An interview with Paul Kearney

Image: Paul Kearney Paul Kearney was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, in 1967. He went to a local grammar school, and then to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Middle English. Shortly after leaving Oxford, he went on a solitary climbing trip to the Isle of Skye, and it was after tumbling off a mountain there that the character of Michael Riven first came to him. The first half of The Way to Babylon was composed shortly after, and taken up by the literary agents Campbell, Thomson & McLaughlin. Richard Evans at Victor Gollancz bought the book, and Gollancz then published Kearney's next seven books, including the Monarchies of God series.

Kearney’s The Ten Thousand was Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month for June 2010.

Paul kindly spoke to Joshua S Hill in July 2010.

1. Give us a brief description of yourself (who you are, where you’re from, what you do if you’re not writing full time).

I’m 43 years old (Dear Lord – 43?) I’m from Northern Ireland, and if you believe the research my family members have done, then we’ve been Irish for only a thousand years. Before that, we were Vikings. That really fits, as my whole male family (and there are a lot of ‘em), are all well over six feet, and incline to blonde or red hair. The name “Kearney” translates in old Irish as either “warlike” or “victorious.” Which is kind of nice.

I write full-time, and have done for almost twenty years (Dear Lord – twenty years….?) You get the message – I still get startled by how time has slipped by.

a. Cats, dogs or other?

I have two Jack Russell terriers, who are my constant companions. They think they are six feet tall, and bulletproof.

2. Have you been a fantasy fan all your life? Do you read outside the genre?

For my sins, I’ve been reading fantasy since I was twelve. Earlier, if you want to quibble and count Jules Verne, H G Wells and Lord Dunsany. It’s been the bedrock of my imaginative life. Do I read outside the genre? To be brutally honest, these days I read entirely outside it. Since I started writing fantasy commercially, I’ve pretty much stopped reading it.

a. Who are your favourite authors in fantasy and outside of fantasy?

I’ve always loved Tolkien (of course), Donaldson, Jack Vance, and Alan Garner, a neglected genius. Steve Erikson is also pure excellence, as are James Blaylock and John Crowley. Outside the genre, it’s Patrick O Brian and Cormac McCarthy, for my money the finest writers of the late twentieth century.

b. Who are those writers that have inspired and pushed you?

Take any of the above. McCarthy makes my jaw drop open in awe at what he does – there is a bloody, ultra-violent description of a Comanche attack in Blood Meridian which I have read aloud to friends – it sounds like poetry, purely because of the beauty of the language.

3. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

(Groans) Yes, you guessed it – a writer. And ideally a soldier too.

a. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

I used to copy out words before I knew what they meant – writing before I could read – I remember vividly doing so at the age of three or so. The actual physical process of writing fascinated me. When I was at school I wrote a horrible fat fantasy novel at the age of sixteen. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write.

4. Describe the road you’ve taken to get where you are now as an author. Standalone novels not selling well, being dropped by a publisher, etc.

Well, it’s been a long time (Dear Lord, etc). My early publishing life was somewhat charmed – I submitted a novel to an agent, who took it on, who submitted it to a publisher, who took it on. There were maybe eight rejections involved in the whole process, which is nothing in publishing when you’re trying to get started.

I wrote no short stories, was published in no magazines – I just wrote a book, and that was that. At the time I thought that was how the system worked; now I know I was very lucky.

The advances for my first three books were big, and I was able to write full time straight away – again, I thought that was how it was supposed to work. However, while reviews were very good, and Kingdom is still the best thing I’ve ever written, the sales were just not there. In those days, a publisher would stick with you, especially if your editor was fighting your corner, as Richard Evans, bless him, was in mine. So we hung in there, shifted to straightforward epic fantasy, and The Monarchies of God was the result.

I had a couple of problems with deadlines (always a bugbear of mine), and basically felt I’d messed up the last Monarchies book. Also, I was being pushed to write epic fantasy-lite, in the Eddings style, which I loved when I was twelve, but was damned if I was going to write now. So I shifted publishers to Bantam, found another superb editor in Simon Taylor, and signed a massive American deal for The Mark of Ran. I thought I had it made at last.

But it don’t matter how good you think your books are – or how good everyone else thinks they are either, if no sucker is buying them. Ran did OK, but Forsaken didn’t. Bantam cut their losses and ran, despite Simon’s efforts on my behalf – the bean-counters had their day.

Well, that’s that, I thought. I looked into a job in journalism, and was about to take up my notepad and pencil and depart for the big smoke when Mark Newton of Solaris books dropped me a line out of the blue, and asked if I’d like to write a book for him. Would I!

