Interview : Stan Nicholls

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Réalisée par :mail
Date :Août 2009
Allan : Your books are widely known, but that does not mean we know much about you, except that you have been a bookseller and a journalist, and that now you are an author. Is writing something you always wanted to do?
Stan : Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. That’s strange in a way because I come from a poor background and there were very few books in our house when I was a child. None of my family were very enthusiastic readers. Mostly what I saw as a child were a few comics. Yet somehow I had a desire to tell stories, and a fascination with the written word. So much so that at around the age of 9 or 10 I wrote what I thought was a novel. It was about a group of children who see UFOs. Their parents and teachers don’t believe them, and the kids end up single-handedly foiling an alien invasion! Even at so early an age I was attracted to fantastical subjects. I wrote this so-called novel in a small notebook, using different coloured pens; and although I knew that novels were broken-up into things called chapters, I didn’t know how long they were supposed to be, so I made every page a new chapter. Needless to say, it was incredibly awful. Later, in my teenage years, I got together with friends who shared my tastes and we published fanzines devoted to horror, science fiction and fantasy. I wrote whenever I found the time, and read a lot, to try to teach myself how to do it.
I wasn’t educated to a particularly high level, and left school when I was 14 years old, as you could in England in those days. I had to. My family was poor and I needed to earn some money. I would have liked being a writer, or maybe working in the film business, but even then I knew it was hard to make a living that way, so I did the next best thing and got a job in the book trade. It was with a book exporting agency, a company that supplied British books to American universities and libraries, including the Library of Congress in Washington. That was fascinating because the Library of Congress had to be sent every single printed item produced in the United Kingdom, which meant I got to see every book, magazine, newspaper … everything published, week by week. It was a marvellous education in the way publishing works.
I stayed in that company for about six years, and rose to a position of responsibility, but I got itchy feet. I wanted something more. So I joined with two friends and we opened a bookshop in London’s Notting Hill. It was called Bookends, and it was kind of a radical bookstore, but with a large selection of science fiction, fantasy and comics. It did OK, but we were idealists, not really business people, and the shop lurched from one crisis to another. The final blow came when the police raided our shop. We were selling American underground comix – Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Rick Griffin, that sort of stuff – and someone complained that these comics were obscene. The police vice squad seized our entire stock. They never took us to court but they did destroy them all, along with a lot of innocent things, like Tarzan comics! We couldn’t recover from that and had to close the shop. I went on to manage another bookshop, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, which was Europe’s largest science fiction bookstore and quite famous at that time. After about five years there I was invited to be the manager of the first Forbidden Planet bookstore, and worked there for another five years or so, and helped start Forbidden Planet’s New York branch.
All through these jobs I was writing in my spare time – not that I had a lot of spare time – and was occasionally selling my work; in fact, I was first paid for a piece of writing when I was 16. But I was growing frustrated. I was working hard making money for other people and my dream of being a writer always seemed to be out of reach. So in 1982 I decided to take the plunge. I quit Forbidden Planet and set out to be a full-time writer. I knew it was tough making a career as a fiction writer, so I concentrated on freelance journalism, in the hope that would give me an income while I wrote fiction on the side. I sold my journalism wherever I could, to newspapers and all kinds of magazines – film magazines, music magazines, comics magazines, art magazines, gaming magazines, women’s magazines, literary magazines … anybody who’d pay me.
During this period I also acted as a first reader for several major publishers and some literary agents. A first reader’s job is to go through all the manuscripts sent in by the public – here in the UK it’s perhaps unkindly called the slush pile – to see if any are worth publishing. I mainly read the science fiction, fantasy and horror submissions. But I’m afraid that very, very few slush pile manuscripts are readable, let alone publishable. Sometimes it seems that everybody wants to be an author, and writing is one of those things everybody thinks they can do. Reading the slush pile taught me a lot – although what I mostly learnt was how not to do things.
In the late 1980’s I finally began to have books published. They were things like film and TV tie-ins, and quiz books. Again, you take what you can get when you’re starting out. A number of my early books were written for children and young adults, because I thought I wanted to go in that direction. But later I graduated to adult fiction, where I could really spread my wings.

Allan : Your best known books are probably the Orcs series. How did these books come about, and why did you pick orcs as heroes?
Stan : Quite a lot of speculative fiction comes from asking yourself the question, «What if?» In the case of these books the question I asked was, «What if orcs were the heroes rather than villains?» Here in the real world, it’s the winners who get to write the history books, and they tend to demonise the losers. I got to wondering how it would be if that was what happened to orcs; that rather than being wicked monsters they just had a bad press. Suppose they were savage, peerless warriors, but not actually evil?
Another thing is that I always thought orcs were depicted in a somewhat two-dimensional way – they were simply a mindless horde to be cut down by the good guys. But what about their story? Why shouldn’t orcs have hopes and dreams, a history, a culture, spiritual beliefs, and even a code of honour? I wanted to look at things through their eyes. Of course, once you cast orcs as heroes you look around for who the villains are going to be, and the logical choice is humans. So the whole concept’s quite simple really: it’s just a case of turning everything upside down.
Some people have criticised me for writing books about orcs, because they think I’m being disrespectful of JRR Tolkien. This is not the case – I have an enormous respect and admiration for Tolkien’s work, and in no way am I attempting to add anything to The Lord of the Rings. Anybody who tried to do that would be crazy! The criticisms I’ve had arise from the belief that Tolkien invented orcs. He didn’t. If he had, I wouldn’t have been able to publish my books, and the many games featuring orcs wouldn’t have appeared either. What Tolkien did was to take an old European myth about a race of demons, sometimes described as sea beasts, and used them for his evil army. Variants on the name orc can be found in folklore as far back as Beowulf. I’m fond of saying that Tolkien didn’t invent orcs any more than Bram Stoker invented vampires or Anne McCaffrey invented dragons. For years authors have been writing about mythical races – goblins, fairies, trolls, elves, etc – and I’m doing the same with orcs. When people complain that the orcs I write about aren’t like Tolkien’s orcs they’re missing the point. These are my orcs. It’s my personal take on this particular race.

