Interview: Stan Nicholls
by Iain Emsley
Review by Iain Emsley
SFRevu.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTSNichol
Date: August, 2003 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: How does Quicksilver Rising differ from your previous books?
Stan Nicholls: It's tempting to be immodest and say I think it's better, of course. But it does seem self-evident to me that the more you write, the more you hone your skills, if only on a technical, line by line basis. Certainly the Quicksilver trilogy differs in being the most ambitious project I've attempted so far; it has the most involved plot, the largest cast of characters and embodies some quite big ideas. Something I'm a great believer in, and try to do every time, is set myself a task that feels just a bit beyond my current capabilities. I do that in order to stretch myself. Allow yourself to get complacent, or too self-satisfied, and you're inviting stagnation. If you aren't open to the possibility of continuous improvement, you're dead.
SFRevu: When did you first get interested in SF / fantasy?
SN: At such an early age it's difficult for me to pin it down. A fascination with the fantastical, imaginative and bizarre seems to be inherent in me, almost genetic. I don't know where it came from; nobody in my family shared these tastes, and my home wasn't really "bookish". Comic books would have been my first formal introduction to SF and fantasy. Magazines like Famous Monsters and Castle of Frankenstein came next, and I was devouring SF novels and digests from about 12 or 13. I was quite heavily into horror films and science fiction B-movies in my teens, too.
SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
SN: I wrote my first "novel" when I was 9 or 10 years-old. It had a kind of Famous Five or Just William set-up - not that I'd read either - and was about a little gang of kids investigating UFOs. I was into speculative fiction even then! I'm not sure that I'd read a novel at that point, but I knew they had chapters. So when I wrote this thing - in red crayon in a spiral notebook - I made every page a chapter. I wish I could remember what I called it. Something like "The Great Flying Saucer Mystery" or something equally imaginative.
As a kid, I told stories as a survival technique. Rough would be too inadequate a word to describe the secondary modern school I went to in North London. It was like a re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme every day. Most of the kids were studying Advanced Bullying and half the teachers were psychopaths. Comedians often say they got through their childhood by making the other kids laugh. I did a bit of that, but mostly I told stories. And quite early on I realised that I increased my chances of not getting duffed-up if I left the story unfinished from one playground break to the next. I'd unwittingly discovered the Thousand and One Nights ploy!
This school was a dustbin for kids who failed their 11-plus. We weren't expected to have ambitions beyond some kind of manual labouring job - metal-bashing in a factory was supposed to be our highest aspiration - and expressing the desire to be something as exalted and middle class as a writer could and did get me a lathering more than once. I think that just made me more determined to show the bastards.
But one good thing did come out of attending that school. As I said, when I was about 12, I discovered science fiction prose in the form of novels and magazines. I got most of these from a kid who nicked them to order from local newsagents, but that's another story. My form teacher was a terrifying figure. He could hit a child on the bridge of the nose with a blackboard duster from thirty paces, and his prowess with a cane was legendary - this was in the days of corporal punishment, of course - and he had an absolutely volcanic temper. One day, he caught me reading one of these purloined novels - something American with a garish cover - and hauled me up in front of the class. I fully expected that I was about to become more than familiar with hospital food. He took my book and threw it in the wastepaper bin. Then he opened one of his desk drawers; for a strap, I assumed. Instead, he brought out a copy of the Penguin edition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, slapped it down in front of me and said, "If you're going to read science fiction, at least make it the good stuff."
SFRevu: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?
SN: I write genre because I love it. Perhaps it's obvious from what I've already said that I regard all expressions of the creative imagination as part of a spectrum. I really don't see any great difference between SF and fantasy, except in terms of approach and style. As a reader I consume both with equal enjoyment, and don't view them as separate boxes. I've written some SF, but fantasy seems to draw me more as a writer. That could be because I don't have sufficient scientific knowledge to make SF plausible. Then again, in a funny kind of way I think my fantasy is actually akin to science fiction in some respects. I try to make it logical, internally consistent and obey a set of defined rules. I work to make the characters believable and give them dilemmas the reader can empathise with. Just like good SF. In common with many writers I wish we didn't have what are essentially artificial boundaries dividing fiction up into discrete categories, and that books were judged on their individual merits. Yes, I know: dream on.
SFRevu: Who is your ideal reader?
SN: Someone like me. I try to write the sort of fiction I'd want to read myself. I've often said before, but will repeat again now, that if you're a commercial writer - which is how I regard myself - you should write a) for yourself; b) your editor, and c) your readers. I firmly believe it should be in that order, on the principle that if you don't satisfy a and b you're never going to reach c.
