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Richard Harland

Interview with

Richard Harland

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I first thought how great it would be to be a writer when I was about ten. My best friend and I had this area like a junkyard at the back of his house – all sorts of junk, like packing cases, old tin baths, metal drums, carpets, pipes, wire, everything you could think of. We used that junk to build submarines, airplanes, fortresses, tanks – and we built on a big scale, big enough to walk around in the submarine or airplane or whatever. Andy supervised the construction, he was very mechanically minded, but I took the lead when we’d finished building and started making up adventures that could happen to us in the things we’d built. Wave after wave of attackers coming against us in the fortress, some traitor letting them in, a fire, pinned in a single last tower … Or attacked by an enemy submarine, forced to hide under an ice cap, running out of oxygen, surfacing through ice and ripping holes in the hull … We came back after school every day and added to the story, and some of our stories went on for weeks.

Then one time it rained for day after day – did I say I was living in England back then? We couldn’t get out to our junkyard, which was called ‘the Chicken Run’, and we were so bored we decided to write down some of our stories like pretend books. So that passed the time. Then Andy’s older sister Kitty, who was as bored as we were, picked up some of our stories and read them.

“Hey, these aren’t bad,” she said. “Why don’t you try selling them?”

She had an idea how to do it too. We had to copy our five or six best stories using an old-fashioned duplicator, then we took them to school to sell in the school playground. Only we didn’t exactly sell them, because none of our friends had spare money or they didn’t want to part with it. Instead they did swaps for our stories: candies, comix, even some of their school lunches.

I guess that’s when I first learned that being a writer isn’t the easiest route to being a multi-millionaire. But I learned something else too – that there is no better feeling in the world than to have someone read a story you’ve written and say, “Hey, that was great, you got another one?” And suddenly you know that something you imagined inside your own head has gone across into someone else’s head. They experienced it too! Absolutely no better feeling – makes your heart beat faster!

That was the moment when I thought how great it would be to become a writer. But, years later, when I applied myself seriously to making the dream come true, then I hit writer’s block. Twenty-five years of it! There were many stupid reasons why I could never finish anything I started, stupid reasons like manic perfectionism, being too proud to listen to advice, trying to produce literary forms of fiction that didn’t come naturally to me, etc etc. But the one thing I did right through all those twenty-five years – I kept on trying, I never gave up!

How long does it take you to write a book?

About six months for a first draft. But that’s not counting the time spent on planning and preparation before I start writing, which can spread over months or years – or even decades, in the case of Ferren and the Angel. Then there’s the time spent on revising afterwards – even rethinking and rewriting, in the case of Ferren. Plus time spent on revisions for my editor, when I’m given a long list of queries and suggestions.

I’m not a fast writer, never have been and never will be. My saving grace is consistency – I write every day of the year except Xmas and birthdays. So I keep turning out the pages, and the pages keep mounting up!

Nobody tells you, but one essential virtue for a writer is sheer patience. Especially for a fantasy writer creating a whole new world. You have to grow your world in your imagination like a gardener nurturing a seed that will become a sapling and finally turn into a vast spreading tree.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

When I finally finished my first novel, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, I was stunned when people told me that reading it was like watching a movie. I mean, I’d tried to make it vivid and visual, but I never expected that to be one of my strong points. The only kind of writing I’d done successfully in my twenty-five years of writer’s block was the very opposite – abstract and conceptual. Those were the years when I ended up as a university professor and had three books published on language theory and literary theory.

But when I unblocked the blockage and started to produce the fantasy fiction I’d always wanted to write, it was as though I’d unlocked a totally different hemisphere of my brain. I’ve been asked, did my academic writing influence my fantasy writing, and the answer is, no, not even a tiny bit.

Maybe the movie-like quality of my writing comes from a technique I call ‘pre-filming’, where I picture scenes as live experience in the afternoons, sleep on them overnight, then record them as if they really happened the next morning. Works for me! Anyway, readers have commented on the movie-like quality of all my books ever since The Vicar, so it must be true. I accept it, but I can’t really explain it.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

All of my books as well as my websites give out an email address for contacting the author, and many readers do. I encourage it and love it. One of the hard things about being a writer is that you’re closed off in your imagination – you hope your story will live for other people, but there’s no instant feedback – you’re performing to an audience that doesn’t yet exist. And won’t exist for a very long time!

Most people don’t realise but it takes a year between the author finishing a novel and having it appear in the stores. So many small jobs still to be carried out by the publisher (and you). And then more time passes before anyone actually buys the book and gets around to reading it. By then, you’ve almost forgotten you wrote it!

But that makes it all the better when fans contact you and want to tell you how much they enjoyed it. It’s that same feeling I discovered in the school playground all those years ago. “Hey, that was great! You got another one?” And suddenly you know that you shared your imagined world and story with someone else. It crossed over to them!

Editors are necessary and positive reviews are great, but best of all is the enthusiasm of an individual reader with no market to watch or axe to grind. I’ve been lucky to get that reaction a lot, and fans like that are the real reward for all the hard work and isolation.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

One small trick I learned for beating writer’s block was to set a fixed time (1.25 to 1.30 pm.) when I finish my morning’s writing. It’s always tempting to keep going to the end of the episode, complete the arc, finish the chapter, exhaust the inspiration that’s been driving you. Satisfying in the moment, but not so satisfying when you have to start from scratch the next morning!

