David Gemmell interview: Games Master Magazine (1990)

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
GM or Games Master magazine was a short-lived (aren’t they all) roleplaying magazine. Not the computer gaming magazine that is currently available in the UK.

David Gemmell’s five best selling fantasy novels have never been out of print. They have been translated into 12 different languages and they are about to be launched on the American market. With US success virtually assured, and with it confirmation of his growing status as of the world’s premier fantasy authors, GM’s unlikely team of Alan Crump and Wayne went to interview man behind the Legend…

David Gemmell has never played a role playing game in his life, hardly watches the TV, hasn’t read a contemporary fictional book for four years and in his spare time he helps one of his friends out by working in a video shop! So where does the author of such classic books as Legend, Waylander and King Beyond The Gate get his inspiration from?

Well, some of my friends say they can recognise themselves in my books and ask me “Was that me in your latest book?” Depending on how black the character has been painted, the answer is usually yes!”

David draws heavily from people he has worked with, as well as the people he knows. He bases his characters on the personalities, traits and mannerisms of almost anyone he knows. Even his family are not safe! A close relative is the role model for Druss, the hero behind David’s first best seller Legend. Basing his characters on real people can have its drawbacks. David’s wife was none too pleased when a character in one of his books, which was based on himself, ended up in bed with a female character, who was based on a woman he knew.

I had a lot of explaining to do to avoid divorce proceedings, I can tell you! In fact I have had problems in this area before with other characters. I make no secret about who I write about in fact I even acknowledge some of them in the dedications I make on the inside covers of the books – and I have created no end of controversy.” “In one book, two characters, who in real life are just good friends, have an affair. For weeks afterwards, I was plagued by people coming up to me asking whether I had based the affair on fact!”

David started work on his first book, Legend, while he was working as a sub-editor on a well known south-coast newspaper. During his lunch-break he would hammer away at the typewriter letting his imagination run riot. David recalls one particular day that made everyone sit up and listen; “One quiet afternoon in the office I was typing away, when I let out a very loud string of expletives. Naturally enough some of my colleagues came over and asked what was up to. I explained that I couldn’t kill Druss off no matter how I tried. Days, even weeks passed, and every lunch time the air at my desk turned blue, but only for an hour.”

Things got so bad that even when I got home, the expletives continued. My wife knew of my predicament and every time the language got out of hand she would bring me a nice cup of tea, pat me on the head and say ‘Still not killed him off yet dear?

David explained that the reason why Druss was so hard to kill off was his insistence on strict realism. This is a theme that is consistent throughout all his works to date. In fact his close attention to detail nearly got him arrested.

One evening I stayed late at work and was working on Druss’s death scene for the 1,000 time. I wrote a small piece on how an enemy warrior with a two handed sword hacked his way through a melee on the ramparts and made a beeline for Druss, his mind set only on how to kill him.

I then thought to myself, ‘Could someone REALLY wave a two handed sword about in the limited space that he had, without a) injuring his colleagues and b) falling off the ramparts. To this end I got hold of a large broom in both hands and rushed around the office, sweeping it left and right like a Berserker. This continued for quite a while, until I made a full blooded sweep to my right, which barely missed the man in the blue uniform standing there in the doorway.

I spent the next half hour convincing him and his colleagues that the apparent madman in front of him was in fact an employee of the company, who meant no harm. They then had the unenviable task of explaining this to the little old lady in the building opposite, who reported the matter to them in the first place.

To prevent this unlikely event ever happening again, he has bought authentic copies of all of the major weapons that are used in his books and he enacts the fight sequences in the privacy of his own bedroom, with the curtains tightly drawn!

His dedication to realism appears again in the many mass battle scenes he has written, together with the attitudes of most of his characters. Here, once again, David draws on experience.

I must have read well over 2000 books on the art of warfare and it’s participants, ranging from the Wu-Tzu to Winston Churchill and beyond. I am interested in what really happened and spend a lot of time reading between the lines. It is not the actual violence of war that interests me, but the tactics, the strategy, the diplomacy and the thoughts of the people that fought it. I have found that time and time again, whatever the period or war, the act of one individual or a relatively small group of people are the difference between victory and defeat.

Also, people are deeply suspicious of people who want to be leaders or heroes. I certainly am. If someone said to me ‘Come on, let’s go into town and beat up all the muggers’, I would be very doubtful of their true motives. Heroes and heroines, in real life, are usually reluctant and act on impulse on the spur of the moment.” Anyone who has read any of David’s works will know that the reluctant hero is a common theme throughout all of his books. Be it the cowardly Rek in Legend, Decado, the retired fighter in The King Beyond The Gate, or the gun-toting Jon Shannow in Wolf In Shadow, the individual always makes the difference, even if they don’t set out to. This is not to say that they win the end.

Victories in my books are never much more than those of the hollow variety. As in life, victory costs an awful price and we all have to pay. At the end of the day, whatever the war, it is not just the people killed on the battlefield who are affected. That said, I would never let an evil person win the day. In real life the bad forces win 95 per cent of the time and I think that people don’t want to be reminded of it when they relax.” Talking of relaxing, David does very little. He has a regimented work schedule which he rarely strays from. He can write a book in 20 weeks and he feels that he must deliver it on the exact date agreed upon with his publisher, even if he has finished it four days before the appointed date. His actual daily work schedule is terrifying. In fact it made most of the GM staff go weak at the knees when they heard it and they made damn sure that it was kept well away from the publishers!

