Interview with John Gwynne
John Gwynne not only has one of the best author photos ever, he is also responsible for the critically acclaimed series, The Faithful and the Fallen. This year he has started a new series, Of Blood and Bone. The first book, A Time of Dread, was released in January of this year, and the second book, A Time of Blood, is finished with no release date as of yet. John was gracious enough to take some time off from writing the third book to talk with us a bit about his new series and what else might be coming in the future. So let’s get to it!
These days more and more people are ranking The Faithful and the Fallen as one of their favorite series. Why do you think so many people connect with it?
Hi Michael, thanks for the invite. It’s great to be chatting with you.
‘…one of their favourite series’ – ha, that just sounds mad, though at the same time it is pretty awesome to hear. It does make me shake my head and grin from ear to ear. I’m still pinching myself when I see any of my books in a bookshop rubbing shoulders with my heroes. I’m just over the moon that there are people out there who seem to be enjoying The Faithful and the Fallen and finding something entertaining and emotionally moving in the tale of Corban and his gang. It is wonderful to see how The Faithful and the Fallen has struck a chord with some readers out there. It’s hard to figure out why. All along my only rule has been to write what I love, to write what I want to read, and when I boil it down that really comes back to old school fantasy – the stuff I grew up with, JRR Tolkien, David Gemmell, Eddings, and a large dose of historical grit that I’ve loved in the writing of Bernard Cornwell – and then try and combine it with a more contemporary take on character, realism and authenticity.
I’ve always loved the epic, sweeping vistas of Tolkien’s fantasy, the flawed, relatable characters of Gemmell, and the bone-crunching battles of Cornwell. They are the three main influences on my writing, and by putting those passions in a pot and stirring it up, out came The Faithful and the Fallen. What I strive to write is something that feels both epic and intimate. That’s been my mantra since I started writing: epic and intimate.
I suppose judging by the fact that my books are still getting published there are a few readers out there who enjoy that kind of mix.
Can you set the stage for where things stand at the start of A Time of Dread without giving too much away?
A Time of Dread is set in the Banished Lands, the same world as my first series, The Faithful and the Fallen, but it takes place 130-ish years after the events of Wrath, the fourth and final book of The Faithful and the Fallen
So, the events of The Faithful and the Fallen have become the history of this new series, and even all of those historical ‘facts’ are not exactly correct in A Time of Dread, as history is often written by the victors.
At the beginning of A Time of Dread the lion’s share of the Banished Lands are ruled by a host of warrior-angels called the Ben-Elim. They entered the Banished Lands over a hundred years ago, giving chase to their ancient enemy, the Kadoshim, a demonic horde. The Kadoshim were defeated and routed, but many of them fled and regrouped, so the last hundred years has been a period of war in which the Ben-Elim, along with their human and giant allies, have fought and hunted the remaining Kadoshim. For some years now the Kadoshim have seemed to be utterly broken, the few survivors retreating to the dark places of the Banished Lands.
The Ben-Elim rule with a firm hand, their goal to wipe out the last remaining Kadoshim, and they will not tolerate any internal conflict between the various peoples of the human race that they profess to protect.
Not everyone is happy with this.
And at the same time, the Kadoshim are beginning to stir again.
What made you decide to start your new series 100 years later? Did you have any trepidations about how the new world would be received by your readership and was it sad to say goodbye to Corban et al?
In my strange mind I view the Banished Lands as an alternative Dark-Ages Europe, a world where I am just narrating the events that happen. It’s a world that is inspired by both the history and mythologies of ancient Europe – Celtic, Norse, Greco-Roman, Eastern Slavic – so it seemed entirely logical to write a new series set in the same world. It’s like writing a book about Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, and then writing one about the fall of the Roman Empire – two stories that are related but independent.
At the same time, I didn’t just want to re-tell the same story as The Faithful and the Fallen, and I also felt like the central cast of The Faithful and the Fallen had earned a happy ending – the ones that survived to that point, anyway. So, I didn’t want to roll out the same characters.
It was very sad to say goodbye to Corban and his crew. I spent about fourteen years working on The Faithful and the Fallen, that’s a lot of time with a cast of characters, and I did feel very attached to them. Saying goodbye as I finished Wrath was a bittersweet moment. It was amazing to finally be writing scenes I’d been imagining for so many years, but also sad to be writing ‘the end,’ and saying goodbye to a cast of characters that had become such an integral part to my life.
In saying that, it felt to me like a fitting conclusion to the series, one that gave me a satisfying sense of conclusion, whilst still giving a sense of history that life would go on after the last page.
I wouldn’t have returned to the Banished Lands unless I felt that I had a story that could stand on its own two legs, and have a new and exciting tale to tell. The story that became A Time of Dread began to scratch away in my head, and it kept on growing, refusing to be ignored, shelved or compartmentalised, so in the end I started jotting down notes.
