Steven Savile is the best author you don’t know you’ve read. An endlessly versatile, prolific figure who’s done everything from short horror fiction to children’s factual books, crime and tie in novels, Savile is as prolific as he is excellent. I talked to him at length about writing, the challenges of writing tie-in fiction, his career and in particular his excellent Ogmios anti-terrorism thrillers, a must for any Jack Bauer fans…
How did you get started as a writer?
I was one of those guys who starts very young. My old website used to have a story on it about how, aged 11 my teacher had contacted my parents and they were all in a big fight about my state of mind. We’d been set an assignment to write a story – a proper story – and while my class mates had done what you’d expect I wrote a story called Wheels which was about a man in a wheelchair being pushed under an oncoming train by a killer who thought he was putting him out of his misery. I thought it was brilliant, because it was all about wheels on different levels – the wheels of the killers thought process, the wheels that replaced the victim’s legs and the wheels of the train that killed him. Wheels within wheels.
My teacher didn’t take it the same way. She demanded I see a psychologist because obviously I was traumatised by my parents divorce (I was the first child of divorce in my school). Obviously the thing is children of a certain age aren’t supposed to be able to distinguish reality and fantasy, but me, I just thought: this is a great story. My second one was an IRA bombing in a pub from the point of view of a British soldier in there for a drink, ending as he died amid the rubble as people tried to rescue him. In retrospect these aren’t the kinds of things 12 year olds write about.
It wasn’t until I left school that I started to think properly about writing as a career, but then I wanted to be a sports journalist, as I was passionately obsessed with every sport under the sun. And I do mean every one. I didn’t read fantasy or horror. At the time I seem to recall it was Jack Higgins, Alistair McClean, Craig Thomas and the like, those and the old Commando comics. With my folks living at opposite ends of the country (Bristol and Newcastle) I used to have these interminable National Express journeys every few months.
Two books pretty much changed my life, one journey it was Misery, the Stephen King novel, the other was The Enchanter’s Endgame by David Eddings – yep, the fifth book of the series. I didn’t start at the beginning. I needed something to read and figured it looked about the right length to last the journey down to Bristol, so I borrowed it from the library then had to go back and read the first four books in the Belgariad because I’d read nothing like it. But then it was over and I had no idea what I should read. Or do, really. I was a fairly solitary kid.
My folks went on holiday leaving me alone for a fortnight with the Ashes for company on the TV. I remember instead of food I went up to the local newsagents and bought The Wizards And The Warriors by Hugh Cook, which blew me away, and that was that. I started to read as work displacement, I remember my exams pretty well, instead of revising I’d sit up in my room and read a different Michael Moorcock novel every night. For my 18th my mum bought me the six Thomas Covenant novels. I finished them on Christmas Eve and cried like a fool with the whole ending because it felt like I’d lost something. A friend? The thing about my youth was I was always missing someone – if I was up in Newcastle I was missing Amy, my baby sister, and my dad and Sonia, if I was in Bristol I was missing Sarah, my middle sister, mum and Dave. Somewhere along the line I realised that books, the world they allowed me to escape to inside my mind, were important as well as fun, and gradually I started to try and write again.
Anyone who reads me now (probably with the exception of the Risen novel, Dark Waters) would be amazed to know my first stories were all comedies. There was the Ohmygodnotagainriad (a lampooning of well pretty much every fantasy novel I’d read), The Wizard’s Banana (in which a magician has been kidnapped by the mob and forced to make it rain. It’s been raining non-stop for 286 days, no end in sight, when the Wizard’s daughter walks into this private investigator’s office and hires him to find her missing father. It’s full of lines like ‘She rolled her eyes at him. He picked them up and rolled them right back.’ and of course, the fact that magicians needed the vitality of fruit to weave their magic), then there’s Bix (my first original novel which was about Bixtamorphalus, which was very much inspired by Red Dwarf, had gags about landscaping and an enemy in the form of the Postmaster General who hunts Bix across time and space) which was the first thing I ever submitted to a publisher (Richard Evans at Gollancz, who wrote the most brilliant rejection, about how 50 per cent of the novel was pure genius and 50 per cent was absolutely awful, then spent months talking to me on the phone and giving me insight into how to make it better, and for that I’ll always be grateful because I think that was a key moment in my life, being taken seriously at 19 by the editor at what I considered the major SF publisher in the UK. The generosity of the man’s spirit was incredible). At the same time I was snottily rejected by Interzone with the line ‘The world doesn’t need another Terry Pratchett’. Yes, I remember stuff like that. I think we all do.