The Ten Thousand was the result. And after the hiccup of Solaris’s takeover by Rebellion, Corvus is also done and dusted, with Kings of Morning to follow next year. So I guess all’s well that ends well! This year I have the two Monarchies Omnibuses coming out in August and September, plus Corvus in November. After I finish Kings, which is due next January, I’m hoping to get the Sea Beggars back on track. It certainly has been a roller-coaster ride!

5. When did you realize you had such a fan as Steven Erikson? Do you have a relationship?

Steve was another one of those e-mail out of the blue things. He dropped me a line as I was finishing Ships to say how much he loved the Monarchies series – Gardens of the Moon was about to be published. We corresponded for a couple of years – he really is a fascinating guy – and then lost touch when he moved back to Canada. However he recently got back to me now that he’s back in UK, so we are in touch again. Actually, it was Steve who put me in touch with Simon Taylor at Bantam, so I definitely owe him a beer for that one.

6. Where do you like to write?

I have an office that looks out on the sea twenty feet away, and that works for me…

7. What took you back to Northern Ireland?

Simple – my wife was offered a job there. Me, I can work anywhere, so we decamped and crossed the sea. We’ve built ourselves a house now, so I think we’re here for good this time.

8. I won’t ask what the inspiration for The Ten Thousand was, so I’ll ask why you wrote The Ten Thousand?

Image: The Ten Thousand book cover Well, I wrote it to earn some money… But if you want to be a little less prosaic about it, I also wrote it because I loved that era of history – hoplite Greece, Achaemenid Persia. I’ve read about it for years, and pretty much know it inside out. Also, the sheer brute savagery of phalanx fighting was fascinating to me – I still cannot conceive how men endured it.

9. You’ve worked hard to avoid the stereotypical fantasy races of human/elf/dwarf in this book without making it look as if you’ve done so. Was that a conscious effort?

Not really. I honestly don’t think I could write a book now with elves and dwarves in it unless they were somehow made into something else. They have become embedded in ruts of cliché so deep it’s hard to make them step out and do something unexpected. If someone wrote a book about dwarves who loved the forest and had no beards, that would be more interesting…

10. You appear to like killing off your characters with very little notice. How hard is it to stay true to the reality of war and mercenaries while still having characters you love?

I do love my characters – they will push at the confines of the plot and take it places you never thought it would go. But I’ll be damned if I’ll be sentimental about them. If you have a brutal, violent world where bad things happen, then they’ve got to happen to the good guys as well as the bad, the heroes as well as the nonentities. There’s nothing so boring as watching a film, for instance, where you just know that the big Hollywood name who’s the central character cannot possibly be killed off. How much more interesting is it to know that everyone is mortal? Well, it works for me….

11. You worked very hard to ensure this book did not end on a happy note. Do you not like happy endings?

I thought there was a certain inevitability to the way the book ended. Also, I wanted to be harsh with the reader, because he was reading about a harsh world. I didn’t want him to walk away from the book with a smile on his face just because I let the sun shine in the last few pages. Maybe that’s perverse of me, I don’t know. I just feel that the reader should earn the book sometimes – he should make an effort to understand it. So much fantasy is the mental equivalent of watching TV with a pizza and a six-pack. I like to think of my books more as a shot of tequila in a bar where the locals are giving you dirty looks.

12. How much research did you do to write this book?

Almost none. As I said, the period of history which inspired it is one of my hobby-horses, so it was all pretty much in my head already. The only thing I did deliberately seek out were the Greek names for the various parts of the spear.

13. For those of us who are just finding you now with TTT, give us your pitch for the Monarchies of God series and the Sea Beggars trilogy.

Phew. Well, Monarchies is an epic undertaking. It’s about a crux of history, where science, religion and magic all co-exist and are struggling for supremacy. It’s about racism and genocide, and deep-rooted bigotry. And it’s about war, war on a continental scale. Oh, and it has werewolves… (But no f****** vampires.)

The Sea Beggars are on a more homely level. They’re about a group of friends who sail around in a ship and steal stuff from other people… Well, it’s a bit more complex than that. There are also questions of myth, the origins of mankind, and the very nature of humanity itself. And lots of kinky sex…

14. Who is your favourite character in TTT?

Jason, without a doubt. He’s closest to me in outlook, and has a real sense of humanity. Rictus is still too young and bitter and fired-up, though all that changes in Corvus

15. Given the opportunity to tell one person from any time and place in history, what would you tell them?

I’d go to Alexander in Babylon in 323BC and tell him to lay off the wine.

Paul Kearney books reviewed

Professional Reader 10 Book Reviews