For the reasons mentioned above having a hundred and thirty-year gap felt like it made sense. A large enough amount of time for the world to change a little, for new characters to come along and a fresh angle on the story to appear.
And now here we are: book two, A Time of Blood, is finished and going through edits, and I’m about to start the third and final book of the series, provisionally titled, A Time of Judgement.
A Time of Dread features far fewer POV characters than your previous novels. Was this a conscious decision or just how it ended up? And can you give us a line about each of your four protagonists?
It was a conscious decision from the beginning. I wanted to write something that was tighter in its focus and a little faster paced than Malice, book one of The Faithful and the Fallen. Whilst I love and enjoyed writing the epic-ness of Malice, with its big cast of characters and diverse geographical locations, I wanted to make this series a tighter, more focused ride. I had a very clear idea of the major plot points and I needed enough POVs to tell that tale in my head, but not so many as to blur it. In the end four POVs felt like the right balance to show all that was happening in the various plot strands. Also, I felt happy with the four POV characters that were taking shape in my mind. They felt different and fresh from the characters of The Faithful and the Fallen, which was one of the issues I was concerned about in writing a new series set in the same world.
Those characters are:
Bleda – prince of the Sirak Horse Clan, taken forcibly by the Ben-Elim as a Ward, to guarantee peace and cooperation from his Clan. He grows up amongst the Ben-Elim, conflicted by complex loyalties and witness to world-changing events, but it is an unexpected and unsought for friendship that will change his life.
Riv – a young warrior-in-training. She is desperate to join the White-Wings, a force of elite warriors dedicated to the service of the Ben-Elim. She is prone to a fierce, tempestuous temper which more often than not lands her in deep trouble. Riv discovers a deadly rift within the Ben-Elim themselves.
Drem – a trapper who travels the cold, harsh north with his father, Olin. They are a solitary pair, happy in each other’s company, though Drem knows his father has a past that he will not speak of. When they find mutilated corpses in the forests that past begins to catch up with them both.
Sig – a giantess and warrior of the fabled Order of the Bright Star, she and her crew are dedicated to hunting down the remaining Kadoshim. When they discover covens, human sacrifice and sinister rituals they realise that the Kadoshim are far from broken.
One character in particular, Drem has been rather buzzworthy as he was written with characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Was there a specific inspiration behind this wonderful character, and did you find it a challenge writing him?
Drem was inspired by my youngest son, William, who is on the Autistic Spectrum.
I didn’t mention this to a soul outside of my family and my editor prior to publication, but quite a few people have picked up on it and commented in a very positive way.
I didn’t intend for it to be a ‘thing,’ or talking point. It was just a way of honouring my lovely son, and also a way of writing a character that I felt was more than a few steps away from the classic ‘hero’ mould. I’ve done that, and did not want to just write Corban all over again.
Like my lovely son, Drem’s autism is subtle, revealed mostly in his anxiety, his preference of routine, and his social awkwardness. He has a black and white view of the world, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. He has a number of ticks, or default coping mechanisms when he feels life stepping out of his comfort zone that just make him a little more human and different from the generic fantasy hero.
I’ve approached Drem’s autism as I see my son’s, not as an illness, or something that must be fixed, but instead as just a part of him, something that is as much him as his sense of humour. It’s not a plot driver, just another part of life that contributes to making each one of us unique.
I strive to write characters that feel real, that are flawed and human, so that you can understand their motivations and how they behave in some extremely unusual situations, and I try to do that with the antagonists as well as the protagonists. Even though I do have a fairly clear good guys/bad guys theme, I hope that their humanity comes across in my writing and makes then relatable. That’s the goal, anyway. Whether I pull it off or not is up to you to decide.
Your battle sequences in the new book are breath-taking. When creating a battle sequence, what do you set out to achieve and who are your biggest influences?
I’m so pleased you think that, Michael. I do enjoy writing battle scenes – a passion I think I picked up from David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell’s fantastic writing. Those two guys are probably the biggest influence on my battle-scene writing. It’s not just books that inspire me, though. Films have always played a big part. I remember watching Braveheart at the cinema when it first came out – 1995-ish? I was blown away by how well the battle-scenes were presented. It’s been done a lot now, but back then Braveheart was pretty ground breaking in its presentation of war. Taking the Hollywood glory out of it and showing the horror, the blood and grime and dirt. It felt like you were standing in the middle of the battle, witnessing all of the chaos going on in a whirlwind all around you.
Other films that have inspired me in that way are The Last of the Mohicans, Gladiator and The Revenant, to name just a few.
I approach any form of combat in the same way, whether it’s a one-on-one punch up or a full-on battle scene with a cast of hundreds or thousands. When I write a battle scene I roughly think it through, first, thinking about the key points of the fight, almost like a dramatic arc.
