A list of 20 questions set by the readers of the Gemmell Fantasy mailing list, which David Gemmell kindly answered.
1. Do you have any hobbies?
I used to have a hobby. I used to write fiction for fun, while working as journalist. By the end of my journalistic career I was running seven local newspapers, organising budgets, overseeing sales drives, appointing editors. In the evenings I would set aside time to fool around with a story or two. Now I still write for fun but I get paid for it.
2. Is there any particular film’s that have influenced your work? e.g. . “The Wild Bunch”
I tend to write in a ‘filmic’ way, in that I see the story as a movie in my mind, so, yes, films have played an important part in my style. The Wild Bunch is a classic and – as with so many of Peckinpah’s films – was criticised unfairly because of his violent images. For me Straw Dogs remains his great masterpiece for all sorts of reasons. First and foremost it illustrates beautifully what happens when society no longer has the balls to tackle evil. Modern history continues to show the truth of the message. When UN peacekeepers in Bosnia were not allowed to fight to protect the people under their care we witnessed the result. Massacre.
Other films that touched a chord in me were The Outlaw Josey Wales, Zulu, Rocky, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Searchers, True Grit, The Shootist and Unforgiven.
3. What annoys you most about your profession?
This is a tough one, because there are any number of pet hates to choose from. Poor reviewers would be one. Most authors sweat blood to make a story work, rewriting, re-editing, worrying endlessly that the work will be the best they can produce. Then some prat with access to a newspaper or magazine will dismiss it in a few sentences, calling it ‘crap’. Anyone who finishes a novel – published or unpublished – should get a medal.
Another gripe is marketing. In many cases the amount put aside to promote a novel is based on a percentage of the advance. This means that a new author, who has received – say – 10,000 will get a publicity budget of around 1000. This supplies a few ads in local papers plus one small display in a genre magazine. An author who gets an advance of 500,000 will get a budget of 50,000, allowing for national advertising, cross-track posters at railway stations, and big BIG cover age. The question that should be asked is: Which author NEEDS the big budget?
But probably the main hate is the pressure on new authors to supply fantasy trilogies. It is unnatural. Most writers come up with stories that will make for one really strong book. Publishers see the opportunity to milk the market and coerce the writer into stretching the story out. Often it doesn ‘t work. This means that a few years down the line the author is unpublished and struggling.
4. What is your worst reaction to a book, chapter or paragraph you have written yourself?
Not quite sure what this means. If I write something bad I ditch it. For the last few months I have been struggling with the writing. I tried to quit smoking and found that the years of polluting my brain with nicotine meant that I couldn’t string a reasonable sentence together without filling my lungs with smoke. I went three months without a drag, took a good look at the crap I was writing and lit up.
5. Do you lose your rag like the rest of us mortals? Have you ever grabbed old Snaga from the wall and chopped up a crappy manuscript?
Yep. But I don ‘t tend to lose my rag in life as much as I used to. I’m over fifty now, and carrying a lot of old injuries from days when I boxed or played rugby. My right shoulder is arthritic and I have two prolapsed discs in my neck from a car crash. A couple of years ago I found myself the victim of road rage, which was pretty surprising. Some young men travelling on a coach made obscene gestures at me as I slowed my car to let the coach go by. Red mist descended. I followed the coach, pulled in front of it, got out of the car onto the coach and whacked one of them. Afterwards I felt the double hit of both shame and pride. The shame was the result of losing control and acting stupidly. The pride came from still being able to lose control and act stupidly.
6. What was your favourite cartoon/cartoon character from childhood?
Wily Coyote. Despite all the terrible setbacks the sucker never once gave up on his quest to eat the road runner.
7. What made you decide to write a third Waylander story?
I felt Waylander’s story was somehow incomplete. And I loved meeting up with him again and following his latest adventure. I can ‘t say too much more as it would mean putting in bags of SPOILER space, which might look odd in a question and answer session.
8. What period of history would you most like to have lived through (even if it’s longer than a normal life span).
Many years ago, when I was a local journalist living in London, I was sent to the Acacia House Spiritualist Centre in Acton, West London. I was writing a feature about a clairvoyant who operated there. The clairvoyant told me incredible stuff about my own life that she couldn’t possibly have known and then told me that I was an ‘Old Soul’ and that I had lived in Ancient Rome. This, she said, was why I had such instinctive ‘knowledge’ about the period. I have always had a fascination for Greek and Roman history, so maybe she was right. There is still enough of the romantic in me to say that, given the choice, I would have lived in Sparta at the time of Leonidas.
9. Do you think your characters’ essentially violent response to injury to themeselves and loved ones, while something we can all identify with, is hard to reconcile with Jesus’ injunction in the Bible to turn the other cheek to injury?
No. I do not see Jesus as a gentle pacifist. He was a rebel and a revolutionary. He took a whip and drove the money lenders from the temple. I think the ‘turn the other cheek ‘ injunction has more to do with arguments between friends. If a friend – in anger – strikes you, then you should turn the other cheek in order to defuse the situation. But if a stranger, seeking to rob or humiliate you, strikes you, then you should – as the Bible also exhorts ‘smite him hip and thigh.’ For me the Bible needs to be read as a WHOLE book. The laws laid down in it are very harsh. An eye for an eye, a life for a life. Jesus himself told his followers that he did not come to change one jot of the law. However, this isn ‘t the place to pound on about my view of Christianity. My views can be found in every novel I write.
