David Gemmell: Riding out on a steady horse – Interview by Stan Nichols (1995)

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
An interview with IN THE REALM OF THE WOLF author David A. Gemmell, conducted by author Paul Witcover:

David Gemmell was born in London, England, in the summer of 1948. Expelled from school at sixteen for organizing a gambling syndicate, he became a laborer by day, and at night his six-foot-four-inch, 230-pound frame allowed him to earn extra money as a bouncer working nightclubs in Soho. He has also worked as a freelance journalist with the London Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, and Daily Express. His first novel, LEGEND, was published in 1984 and has remained in print ever since. He became a full-time writer in 1986. His most recent book for Del Rey is IN THE REALM OF THE WOLF.

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DR: There’s a Dickensian feel to your biography–expelled from school at sixteen for organizing a gambling syndicate, working as a nightclub bouncer, then as a self-taught journalist and ultimately becoming a successful writer.

DG: I don’t know about Dickensian, but my background certainly helped me when I became an author. Running the book [the gambling syndicate] taught me about human frailties, and my stints as a nightclub “doorman” made me realize just how easy it is to intimidate people if you just take the time to learn the moves–step swiftly into the other person’s territorial space, then speak softly, etc. The journalism, and the consequent interviews with politicians, gangsters, film stars, scientists, and men from the armed forces, gave me a huge cast of characters to call upon.

DR: “Running the book”–I love that phrase! I guess you’ve gone from being a bookmaker to a book-maker…Why do you write fantasy rather than, say, science fiction or mysteries or westerns?

DG: We all need heroes. All the ancient civilizations understood this, the Greeks in particular. They were wise enough to realize that, as a race, we have an enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and they used fantasy to implant moral codes and safeguards in their young. Yes, the hero was a powerful and courageous man, ready to fight any enemy, but he never oppressed the weak, never bullied, never stole, and never lied.

Youngsters were encouraged to be like that mythical hero–to channel their energies into positive areas for the good of the city, the state, or the nation. All the great Greek myths carry warnings about destructive patterns of behavior. We still use myth in fiction, in TV, and in film–but we’ve lost the focus. Our message to the young is: Do whatever you can get away with.

Traditional westerns like Shane and High Noon created the fantasy hero of the early twentieth century, but these were overstamped with revisionist westerns which showed the West “as it really was,” portraying Wild Bill Hickok as a syphilitic braggart, Wyatt Earp as a crooked whoremaster, Custer as an incompetent glory hunter, and so on. This effectively killed the western as a fantasy outlet. With the death of the genre, people needed heroes who could not be corrupted by new “truths,” and sword and sorcery began to soar in popularity.

No revisionist could expose Conan, or Gandalf. No one could sully the deeds of Elric of Melnibone or Druss the Legend. In fantasy, the reader could expect good to combat evil, and to triumph. As to my own fantasy, I try to retain the purity of the Greek myth, with all its warnings and parables, while creating credible characters that speak to people in the late twentieth century. My ambition with every book is that it will not only entertain but increase the desire of the reader to do good, to be heroic.
DR: Heroic in what way? This is the late twentieth century–there aren’t any more dragons to fight, are there?

DG: One night, when I was fifteen, and had been rereading The Lord of the Rings yet again, I was on a subway train coming home. As the train reached the platform I saw three men beating up on a guy. Every instinct told me to stay out of it, but Tolkien was in my mind. Would Aragorn stay out of it, or Boromir, or even Sam Gamgee? The answer was no–so I pitched in and stopped the fight. In that moment I experienced a soaring sense of self-worth. That was a gift Tolkien gave me–and a gift I try to give to others.

DR: But doesn’t this raise questions of when and to what extent to become involved, to be a hero, as well as (forgive me) the dividing line between “fantasy” and “reality”? If I find myself in a similar situation on the New York City subway, for example, would I be less than heroic if I didn’t act?

DG: Quite simply, yes, you would. One of the greatest things my mother ever taught me was the value of self-worth. When you look in a mirror you must be proud of what you see. Every time we act in a cowardly, mean, or petty fashion we lessen ourselves. When people see an injustice being perpetrated and allow fear to prevent them from pitching in, they move from self-worth to self-loathing. And that is ultimately corrosive, and will affect every area of their lives. Whereas when they overcome their fear and leap in they will feel good about themselves, and more confident about their ability to take on life and all its problems.

A few years ago I received a letter from a fan. He told me he was walking his dog when he saw two men assaulting a woman. He had just finished reading one of my novels, and the thought of “heroes” was strong in him, so he ran to the woman’s aid. The two men fled. He said he felt ten feet tall when the woman thanked him, and he now wanted to thank me for supplying the inspiration. Some years ago I read that women under attack were being urged to shout “Fire,” because that would bring people running. If they shouted “Rape,” no one would come. I may be an old romantic, but I genuinely believe that if one of my fans was close by no woman would need to shout “Fire.”

DR: It’s plain that Tolkien influenced you in more than just a literary sense.