Allan : In the orcs books, you depict a world facing environmental disaster and riven with religious divisions. Were you trying to say something about the real world?
Stan :Yes. I try to write my novels on two levels. The upper level, the surface, is hopefully pure entertainment. If readers want to get no more than that out of the narrative, that’s fine. But if they dig a bit they’ll find a little more; a subtext, if you like. Not that I’d like to give the impression that my books are polemics or diatribes. I’m not trying to lecture people, and my opinions are no more valid than anybody else’s. My aim is to tell readable stories which I hope people get some enjoyment out of.
But I do think that the fantasy and science fiction genres are well suited as vehicles for social commentary. Paradoxically, this is partly because these categories of fiction are largely thought of as being unimportant. You can get away with a lot more when you work in an unregarded branch of fiction. I agreed with Iain M. Banks when he said that science fiction belongs in the gutter – because when you’re in the gutter you can say what you want.

Allan : The Wolverines, the orcs warband that features in these books, seems almost like a family. Everyone looks out for everyone else.
Stan :
I guess that’s the way it would be in a tight fighting group. And maybe more so with my orcs as they’re raised communally and don’t have any real families. From what I know about the way fighting units work, it’s common for there to be a strong sense of camaraderie. Not that I’m any great expert on the subject. One of the things I find amusing, and occasionally frustrating, is that because the orcs books have a sort of militaristic flavour, there are people who assume I must be some kind of bullet-headed fascist. Which is ridiculous when you think about it. I mean, I’ve written some crime fiction, but that doesn’t make me a murderer.

Allan : You are currently writing a sequel to the first Orcs trilogy. What can you tell us about it?
Stan :The original trilogy was called Orcs: First Blood. This new trilogy is called Orcs: Bad Blood. Volume one, Weapons of Magical Destruction, has already been published in the UK and elsewhere. Volume two, Army of Shadows, comes out here in October. I’m currently writing volume three, which I’m calling Inferno. The new trilogy follows on from the first one – we find out what happens to orc captain Stryke and his warband after they escaped Maras-Dantia, the world of their birth. All the same characters appear, and there are several new ones, including some unlikely allies for the Wolverines. The villain from First Blood, the sorceress queen Jennesta, is back too. When I originally planned the orcs series I conceived a story arc that would span nine books in three trilogies. I don’t know if there are going to be nine books; this new trilogy is going to have a fairly definite end, but with enough room left to continue the story. We’ll have to see if this is the end of the road for the Wolverines. If people want more … well, who knows?

Allan : Can you tell us anything about your future projects?
Stan :I often say that I have more ideas for books than I’ll live to write. Earlier this year I wrote the script for an orcs graphic novel. It’s not an adaptation of any of the books, it’s an original story. That’s for an American publisher, and it should appear in the US in the Summer or Autumn of 2010. The artist is a very talented young New Yorker called Joe Flood, who’s best known for his graphic novel Hellcity. The graphic novel’s shaping up really well and I’m very excited about it. I’m hoping to do another graphic novel at some point in partnership with a leading British artist. Again it’s an original story, and nothing to do with orcs.
As far as novels are concerned, I have two I’d like to do once I’ve finished the orcs series. Both are almost completely plotted out. One is an epic fantasy, and it would be a standalone volume, not part of a series or a trilogy. There are no orcs in that either! The other is slightly more science fiction than fantasy, and it’d be set in an alternate 1960s. That would be quite a departure for me.
Something else I’m involved with, and which I’m very passionate about, is the David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy. I’m proud to be the Chairman of the committee for this new award, and we had the first presentation in London in June. David Gemmell was a superb fantasy author, and a good friend, and when he died unexpectedly a couple of years ago a group of his friends and fellow professionals thought the best way to commemorate him would be to establish an award in his name. The award wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of my French publisher, Bragelonne, which we’re all very grateful for. We didn’t have an award for fantasy fiction in the UK, so the Gemmell Legend Award is filling a real need. It’s for the best fantasy novel of the year, and from next year we’re hoping to start adding more categories, so that eventually we’ll cover all aspects of the fantasy field.
Whatever I do in future I hope it’ll have something to do with writing. It’s what I do. It’s what I was born for. As long as publishers and readers want them, I’ll keep writing books as long as I can.

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