Interview with Durand Welsh, of Grimdark Magazine, January 2017

[DW] Hi Adrian, thank you for joining us on the GdM blog!

[AS] Hi there, I could say it’s a pleasure, but you’ve got me hanging by these manacles in this painfully well-appointed torture chamber. Still, I suppose I should be grateful to you for not feeding me the last two days, I needed to lose a bit off my waist anyway…

[DW] Snakewood comes out in paperback on January 17th; what do you think fans of grimdark fiction will most like about your book?

[AS] Well, I hope they’ll enjoy the fact the protagonists are stone cold killers, while the antagonists are revenge-obsessed killers J The challenge I gave myself in writing this book was to see if I could get readers to care about all of them, to understand why they are as they are, but still root for the former. A few reviews have pointed out that it wasn’t obvious who they should root for, so hopefully that ambiguity is appealing.

[DW] Much of the action in Snakewood features characters powering themselves up with alchemical brews. The concept has a very comic book superpower feel to it. Were comic books and superheroes an inspiration for the brews?

[AS] The only comics based inspiration was Sláine, in the old 2000AD I used to get every week, him and magic mushrooms, er, according to what friends have told me. Sláine would go into battle and undergo a ‘warp spasm’ which physically and radically transformed him into a huge and strange misshapen abomination of a man that could flatten hordes of soldiers. Quite separately, the revelation that a handful of small mushrooms could alter my, sorry, my friends’ consciousness so much, kind of married with that.

[DW] The narrative in Snakewood is non-linear in that it has large backwards and forwards time jumps in successive chapters. What was your reason for this stylistic choice?

[AS] So the initial version of Snakewood that I submitted had many fewer of these viewpoints, but when my agent and editors got hold of it, they were clamouring to know more about what made the Twenty so great, what made Kailen so clever and why had I only vaguely alluded to it all? This is the great value of passionate editors invested in the detail of your work. I could see where they were coming from and realised that, you know what, I was missing a fantastic opportunity to paint a better picture of the Twenty in their prime, which would also hopefully help the reader to get more invested with the characters in the present day, where they’re old and worn out. It provided a useful juxtaposition with their former ‘band of brothers’ mentality that is now fractured and almost gone, throwing the surviving threads of that mentality into a sharper relief.

Snakewood has a ‘found footage’ structure, where I could put together interviews, reports and journals to piece the Twenty’s demise and its causes together. It was the best way to make sense of the importance of distant past, recent past and present day events, not to mention it was a thoroughly enjoyable challenge to try and write in different voices.

On top of all that, another advantage of this structure was that it lent itself better to maintaining the mystery of who was chasing our protagonists to kill them!

[DW] Many of the point-of-view characters are morally ambiguous, including the character (who for now I shall leave unnamed) who features as the villain of the piece. How did you go about trying to keep readers sympathetic to these morally ambiguous characters?

[AS] I alluded to ‘save the cat’ above (which is taken from the screenwriter’s guide of the same name) where you find moments that show you the protagonists are coming ‘from the right place’. Gant and Shale, in the course of the story, demonstrate repeatedly that they are seeking to resolve their challenges without violence. On numerous occasions they’re looking to threaten and cajole or otherwise buy their way out of situations that they could otherwise murder their way through easily. OK, so there is one scene of mass destruction later on that could feel rather unnecessarily destructive, but to them it was merely the most efficient solution to getting the job done, which was busting a friend out of a jail. The choices that our antagonists make are often gratuitously violent. However, part of the ‘jumping around’ is to present their back stories, which I hope illustrate how they came to this, and why they are capable of and do the things they do.

Thus, as I said previously, there’s enough about Gant and Shale to make them the guys to root for, but there’s also enough about our villains that you realise the only difference between them all is how they choose to respond to the cards they’re dealt. They’re all very capable killers willing to kill J

[DW] I’ve heard that Snakewood took a long time to reach its present form. When did you first begin writing Snakewood and why did it take so long to hit the right spot?

