Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Friday, January 20, 2017
Interview with Ian Watson
Hello Ian, how are you? It’s been a while.
It has. In the interim I’ve become a full hermit, packing the second (and last) child off to university, so for the first time since my early twenties I’m living quite alone. Since I also work from home most of the time I now have no schedule whatsoever and can wake, sleep, and eat when I like. My body clock has given up. My productivity has slightly risen. And if I want to I can fly off to anywhere in the world on a whim without needing to even make arrangements to feed a cat. It’s an odd, disconnected way of life but it is having interesting effects on my writing.
I see you have a few new books out. Let’s talk about them.
I’ve been much slower at putting books out this past twelve months. In 2015 I picked up thirteen publishing credits and so hit my target of an average of one book (or story in an anthology) a month. I missed it by one book in 2014. But my 2016 goal was to rework a lot of old material sitting on my hard drive into something useful and fit for submitting. So now I have volumes 1,2,3,5, and 7 of a King Arthur series ready for beta reading and volumes 1,2,and 3 or a different 13-volume fantasy epic about ready. But neither project is anything like complete enough to think about publishing. So this year has been pretty quiet for new works from me.
The first one I want to talk about is Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini.
How did you come about with the idea of melding a fictional character (Holmes) with one who actually existed and astounded audiences for years (Houdini)?
All e-mails from Ron Fortier, Editor in Chief of Airship 27 press, come with screaming capitals titles. Always. And one day such a message arrived in my in-box shouting SHERLOCK HOLMES AND HARRY HOUDINI – TOGETHER!
Previous to this I’d done a lot of Holmes stories for Airship 27’s ongoing anthology series, SHERLOCK HOLMES, CONSULTING DETECTIVE. There are eight volumes out now, all with stories from me in there, and three more sitting in the pipeline. Most of my stories were also collected into a single anthology, SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERIES volume 1, and are also on audiobook. I’ve even got two nice “Best Short Story” trophies for a couple of my efforts. So I’m pretty well established with Holmes.
There is one Airship 27 anthology out under the title THE AMAZING HARRY HOUDINI. That’s based on the fictional persona of Houdini that appeared in some pulp magazines during the showman’s lifetime – one was penned by H.P. Lovecraft – and features the swashbuckling, fraud-exposing, crimefighting action adventurer escapologist on his 1900s European tour.
I contributed one of those stories too, so I suppose I was the natural go-to author for Ron to send his screaming capitals at when he wanted a team-up book.
Did you have to research Houdini? I know you are a Holmes expert in many ways, but Houdini must have been a new endeavor. Tell us about it?
The Houdini anthology writer’s guide was clear that we were writing the fictional hero not the historical man, but I do like to touch on as much real-life and real-world stuff as is possible to support to narrative. Houdini’s friend, manager, and general amanuensis Martin Beck was a real person, and he appears in the fictional adventures as a trusty right-hand man, trying to keep Houdini on a tour schedule and manage the press and theatre bookings while Harry insists on heading off into the next mystery. Houdini’s expertise was informed by his youthful exploits as trapeze stunt-boy Ehric, King of the Air, as a stage magician, and even as a street-fighter. His rivalry with competitor showmen who borrowed his act is a matter of record; he really did turn up at competitors shows to make fools of them! All of that makes it into the novel.
So what kind of adventure do these two men find themselves on, and how do they meet?
Holmes and Houdini are both starring solo acts, so the story is divided into four sections. Part One is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, one that begins with a mysterious package delivered on the anniversary of Professor Moriarty’s death. Part Two is a Houdini adventure that ends with him hunted for sport by an effete, elite, gentleman’s club. Part Three primarily focuses on the team up of the sidekicks. Dr Watson and Mr Beck get to compare notes and tips for coping with difficult best friends who insist on chasing villains, even while Watson and Beck go off and chase villains together. And finally, in Part Four, the two great men finally get to meet and pool their resources and abilities to deliver the show of a lifetime.
Does the story take place in England or in the US?
It’s in London, set during 1902. That was near the end of Holmes’ career and near the beginning of Houdini’s. There’s a helpful gap at that time in Dr Watson’s accounts as published by his literary agent (and Houdini’s real life friend) Arthur Conan Doyle, and Houdini was in England making his reputation.
How do they get along within the book? Do they hit it right off or are they wary of each other?
Each has an admiration from afar before they meet. Beck is determined to prevent Houdini issuing his usual challenge that he can escape anything to Holmes because he doesn’t want that kind of clash. Holmes and Houdini first meet when each is in disguise so it’s fun to watch them mutually detecting the other. But there are differences. Holmes is about the solution, Houdini is about the show; so there are some frictions.
How different was writing this for you compared to your usual Holmes novels?
