A few years ago I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview the award-winning fantasy and science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, that weekend did not go according to plan, and ever since it’s been one life catastrophe or health problem after another. All the while I’ve slowly been working on transcribing the interview bit by bit, and I am happy to finally now post the interview for your pleasure. I can only offer my apologies and regrets to Adrian and to you, my readers, for taking so long in posting this interview. I hope you have as much pleasure reading it as I did speaking with Adrian at the time.
Adrian, thank you again for your time. It was an honour and a pleasure speaking with you that day.
Just Geeking By: One of the first things I noticed about your work was the amount of detail in the creation of the different races and world-building. Where did the ideas for these originally come from?
Adrian Tchaikovsky: The way I tend to work is I start with one big thing like with The Tiger and The Wolf where everyone can shape change or with the Shadows of the Apt series everyone has these insects related powers and I sort of do a speculative cascade of what would that change. How do people live if they can do that, what will they not do that if they don’t need to and running on from that. But also that’s the fun bit making up these worlds with all these just crazy stuff in them and making them sufficiently solid that they stand on their own feet. It’s what I enjoy doing most and then the stories and the characters tend to unfold out of the world once I’ve set the world up.
JGB: I noticed that you are a role player. Is roleplaying something that has influenced your writing?
AT: The Shadows of the Apt series was based on a roleplaying game campaign and in general, when you’re making a world for a game you tend to have to put a lot more work in and make it a lot more robust than if you were just making it to tell a particular story. Which in turn then means the world feels much more solid and immersive and lived in because it extends beyond any individual story that you’re telling in it. So yep I very much came out of that roleplaying game tradition I think it’s a phenomenally good training ground for anyone thinking of making a secondary world.
JGB: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to move from role-playing into writing?
AT: I think the key thing is just a matter of you becoming aware of the different audience rather than so telling a story for five people, the setting of a story that you and five people can tell together. You will have a need to want to tell that story and tell a much wider audience about the world you created and basically bring it to complete strangers, which is the biggest conceptual jumping going from a role-playing environment to a writing environment.
JGB: When discussing role-playing versus writing you mentioned that role-playing is more detailed oriented i.e. exact details of what is in a town and what the townspeople do. How much of that detail would you consider using in a novel?
AT: The key thing is you try and know as much detail as possible about the world and then use as little of it as possible because it’s very very tempting to just info dump all of your exposition and all of your world. In the early growth of the Tiger in the Wolf bit there were huge sections that were a bit like the bit at the beginning of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan film; ” […] in the years before the oceans drank Atlantis …” but just going on for pages and pages and then in the second draft, it all got cut because it was all basically implicit in the other stuff anyway and it didn’t need to be said. It’s that thing of doing the work and then knowing you don’t then have to show your working to the readership … something that writers will often say and I don’t quite agree with is “my hot take”. The idea that everything you put in has to serve the story. It’s true but there’s a sort of removal because there’s a certain amount of information that is purely about the world that still serves the story because it gives the story somewhere to be.
One of the things about fantasy writing and science fiction writing is people fall in love with the places they’re set in as well as the stories and the characters, and having little off the cuff comments and references and things that you don’t need to go into but just make your readers aware that the world is bigger than the story can go a huge way to making that story believable and immersive. Whereas I always find if you read a book and at the end of the book the entire world has been exhausted in the service of that story then the world does not feel real. In a very fundamental way, you’re going to feel like a theatrical set and now it’s been taken down because the play has ended. Rather than the idea that you’ve got to the end of that story so you feel that the world goes on. Also of course if you want to write another book in that world it’s also kind of useful to have the world going on and not being completely used up by the story you’ve just told.
JGB: So, for writing the actual work itself stick to the basics and then throw in tidbits?
AT: Yeah, I mean, weirdly enough I’m going to go to Star Wars for this one. There’s a line in Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo says “that bounty hunter we ran into on Ord Mantell” and you know what? That’s never explained. As a line in a film, it’s predominantly tantalising because it is just opening a door on things these characters have done that you haven’t seen and places they’ve been that you haven’t been. And it gives you that and in the same way China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It’s gorgeous for this. It’s a brilliant book, a big book and it has a lot of world-building at the beginning but all of that world-building is threads leading away from the story itself. So that you’re constantly aware that beyond this city and these characters there is a whole world of crazy stuff going on that they just happen to mention because you know when people are in a world and they are talking about stuff, not everything they say is immediately germane to the thing that they’re doing, they make references to places and people that are further away. It gives you the idea that they’re embedded in this living breathing place and I think it’s that that’s the whole popularity of speculative fiction as a genre.
JGB: How do you create a 3D explorable universe for readers without physically sending characters to explore it?
