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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Interview with Luke Scull (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grim Company
Read DEM Emrys's review of The Grim Company
Read Civilian Reader's Interview with Luke Scull
Read "From Zero To Hero: A Tale Of True Grit (Or how I got a book deal)" by Luke Scull

Who is Luke Scull? That was what I intended to find out when I contacted Luke for an interview. Was he just a guy with a cool sounding name or an author who decided to take the grimdark sub-genre by its horns and give it his own slant? What I found was that Luke was much more than his bio tells us. Read ahead to find out more of his mystical connection to the other masters of grimdark, his fascinating background with RPGs and his plans for the future...

Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what led you to be a writer in the first place? Also could give us a brief bio? 

LS: I'm 31 years old and currently living in the town of Warminster. I know that sounds like the perfect abode for a fantasy author, conjuring as it does images of looming battlements bristling with archers, the smell of gunpowder, the endless roar from the cannons broken only by the screams of the wounded, etc – and trust me when I say I wish were that the case. But the truth is that Warminster is rather peaceful and, dare I say, somewhat dull. It's also about 20 minutes down the road from Joe Abercrombie, 50 minutes from Mark Lawrence (who lives literally 5 minutes from my parents), and around an hour from Richard Ford. Suffice to say the southwest of England is now a veritable grimdark paradise; a thriving hotbed of imagination where the most fearless fantasy scribes of our age are drawn to live among rolling hills, endless drizzle and lingering aroma of cow shit.

I've been writing in one form or another for around a decade. I worked with Bioware and more recently Ossian Studios on the Neverwinter Nights and Witcher franchises. I also served as lead writer and designer on The Shadow Sun, an action-RPG for the iOS platform. Trying my hand at a novel seemed like a natural broadening of what I might ambitiously call “my skills.”

Q: What was the precise spark of inspiration which lead to the creation of The Grim Company series? 

LS: I'd love to say the story had been burning inside me from the moment I crawled from my mother's womb and that I'd spent the last 31 years honing my craft for the day I would set the literary world alight... but the truth is I got laid off from my day job and was bored! My gaming project had stalled and there had never been a better time to see if I could write a book. Frankly, I needed to do something between exploring the old West as John Marston and massacring countless thousands with a wry grin and witty quip as Nathan Drake...

Having been involved in RPG design for many years, I already had a bunch of character concepts and ideas swirling around in my brain. I quickly gained momentum after a tentative first few chapters where I struggled for my voice. My agent, Robert Dinsdale, took me on before the story was even half written. There's no greater inspiration that that.

Q: Since this is your debut, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for The Grim Company Series? 

LS: The Grim Company is a gritty fantasy novel that plays with a lot of tropes and reintroduces high fantasy elements into the typically low-magic “grimdark” fantasy novel. It's dark and violent and leavened with a black sense of humour that occasionally comes close to being tongue-in-cheek. It's part epic fantasy, part action-packed romp.

You could say it marries the best elements of traditional heroic fantasy with all that is good about the modern fantasy novel, creating an almost irresistible gestalt that towers over its contemporaries like a skyscraper over the local pub.

You could say that.

Q] Let’s talk specifically about your world and the magic system within. I loved the world you portrayed going through the “age of ruin”. It reminded me a little bit of Myrillia in the Godslayer chronicles [James Clemens]. Can you give us an insight into how you went about creating it? 

LS: I should state here that I haven't read The Godslayer Chronicles. To me, it seemed that a world that relied on the corpses of decaying gods to power the fading magic was a wholly original concept; one that created all sorts of potential for conflict. I make no bones about the fact I chose to embrace “grimdark” and its tropes and push them about as far as they would go before breaking. The world is fraying at the seams, overrun by demons and magical abominations. What's left are a handful of dystopian city-states ruled by immortal overlords. These god-killing wizards covet magic as greedily as a dying man clings to his last breath.

I design game systems for a living. The last thing I wanted was to spend many hours designing yet another magic system for what began as an exercise in learning the writing craft. I felt it best to keep the specifics of the magic system fairly vague – but there's no doubt that the nature of magic and its status as a diminishing resource is vital to the story and the political makeup of the Trine, the region in which The Grim Company is set.

