David Gemmell: Nobody Gets Out of This Alive – Interviewed by Stan Nichols (1998)

Brian G Turner

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David Gemmell Interview from Fear Magazine, Nov/Dec 1988

Nobody Gets Out of this Life Alive

Fantasy writer David Gemmell tells Stan Nicholls of the life-and-death circumstances of his writing, a terrifying crisis which set him on the path from LEGEND to GHOST KING and beyond, to his latest book, THE KNIGHTS OF DARK RENOWN

Contradictions make for interesting characters, and David Gemmell is full of contrary emotions. He’s a man whose boyhood admiration for the famous story of Texan bravery -the Alamo – and its subsequent souring when he read the ‘real truth’ of it as an adult, spurred him to write a book (Legend) describing what the spirit of Alamo should have been about. A lifelong socialist, he backed Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands conflict and thinks Ronnie Reagan is probably America’s best man for the presidency.

It’s these conflicting facets that maketh most men – and too few fictional characters. Gemmell’s books are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and extraordinary heroes with more than their share of Achilles’s heels, overcoming through loneliness, or by association with other good men, impossible odds. Gemmell himself has had to face the inevitability of death – and yet lived to fight another day.

Born in 1948 in West London, he spent 22 years as a journalist, mostly with provincial newspapers, and as a stringer for the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and The Daily Express, before turning to fiction. He has lived in Hastings since 1979 with his wife and two children.

STAN NICHOLLS: When did you start to write fiction?

DAVID GEMMELL: In 1976 I was being tested for cancer, and it was a particularly ghastly time. There I was, losing weight, pissing blood – I knew something had to be wrong. Believe me, the prospect of death really clarifies the mind.

My wife said to me, ‘Look, why don’t you do something to take your mind off it?’ So, I wrote – in two weeks – a book called The Siege Dros Delnoch. I just powered this book out, writing eight hours a day. I didn’t realise quite what it was at the time, but if you think of Legend, which it later became, you’ll know that the enemy were the Nadir. My conscious mind hadn’t told me that means the point of greatest hopelessness. The fortress was me and the Nadir were the cancer.

When I finished I left the ending open, so that if I went to hospital and they said ‘sorry, you’ve got cancer and there’s f*ck all we can do about it’, the fortress would go. If it wasn’t cancer, or there was anything they could do about it, the fortress would survive. It gave me something to hook on to. Anyway, obviously I’m still here, because it turned out to be an old injury from when I was beaten up badly as a journalist years ago; it damaged one of my kidneys. An infection had caused blood to leak from the kidney. So I forgot the book for some time – because in fact it wasn’t that good.

In 1980, a friend read the manuscript and said ‘It’s full of clichés, but it’s very pacey, and if you spent time on it you could have a good book here’. I thought I’d start again. It took about a year, and that was Legend. It was accepted by Century Hutchinson late in ’82.

SN: Who, or what, influences your writing?

DG: Idon’t read fantasy. I used to, a long time ago. I read Tolkien, Howard’s Conan books; Lin Carter, all of Moorcock – those writers of the early Seventies.

Istopped reading them when I began writing. You get frightened of becoming some sort of sponge; I’m terrified I’ll write a scene and it’s in fact from someone else. I’ve got a problem now with my new book, which comes out next June. It’s called The Knights of Dark Renown, a title I’m very pleased with. Recently, someone asked me what I was working on, and I said The Knights of Dark Renown. He said ‘I’ve read that’. It turns out to be the name of an historical novel published around 1955. If I can get that from my mind thinking I’ve created it . . . I expect I saw the book a long time ago and it lodged in my mind. When I found out, I wanted to change it, but I think the publishers will stick with it.

SN: Why did you choose to write heroic fiction in particular?

DG: If someone had asked me ten years ago what kind of writer I was going to be I would have said historical novelist. I’m fascinated by history, but most of the things which intrigue me about it end badly.

