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Friday, April 18, 2008

Interview with Alan Campbell

Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “Scar Night” + “Lye Street

A former designer and programmer of the internationally bestselling video game series Grand Theft Auto, Alan Campbell made his writing debut in 2006 with “Scar Night”, one of the most interesting fantasy novels to be released in recent years and the first book in The Deepgate Codex. Continuing the series is the sequel “Iron Angel” and in promotion of the new book’s release, Alan has graciously answered several questions that cover a variety of topics including new & returning characters, the Deepgate novella “Lye Street”, why the second novel was harder to write than the first, and plenty more…

Q: “Iron Angel”, the follow-up to your debut novel “Scar Night” (2008), is scheduled for publication April 29, 2008 in North America and May 2, 2008 for UK readers. For those who haven’t read “Scar Night” yet, what are they missing out on?

Alan: The city of Deepgate is suspended by chains over a seemingly bottomless abyss. It's an ancient, crumbling place ruled by the Church of Ulcis at its heart. On the day a naive young angel, Dill, begins his service in the Church he is assigned a new overseer, the cynical assassin Rachel Hael. The story follows their growing friendship, through Dill's first tentative steps outside the Church, and ultimately to the depths of the abyss beneath the city.

Two murderers are loose in the chained city: The scarred angel Carnival, who hunts for souls on the night of the dark moon; And the Church's own Master Poisoner, Alexander Devon, who is performing illegal experiments in secret. One of them has killed the daughter of a loner and drunk, Mr. Nettle.

When Mr. Nettle decides to take revenge for his daughter's murder, he sets in motion a series of events that endangers the chained city and everyone in it.

Q: For those who have read “Scar Night”, what can they expect in “Iron Angel”?

Alan: The cataclysm at the end of “Scar Night” has attracted the attention of a new enemy. “Iron Angel” follows some of the key characters from “Scar Night” and “Lye Street” through a war that extends from the chained city, into Hell itself, to the distant land of Pandemeria. Hmm. I'm finding it hard to say more without giving too much away. Like “Scar Night”, it's a complex tale told from the viewpoints of multiple characters. It's probably darker. And because it's set in the midst of a vast war, it's necessarily much more violent than the first book.

Q: Originally, the UK version of the sequel was titled “Penny Devil” before they decided to go with “Iron Angel”. Why were there different titles in the first place, and what does ‘Iron Angel’ refer to in the book?

Alan: I wanted to call the book “Penny Devil”, but my US publishers weren't overly keen on that title and suggested “Iron Angel” for the US market. Of course I didn't mind at all. Then
Macmillan thought it would cause less confusion if we then renamed the book here in the UK. It made a lot of sense. So “Iron Angel” it is. The title refers to changes experienced by a character in the book.

Q: A couple of the characters returning for the sequel are the angel Dill and the Spine assassin Rachel Hael. How have these two evolved from the first book, and what other familiar faces will be appearing in “Iron Angel”?

Alan: Rachel's cynicism has turned firmly against the Spine. She no longer recognizes herself as a temple assassin or yearns to be tempered, and continues to find her humanity through her feelings for Dill, or what's left of him. Dill evolves more than any other character. In “Scar Night” he found the courage to overcome his fears. In “Iron Angel” he grows up, more so than he would have imagined.

Q: Of the new characters, there’s the god of brine & fog Cospinol and the giant John Anchor who is forced to pull the god’s vessel. What can you tell us about these and any other new characters that will be making an appearance?

Alan: John Anchor is amiable and gregarious on the surface, but he has a hidden, darker side. He arrives from Pandemeria to murder Carnival and ends up on a mission of mercy. And he shoulders a burden much greater than that of Cospinol's airship.

His master, Cospinol, is the oldest of the living gods and yet he is the last to remain imprisoned as Ulcis was. He's very much under the thumb of his younger brothers, and naturally resents them for that. Despite his impotence, Cospinol's relationship with his slave has given him more human qualities than his siblings. He is the best hope for mankind. Mina Greene from “Lye Street” reappears as one of the five key characters in Iron Angel. She has grown up, but her demonic little dog hasn't.