I’ve never written a full-length Holmes novel before, only fifteen short stories and one novella. Full length mystery books require a lot more plotting work than any other kind of novel I’ve written. Historical settings require a lot more research than contemporary stories. Holmes stories are historical mysteries and therefore require the most effort of all!
The thing I tried to bear in mind was that some readers would be there for Holmes, some for Houdini, and some for both, so I had to deliver a story where each kind of reader felt they had got their money’s worth.
Is the villain someone we’ve seen before or is it someone all together new?
The Far Edge Club appeared in my previous Houdini story, but the characters in it this time are different. Professor Moriarty is long gone but still manages to cast a dark shadow over the book. His right-hand agent Colonel Sebastian Moran, “the second deadliest man in London” after the Napoleon of Crime himself, was established in-Canon as still being around in 1902, so he also manages to horn in to the story for a few memorable scenes.
Are you planning on teaming Holmes with any other characters from the real world any time soon?
The other character from the real world in HOLMES AND HOUDINI is actually Conan Doyle. Holmesians have long enjoyed portraying him as Watson’s editor and literary agent, and since he was also a friend of Houdini’s he is a natural linking character. Doyle was a controversial figure in 1902 because of his outspoken support of the British concentration camps (the first time the term was used) where Boer families were contained during the South African conflict. He also harboured some ambitions of licensing Houdini’s name and character for literary works. Since the then-recent Boer war affects the plotline and since Watson and Beck have things to say about publishing the exploits of their friends, it seemed only fair to give Doyle a scene or two also.
But other than that, I’m not looking for another big Holmes team-up novel – unless one of those all-capitals e-mails turns up with some really tempting pitch.
Does Watson appear in the story as well?
The Holmes-centric sections of the story are narrated by Watson in the way that almost all the Canon Holmes stories are. 1902 was a big year for Watson, too. According to one of the rare accounts Holmes wrote of his own investigations, that was the year that Watson “deserted him for a wife” – probably Watson’s second or third marriage depending on how the story chronology is interpreted.
Now, tell us about ‘Labours of Hercules’
I was writing a different novel with a deadline. I rebelled. I suddenly decided that I wanted to write this epic fantasy story instead. I burned through a first draft in about three weeks and, having got it out of my system, then went back and managed to hit my proper deadline. So LABOURS OF HERCULES is a book no-one asked for, no-one expected, and no-one was waiting for!
Is this the traditional Hercules tale of his many labours, or have you added to it in some way? Rather I should ask, what have you added to it?
Remarkably few of the modern interpretations or retellings of Hercules capture the complicated shadings of the character. Not only was he the premiere hero of Greek storytelling but a flawed, tragic, very much larger-than-life figure even amongst the many characters who weave about and cross-over in Greek myth.
And central to that, but seldom referenced now, was Hercules’ darkest hour when he went mad and mistook his children for enemies and murdered them all. Versions vary but he probably slaughtered four sons, four nephews, and one of only two daughters he was ever recorded as fathering (the old tales name a hundred and four of his sons). His temporary madness was attributed to Hera, but in ten minutes he shattered his life, his marriage, his reputation, and his future. He was literally a haunted man, since his slaughtered children could not rest in peace until he atoned for his crimes. That seemed to me to be the proper place to start his story.
The Labours were Hercules’ penance. He was sentenced to perform ten impossible tasks for the man who hated him most in all the world, his cousin and rival King Eurystheus, who had stolen the kingdom that had originally been Hercules’ birthright. He ended up performing twelve Labours since two were disqualified on technicalities. Each was a job designed to make him fail or get him killed.
You have to be a pretty tough damned hero to come back from all that.
I’ve added is the modern telling in a contemporary storyform. I’ve kept the full rich story presented in the original Greek sources. There are a great deal of footnotes illustrating where things have come from and explaining choices I have made between conflicting source materials.
The main difference between modern readers and ancient ones is that our audience has been trained to expect the whys and wherefores of how a character acts. So I’ve tried to bring out the backstory that informs the choices the characters make. Hopefully it offers a satisfying read.
What influenced you to write a Hercules novel?
One of my favourite books is Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece, a telling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Graves grounds his story in proper characterizations and motivations, even as he follows the plotlines and events of the ancient sources. One can read his book as a straight adventure – even the gods might be allegorical – or as a full-blown fantasy or as a political thriller. When I came to LABOURS OF HERCULES I tried to use Graves as my benchmark for how to pitch the tale.
Hercules was once the most important hero in literature. Many other hero-stories were rebranded as Hercules yarns by bards who worked out they got better tips that way. The cult of Herakles was strong in Hellenic Greece and Hercules had temples in the Roman period. He was the appointed god of heroes, athletes, courage, health, agriculture, trade, oracles, and fertility, and the divine protector of mankind. And yet he is persistently portrayed as a bit of a crude brute, much more Conan than King Arthur, a lover of women (and possibly men and boys), quick to anger and quick to compassion, simple yet not stupid, and a force of nature that cannot be stopped. He’s very different from the sort of smart, manipulative, savvy heroes I tend to write so he was a new writing challenge.
