One of the questions my friends ask me most about my new novel Wolfsangel is ‘where the flip did that come from?’
Wolfsangel is a historical fantasy based in the 9th Century, featuring mad gods, Vikings, a very mean werewolf and some very strange and sinister magic. It’s actually my sixth published book but nothing like anything I’ve written before. Up until now my stock in trade has been, broadly, humour – all under my real name of Mark Barrowcliffe.
My subject matter has been modern relationships, dysfunctional men trying and failing to get slightly less dysfunctional women. When my first novel came out ten years ago – the bestselling Girlfriend 44 – people immediately compared me to Nick Hornby and told me I was writing ‘lad lit’.
I disagreed with this. I thought I was writing satire – nearer to Martin Amis or Jonathan Coe. Still, what I thought didn’t matter. The book went out in a candy-coloured cover and, by way of compensation to the dent to my literary pretensions, sold by the shed load.
All my subsequent books were in a similar vein – the career nobbling Infidelity For First Time Fathers (why I chose a title designed to enrage women – my book’s main buyers – I’ll never know), even the psychedelic modern fantasy, Lucky Dog, were stories of boy meets girl, boy fails to get girl washed in with a string of one liners and, in the latter case, a talking dog.
My memoirs too were concerned, broadly, with what it is to be male. There was the story of my Dungeons & Dragons obsessed youth, The Elfish Gene and my memoir of my serial failures with women (hey, write what you know) Mr Wrong. I’m very proud of The Elfish Gene in particular – although I’d probably change the first and last chapters if I was writing it today, since I’ve discovered that SF&F culture in 2010 is a very different beast to the 1970s and 1980s version I was writing about. Most people found the book funny, it was true to life and I do think it said something about male culture.
Writing in this area had some interesting effects on my working life. I suddenly found myself dubbed a ‘relationships expert’ by the BBC and started appearing on morning TV, as well as being sought after by the women’s magazines for ‘the male view’.
So how did I get from the Breakfast sofa and Cosmo to writing a fantasy book that has been called ‘savage, feral, dark, relentlessly original, enthralling’ and ‘a classic’? (Sorry, if I blogged for SciFiNow and didn’t draw your attention to the reviews, my publisher would lay me out in a Viking blood eagle in pretty short order.)
I’d like to turn that question around and ask ‘how come some people are content to spend an entire career pumping out stuff in exactly the same mould?’ I think the expectation in genre writing is that you always wanted to be just one sort of writer – that you grew up wanting to be Raymond Chandler, JRR Tolkien or Martin Amis, not all three combined.
Writers are formed by their reading, and usually by their early reading at that. In my case, the two big influences on me growing up were PG Wodehouse – easily the funniest writer ever to pick up a pen – and fantasy literature, particularly Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner. I also read a lot about the occult, particularly witchcraft, which was a grimy, visceral sort of magic that appealed to me. And then, of course, there was D&D. At age 12 I wiped all information from the hard disk of my mind and replaced it with stuff from The Monster Manual.
It never occurred to me that I would have to choose between comedy and fantasy – or that I’d ever be limited to just those two. However, it also never occurred to me to combine them. I like comic fantasy – Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are very good – but I don’t like to write it. Or rather, when I do write fantasy, that’s not what comes out. I’ve learned in my 12 years as a professional writer that, when it comes to fiction, what you want to write has very little bearing on what you actually end up writing.
People suppose that writers have a choice in what they produce. I don’t think this is true for many of us. My ambition was not to be a comedy author or a fantasy author. I’m not sure I even had an ambition. I just wanted to write something good and, if it had been a detective story, a thriller or mind-bending high literature, it didn’t matter to me. I suppose there are people who set out to be a specific sort of author but I’ve never been one of those. I just waggle my fingers over the keyboard and thank God if anything half decent comes out.
I really never meant to write Wolfsangel at all. I just sat down at the computer one day with the intention of beginning something set in the modern day and just started writing about someone watching the bombers come in to London during the blitz. I thought it was a good piece of writing so I kept going. Halfway through the scene, the person doing the watching turned out to be a werewolf, which surprised me. Like my friends, I thought ‘where did you come from, furry?’
However, I am not one to look a gift werewolf in the mouth, and I kept going, kept going and kept going some more. Eventually I’d written about 350,000 words and had a back story about Vikings. The whole book was far too long and a bit too confusing so I hacked away all the WWII stuff and Wolfsangel emerged. It was totally different to anything I’d written before; totally different to the book I thought I was going to write when I started describing the Blitz.
This is the great thing about writing. It comes from an unseen place in the mind. So much stuff came tumbling out when I got going – there’s a blog on my influences here: Guest Author & Giveaway: M D Lachlan on Inspirations & Influences
So I suppose I could have thought ‘this isn’t comedy’ and stopped writing. But, if I had done, I know that instead of a novel that the Interzone review called ‘the most powerful and original fantasy I have read for some time’ (did I mention the novel’s excellent reviews? Oh yes, I did, didn’t I?) I’d have had a lame comedy. If the muse wants you to write about a werewolf, be thankful she’s turned up at all and write about a werewolf. If you don’t, she’ll stamp off in a huff.
So the real reason I dropped the comedy and started on fantasy was the only proper reason to do anything in writing – because I had to. I literally couldn’t avoid writing Wolfsangel because it started, as werewolves tend to, to consume me. If I’d tried something else it wouldn’t have worked.
When something like that happens, writers just need to thank their lucky stars and not wonder about it too much. The question wasn’t ‘where did that come from?’ I had no idea, but I knew where it was going – off to the publishers without delay!
Author: MD Lachlan
Released: Out now