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Free Will Fantasy: An Interview with Brian Ruckley

brian_ruckley.jpgBrian Ruckley, author of the Nordic/Scottish fantasy Winterbirth, graciously answered a few questions about his novel that I had, and talked a little about Bloodheir, the sequel forthcoming in 2008 from Orbit Books.

Grasping for the Wind: For those unfamiliar with Winterbirth, could you give a brief synopsis of the novel?

Brian Ruckley: I�m terrible at doing synopses. How about this: An old, unresolved conflict is renewed, and amidst the resultant mayhem and conspiracies and competing interests, a new and bigger � and at first largely unrecognised � threat starts to emerge. There are battles and pursuits and deaths, big mountains and lots of bad weather.

GFTW: Your novel is modeled after Nordic/Scottish and Germanic tribal cultures. Did this require a lot of research?

BR: I�ve got to admit I�m not big on the whole research thing, at least in the sense of doing specific research for specific purposes. There�s only one scene in Winterbirth that I did some specific background reading for, and that�s the festival that gives its name to the book: I went off and read a little bit about ancient pagan Winter festivals, just scavenging for ideas really.

I�m not quite as lazy as that might make me sound, though. In another sense, I do mountains of research, it�s just that it�s cunningly disguised as recreation. I�ve been interested in history for a long, long time. I read lots of history books, on everything from archeology through Roman to World War II. I wander around museums whenever I get the chance. I visit historical sites, watch history documentaries on the TV. It all soaks in, bit by bit, so my brain�s a bit like a saturated sponge, full of little bits of info on ancient cultures. All that stuff seeps out again and informs what I write.

GFTW: Although none of your characters can be classified as truly good or truly evil, you chose to make the villains of your tale the Gyre Bloods, who follow a twisted belief (The Black Road) rooted in fatalism. Why was this fatalism cast villainously?

BR: Oh, that�s a good question, at least in the sense that I could go on at some length in answering it (which would not be universally regarded as a good thing, I�m sure � so I�ll try for the shortish version of the answer). When the very first ideas for this story were starting to simmer in my brain, I (in my infinite wisdom) had a pet theory that there were too many fantasy stories in which prophecies of one kind or another were central drivers of the plot (this was quite a long time ago � there are fewer of them around these days. Prophecies have gone out of fashion a bit.). I figured that every time a prophecy shows up it raises an obvious question about the role of free will in all these imagined worlds, since it at the very least implies an element of inevitability about what�s going on.

That started me off thinking about choice, predestination and all that and I settled on the idea of giving the �villains� their fatalistic creed, which includes a prophecy of sorts and which explicitly denies the significance of individual choice in the world. There�s no black and white struggle between absolute good and absolute evil in the story, but I do think one element of the story that�s going on in the background is a struggle between the various forces (not just the beliefs of the Black Road, but also the burden of personal and cultural history, social structures etc etc) that undermine the notion of free will, and on the other hand the idea that individuals can rise above such forces and make independent choices that have meaningful consequences.

All of which makes the book sound considerably more serious and weighty than it really is, but that kind of stuff was certainly at the back of my mind when I was writing it.

GFTW: Some have said that your book moves slowly because you spent so much time describing the scenery. Yet, you once told me that you worked very hard on setting the scenery. What is your response to such criticism?

BR: It�s true that I did put quite a bit of thinking effort into the landscapes and the whole environment of the world while I was writing: my feeling was that if those aspects of the world (along with the politics and the societies) came across as realistic and plausible and vivid, it would make it that little bit easier for readers to believe in the whole story. Most readers I�ve heard from seem to have enjoyed that aspect of the book. It may not work for everyone, of course, and I�d be crazy to think it would.

Where I�ve seen questions raised about the pacing it�s related more to the start of the book, where I�m laying out some of the threads of the story that I then start pulling together later on, and that�s perhaps a slightly different issue. I can, with hindsight, see the point that�s being made, although again it�s something that a lot of readers seem to have differing opinions about. But like any piece of well-intentioned criticism, I note it and �take it under consideration� as they say. I�ve always thought that for any aspiring writer, one of the most important things is to learn how to be constructively critical of your own writing, and to deal with criticism from others with a reasonably open mind. That doesn�t change once you stop being an aspiring writer and become a published one. Not if you want to learn and improve, anyway.

GFTW: You have mentioned that Taim has become one of your favorite characters, even though he is a minor one in Winterbirth. Why is that? Can we expect to see more of Taim in the sequels?

