An interview with Ed McDonald

Ed McDonald's award-winning fantasy debut Blackwing was my highest rated read of 2017. The sequel Ravencry is being released on 28th June 2018. Three of our reviewers have already read and really enjoyed it. We spoke to our friends at Gollancz to see if Ed would be interested in an interview for Fantasy Book Review. He accepted so to start I'd like to thank Ed for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Hi Ed. Could you give me a brief introduction about yourself and your work for any potential readers who are not yet familiar?

Hello! As well as being the author of Blackwing and the forthcoming Ravencry, I'm a historical martial arts enthusiast, and general geek. I love Starcraft 2, I was a GM for World of Warcraft for 2.5 years, and I've recently started getting back into Magic: The Gathering after a long break. I've been a fantasy addict for as long as I've been reading. I currently live in London.

Could you advise of one similarity and one difference between Blackwing and Ravencry?

The main similarity that I hope comes across, aside from the obvious like characters, setting etc. is that the essence of the book is the heart and feeling. I like to tell stories where the most beautiful human traits - love, compassion, perseverance - overcome the darkness that lies in most of the world.

The main difference this time I'd say is that the heart focus changes from romantic love to exploring Galharrow's feelings about the idea of family and fatherhood.

I'm aware you are a keen historian - what historical period most influenced the world you've created in The Raven's Mark?

When I write in this world, I envisage mid 17th century Europe with a splash of the later Napoleonic wars. I try to keep the material culture sort of realistic, although there's only so much you can do that when you have a magical electricity network, neon lights and apocalypse weapons.

Are there any elements of yourself in Ryhalt Galharrow?

I think that every character in Blackwing reflects some part of me in a way, possibly with the exception of the distant, pure-evil supervillains. I had a very tough year in my personal life in 2017, and in a lot of ways Galharrow's ordeals reflect many things that I was going through while I was writing Ravencry; loneliness, workaholism, insomnia and others besides. In some ways I don't think that I'm able to avoid putting quite a lot of me into the characters that I write, because I find that I write more 'truth' (if you can call it that, it's only my perception after all) when I'm able to fully understand the issues that the character faces. Galharrow is quite a bit taller than me and works out more, though.

Do you class your work as Grimdark?

When I first wrote it, I did, and I think that if you enjoy other allegedly Grimdark books then my stories will be right up your alley. But, these days I think that the term would misrepresent my work a little, because people's ideas of what Grimdark means vary so wildly. I don't write excessive gore, I never write sexual violence, and my characters aren't all morally grey; there are some outright heroes, and some utter villains. I think that my books have a core of positivity and a belief that the ultimate goodness in people's hearts will eventually win true, as long as we love each other and hold together. #Grimheart

Which author would you say is your greatest influence as a writer?

David Gemmell tops the list for me. When I first read Legend, I'd never encountered the pure heroism and idea of putting principal above all else in such a powerful way before. There's a feeling that you get in the last 200 pages of that book that I've always hoped to be able to recreate for a reader, and Gemmell's belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity has always stayed with me.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the good or the bad ones?

I try not to read reviews, but I can't help but read a few early ones. I tend to stick to reviews from bloggers when I do, as honestly, checking Goodreads is no good for my state of mind whatsoever. There's a horrible anxiety that comes from having your work out there, and knowing that it's being judged and ranked and having had a tough year, at the moment I feel better trying not to know. In terms of bad reviews, all I can say is that not everyone likes bananas, and that's ok.

Are there any books that have been/ are being released in 2018 that you are excited to read?

I got to read Priest of Bones by Peter McLean at the beginning of the year and it was cracking. It's out in October and I highly recommend it. There's Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames that I'm excited to read later this year too.

If you could go back in time and offer any advice to a younger Ed McDonald prior to releasing Blackwing what would it be?

"Slow down, breathe, remember that there are other things in life."

In all honesty, with the personal life issues crowding in, this year I threw myself so heavily into writing and publishing that I pretty much lost all interest in anything else that was going on around me. I abandoned long-held hobbies, and pretty much burned myself out. It's important to keep yourself grounded with walks in the park, quiet days with friends in the sun and most importantly, not trying to do everything at once.

It's hard to focus on other things when you've managed to achieve your life goal and it's right there in front of you. I want so much to make a good run, and it's not just a big part of my life, it's also part of my identity. But that's not all healthy, and sometimes it's best to just take a break.

What was your main influence in the creation of the Misery and do you have a favourite monster/ being that haunts that area?

I don't know where the Misery came from other than that since I was 19, I've always liked the idea that a place could have some kind of agenda, and that it was trying to kill you. The best monsters are of course the gillings, because they're both terrifying babies that eat you while you're asleep, and their creepy repetitious phrases bely something much more sinister.

Would you rather be lost in the Misery or deal with a pissed off Crowfoot?

Oh, the Misery for sure. You have a one in a billion chance of getting out of the Misery and generally it just wants to eat you. Crowfoot is far more malicious, and you don't have any chance at all.

What research did you do for Galharrow's madness in the Misery?

The main thing that I looked at was the effects of hunger, isolation and sleep deprivation. I've always been fascinated by documentaries about how the mind starts malfunctioning when the body isn't getting enough sustenance or rest. I suffered from insomnia while I was writing Ravencry, and that played into it too. The most important aspect seems to be the total confusion, the inconsistency of thought from one moment to the next, and the sheer desperation. But the Misery has its own kind of influence too.

Faith seems to be one of the central themes to Ravencry. I'm not a religious man, but it occurred to me that Ryhalt and Job have a lot in common: both are tested to their absolute limits, both physically and mentally, yet they still held onto their faith when hope was at its most fleeting. Did the story of Job directly influence your writing? Are there any other religious texts that you purposefully integrated into the book?

I confess that I don't know the story of Job, and I'm an atheist. While I think that faith is important in Ravencry, I'd like to think that the ultimate test that Galharrow goes through is less religious and more to do with faith in other people. Galharrow is a natural loner but he's always so much stronger when he accepts the support and love that he doesn't feel that he deserves. He spends quite a lot of time denying it because he wants to solve all the world's problems by himself. Again, this is probably a reflection of the way that depression can impact somebody's life, though I wasn't aware that that was what I was writing at the time. The only historical element of faith that I really drew inspiration from is that the cult of the Bright Order are very loosely based on The Levellers, a group who proposed equality and social reform in the late 14th century and who were instrumental in The Peasants' Revolt in England. They were more about social issues than religious, but had a bit of spiritual backing behind their philosophy.

And finally, a question from one of our female reviewers: 'How are you such a goddamn genius?' and 'Will you marry me?' :)

To the first question: smoke and mirrors, and to the second: Apologies, but I now only consider dating people if I meet them on reality TV shows like Love Island and First Dates.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today Ed. It's always a pleasure and we all wish you the best of luck with Ravencry.

Interview by James Tivendale. (With added questions from Adam Weller and Emma Davis).