Stan Nicholls (09.11.2008)

Interview Stan Nicholls

Literatopia: The success of your novel Die Orks started something like a craze in Germany, with books published about all kinds of fantastic creatures in reaction to it, such as Die Trolle by Christoph Hardebusch and Die Elfen by Bernhard Hennen. What do you think about this? What does it feel like to have written such an influential novel?

Stan Nicholls: It feels very nice; and a bit unreal, to be honest. It’s almost like it’s happening to someone else. In common with most authors I spend a lot of time living in my head, spinning stories, and there can be a disjunction between that and the so-called real world. When you make a living as a writer, there are times when it feels like you’re shovelling words into a black hole for all the reaction you get. Because the fact is that the majority of readers just read, they don’t necessarily make their feelings known about what they’ve read. At least, that had more or less been my experience before the Orcs series - and I’m speaking as someone who’s written nearly thirty books, scores of short stories and several million words of journalism. But Orcs was different. Once it took off there was a spotlight on me that hadn’t been there before. Comments poured in from readers worldwide, and still do, and everybody seems to have their opinion about what I’m doing. Even people who haven’t read my books have their opinions!

Literatopia: How was your novel received in the UK and the USA? Were you surprised by its success in Germany?

Stan Nicholls: The first orcs trilogy was published as an omnibus edition in America just a couple of weeks ago, so it’s a bit too soon to say how it’s doing. Though early indications are that it’s had a good start. I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

I’m happy if the success of Die Orks in Germany has helped other authors get started. I feel an affinity with fellow writers, and like to think that there’s a sort of bond between us all, particularly in the fantasy and science fiction field, which has always been a worldwide community. Chris Hardebusch has become a friend, incidentally; and when I get round to visiting Germany, which is something I’d very much like to do in the not too distant future, I’d be keen to meet as many other fantasy authors as possible. I’m sure we have a lot in common. By the way, several of the German books published in the wake of Die Orks are starting to be translated into English for publication here in the UK. It’s weird. I sent the orcs over to you and now you’re sending a horde of other creatures back …

That original trilogy, Orcs: First Blood - which eventually became Die Orks in Germany - was published here in England as separate volumes, first as large-format trade paperbacks and later in mass-market paperback editions. They did OK. The sales were respectable but nothing spectacular. When I conceived the idea for orcs, I roughed out a story arc that was intended to run through nine books, comprising three trilogies. At least, I hoped it would. But when my publisher asked me if I’d like to write the second trilogy, I thought, “Well, maybe there isn’t much of a market for these books after all,” and I said no. Instead, I went off to another publisher and wrote what in the UK is known as the Quicksilver trilogy - published as Der Magische Bund, Das Magische Zeichen and Die Magische Insel in Germany. About halfway through writing the Quicksilvers the orcs trilogy just took off. Not only in the UK and Germany, but all over. Suddenly these amazing sales figures were coming through, and I started getting lots of emails from readers, and reviews all over the place. There had been no real money spent on advertising or promoting the books; it was a classic word of mouth thing. And I’d have to acknowledge that Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings, which came out just after the books were published, must have helped. At this moment, the First Blood trilogy has sold something like one and a half million copies around the world. So it seemed there was an audience for orcs books, and I agreed to write the sequel trilogy as soon as I finished the Quicksilvers.

Literatopia: Why did you write about orcs? What is, in your opinion, the appeal of these “detestable” creatures?

