Interview with Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan is the multi-award winning British author of various science fiction works including Altered Carbon, Market Forces and Black Man (US title—Thirteen). However, in 2008 he burst onto the epic fantasy scene with The Steel Remains, the first book in a projected trilogy known as A Land Fit for Heroes. Three years later and after much anticipation, the second installment, The Cold Commands, has finally hit shelves. Having been lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of this novel, it gives me much pleasure to say that it’s definitely worth the wait.

So what do you do when you finish a novel and three hours later you’re still feeling shellshocked? Why, you go and request an interview with the author, of course! Much to my delight, Richard readily agreed to answer some questions.

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Introducing Richard Morgan

Hi Richard, thanks very much for joining us. I’ve just finished reading The Cold Commands and I’m still catching my breath.
Thank you very much.

How do you envisage readers responding to your books? If you could choose just one thing for each reader to take away from your work, what would it be?
Impossible to say—each reader brings a different self to a book, so, not unreasonably, each reader takes something different away. For me personally, the stories are sketches in inevitable loss and courage in the face of that loss, the potential beauty in life and the human stupidity that pisses that beauty away. As Roberto Benigni’s character says in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, “it’s a sad and beautiful world”, and as Marcus Aurelius (apparently) said, “Death grins at us all; all a man can do is grin back”. That’s the ground I’m interested in working. Whether readers tune in to that or find something else there is way beyond my control.

While you say that your novels are meant primarily to entertain, you are also quite open about the fact that they hold deeper meaning and contain various degrees of social and political commentary. Do you think that any writer can truly distance themselves from their views when they write?
Well, you can. The question is why would you? Of course, there is a very simple answer to that question, which is so that you can write a fiction bland and trite enough to shift copies to the broadest possible audience and make a shit-load of cash. But then you’re not really a writer, you’re just a word whore. To me, writing is a form of communication, and how are you going to communicate anything if you carefully extract the essence of who you are from your writing? By definition, a good story takes in broad swatches of the human condition, and each (good) writer will come at those aspects of the story from their own personal standpoint, whatever that may be. If you have anything at all worthwhile to say in your fiction, then there’s really no other way to do it.

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A Land Fit for Heroes: a different kind of epic fantasy

One of my favorite aspects of your fantasy novels is the fact that they are set some years after a large scale war, instead of during it. The wartime experiences of the characters serve to shape them in a number of ways. I’ve often wondered how the heroes of epic fantasy novels would fare after the war has ended and how they would cope when their society no longer needs them. Was it a similar curiosity that inspired you to choose this setting, or another reason?
Yes, it was pretty much that same feeling for me—why do all these fantasy epics tend to be set during the time of a Great War? That’s rhetorical of course—I know why; because we all get off on the thrill of violent conflict. But that said, I think we show an unhealthy fascination for the bright and shiny propaganda end of war, and rather too little interest in the grubby truths and fallout that come after. We tell this simple Boy’s Own lie, again and again, full of sound and fury and habitually climaxing with victory and medals, and then the story ends; but in fact that’s where the real cost of war, the real story, begins. To take just one example, I read somewhere that the Vietnam War has claimed the lives of more than twice as many American veterans by their own hand in the years since the conflict ended as were killed in the actual fighting. And that doesn’t even begin to factor in all those who ended up homeless or in the penal system. This—along with all the common atrocities habitually committed by soldiers—is the hidden face of war, and it really does need more exposure in our popular fiction.

Can you give us any idea of what to expect from the third and final novel in the trilogy?
I think anyone who’s read The Cold Commands probably has some reasonable sense of where we’re going with this. I don’t really want to say much more than that, firstly in order not to spoil Commands for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, but secondly because I’m right at the start with the new one and only have the loosest of ideas how it will pan out. But suffice it to say The Dark Defiles will collect the whispered implications from the first book, gather in the narrative threads left loose at the end of the second, and provide, to the extent that any of my books ever do, a sense of closure for each of the main characters.

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On characters, controversy and creative leaps

In my opinion, your characters are the true highlights of your novels. Do they ever threaten to run away with the story? Do you have a favorite or one who you enjoyed writing the most?
In fact, in most cases my stories evolve from the characters, so it’s less a case of run away with and more simply run. Very hard to name favorites though—they’ve all been fun to write in different ways, and often it’s secondary characters rather than protagonists that please you most, not least because you don’t usually see it coming. Ringil’s mother Ishil is a good case in point—she started out very much as a straightforward plot device to move the narrative along, and then I fell in love with her. Her scenes with Gil in Steel are among my favorites in the whole book.

