David Gemmell: Passion And Heart – Interviewed by Ann Grey (1998)

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

David Gemmell,Britain’s leading author of heroic fantasy, talks to Anne Gay

‘Sword in the Storm is a special book for me,’ says David Gemmell at the end of his most successful tour ever. ‘There are themes within it that I’ve wanted to explore more fully for a long time. It was a hard book to write, and very draining at times. I never keep notes, so I had to hold all the themes in my head, and all the characters and their motivations. And the story kept growing. It was not, at first, intended to be part of a series. It was to be a one-off, like Dark Moon or Morningstar. But the more I wrote the more I realised I couldn’t handle the themes within a conventional 130,000 word novel.’

With Sword in the Storm, Gemmell’s writing has moved on to a more reflective panoramic sweep-of-history level examining the currents that move both individuals and nations forwards. ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’ he says. ‘But I tend to be wary of the word ‘comfortable’. For the writing to work it has to be tackled with passion and heart, and if the author gets too comfortable within his or her style the writing can become bland. I hope the readers will like Sword in the Storm. But although I spend a great deal of time and energy focusing on delivering a good plot and fast-paced action for my readers I have to continue to push at the boundaries. There is no standing still in this business. You either get better, or you go backwards. In order to be the best I can be, I have to stretch myself, tackle new areas, explore new themes.’

And indeed this is turning out to be one of his most popular books so far. Signing queues have been longer than ever and his talks – witty and entertaining – have been incredibly well attended. So ….

how does he account for his appeal?

Igrew up with men of violence. I understand men of violence. It means that when I write actions scenes and when I have violent characters, I have a very strong feel for that. When you talk to the fans, it’s those action scenes that they like and they can relate to, because my characters act, within a fantastic scenario, like real men of violence. And that’s an advantage I have over almost everybody in the field.

‘And I think West London humour – you know, very sharp, very fast – was a good training. I grew up listening to it with some very interesting people. I loved some of their lines. You know, someone would say something stupid and someone would immediately come back and say, “Is that your brain or are you breaking it in for an idiot?”

‘The fans also read my stuff because the bad guys don’t win, and the good guys do win, despite the fact that the odds are overwhelming. You know, there’s too much nowadays, in my view, of the idea that you all sit down and say, “Such and such a thing is going on and it’s terrible” and the first response you get is, “Well there’s nothing you can do about it, is there? That’s the way the government is.”

“Big business? Well, there’s nothing you can do about it.” “Nah, it’s the council, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Which is utter b******s. There’s always something you can do about it and that’s what my books are about – people who do something about it, and so you read it and I hope you tend to think, “Something can be done.” I think that’s what tends to keep them popular.’ Gemmell smiles. ‘Everything I write is, in a sense, autobiographical, in that I have always believed in writing about what I know.’

Now a greater maturity is coming out in his work, a greater human depth. In Sword, the witch, Vorna, has to choose. She can either have her powers or she can have love and friendship. The two sides seem to be mutually exclusive. It reflects Gemmell’s view of real life. ‘We are all required to make sacrifices. Anyone who wanted to live a life of total freedom and independence would need to be utterly selfish.

‘My favourite character in Sword is Ruathain. The man is a well of love, and never shirks his duties or responsibilities. He marries a woman he knows does not love him, yet raises her child as his own, constantly helping the boy to achieve his full potential. And when that boy becomes a leader, Ruathain follows him without any ego loss. But he’s not the character I most identify with. That’s Connavar, keeping the “beast” chained as best he can.’

The “beast” is a compound of less than admirable human characteristics including lust and rage. Gemmell is aware that acts of individual anger have consequences that change the fate of nations. ‘Adolf Hitler had a brutish step-father who constantly beat and raped his mother, giving her syphilis. This changed his life, in that when the Allies made Germany suffer after the First World War Hitler saw the actions as those of ‘a great brute raping Germany.’ As a child he had been powerless to help his mother. As a man he devoted his life to protecting the Motherland. Who knows what he might have been had his childhood not been transformed by anger and resentment?

‘Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, but then so does Good. As to Fate, I think we all have any number of potential destinies. What Fate offers us in the end will always depend more on our flaws than our strengths. Bill Clinton is a case in point. His flaw has always been that he gives way constantly to sexual desires. Anyone looking back on his career in a hundred years time will know that he was destined to fall from grace.

