Interview with G. D. Penman (WITCH OF EMPIRE)
G. D. Penman is the author of beloved and bestselling series like Savage Dominion, Deepest Dungeon and Witch of Empire.
Once upon a time, they were a small press magazine editor, a literary critic, a tabletop game designer and the ghost-writer of over one hundred books of non-fiction.
Nowadays, they can mostly be found writing fantasy novels and smoking a pipe in the sunshine.
Hi Gray and thanks for dropping by! Readers will know you as a regular contributor in the Hive – the genius behind our Ulesorin – but give us a run-down on your books.
Hello, it is cute that you think that I’m dropping by and that I haven’t been living in the walls of this place for the last 3 years.
Oh! Is that what that noise is?!
I have uh… too many books to talk about, so I’ll be as brief as possible: the Witch of Empire books are urban fantasy noir, set in an alternate timeline where magic exists and Britain is still an Empire. The Deepest Dungeon books are LitRPG, with much of the story taking place inside of a video game, except maybe it isn’t a video game, or maybe it is. Spoilers.
Is this a spoiler or you not able to remember the plot of your own book?
Definitely one of those.
The Savage Dominion books are a portal fantasy story involving a himbo from our world being shunted into an epic fantasy story. I also have a few romance books kicking around. I can’t write about horrible things happening to people all the time so sometimes I write about nice things happening to naked people.
Speaking of, let’s talk about Sully, because you know how much I adore her. How did she come about?
Sully from the Witch of Empire books started out life as a relatively generic magic hardboiled detective character, who became infinitely more interesting when I took exactly the same characteristics as those skulking alcoholics and applied them to a woman instead. So she gets to be coarse, womanising, drunk, surly and then outwit or outfight everybody, just like they always did.
It probably isn’t an immediately obvious parallel to most fantasy readers coming to the series from the dragons and wizards side of the divide, but all the old Dashiell Hammet fans seem to get the joke.
And what was the train of thought that led you to creating her world? A world in which magic and pacts with demons has sent the time-line as we know it splitting off quite drastically.
No small part of it was rooted in frustration to be honest. I’m a big fan of the genre of Urban Fantasy, I’ve been reading it since before it even had a fancy name of its own, when we used to be the bastard children of horror, dabbled in when fantasy authors got bored; but an issue I continually encountered in them was that nothing was actually all that different. The world was our world except with ghouls and goblins and whatnot, and the presence of those ghouls and goblins never seemed to actually change the course of events in any meaningful way. I objected to that. So I took a long hard look at history, at the tipping points where things might have been different, and I pondered what things would look like if magic had been a factor. If every little backwater wannabe empire throughout history had the power of a nuclear bomb in their back pocket.
That is such an interesting chain of ideas and such a good point. It’s redundant to believe that supernatural or fantastical elements wouldn’t change the world in some way.
Yes, I’m very clever.
And so modest too!
What made you want to represent magic in such a logical, mathematical way?
Without limitations, a magic system doesn’t function, and through the medium of the limitations laid on the characters in the Witch of Empire series, we also get a little look at how they were educated. The way that the British Empire views magic, as a mechanical tool to be used, rather than as a force of nature, the way that other factions interact with it.
Let’s talk about your Deepest Dungeon series – what’s with you and ratmen anyway?
Ratmen are just great. All the fun of a rat with all the horror of giving them opposable thumbs. I’ve always considered the rat to be an admirable little creature, an intelligent and sociable survivor. Humans would probably get on a lot better if they were more like rats. And ratmen are of course a creature somewhere in the middle between the two. The best of both worlds.
When it comes to LitRPG vs Witch of Empire, do you have a preference of subgenre? Is there one you find easier to write?
LitRPG is always going to be harder to write, because you have a lot of precise details to manage. As well as the story, you have the game system to navigate, there can be no fudging of the numbers or hand-waving in terms of specifics. Did the brave wizard mentor die, or did he survive his fall into the abyss? That’s easy in LitRPG, you know how many health points he has, subtract the damage dealt from those and if it hasn’t hit zero, he’ll be showing up again later.