Then I read Misery (see you thought I’d forgotten about that, didn’t you?) and everything changed. I wrote three stories, Coming For To Carry You Home (inspired by listening to Squeeze’s Labelled With Love in the bathtub, which sold to Exuberance, a small press mag (and was described as ‘take a dash of Stephen King, a dollop of Dean Koontz, a smidgeon of William Hjortsberg, a soupçon of Faust and mush ’em all together’, and In Darkness, We Sleep (with Richard Laymon mentoring me) along with my first ‘big’ story, The Secret Life Of Colours, which I submitted to Frighteners, the sister magazine of FEAR in the UK, and both sold.
These were my first ever pro sales, and I thought my god I’m a genius, I can do this the world will fall at my feet and recognise my brilliance (I was 20, I think… 21 at most) I’ll be rich! Rich I say! mwahahahaha… etc. Only Frighteners went bust with my stuff still unprinted and thus we went into the wilderness years where for the life of me I couldn’t sell a word – or I could, only no one would ever see it.
I did two pre-teen novels for Henderson’s which never saw the light of day because the Funfax line was cancelled before they were published, I did a kids guide to the internet, which likewise never came out because it was pretty much obsolete before I turned it in, things were changing that fast. I had a big fancy agent who sold the novel version of Secret Life to Corgi, only for the book to be cancelled as paper prices hiked from 49p a paperback to 2.99 in a 12 month period, up to 4.99 in 18 months, and I was just sure I was never ever going to have a career. It was heartbreaking and really my route to publication was a trial of attrition. I wrote and subbed maybe 30 stories to small press mags in the UK, every one rejected.
Then I got a phone call – did I like dinosaurs and space ships? Well, sure, as a kid. Great, we’ve got a job for you, but we can’t tell you until you sign the contract, but you’ll want to take it, said the editor at Henderson’s, who had been with me through the failures of the pre-teen books and the internet guide. She was right, that’s how my first published books were a kids adaptation of Return Of The Jedi and a Funfax file for Jurassic Park II: The Lost World.
It’d be nice to say I never looked back, but there was maybe 4 years following that when I still couldn’t sell for love and money and pretty much gave up, beaten by the game. I was halfway through a story, Bury My Heart At The Garrick, about Harry Houdini, when I put my pen down and thought screw it, you’ve wasted more than a decade of your life here, go live, enjoy life, you’re not meant to do this. And for maybe a year it worked. I’d lost my agent, actually two by then. It was pretty much over. Though I had managed to shepherd the anthology Redbrick Eden into the world with Tanjen, and picked up a runner up in the British Fantasy Society Award, and a nomination for Best Novella with Remember Me Yesterday, from my Engimatic Tales chapbook, but those two things… they weren’t worth 12 years of my life. It wasn’t until I was off work ill over a year later, with nothing to do, that I thought, screw it, I’ll finish that last story, and submitted it to Writers Of The Future. It won.
My writing life changed there, I met Kevin J Anderson, who I think of as my big brother, and I never looked back.
Who influenced your style?
In the beginning I think that very first review that basically fused all the cool kids together nailed it, I was trying very hard to be Stephen King, then things changed. In part it was about finding my own voice and my own stories, but that wasn’t something I did alone, I did it by reading voraciously. Every horror novel, every fantasy novel, I managed to pick up a 10,000 pound overdraft as a student in 1991 because of books. I was buying and reading a book a day. That scares me now when I think about it, but there really was that moment when the brain clicks and says ‘you know, I can do this…’
The book that changed everything for me? Jonathan Carroll’s Sleeping In Flame. That completely changed my understanding of fantasy and what it could be, and was very much the inspiration behind my favourite sequence of short stories – The Fragrance Of You, All That Remains Is You, and Remembering You, Forgetting Me – The ‘Hoke Berglund stories’ which even now are the things I’d want on my tombstone because they’re so important to me and who I became, even if they’ve never sold worth a damn.
The audiobook of them is fabulous, too. It was my first ever audiobook as a writer and it’s really weird hearing someone interpret your stuff, but so much fun, too. Carroll was a unique experience for me, I think I encountered him at exactly the right time in my life. The other book was A Manhattan Ghost Story by TM Wright, which was absolutely haunting. What both of these books had in common was the people at the core, the love story, I guess. I’m a hopeless romantic.
You’ve done tie in work for several well known licenses. How do the challenges of working with someone else’s characters differ from working with your own?
It’s a question of ownership – but not in the way you might imagine. The fans own these TV show characters and comic-book characters and game icons. They live inside them and each fan has their own interpretation of what they are and how they react and sound and act and interact with the story.
What this means, really, is no matter how hard you work to nail down the character you’re not going to please all the people all the time, or even most some of the time. So, for me, I immerse myself in the property and do my very best to be authentic. With Stargate for instance I watched 200 episodes back-to-back over the course of a month. When I delivered the book to MGM the folks in charge of licensing praised the authenticity of the characters and how I’d ‘nailed them’ – now go and check Amazon, where I’ve written the worst Stargate novel ever and have clearly never watched a single episode and am a hack doing it just for the cash, etc.