DG: Tolkien had a massive influence on me. When I was thirteen I wrote to him and he wrote back. That touched me in a way beyond description. The Lord of the Rings is a magnificent, inspiring work. I read it over and over again.

DR: Wow. Did you frame the letter? Can you share anything of what he wrote?

DG: It was a short letter thanking me for contacting him and telling me that he was working on another novel. It concluded: “I am afraid there are no hobbits in it, but I hope you will read it one day.” For some years afterwards his British publishers, Allen and Unwin, sent me copies of his books of poetry. Sadly, the letter was lost when I moved home in 1976.

DR: Yet your fantasies are far from Tolkienesque, at least on the surface. Characters like Druss and John Shannow are violent yet honorable men whose souls have been deeply scarred. There’s often the sense that a very thin line separates them from the evil they oppose–a fact which they themselves are the first to acknowledge.

DG: The point I am trying to make here is that no one is beyond redemption. Yes, Shannow, Druss, Waylander, and many other characters are borderline evil. They know it and they struggle to maintain a moral code. It is that code that makes them heroes.

DR: Or the struggle to maintain it. Rather than the hero of High Noon, they seem closer to, say, Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, even some of Clint Eastwood’s darker western incarnations.

DG: We live in a more cynical world, and I don’t think the modern reader would identify with saintly good guys wearing white hats and combating evil by shooting the guns out of the villains’ hands. My characters are real people, with real problems, constantly battling the dark sides of their natures. And I think you’re wrong about the Cooper character in High Noon. He was a man full of fear, desperately seeking allies because he didn’t want to die. In the end that’s what made him truly heroic. By nature of definition only the coward is capable of the highest heroism.

DR: Tolkien was a deeply religious man, and his religious beliefs pervade his writings, especially The Lord of the Rings. You mentioned the purity of Greek myth earlier, but isn’t there also an underlying religious sensibility in your work? I don’t mean in a preachy, didactic way, but as with Tolkien, I detect something that goes beyond moral judgment or instruction and into more ambiguous, and more interesting, spiritual territory. Perhaps you touched on it with the word “redemption.”

DG: Itry to ensure there is a spiritual core to all my work, but I want it to be there for “those with eyes to see and ears to hear.” I am delighted when people peel back the layers and discover what I am trying to say, and disappointed when others don’t. But I feel it best to leave it for the readers and not elaborate on it.

DR: Fantasy is often slammed for presenting simplistic and cliched dualistic portrayals of good and evil–do writers have an obligation to challenge their readers, or is their job simply to give the public what it’s already accustomed to?

DG: Ican’t speak for other writers. I knew at the start of my career that I could sell a lot more books by writing about singing elves and dwarves with wide belts, all rushing around collecting magic tokens to overthrow the great enemy. I chose a different route. I don’t criticize those that tread that well-worn path. I just don’t feel it’s the way I want to go. I believe I have an obligation to my readers, but I don’t press that view on other writers. I write from the heart. I always will. There is nothing cynical in the way I produce the books.

DR: That obligation being what?

DG: Many of my readers are young people on limited incomes. They are going to have to dig deep to buy my work. My obligation is to make sure that I have given them the very best I can give them. No shortcuts, no half measures, no easy, cliched story lines. Back in 1986 a young fan at a signing handed me a dog-eared copy of LEGEND and asked me to sign it. When he had walked away his girlfriend came walking back, leaned over, and said: “I just thought I’d tell you that whenever Simon is depressed or down he takes that book from the shelf and rereads his favorite sections. It really lifts him.” Even now when I write, and I’m getting tired, I’ll look at a scene and think: Is this something Simon would want to reread? If the answer is no, I’ll rework it.

DR: Your best-known works are the Drenai Saga and the Stones of Power series. Do you try to bring a different sensibility to each?

DG: Iget a lot of fan mail asking for stories involving particular heroes or settings. I particularly love writing Drenai tales–especially those featuring Druss or Waylander. The Stones of Power series was never intended as a series. I wrote GHOST KING as a one-off but then had an idea for a sequel. After that I wrote a futuristic western called WOLF IN SHADOW, but my editor, Liza Reeves, didn’t like the way I’d handled the science and suggested using magic instead, i.e., the Sipstrassi stones. I thought she made some very good points, so I rewrote it. They were not published in the UK under the Stones of Power heading–that was a marketing idea from the staff at Del Rey, in the belief that a series “look” would be more popular in the US.

DR: So the Drenai tales are closest to your heart–why?

DG:Iwas being tested for cancer in 1976, and while waiting for the results of the tests I wrote a short novella called “The Siege of Dros Delnoch.” I did it to help take my mind away from my fears of death. The story involved a fortress under siege by a terrible enemy, the Nadir. I peopled the fortress with a small group of heroes, led by Druss the Legend. The fortress was, in effect, me; the Nadir were the cancer. I poured everything into that novella. That was the beginning of the Drenai, the beginning of my career as a novelist. Every great moment I have enjoyed as an author began with that story, and with Druss.