The characters in A Land Fit for Heroes are fascinatingly complex with many shades of grey to their personalities. How did you develop the ideas for these damaged yet undeniably human individuals?
Uhm—don’t really know how to write any other sort…

When you first wrote The Steel Remains and decided that Ringil and Archeth should be homosexual, did you expect it to elicit the negative reaction it did from some readers? Did you feel this was something that needed to be done or was it just another aspect of their personalities that evolved as you developed their characters?
Very much the latter. Ringil evolved as gay—originally in a short mood piece I wrote called Hero which eventually became the first chapter of Steel—because it just seemed to fit the context; it accounted for his alienation, it neatly exempted him from having married or fathered any children, it gave him a sensibility not common among more “red-blooded” males. Above all, it made him profoundly alone, gave him instant outsider status, and that was exactly what I needed in a noir protagonist. With Archeth, it was perhaps slightly more deliberate in that, having seen how well it worked with Ringil, I was good and ready with the same device for my principal female character. But still, that said, Archeth’s lesbian nature also grew pretty organically out of that first scene she has in Steel with the Emperor and his new slave girl.

As to the negative reactions, I suppose I always knew there would be some—fantasy does seem to be a far more conservative genre than science fiction, so you were bound to have a few lunatic right wingers taking offense, and then there’s that whole insecure adolescent male mindset (actually, come to think of it, those two are probably very close to each other, the former growing out of the latter with age). So none of those reactions were very surprising. What did surprise me, though, was the number of people in the he’s-only-doing-this-to-shock brigade. People who apparently had visions of me sitting in my study, carefully crafting a character for maximum offense and cackling away to myself haha, this’ll alienate a whole bunch of readers. I mean—really?

We hear about some of the rather negative reactions some readers had to the homosexual aspects of The Steel Remains; however, I assume you must have received some positive feedback as well. For instance, I have friends, both gay and straight, who absolutely loved these parts of the novel. In fact, one went as far as saying she was really hoping that Archeth would ‘finally get some action’ in The Cold Commands. Do these kind of readers write to you as well? Or are the vocal haters more likely to respond?
No, on a personal level the positive feedback has far outweighed the negative so far. I think my favorite example so far was a guy who went past my stall at the Trolls et Legendes convention in Belgium this year, saw the copies of Steel (French edition) and did a double take, then came back, asked me “You are Richard Morgan?” and when I said yes, said with much emotion “Thank you for write this book! Thank you!” And marched off again. I’ve had variations on that from a fair few quarters, both by e-mail and in real time, over the last couple of years. And of course the gay community in general were really great when Steel came out—they ran extensive reviews and coverage, and were very complimentary about the way the gay elements had been handled, which for me is the highest praise imaginable.

Do closed-minded or hateful reactions to your work bother you? Or do you see them as encouragement or an indication that you’re doing something right and need to keep it up? What do you do with your hate mail? Do you even bother reading it?
Thing is—if you’re going to write anything worth reading, you’re almost certain to upset somebody; you simply can’t afford to worry about it. Mostly, I find hate mail hilarious—I’ve even posted a couple of examples of the anti-gay stuff on my website for the amusement of my readers, and because exposure to the light is always the best cure for prejudice. But that amusement is always tinged with an edge of sadness and anger because this is the thin end of the wedge, and at the thick end is stuff like Proposition 8, Ugandan Christianity, and the end of an Iranian rope.

Your characters are very diverse, yet all are well developed as individuals and never seem to be in danger of degenerating into stereotypes. I’ve heard people say they find it easier to relate to characters of the same gender or sexuality. As a heterosexual male, do you think it’s any harder to write believable gay or female characters? Is it really any harder than writing a character that differs from you in any other trait?
Obviously, any character you write is outside your comfort zone to some extent—most of us are just not fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate!) enough to lead lives interesting enough to write novels about. So not only am I not gay, I’m also not a trained swordsman, an accomplished horseback rider or a professional assassin! I’ve never had sex with a man, but then I’ve never killed a man either, or a dragon. And it’s weird how no one ever questions your ability to imagine those violent things, but as soon as something like race, sex or sexuality comes up, the question suddenly becomes fraught. True, writing gay sex was among the more demanding things I’ve ever had to do as an author, and I’m quietly proud of the fact that I seem to have pulled it off; but in the end it doesn’t do to make too much of that, I think. This is my job, after all—making creative leaps of imagination and putting them down on the page in coherent fashion is what I get paid for.

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Fantasy, science fiction and genre tropes with a twist

The non-human characters such as the Dwenda and the Helmsmen are quite different from what might be considered more standard fantasy fare and play vital roles in the plot. Where do you find inspiration for such strange creations? Do you have one which you are particularly proud of?
I think my intention was really to put the standard fantasy races in a cocktail shaker, really mash it all up and see what poured out. So you’ve got elves, sort of, but they’re the bad guys and rather than fading from the land in Tolkienesque melancholy, they had to be driven out in a savage total war—and are now intent on a violent comeback. You’ve got dwarves, sort of, but they’re tall and honorable and black, and they steer human affairs rather like a bunch of scumbag CIA military advisers in some third world backwater. You’ve got demons, sort of, but it’s not clear if they are something the dwarf analogue race summoned up and captured or merely built. What I’ve enjoyed most of all about creating these things is the sense of ambiguity that can be left hanging over them all. You never quite know what you’re dealing with. As to a favorite, that’s hard to say, but I am particularly pleased with the dynamics I came up with for the Scaled Folk invasion.