SFRevu: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
SN: I've worked my way through just about every method, from staring at a completely blank page with only the vaguest idea of where I'm going, to meticulously planning virtually every line. I've settled on a compromise. For any idea I have I accumulate notes. They might be quite brief or pretty extensive - there were in excess of a hundred pages in the case of the Quicksilvers. Then I write a general outline boiling all this down, which could be anything from three to twenty pages. This give me the "arc", and incorporates all the major plot elements and the characters I want to use. Having decided the best length for the book I divide the wordage into chapters - say, thirty - and they'll be notes in each of these chapters reminding me what has to happen at that point in the story. Some are more detailed than others. I might come to a chapter that has notes longer than the length of the chapter itself. Or it might just say "Have a battle," which can be a bit disconcerting if you come to it cold, so to speak. So I'm mechanistic, but only to a degree. The important thing is not to over-plan. You have to leave yourself plenty of room to extrapolate, expand, go off in slightly different directions. But all within the constraints of that framework you've initially laid down. I'm not saying this is the only way of doing it, but it usually works for me.
Yes, I write every day. Nobody has to be told how difficult it is making a living as a writer, but you do tend to work long hours and you definitely have to be disciplined. My wife, Anne, is also a writer, so our house is a bit of a word factory. Our New Year's resolution, back in January, was to take off one day a week. Sometimes we manage it.
SFRevu: How did your first book sale come about?
SN: It was because of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm tempted to leave it at that, but it'd be cruel. It's a story that tends to make aspiring writers hate me for the apparent ease with which I slipped into author mode. Though "apparent" really is the operative word. I became a full-time journalist in 1982, specialising in science fiction and related subjects but undertaking lots of general hackery too, to make ends meet. I was very fortunate in that several major publishers employed me as a manuscript reader - what the Americans call a first reader - and I got to assess all the SF, fantasy and horror submissions from their slush piles, along with some submissions from agents. This work not only made the difference between penury and survival, for which I was extremely grateful, it was also a really good learning process - if only to see how not to write a book. I don't want to sound unkind, but the standard of slush pile submissions is by and large more awful than mere mortals can comprehend. Anyway, one day a publisher gave me the manuscript of the novelisation of the Schwarzenegger movie Kindergarten Cop to read. Anybody who's read for a publisher knows that the report you write on a submitted book pulls no punches. Editors don't want fudged opinions and flowery prose. They want an honest assessment expressed in plain, not to say brutal, language. Readers' reports are like internal memos, never intended to be seen outside the company. Given that they're confidential, you can let rip. Actually, I thought this particular novelisation was well written and my report, though critical in some respects, was reasonably positive. But for reasons I wasn't privy to, the publisher decided to reject. A couple of weeks later I got a call out of the blue from someone who introduced herself as the agent who'd submitted the manuscript. Due to an error at the publishers, my report had accidentally been returned with the rejected manuscript. Potentially very embarrassing, and I braced myself for an ear-bashing. But no. This agent said she'd seen something in my report, some "spark" as she put it, that made her think I might have writing talent. Had I ever thought of writing a book, she asked, and would I like an agent? Well, is the Pope of a particular religious persuasion? Do bears retire to forested areas for purposes of ablution? I spent the following months putting together proposals for several books I wanted to write. But before my agent had a chance to submit any of them, she was approached by the publisher Boxtree, which was looking for an author to write a tie-in book for a forthcoming television show. The show was Gladiators, and Boxtree wanted a quiz book. Now, a quiz book based on an unseen TV series wasn't exactly something I was burning to do, but it was an in. After a certain amount of argy-bargy we settled on a fee of, if I remember correctly, one thousand pounds. A fee, not an advance, and no royalties. Gladiators was very popular, of course, and about a year later my agent casually mentioned she'd been told that the book had sold something over a hundred thousand copies But I wasn't bitter. Much. Actually, you have to be realistic about these things. Had I been an author with a track record at the time, and expecting royalties as part of the deal, I would never have been offered the book. I prefer to see it as the opportunity that got me into authorship, albeit in a modest way. That agent went on to represent me for my next fifteen books or so. I'm no longer with her - I'm now with the best SF and fantasy specialist agent in the business, Howard Morhaim - but the way I got into writing books still seems like a dream. And it was all down to Arnie!
SFRevu: What's your most popular book? Why?
SN: It depends what you mean by popular. In terms of sales, the Gladiators book takes some beating, and to this day brings me a very respectable amount of PLR every year. But I don't kid myself that it has anything to do with me; people read it because it was Gladiators, not Stan Nicholls. So, that aside, my most popular books so far have been the Orcs trilogy - Bodyguard of Lightning, Legion of Thunder and Warriors of the Tempest. They really seem to have caught readers' imaginations. The concept - orcs as misunderstood heroes, humans as the ravening villains - triggered something in a lot of people. I've never had so much fan mail as I still get for this series, and the books have done well, with a number of foreign editions, book club editions and so on. I had fun writing them, and like to think that comes over.
