploration, and he’s a character that has really grown during the series.
Also Craf, Brina’s talking Crow. I think he’s got a lot to say, and is very good at getting himself into awkward and potentially entertaining situations.
Craf is great! I actually laughed out loud earlier today at one of his scenes. I was reading Wrath on the train, and got one or two funny looks…
You’ve been asked many times before about the writers who influenced you, most frequently listing David Gemmell, Bernard Cornwell and J.R.R. Tolkien in your responses. Are there any other authors who’ve made an impression on you more recently – or even influenced your writing in any way?
Oh, absolutely. I’m always reading something and thinking, “They’re fantastic, I wish I could write like that!” When it comes to prose amongst contemporary fantasy writers I don’t think you’ll find anyone better than Mark Lawrence. There’s a sparse poetry to his writing that is beautiful. Joe Abercrombie is a genius with character, where you can tell who’s who just by reading a sentence of their dialogue. Bernard Cornwell’s mentioned above, but he’s still writing, and reading his work is like viewing a masterclass. I love Christian/Miles Cameron’s books, both his fantasy and historical novels. For me he has that elusive balance in his writing, where everything comes together perfectly. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt is a great series, and I love Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoat’s books – a wonderful blend of rip-roaring pace, loveable rogues and action. Another historical novelist whom I admire greatly is Robert Low, who has written the Oathsworn series about a hard-nosed band of Vikings. It’s fast-paced and fantastic, with prose that I wish I could emulate. Also, Conn Iggulden, what a terrific writer that man is!
I don’t feel overly comfortable in dishing out advice, but the one thing I can say is what worked for me. Write what you want to read.
So many others – Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Brian Ruckley, Giles Kristian, Manda Scott, Justin Cronin…
I think I might be getting carried away here!
No, no – I love your enthusiasm! That’s quite a list, however… so let’s narrow it down. If you could pick any 3 living authors to blurb your books, who would you choose and why?
Any of those mentioned above! Actually, I’ve been fortunate enough that some of those mentioned above have read my books! Conn Iggulden read Malice and posted his review on Amazon, which blew me away. When I first saw it I just thought it had been written by some imposter, or unlikely namesake, J but as time went on it gnawed away at me – was it THE Conn Iggulden??? Eventually I messaged his agent, asking them to put me out of my misery, and it turned out it was the real Conn Iggulden. That really made my day!
I’m always reading something and thinking, “They’re fantastic, I wish I could write like that!” When it comes to prose amongst contemporary fantasy writers I don’t think you’ll find anyone better than Mark Lawrence. There’s a sparse poetry to his writing that is beautiful.
Also, Mark Lawrence is quoted on the front cover of WRATH, and Christian/Miles Cameron has been heard to say kind things about my books! Thinking about it, that’s pretty awesome!
That really is something! I imagine having established authors praise your books (particularly without being solicited to do so) must feel like a stamp of validation – not to mention an enormous confidence boost.
Though actually, when it comes to praising your work, some of your keenest supporters can be found under the same roof. Anyone who has ever spoken to you – either in person or via social media – knows that you’re a proud husband (to one) and father (to four).
In fact, you’ve said before that your family is the reason you write. Is it true that you would never have started writing The Faithful and the Fallen without their (rather forceful!) encouragement?
That’s absolutely true. Caroline, my wife, has said for more years than I can remember that
I should have a go at writing a book. I’m not even really sure why she used to say that. Maybe because of the bed-time stories I’d tell our children. I used to tell her stories, too, but mostly snippets from Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion – this is back before the films had been made. I do recall telling her the tale of Beren and Luthien while we were sat having a coffee whilst out shopping. I remember she cried – though at the time I thought it was because she wanted me to stop, or her bum had gone numb, or something like that!
Ha! So romantic…
I made the definite decision to have a go at writing in 2002, when we all came back from seeing The Two Towers at the cinema. We were all sitting around the table having dinner, and Caroline voiced again that she thought I should write a book. Of course my children all added their voices to that. Initially I told them what a silly idea that was, and gave a few reasons. Some quite important ingredients were missing, I said, such as plot, character, and a significant dose of talent. But the wave of opinion could not be silenced so easily, and after a while I thought, ‘Why not? I’ve been thinking about a hobby I could pursue from home,’ (my daughter, Harriett, is profoundly disabled. I used to teach at my local University, but stepped out of it to help Caroline in caring for Harriett. So I found myself largely at home 24/7, and was thinking about some kind of a hobby, a bit of me-time.)