Is Hercules the only hero within these pages? Or does he have allies?
Hercules’ Labours happened at the very height of the Greek heroic age. During those years he crossed-over with every single Greek hero of note and a few characters of European and North African legend as well. He was an alumni of Chiron the Centaur’s school of heroes, along with Castor and Pollux and other notables. Some of the young men who followed him on his quests went on to be big heroes in their own rights, most notably Theseus and Telamon. He took time off to be an Argonaut with Jason, Argos, Orpheus and co. He bumped into Prometheus the Fire-Giver and a massive collection of titans and gods. And he met and romanced a fair proportion of the world’s eligible heroines. All of them are in the book!
What is your take on Herc? God living in the world of men? Man cast out by the Gods? Godling who is not at home in either world?
There’s quite a bit of theology presented in the original stories, and some slightly dodgy genetics. Hercules’ mother Alcemene thought she was greeting her victorious kingly bridegroom, but it was Zeus in disguise. So she became pregnant with Herc, but also with her husband’s son, Hercules’ twin-half-brother! Hercules was mortal but very strong, strangling serpents in his crib. Alcemene, frightened of Hera’s malice to a bastard born to the Queen of Heaven’s husband, exposed Hercules to die; but Athena tricked Hera into finding the boy and suckling him without realising who he was, thus feeding him with the potential for immortality. Hercules bit down rather hard, by the way, causing the Milky Way. Eventually a deal was made amongst the gods that Hercules might win a place in Olympus if he survived a series of trials – and those turned out to be the Labours. When Hercules finally died he found his way to heaven.
Hercules really didn’t care much about any of this. He very much lived in the now, happy with friends, terrible in war, striding the world like the demigod he was. And yet he was also the end of that world, that age of mythology. He was Zeus’ last human bastard. He was the last slayer of mythological monsters. He was the last free-roaming adventurer. The next generation of Greek heroes were the ones who warred with the Trojans, a grimmer and more realistic bunch devoid of hydras and minotaurs. It was Hercules who closed the age of mythology and began the age of men.
Is Herc a troubled, wounded character in your novel? Or has he risen above that and instead is seeking revenge?
Hercules starts at his lowest ebb, but once he’s out there kicking monsters he cheers up quite a bit. His motivation for his Labours is to settle his children to rest in the afterlife. His final task takes him down to hell. Prometheus and Hera and Athena and Zeus might all have their agendas for him, might see the Labours as of cosmic significance setting the future of mankind, preparing Olympus for the last great war with the Titans or whatever. Hercules just wants to make things as right as he can for children that he loved and let down and for his first wife with whom he retains a kind of affectionate-ex relationship. He’s not a big picture thinker, but he’s a big-hearted world-changer.
How happy are you with your Hercules interpretation?
I’m content. I think I’ve done justice to the sources and portrayed a reasonable warts-and-all yet still heroic protagonist. I’ve thought more about him than Hercules ever would.
Are you considering revisiting Hercules anytime soon? Or was this a one and done novel?
I’ve told his story. It’s all in there. Next project, please!
But if people want to decide for themselves, there’s a sample chapter at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/hercules_sample.htm Of all the chapters, “Chasing off the Stymphalian Birds” one actually stands alone pretty well as a short story in its own right.
Thanks for Joining us here on Ralphs Rants, Ian. Good luck with both your new books and whatever else you have coming down the pike. Feel free to give us previews to what you have coming up below, even if it’s just titles.
Probably my next novel will be PREMIUM DELIVERY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, a sequel to the light-hearted SF weird science book THE TRANSDIMENSIONAL TRANSPORT COMPANY. It’s in the can, as they say, but also in the publishing queue.
After that is SHERLOCK HOLMES CONSULTING DETECTIVE volume 9, which features my story “The Adventure of the Failing Light,” in which Holmes and Watson investigate the real-life mystery of the lonely Scottish island lighthouse whose entire crew vanished without trace.
Also out sometime this year will be the next Immerse or Die anthology, a volume of savagely competitively reviewed stories voted for by a panel of critics. It will include an SF story from me called “Borrowed Lives”.
All my previous stuff and some samples and previews are on my woefully-simple and uncool website at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/
Thanks a lot for letting me rant alongside you.
Ian, It's always a pleasure having you here and talking to you. Thanks for joining us yet again, and I'm already looking forward to the next time!
As always all of my own books are available at http://RLAngeloJr.com or http://tinyurl.com/ralphsamazon2
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