Richard Harland is an accomplished Australian author of numerous novels and short stories in the fantasy, science fiction, horror, and crime fiction genres. Here at the Ranting Dragon, I recently read and reviewed two of his more recent works, Worldshaker and Liberator. After thoroughly enjoying my foray into his quirky and fascinating world, I felt compelled to track down my countryman and introduce him to you all. I hope you’ll join me in welcoming the talented Richard Harland!
Starting things off…
First of all, thanks very much for agreeing to this interview! Things must be really busy for you at the moment. Your most recent novel, the young adult steampunk adventure Liberator, has recently been released in Australia, the UK, France, and Germany, and is soon to be released in the US. The first novel in the series, Worldshaker, has also been published in all of those countries. How does it feel to know that people all over the world will be reading your books?
How does it feel? Fantastic! I can’t help wondering what I’ve done to deserve so much good fortune!
I guess one thing about fantasy is that it really isn’t limited to readers in one country. Imagination is universal! That could be bad for us in Australia, because we might be swamped by writers from overseas, but so far it’s working the other way. Australian fantasy writers are making waves all over the world!
Worldshaker, Liberator and writing in general
Now that you’re finished writing Liberator, have you got any new projects on the drawing board? Or do you plan to take a break?
A break? What does that word mean? I started so late as a writer—after 25 years of writer’s block!—I’ve got a whole heap of catching up to do. (And a whole heap of ideas just crying out to be written!) I’ve started writing the next novel, which is set in the same world as Worldshaker and Liberator, but a different time and place with different characters. I’m also planning another big fantasy project… But my lips are sealed on that one!
Do you think we’ve seen the last of Col and Riff for now? Or do you plan on writing another book set in the same world sometime in the foreseeable future?
I’d like to carry the same characters and situation forward again, but for the time being, that particular story has wrapped up. Col and Riff would feature again, but no longer as main characters. The story of their relationship has concluded—anything in the future for them would be an anticlimax.
You say that Worldshaker took 15 years to develop while Liberator came together in a ‘six-month rush’. Any idea why? How does it feel to write that final word on the final page?
I can explain Worldshaker. I took ten years planning it because I had no hope of getting it published for a very long time. No Australian publisher would have been interested in steampunk then—no market for it. When I started actually writing it, I was determined it had to be my best novel ever. I didn’t have a contract, so I took another five years improving and improving it. Three total rewrites—but it was worth it!
I can’t explain the sequel, though. I’ve always been a slow writer until Liberator! Maybe it was partly because I was held back by waiting for a firm publisher’s contract before I started writing. Then I was held back by doing the promo tours for Worldshaker in the US and UK—I was like an overwound spring, just busting to write by the time I began! Plus the story itself fell perfectly into place, all the different elements working together. I don’t think you can make that happen fast; it’s sheer luck if it happens for you.
The last chapter of Liberator is a kind of epilogue. I think it’s one of the best in the book, but it’s also the end of the romance. So, a feeling of tremendous satisfaction along with a kind of sadness.
Characters, covers and comedy
One of my favorite moments in Liberator involves Col’s overly sensitive mother, Quinnea, having a personal revelation. Do you have a favorite scene in either book? If so, what is it and why?
I guess my personal favorites are the climactic scenes in both novels, only because it was so exhilarating to write them. By the time I got to the climactic scenes, the characters were acting by themselves, the story was telling itself. That’s a great feeling—the author’s reward for setting everything up right earlier on!
Do you have a favorite character in the series, or one that was especially fun to write? If so, who is it and why?
Mr. Gibber is a special favorite—he almost ran away with Worldshaker. The story was in danger of getting lost when he kept grabbing attention! He was the most fun to write in either novel.
Lye is my favorite character in Liberator, for sure. She’s not comic like Mr. Gibber, not in the least. She seems very real to me—larger than life, as my characters usually are, but real along with that. She was the most troubling figure in either novel—I have very mixed feelings about her.
What on earth is the creature Murgatrude? Can you tell us or will it forever remain a secret?
We did a reading when Liberator was launched at the Continuum convention in Melbourne, and Murgatrude was represented by a stuffed toy dog. But next time it’ll probably be a stuffed toy cat. He’s very elusive, that Murgatrude!
Your books showcase your very unique, refreshing and quirky style of humor. Where do you get the ideas for such bizarre hilarity? Does it require an effort to think up, or do the jokes emerge fully formed?
Whoo! This is like ‘where do your ideas come from?’ but worse!! I don’t dare think about where humor comes from—it has to sneak up on me. Seriously, I doubt you can set out to be funny—you just start imagining something, and it sort of warps away until you start laughing at it. Then you realize you’re being funny. At least, that’s how I experience it—not like something I’m deliberately creating but something that creates itself. I’m just the first person to laugh at it.