That whole backlash taught me a thing or two, to be honest – though of course the fans don’t know how at the last minute MGM baulked at a novel where SG1 went back to Nazi Germany and couldn’t help but meddle, liberating prisoners from Belsen, or how the Mujina, an archetypal creature who represents your innermost needs (not wants, but what you NEED) would become over three novels the core of what we think of as Satan, etc and the book was hastily butchered to represent an alien world just like ours where some other race was being ethnically cleansed etc – and one hilariously dumb typo made it through where I’d been emailing a friend (Jonathan Mabbery) and typed Mabbery instead of Maybourne in the book, which made it by a dozen proofers, editors etc and became the core ‘he doesn’t know shit’ point. The experience of writing the unofficially worst book ever teaches you a lot, though. It’s not just about jumping through hoops or rising to the challenge of interpreting someone else’s character, it’s the whole idea of putting the toys back exactly as you find them.
I can remember vividly my first Big Finish short story, a Fifth Doctor adventure, Falling From Xi’an, in which the Doctor is up against these kind of anti-Indiana Jones guys who trigger the defences on the terracotta army, waking them, and I swear this 8,000 word short story took months because I was terrified of screwing up. I mean… it’s the Doctor.
And this was before the announcement the show was coming back. I obsessed over this story. I watched all of Peter Davison’s episodes, determined to get it right. When the book finally came out the first response from fans was ‘Bah, Savile clearly wants to be writing for David Tennant and doesn’t have a clue what Davison’s Doctor was like’ so you can imagine my wry smile when Children In Need showed Timecrash… I mean, the logistics of having written the story even before the 9th Doctor graced our screens never mind the 10th always amused me, but this is the thing with much beloved characters – we all love them for what they are inside our own minds.
I used to talk about this scene in Legend by David Gemmell which was one of my favourite pieces of writing – where Druss meets this cocky kid in a bar early on, and is goaded into a fight, only after killing the kid (despite trying so hard to just not engage) learns the irony that he was this guy’s hero… the thing is, I went back to look at it a few years ago and show a friend why it was so brilliant, only to discover pretty much all of what I’d loved about it wasn’t actually there – it was stuff my own memory and imagination had added between the lines.
That was a big learning moment as well, knowing that you need to give space for the reader’s imagination to do its thing, not swamp a story with every last detail. That’s something I try to carry on into my own writing now. The one time I didn’t, in London Macabre, the one time I said no, I’m going to write this novel like I’d write a short story, packed with stuff, I ended up with 150,000 words and enough story for 3 or 4 novels in one book. It’s an emotionally exhausting read. I’m really fond of it, but I can see why it’s one you either adore or think is terrible.
Is there a particular licensed property you’d like to work with but haven’t yet?
There are a few, of the current shows running I’d love to write a Haven novel, Supernatural and Castle, of shows no longer around, Starksy And Hutch, Eureka and Quantum Leap.
Your original fiction covers everything from contemporary action thriller to western and dark fantasy. Is there a particular genre you feel must comfortable in?
Honestly, I think I’m ‘best’ when it comes to the gritty contemporary action stuff like Silver, but that’s because of the grounding in fantasy and how fantasy novels are constructed as ‘vivid worlds’, but if I spend six-nine months working on stuff like the Ogmios novels I come away aching to go back to my roots and write a proper fantasy novel… so my heart is really split in two.
Tell us a little about the Jack Stone books.
Jack started because Matt Hilton asked if I’d write a short story for his Action! ebook – and I chatted to Steve Lockley about the idea of doing something together again. Steve’s one of my best friends and it’s a lot of fun working with him. I knew I wanted a revenge story that could well open up into a running series if it worked, but I wanted something very very English, and loved the idea as an exile myself of doing a story where a guy comes back to Newcastle and ends up right in the middle of the criminal subculture, with ties to more of the bad guys than good…
The most recent one brings Jack home to Newcastle, a city you’re very fond of. How did you find it, writing about somewhere that means so much to you?
It’s a love-hate thing. I emigrated in 1997, pretty much on a whim. I went on holiday and never came back. At the time I hated the place. I hated everything about it. It had almost broken me. Everything bad in my life was associated with it in some way. I wrote Laughing Boy’s Shadow – which was really the book where I first got it right and did what I wanted, a story about homelessness and a dying city, in which our hero is on the edge of losing his mind through grief and does some very bad things.
It was a book that must have sold a dozen times to small presses, first to Tanjen, then a load of US ones, that just kept going bust and closing down. I used to joke that it was cursed. I was 23 when I wrote it. After winning Writers Of The Future I self-published it, 225 copies, sold out in a week. This was back before it was cool to be indie. I did it basically to get the monkey off my back. It was released about 5 years later in hardcover by HorrorWorld in the US, and they did a gorgeous edition of it.