Q: I had a feeling we hadn’t seen the last of Mina and her demon dog :) So between all of the characters you’ve written so far, do you have a favorite?

Alan: I like Mr. Nettle, because of his relentless determination.

Q: One of the most distinguishing qualities of “Scar Night” was the setting, particularly the city of Deepgate. While Deepgate was primarily the focus of your debut, you hinted at a much larger world. Will we get to see any of that world in “Iron Angel” and if so, can you give us a preview?

Alan: Of course. This is the introduction to Pandemeria:

The train to Coreollis rumbled along a narrow slag embankment above Upper Cog City, dragging mountains of smoke behind it. The lower districts remained flooded, but here the waters had receded some fifteen yards below the raised steel tracks, leaving streets clogged with silt and rusting warships. From the embankment's slopes to the horizon, ten thousand vessels had been left to rot among the waterlogged shops and houses. Mangled heaps of gunboats and destroyers filled the plazas of Highcliff and the Theatre District, while the cries of these adapted souls rose higher still. Battleships loomed like great red headlands above rows of townhouse roofs, their hulls scarred by cannon-fire or scraped and dented by rubble from collapsed buildings, their groans of pain long and low. A Mesmerist-adapted war-barge had come to rest against the roof of the cathedral in Revolution Square, her bow pointing skywards, her stern deep amid café-tables and mud. The late evening sun gave a molten edge to those funnels, decks and gun-batteries which rose above the chimneystacks, and bathed the brickwork between ships in soft amber light.

South of the terminus the embankment sank with the surrounding streets towards Sill River, and here the waters rose to within a foot of the newly-laid railway sleepers. Flooded lanes looped around the Offal Quarter factories like a giant fingerprint, or like the canals of Hell, all choked with flotsam, furniture and corpses. Nacreous swirls of oil and yellow, aquamarine and ochre froths revolved between hull, keel and lamppost. Cannon-boats drifted in the deep square pools of old Workhouse Yards or lay beached on tenement roofs, their lines fouled in weathervanes. The bloodied waters in Emerald Street, Minster Street and Canary Row were clogged with steam-yachts and with painted dolls from the Low Cog Puppet Workshop. A breeze came up from the city: bitter, engine-scented air full of hot dust and strange metallic cries.

Q: As far as Deepgate, where did you get the inspiration for the city? What does it represent, both for you personally, and in the story?

Alan: The idea came to me in a hostel room in Budapest. The crumbling towers and glooming courtyards probably have their roots in Gormenghast, since that book had such a profound effect on me. In the story Deepgate simply represents life suspended over the unknown, the constant proximity of death.

Q: You’re an atheist, yet religion plays a very important role in the series. Why, and are you trying to make any statements about religion, especially regarding the science vs. theology theme that can be found in the books?

Alan: I'm not trying to make a conscious statement about religion. Faith is an integral part of all societies, and so you can't ignore it in fantasy. The conflict between science and theology in “Scar Night” seemed inevitable, just as it has been in our world.

Q: As is often the case, both the US and UK covers for your books sport different artwork. What do you think about the different covers and what are your thoughts on the subject as a whole, including how important artwork is in selling a book, how speculative fiction covers are considered generic, the difference between international & stateside covers, et cetera?

Alan: They say don't judge a book by its cover, but we all do. I think artwork is tremendously important. A dodgy cover would never stop me from buying a book I wanted to read, but I've picked up books from the shelf simply because the cover caught my eye. I'm fortunate to have had remarkably talented artists create my book covers and illustrations. They have all been superb. Are speculative fiction considered generic? I suppose a large number of fantasy covers portray magical landscapes which seem to promise the reader escapism. If it works, then why not?

Q: What kind of response has your debut received in the UK compared to North America, and what differences have you noticed between the two book scenes, specifically for speculative fiction?

