Malcolm Walker is a new fantasy author, who's written The Stone Crown (Risingshadow.net's review of The Stone Crown can be found here).
Risingshadow.net has had the honour of interviewing Malcolm Walker.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MALCOLM WALKER
How did you become a writer? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I seem to remember deciding to write when I was about eighteen or so. It was a pretty basic desire to tell a story about a place I’d never been, but desperately wanted to go, a kind of surrogate travel experience – the Bahamas. I wanted to write a kid’s book about treasure and wreck-diving and pristine white beaches. Later on, I realised I needed some life experience before I’d have anything worth saying – which beggars the question after forty years whether or not I’ve got anything worth saying now – anyway, the desire to write simply came from my love of reading and I wanted to see if I could do what other people had done between the pages of a book.
However, it probably goes back a lot further than that because when I was about four or five, my brother, who is fourteen years older than me, was conscripted into the army and sent to Kenya for two years and then shortly after he came back they called him up again and he was sent to Cyprus. His stories, which I must have picked up sitting around listening to the adults, fed my interest in new places, exploration and what was to become an abiding interest in maps and geography. This must have fed into reading – I read a fair bit as a kid, it was a way to escape some of the darker aspects of childhood, and I suppose that eventually transposed itself into wanting to emulate other writers, try my hand at my own stories. I was encouraged by my dad who bought me a portable typewriter when I was about eighteen and said ‘go for it’. But my brother’s tales of faraway lands also propelled me to leave the UK at the age of 24 and I spent five years in the 70s travelling the world, which is in part why I ended up living in Australia. For me writing is like travelling, you never quite know what’s going to happen on the next page or around the next street corner.
How did you come up with idea of writing your debut book (The Stone Crown)?
I was a bit nervous about starting on a novel; the journey seemed insurmountable and possibly endless. I’d had made some attempts before with adult literary novels, which ended up going nowhere or failing to capture my imagination sufficiently that I felt I could continue with them. I’d read a lot to my kids and have always read young adult literature when it was recommended – I see no point in the discriminatory line that some readers (and writers) draw that separates these two types of literature, I think it’s a very false divide, one that has a lot to do with a kind of intellectual snobbery. I decided, having won a scholarship to do a creative writing PhD, to write a young adult novel. The scholarship gave me 3 years writing time. But the decision to go with a young adult story was driven partly by the knowledge of how difficult it was to get into print if I was going to write for adults, particularly here in Australia.
I chose the Arthurian story as a kind of safety net, something I could fall back on, something familiar and structured. The fact that I took the basic legend and substantially changed it is not the point; it was always there, always within reach. The story has a fairly large contemporary component and the fact that Arthur was always hovering in the background allowed me to safely explore the world of the two teenage protagonists.
The main characters of The Stone Crown are realistic and they act like normal teenagers. What inspired you to create these characters?
They say that all novels are somewhat autobiographical, first novels probably more so. There are elements in both Emlyn and Maxine that I can see in myself, but then again they are constructs that I built in part through the necessities of plot and also the actions that they needed to carry through to make the book work. I made Emlyn a nature watcher and amateur ornithologist because that was what I was interested in when I was that age, but also it put him in the right place at the right time. If he hadn’t been up at the spinney with his binoculars and his camera there’d be no story to tell; if I’d made him a true townie, a kid interested only in computers, video games and hanging out at the town disco, he’d never have got involved with Maxine and the horsemen wouldn’t have been unleashed. I wanted him to be psychic – to have the ‘sight’ as it’s called in Scotland – as a way of exploring the issue of his father’s mental illness; in particular I wanted to show how male behaviours and patterning can be handed down across the generations, how we often recreate our parents in the relationships we have with our kids. As the ‘Keepers’ the McCrossans, with their 1400 year history, are a kind of metaphor for how such patterns keep repeating, how as humans we seem to make the same old mistakes time after time.
With Maxine I was after constructing a strong but somewhat confused female character, somebody with a past, who was tough and independent, somebody who’d wanted to fix an old motorbike. Max isn’t frightened to get her hands dirty in fact she appears not to be frightened of much at all, but there’s also a vulnerable side to her. She’s had a hard life and a tough upbringing and towards the end of the story she starts to wobble a bit as she unravels her true history and who she’s actually linked to.
While the novel is described as an historical fantasy much of it, probably eighty percent, is good old social realism – ordinary kids trying to do ordinary things but in an extraordinary situation. This last element is where the fantasy come in but for me, as a writer, I’m not terribly interested in high fantasy, mostly because by its very nature it doesn’t allow for deep characterisation.
How much research did you have to do before you began to write The Stone Crown?
