IAN WATSON, WRITER, INTERVIEWED!!!!
IAN WATSON-Pulp Writer
AP – Hello, Ian, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. In recent years your excellent fiction has certainly made you a lot of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Why don’t we start this with a short bio of yourself. Where were you raised? What was your formal education? Your current occupation and status; married or single?
IW – I suspect that I’m a thwarted pulp supervillain. Look at the evidence: I have a British accent, which is always a sure giveaway to American audiences; despite my humble origins I gained a scholarship to a public school (which is an English private school) and learned to crave wealth and power; I live in a gothic Victorian townhouse with my beautiful daughter and scheming son; and I appear when companies are in trouble to take over and impose order or I initiate elaborate masterplans for world-conquering projects – for a living.
Or you could say I’m a freelance management process consultant with two kids living in Yorkshire, England. Your choice.
AP – Before your work for Airship 27 Productions, what other fiction had you written and where did your first published fiction appear?
IW – In 1974, at the age of 11, I won an award at the Ilkley Literature Festival and the piece was published in their annual. I think I had a story published in the Daily Telegraph magazine somewhere in my early teens but really I only remember that I won a free LP a week from them for a year. When I was 16 my first play, The Golden Talents, was produced, the first of four productions I got on stage. None of them made me world famous.
I had a column in a local newspaper for a decade and I turn out business reports every week, but fiction writing has always been a hobby. I never submitted anything for print, believing the axiom that when your hobby becomes your job it’s time for a new hobby. If I hadn’t suffered an unhappy divorce a couple of years back I don’t think I would ever have questioned that choice. Since then I’ve contributed stories to White Rocket Books’ Sentinels: Alternate Visions and Gideon Cain: Demon Hunter and text articles to Assembled, Assembled 2, and the forthcoming Assembled 3. There’s a story called “Loss Adjustment” by me in Planetary Stories #18 at http://www.planetarystories.com/PS18.htm
I think the weirdest publication credit I have is appearing in a special anniversary volume produced by the Lewis Caroll Society of Canada. I got an e-mail from their honorary secretary asking to reprint an online parody poem of Jabberwocky I’d once written. I was honoured.
AP – Do you have a favorite genre to write in?
IW – I’m most comfortable in adventure horror, but of a particular kind. I was an avid teenage fan of M.R James and H.P. Lovecraft and I sometimes wish I could write their kind of slow-creep terror tales, but my interests lie in the struggle between heroes and the forces of evil. So the fiction I like to write isn’t about a hopeless relentless evil gradually destroying a victim. That’s where I like to start, but then I want a champion to get involved and fight back the agents of darkness. I’m a fan of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.
I like to write episodically. I find it quite hard to do short stories that are genuinely short. I find that my book-length tales tend to turn out to be very defined by their chapters. I use chapter ends as cliffhangers, to underline the latest story twist. Of course, that’s a helpful trait for someone to have in writing pulp fiction.
AP – How did you first hook up with Airship 27?
IW – Van Allen Plexico asked if I could turn round a Sherlock Holmes story very quickly, so I obliged. Then he asked if I could actually write a different one since what was required was twice the word count he’d thought, so I did. Almost everything I write is written by request, even if it’s only some pestering family member wanting to read it.
AP – Your first work for them was a Sherlock Holmes story. Is he a favored character of yours and was the story easy or hard to do?
IW – I find Holmes quite hard to like but his stories are fascinating to read. There’s a lot to admire in the Great Detective but I suspect he’d be tough to be around for any length of time.
I hadn’t read any Holmes for a very long while when I was asked to do the Consulting Detective story; I first read the whole canon as a teenager. I decided against doing a major reread, afraid I might end up churning out Conan Doyle pastiche rather then a genuine Holmes mystery. Instead I tried to distill my impression of Holmes, Watson, the world they lived in, and the way their stories worked. Only afterwards did I go back and read some of the original tales to check my instincts had been good.
The hardest part of the writing was keeping the content appropriate to the word count and balancing the presenting and solving of the puzzle with narrating a story that people might want to read. Conan Doyle was a master at offering a stripped-down mystery but still furnishing it with interesting characters and a driving plotline. Having to try and do that with his characters gave me a new appreciation for his skill.
AP – As your name is Watson, you aren’t by any chance related to that other bloke who appears in these tales?