Q] You also have these odd bits in your story like deep sea mining as well as terra-forming vis-à-vis the fantasy genre. I loved how your world seems so much more than is apparent. How do you determine what fits and what doesn’t in this world of yours? Also could you give our readers some quirky facts vis-à-vis the lands of Trine & the world beyond? 

LS: I've always felt that in most cases world-building should bow to the story rather than the other way around. This was particularly important when writing The Grim Company, as I was writing another fantasy world for The Shadow Sun. By necessity game design demands that everything is planned out in advance. The Grim Company was my release from the constraints of following a script; a wide open plain where I could run wild and go wherever the story and characters took me.

The basic concept of the Age of Ruin is a traditional fantasy world gone to shit. Not just in the attitudes of its inhabitants but in the very nature of the land itself. Unnatural disasters plague the world, brought on by the affect-effects of the Godswar, when the gods themselves were murdered by the greatest wizards of the age. Terrible things are beginning to cross over into the mortal realm. A few cradles of civilization still remain: The Trine is a small maritime collection of city-states ruled by three immortal wizards bickering over the recently discovered Celestial Isles, a fragment of the heavens themselves.

South of the Trine, the Shattered Realms still nurture some of the customs and traditions that made those fallen kingdoms great in ages long past. Further south still, the exotic Sun Lands border a great jungle where manticores and other monsters of legend still roam.

To the east are the Unclaimed Lands, a wild frontier of lawless towns plagued by bandits. Beyond the Unclaimed Lands is the sprawling Confederation, a patchwork of loosely allied nations ruled by a cabal of powerful Magelords.

Q: I enjoyed your multivariate character cast that took on familiar fantasy tropes and made them out to be three-dimensional ones. Out of all the characters in your books, who was/were the most fascinating to create and write about? 

LS: But... that's like asking me to pick a favourite child! Actually, it's nothing like that. That always struck me as a weird thing writers say.

Of all the characters, the most fun to write is Davarus Cole. He's a delusional pillock that a lot of young guys would secretly love to emulate if there weren't actual real life consequences to their douchery. As I've found to my great cost. The most fascinating would be Brodar Kayne and Jerek the Wolf – or more particularly, their troubled friendship. The two grizzled warriors are similar in some ways, very different in others. There's a lot to be explored there.

Q] Moving on to cover art, with your UK publishers Head Of Zeus who have gone out of their way to get you some terrific covers & Penguin who have made their own distinct cover. What do you think about both of them & cover art in general? 

LS: I couldn't be happier with the covers from both Head of Zeus and Penguin. The covers are very different but, in my opinion, equally striking.

In general, I'm not one to judge a book by its cover. I barely look at them, truth be told. I don't have much of a bookshelf – what I do have is populated by hardcovers that publishers were kind enough to send me, plus one or two others I managed to have signed. It's all about what's written on the pages!

Q: When you started out did you have an overall plan for the series, was the entire story mapped book by book? How much of the plot do you plan out earlier, or to quote George R.R. Martin “are you a Gardner or an Architect” when it comes to your writing? 

LS: I'd written about a third of The Grim Company before The Plan started to take shape. I then spent a day just outlining the basic plot skeleton. I fleshed it out as I wrote it. I provided a brief synopsis for the entire trilogy when I wrote the series pitch, which I'm more or less sticking to. There's always that sweet spot to be found between knowing enough of how the story develops to be confident it won't collapse, and knowing so much that the process becomes boring. For me writing is simply no fun if there's no discovery, it just feels like a chore.

Q: Speaking of the series, how many volumes do you think will be required for The Grim Company saga? How far along are you in the next book, and is there anything you can tell us about books two, three and the series beyond? 

LS: I'm contracted for a trilogy, which is what was required for the original story treatment. I believe there's huge potential for additional stories beyond, but it will depend on numerous factors. I do have the bare bones of a larger narrative mapped out. We'll see what happens.

I'm currently writing the second book in the trilogy, Sword of the North, which I hope will be released next year. It's proving tough – between illness, a certain amount of creative burnout (lead writing a CRPG and penning a major fantasy novel at the same time is pretty demanding) and the sheer ambition of book two, it has been slow going. I want to get it right. I want to write a novel that readers will talk about as a defining book in a successful career.