AT: First of all, you have people coming in from outside so, in Shadows of the Apt and Echoes of the Fall, The Tiger and the Wolf books, there are, as well of the characters whose’s home turf you are, there are other characters who come from other parts of the world. And so even if you’re not seeing this part of the world it just means there is a part of the world where these characters come from. These characters have different cultures, different customs, different animal they turn into, different powers and stuff like that. I do tend to creep outwards so my characters do tend to travel eventually and after a book or so you may well get to see another place you’ve only ever heard of in the flesh.
JGB: You mentioned limitations when world-building. From my experience as a roleplayer, when you create a character you balance strengths and weaknesses. How would you do this in a world where magical abilities are possible, for example, with regards to healing.
AT: Healing is the real bugbear. It’s something that isn’t actually addressed much, it doesn’t turn up in most fantasy worlds other than the odd herbal style remedy and things like that. And it’s something that I may well have a crack at, at some point. Well, what are the implications if we can do magical healing? What are the limitations on it, what different ways of it are there and if you can do it why isn’t everyone doing it all the time? But I think and this the way most roleplaying games go is that it’s frequently a limited resource. It’s one of those things that you can’t just do it forever you put a price on it or you know you make it a bargain where you’ve stuck a leg back on now mine has fallen off, or something like that.
But in a way, it would be quite interesting why not a fantasy book where infinite magical healing is free. What does that change? What does that then make your priorities? If you have a situation where nobody dies or gets sick, what are your stakes? You could have a situation where you say I’m going out now I’m taking the chainsaw I’m going to cut up Mr Jones from number 3 because he keeps playing his music so loud, that’ll teach him! You could have a world where basically there’s no real concept of murder, the property damage is a problem because that still takes people’s time. Or if you had magic that could just make anything then that leaves us kind of out of a job. Craftsmen are out of a job, that whole slice of the human experience doesn’t matter. It’s that kind of thought experiment that I really get excited about.
JGB: How do you handle the constant flow of ideas, especially when you’re working on another project?
AT: I normally write them down and then I normally never look at the thing I’ve written down. But the act of writing it down cements it in my head and if the idea is good enough it will still be there when you get a moment to look at it. Also, you can get an idea that is like two-thirds of a book and it needs something else to make it the complete thing. But I’ll just keep it kicking around and I might have an orphaned bird and I’ll think actually those two things go together really well and then you have your next project.
JGB: For the budding writers out there, any advice on how to turn a few chapters or half a book into a finished novel?
AT: I have a chapter by chapter breakdown and sometimes a scene by scene within the chapter. I do tend to kind of grind a bit in the middle because I think more about the beginning and the end than I do the middle of the book and therefore I definitely slow down when I hit that get that sort of 40 to 60% stretch. But generally for me knowing where I’m going ahead of time is the efficient way of going about things. There are writers who will just sit down and write and I’m very envious because I couldn’t do that, I don’t think, it’s just not in me, I need to have that solid foundation. But everyone is very different with that kind of thing, some plan, some don’t, some plan a bit. It is a continuum.
JGB: When you get to the grinding part in the middle that you just mentioned, what do you do to get past it?
AT: You’ve got to grind. I usually get to a bit where I suddenly think is this basically rubbish, this doesn’t seem to be working and I’m now in the position of being able to look back and be thinking I’ve felt like this every single other time. So I’ve got the experience to say no this is how I feel in the middle of a book because you’ve been coasting on inspiration that has suddenly ebbed and it doesn’t mean that that’s anything wrong with the book. It just means you need to soldier on and that’s where effectively the hard work of the creative part is just getting through until you are on the home stretch and you can start accelerating down towards the end.
JGB: Who and what influences your writing?
AT: When I’m reading I like books that have done things I’ve never seen before, it can be an interesting setting or a novel idea or sometimes even just a nice writing style. There are a lot of writers I really like, there are a lot of writers I like who are doing stuff that I feel that I can’t do, purely because I guess that gets part of the greater muscle going. The world is bigger than the box I’m in, as it were. With TV I like stuff that’s… I mean there’s so much good genre TV at the moment; strong character interaction, interesting novel twists on character interaction. I love Black Sails, that’s a really good show and I’ve just finished watching the most recent series of the Expanse which is frankly the best TV Sci-Fi I have ever seen. I love the new Star Trek Discovery and again frequently all of these are doing new things with new characters. It’s really just things that are doing something different, twists, rather than following the same kind of tired archetypes, memes and stereotypes, its this is an interesting new character, you expect this one to go this way and they’ve taken it in a very different direction which still works. And I get all that’s doing that’s just turning the mills in my mind and it’s adding to the toolkit. Here are some extra options you didn’t necessarily know were there.
JGB: Thank you very much for talking with me today, Adrian.
Over to you
Thanks for reading my interview with the wonderful Adrian Tchaikovsky. If you’re interested in checking out some of Adrian’s books after reading this interview I highly recommend Empire in Black and Gold, book #1 of the Shadows of the Apt series and the mind-blowing The Doors of Eden which you can read my review of here.
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