I recently had the pleasure, nay, the privilege, of reading an ARC of what I believe is going to be one of the best fantasy books of 2017.
And it was a debut!
Blackwing takes epic fantasy and grimdark, and throws them together, coming up with what I would call grimdark-done-epic. I’m not trying to be cute here, this is serious. By this I mean that it’s a grimdark tale, but done epically so. Most prominently in terms of world building and originality, in that it takes a different route from other more recent notable outings. Yes, first person PoV; yes, post-apocalyptic setting of sorts; yes, hard-bitten mercenary main-character; yes, elements of technology thrown in – but add tattoos that come to life, veritable doomsday weaponry, and an enemy that might be godly, demonic or something else entirely…now THAT is something I wanted to read.
And read I did…but I wanted more.
Thankfully, Ed, being the stand-up gent he is was happy to indulge me in questions on the book, and his writing.
ME: Hi Ed! For those that have yet to come across you, in 50 words or less, introduce yourself.
EM: Hi, I’m Ed McDonald, author of Blackwing and medieval/renaissance combat enthusiast.
Seeing as this is one of your first interviews, as a big-time author, let’s get some of the overly generic questions out of the way. If you could choose between Jurassic Park and Zombieland, which would be your favoured holiday destination?
Zombieland is a much better choice. That stuff works even when there’s no national power supply. At Jurassic Park they didn’t even have any rides. Even before the park got sabotaged it was pretty lame.
Jokes aside, how did you get into writing? What made you want to write? And how long have you been writing for?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating stories of one sort or another, all the way back into my earliest childhood. We all do, don’t we, as kids? We play with dolls and action figures and dress up. It’s more that people lose the desire as they get older they forget how much fun that is. So I don’t think that anything really made me want to write; I just never grew out of it like everyone else.
The desire to tell stories has always manifested in one form or another, whether that was creating fantasy towns with my sister, playing tabletop wargames with a friend or actually sitting writing in front of a computer. My brother and I drew a comic together that ran for years. But I first started trying to write full length novels at 15. The first three attempts didn’t get finished, although one was hundreds of pages long by the time I hit 18. I first finished a novel at 22, and then I wrote a bunch more. Looking back on them all now, they got a little better every time.
Now that we’re getting into it, tell us a little bit about your debut fantasy novel ‘Blackwing’. Again, in 50 words or less, sell it!
Blackwing combines elements of epic fantasy with the pace of an action thriller. There’s a post apocalyptic wasteland full of bad magic, ancient powers threatening the frontier, and a vast and terrible weapon that keeps them in check. But the weapon may be failing…
Blackwing – why THIS story?
In all honesty, the book that Blackwing ended up becoming is so different to the one that I originally intended to write that I can’t claim that I ever really chose to write it. It just kind of morphed into being somewhere during the process. But the elements that I most wanted to write about – hope, redemption, tenacity, and love – they all made it through the exhaustive drafting processes. My writing is always conducted this way: I have ideas built on the backs of other ideas, but the earlier ones all end up getting trampled and replaced.
When you were writing Blackwing, did it feel different to the other stories you had written before it? Did you ever think ‘this is the one’?
Not exactly. I knew that it was better, but I’d learned from experience that the one previous was better than the one that came before that, which was better than the one before that, and so on. I hoped that someone might be interested, but I never really expect it to launch quite the way that it did. At one early stage I quit it for three months, trying to write something that I thought would sell better. That didn’t work, and I stumbled across the first few chapters, asked a few people their opinions and they told me to keep on with it. That original chapter is long since dust – rewritten from scratch five times, actually – but at one stage it was effectively abandoned.
Where did Ryhalt Galharrow come from? What inspired him?
Galharrow is inspired by a few of my favourite characters in one way or another, but again he manifested himself as the book developed. Most of my ideas spontaneously evolve whilst I’m writing, and he started out as a gruff, historical mercenary kind of guy. But really it was his interaction with the other characters, and the relationships that he has with them, that really defined him and led me to develop his actions. Many of those other characters (such as Nenn and Tnota) were momentary inventions, their details invented on the fly, but as they interacted with Galharrow they all wound up taking hold of their own identities.
Do you have any tattoos (including ones that don’t rip themselves off of your body, manifest as a bird, and tell you what to do)?
No, my mother would kill me! I did promise someone that if the book got published, I’d get a raven tattoo on my arm… But I think that some people suit tattoos and some people don’t, and I’m pretty certain that I’m a “don’t.” I’m just not that cool.
And the Misery, tell us about the story behind that. It’s a far cry from settings in recent fantasy releases. How did you come up with the idea for this nuclear no-man’s land?
I got very bored with contemporary fantasy to a point where I’d almost stopped reading it. There was a big surge of people wanting to write very historically realistic stuff that I felt was very dreary and didn’t actually do history very well either, and I felt that a lot of the fun was being taken away and that it was more colourful, more explosive, to just write about something crazy. Craziness is fun; you can invent anything you want, and it’s entirely justified. I hadn’t planned for just how much people liked the Misery, and I decided to change a lot that I intended for the second book in the series in order not to lose that frontier feeling.
What was the hardest thing about writing ‘Blackwing’?
Getting the sciencey-paradox bits to work, and to keep them consistent throughout the book. After it’s eighth draft, I effectively had little snippets from three different threads all woven through the book and it had really muddied up what was actually happening. I knew that I couldn’t keep any one of them alone, and certainly not all three together. I spent 3 nights lying awake thinking about how to resolve the issue, and finally worked out something entirely new that worked all round.
What did you learn from writing the ‘Blackwing’? Either about yourself, or about the publishing world?
I’ve learned an awful lot about publishing – I think that in general it seems quite impenetrable when you’re on the outside looking in, but then once the door opens it turns out that everyone is lovely and they’re all as passionate about books as you are. Publishing people all seem really nice.
If you could change anything, anything at all, before the book is released, would you?
There’s one additional person that I wish I’d put in the acknowledgements, and I would have liked less exposition in one particular chapter. I’m very much of the opinion that less is more, but both Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz and Jessica Wade at Ace felt that a little more description was needed. But, an important attribute for a writer is knowing when to trust the professionals you work with to do their jobs, and that’s one of them.
Any advice to would-be writers out there?
Approach your own writing with an attitude of criticality and self awareness. I recently had a conversation with an author who was just about to finish his first novel, who seemed to believe that somehow he was owed a publishing deal (based on his assumption about his own ability) and had wild imaginings about how many books he would sell (many times over the average for a successful debut). He was very disparaging towards agents, the industry, seeing them as the enemy stopping him from getting his (unfinished) book out there, without really understanding the industry, or grasping that when you’re submitting your work you’re competing against thousands of talented, hard working writers. That kind of attitude is purely self destructive, as it leads you to assume your own greatness, and I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that writer. Writing is hard, but it’s a craft, and if you’re willing to accept your own deficiencies and weaknesses you can grow your skills and hopefully get some attention.
And finally, in 10 years’ time what’s the one thing that you want readers to remember from Blackwing?
I think that Blackwing delivers on a lot of themes that are close to my creative heart, but I guess that ultimately it’s the same message that we learned from Galaxy Quest: Never give up. Never surrender. Some things are worth fighting for.
Ed McDonald has spent many years dancing between different professions, cities and countries, but the only thing any of them share in common is that they have allowed him enough free time to write. He currently lives with his wife in London, a city that provides him with constant inspiration, where he works as a university lecturer. When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.
His debut Blackwing is scheduled to be released in the UK on July 20th 2017 by Gollancz, in the US on October 30th 2017; and available in German, Spanish, French, Hungarian and Russian (so far!) translations from 2018.