DR: In the Stones of Power series, we gradually see a connection to the Earth we know as well as to various alternate realities. In BLOODSTONE, for example, the atomic bomb test at Los Alamos plays a large part, as do the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of certain characters. All the various realities are connected regardless of how ostensibly different and even mutually contradictory they seem–science, religion, magic. What goes around quite literally comes around. Can you address this aspect of your work?

DG: You already have. What goes round comes round. In one of my favorite Bible sections, Ecclesiastes, the prophet writes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Yet we spend so much time looking forward we forget that almost all the answers are already in the past. Small example: Hundreds of years before Christ was born, Philip of Macedon built an enormous army that his treasury couldn’t sustain. This left him no option but to invade his neighbors and steal their treasuries. In order to hold this new, enlarged empire, he had to increase the size of his army. His new treasuries couldn’t support it, so he invaded other neighbors. A few years ago, Saddam Hussein built an army so large that his treasury couldn’t support it. Why then were we so surprised when he invaded Kuwait? What goes around comes around. As for magic…What would a Victorian have made of a modern computer, or television screen? Forces we don’t yet fully understand, telepathy, telekinesis, spiritual healing, all come under the banner of magic.

DR: Your brooding, alienated characters who–almost despite themselves–retain a core of decency and honor; your use of multiple realities, our own included, none of which are privileged over or more “real” than another…all these things make me wonder if Michael Moorcock’s fiction had an influence on your work. I also think of Robert Howard, of course, and Fritz Lieber.

DG: Ihave always loved Moorcock’s fantasy fiction, especially the early Elric novels and the Hawkmoon cycle. Howard’s work has a gritty vitality that is magnificently raw. And Fritz Lieber was a magician beyond compare. “The Bazaar of the Bizarre” is one of the finest fantasy short stories I have ever read. So, yes, they all influenced the teenager who devoured fantasy, as did L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, John Jakes, E. C. Tubb, Talbot Munday, and C. L. Moore.

DR: Do you have a routine for writing?

DG: Every day–save Thursday–I switch on the machine and work. Thursday mornings are set aside for a meeting with another writer, Alan Fisher, whose thoughts on the craft are always both enlightening and uplifting. Thursday afternoons are left to the tender mercies of the chefs at Deep Pan Pizza, where I sit enjoying a cappuccino and a Regular American Pizza with extra bacon and pepperoni.

DR: Any chance of a Drenai or Stones of Power movie? Who would your choice be to play Druss? How about Shannow?

DG: I’ve turned down several offers for LEGEND, and one for WOLF IN SHADOW. Every time the contracts arrive there is a clause that gives the rights to the characters to the movie company. I won’t surrender rights to Druss, Shannow, or any of my characters. I remember reading years ago that Brian Garfield, who wrote the wonderful Deathwish novel, was almost suicidal when the producers churned out the awesomely bad Deathwish 2, 3, and 4. The thought of seeing my work prostituted in such a way is beyond bearing.

DR: A book is written by one person, with maybe some input from friends, editors, etc. But the final result, its success or failure as a work of art as opposed to a product in the marketplace, is purely the author’s. With movies, there’s so much input by so many people desperate to make a buck or advance their careers, whether screenwriters, directors, or lawyers, it’s a miracle anything good is made. When I think of the Tim Burton Batman and then the most recent travesty, I could cry. But what if someone like Tim Burton were interested?

DG: If a Spielberg or a Lucas offered to make Legend, the movie, and mentioned Sean Connery for the role of Druss, I’d be sorely tempted. By the way, as a boy I used to deliver Sean Connery’s beer when he was a struggling actor living in West London. I was disappointed every time he answered the door, and was constantly peeking past him to catch a glimpse of his wife, the beautiful British star Diane Cilento.

DR: What are you reading now?

DG: Ihave just read a preview copy of Stephen Pressfield’s GATES OF FIRE, a novel of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is a wonderful, triumphant, and heart-breaking read. I hope it is an enormous success.

DR: Will it be coming out in the States?

DG: Pressfield is an American writer, and I understand the book has already been sold to Hollywood as a kind of Braveheart-in-Greece epic.

DR: I’m asked quite frequently why your books come out in England before they appear on these shores, and why all your books haven’t yet made it across the pond.

DG: Ibegan my career in 1984, with the publication of LEGEND. By the time Del Rey picked up some of my titles, I had been published for around eight years, so they were way behind. But they’re catching up, and my new contract with them allows for simultaneous publication by the year 2000.

DR: What are you working on now?

DG: My new hardback novel SWORD IN THE STORM is being published in September, alongside the paperback of ECHOES OF THE GREAT SONG. I’m currently working on the sequel to SWORD called A FALCON AT MIDNIGHT, which should be ready for delivery around December 5 this year.

DR: Is that a September publication date in the U.S.?

DG: Sadly, no. The first simultaneous publication is likely to be for my third Waylander book, around 2000 AD.

DR: What advice would you give aspiring fantasy writers?

DG: Louis L’Amour once said writing was like gold mining: you have to dig through a million tons of crap to get to the yellow stuff. So don’t get discouraged if your first efforts are poorly received. We all need to write the crap out of our system before we strike gold.

–copyright 1998 by Del Rey Books and David A. Gemmell

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