Q] Now you have taken some hits about being a Joe Abercrombie clone, including a charge about writing Abercrombiesque fan-fiction. What do you think of this ludicrous notion besides “being the better person”? 

LS: In fairness, I'm not sure I could call myself a better person than Joe Abercrombie. Even allowing for the fact he's the self-styled Lord Grimdark, it seems unfair to simply assume I possess a superior moral character. He was very friendly and pleasant that one time I met him—

Oh, hang on. That's not what you meant by “better person,” is it?

In all seriousness, it's... kind of annoying, but more boring than anything else. Every new purveyor of gritty fantasy gets compared to Abercrombie ad infinitum. I've been honest about the fact he was a huge influence. Joe Abercrombie is a fantastic author and I owe both him and Scott Lynch debts of gratitude for pulling me out of my post-ASOIAF funk with their respective novels.

At the same time, I was writing gritty, cynical and humorous fantasy well before The Blade Itself was published. My sophomore gaming effort, the tone of which could be summed up as GRRM meets Steven Erikson meets Tarantino meets The Forgotten Realms, won me a contract to create a game for Bioware way back in 2005 at the ripe old age of 24. I was lead writer & designer on an expansion for The Witcher – a game which helped popularize the “grimdark” phenomenon – back in 2007.

That's not to say The First Law didn't feed into The Grim Company – it did. That's natural, and there are certain things that directly riff off TFL. But I've seen accusations of copying that frankly seem to assume fantasy began in 2006 or so. Washed up old antiheroes? Arrogant youths? Attractive female protagonists with troubling backstories? Bickering wizards? War? When did fantasy not have these things?

I'd explain my approach thusly: The First Law uses epic fantasy as a starting point to do some deeply subversive and original things. The Grim Company uses both epic fantasy and grimdark as a launching point towards similar ends. What I find frustrating is that certain folk will jump into a First Law thread on a forum and explain – quite rightly – why doubters should read beyond The Blade Itself to discover the true value of the series.... only to write off The Grim Company, having read half the book, for the same reasons they've just argued against!

The correct time to judge whether I've been successful in creating an original and worthwhile evolution of the sub-genre or just done a cheap re-hash will be when the trilogy is finished. Readers are of course free to form and share their own opinions, that's their right, but this is my final word on the subject.

Q: What are your plans for the future? What’s next for you in terms of other new projects? 

LS: First and foremost I want to finish Sword Of The North, and after that, the third book, Dead Man's Steel. I'm hopeful my current iOS RPG The Shadow Sun will be released before November this year. There's also the possibility of working on another huge CRPG franchise in the not-too-distant future.

Q: Lastly as a writer, what are your aspirations? Where do you see yourself in a decade from now? 

LS: I'd like to finish The Grim Company trilogy and for readers to look back on it as a worthwhile addition to the fantasy canon. Solid sales and an international fanbase would be nice. I don't dream of being rich and famous. I don't care for either. Meeting other authors and readers who appreciate my writing is its own reward... so long as I'm satisfied with my output and financially secure, of course. When a man is content in his work and his family, he need not aspire to much more.

I've been working with the fantasy genre a long time – I've only completed a single novel so far, but in terms of word output and creative investment it feels like I've written six or seven between all my different gaming projects. I could see myself taking a short break from the genre at some point and trying my hand at something entirely different. Maybe a Western, maybe a thriller, maybe a horror. Even a screenplay. I guess I'm the kind of person that would rather climb a nice variety of hills than attempt to scale Everest repeatedly.

NOTE: Author picture as well as map & TGC covers courtesy of Luke Scull. All other pictures courtesy of Civilian Reader.


Anonymous said...

Where can we get the hardcover editions with the silver/blue and red/black helmets?

Luke Scull said...

Those are the UK hardcovers for books 2 & 3. They haven't been released (or written) yet. :)

Courtney Caroen said...

I just bought "The Grim Company" and I love it! Can't wait for the other books :)

mark foster said...

What an amazing book I felt sorry for davarus Cole please don't be dead.

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