SFRevu: Of your own books, do you have a favourite?
SN: In answer to that question most writers are going to say "The one I'm writing," and that's honestly the case with me. I'm having a ball with the second of the Quicksilvers, Quicksilver Zenith. Yes, the one you're writing is usually your favourite, or maybe the one you're planning next. Looking back on past books, there are several I have a soft spot for. The Gladiators, naturally, because it was the first and you have to have affection for your initial book, whatever its quality or scope. I'm also very fond of Wordsmiths of Wonder, my collection of interviews with fifty SF, fantasy and horror writers. That's entirely because of the interviewees; all I had to do was sit back and listen to them. I like a young adult crime novel I wrote called Fade to Black, if only because it has a trick ending so cheeky I still wonder how I got away with it. Working on the graphic novel versions of David Gemmell's Legend and Wolf in Shadow, as adapter, was something else I was very pleased to be involved with. It was a privilege being let loose on the work of an author I have great admiration for, and Fangorn, the artist on those projects, is an exceptional talent. Bodyguard of Lightning would have to be in the frame because it just flowed out and I enjoyed writing it so much. But I have to say that the book I'm proudest of to date is Quicksilver Rising. It was a book I really, really wanted to write, and I gave it all I had. Same goes for the next two in the sequence; it's not for me to judge, but I feel as though I'm realising some kind of potential with this trilogy.
SFRevu: How did the idea of class-based magic in Quicksilver Rising come about?
SN: That was a case of several notions merging and mutating into something else. One of them, and you'll laugh at this idea, was fireworks. Have you noticed how, in the UK at least, people now start letting off fireworks around about August and they don't seem to stop until the following February? Don't get me wrong; I love fireworks. I love ice cream too, but I wouldn't want to eat it every day. A few years back, when I was formulating the ideas I had for the Quicksilvers, I was working late one Saturday night and World War II was being re-run outside. It got to be really intrusive. Then I started to think, "What if magic was like that?" In other words, how would a world function where magic was a constant and unrestrained part of the environment, like the weather? I already had the basic idea for the Quicksilvers - a situation in which everyone was dominated by two basically totalitarian empires, and the efforts of a Resistance movement to get out from under their supremacy. I needed another element to the story that both tied everything together and acted as a metaphor for the kind of culture the action takes place in. Basing the class system, the whole hierarchy, on the quality of magic people can afford to buy seemed to fit the bill quite nicely.
SFRevu: Why is fantasy gaining popularity among readers?
SN: Partly because it's finally coming of age, the way science fiction started to in the '60s. As I said, I don't see the two genres being in opposition, more complimentary; and there are enough crossovers containing elements of both SF and fantasy to soften the borders. Fantasy has got to the point where the characters are as rounded as in any other form of fiction; the issues it's now dealing with are much broader and more seminal than of old, and the level of writing can be impressively good - there are some terrific writers in the field these days. It could be that we'll look back on this period as the start of something like a golden age for the genre.
Some people say, disdainfully, that fantasy's popular because of the comfort factor - what they see as black and white characters in black and white scenarios revolving around Good versus Evil, set in cosy magical worlds populated by fetching mythical creatures. I say these people haven't read any fantasy lately. They also ignore the fact that the field's impressively broad, with a writer like Robin Hobb at one end of the scale and Jonathan Carroll at the other. Sure, some fantasy still does provide comfort in the way its critics bemoan, but what's wrong with that if it's what people want? If fantasy's outpacing SF at the moment, which apparently it is, maybe it's because one genres coming of age and the other's pausing for breath. They're both equally valid forms.
SFRevu: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
SN: If it doesn't, then the writers of The Bible, The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf needn't have bothered. When it comes to fiction, and particularly popular fiction, it gets a bit more problematic. Unless you're writing outright polemics, I think the best you can hope for is to influence people a bit, if that's your aim. I have agendas like anybody else, but my central goal is to entertain. If readers pick up other elements - which are there, bubbling under, subtly hinted at - that's fine. But it isn't necessarily the prime purpose of what I'm trying to do.
SFRevu: Do you find yourself writing against genre clich's or within them, exploring their boundaries?
SN: If you've got your head screwed on properly, and you're working in something like fantasy, you're doing both. It's fun to play with the tropes, but challenging to try transcending them too. It irritates me when critics sneer, "Oh, this book's got wizards, warriors and dragons in it." Which is like saying science fiction's cliché-ridden because it has starships and time machines. It's all part of the furniture, and as redundant of criticism as railing against romance novels for having virgin heroines, crime novels for having murders or chick lit featuring insecure 30 year-old women looking for boyfriends. It's the way you tell 'em.