‘The seeds of destruction for any civilisation in history have always started to sprout when their society lost touch with the spiritual, and yearned for material wealth.’ Like Jon Shannow, the hero of his Jerusalem Man series, Gemmell quotes the Bible. ‘”You can’t serve God and Mammon.”‘

Beyond spirituality there are other values which he extols. Some have seen violence as one of them since it features so prominently in his books. Is it the ultimate solution?

He shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s true. There are no ‘ultimate’ solutions. If a man comes at you with a knife, and there is nowhere to hide or run, then you have to fight for your life. That’s just plain common sense. If an army invades your homeland you fight to protect what is yours. I see nothing wrong with that. I don’t subscribe to the view that violence is always wrong. When a surgeon cuts into a human body to slice away a cancer he is committing an act of violence on that body. Sometimes violence is the only answer. But then I have an old-fashioned view on these matters. It sickens me every time I read that some killer, freed from prison, has killed again. Or when a man protecting his home from thieves is sentenced to seven years because he fired a shotgun at them, injuring one. In my view killers should hang, and men who shoot robbers should receive a medal.’

It sounds like a return to the legendary Old West. And legends certainly hold an attraction for him since he has created so many. In part Echoes of the Great Song, the concurrently released paperback of his last novel, is about the distortions between myth and historical fact. Yet Gemmell is not an escapist. He says, ‘I would always rather live in the reality. But like most romantics I believe in the values the legends teach. Love, courage, redemption and forgiveness are values to be cherished.’

Looking at him, broad in the shoulder and narrow at the hip like his heroic creations, few would have jumped first to the adjective ‘romantic’ to describe him. But it fits. Relaxed, he radiates warmth and has many friends. Nevertheless he is as fiercely self-reliant as any of his favourite author Louis L’Amour’s characters. Having written about the Morrigu, a spirit who can grant any wish, he says he wouldn’t request a gift from her.

‘Irarely ask anyone for anything. Another question I’m asked is whether I’d do the same as Shannow and reject eternal life. The answer is absolutely. I have enjoyed my life immensely. I’ve never been touched by greed or envy and I wouldn’t want to live my life again. When the last day comes I’ll just thank God for the time I’ve had and drift away.

‘All my books contain the same message, but I don’t preach about it. The message is for those with the “eyes to see and the ears to hear”. If any reader doesn’t understand the message no amount of lecturing from me will bring it home.’

Sword in the Storm and Echoes of the Great Song, are numbers 1 and 2 respectively in forbidden Planet’s top ten listings. All the same, his first book remains his personal favourite. Legend, written when he was erroneously told he was terminally ill and hadn’t long to live, is the story of a beleaguered man battling on against ferocious odds. ‘It was the first published novel, but it contained all that I wanted to say about life. It is full of passion and heart and I’m deeply proud of it. I’ve always liked telling stories so when it came to finding that Legend actually worked for me, it was like finding yourself. I thought, “This is it! This is what I was intended to do!” so I’ve written stories ever since. I love writing. Love it to pieces. Since I don’t know my stories – well, that’s not exactly true; I have a very, very bare skeleton of an idea – but I don’t really know what’s going to happen, so I long every day to get to the word-processor so I can get my hands on the keys and see what’s going to happen to these characters next.’

But Sword is special, an evolution in his writing that brings animation to Gemmell’s face when he speaks of it. ‘I’m currently working on the sequel, entitled Midnight Falcon, which should be in the publisher’s hands by the end of November. It’s a punishing deadline. I have 70,000 words to write in seven weeks. It’s set eighteen years later, and it’s about Connavar’s ******* son. After that I’ll be writing two Drenai novels, the last Druss adventure and possibly Waylander 3.’

Britain’s foremost author of heroic fantasy, Gemmell has achieved fame. He has only recently returned from a gruelling tour of Australia. He holidays in exotic places like Arizona or dazzling islands in the Mediterranean, stays in ritzy hotels. I say to him, ‘You don’t have to do the 9-5 daily schlepp and the wolf is a long way from your door. You have a life-style almost anybody would envy. So what’s your next ambition?’

He says, ‘I probably work harder now than I ever did on a 9-5 schlepp. As to ambitions…. There is an ancient blessing that says, ‘May all your dreams – but one – come true.’ When I was young I never understood that. Now I do. ‘And I wish I didn’t.’

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