|Cover to Wolfsangel|
As Mark Barrowcliffe (his real name), Lachlan has published Girlfriend 44, Infidelity for First-Time Fathers, Lucky Dog and Mr. Wrong. His 2007 book The Elfish Gene chronicled a youth obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. Fenrir, the sequel to Wolfsangel, is due to be published by Pyr in the United States in October.
In the first part of what he has called "the most involved interview I've ever had in my life," Lachlan discusses his influences, the nature of writing historical fiction, kitsch in the fantasy genre and Viking cosmetic dentistry.
KS - The series of novels that begins with Wolfsangel will, according to the publisher, "spill over into countless bloody conflicts from our history." I imagine a series that starts in the Viking Age as historical fantasy, moves through various eras and genres like steampunk and alternate history, and ends up in the far future with a hard SF novel. Is your series going to have this large of a scope?
ML - Only to the present day. I’d be a lousy SF writer. Fantasy is in my blood, SF isn’t. I like SF, but I dreamed of dragons and swordfights as a kid, not spaceships and lasers. I will be going forward in time for as long as the series proves popular. It will end up in the Victiorian era, should I and the series last that long, but I will be avoiding steampunk tropes. This is for two reasons – the first is that I’ve never read a steampunk novel so wouldn’t know how to reproduce their tropes if I tried. The second is that – as with SF – you need to have a real love for something to make it work. My love is for real history, so I would try to engage with the Victorian period by making my story as realistic as possible – the fantasy elements aside. I have some ideas, but I won’t go into them here.
|Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White|
The WWII story is written and currently in two forms. The most likely form to emerge is a detective story. However, it will depend on my books selling very well, as publishers might fight shy of publishing something that has moved so far away from the original.
KS - The idea of a series that takes the characters over a great span of time and literary styles probably found its apotheosis in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which was published over a thirteen year period (1946-1959) and evolves from Gothic fantasy to a sort of Kerouackian Bildungsroman. Was Peake someone that influenced you as a writer?
|One of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast manuscripts|
I will try Peake again one day, but I think life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy – no matter how much you might be able to admire them.
KS - The great realism of your novel – especially the intensely personal description of battle – is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories. Were his works of historical fiction an influence on your series? Do you read much historical fiction or history, in general?
ML - I deliberately avoided Bernard Cornwell because I didn’t want to end up reproducing his style or, worse, writing against it. The realism, if it comes from anywhere, comes from my own martial arts and fencing experience. The nervousness you get before a judo contest or going in for a session of heavy sparring at boxing informed how I described the people’s feelings in a battle. Everyone feels nervous in those situations, everyone has moments of doubt and has to fight down their fear. And that’s in modern, regulated sport. How much more nervous will you feel facing an armed and lethal enemy?
|Bengtsson's The Long Ships|
I’m glad you used the word "realism." The "ism" is crucial. What I’m offering isn’t an academic document that will act as a reliable guide to life in the Viking Age. I’m offering a well-researched novel. There’s a big difference. I have much greater license than historians do when approaching their work.
For instance, the berserker cult of "Odin the Frenzied" relates strongly to descriptions of berserkers, the full body tattoos are inspired by Arabic descriptions of Vikings, but there are elements to them that I simply don’t have the evidence to support. My berserkers appear as sort of violent ascetics of Odin – they spurn personal wealth, they don’t really wash (very un-Viking-like, from what I understand) and they work as mercenaries largely for the reward of battle. They’re clearly fictional creations. They do fit with the feel of Norse myth but there’s no evidence such people existed. In fact, the berserkers of the sagas seemed very interested in personal wealth. But my berserkers do feel real to me in the story. So they’re not real, but they are realistic.
|Moorcock's The Weird of the White Wolf|
ML - I’d forgotten Elric was called the White Wolf. It seems these works are bubbling around in my head, as you say. If Authun is equated with anyone it’s Vidar from the Edda – Odin’s son, second in strength to Thor. There are correspondences with the Eternal Champion, but the real influence on Wolfsangel is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. There, the characters find themselves acting out a mythic story. The characters in Wolfsangel are reincarnated, but it’s more that they are reborn still trapped in a repeating story – or at least a story that tries to repeat itself. It’s up to them to fight against it.
|Moorcock's The Sword of the Dawn|
Moorcock is a great visionary and a storyteller and also a very good phrasemaker – he comes up with very evocative one liners. "Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch" was the calling cry of my youth. He’s also a very good creator of the still image. You can really picture Hawkmoon looking up at his ornithopters or Elric sitting on the dragon’s back with Stormbringer in his hand. I tried to get that feeling with the witches and when the wolf is watching the shamans in the cave.