BR: Taim certainly has a rather bigger role in the second book: he�s more directly involved in what�s going on. I think he appeals to me because I see him as a more or less unambiguously decent man who�s just trying to do his best in difficult circumstances (extremely difficult circumstances in Book Two, unfortunately for him!). He doesn�t have a self-serving agenda in quite the way a lot of the other characters do. Although, as you mentioned, straightforwardly good or evil characters are a bit thin on the ground, I see Taim as a basically good guy, whose motivations revolve around things like loyalty and service and family ties rather than personal advancement. Plus, he really knows how to handle himself in a fight, as he finally gets to demonstrate a bit in the second book, and that always makes a character fun to write, if nothing else!

GFTW: I have to admit, your elf-like race, the Kyrinnin, made me angry. They were so alien and so other. They didn�t behave like elves, and were very different from the fantasy stereotype. Was it difficult not to fall into the trap of making another elf race? How difficult was it to make the Kyrinnin seem alien and other than human?

BR: I certainly wasn�t trying to make anyone angry, but I certainly was trying to make the Kyrinin a bit unfamiliar, so I�ll take your reaction as a sign that I was somewhat successful in that! It may sound odd, but my way of making them seem �other than human� was to borrow from human cultures. Tolkienesque elves were one element in their inspiration, but a lot of what I think people find distinctive about them is actually drawn from the real world, it�s just that it�s not drawn from the traditional, medieval European sources of a lot of fantasy. They�re a real mixture, but there�re bits of Native American culture in there, bits of prehistoric European hunter-gatherer society and so on. All in all, I�m not sure their attitudes and culture are really any less �human� than those of the humans appearing the story, it�s just that they�re attitudes and culture that we�re not so familiar with in fantasy fiction or in the history we learn about at school.

GFTW: In another career, you are an environmental writer. What effect has this had on the story of The Godless World?

BR: I�ve done all kinds of environment-related work, and although it�s not actually a significant part of my working life right now it remains a major interest of mine (and I may well look to do more work in that field in the future). It certainly influenced the setting of my story: British � especially Scottish � landscapes and wildlife (and weather!) are the basic models for those of the Godless World. In some ways, they�re a version of Scotland I�d quite like to live in: the mountains and the forests are bigger, there are still bears and boars and wolves wandering around (unlike Britain where we decided a long time ago that we didn�t really want to share our island with such inconvenient co-habitees thank you very much). If it wasn�t for all the sword-waving fanatics and vicious Kyrinin I also populated it with, it�s a place I�d certainly like to visit.

GFTW: What can you tell us about the next installment in The Godless World trilogy, Bloodheir?

BR: Well the most important thing about it (as far as I�m concerned, anyway) is that it�s finished and scheduled for publication next year. I think the very end of Winterbirth gives a pretty strong indication that the rules of the game all the competing factions think they�re playing are about to change, so I guess you could say Bloodheir is about how the various players react to (or resist) the changes and their gradual loss of control over events. The stakes get higher, the battles get bigger, and I don�t suppose it would come as a huge surprise to anyone who�s read Winterbirth to hear that not all the characters make it through to the end of Bloodheir in one piece.

GFTW: Why should readers pick up your rather hefty tome?

BR: Assuming that making me happy is, not unreasonably, insufficient motivation in itself, I guess I better think of another reason � I�d say anyone who likes their fantasy with a hint of realism to it should give it a try. It�s got a bit of politics, a bit of magic, a bit of fighting, so there�s plenty of stuff in there that�s potentially pleasing to all sorts of readers. Plus it�s got a raven-haired warrior-woman wielding two swords at once, a snowbound ruined city high in the mountains, wardogs and a castle in the sea (kind of). It�s starting to sound quite good even to me �

GFTW: If a reader wanted to read more Brian Ruckley between releases of The Godless World trilogy, where might he/she look?

BR: I�d be enormously flattered if anyone felt sufficiently motivated to try and find more stuff I�d written, but the truth is they�d find the pickings rather slim. There�s some little snippets of writing and background info on the Godless World lurking on my website in the Gazetteer section (www.brianruckley.com/gazetteer.htm); most of it�s in the form of notes, but there are one or two short bits of �writing� (and more to come in due course). And there�s always my blog (www.brianruckley.com/news.htm).

As far as other fiction is concerned, I suspect it would take a major and highly determined detective effort to track it down. I did have a couple of short stories published in British magazines in the 1990s. Anyone who stumbles across a certain back issue of The Third Alternative (I think it was #20), for example, could find therein a story of mine called �Gibbons�, which I�m reasonably proud of.

GFTW: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I�m eagerly anticipating the release of Bloodheir here in the US.