In that regard then, it sounds like it would be easier, taking some of the decisions regarding plot away from you?
Hypothetically, yes, but in fact it just means that you have a whole new level of organisation to contend with to ensure that your desired outcome comes about. And of course, it isn’t as simple as simply working an existing system. You have to build the game system that the world is based on, in such a way that it is fair to everyone playing, but in such a way that your characters can still shine. The balancing act is… complex.
So you become game designer as well as author? And of course we all know the evils of organisation.
Speaking about the writing process; do you have a process? Tell us a little something about how your story comes together.
I fully outline my books before writing them, then I sit down and scream directly into the blank word document until something appears. It’s all very organised.
And somewhat eldritch. Again, explains the weird noises in the Hive.
You cannot prove they’re me.
Your Savage Dominion series is a collaboration with Luke Chmilenko; does working with another author offer any challenges to your process?
Writing books is an extremely solitary process, you’re left trapped in your own head with all of your doubts and fears about whatever it is you’re writing. You spend more time than most people like to admit staring at the book and wondering if it is bad. Having a co-author took that problem away. Every time you bounce ideas back and forth, you get reassurance that what you are doing is a) working and b) totally awesome. When that reassurance is coming from somebody like Luke, you know you can trust it.
Are there any others you’d like to work with? You have some fantastic ones in your close circle – a collaboration between you and Alex Knight would be incredible.
I have another collaboration coming up with David Estes, and Bryce O’Connor has been making some noises about me doing some work with him in the future. I’ll definitely be working with Luke again, if only because he is the nicest guy in the universe.
Working with close friends might be more difficult, it might be harder to be professional when one of you or the other pushes back on an idea. I think Alex and I have discussed a great many projects we’d love to do together, but in practicality, I’m not sure how they’d go. Because we both have Opinions about things.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I’m afraid that I am the wrong person to ask about editing. I write everything perfectly, first time, every time. Every once in a while I’ll make a typo, but it rarely takes more than a quick read through to catch them.
Suspicious side eye
100% true. Bet you’ve never had to correct anything I sent you for the Hive, right?
I think there was one typo, once. Possibly.
Your writing – and reading tastes! – is so varied. What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences?
H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Terry Pratchett, Kentaro Miura, Poppy Z Brite, Joe Lansdale, Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas Ligotti, Ursula LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, Madeline Miller, Junji Ito, and Guy Gavriel Kay are the first ones that come to mind.
From Lovecraft to DWJ is quite the scale Gray.
I’ve always argued that fantasy and horror are the same genre viewed through a different emotional lens. In one, going to fight the monster is exciting, in the other it is terrifying. Still gonna fight the monster though.
As for other influences; if you give me an hour I’m sure I can come up with a ridiculously detailed list of all the people I’ve ripped off through the years.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive, and one which I have high hopes for you: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Something tentacular. Oh wait, ride into battle? It would have to be a lamassu. Flying lion with the face of a human? Amazing magical powers? Decent conversationalist for those long periods of time when neither of you have the enemy’s flesh between your teeth? What more could you ask for?
I knew you wouldn’t disappoint.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share? Is it Witch of Empire related? Please let it be Witch of Empire related.
I’m currently wrapping up work on the final book of the Deepest Dungeons series, and the last book of the Last King trilogy. The Last King won’t be out for a little while, but those books are a true epic fantasy, with necromancers and dragon riders and all that jazz.
I’m afraid that there are not going to be any future Witch of Empire books, unless there is a drastic increase in interest in them. I also have a Very Secret project that I’m co-writing with someone Important that I’ll hopefully be able to discuss at some point in the near future.
Um, Whatsapp me?!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
From what I understand, the thing that most readers take away from my writing is that there is something deeply wrong with me.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you for having me!
You can find out more about G. D. Penman’s books and how to order them on their WEBSITE