Your story “Beyond the Reach of His Gods” was written for Rage of the Behemoth, an anthology of “heroic fantasy involving giant monsters.” What’s the best part of writing giant monsters? What’s the worst?
The best part would be fun, I guess, which is a pretty good best part for any writing project to have. Although other approaches are possible—I’m sure someone somewhere has written a profound and slow-paced meditation on personal relationships and growth involving giant monsters (actually, as soon as I wrote that I remembered the very, very good movie Monsters which is pretty much exactly precisely that, so there you are)—the obvious invitation in the premise “giant monster” is to go for the prose equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. That’s an invitation to have some fun.
The worst part—I’m not sure it has a worst part, really. I found it easier than most stories I’ve written, in part because I (mostly) wasn’t going for anything much more ambitious than entertainment. It’s not like a writer’s out there trying to climb Mount Everest, saying, “Yeah, the worst part was when my toes turned black and fell off. That sucked.” About the worst that could happen to a writer is the “e” key breaking on the keyboard, because almost everything seems to have an “e” in it. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me.
Faced with the giant snake from “Beyond the Reach of His Gods” how would you react?
Run, squealing like a frighted maid, I’m pretty sure. Any other response strikes me as inherently misguided and ill-judged, which is why I’m never likely to be the lead character in a heroic fantasy yarn.
That said, I have a fairly profound fascination with and affection for the natural world in all its manifestations, so there’d be a certain temptation to hang around and watch in wonder. My fascination with wildlife doesn’t extend to getting eaten by it, though, so I’m pretty sure self-preservation would come out on top.
What are your favorite heroic fantasies involving giant monsters?
Ha. Good question, and one that elicits a slightly embarrassing response: I think my favorite giant monster fictions—or at least those that lodged most memorably in my mind—don’t come from heroic fantasy at all. That is in large part because they stem from my childhood, which is of course the time when emotive memories and attachments relating to books, movies, TV, whatever are most powerfully formed, and I wasn’t really reading heroic fantasy at that time.
I have a pretty clear memory of being very taken, as a young child, with Them—the old (1950s I’m guessing?) black and white movie I saw on TV that involves misbehaving giant ants. Seemed all too possible and alarming and interesting a scenario to the young me. Come to that, I was definitely interested in, though perhaps not quite so fascinated by, Godzilla; that’s about as iconic as giant monsters get in any medium, I guess.
King Kong, the other iconic giant, posed certain problems for me as a child, and still does today if I’m honest. My sympathies were, and are, so unilaterally with the ape that I found it all a bit stressful; I feel essentially no empathy whatsoever for any of the human characters in that story, and absolute bucketloads of the stuff for King Kong himself. Makes the whole thing more upsetting than enjoyable as a viewing experience.
You said on your site that “the basic idea for the story popped into my head more or less fully formed.” How often does that happen in your writing process? Can you describe your writing process for us?
It doesn’t happen very often at all. In fact, I think it’s happened precisely once, the fruit of which is this story. And it really was about as easy a story development process as I can imagine: plugging the phrase “giant monster” into my head immediately prompted the certainty that I wanted to do a jungle story (because that happens to be an environment I’ve got some personal experience of, and like), and virtually all the main components of the story volunteered themselves more or less immediately.
The closest I’ve come to it elsewhere would be my most recent novel, The Edinburgh Dead, I think. That’s a historical horror/dark fantasy yarn set in 19th century Edinburgh, and arose from me asking myself a single question: “What if anatomists weren’t the only people interested in buying fresh corpses from Burke and Hare (famed murdering bodysnatchers of the time)?” From that, quite a bit of the plot and details flowed very easily, partly because I’m a born and bred Edinburgh resident, so a lot of the city’s geography and history are at my mental fingertips; but it still entailed a good deal of research and plot-wrangling.
Normally, the writing process is a good deal more extended and unpredictable. More often than not, it’ll start with a really quite small nugget of an idea—a character, scene, theme, piece of dialogue—and going from that to finished text is reliant in large part on semi-conscious thinking about it over quite a bit of time. That initial idea gets added to and fleshed out in my head, and I rarely write much of it down. Only when I’ve got a reasonably complete framework in mind do I set finger to keyboard and start trying to structure the whole thing as an actual story.
In addition to short fiction, you’ve written a number of novels. Do you prefer writing one form over the other? And could you share advice for writing each?
I’m slightly surprised to say, after due consideration, that in some ways I prefer writing short stories. That’s coming from someone who’s sold precisely the same number of novels as he has short stories, so I’m not what you’d call an experienced or highly productive short story writer.
The thing about short fiction is that it’s simultaneously more demanding (in certain ways) and more achievable than long form. It is both necessary and possible for every word, every sentence, every phrase, in a short story to be considered, justified and understood by the writer. Your objectives can be narrower and often more precise than is the case when writing a novel; your control of structure and pacing can be—needs to be—highly conscious and directed and strict.
All of that means that finishing a competent short story can deliver a hit of satisfaction for the writer that’s harder, and takes longer, to achieve with a novel. Importantly—to me, and I’ve always thought to aspiring writers—if you’ve acquired the basic instincts of self-critiquing and the writing craft, you can often more easily see in short fiction what you’re doing right and what wrong.
I think the long tradition, now much diminished, of speculative fiction writers honing their craft through the production of short stories was a valuable one. There is no better way of training yourself to recognize in your work things like economy of language, effective closure and resolution, pleasing rhythms in dialogue and description and so on.
I’m not a great one for giving writing advice. To a considerable extent, I’ve always suspected that aspiring writers either figure things out for themselves or they don’t; that’s what decides whether they make the jump to professional writer.
That said, when asked for advice I tend to offer very general observations that I have found broadly helpful in any kind of writing. Unless you finish plenty of the stories you start, in whatever format, you will never learn as much as you could from them. If you think something you’ve written is irredeemably terrible, without even a germ of merit, you are probably wrong; if you think it’s a work of genius, incapable of improvement, you are almost certainly wrong. It is helpful if you can internalize and believe those principles. When you finish something—anything—put it aside for as long as you can, ideally weeks or months, and try not to think about it, let alone look at it. When you return to it, you will very probably see it more clearly, with new eyes; and there is absolutely nothing more valuable to a writer when regarding their own work than new eyes.
You’ve said your next novel, The Free, is a return to heroic fantasy. Can you tell us a bit about it and any other projects you’re working on?
The Free is a standalone novel, very much in the heroic fantasy vein. It’s about the last Free Company of mercenary warriors and magicians in a world emerging from revolution; their final adventure, really. It’s also about, in a modest way, freedom itself: its many flavours, its many illusions, what it costs.
There’s a loose, indirect inspiration from the world of movies, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, that sort of thing, though the influence is heavily filtered through a fantastical lens. I’m hoping it’ll be fun and exciting above all, but as seems to happen with much of my writing, it comes with some dark shading.
Other projects? A few things are simmering, but nothing far enough along to talk about, really. I blog at brianruckley.com, which is kind of a project; and I’ve got a regular comics column at SF Signal, which is definitely a project, albeit one that’s best described as a hobby.