Tuesday, 4 September 2018

"I wanted High Magic and Hideous Monsters": An Interview with Cameron Johnston

I used to only know Cam as another amiable face round the Fantasy Faction forum. Then I found out he was releasing a book full of Murder, Gods, Grumpy Antiheroes and, well, just all the things that make life worth living, so there was only one thing to do. The book was ordered (review here) and Cam was pestered for an interview - and here's that interview:

PL: Congratulations on being published with shiny physical copies and everything. I've told a few people about your book and the thing that always comes up first is just how physical and, uh, earthy the magic is. And how many setting wide ramifications it has. What made you pick such a depiction of magic? 

CJ: Cheers! It's super cool and a little gobsmacking to have thousands of copies out there all over the world.

Hah, because I thought it would be cool to write about. It might sound like a simplistic answer but it's true for all that. It started out as a reaction to all the low-magic human-centric settings that were all the rage a few years back and exploded from there. Me, I wanted high magic and hideous monsters, and I wanted in embedded in a gritty physical reality instead of saying some magic words and hey presto. As magic is an external source of power in this novel, it seemed to me that rather than getting drained through use it would instead flood through all of them and it was more of a problem of addiction and degradation of their magical Gift through overuse than anything else.

Normally in fantasy you don't use magic without costs: you get tired or drained etc, but that's not the case here and there are no costs exactly, but what I came up with are the consequences if you use too much too quickly. It's a little like deciding to sunbathe around an unshielded nuclear reactor, and as Bowie said: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and face the strange...

Too much magic does things to a magus, but if you are careful you can gradually build up an increased resistance. If you are not careful then you change in body and mind, consumed by magic's need to be used.

PL: Well nothing says gritty physical reality like being so magical you produce the best fertiliser! A lot of what you're saying reminds me of the place tech holds in good cyberpunk - the sort that worries about all that power in the hands of so few - and I certainly saw similarities in the book itself. Is that an accident, or were you deliberately looking at the cost of magic to society as well? Should I start calling The Traitor God MagePunk?

CJ: These days I don't even know what the punk suffix is meant to mean. It's tagged on to more or less everything.

I suppose you could say that in this world magic is a much more visceral part of society than in a lot of things. The sort of pervasive influence that megacorp tech companies might bring in a cyberpunk setting instead trickles down from a magic elite.

I was indeed deliberately considering the effects on society of a magic that seeps into blood and bone. When you can use blood to power magical effects (especially if acquired from magi) that has a lot of ripple down effects. Surgery for instance is rare and looked upon with great suspicion.

The only truly appropriate way to advertise your book

PL: *crosses out magepunk label* I can only approve of that sort of level of ripple down effect.

So what made you look for a grizzled cranky antihero as the vehicle for all this? Or did Edrin come first? Or would I know the answer if I'd finally got round to reading Head Games?

CJ: It's all down to film noir and Cast a Deadly Spell (if you haven't seen that film, you really should). I fancied writing about a grizzled down-on-his-luck detective in a secondary world full of magic. Something a little different than the usual urban or grimdark/epic fantasy but bearing blood from both.

It did evolve away from that idea to become its own thing, but that was the original idea and that concept is a little more obvious from the short story.

PL: I'd never heard of that film but will watch it imminently.

I have to say, when I first heard you were having a book published, that wasn't the direction I was expecting. Partly because there's not a lot of fantasy like that in general, but also because I'm a horrible stereotyper and expected someone into swords and archaeology to write a book full of duels and archaeology. It is very classic fantasy territory after all! Are there any parts of the Traitor God that you'd say are influenced by those interests?

CJ: There only a smattering of detective fantasy set in a secondary world but very little that approaches that gritty film-noir kind of feel. The Low Town series by Daniel Polansky is probably the closest thing I can think of. 

There's very little of The Traitor God influenced by my interest in swords, being as the main character does not have any interest in being a warrior, but if we expand that to all things medieval and weaponry it does feed into the siege breakers later on - magi skilled in body-enhancing magic wearing extra-heavy enchanted armour. They are living tanks and handweapons bounce off, much like how knights in plate armour were on the battlefield.

As for archaeology the main thing I took from that is that Setharis is an ancient city built atop itself for thousands of years. Down below ground level there are lost mines, tunnels and forgotten temples and rooms filled with the detritus of thousands of years of human occupation, well, mostly human...

The author, busy looking all intrepid and stuff

PL: As in it was mostly humans down there, or the people were mostly human? Nah, that's probably too big a spoiler. Do we get to go down there in the sequel? Tell us all about it!

*off the record chat reveals Cam was working on this back when Polansky's Low Town came out* Also - wait, were you submitting this back in 2011? How long has it taken for The Traitor God to go from seed to mighty tree?

CJ: Some secrets will be revealed but most of the sequel it is set outside of Setharis, venturing into the snow-blasted hills of the Clanholds to where Walker got his extensive facial scars.

Publishing is not a quick business. I wrote the short story Head Games in 2012 and then began developing it into a novel in 2013. I finished the rough draft of what came to be called The Traitor God in late 2013 and I finished various drafts and revisions in mid 2015 and then began sending it out to agents. It took about a year before I signed with my agent, and after a few more rounds of edits and polishing of the manuscript we sent it out to publishers and Angry Robot snapped it up in mid 2017, and published it in June 2018. All in all, it was about five years from beginning to publication.

PL: And how much longer than that time have you been writing with the hope and intent of one day being a published author? Has how you go about writing changed in that time?

CJ: I've dabbled with writing on and off since I was ten or so, and have many old beginnings of novels trunked in dusty files somewhere. I wrote two complete books in the mid-late 2000s and to be honest, they were pretty poorly written. I decided to 'get good' around 2010, joined a kick-ass writing group and seriously worked at improving my writing with a series of short stories and writing exercises before I tried another novel.

PL: My obligatory question for everyone - what's the best and worse pieces of advice you've received?

CJ: The best piece of advice: First drafts are ungainly and awkward things verging on the horrible. Don't worry if it seems that way when you read it back to yourself. The real magic is in the editing, rewriting and polishing.

The worse piece of advice: Write what you know - pfft. I guess I know all about dragons, wizards, ancient eldritch horrors and the like then? It's a nonsense statement when what it should really say is 'Do your research'.

PL: And finally - who are your favourite cranky antiheroes other than Edrin?

CJ: Oh, favourite cranky antiheroes is it? Well, I'll opt for Hellblazer's John Constantine, Deadpool if he's not been fed his chimichanga's on time, Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie's First Law books, and Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.

Thanks to Cam for his time! You can find more of his writing at his own site. His books, The Traitor God and recently announced sequel God of Broken Things, are published by Angry Robot. You can buy them there, at Amazon UK and US, Waterstones, and a bunch of other places.

No comments:

Post a comment