One of my great heroes is William Wallace, who was Scottish. In the 13th century you had Norman rule in England and Scotland and the Scottish invading England. The Normans rarely got killed because they were all knights and were taken for ransom. The people who got butchered were the serfs. Along came Wallace – who was a sort of low-born knight-and he revolutionised warfare. He got a lot of peasants and transformed them into an infantry army, smashing the English all the way back to Stirling. The Scottish nobles, realising the English were about to take a thrashing and they would have a new order in Scotland, betrayed him. He was taken to London, hanged, boiled and quartered. End of story.

If I wrote about William Wallace he would exist in a world where he isn’t betrayed, or if he is he survives and wins. With that in mind, I thought the only thing to do was find a path with fantasy.

SN: Your characters have a life of their own?

DG: Legend is the only book where I knew the feel of the plot because I’d written it as The Siege of Dros Delnoch. Every other book I’ve written starts with a character – I don’t start with a plot. I say ‘he’s an interesting character, I’ll sit him on a horse and ride him out of a forest’. I’m very flexible.

The biggest secret I’ve found in writing is using real people. In Legend – and I have to be careful here – I wanted a character who was a nice guy, not very clever, who could always be relied upon to do the wrong thing. Someone a bit wet. So I pictured a particular friend. It was much more real, more credible.

It was the same with [the character] Druss. There’s a scene in Legend where I had a real problem. What I wanted was the traitor to do something despicable. So I thought – poison the well! I wondered how we find out about this, apart from everybody dying. So I hit on the idea of the [telepathic] Thirty broadcasting to Druss – ‘Hey, Druss, the well is poisoned’. No problem. They get through, and what does he do? Instead of saying, ‘Who’s there?’ he screams, ‘Get out of my head!’ – and starts smashing the place up. I’m typing it, thinking, ‘Listen, you stupid old sod, listen!’ It didn’t work and I had to find another way around it.

SN: When you finish a book do you put it aside to mature or does it go straight in the post?

DG: It goes straight out. I’ve got a superb editor- Liza Reeves – and I can totally rely on her when she gets the manuscript to tell me exactIy what needs doing. For instance, I was deeply unhappy Wolf in Shadow At the time I’d just lost my job my mother was very ill and subsequentIy died. Everything seemed to be going wrong. All this effected the writing of Wolf in Shadow.

The main character, Jon Shannow became increasingly depressive and the book took some spectacuIarly wrong turns, which I just couId not see. Liza returned it with a list of possible revisions. The book was originally sort of science fiction, and she suggested cutting the SF element and finding some magic. Suddenly everything channelled the right way. I rewrote the second half in three weeks. It was easy. That was the first of my books to be sold to the States, which it never wouId have had it not been for Lisa Reeves. I always put her name, and my copyeditoir in the acknowledgements. I think it’s nice that people realise something like Wolf in Shadow, Legend or Ghost King is a team effort.

SN: You make a distinction between writer and storyteller, describing yourself as a storyteller…

DG: Ithink that’s why I’ll never get writer’s block. People keep telling me about the great writers in the genre. Geoff Ryman. He will work and work, draft after draft. I asked him why he didn’t produce more? He tried to explain. He said he had a scene with a man going into a room, and what were the first impressions he had? Were there a lot of people in it? What about the size of it? He was going on about this room, and I thought ‘who gives a f*ck?’

When it comes down to it, I couldn’t care less. Get in the room! Make something happen! I’m not knockiug Geoff. I’ve spoken to people who admire his stuff – and I can’t comment because I haven’t read it – and they say he’s a tremendous writer. But it’s not for me. I tell stories. There are probably only three or four stories in the world, but if I live to be 90, I’ll find variations on them. Geoff is essentially an actor. He gives a performance, there on the page. He knows when it’s right, when he’s given a great performance. I applaud that. But if he turns out four books in 12 years, he can’t make a career in writing. Maybe in two hundred years nobody will know David Gemmell and there will be university courses on Geoff Ryman. But then I don’t care about two hundred years time.

SN: Your characters are interesting because they are uncertain about themselves – ordinary people doing extraordinary things. where do they come from?

DG: They’re all from life. In Legend, Rek was based on me – frightened of the dark, not wanting to get involved in any sort of violence. I grew up in a very violent area. I’ve got something like a hundred-twenty stitches on my body from fighting as a kid. I’ve been hit with broken bottles, had knives run down my fingers, I’ve got wounds and scars. Rek was also a natural poseur. He was more interested in whether his cloak was draped over his saddle correctly than getting involved in any problems. That was me.

