This is always a difficult one to answer: does it begin with a desire or the action on the page? I had a sense of being a writer from a very early age, but what I wanted to do I tend to regard myself as a storyteller. Whether it be through telling stories of knights and kings, I have been telling stories all my life, telling these stories with my friends and acting them out – no screens, right?
I was the kid who made up the stories: of the swashbuckling sort which dominated the play. I grew up in London, but I dabbled in writing. Back then without a true understanding of the process. I now teach creative writing, but I didn’t understand that each stage is about getting the ‘idea’, I thought a draft had to be ‘right’ straight away. My problem was with finishing things, especially when it wasn’t like other writers I admired. I then moved to Vancouver in the nineties and entered into a 24-hour playwriting competition, which I thought was great as I would then be able to finish something.
Then, I wrote a play called A Cage Without Bars, snatched from the trauma of my own love life which was a sad and dramatic event that happened to me. I finished it and it won the competition, so I felt I was a professional writer and from then on I wrote other plays the following year in Calgary. But what I really wanted to do was write historical fiction about Anne Boylen, and what the story was behind the executioner, what if he not only took her head but took her hand? The mark of the witch. Of course, I had the idea but didn’t think I could write it, but I kept researching for 6 years it building up the knowledge and finally I picked up this book on mercenaries and thought “I have got to write this!” – once I started in 10 months I managed to get an agent and sold it to Orion. It was called the French Executioner and now I have written 22 novels in 21 years!
Regarding ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’, the first book in the Tapestry Trilogy, you have managed to incorporate the medieval world with the contemporary world by creating a parallel world – what was your muse, or inspiration for that?
It was slightly bracing to write Fantasy, as I am usually a historical novelist, I have written 9 fantasy stories – but as you say I have written more historical novels. I have always liked that, the idea of mixing worlds and elements. In my books, I call my magical series more books about the earth and the power in the world. I have written a trilogy, called The Immortal’s Blood Trilogy.
My first book in that is the ‘Smoke in the Glass’ High epic fantasy – where it’s loosely based on the Viking world, a Bytanzine world, and a Mezo-American world. That is more of a straightforward fantasy. Narnia was a bit of a model for me, which is what made me want to write the book. Just go to the website of the Museum of Metropolitan art, and they made a medieval wing called the Cloisters where the Unicorn tapestries were. No one knows who made these tapestries, which is great for me as I had my gateway into another world. But I made the weaver of the original protagonist, and in the real-life tapestries, there were the initials A, E which I incorporated into the book ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’ as the main character.
Introducing the innocent is a way of introducing a new character into an impossible world, which I teach in my creative writing. I suppose the idea that the fabulous beasts living in this parallel world, Goloth, travelled away from the land as humans were hunting these beasts and moving to lands where they could not be hunted, which was a concept I thought of for a while.
Not many novels focus on creatures having distinct personalities. What made you decide that Moonspill would be equal to a human character in having a backstory and a personality?
I wanted to strike a balance, Moonspill couldn’t just be an object, as all the beasts were made up of complex parts of other creatures. I focused on that he needed to be accessible to humans, as well as the original. He understands humans and has related to humans before, he also seeks out a connection with a human and has to put to one side his monstrous nature.
The real tapestries were highly influential, but a bestiary book The Way of the Unicorn taught me a lot about the qualities of the unicorn, which I explored. I feel it is boring if a character comes ‘full set’ in a book, as there’s no character progression.
Unicorns are creatures that many authors seem to avoid. Dragons, werewolves, and vampires are popular these days – why did you decide to create a world which involved unicorns?
I have a sigil ring that is the rampant unicorn, this was my dad’s ring and this is a family heirloom. I thought “fantasy..” not really sure what the next book would be so the ring triggered the thought of writing about a unicorn.I knew that I was going to study the tapestries and do lots of research once I knew that I just wanted to write a good book, as I was fascinated by them.
To mention some of your other works, you have written a lot of historical fiction – is this your favourite genre to write about?
I love writing historical fiction, as I mentioned before I was the child at school creating the stories for my friends and me to play along with, I love delving into the historical world and doing the research.
If you had to pin down a favourite novel or series you have written – which one would you say you enjoyed the most whilst writing?
I don’t think I can decide, I’m attracted to glittery things – like a magpie – so I’m sorry I cannot answer that for you, I cannot choose – it’s like choosing between your children. There are some that are harder to write, so while I didn’t enjoy the process on those books as much, I did feel very proud when it was complete.
Writing is hard, it has its ups and downs, but you have managed to stay focused on getting books written and published regularly. What has been the biggest motivator for you to stay on track?
Just to focus on the process, I don’t like to focus too much on the destination too much, as it can distract one from the aim of the work, it’s a case of keeping going and how it will feel at the end.
When you begin a new book, how do you approach the story?
It begins with an idea or a genre. I find origin stories interesting. My former agent wanted me to write high epic fantasy as I’m a bit of a swordsman. So I just sat down with a notepad and wrote down Immortality, and drew a mindmap and then drew up an outline and it went from there.
My preference is the 1st draft is not to be shown to anyone, but it is the guide to me, as a writer. Just keep going up the mountain until the characters are developed and the characters must dictate the plot as much as possible. I go between the needs of the character and the needs of the plot: back and forth until I have a draft.
Separating out the process is possibly what stops writers from keeping ongoing, it’s too much of a mountain, so that’s why I break it down into manageable chunks
Your career has been very creative through the arts and with your writing – have you ever considered being part of a collaboration, whether it be through screenplays or co-authoring?
Theatre is where began. Collaborative arts is what I’m used to due to my acting, and you have to manage that as best as you can. I have had both good and bad experiences. I don’t think I would write a collaborated novel. Screenplays do tend to get rewritten, so I don’t think I would venture down that way.
For budding authors and other creatives, what’s a piece of advice you can give them?
It goes back to the process, the journey rather than the destination. Separating the stages of that journey is important, taking each step at a time. Understand the process, it’s about moving forward, and never show your first draft to anyone so you can come to understand what the book is about before you share it with others.