Stan Nicholls: I’ve had a lot of criticism from some people for daring to write about orcs at all. There are Tolkien fans who think I must be ripping him off, or trying to add something to his work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have enormous admiration for Lord of the Rings, but I’d have to be insane to want to bolt something onto it. Anyone would. It’s a totally unique work that can’t be improved upon, and certainly can’t be diminished. I think the criticism arises from the mistaken belief that Tolkien invented orcs. He didn’t. Orcs have featured in European folklore for hundreds of years, and they’ve popped up in various works of fiction from as early as the 15th Century. When Tolkien needed a savage horde to personify evil, he plucked orcs out of mythology and refashioned them for his own purposes. What he did was to popularise them, so to speak. In the same way that Bram Stoker popularised vampires in Dracula and Anne McCaffrey gave a new twist to dragons, though neither claimed to have invented them. In essence, orcs are just one of the pantheon of fantasy creatures, like elves, fairies, trolls, goblins and all the rest, and as such should be available to any writer who wants to work with them. As I’m not trying to imitate Tolkien’s world or concepts in any way, I think that’s perfectly legitimate. I’m just offering my own take on this particular fantasy race.

When I was thinking of writing about orcs, my mind turned to the well known adage about how it’s winners who write the history books. Enemies are demonised, partly to whip up the populace enough to hate them - think of Saddam Hussein - and once defeated they’re vilified as evil. My thought was, “Suppose that’s what happened to orcs?” It was the old “What if?” process. What if orcs were savage and scary but not actually evil? What if they just had a bad press? If you read Tolkien you’ll see that he tells us very little about orcs. They’re presented as an almost elemental force of pure evil. It seemed to me that orcs, like any other race, were likely to have their own beliefs, hopes, fears, traditions, mythologies, rituals, customs and so on. So part of my aim was to make them more rounded, and even to give them a certain nobility. I wanted to write about them as sympathetic characters. Not a bunch you’d want to get into a fight with, admittedly, but a race capable of a certain rough compassion as much as savagery. I know that doesn’t go down well with some people who love Tolkien, but hey, these are my orcs. The way I depict them, they’re outsiders battling against the odds in the face of almost universal prejudice. Once you’ve had an idea like that, the next logical step is to make humans the villains for a change. You can get some quite interesting outcomes when you turn the world upside down that way.

Literatopia: Originally, Die Orks was a trilogy ( Orcs: First Blood) published in the UK as three separate books called Bodyguard of Lighting, Legion of Thunder and Warriors of the Tempest. Why did Piper decide to publish it as one book (Die Orks) in Germany? Did you have a say in this decision?

Stan Nicholls: Actually, Heyne originally published Die Orks. Piper’s edition came later. I wasn’t consulted about it coming out as a single volume, but I think it was a smart idea. Omnibuses are very popular with readers, and they’re good value. It’s particularly appropriate to have an omnibus edition of something like Orcs as the first two volumes end on cliff-hangers, and people can get frustrated having to look for the next volume. I ended those books on cliff-hangers as a kind of nod to the old movie serials that always left the hero in peril at the end of each episode.

Literatopia: You are currently writing a sequel trilogy called Orcs: Bad Blood. When will you finish this new trilogy? What have you planned once Bad Blood is finished? More about orcs or something completely different?

Stan Nicholls: I’m just finishing book two of the Bad Blood trilogy. It’s called Army of Shadows. Book three will be done around this time next year. I haven’t decided on a title for that yet.

Literatopia: Why is Die Orks: Blutrache, the first volume of your new trilogy, already published in Germany but not in the UK?

Stan Nicholls: It’s published in France and Holland, too. It comes out in the UK this December. Maybe it came out in Germany first because German publishers are more efficient! The fact is that publishers have different ways of working, and in the UK there’s traditionally been a quite long lead time between handing in the manuscript and having a book see print.

I don’t know if there will be any further orcs novels after that. We’ll have to see. I’ve a lot of other ideas for novels. In fact, I often say I have more ideas than I’ll live to turn into books. Whatever I write, it’ll be fantasy of some description. The only thing I know at this point is that I’d like to do one or two standalone novels. Bad Blood is the fourth trilogy I’ve written in a row. I’d like to have a break from these marathon stories!