Alot of other characters were based on some tough men I knew where I grew up. My stepfather -and that’s who I mean when I refer to my father – is very much like Druss in Legend. He’s a natural man of action, and has a direct way of dealing with problems. He’s got hands like bananas, his signet ring could go over my thumb. A real West London strong man. All my characters are real people dealing with unusual situations – that’s where the drama lies. There’s nothing more boring than a character with massive muscles, a brilliant brain, and who never loses. You know from page one he’ll kill 75 wizards, a couple of armies, several dragons, a few werebeasts . . . and end up crowned king of Lemuria or somewhere.

SN: Like Conan?

DG: Conan’s a bit different. It was done rather well. There was a pace and vitality about Howard’s work that carried you through. Most of the imitators don’t have that. The finest fantasy I’ve read is Lord of The Rings. I very much like Fritz Leiber – Fafhd and the Gray Mouser are two of my favourite characters in fiction. If you write fantasy you have to establish credibility very early on. You do that by giving the hero – Druss for example – a bad knee and a bad back. Someone else has toothache, or doubts and fears. All the things a reader can identify with. Then, when you bring in your dragons, werebeasts, and sorcerers, they are more acceptable.We’ve already established their world is a very real place. Look at the Marvel Conan comics. Lovely comics. But Conan will ride through through artic blizzards with his arms bare. That’s not real.

SN: Rek overcame his doubts about himself. In that respect is he you, too?

DG: Like Rek, when I was young I was forced into violent situations. My father made me box. He took me to a club and said, ‘There you go. Train’. I learned to fight, but I never liked or enjoyed it. Although actually I was rather good because I’ve got ape arms – a reach two inches longer than Mohammed Ah. Like Rek, I loathe violence, would do anything to get away from it. I was brought up by my mother until the age of six, and was very much a bookish sort of lad; like Thuro in Ghost King.

Then a man came into my family who was very strong, powerful, direct. He didn’t force me into anything, except the boxing. All he said was ‘Son, you’ve got to learn that a fist in the mouth isn’t as bad as hiding behind walls or running away’.

The other thing about Rek is that he was changed by his lover, Virac, who was based on an Amazonian lady I used to work with. The essence of Virae is my wife. For me, Val’s a rock. There’s me floating around here, there and everywhere, but I’ve got that rock I can always come back to. That’s what got Rek through Legend. It’s what’s helped me though life till now.

SN: Problems tend to be resolved by direct action in your books. Does this reflect your personal philosophy?

DG: Yes, very much. Problems that come up I tend to headbutt, go straight at and kick out of the way. It’s the only way in which I’m political. I feel strongly that we are educated from day one to an attitude that says if a problem comes up there’s always somebody else there to sort it out. I’m very much against that. We’ve lost the concept of eviI. If somebody does something bad to somebody else, it’s not his fault. It’s hard to encapsulate this because I don’t want to come over as a right-winger.

SN: But it sounds a bit Thatcherite…

DG: May my tongue go black and fall out, but . . . yeah. I campaigned for Harold Wilson, I went around carrying banners. I’m from a socialist family, socialist all the way through, but on that point – the ‘dependence culture’ – I stick in the Thatcher camp. Exactly as with the Falklands. My view is that the task force had to be sent. It was direct action and it sorted things out. I get angry when I hear prats talking about sinking the Belgrano. Sinking it meant keeping the Argentine fleet in port and they didn’t come out and take us on.

SN: Is there any element of conscious political allegory in your books?

DG: I’ve had the most bizarre conversations about this. PeopIe say they see the hidden left-wing messages, and others detect right-wing thinking. It’s all things to all men. You could easily argue Legend is about the old, corrupt civilisation and the new fresh barbarians. Like us, slowly sinking in to decay. But it wasn’t written that way. As a journalist I dealt with politicians – now cabinet ministers some of them – and never met one you could sit down with and just know they were honest. You can watch their brains work. There is always something else going on behind everything they say, and it’s self-interest.

