An Interview With Stan Nicholls on ORCS
Over the course of your career you have written many science fiction and fantasy novels. How did you get your start in the genre?
I suppose you could say I got started as a child, when I first became interested in these subjects. I’ve likened a passion for science fiction and fantasy to malaria; if you’re bitten young the fever tends to rage life-long. But from a fairly early age I didn’t just want to consume fantastical stories, I wanted to tell them myself. The first manifestation of that was probably in the playground, where I inadvertently discovered the Thousand and One Nights principle. In the school I attended, a glib tongue proved a useful alternative to fight or flight when you weren’t very competent at those activities. Making yourself a sort of entertainment asset was a good way of keeping your teeth.
I was a cuckoo in the nest of the poor, not particularly bookish family I grew up in. Despite being the last boy in my year at school who learned to read, once I knew how, I took to it. There wasn’t much money for luxuries like reading material in our house, but I managed to get my hands on a steady stream of novels, magazines and comicbooks. When I was nine or ten years old I wrote what I inaccurately, and hilariously, referred to as a novel. I wrote it in coloured felt-tip in a cheap reporter’s notebook. I knew that novels were divided into things called chapters, but I didn’t know how long they were supposed to be. So I made every page a chapter. This “novel” was about a bunch of feisty kids who start off seeing a flying saucer and end up foiling an alien invasion. It was, not surprisingly, dire.
When I left school I worked in a book exporting company that incorporated the London office of the Library of Congress, which was fascinating. Then I managed a series of specialist bookshops, including Dark They Were & Golden Eyed and Forbidden Planet. But this was all a diversion; I really wanted to write, and only got into bookselling to be near books and authors, hoping perhaps that I’d absorb the skill through some kind of osmosis. I was writing whenever I could find the time, and in my teens I’d joined with friends to publish fanzines devoted to sf, fantasy and horror, but I became increasingly aware that to make a life as a writer I’d have to focus on it exclusively. When I finally took the plunge it was as a journalist. Fiction writing being an unpredictable way to earn a living, my thought was that journalism would pay the bills while I worked at the craft of storytelling. I concentrated as much as possible on the genres that interested me, but you can’t really prosper as a journalist if you write only about science fiction. So I became a jobbing hack, taking commissions on almost any subject from practically any publication that would pay me. I’d recommend journalism to anyone interested in a writing career, even a career in fiction. It teaches you positive attributes, like a respect for deadlines, an ability to get the job done and brevity of expression. During this period I also worked as a first reader – or slush pile reader as we rather unkindly call it in the UK – for a number of publishers and literary agents. That taught me a lot too, though sadly most of the lessons were about how not to do it.
One day I got a call from an agent who had seen my work and wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book. That led to a series of commissions writing movie novelisations and TV tie-ins. People trying to break into the profession can be a bit disdainful of this kind of work, but again I’d recommend it. In this business your only collateral is your track record, and any kind of book helps build a profile, as well as giving you the chance to master the skills needed for novel writing. Having proved myself to some extent with these projects, I eventually graduated to pitching my own ideas.
Who/what would you consider to be your influences?
I’ve had the privilege of reading very widely in the sf, fantasy and supernatural fields, and took inspiration from all these genres. I’m not someone who sees the various branches of speculative fiction as being dissimilar in quality or interest. For me, the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres simply occupy different points on a spectrum, and I’ve enjoyed reading, and to some extent writing, in each of them. I could list numerous authors who influenced me, but that makes for dull reading, and I’d be bound to overlook some important names. So I’ll just say that it was the totality of these genres that motivated me.
One thing I’ll add is that although prose, the printed word, is what’s always captivated me most, other mediums have had an effect too. When I was younger I had a passion for science fiction and horror movies, and an enthusiasm for comicbooks. All of this feeds into your work on some level, even if you aren’t always aware of it.
Are you mainly a science fiction and fantasy reader, or are there other genres that you’re partial to?
If it was possible to count up everything I’ve ever read, no doubt sf and fantasy would form by far the greatest part. But I’ve long felt that reading exclusively in these genres isn’t necessarily a positive thing. If you read only science fiction, all you have to compare it with is other books in the same category. You lose perspective. So I’ve kept up a little with other fields, and to some extent mainstream literature, though my tastes usually run to genre, like crime and thrillers.
But in common with a lot of authors, I tend to read less and less fiction the more I write it myself. And I rarely read any when I’m actually working on a book. I suppose that’s because when you’re trying to think your way through the ramifications of your own plot, world and characters you don’t want to be distracted by somebody else’s. There’s probably also an element of anxiety about unconscious plagiarism, which is something we all dread. I still read – I couldn’t imagine not doing that – but these days it’s more likely to be non-fiction, in the shape of a book on history or a biography.
How do you fill your time when you aren’t writing?
I recently made a pact with my wife, Anne – who’s a writer herself and understands the process – that I’d try to achieve a better work-life balance. You know, take a few days off occasionally and interact with real people rather than ones I’ve made up, that sort of thing. Writing has a tendency to be all-consuming, and when it’s flowing well there’s a reluctance to notice the clock. You could argue that being totally immersed is a necessary prerequisite for a writer, which it is, but there’s also a case for equilibrium. I’m mindful of the old adage that says being able to write is only half the story; you have to have something to write about. Keeping one foot in the real world is what feeds that, even for a writer of fantasy.
When I do escape my workroom I enjoy walking, particularly in the English countryside, or when I travel abroad, which is another interest. Recently I’ve been trying to learn how to record these excursions via photography. I hope to reach competent one of these years. I like history, and can usually be tempted into a museum or historic monument; and art intrigues me, possibly because it’s a talent I’m completely devoid of and envy in others, so galleries are a prime destination. Of course I people watch, as writers will, and I savour conversation – I share the delight many writers have in talking, which is why there are so many donkeys around here with missing hind legs.