Alan: I have no idea what my US sales have been. I didn't think to ask – I was too busy working on the next one.
Macmillan tells me that the UK sales have been very strong. “Scar Night” went into reprint very quickly. The press response has been good.

Q: For “Scar Angel”,
Pan Macmillan designed a pretty cool website for the book HERE. Is either of the labels doing anything special in promotion of the new book “Iron Angel”?

Alan: Again, I don't know. I'll leave all that to the publishers, while I focus on the third book.

Q: Back in January 2008,
Subterranean Press released a limited edition prequel novella called “Lye Street” which ends where the prologue in “Scar Night” begins. How did the novella come about, and what was it like having such talented artists as Dave McKean + Bob Eggleton involved in the project?

Alan: The novella came about when Bill at
Subterranean Press emailed me with the suggestion. I loved the idea of a limited edition novella and greatly enjoyed writing it. To have such talented artists involved was a dream. My father is an artist and I've worked alongside artists for most of my life. I'm constantly in awe of their work. If I could draw or paint, I'd be doing it myself.

Q: How different was it writing a 26,000 word novella compared to the long-form novels you’ve completed? What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages between the two formats?

Alan: I suppose I'm naturally inclined towards large complex stories, as a reader as much as a writer. The short format of the novella obviously limits the complexity of the story you can write. It needs to be simpler. But otherwise I don't see any great differences between the two. And of course the advantage of the novella is that you don't need to juggle so many things in your mind.

Q: One of the things I noticed when reading “Lye Street” was that it had a lot more humor, especially black humor, in the novella than it did in your debut. Is that something we can expect to see in the sequel?

Alan: I think there is more humour in “Iron Angel”. But it's darker too.

Q: Looking back, what are your overall thoughts on how “Scar Night” turned out? Would you change anything if you had the chance?

Alan: I'm happy with the way “Scar Night” turned out. If I read it again, I'm sure I'd find a thousand things I'd want to change, but I don't intend to read it for a long, long time. Seven drafts are enough for now.

Q: For some authors it’s easier writing their second novel, while for others it’s more difficult. How was it for you, and did you learn anything when writing “Scar Night” that helped prepare you for “Iron Angel”?

Alan:Iron Angel” was more difficult for me because I was up against a deadline. There was a lot of pressure that simply wasn't there while I was writing “Scar Night”. I suppose writing the first book prepared me for the process of revision. It isn't easy to chop out huge chunks of narrative that you like. But if they don't work, then they have to go. It's like the opposite of the way local councils work.

Q: I believe the Deepgate Codex is projected as a trilogy. Is that still going according to plan, and how far along are you with the next book? Any details you can share?

Alan: It is still projected as a trilogy, and I'm storming ahead with the third installment. It's probably too early to share any details, because the story in my head will probably evolve considerably before the book is published.

Q: You’ve mentioned before that you’re involved in a bunch of other writing projects like short stories, comic books, screenplays, etc. Can you talk about any of these projects? What about other Deepgate Codex-related endeavors that might be in the works or that you’d like to pursue?

Alan: These are all on the back burner right now, while I concentrate on the third book. But I have enough ideas to keep me going for the next decade or so. I don't know how many will find their way into print. There is another Deepgate-related endeavor in the pipeline, but I don't think I'm allowed to talk about it.

Q: Speaking of comics and screenplays, has there been any interest or any of your books optioned for adaptation (of any kind), and if so, can you give us some details?

Alan: There was a flurry of interest from a lot of film production companies in the US. I'm still waiting.

Q: Well hopefully you’ll hear back :) Just out of curiosity though, what would be your dream adaptation for the Deepgate Codex?

Alan: It would be nice to see Tim Burton's interpretation of Deepgate. I like to joke about it, but I haven't really given it any serious thought. The odds are very much against it happening. My partner thinks Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp ought to be in any film production, but I've no idea why.

