[NOTE: This interview is attributed to Amazon, but I’ve found it impossible to locate the original – Amazon may have removed it from their website]
Return of the Waylander
David Gemmell is one of the most popular writers of sword-and-sorcery fiction; his Legend and Waylander books are classics of the form. He talks to Roz Kaveney about the lessons of his mother, the perils of journalism and the nature of the heroic.
Amazon.co.uk: You have always written about heroes, the varieties of heroism and the dash and style that go with heroism.
David Gemmell: It goes back to my mother, who was an outrageous woman, a single mother in a period when that made you a pariah on the outside of society. She was a cockney who taught herself Revived Standard Pronunciation and went on the stage. She told me stories when I was a child; Horatius on the bridge was a great favourite and she was keen on stressing the importance of style. From her I got my love of history and myth; she also raised me to be something of a poser and told me never to rush into a room but to pause in the doorway for maximum effect. When I was 14, fat and knock-kneed, she called me for an audience in the bedroom where she was lounging and sent me off to a friend of hers. He showed me how Yul Brynner, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum walked, and asked me which walk I wanted to learn as a way of getting rid of the knock knees. I opted for a combination of Wayne and Brynner.
Growing up in West London, I knew my share of gravel-voiced hard men and later on, as a journalist, I interviewed mercenaries and members of the SAS. What they had in common was a sort of focus, a capacity to break a job or a crisis down into the immediate next thing to take care of with no thought about long-term risks. They also had in common a refusal ever to bluff. One of them tossed me a coin once and said to catch it, and I did; he then said to imagine he had a gun to my mother’s head and to catch it, and I said that would be harder. But it would not have been for him. I used that scene in Waylander, of course.
Jon Shannow, in The Jerusalem Man is largely based on a friend of mine who ended up in jail for armed robbery. When I was a young journalist, I wrote about a Rachman-style landlord who threatened me; just round the corner from a cafe he owned, I was jumped and beaten and hospitalized. My friend went to his cafe, which was full of his men, checked which one of them was him and then laid into him with a length of pipe, facing down the others. I knew people like that, so I write about them.
Amazon.co.uk: You grew up in the city and live in the country; there is a town/country opposition in your work
Gemmell: My mother had a friend, a man with waist-length hair in the 50s, who used to lie on the grass with his shirt off to abosrb the energies of the earth. He told me that stone blocks were magic,and I suppose that is what I think.
Amazon.co.uk: You write about the defense of traditional ways of life…
Gemmell: I want the work to speak for itself, implicitly. “He that has ears let him hear.” I don’t like to talk about the ideas of the work too much…
Amazon.co.uk: You have always written series and have tended to have more than one on the go at any one time.
Gemmell: It is all to do with marketing. I did not particularly intend to be a fantasy writer but after I wrote Legend, they asked me for another fantasy novel; and after I wrote King Beyond the Gate, it narrowed down further to another Drenai book. If readers and publishers like what I have done in a single book, then I will do it again. My books are always intended to have the capacity to stand alone–the Stones of Power books are only linked by the stones, the Rigante books by the Rigante people at various points.
Amazon.co.uk: Do you do much research?
Gemmell: Iused to write everything out of my own head and now I hire researchers to keep track of what I have already said. What I do research for myself is simple things, like how to steal a bull. I am not someone who does a year of research before writing–that would bore me to tears.
Amazon.co.uk: You write very good action sequences–do you visualize them in your head in advance?
Gemmell: Iused to box and fence and I have a strong sense of fighting as a series of moves. I collect weapons and I work out action sequences with them in my back garden, preferably when the neighbours are not watching.
Amazon.co.uk: Your books have a tremendous sense of the heft of weapons, of their physical feel.
Gemmell: That is what is important about them, as often as not. If you want to know how the Romans conquered the known world, the answer is the gladius, the short thrusting sword they used. An 18-inch blade that you push forward is different from a three-foot blade that you slash with–it means that you can stand shoulder to shoulder in a wall, where a slashing glaive keeps you six foot apart from your comrades in each direction. No matter how the Celtic armies outnumbered the Romans, at the point of contact of the lines of battle, it was three to one in the Romans’ favoour. You can’t learn to drive by being told about it; you have to get in the seat and have the wheel and the brake to hand: you have to hold a weapon to know how it felt. Collecting weapons has another advantage – I have a friendly rivalry with Terry Pratchett about sales and prestige. He rang me up to say that they were going to name a fossil turtle after him and asked what I had to say about that. And I could say that I had just bought a Winchester that Wyatt Earp probably used.
Amazon.co.uk: Your work has brought you money and a measure of fame…
Gemmell: Things that can change people for the worse. Since my books started selling, I have been able to buy an ordinary house in an ordinary neighbourhood – anything more would be bad for me. I had a taste of the good life when I was not well-known, and I learned my lesson. When I was editor of the local paper, I would get to book myself hotel rooms; then, when I was editor-in- chief, assistants would book me junior suites. Then I got to be managing editor, and would be booked larged suites – and once I got given a single room and made a terrible fuss and got compensated. I mentioned this to a friend, who pointed out that I had become the sort of pompous pratt I used to mock. Grace is one of those things you lose if you don’t use it. One day my books will stop selling and I will go out of print and be forgotten; people will be surprised that I used to be a writer. While it lasts you can enjoy it but keep your feet on the ground.
Amazon.co.uk: Do you plot your books in advance?
Gemmell:I never have much of a clue where my books are going. In the present one, I have two characters from the Rigante people and one of them is going to steal that bull, and that is all I know. I need the excitement of not knowing how a scene works out until I write it. The difference between now and my early books is that I rewrite and reshape more. I have to work at a craft that used to be spontaneous.
Amazon.co.uk: You have an interest in real history.
Gemmell: The one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing. We are not brighter and better than those who came before us; everything that Machiavelli said in the early Renaissance is true today. I tend to write about what ought to have been, rather than what was – alternate histories in which things worked differently. The Celts gave the Romans a bloody nose early on. nit tjeu were not interested in empire amd were doomed by that.
Amazon.co.uk: Are there cusp points in history, and how do they work? In the Indian Civil Wars of the early 17th Century, a crucial battle between a humane Sufi prince and his intolerant bigot brother was won because the Sufi fell off his elephant.
Gemmell: Machiavelli points out that love is a gift given the prince by the people and fear is something he can demand from them; and therefore it is better to be loved than feared. If a ruler who is loved falls off his battle elephant, his people may well painc; if a ruler who is feared falls off, he has probably given them contingency plans, and they will be terrified of what he might do if they do anything wrong. As a journalist, I saw nice guys finishing last; I like to construct histories in which that is not true, at least for a while–in most of my worlds, any triumph by good is going to be temporary.
Amazon.co.uk: You have had some very bad reviews.
Gemmell: Iwrite about love and honour and courage and the spiritual and I get dismised as a hack and slay writer. It would be annoying, if I let it be. As it is, I prefer to think of the readers who write in and tell me how my books help them endure life…