There are definitely science fiction elements in A Land Fit for Heroes. In what ways do you think this series was influenced by your background as a science fiction writer?
Really, I think it’s more that I’ve refused to play the standard epic fantasy game of retro-fitted archaism; my novels are unashamedly modernist in their outlook and that bleeds over not only into language and character, but also into how you handle stuff like magic or gods and demons. For example, people have called out the Helmsmen as artificial intelligences, and therefore science fictional, but that’s not something I’m prepared to confirm one way or the other—I don’t have to, either to myself or to the reader. I quite honestly, quite literally do not know what they really are. You take the Helmsmen as you find them. If a reader is determined to decode them in true SF style, well, then, that reader will end up believing them to be AIs. If you’re more mystically inclined, you may decide that the Kiriath summoned powerful spirits from the void and trapped them in iron to be their servants. Or you may decide that those two are actually the same thing, just described in different language. But the beauty of fantasy as a genre is that you don’t have to decide at all.

What do you think are the main strengths and limitations of the different genres respectively?
Well, I think we covered some of this above. What I’ve enjoyed in both Steel and The Cold Commands is that I can create things like the Helmsmen, the Akyia or the Creature at the Crossroads, and I don’t have to explain them—they are imagistic, atavistic, the exact measure of their impact on the page; they don’t have to make any kind of logical sense and you can take from them whatever speculative interpretation you like. That allows you a freedom SF simply can’t provide.

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Fiction, reality and life

When trying to describe your latest novels I often find myself sprouting something along the lines of ‘hardcore gritty science fiction fantasy noir with generous servings of bad ass’. How would you describe them?
I couldn’t hope to top that—I won’t even try.

What do you think the noir elements add to A Land Fit for Heroes?
A sense of reality, a sense that you halfway recognize these people and situations from the world we live in now. A grubby, small-scale intensity of event and character. And an utter denial of the cheap triumphalism inherent in so much of epic fantasy.

Despite taking place in a fantasy setting, your work doesn’t shy away from gritty realism. It often explores the darker aspects of society and human nature. Do you think that all people, or at least most, are capable of committing terrible acts given certain circumstances? What would you say to those who might accuse you of being too cynical of humanity?
Atrocities are far more often committed by idealists (Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot) than they are by cynics—I think cynicism is vastly underrated as a civilizing impulse. Imagine how things might have gone in Germany in the thirties if the general response to Ein Volk Ein Reich Ein Fuhrer! had been Yeah – right! Whatever. What most people call cynicism seems to me just the art of standing back and seeing things for what they really are. Human nature is pretty dark at root, we are still essentially violent apes, and unless you apply the necessary civilized checks and balance, societies do tend towards the corrupt and oppressive. There are people who get very shrill when you point out stuff like this, because it seems they would rather not examine the facts too closely. They’ve made up a story about the universe—God is good, America has a Manifest Destiny to bring democracy to the world, Women are happier in the home, the Classless Society is coming, the Free Market will solve all our problems, you name it—and it upsets them when you forcibly rub their noses in how flimsy the factual evidence for their flights of fancy actually is. But as John Adams said, facts are stubborn things. They won’t go away just because you don’t like them.

What would you consider your biggest achievement as a writer so far? What would you consider your greatest achievement to date unrelated to writing?
Black Man
is probably still the novel I’m proudest of to date. Greatest non-writing achievement would have to be my four month old son Daniel—though he was, of course, co-authored and the co-author did most of the heavy lifting!

Thanks heaps for your time Richard! I, for one, will be awaiting your future works with bated breath. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish up?
Hope everyone enjoys the book as much as you did!

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Richard’s novels, including The Cold Commands, are available in bookstores now and come highly recommended by The Ranting Dragon. He is currently starting work on The Dark Defiles, the third book in A Land Fit for Heroes.

About Michelle Goldsmith

Michelle Goldsmith
Michelle is an Australian university student, bookseller, voracious reader and fantasy geek. Although her major is in Behavioural Ecology she has a passion for literature of all kinds. When she isn’t reading or stalking wildlife she can be found lurking among the shelves at her workplace, telling bad jokes, unintentionally traumatising delivery men, small children and the elderly or drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee with various enablers. Some (aka. Stephan) speculate that Michelle never sleeps and possesses slight, and mostly useless magic powers that allow her to guess almost anything correctly. These rumors are yet to be scientifically confirmed. She also keeps a personal blog of book reviews (various genres), and other assorted ramblings (some of which are actually coherent).

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