Heyne’s an excellent publisher, but unfortunately they made a small error when they published Die Orks: Blutrache. They forgot to say it was book one in a trilogy. You wouldn’t believe the torrent of emails I get from German readers saying, “Why doesn’t the story finish? Where’s the rest?’ They think it’s a complete story, like Die Orks, only thinner! I apologise to those readers; and Heyne are going to put this right on later editions.It might interest you to know that Die Orks: Blutrache - which is called Weapons of Magical Destruction in the UK - is different to all the editions of the book published in other countries. After I handed it in to Heyne, my British editor said he wasn’t entirely happy with the beginning of the book, and asked me to consider changing it. I could see his point and rewrote the first three chapters. So the German edition’s unique.

Literatopia: Do you know Michael Peinkofers novels Der Schwur der Orks (The Pledge of the Orcs) and Die Rückkehr der Orks (The Return of the Orcs)? What do you think about this? Do you mind being “imitated” after a fashion?

Stan Nicholls: Well, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Obviously I can’t argue with other people writing about orcs, the way some Tolkien fans argue with me, but I do regret the impression given that Peinkofer’s books have anything to do with mine. I don’t know if it’s true, but somebody told me that they were promoted with a made up quote from one of my characters!

Because Die Orks did so well in Germany, there was an auction for the second trilogy. Four or five publishers put in bids, including Piper, which already published the mass-market paperback of Die Orks. I decided to accept Heyne’s bid because they’d served me well with the original edition of Die Orks, and they were passionate about these books. Piper still wanted a piece of the pie, so they commissioned Mister Peinkofer to turn out his clones. A lot of people think I wrote those books, or that he wrote mine under a pseudonym, and I’m forever explaining the situation. But what the heck. We’ve all got to earn a crust.While I’m on the subject of misinformation, I was puzzled a few years ago when I started getting messages from readers in Germany saying, “What’s it like in Australia?” My thought was, “How the hell should I know? I’ve never been to Australia.” Somehow the idea got round in Germany that I live in Australia. I’ve no idea how. People keep asking me what the weather’s like in Australia. Please spread the word: I’m not an Australian!

Literatopia: In order to be able to write, do you need a special atmosphere? For example, do you prefer to write at night or do you need absolute silence?

Stan Nicholls: I play music, or even talk radio, when I’m working. Sometimes I need silence when I’m trying to tackle something particularly complicated, but generally I like some kind of aural background. It gets things flowing somehow. And, of course, music can help establish a mood. If the writing’s going well, or sometimes when it isn’t, I’ll work day and night. When you’re a professional writer you have to approach the job in a disciplined way. It’s definitely not a case of waiting for inspiration or anything like that. Fortunately I worked for some years as a freelance journalist, and that teaches you to get on with it.

Literatopia: Are you in contact with your translators? Have you ever met Jürgen Langowski or Christian Jentzsch?

Literatopia: When did you start writing? Was there a certain moment when you decided “I want to write a novel” or have you been writing since you were a boy? How did you get started; with poems and short stories?

Stan Nicholls: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Which is perhaps a bit strange given my upbringing. I was born to a very poor family and grew up in a slum in London. There were no books in the house to speak of, and few of my relatives went in for reading much. I had no education beyond the most basic. Yet somehow I always had an impulse to write, and to tell stories. I wrote what I laughingly refer to as my first novel when I was nine or ten years old. I wrote it in a ruled notebook with different coloured pens. I knew that books had things called chapters, but I didn’t know how long a chapter was supposed to be. So I made every page a chapter. The story concerned a bunch of kids who see flying saucers, and go on to thwart an alien invasion. Even then I had a strong taste for the fantastical. I don’t know where that came from either. In my teens I published fanzines devoted to science fiction, fantasy and horror movies. The first work I was paid for was journalism, in the form of reviews and articles, mostly for movie magazines. I was a bookseller for quite a few years, managing specialist sf/comicbook stores in London, before turning to full-time journalism. Eventually, having had all the usual trials and tribulations, I broke into authorship.