Quite a bit, in fact. Although I’d been brought up with stories about King Arthur, as had most British children of my generation, I had never really trusted the Romance tradition that sprang out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini. I somehow couldn’t quite picture the castellated turrets, the fluttering pennants, the damsels and the jousting knights in polished armour that have been handed down through a long line of interpretations, starting with Geoffrey, through Thomas Malory, Tennyson, White and finally hijacked by Hollywood. It was when I came upon the Mabinogion, the old Welsh stories, which in part feature Arthur, that I began to get a scent of something different, something far older and much darker, much more Celtic. Of course once you get a whiff or something you follow your nose and that led me through a lot of scholarly and lay texts that debated the origins and even the existence of Arthur. The nonfiction work that finally convinced me that he had existed, although in quite what form is a matter for conjecture, was Alistair Moffat’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. Moffat’s book relies on toponymic evidence from the Scottish Borders to suggest a connection between Arthur, Dux Bellorum (leader of battles), and the area around Kelso. It was via my research through his book and another by Howard Reid called Arthur the Dragon King that I settled on placing the action for The Stone Crown in the fictional town of Yeaveburgh.
Have you always been interested in the Arthurian legend? What are your favourite Arthurian books?
As I said earlier, I was brought up with the legends. I suppose at the time I was no more interested in Arthur than I was in Robin Hood, William Tell, cowboys and indians and any of those Boy’s Own Adventure type stories. Once I seriously started formulating the book it was the ability to send him back to his proper period and place him in the wild Celtic landscape that interested me most. I’m endlessly fascinated by how Europe and the UK must have looked, how it functioned and how its peoples survived both prior to and after the Roman empire. The Dark Ages is something of a misnomer in much the same way that the religion of the Celts was deemed pagan and devilish by the early Christians. I am always interested in times, places or peoples where cultures clash and overlap, some of the most interesting and intriguing aspects of culture come from just such collisions. Of course, a lot of pain and suffering is also born out of such times.
In terms of Arthurian books, I probably haven’t read as widely as I should have. But then again there’s an awful lot of titles out there that deal with King Arthur. If we’re talking about stories that deal more or less exclusively with the Arthurian tales then The Mists of Avalon is a favourite, mostly because it’s one of the first titles that looked at the Matter of Britain from the women’s point of view, although I haven’t picked it up in years. Likewise Mary Stewarts’s The Crystal Cave and the other books in her Merlin series. I’m very fond of books – and these are often found in young adult fiction – where Arthur meets our time. In this sub-genre I’m very fond of ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ by Susan Cooper and William Mayne's Earthfasts, both Arthurian reworkings. But perhaps the most influential writer for me has been Alan Garner. In particular The Owl Service, which, although not about Arthur, reworks the ancient Welsh text from which stories of Arthur derive, the Mabinogion. I believe The Owl Service to be a classic example of what I was talking about earlier, a book that bridges the rather artificial divide between adult and children’s literature. It is a brilliant book that works on many levels and which can be read by anyone over the age of about 12.
What kind of books do you read? What are you reading at this moment?
I read pretty widely – popular fiction, literature, nonfiction, young adult fiction, biography, history, poetry – and there are very few modes or genres that I’ll baulk at. Perhaps if I list my last ten books it will give you some idea of my reading taste. Starting with number ten, I’ve read The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer, The Dust Devils by Sean Williams, Wrack – James Bradley, Figurehead – Patrick Allington, Unlundun – China Mieville, Cloudstreet – Tim Winton, The Fire Eaters and Jackdaw Summer both by David Almond, and Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernière. I’m currently half way through Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. I’ve just realised that six of the authors are Australian – so I must be going through a bit of an antipodean phase at the moment. And not a smidgeon of nonfiction in sight. I must set about correcting that.
You're currently working on a new book called The City of Thieves. What can you tell us about this book?The trilogy is entitled ‘The City of Thieves’ and once again features two contemporary teenagers, two brothers this time, who find themselves in a parallel world, a city that mirrors their own in some ways but is entirely different and strange in others. The mirror city is dominated by gangs. I'm playing around with the structure, trying to find a form that will tell the story best, which is always interesting. But so far the action occurs both in our world and in the parallel one.
Here's the final question: is there anything else you'd like to tell us?
Well, I’d like to thank you and Risingshadow.net for this interview and for generously reviewing The Stone Crown. If any of your readers get hold of a copy and enjoy it, or even if they don’t but are prepared to say why, then feel free to contact me through my website. And, of course, to tell their friends and other readers about the book, whether that’s on the web or by plain old-fashioned word of mouth.
Thank you for the interview, Malcolm.