We talked about doing a sequel one day, and who knows, maybe I’ll go back there one day, like Jack does in Northern Grit & Northern Soul. Part of my heart is there, for sure. And absence has made the heart grow fonder. I went back for the first time in years in April this year and barely recognised the place and yet crossing the bridge on the train, seeing the Tyne Bridge through the window, there was an incredibly emotional connection with the place. That was when I realised I still loved the city, despite all of the pain of the past, now I was a different guy and Newcastle wasn’t the same place so we could fall in love with each other all over again. And that’s what the Jack Stone stories are, my own little love letter to the city of my youth.
Let’s talk Ogmios. What’s the basic premise?
In a nutshell, a hand-picked team with various backgrounds, a para who fought in the Troubles, a sniper who is on a self-destructive spiral, a linguistics expert who was captured in the Palestinian conflict and tortured, etc who are off-the-books operatives for the British intelligence and go to places where we can’t officially get involved and do just that.
The first story, Silver, pits them against a man calling himself Mabus, after the prophecies of Nostradmus, who is intent on fulfilling the ‘Beast’ prophecies and ushering in the Antichrist, or so it would seem at first. This one’s a two-part story, with Gold ending it, but Gold functions as a ‘bookend’ meaning we have Silver, then go back to a few previous adventures, one in Israel where we see what happened to Orla, the linguist, in the camps there, WarGod and Lucifer’s Machine, which focus on other members of the team, and soon Crucible, which actually goes back to the early 90s and the formation of the team in the fires of the Docklands bombing. Then we hit Gold, which ends it all as a nice sequence. Confused?
What sort of research goes into the Ogmios books?
Oh God, I’m obsessive. I spent a year plus just researching Gold. I must be on a dozen government Watchlists – I was learning how to do everything from counterfeit the Euro to print 3D weapons from polymers, hack pin-and-chip terminals and divert payments, and land on Cat III runways with a dead pilot… I sometimes look at my browser history and think ‘C’mon NSA you should be knocking on my door by now’.
They’re extremely cinematic without losing any of the impact of the page. Do you have an idealised cast list for an Ogmios movie?
I’ve been asked this a few times, and I don’t. Not really. But I’ll try. I suppose I think of the old man, Sir Charles, as a Gabriel Byrne kind of guy, with Sean Bean as Ronan Frost, Noah’s difficult, I mean he needs to be utterly damaged, slightly sleazy and yet heroic in his own kind of way. This is really hard. I mean it’d be easy to say ‘Oh, George Clooney’ but that’s rubbish. He’s not like that at all. I can tell you lots of who he isn’t, but that doesn’t really help. Maybe Bradley Cooper? I think he’s got the half-clean cut good guy, half not-quite-right aspect about him.
Jude’s kinda nerdy, but probably the most dangerous of the entire team in what he’s capable of, so for him I’d imagine someone like Justin Long, who I’ve liked since Ed, and Orla, well, I guess there’s the actress who inspired her name choice… Orla Brady, though every reader who contacted me seemed to insist that Yvonne Strahovski is the woman for the job. Maybe they’re all Chuck fans? The only one I know for sure is Konstantin, the Russian, who would have to be Jean Reno.
What book would you recommend someone who’s never read your work start with?
If they’re fantasy fans, it’d be Black Chalice, my Arthurian novel for Abaddon, I think, if they’re thriller fans, Silver.
What’s next for you?
I’m just finishing a novel tentatively entitled 2084 for Cambridge University Press – a dystopian sf novel after the second English Civil War, that is part of the computer programming line, the Coding Club, which is an original rather than tie-in, and my next game book is under contract but unannounced, so I can’t actually tell you what it is under pain of Non-Disclosure Agreement death, as the game’s not even announced yet.
My next published novels, one due right now, are Sign Of Glaaki, a Cthulhu mythos novel out in the US (co-written with Steve Lockley again) featuring Harry Houdini and Dennis Wheatley, and my debut ‘Alex Archer’ novel Grendel’s Curse is out from Harlequin’s Rogue Angel line in the Spring. There’s more, in various stages of tentativeness, like a movie script of my Prodigy collaboration HNIC, a possible sequel, stuff with WarMachine, more Alex Archer (Treasures Of Britain, which is finished, and a couple more under contract) for instance, and I’m working on my own ‘Big Fat Fantasy’ The Harrowing, which is hopefully the thing that’s going to change everything.
You can never tell. One thing’s for certain, though, I still feel like the luckiest guy in the world getting to do what I love, and I’m every bit as bloody-minded and determined as I was during the 12 deargodIcan’tsellanythingforlovenormoney years.