So I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s give this writing-a-book malarkey a go.’
We were all sitting around the table having dinner, and Caroline voiced again that she thought I should write a book. Of course my children all added their voices to that. Initially I told them what a silly idea that was, and gave a few reasons. Some quite important ingredients were missing, I said, such as plot, character, and a significant dose of talent. But the wave of opinion could not be silenced so easily, and after a while I thought, ‘Why not?’
That was only the beginning, of course, and starting a book is one thing, but finishing it (especially when it just won’t stop growing!) is entirely another! The support of my family, particularly from Caroline, made writing Malice possible, and without her or my children’s support I am certain that it would never have seen the light of day.
Sweet! And now (fourteen years later!) it must be incredibly special having children who’ve essentially grown up with your series in the same way you did with Gemmell’s. Am I right in saying that two of your sons are particularly devoted followers of Corban and co.?
Yes, you are, although, to be fair, they haven’t had much choice in the matter. My eldest son, James, managed to escape much of the madness by becoming a responsible adult, getting a job and moving out. He’s a dairy farmer, works all hours but I have still managed to suck him in! It was his farm field where my author-photo was taken, and he can be spotted wielding a sword in the photos, though he is covered in a lot of blue woad!
Awesome! And the other two?
Edward and William weren’t so lucky. I must confess to reading chapters of Malice to them as bedtime stories, and plot twists would often be the topic of conversation around the dinner table. There was no escape for those two, bless them. William has an amazing memory and eye for detail – I think he’s a budding proof-reader – and often pulls me up about errors and inaccuracies I’ve made (hopefully before the books went to print!), and Edward has been my companion throughout the series. My first reader (rule of thumb, if Edward cries, it’s working) and shieldman to every convention, event and book launch I’ve attended. It has made a lot of great memories – stand out amongst them is catching them re-enacting battle scenes from the books! I can tell you, that makes a fantasy-writing dad very proud!
That sounds phenomenal! (No, I’m not crying. YOU’RE crying. *sniff*) Do you think that having your family so closely involved with the writing process affects your stories (in terms of language, plot choices, character arcs, etc.)?
Yes, most definitely. When I started writing my family were my audience, the only people that I was certain would ever read my scribblings. My rule of thumb has always been, ‘write what you want to read,’ but of course I hoped that they would enjoy it, too.
The support of my family, particularly from Caroline, made writing Malice possible, and without her or my children’s support I am certain that it would never have seen the light of day.
The Faithful and the Fallen is not a series of children’s books, but it never became too graphic in its adult-ness (though some of the battle-scenes in the last two books may be pushing that a little!). I’ve never thought of the Faithful and the Fallen as a sermon or preachy morality tale, but it does show characters in dark situations, and hopefully highlights how important individual choices are to our lives. Not just the big events, but the small choices that no-one sees except us. The famous quote by Edmund Burke is wrapped up in The Faithful and the Fallen – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.”
You know, I actually noted down a quote from Wrath that sums that up really well. Corban tells the Jotun leader, “If you choose not to fight against Asroth, then you have already chosen him.” Pertinent, and brilliant.
Is there anything you (or your sons!) would say to anyone who hasn’t yet read your books?
I would say, if epic fantasy with a historical twist and a large dose of betrayal is your thing, then give them a go. What have you got to lose?
Ed: If you’re looking for a series with characters that you love like your brothers-in-arms, or hate like they’re your worst enemies, then this could be for you.
Will: Make sure you have some free time if you start reading the Faithful and the Fallen, because once you start, you won’t stop.
*I will be paying Ed and Will handsomely for these spontaneous quotes!
Spontaneous, perhaps, but both accurate summations!
Before we finish, I have one or two super-serious questions. For instance, who would win in a fight between a draig and a velociraptor?
Oh, a draig, probably without breaking sweat. Think, giant Komodo Dragons, bigger than a horse, on steroids and with anger issues. A pack of velociraptors might have a chance, or at least draw some blood, but one of them! Nope.
Eek! Move over, Godzilla! Speaking of whom…
If you had to pick just one of your characters to defend the world against Godzilla, who would you choose and why?
Maquin, no question. His focus and lack of ego, combined with his all-round badassery, of course, would single him out as the man to get the job done.
Now THAT’S a fight I’d pay to see. Thanks for taking the time to join me, John. Congratulations again on completing the series, and good luck with the next one!
Thanks so much, Laura. It’s been a real pleasure, and thank-you for thinking of me and taking the time to make this interview happen.
Always a pleasure!