Q: Tim Burton would be a great choice! I also wouldn’t mind Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) taking a stab at the film…

Now because of your experience as a videogame designer/programmer and now as a fiction author, what are your thoughts on the cross-pollination today between different mediums such as literature and movies, comic books and videogames, TV and animation, etc? Is it getting to the point where writing in one format just isn’t enough?

Alan: Writing fiction is just telling stories, and most of these mediums are different ways of presenting stories. There's going to be the inevitable cross-pollination. But I don't think sticking to one format limits a writer's career. Video games are interactive, and so I think they're more of a fringe medium for writers. Writing can provide some background depth, atmosphere, but it's far less important than game-play. Tetris didn't have a plot.

Q: Actually, you recently got back in the videogame business, this time as a writer. How does the experience differ from when you worked as a designer/programmer, and what have you learned from writing novels that has aided you in writing for a videogame?

Alan: When I first worked in videogames I was far more involved in design and in problem solving on an engineering level. My job this time round was simply to fill in details and provide a foundation that the designers could use as a reference. Novels are heavily structured, and I think it's a mistake to apply the same sort of rigid format to a game. When a game is forced to adhere to a plot, then it's doomed.

Q: Some of the authors that you’ve listed as influences include Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison, George R. R. Martin, Steven Erickson, Alan Moore, Stephen R. Donaldson, Iain M. Banks, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, etc. One thing they all have in common is that they write speculative fiction. What is it about speculative fiction that you not only love to read about, but you also love to write?

Alan: The simple answer is that it sparks the imagination – or my imagination at any rate. Speculative fiction is full of cool ideas. That's not to say I won't thoroughly enjoy a good Western or Thriller.

Q: Has anything else influenced your writing, like movies, music, art?

Alan: It sounds weird, but the Pixies probably had an influence on my writing. I listened to them a lot while I was writing “Scar Night”. The chains, the self-mutilation, it's all there in Frank Black's lyrics.

Q: That's interesting. Now since you weren’t able to participate in the 2007 Review/2008 Preview
HERE, I thought I would take this opportunity to ask you again. Basically, what were your favorite books that you read in 2007 and what titles are you most looking forward to in 2008?

Alan: 2007:

Blood Meridian” by
Cormac McCarthy
The Road” by
Cormac McCarthy
Tao Zero” by
Poul Anderson
The Theory of Poker” by David Slansky


I still have a lot of catching up to do. So I'll read all those books I've been meaning to, including: “Winterbirth” by
Brian Ruckley, “Before They are Hanged” by Joe Abercrombie, and "Ink" by Hal Duncan. Then I'll have a look at what's coming out in 2008. Of course it will be 2009 by then.

Q: Besides writing, you also have a passion for photography. How is that going for you and what do you hope to accomplish?

Alan: It's going fine, but I've been too busy to take many new photographs. The ones already in my stock library still generate some income. When I have more free time, I'll add to that stock.

Q: Reading your blog
HERE, you’ve had the most extraordinary battle with a phone company! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it :) What has this experience taught you?

Alan: Fortunately it has all now been resolved by a nice chap from BT who read “Scar Night”, and then looked up my blog. It's taught me that keeping a blog is really good idea, even if I mostly use it to rant.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

Alan: Thanks for taking the time to ask all those questions. And did you know that the world's largest living organism is believed to be a fungus living under a forest in Oregon. Cool, huh?


SQT said...

Nice Robert! I've had my eye on Scar Night but it's so hard when I already have so much to read.

Kimberly Swan said...

Great Q & A. :) Rather creepy to hear that the largest living organism could be a fungus growing under an Oregon forest. *shiver* (of course that bit is going to stick in my head

Harry Markov said...

I actually want to read everything you ever review and I have to remind myself, Harry you have to live, study and eat on a regular basis and write as well, you can't read all these books even if you cloned.

Robert said...

I totally understand what you're saying Theresa :)

Kimberly, that is definitely an interesting tidbit :) The things you learn...

Harry, LOL. I can promise you that the list of books I want to read is much larger than the books I've actually read, and it only gets bigger...


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