The various editions of your books throughout the world have some really great covers. How do you feel about the cover art? Does it match how you imagined your world? Any favorites?
I feel very, very fortunate. I’ve heard that the cover of a book counts for 50% of its sales, and yet the author has almost no control over it. I couldn’t believe it when Allen & Unwin said they’d approach Anthony Lucas to see if he’d do a cover. After seeing his movie Jasper Morello, I was praying he’d say yes—and he did!
My English publisher, Templar, didn’t even tell me they were approaching Ian Miller. The famous Ian Miller—probably the biggest name in science fiction/fantasy art, and the only artist name that had already registered in my memory, because I loved his work. And he said yes, too!
The German cover is great in a different way, and the full jacket of the US hardback. The French is, well, French—their covers aren’t like anyone else’s. They must work in France, because Worldshaker won a big prize over there, the ‘Tam Tam Je Bouquine’ award.
If you weren’t an author, what other career can you see yourself pursuing?
I know two careers I could have pursued, because I did pursue them when I had writer’s block. I was a university lecturer for ten years, and I used to play folk-rock music. But when I had the chance to become a writer, I jumped at it. No other career compares!
History, revolutions and the darker side of human nature
Worldshaker and Liberator are not just fun reads; they also touch upon some darker themes such as oppression, prejudice and revolution. Can you tell us anything about the literary context of the novels? Did you set out with the intention of exploring particular themes or did they develop as you wrote?
I didn’t set out to write a literary novel—the thematic stuff crept in during the process of writing it. I became more and more interested in how people can commit cruel, bad acts without being intrinsically cruel, bad people—because of the assumptions that their society has ingrained into them. Most of all, I found myself showing what happens when people view classes of other people as not properly human, not fellow-beings. Fantasy is good for exploring such themes because you can show the workings of human nature in extreme form, with greater visibility.
I considered these parts of Worldshaker and Liberator particularly well done. Did you have to do much research or do you have a personal interest in history and revolutions?
No research, but it’s true, I’ve always been fascinated by revolutions, especially the French and Russian ones. Those periods of history have been a hobby of mine for so long, they color my imagination even when I’m not thinking about them consciously. There are parallels to the French and Russian and other revolutions, but I didn’t work to create any particular similarities. The characters and social groups seemed to make the parallels happen by their own momentum.
Steampunk and other genres
What inspired you to write a book with a steampunk setting? What are your favorite things about steampunk in general?
I’ve always loved the fantasy of Mervyn Peake—dark gothicky characters living in a vast, gloomy castle. I developed my own take on that line of fantasy by creating a kind of metal castle and having it move around on rollers. I never thought of Worldshaker as a steampunk novel while I was planning it—I only realized it could be called steampunk when the new trend built up in America. Calling it steampunk was a means to getting it published. And completely by accident, it is steampunk, about as steampunky as a novel can be!
What I love about steampunk is that it opens up new avenues for imagination. Anything is possible in fantasy—so why does it let itself get pinned into a medieval-ish, Tolkien-ish straightjacket? (Lord of the Rings is still one of my two favorite books of all time—but I don’t want to read endless Tolkien imitations!) Steampunk opens the imagination up to fantasy versions of the industrial age—but past, like fantasy, not futuristic, like science fiction. That sets my creative juices flowing! (And always has—there are steampunky elements in many of my earlier books, such as the Ferren trilogy.)
There has been some criticism of steampunk as a ‘frivolous’ genre. How would you respond to such dismissal of your work, and that of many other great authors?
I think some people with a science fiction background consider steampunk as a step down from ‘serious’ science fiction speculation. Of course, they think the same about fantasy, but steampunk annoys them more because they see it as eating into ‘their’ territory. I suspect they don’t want the scene to change, they believe that genres should stay the same forever, they don’t like to see new growths and new evolution.
(I used to lecture in English Literature, and I could go on and on and on about the danger of trying to freeze genres and deny new genre developments.)
But, okay, a lot of steampunk is fun, it sweeps the reader along on a wild romp. Is there anything wrong about that? Steampunk can be lighthearted, and it can also be dark and serious. I’m on the dark and serious wing—I love gloomy atmospheres, gothicky settings; even the comic parts of Worldshaker and Liberator are edgy and grotesque rather than lighthearted. I think it’s a sign of a true genre that it can swing in many directions.
But there’s one area where steampunk usually isn’t very serious—it’s not often serious with science. Those who insist on serious science in science fiction will never be persuaded about steampunk. Worldshaker and Liberator are serious about human nature, about society and culture, about history. But the technology is more imaginative than actual scientific possibility.