IW – The family tend not to speak about great uncle John. His brother’s drinking was bad enough, but nobody supported John in throwing away a flourishing medical practice to join up with the Berkshires for the Afghan campaign. His subsequent marriage to an American was the last straw. It’s very hard to get any of the senior Watsons to comment on that lost chapter of our family history. Sadly, the only memento we have of our great uncle is a rather beaten-up walking stick that looks like it’s been gnawed by a bull-mastiff.
AP – How many Sherlock Holmes stories have you done for Airship 27 as of today?
IW – I’ve done four. Consulting Detective volume 1 featured Dead Man’s Manuscript. Volume 2 included “The Western Mail” and “The Last Deposit”. The projected Volume 3 may contain “The Lucky Leprechaun”.
AP – Will you be doing anymore of these?
IW – If we ever get to volume 4 I’d like to submit “Moriarty’s Death Mask”.
AP – You followed up these Holmes shorts with a full length Robin Hood novel which caused quite a favorable stir among the pulp community. Tell us a bit about this book and your own version of this classic hero?
IW – There’s hundreds of takes on Robin Hood, but few of them really show how he got to be the hero who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. A lot of versions offer a backstory origin where he’s dispossessed of his lands or returns from the crusades to discover injustice or whatever, but few show the slow process of him constricting himself into the man who stands against Prince and Sheriff for the poor and dispossessed. I was interested in spending some time showing that character arc.
So what does motivate a young man to turn from being a selfish if loveable rogue to becoming the champion of the people? What ever motivates young men? There had to be a girl.
Robin Hood: King of Sherwood is about a young outlaw and a noble heiress thrown together against the world, and how each changes the other until they become Robin Hood and his Maid Marian of legend. Robin and Marian is one of fable’s great romances so why shy away from it? is about a young outlaw and a noble heiress thrown together against the world, and how each changes the other until they become Robin Hood and his Maid Marian of legend. Robin and Marian is one of fable’s great romances so why shy away from it?
Once we had Robin and Marian as the centerpiece of the book it was important to give definition to the other characters to prevent them being swamped by the star players. Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son and each of the other merry men had to have their own tale woven in; each needed a story arc to make them memorable.
Because I believe that great heroes need great villains I took a lot of trouble with scheming, sinister William de Vendenal, Lord High Sheriff of Nottingham, with the sadistic Sir Guy of Gisbourne, with vindictive lustful Prince John, and with brutal Handsome Jack, the bandit-king; but only one man can rise to truly be “King of Sherwood”. The book explains who, how, and why.
Finally, I wanted to offer as authentic a version of twelfth century England as I could manage without making the book a history text. This was a time when an indigenous Saxon population was still enslaved by ruthless Norman conquerors; when churchmen could damn a man’s soul for eternity for not paying his tithes; when serfs could have their hands chopped off for hunting field mice or gathering fallen wood in the king’s forests; and when the ruler of England had abandoned it to crusade a thousand miles away, leaving powerful barons and corrupt officials to carve the nation as they chose. It’s no wonder that the oppressed people told themselves stories of a champion who stood for them when no one else would. It’s a situation that still resonates with us today.
AP – Would you consider Robin Hood a pulp hero and if so, why?
IW – Airship 27 circulated a list of “classic” properties they’d like to consider stories about. At first I looked at King Arthur – I happened to have a trilogy’s worth of Pendragon stories ready to send, and I’ve published scholarly articles on The Matter of Britain – but it occurred that Robin Hood was a much more “pulp” figure.
In many ways, Hood is one of the very first true pulp heroes. His ballads were circulated originally in taverns and fairs, and he was one of the first characters to appear in print as soon as the presses were invented. His tales were based around a common man fighting for the little people. He had his band of friends helping him out, and eventually his lady love as well. He had a recurring villain and a set of nasty one-off baddies in his rogues gallery. And that was all before the seventeenth century.
For me pulp fiction is a very visceral form of writing. It’s supposed to stir the blood, to raise the ire, to provoke an emotional reaction. We want the two-fisted hero to punch out the wicked tyrant. We want him to save the girl from a fate worse than death. We want thrills and chills and shocks and cliffhangers and we want to experience that Saturday-morning edge-of-the-seat investment where we care about what’s going on in the narrative.
Robin Hood has always been good at that. He’s the lone man who makes a difference. He’s the people’s champion when all hope seems lost. He’s the outlaw who stands for justice when the law’s gone bad. He’s the trickster who outsmarts the system. It’s hard not to cheer for Robin Hood – and that makes him pure pulp.
AP – Your historical background for this book was meticulously researched. Is it true you reside near Sherwood Forest?