Stan Nicholls: Juergen is a good friend now, and in fact he’s stayed here with me and my wife on a couple of occasions. We communicate a lot, particularly when he’s in the process of translating one of my books. I’ve never met or talked with Christian Jentzch. In fact, he’d completed the translation of Die Orks before I even knew he’d been chosen to do it. I try to have a relationship with all my translators. I count my French and Dutch translators, Isabelle Troin and Lia Belt, as friends, too. It’s good to have contact with your translators. It makes for a better translation. If they have a question about the text they can send me an email or reach for the phone, rather than guessing.

Literatopia: In retrospect, is there a character in one of your novels you have stopped liking? Or have there ever been characters who refused to go along with the development originally designed for them?

Stan Nicholls: I can honestly say that I can’t think of a character I’ve stopped liking. Even the villainous ones. They’ve all got a bit of you in them, and you work hard on them, so I suppose it’s natural that you should always feel an affection for them. If characters quietly went along with everything you tried to make them do, something would be horribly wrong! In my experience, the cliché about characters taking on a life of their own is true. They’ll often be stubborn about the things you want them to do or the dialogue you try to put in their mouth. And usually they’re right. You have to stay flexible when you write, and be receptive to fresh ideas occurring. Part of writing is a kind of mutation process. Your narrative needs to be organic, not just the close following of a predetermined outline. I mean, I know where I’m going with a story, and I know the elements that have to go in, but I always try to stay open to it evolving as it goes along.

Literatopia: Can you tell us something about The Nightshade Chronicles?

Stan Nicholls: The Nightshade Chronicles is a fantasy trilogy - The Book of Shadows, Shadow of the Sorcerer and A Gathering of Shadows - that I wrote about fifteen years ago for the young adult market. It’s sword and sorcery, and concerns the hunt for a book of spells, a grimoire, of extraordinary power. My hero is a one-armed swordsman - he lost his sword arm to the sorcerer villain. It’s funny you should ask about this trilogy because I’m currently giving serious thought to rewriting it as an adult series. In fact, a more adult version of the books was published in France a few years ago, and as it happens the omnibus edition appeared there just last week. I think it’d be nice to get the Nightshades out to a wider audience, including my German readers, of course.

Literatopia: Will you remain true to fantasy? Or can you imagine writing a thriller or a science-fiction novel some day?

Stan Nicholls: I’ll probably always stick with fantasy. But there are a lot of definitions of fantasy - it’s a broad church, as they say - so what I do might not be like Orcs every time. Science fiction was my first love, and I’m still having a passionate affair with it. I’ve written one sf novel, a young adult book called Strange Invaders, and a few short stories. But much as I favour science fiction, fantasy comes easier to me for some reason. I have a science fiction head as a reader and a fantasy head when writing. I’d love to write more science fiction, though I fear I’m simply better attuned to fantasy. I’ve had one or two ideas for thrillers, but so far the nearest I’ve come to that is a murder mystery novel called Fade To Black - again a young adult title - and a handful of shorts. On a practical level, switching categories isn’t always a smart move. If people get to know you for a particular genre, like fantasy, they can be thrown if you suddenly pop up with a western or romance. I have no plans to write westerns or romances, you’ll be relieved to hear.

Literatopia: Could you imagine the Orcs being made into a movie some time in the near future? Is there anything planned, already, even?

Stan Nicholls: One of the major Hollywood studios is talking to my agent at the moment, and another, European, studio has expressed interest. But I’m not even thinking about it. I’ve been on this merry dance before. I’ve had books optioned by film companies and then dropped. It’s a much more common experience for writers than you might think, but it almost always comes to nothing. So a movie would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.A project that has finally happened is the Orcs graphic novel. I recently finished writing the story for that, and the book’s going to be published by First Second Books in America. It’s an entirely new story, not an adaptation of any of the novels. The working title is ‘Fit For Purpose’, and the story takes place before the events in the first trilogy. Stryke and the Wolverines are in it, and so are a number of other characters from First Blood, but the rest is different. OK, a graphic novel’s not a film. But it’s close, isn’t it?

Literatopia: Thank you for the interview!

Dieses Interview wurde von Judith Gor im Auftrag Literatopias durchgeführt. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.