10. Was the child of Miriel fathered by Angel that is referred to in LEGEND OF DEATHWALKER actually Druss’s grandfather (Bardan) or was Nosta Khan’s reference to Angel being Druss’s ancestor a figure of speech?
It was not a figure of speech, but originally I intended the child to be Druss’s great grandfather, and, thus, the father of Bardan.
11. How do you think up the names for your characters and places? Not just important ones but also the ones you only mention once or twice.
Sometimes I take them from history [Prasamaccus, Ruathain, Victorinus] and at other times I create them from mixing the names of the friends I have based them on [ ToNY GORing = Nygor].
12. How do you feel when you read the little compliments about you written by critics? eg “Probably the finest living writer of heroic fantasy” -Time Out.
I get as much satisfaction when I receive letters from fans who have found the work to be either life changing or life enhancing. I’m lucky in that I don’t have a strong reaction to either flattery or criticism. There are people out there who probably consider me the worst living writer of heroic fantasy. They don’t bother me. I was looking at Amazon.co.uk the other day, ego-surfing the reviews for Hero in the Shadows. Several readers think its one of the best things I’ve done, but one reader thought it was terrible and boring. David Gemmell is no more, he writes . As long as I feel I’ve given a book the very best I can produce then I take the plaudits and the criticism about evenly.
13. David, you’ve declared your commitment to Christianity on a number of occasions. In addition, your books are full of references to “Sources”, witches and warlocks, etc. Do you yourself really believe in supernatural phenomena, such as ghosts, horoscopes, an afterlife, Uri Geller …?
I have never met Geller, so I have no view about his powers. But, yes, I have met spiritualists and clairvoyants, faith healers and mystics whose powers were beyond question. I learned a lot about human nature when I dealt with these people in London. My boss at the Acton Gazette was a man named Roy Summerhayes. He didn’t believe in what he called the Looney Tunes operating in Acacia House. It didn’t matter how many stories came out about people who were healed. They were all either deluded or fakes. One day I suffered a badly ricked neck. The hospital staff put me in a surgical collar and a specialist said it would take about three weeks for it to heal. Roy Summerhayes was in seventh heaven. ‘Get down to Looney Tunes,’ he said. ‘Get him to heal that. ‘
Reluctantly I trudged down to Acacia House and saw a healer named Karl Francis. He removed the collar, laid his hand on my neck. No massage or pressure of any kind. ‘Move your head, ‘ he said. I did so. All pain had vanished and my neck was completely cured. I went back to Roy Summerhayes who said: ‘Yeah, I knew you were faking it. ‘
Those with eyes to see will see. The others never will.
14. How restricted do you feel by what is expected from you? Do you wish to write different material from what you deliver to us, or are you happy with your tales of slaying and conflicting characters?
There is no pressure from publishers any more. At the moment what I write sells. That’s all they care about. The pressure from fans is great, and I do feel I owe them the best I can produce. However, essentially I write what I want to write, and explore themes that matter to me. I could make more money by writing what Moorcock calls ‘Pixieshit books’ with a few singing elves and bearded dwarves. That doesn’t interest me. Tolkien did that better than anyone else alive. I would like to write more thrillers and I am planning a series based on a British policewoman. I have been working for some time with a working police detective building a series of stories. However I wont start these until I have finished Ravenheart.
15. You’ve often been asked about which characters most represent you, but which of any characters in your books would you most wish to be like?
I don’t write cynically. When I create a hero and put him in difficult situations the first thing I think is: ‘What would I WANT to do in this situation? ‘ ‘How would I WISH to behave faced with these dangers. ‘ Sometimes I find myself confused by life, and in those moments I feel like Jon Shannow. At other times I feel a great and cold rage building, and I know how Waylander felt. I have only ever based two characters on myself, Rek in Legend, and Gellan in Waylander. Who would I really like to be like? Ruathain from Sword in the Storm. Could I ever be like him? Not a chance.
16. Have you ever had problems with am overeager fan?
No. One of the nicest things about my fans is that I have only met one I didn’t like. He came up to me at a convention in Liverpool when Legend was first published. His first words to me were: ‘You really know where its at, Dave. Great book, mate. No niggers in Legend. ‘
17. Which book was the most pleasurable for you to write and which book was the hardest?
Legend was the most pleasureable. Nothing will ever change that. The hardest is always the latest. With each book I write it gets harder to disguise what SFX magazine calls the ‘literary mechanics’ of the plots. In many ways writing is like comedy – the hit comes with surprise. Without surprise there is no punch line. Problem is the more we see a particular comic the more aware we become of his/her style of delivery. It is the same with writing.
18. What qualities do you look for, or rather like to find, in novels by other authors?
I don ‘t have time any more to read for pleasure, but in the past I always required passion and heart from an author. For me books need to have moral centres, and should inspire the reader as well as being entertaining.
19. Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for new fantasy writers to get published?
If by published you mean posting a story on the Internet then it must have made it easier. As to regular publishing I don’t think its made a difference yet.
20. Do you have a double crossbow like Waylander’s?
No. I have a single crossbow, a longbow, two broadswords, five pistols, a gladius, three bowie knives, a beautiful copy of the Coppergate helm, complete with neck guard of chain mail, and a Winchester .73 from the Wichita City Marshalls office at the time of Wyatt Earp. But I aint got no double crossbow, dammit!