Why do we [fantasy readers] find ourselves connecting so deeply to narratives set in the past, whether they are in a secondary world or the real one?
I think everyone has different reasons for this, but for me personally it’s because there’s a simplicity and honesty to the fantasy genre that has always appealed. In a world where everyone is in a hurry, nothing is true, and most people are casually nasty to one another, it’s quite nice to sink into a world where a person’s word is their bond, monsters look like monsters, and where saying the kinds of things people say on Twitter would get you righteously killed.
Fantasy books, other than Tolkien’s works perhaps, are often left out of discussions within literary academia. Why do you think this is, and what do you think the genre has to offer within these discussions?
Well, you could argue that ‘fantasy’ encapsulates Alice in Wonderland, The Turn Of The Screw, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gormenghast and so on, in which case they’re very much in those discussions. But I think the reason most of what we traditionally consider fantasy is not considered ‘literary’ is because in secondary world fantasy it’s very hard to achieve the same granular emotional detail as in literary fiction – because you’re also trying to create and maintain a fictional world – and that detail is what literary readers tend to value. It’s easy to evoke the feeling of someone’s miserable commute to work, or the frustration of arguing with your parents over too much screen time, because most people can apply it to their own experience. Similarly, historical fiction calls upon an understanding of the world that most people already have.
Fantasy readers, on the other hand, want big ideas and wild new worlds, and you need to create that from whole cloth, which means you have less space to agonise about cheating on your spouse. But that’s what fantasy and SF specialise in: widescreen, big picture, think outside the box. Fantasy is about escaping the mundane; literary fiction is about interrogating it. I don’t think they’ll ever get on, really.
Your books depict a vivid world, both the cultures and landscapes. To write a fantasy book set in a secondary world, how much worldbuilding do you really have to do to create a sense of place for the reader that feels very much alive? For example, do the details about economy, trade and gender roles have a larger impact on sense of place than the hierarchy of government or magic system?
I do a lot of worldbuilding, because I love history, and it’s great to create your own and mess with the settings. All the details inform each other. If you had a magic system at all, that would totally affect the government. What’s the point of an economy if someone can create infinite gold; what’s valuable then?
Part of the reason I wrote The Ember Blade as a pseudo-European fantasy – which is familiar to a lot of readers – is because some my previous books required so much worldbuilding that it slowed the plot down. A fantasy reader will have their own idea of what a fantasy inn is like (I mean, they’re all the Prancing Pony in the end), and then you can get on with what the characters are doing there. I’ve written previous books where I had to describe the kind of utensils they use for cutlery, and that’s a level of detail that just gets in the way.
What are some of your favourite recent reads?
I haven’t read too much fantasy lately. I was rereading the Books of Blood by Clive Barker, they’re still amazing.I really enjoyed Piranesi. Other than that it’s been history books and thrillers.
What does a typical writing day look like for you, if you have one, that is?
It used to be more regular – go to a café, work all day, come home wired on caffeine – but now I do a lot of videogame work which involves more going blind at a computer screen. I always tended to work 8am-4pm my whole life, even when I didn’t have an actual job. After 4pm I’m useless.
When did you start reading? And what books/series did you read over and over again?
I started reading very young, can’t remember exactly. I used to spend ages in the library reading anything fantastical I could get my hands on. Lord of the Rings was a big one for me, I reread that over and over. The Tripods trilogy. Feist and Wurts’ Empire trilogy. Lot of trilogies.
What do you enjoy doing outside of writing and reading?
I play a ton of boardgames, slightly less videogames, and I read a bit too. The rest of the time… well, I’ve got kids, so I spend a lot of time getting pummelled.
If you only had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Ignore most of the advice you’re given. I’ve seen people obsessing on forums about cutting down their fantasy debut novel to 100K because no agents will accept a debut over that length. It’s not true. If it’s good enough, they’ll take it whatever the length. I was once told by an eminent science fiction editor: ‘Chris, you don’t even need to be able to spell. We can sort out your spelling. You just need to be able to tell an amazing story.’
Just write your book the best you can, and it will find its place. Or it won’t. Either way, write another one.
Are you working on any new books or other projects at the moment?
I’m working on the third and final book of the Darkwater Legacy, in among a handful of highly secret projects that I can’t tell you about yet.