Then I put on the POV’s head and walk myself through the scene from their perspective, thinking about how their personality and character, their skills and defining characteristics would affect the fight. I think it’s important to root every battle in the characters, to see it from their perspective. I hope this gives the scene its own heart and pulse and makes it more intense, rather than a cold, bird’s-eye observation of the drama. Unless that bird’s eye is Craf, of course. ?
I’ll jot down a few notes, and then I go back to the beginning and write it.
Despite the darker tone there seems to be an overall strong moral compass in your storytelling that has carried over from The Faithful and the Fallen. Is there an overall message you want to convey with your writing?
I think you’re right, there are definite tones of morality in my books. When I first read David Gemmell I loved how he wrote characters that were flawed, made wrong choices, did bad things, and yet deep within them they still have the ability to be heroic, to stand for something they believed in. To hope.
In my writing those causes are usually family or friends. The people we love. That seems to me to be the heart of life, the thing most of us live for, and it can’t help but come out in my writing.
How important is re-enactment to you when it comes to research for your novels? Are you still able to get out and take part?
I’m a member of a Viking re-enactment group, and I’ve found that re-enactment is a great form of research for my writing. Of course, you can never replicate the utter terror of going into battle, but re-enactment can help give a very broad idea of what it must have felt like, or at least what certain aspects of it felt like. Re-enactment helps provide a level of authenticity.
In my last training session I was taught how to receive missiles – javelins and arrows – which basically means standing in your shield wall and letting people hurl javelins at you and loose arrows in your general direction. It can be an uncomfortable sensation, seeing someone take aim at you. The main lesson is to not turn and run away, or look up and track arrows when they’re loosed as an overhead volley – maybe that was Harold’s mistake?
A benefit of re-enactment is that it helps to add those small details that give an edge of authenticity to your writing. As is often said, the devil is in the details.
From understanding the clothing and weaponry of the period you’re writing about, how it was made, dyed, stitched, worn, to the weapons used, their functions, when they’re an advantage or a hindrance, and how to actually use them. I’ve learned spear and shield work, the various grips and when to use them, formation work in the shield wall, how to form and use the Boar’s Snout formation to break an enemy shield wall. So many useful things, and not least informative are the aches and pains, and the toll it takes on your body. Holding a shield and spear in the shield wall is no easy task, as my arms tell me every morning after a training session.
Also, it’s a lot harder to get in and out of a coat of ringmail than you’d think.
So, re-enactment has proved to be extremely helpful to my writing.
Plus, re-enactment is a whole load of fun. It’s made even better by the fact that my three sons have joined because they share my enthusiasm and passion for re-enactment. It’s pretty awesome to stand in the shield wall and see my sons lined either side of me.
Have you read any new fantasy over the last year that you can recommend?
I’m a voracious reader, always have been. It’s an irony, though, that now I write for a living I have a lot less reading time. I do still squeeze it in, but it’s mostly relegated to loo-breaks (sorry, too much information) and bedtimes.
Contemporary writers that I love to read, and tend to read their latest releases as soon as possible to publication dates, are Bernard Cornwell, Mark Lawrence, Miles/Christian Cameron and Sebastien de Castell.
I am also fortunate enough to get sent debut authors to blurb. My favourite one I’ve read over the last year has to be Nicolas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld.
When you are not writing, what takes up most of your time?
That’s simple. My family. My children. My daughter Harriett is profoundly disabled and my wife and I are her carers. There’s a lot of time involved in her day-to-day care. Plus, Harriett likes to be entertained, she loves attention and interaction – her smile is amazing, the most wonderful, genuine thing that lights up any room.
Two of my boys are still living at home and they see me as their personal slave and taxi-driver. ?They’re both awesome and we have a lot of fun together.
Family life is very important to me, and life passes by so quickly, so my wife and I are always aware of those precious moments that flitter by. We try to spend as much time as we can doing family ‘stuff’ together, whether it’s movie nights, visiting castles, walking the dogs or Viking re-enactment.
Also, my wife runs a vintage furniture and accessories business, which I used to be heavily involved with – she’s the brains in the operation but I would do a lot of the fixing, gluing, painting, and general carrying of the heavy stuff. Now that I’m writing I do less of it, but as anyone who is self-employed will know, work never ends. There’s always more to do and I help her with it wherever I can.
And whenever I’m not doing any of the above, I tend to read.
What’s next for you over the next couple of years?
I have a few ideas floating around in my head. All of them feel interesting to me. Some are in new worlds, others take place in the Banished Lands. Figuring out which one I have a go at next will be something I need to talk to my agent and publishers about. At this moment I’m leaning towards a new world, heavily influenced by Norse mythology.
It’s safe to say whichever idea I go with next, it will involve swords, monsters, love, friendship and betrayal. One of them might involve muskets.