I’ve learned that inspiration will always come back, especially when you have the whole weight of a novel-size world and story driving you on. So I stop between 1.25 and 1.30 – and then I can’t wait to get back to my writing again the next morning! I keep myself waiting! I think it energizes my writing – it certainly energizes my imagination!

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Losing material I’ve already written! It happened when Word suddenly ‘disappeared’ a chapter and a half of an earlier draft of Ferren and the Angel. I’d been surging forward through later chapters, but suddenly I couldn’t go on. I wanted to recover that chapter and a half exactly as it had been, but when I tried, the ghost of the previous writing kept hovering over me – how had I expressed it? why couldn’t it be as good as the version before? what was I missing? It was sheer misery. I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t step back.

It took many weeks before I discovered a different way of doing that chapter and a half, and that brought my mojo back. For me, it’s impossible to write in recovery-mode – I had to shuck off the past and recapture the feeling of doing it as if for the first time all over again.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I guess originality is my thing. From The Vicar of Morbing Vyle (comic-macabre-grotesque-bizarre) to the Eddon and Vail books (SF and murder mystery) to Worldshaker (steampunk, as it turned out, but I didn’t know that until later), I’ve never written in order to fit neatly into a genre.

And now there’s Ferren and the Angel, which I call fantasy but some reviewers call science fiction – also including elements of horror, comedy and steampunk … What matters to me isn’t where the book sits on the bookshop shelf, but the internal coherence of its imagined world and story.

My credo: fantasy writers ought to be the great explorers! There are so many directions for the unfettered imagination to try out. Why should we be pinned down to fixed formulae? Anything is possible!

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

<I'll skip this>

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

<skip this too - I have nothing to say worth saying>

What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you? 

Twenty-five years of frustration! Twenty-five years of non-fulfilment!

Twenty-five years of frustration! Twenty-five years of non-fulfilment!

But there’s one good thing about all those wasted years for me – I built up a huge backlog of ideas for novels. I’m not planning to finish any of the ones I started and abandoned, but there were good things in many of them which I can now take up and develop as they should have been developed! At least I’m never going to run out of ideas!

There’s something else too, even better. After so much bitter experience of not being able to finish book, it feels like the ultimate blessing when I finish one. Every time, a small miracle to me!

Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?

<Sorry, I don't relate to this question>

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

With Ferren and the Angel, the world came first. The novel began with a dream: I was peering out from under some sort of covering, watching eerie light effects in the night sky, listening to terrifying sounds - and I just knew, the way you know things in dreams, that this was the great war going on between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth. Then one particular light came hurtling down, almost on top of me, with a long, wailing cry. In the drowsy state after waking, when I was half-in and half-out of the dream, I thought : that must have been an angel falling from the sky.

The dream-scene eventually became the first ten pages of the novel, but only after I’d worked out the world it belonged to. Why were Heaven and Earth fighting? What was the history? And who was I, watching it with awe and fear, outside of the actual fighting? It took many, many years to discover all the answers to the questions the dream had posed.

But the good thing was that, when I started writing, I still had the dream-scene to launch off from. The whole geography and history of Ferren’s world went to the back of my mind, and it was the story I concentrated on. As it should be – you can’t start a novel by info-dumping the whole background of a novel onto the reader. So story took the lead …

… and then character took the lead, when Ferren goes out to investigate, discovers the angel lying damaged and unable to fly. His personality becomes crucial – afraid of supernatural Celestials, but not quite as afraid as the other members of his tribe. And the angel Miriael’s personality – she despises tribespeople like Ferren as inferior, low, physical, disgusting. In spite of which, they form a kind of bond …

I guess it doesn’t matter what comes first so long as it all fits seamlessly together. I’ve started other novels from a particular character, from a particular image, even from the conclusion of a story (one of the Eddon and Vail SF murder mysteries). I think, if I do my job as a novelist well, it becomes unimportant – though still interesting outside the novel. For the reader, it should be impossible to tell whether plot or character or world came first – because they all live up to each other!

How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

Simple: a reader with imagination, who isn’t afraid to use it.

Ferren and the Angel is marketed as YA because you have to market to some age group. I’m happy with that – teenage readers are definitely not afraid to use their imaginations! And my publisher is happy, because the main character, Ferren, is fifteen years old. But the book isn’t only YA.
When I wrote it as YA on the second draft, I was conscious of avoiding stuff that could exclude a YA reader, but I didn’t target it to YA readers in a way that would exclude anyone else. The book can appeal to every age from 12 up, I’m sure – which is what good fantasy has always done.

How much research did you need to do for your book? 

I spent years and years researching angelology, the old esoteric lore of angels, fallen angels and Heaven. About 99% of what I learned never appears in Ferren and the Angel, nor the Ferren Trilogy as a whole. But it was just so fascinating! A vast body of lore, now mostly forgotten, passed on through religious tradition and not-quite orthodox religious texts (the Apocrypha, Gnostic writings, the Kabbala, Sufi mysticism).

I said I was a university professor and academic, but I never liked doing research. Researching angelology was different – I loved that!

Tell us more about your book/s?

<The big cover-all question – but hopefully I’ve answered it along the way!>

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