David has a four-day working week and it’s easy to see why. Each day starts at 9am sharp, writing straight through to 1pm, with only a short coffee break around 11am. After lunch, from 2 to 4pm he edits the material written in the morning session, then stops for dinner. At 6.45pm he reads his day’s work to his wife, Valerie, takes her comments into account, and then manually corrects the copy before printing it out and ending his day at around 9.30 to 9.45pm.

When he does get some time away from the keyboard – he uses the excellent Amstrad 8512 as his basic tool – he likes to watch videos. Like both of the interviewers present, he is a great fan of John Wayne and has most of his films.

In fact after he left his newspaper job, at which he served for a period of 15 years, he was given a framed momento, which contained a newspaper report on how John Wayne had licked the “Big C”. “I have always been interested in westerns, be they in book or film form. When I was younger I was an avid fan of Louis Lamour and still admire his style of prose today. For my money he has written some of the most descriptive fight scenes that I have ever read.

They fly along at breakneck speed and you are so involved in the action, that you don’t realise your speed of reading is also accelerating at a tremendous rate. I believe that one of the reasons Lamour was good at describing fight scenes was that he spent some time as a boxer himself.

If one doubted David’s liking for westerns, you would only have to take one look at his bookshelves, which include a complete set of all Louis Lamour’s works, plus about 20 biographies on Big John. After finishing the excellent Waylander, David informed his publisher that he wanted to write a Western. He was told in no uncertain terms that westerns were dead and buried and they wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole!! So what did David do?

Well, I wrote a sword and sorcery book, which had errr… distinct western overtones. It contained all the classic cliches of a great western, namely; A lone gunfighter, who was an anti hero dressed in black, that repents his ways, tries to settle down, but is drawn back into a gunslingers way of life when his wife is kidnapped and he tries to get her back. But it was based on a post holocaust sword and sorcery world.

The book David is talking about is Wolf In Shadow, which depicts the travels of a lone, almost evangelical, desperado called Jon Shannow, who is one of the few Christians left alive in a world torn apart by a nuclear war and dominated by Satanism.

This book fits very nicely in with the Gemmell galaxy, which is in the safest safe in the world – David’s head!

I don’t like making notes on characters and situations, as after a while they just become events on paper. I like to keep them in my head where the characters can interact with each other and the events will change the shape of the things to come.

It is no secret that ALL my books are interlinked, but it is how they are interlinked that is the secret. All the clues are there and all it takes is some lateral thinking plus an active imagination to make the connection. There are some more clues given in my new book The Last Sword of Power, which is a follow up to Ghost King.

By the time you read this, David’s latest work should be in the shops. The Last Sword is set in a Roman Britain threatened by an undead god. A man called Revelation appears, seeking to save the realm from a new Dark Age and find the legendary Sword of the Lance.

When he’s not hard at work writing best-sellers, David enjoys playing computer war games – his current favourite is Annals of Rome, where he has kept the Empire going up to 3000AD.

– and assisting his wife to run half marathons. Of course, he also spends a lot of time with his two children, Kate and Luke.

Kate, despite her tender age, is already following in her father’s footsteps by acting as a very critical editor of one of David’s current projects.

After hearing that London’s Great Ormond St children’s hospital was to lose the copyright to Peter Pan, he immediately volunteered to write a children’s fantasy to replace it as a source of income for the hospital.

The book has the working title of The Lost Crown, and is scheduled for publication in August 1989. It is based around a young boys attempt to stop an evil character stealing children’s dreams and making dreamtime an unpleasant experience. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the hospital and it will be money well spent. David has found the book no easy thing to write with Kate at the editorial helm. I gave Kate C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to read so that she would have some idea what fantasy is about. When she had read it, I asked her to compare it to some of the chapters of The Lost Crown and tell me what she thought was best. After a while she reluctantly told me that C. S. Lewis’s book was much better and that I would have to ‘do much better to improve my story.’ Oh well, back to the drawing board.” The drawing board he mentions must be well worn, as David has all his books up to 1990 either written or planned. At the moment the next book to be released after The Last Sword Of Power is The Knights Of Dark Renown, which is due out in May 1989. He is currently working on a new Jon Shannow sequel called The Armageddon Man, which is scheduled for publication in October 1989.

Fans of Waylander are not being neglected as David has plans to write another book in the Waylander series, that will be on the shelves around May 1990.

Finally he will be working on a trilogy of books which could prove controversial in that they will attempt to set certain historical records about an over-glorified commander straight.

David is a genuine all-round nice guy. He’s the kind of person who answers ALL of his fan mail personally, and will continue to do so until it interrupts his working timetable.

David has let us have an exclusive unpublished short story, which recounts part of the early life of David’s favourite character Druss. It came as no surprise to us therefore, when he asked us to donate any money he would have received to The Sudan Appeal. As we said, David is a nice guy.

Gemmell fans will not want to miss reading about this part of Druss’ early life, including his wedding day and the wrath of the mighty Harib Ka. You can read about it in the next issue of GM and we can tell you that it is well worth ordering your copy of GM. We know – we’ve read it!!

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