Actually, I love Reagan. I was delighted when he got elected. The one thing the president of the United States does not need is to be intelligent. It’s desperately dangerous. Jimmy Carter proved that. As soon as you get a president or Russian premier who tries to see both sides of a question there’s the danger of war. The world’s safe because the Russians know Reagan’s not very bright. They know he could press the button, aud that’s a man they can deal with. Vote for the dummy every time. I’ve had a great deal of fun watching Ronnie. Apart from John Wayne being president, I think Reagan’s probably it.

SN: Which seems a good point to ask you what you meant when you once said you wanted to be the John Wayne of fantasy.

DG: Well, it’s nothing to do with his politics. One of the things which made Wayne such an enduring force in movies was that he never considered himself to be a great actor. As far as he was concerned he was a journeyman and tried to learn from every part he played. He was always aiming to be something.

What I meant about wanting to be the John Wayne of fantasy was that as long as I can hold on to the idea that writing is a learning process, and I can improve, then the chances are when I’m 70 I’ll still be writing books people want to read. I’ve met authors who have disappointed me as human beings immensely . . . by being arrogant, pompous; and I think, my God, don’t let me become like this. And would I know? Because they obviously don’t. It’s not that I want to be Duke [as Wayne’s friends called him], wandering through a fantasy world. What I want is to maintain that ideal he had, to keep the learning process open, not to get too overblown.

SN: Would it be fair, then, to see Legend, on one level, as being based on the Alamo?

DG: Yes. The Alamo had a big effect on me when I first read about it. unfortunately I now know the truth about the Alamo. The Alamo was commanded by William Travis, a fairly self important individual, Jim Bowie was quite ill and had financial reasons for joining the rebellion he had a lot of money riding in Tcxas; and Davy Crockett was a failed politician hoping to revive his career. The Alamo is a consistent story of cock-up after cock-up. Nobody there expected to die. I’m not saying they weren’t very brave men. But the whole thing was mismanaged to the point of ineptness. There is even one version that says Davy Crockett was discovered hiding under a pile of women’s clothing, and tried to bribe his way out. They took him away and shot him. I don’t like to believe that, but it’s the reality of life, so perhaps I shouldn’t have studied the Alamo. Legend is the Alamo spirit – or what should have been that spirit.

SN:You are very into elite groups in your books, like The Thirty aud The Dragon. Are they just good plot devices?

DG:Idon’t want to get too psychological but, in my childhood, I belonged to no gangs and had no friends. Which made for some very lonely times; particularly if one of those gangs was looking for you. I dreamed of having lots of friends. So in some ways the elite groups stem from that.
I’ve interviewed SAS men, men from elite regiments, and you’ll find them at 60, 70 and 80 still attending reunions and dreaming of the days when they were part of that group. Just being invited to join is a big boost. I’m fascinated by that discipline and camaraderie.

SN: Some of your elites seem to have mythical basis. Is there a religious motif here?

DG: You’re absolutely right. All of my books have a religious basis. They’re essentially Christian books. I’m a Christian and have certain strong views about Christianity. For instance Serbitar, of The Thirty, says ‘Why was I made the leader?’ Of course he was made leader, because he had the biggest distance to travel. The Bible says ‘He who would be first shall be last’.

SN: Would you write different books if you weren’t a Christian?

DG: Yes I would. There is a writer – George G Gillman – who wrote the Edge westerns. Edge is a man who can roll a cigarette with one hand while raping a woman and cutting the throats of several Mexican soldiers. The books are mindless savagery. If I wasn’t a Christian, and thought there was some profit in it, I could write similar books. Christianity stops me doing that. I think I would be promoting the cause of evil.

SN: Do you always see yourself as writing fantasy?

DG: I’m writing thrillers at the moment, just to get back into what you might call the real world. But when I look at them I think I’m writing thrillers that are really fantasies. The heroes aren’t much different and what happens doesn’t bear too much relation to real life. I’m interested in the good guys winning, whatever the odds, and people seem to find that more acceptable in a fantasy setting. In the main I think I’ll stick with fantasy for the rest of my life.I really enjoy it.

(c) 1999 Stan Nicholls
 

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