The intriguing conceit of Orcs is that you have turned traditional fantasy conventions upside down. What made you decide that it was time for the orcs to tell their story?
That’s precisely it – their story had never been told. Orcs were always depicted as a mindless horde fit only to dash themselves against the heroes’ blades. I got to pondering about how winners write the history books, and thought, “Suppose orcs just had a bad press?” What if they were supreme warriors, and certainly capable of ruthlessness, but not actually evil? Suppose they had some kind of code of honour, albeit crude and, dare I say it, even a certain nobility? Why shouldn’t they have a history, a culture, hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs, just like other fantasy races?
Of course, most people associate orcs with Tolkien. But while he undoubtedly brought them into the general consciousness, he didn’t create them. I’m fond of saying that Tolkien didn’t invent orcs any more than Bram Stoker invented vampires or Anne McCaffrey invented dragons. Needing agents of evil – arrow fodder, to put it bluntly – he took creatures from European myth and fashioned them to his purpose. Not that this is in any way a criticism of Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful, unique creation that I have enormous respect for. No one will ever equal it on its own terms, and anybody who tries is wasting their time. I’m not trying to add anything to it, or take anything away, which would be impossible. I’m just offering my own take on a species, as you might call them, in the same way others have explored elves, trolls, gnomes, dwarfs, fairies and all the rest. I wanted to look at them in a different way, and give them their due.
Do you have a favorite character? If so, why?
For some reason my favourite characters in any of my books are usually female. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in an almost completely matriarchal environment. It might have something to do with the fact that I’m the sort of man who generally gets along better with women than my own gender – at any given time my female friends usually outnumber the males. Maybe it’s because I’ve long regarded myself as pro-feminist and enjoy writing strong female characters. Though some critics have questioned my intentions in this respect because of Jennesta, the villain in the orcs trilogy, who gets up to some pretty vile things. But it seems to me that saying you shouldn’t have a bad character who’s female, and by extension that women should only be cast as “good”, implies a patronising and outmoded mind-set. And it ignores the heroic female characters who more than balance her. So to answer your question, my favourite character in the orcs series is Coilla. I’m very fond of her, and find her the easiest character to write. If I was forced to pick a second favourite, I’ll contradict what I’ve just said slightly and go for Haskeer. He’s a dolt, and you wouldn’t want to run into him under any circumstances, but I can’t help feeling a certain affection for the character.
In terms of cover art, have you found it interesting to see how different countries have published Orcs?
The books are published worldwide now, and it’s been fascinating to see all the different interpretations. To refer back to The Lord of the Rings for a moment, if you read what Tolkien says about orcs you’ll find that he’s very light on describing them. And just an aside here: when I started writing the series I deliberately didn’t re-read Tolkien, except for some of the passages about orcs. As this was going to be my exploration of the race I didn’t want to be influenced in any way. But I decided to do as he had and keep my description of orcs fairly basic. I did this because of what you might call the Charlie Brown Syndrome. When the animated versions of the Peanuts strip started appearing a common criticism was, “They’ve got the voices wrong! They don’t sound like that!” What people meant was that they didn’t sound like that in their heads. Everybody had their own idea of how the characters should sound. It’s a bit like that with orcs. Given that they’ve never been fully described before – with the possible exception of some interpretations in the gaming world, of which I’m largely ignorant – everybody has a picture of orcs in their mind. And the movie versions of Lord of the Rings and its view of orcs didn’t come into this because I started writing the books well before the films were released. The point is that I didn’t want to fall victim to the Charlie Brown Syndrome by describing them in too much detail. I wanted to leave enough room in my depiction of these creatures for people to fill in the gaps themselves. In fact, that’s not a bad rule as far as many aspects of fantasy fiction are concerned – leave some space for the reader to dream in.
So it’s been really interesting seeing how different countries handle the covers, and I often wonder whether the artwork conveys some kind of national characteristic. Some countries, for example Holland, go for abstract covers implying martial artifacts like shields. The German editions started that way, with the stark image of an axe, but lately the illustrations have turned into something almost demonic. In the Czech Republic they see orcs as quite monstrous, while the French go for a slightly cartoonish but definitely epic quality. The Chinese orcs have something of Eastern mythology about them and the style of the covers has a faint echo of Manga. My Italian editions are very hard-edged and feature scary armoured helmets. The Russians … well, one of the Russian editions had me in stitches. Their orc looks just like Alfred E Neuman!
What’s next for Stryke and his warband?
It was always my hope and intention to continue the story of Stryke and the Wolverines, and at this moment I’m halfway through writing the second trilogy, Orcs: Bad Blood. The first volume’s called Weapons of Magical Destruction and the second has the working title Army of Shadows. These books carry on the story begun in the original trilogy – we find out what became of the Wolverines after they entered the portal in search of their home world, and what happened next. All the characters from the first trilogy are featured – or at least the ones who survived – and we discover Jennesta’s true fate. There are quite a few new characters too, including some unlikely companions for an orcs warband. And the plot opens out a lot more, in that it isn’t restricted to a single world. What I certainly didn’t want to do was serve up a rehash of the first trilogy – you owe readers better than that – and I’m working hard to give this continuation some fresh twists. The fact that I worked out a story arc that included the events in this new trilogy before I started writing the very first book has helped with that.
Finally, if you were walking down a dark alley, who would you be more scared to come across, Jup or Coilla?
Well, as I created them, I’d like to think they’d grasp my wrist warrior style and invite me to join them for a tankard of ale. But let’s assume that didn’t happen. Jup would be a formidable opponent and tough as old leather, so you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. But in terms of savagery, fighting skill and a propensity for bloodletting, Coilla would have to be the one to steer clear of. She’s an orc.