[AS] Snakewood’s original title was ‘Korky’s Twenty’, sometime back in about 1989 up to my signing the deal with Orbit. Kailen was, therefore, originally called Korky (and for me and my agent Jamie, he still is, mainly because our initial preparation of the manuscript had ‘Korky’ in it and we’ve kept calling him that by mistake ever since). I did a couple of chapters back in ’89 for my Writing degree, the first one of which had Gant and Shale killing a ‘magist’ (the closest thing to wizards I have). Then through the 90s I never did much about becoming a writer, though these characters were in my head, reminding me they had a story to tell while I grew up and settled down a bit. I was that guy in the anecdote ‘I’m writing a novel’, ‘How wonderful, neither am I.’ Then, around 2005-6 I had a moment where I just thought ‘You’re either a writer or you’re not Adrian. Write this book, or don’t.’ It was an iron conviction I’d discovered. Great, but I knew also that to do this I was going to give it my best shot, leave everything on the field as they say, so for the next few years I did the groundwork, mostly all the research I’d never bothered to do, and the plot, characters, back stories etc. It took years while holding down the day job and raising a young family of course. I finished the first draft in 2013, having started it properly about 2010. Hopefully Gant and Shale are resting easy now their story’s told, and hopefully they’re happy with it.

[DW] Did you do much historical research during your world-building? If so, were there any things in particular that really helped you in developing the world?

[AS] I’ve got a few articles in the ‘Writing’ section on my blog that fill out some of the detail, and of course the research was and is ongoing. I did do historical research and the errors that remain no doubt richly evidence the gaps!! Books that had a profound influence were ‘Pathfinders’ by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Medieval Cities by Henri Pirenne, The Honourable Company by John Keay, books on medieval archery, organisation of armies and of course Wikipedia, Youtube and various wonderful websites including herbcraft.org for all the crazy plant J Lord knows how much harder it would have been to discover all that stuff before the internet.

To answer specifically the question about how they helped develop the world, I think the key book was Pathfinders, because it showed how the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean and the relative lack of them in the Atlantic determined the course of world history, i.e. that our environment shapes us (I can bore you with my ten minute presentation of the history of the world using only a badly drawn globe and a handful of arrows whenever you like). So when I then came to look at a plant-based ‘magic system’ and all the various species that make the fightbrews, poisons and cures, I realised that because they were so amped up they were entirely determining factors in battles for supremacy among states. It followed therefore that recipe books for these concoctions would be more valuable than gold and diamonds, that states would effectively be drug cartels when it came to international trade etc. (which is where the history of the East India company comes in). I followed the environmentally determining factors to their conclusions for the societies of the world of Sarun, and the ramifications felt re-assuringly solid.

[DW] The brews in Snakewood do everything from making a person superhumanly strong to improving eyesight. Do you ever plan on releasing a glossary detailing the different brews and their effects?

[AS] Not as such. I have a list I work from and mess about with from my above research, but I’m not that interested in creating something like an ‘RPG’ ruleset or table of the ingredients used in the mixes and their effects unless it drives the story forward in some way. I do ensure that plant used in brews where I reference real world herbs corresponds in terms of climate and look and feel, because I think those things are useful and simple ‘anchors’ that help the reader jump from our world to the new and not get entirely lost and disorientated. Delicate and diminutive anchors of course, but these are the threads that make the worldbuilding easier to absorb.

If enough Snakewood fans ever get cranky enough about it I daresay I wouldn’t want to disappoint them, but I can’t help thinking I’d only end up exposing a fat wodge of continuity errors!

[DW] What can we expect to see next from you?

[AS] Well, I’ve recently signed a two book deal with Orbit for more stories from Sarun, the world in which Snakewood is set (YESSS!!). I would be jumping for joy at this point but these manacles you’ve got me suspended from are making my wrists bleed. Anyway, anyone who’s read Snakewood will understand what The Post is, a kind of global trading guild that’s a bit like the Mafia and the Catholic Church combined. The more history I gave The Post when planning Snakewood, the more fascinated I was with its origins. Orbit agreed! So the next book goes back about 250 years to tell the story of a remarkable woman who would change the world. I can’t wait for you to meet her, but it won’t be until 2018 I’m sorry to say.

 [DW] Thank you for joining us, Adrian. Readers, if you’d like to check out Snakewood by Adrian Selby, use the links below to head on over to Amazon, or read my review if you’re not convinced yet!

[AS] Umm, you’re not leaving me down here, are you? Not even a cup of water after all that?