IW – Go back three hundred years and my house would have been in Sherwood Forest. Sherwood was a vast tract of land running halfway across England and linked to other woods beyond that. It was said a squirrel could go from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland and never touch the floor. With deforestation from Robin’s time onward, now I live about twenty miles from Sherwood.
England is divided from ancient times into counties. I’m in the southernmost part of Yorkshire, which adjoins Nottinghamshire. The earliest Robin Hood stories place him in Yorkshire, as attested by the number of places there named “Robin Hood’s [whatever]” (Leap, Grave, Run, Bridge etc). Little John came from Hathersage, about twenty miles northwest of my home. Robin roamed Barnsdale Woods, fifteen miles due east.
Later tales place Robin down around Nottingham, and that’s where most stories now set him. Nottinghamshire takes this really seriously; even their road signs have the strap-line “Robin Hood Country” on them. They make millions from Robin Hood tourism every year as people go to see the Major Oak in Sherwood where Robin was said to have camped or visit the high hill where old Nottingham Castle once crouched over the city.
When I wrote King of Sherwood I decided to reconcile these conflicting locations by starting Robin, as the earliest tales did, in his Yorkshire haunts then having him move south towards Nottingham and his more famous stamping grounds in the sequel Arrow of Justice. Little did I know how many Nottinghamshire Robin Hood fanatics such a decision would upset! Think of the kind of furore that happens when a US football team defects from one city to go to another and the kind of feelings that stirs up and you’re on the right track.
Nobody’s actually shot me with an arrow yet but it’s only a matter of time.
AP – Artist Mike Manley painted a beautiful cover for the book. Your thoughts on first seeing it?
IW – I think kudos go to both the interior and exterior artists. I wrote a younger Robin than most and Mike managed to capture that. I suspect that portraying an athlete holding a bow is quite difficult for a modern artist, and doing so while conveying drama and offering an iconic image of a genuine icon is more difficult yet. I’m glad I only had to write it!
The tragedy of all good cover art is that some of it gets covered by that pesky writing.
Did you see Mike Manley’s blog on this, by the way? He goes into some fascinating detail about the process of constructing his cover art at http://drawman.blogspot.com/2010/03/robin-hood-king-of-sherwood.html
AP – Is it true there is a second Robin Hood novel now in production and when can we expect to see it?
IW – When I was plotting then writing the first volume it became very clear that to do justice to the story it had to be told in three chunks. There were natural breaks which allowed each of the three parts to have a narrative completeness but there needed to be a grand sweep to properly convey the story of Robin and Marion. The first book covers a madcap couple of weeks where the legend of Robin Hood is birthed. A second volume chases on through the next three months to see the consequences of a world with Robin Hood in it.
Amongst plenty of other events, the second book covers one of the most famous bits of Robin’s story, the Sheriff’s archery contest.
I believe Airship 27 intends to put Robin Hood: Arrow of Justice out sometime around March 2012. The old gang are back – and by that I don’t mean Robin and his merry men (though they are) nor the Sheriff and his grisly crew (though they are too). I mean Mike Manley’s on covers and Rob Davis is on interiors and Ron Fortier doing all the stuff Ron Fortier does and so on. So if you liked the last one you’ll love this. If you didn’t like the last one you’ll hate it.
AP – That’s great news, Ian. So before we close this out, what are projects do you have in the works that
pulp fans can look forward to?
IW – I wish I was an organized enough writer to think in terms of projects. I’ll be catching up on a month’s vacation sometime in the new year and there’s a couple of novels I hope to finish up, Robin Hood volume three and St George and the Dragon. I’ve promised a bunch of stories to a bunch of magazines that I should really do soon. And I’ve got a couple of epics that are much too long for the regular-sized volumes from Airship 27 and White Rocket that I’ll need to go back to and decide what can be done with them.
Meanwhile I’m waiting for my complimentary copy of Gideon Cain: Demon Hunter, containing my story “The Girl in the Glass Coffin”, smug in the knowledge that my volume two story “Feast of the Gallows Harvest” is already written.
AP – Thanks so much, Ian. This has been both informative and fun.
IW – Hey, you didn’t ask what the current Sheriff of Nottingham said about my book. Or the important input from the Bishop of Wakefield. Or how to break into Nottingham Castle from the secret underground tunnels that are still there. Or what my opinion is about John Watson’s migrating war wound. Or why a 17th century swashbuckler like Gideon Cain needs to understand the apocryphal Books of Enoch. Or why St George had to be in Libya when he killed that dragon. Oh, well. Maybe next time?