Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed 10-book Shadows of the Apt series starting with Empire in Black and Gold published by Tor UK. His other works for Tor UK include standalone novels Guns of the Dawn and Children of Time (which won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2016) and the new series Echoes of the Fall starting with The Tiger and the Wolf (which won the Robert Holdstock award in 2017). His work has also been nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award and the Starburst Brave New Words Award. He lives in Leeds in the UK and his hobbies include entomology and board and role-playing games
How did you become interested in writing fiction?
As a kid I was always telling stories for my own amusement, and as a teenager this translated readily into Role-playing games like D&D, which are a very good training ground for building plot, character and setting. The jump to actually writing fiction with an eye to getting it published came when I ran into some books called the Dragonlance Chronicles, which were basically someone’s D&D campaign written up (very well) as a trilogy. This opened a door in my mind because I reckoned, “if they can do it, then I can do it.” My early writing suggests that, in fact, I couldn’t do it, but over a distressingly long period of years I kept plugging away, writing and submitting, until around 15 years later something actually stuck.
You write fantasy books. What draws you to that genre?
Infinite possibilities. I like to have a great freedom to exercise my imagination. Fantasy fiction lets me create whole worlds full of creatures, societies, customs, histories, anything and everything that I want. Science fiction, on the other hand (and though they likely seem very similar from the outside, from within the genre they’re quite different beasts) gives the unparalleled “What if?” where you can take a trajectory based on elements of the modern day and then launch into a speculative future where you run those elements as far as they’ll go and see what happens. All fiction is speculative fiction, after all, and fantastic fiction is simply casting a broader net when it comes to what you can speculate about.
You didn’t send out any of your books to try to get them published until after you’d written four novels. Why did you wait so long?
On the contrary, I sent at least a dozen books to get published before them, and they were all roundly, and justifiably, rejected. The business with my first Shadows of the Apt books came about like this. I had been trying to get published for a long time, rejection after rejection, and it was having something of an impact on my general mental health. This was, basically, the one thing I actually wanted to do with my life, and I wasn’t getting anywhere (and naturally I assumed that everything I wrote was golden, which it most certainly was not). I told myself that if I hadn’t got somewhere by the age of 35 I’d give up to save myself the heartache. Getting towards that deadline, I decided I needed to give my final submission my absolute best shot, so rather than just write book 1 and send it off, I would write the entire initial plot arc, 4 books, because otherwise the sequels would never get written once the first book gut turned down. Hence when I submitted Empire in Black and Gold it came with the note that the next books were already written, and that turned out to be a selling point for the agent who took me up, because a publisher would be able to release at an accelerated rate without worrying about whether I was good for the other volumes. I signed on with the agent, by the way, about 1 week before my 35th birthday.
Your series, Shadows of the Apt, features human races that are named after insects and have features of insects. What made you select insects to feature, and how do you use them?
I used to have this whole complex spiel about how in literature (especially that of Eastern/Central Europe) insects are frequently used as shorthand for various aspects of human nature (see Kafka, Capek, Pelevin etc) and that always sounded very learned and literate and grand. It was also at least 60 per cent bunkum, as the truth is I just really like insects, and always have. At school I used to try to work in bugs or spiders or octopi or some kind of critter most people didn’t like into any kind of work, and they told me I’d never amount to anything because of it. Funny how these things work out, really.
As to how I use them – the insect-kinden in Shadows give me something unique for the series. Rather than orcs and elves, it’s a world of various (human) cultures, each one of which has a kind of patron insect, that influences their nature and abilities. It turned out to be a surprisingly useful writing shorthand when creating cultures because readers can get behind the idea of “Wasps are like this” or “Spiders are like that” very quickly, meaning I can quickly establish a commonly understood baseline to work off or react against for any given character – so because “everyone knows” that Spiders are devious and deceitful, the impact of meeting a Spider-kinden who turns out to be entirely decent and honest is immediately evident.
You feature special technology in your books. Tell us about that.
A major theme of the Shadows series is the advance of technology – the world isn’t a typical “medieval Europe” fantasy setting, but they have a lot of fairly weird but widespread tech that proliferates in the arms race of the war. During the course of the books a lot of major inventions go from one-off experiments to mass-production, and a lot of these are semi-familiar, insect-kinden versions of firearms, aerial bombardment, chemical weapons and the like. There are also a whole set of kinden who can’t use or understand the technology, relying instead on magic, and who are being shouldered aside as history moves on without them.
You are known for writing “new heroic fantasy.” What is that?
The heroic fantasy genre has undergone quite a shift in the last ten years, with a major movement towards more complex themes and characterisation. I’ve certainly been a part of that shift, although by the time I came along the flags had already been set out. I’d also point out that there were plenty of authors from way back who wrote what we’d think of as very “new” fantasy back in the day, it was just that the dominant paradigm was for a certain tone, setting and message, and it’s that focus that’s shifted, rather than something completely new being born. Writers like Mary Gentle or Hugh Cook were writing very “new” fantasy from way back.
In general, the current leading zeitgeist is one that likes to explore moral dilemmas and flawed protagonists, rather than the traditional pure-hearted hero, so that the journey isn’t so much one of coming of age and learning about power and responsibility, but frequently one where an already damaged character has to salvage what they can or try to resist further decline. Simultaneously the worlds of these “new” books tend to be more complex and less certain, without hard dividing lines of good and evil.
You won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2016. What did it mean to you to receive this award?
Given that this was basically for a book about giant spiders in outer space that I hadn’t even been sure would see print, I was blown away to even be nominated. The Clarkes are huge deal in the genre, and winning the award that year, I think, finally brought home that I’d “arrived,” that this wasn’t just a passing phase. Honestly, it’s hard to put into words just how much this meant.
You use role playing games to help plan your books. How does that work?
Not specifically to help plan, but RPGs are a superb school for writing books, especially fantasy/SF. When you create a world for an RPG, you tend to work at a level of detail beyond that of the average writer working for a book, because the characters in your game aren’t necessarily going to stick conveniently to where you want them to go. For this reason you tend to end up with a much greater grasp of how the world works and what it’s like to live there. Similarly with characters – a role-player has the opportunity to really inhabit characters, to live a thousand lives. It means I can step behind the eyes of a character very quickly and get an instant handle on their attitudes and prejudices.
You have 10 books in your Shadows of the Apt series, plus numerous other books you’ve published. How do you manage to write so many so quickly?
Every writer has their own methods, and so I can’t claim to have some magic technique to solve all problems. For me, though, planning is key, both at the start and throughout the first draft. I tend to work out a solid chapter-by-chapter plot, and often break chapters into beats as well, and I also tend to be constantly turning over “what happens next” in my mind so that, when I do sit down to write, I’m able to get up to speed straight away. At least partly because of this, my first drafts tend to be very close to my submission drafts. I also try to get something done on my current project every day, but I don’t think that’s unusual, and I don’t think I necessarily write more words in a day than most writers, based on what people say they get out.
What authors have influenced your own writing?
On one level, just about everyone I’ve ever read – my mind is a melting pot and I’m constantly reading new books. I think the most influential writers are those whose styles I adore, and know I can’t every aspire to emulate, but who at least keep my trying to improve and hone my own writing: I’ve mentioned Mary Gentle, and there’s also Gene Wolfe and China Mieville for sheer limitless invention, and writers like KJ Bishop and Mervyn Peake and Peter S Beagle for their profoundly poetic styles.
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