A key difference between me and Moorcock is how we pitch our level of exoticism. I mean this in no critical way at all when I say that Moorcock presents a surface exoticism. There’s a lot of glittery stuff in Moorcock – albino warriors, fantastic armor, ranks of animal-headed soldiers, ships that sail on the land. That’s a big reason a lot of people love fantasy and Moorcock does it brilliantly. I never got through the Jerry Cornelius stuff, so perhaps he goes deeper than that there, but there’s really no need to. Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum all sparkle in a beguiling way.
|Reconstructed Haithabu Viking village in Schleswig, Germany|
For instance, one reader commented that he didn’t find it realistic that the berserker Bjarki and the merchant Veles would arrive at their destination island to find it covered in mutilated corpses and still explore it. They would turn and run. I argued that it would be more unrealistic for Bjarki not to explore it. He’s a berserker, a man who lives by the creed that "One thing I know that never dies / The fame of a dead man’s deeds." He would need to seem brave in front of his men and would welcome the chance of killing a famous monster or proving himself against great danger. Veles is simply dragged along with him at this point.
|Site of Viking longhouse in Iceland, with replica in background|
|Tegnér's Fridthjof's Saga|
Angervadil the brand was hight, and the brother of lightning.You call the sword a shamsir, which is a curved Persian sabre. Was Tegnér’s poem (or its source sagas) something that you read in researching your novel, or is this idea of the eastern sword something that has seeped into the fabric of fantasy fiction, divorced from its original source?
Forg’d had it been in some eastern land (saith ancient tradition),
Harden’d in dwarf-fires red . . .
When in wide hall drawn it glitter’d
Like quick lightning flash there through, or a sky-streaming northilight.
Hammer’d gold was the hilt, but the blade was cover’d with runics
Wonderful, all unknown in the North, but known at the sun’s gates –
There, where our fathers dwelt, till th’ asas led them up hither.
ML - Having characterized Moorcock’s work as full of glittery items we come to . . . a glittery item of my own.
|Turkish shamsir (19th century)|
I am stunned by that correspondence between my description and Fridthjof’s Saga. I would love to say that I took the inspiration from there, but unfortunately I didn’t. I just saw a scimitar in Authun’s hand when I pictured the scene on the beach – though it’s possible, I suppose, that I’ve read this poem and forgotten about it. I do read a lot in the area, and I forget – or bury – a lot as well.
I knew the Vikings had contact with the Caliphate, so wondered if it might be possible he had bought it from a trader. Scimitars were in use in the 8th century but not in the style of Authun’s sword. However, I thought it plausible that certain pioneering smiths may have come up with the weapon, so I didn’t feel I was being too cavalier by giving one to Authun. Again, I’m a creative writer, not a historian, so I didn’t feel too bad about this leap.
|Fridthjof and Angervadil (1909)|
By making the sword a scimitar I also wanted to make a point about the multiculturalism of the Vikings.
KS - The Lord of the Rings clearly makes use of Norse myth and saga as its primary source material, but "the names have been changed to protect the innocent." You decided to keep the references explicit, to set the action in the actual world of Scandinavian myth and legend – choices that move the work from epic fantasy to historical fantasy. Whatever genre name you use, how would you describe the difference between the literary end results of your and Tolkien’s decisions?
|At the Grey Havens by the Brothers Hildebrandt (1978)|
|J. R. R. Tolkien|
In my world humanity is not just threatened, but doomed by fate. That’s the Viking view.
I would say Wolfsangel has a much less solid idea of good and evil – one that I tried to interpret from Norse culture. There is right action and wrong action, but no one is intrinsically bad, not even the Witch Queen. Also, characteristics such as being uncompassionate or bloodthirsty can be seen as good things in my world – or at least as strengths.
KS - One of the most interesting things about Wolfsangel is that its fantastic locales are not fantasy; they are actual locations in the real world. Part of the book takes place near the port of Eikund, which is now known as Egersund in Rogaland, Norway. Authun is King of the Horda, and Hörðaland is a county in Norway named for an ancient Germanic tribe. Your Haithabyr is Heiðabýr (also known as Hedeby), a Viking trading center on the border of Denmark and Germany. The mystic Troll Wall that is so central to your story is – almost unbelievably – a real place on the Norwegian coast known as Trollveggen. This is something that, in a way, makes your book deeper than Tolkien’s works; the magic of the novel seems more real, because it occurs in real locations. I would have loved for the book to have a Tolkien-style hand-drawn map in the front. Was this ever an option discussed with the publishers?
|Troll Wall in Norway|
|Helgi und Sigrun by Johannes Gehrts (1901)|
ML - Yes, reincarnation was always at the heart of the story. My central idea was that the werewolf is looking for his lost love, who is reincarnated in many lives. In the original version, the werewolf was immortal – or at least unageing – and he searched for Adisla down the centuries. That side of the story has yet to be developed – but the werewolf will very likely pass from reincarnation to being unageing. This brings up lots of problems for him as he’ll have to watch his loved ones age and die.
|Filed Viking teeth - very stylish!|
ML - Like a lot of what I write, I can’t remember where I got the idea from. I knew – or thought I knew - that Vikings inlaid their teeth but that was before the news of the teeth-filing came out. This can only be proof that I am myself an immortal Viking who has let these insights slip and so compromised his secret. Either that or I read it somewhere else and forgot about it. Or, more oddly, that it just felt right and was one of those things that I invented that had a coincidental correspondence with reality. My bet is on number two.
I suspect this has been known for a long time, I’ve read about it and forgotten about where. I don’t log my sources in the same way an academic writer would – I’ve no need to, until I face interviews like this one! In making Authun appear as exotic, I was trying to capture the idea that the Vikings would have seemed like alien invaders to the people they attacked – strange boats, strange dress, strange language. The Vikings are conscious of this and Authun actually dresses up before the attack in order to appear more other-worldly and threatening.