An interview with Michael Cobley

I first came across Mike’s stuff last year when Gary Gibson posted the cover art to Seeds of Earth on his blog. After much drooling I headed over to Mike’s blog to see if I could find out some more about the book, the first in a trilogy, and had a read of the synopsis. Suffice to say it hooked me and put Seeds of Earth high on the list of must-read books in 2009. Managing to get my hands on an early review copy meant I was treated to an excellent story and great start to a trilogy.

A huge thanks goes to Mike for taking the time to answer my questions, I’m sure you’ll find his answers as interesting and entertaining as I did!

Remember to check out his blog here and the site of his publisher, Orbit, here.
michael-cobleyMany thanks for taking the time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule to answer a few questions. First off, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write – and why fantasy/science fiction?

Well, as a former student, former DJ, former keyboard player, former labour market cannon fodder (3rd class), and former call centre agent, I kinda realised that I was almost genetically unqualified for mainstream work environments. And since I had been scribbling this and that since I got bitten by the SF bug when I was 9 (courtesy of the SF Book Club who sent me ‘Welcome To Mars’ by James Blish), it seemed to be a suitably self-therapeutic path to follow. Yes, that’s the truth, writing at first was my way of easing my pain of being in the world (as well as the pain of not getting laid! Hey ho). As a kid I was a voraciously omnivorous reader – aye, I read Alfred Hitchcock’s `The 3 Investigators’ and the adventures of Tom Sharpe! But I think that the obsession with SF/fantasy really kicked in about the same time that I became interested in rock music; between 9 and 13 I pretty much read lots of different things, but on my 13th birthday my folks bought me a cassette player and 2 tapes, which I got to choose – Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Wow! – from then on I was riding a helter-skelter rollercoaster of prog rock and science fiction. Next to that, contemporary mainstream fiction seemed about interesting as washing dishes.

What books and authors have influenced you and your writing?

Well, you asked so here it is, my current version – Robert E Howard (Conan), HP Lovecraft, James Blish, Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons, Iain Banks, Robert Holdstock, David Wingrove, Eric Brown, Karl Edward Wagner, Ian McDonald, Vernor Vinge, Ken Macleod, Scott Adams (Dilbert), Karl Popper, Norman Spinrad (Bug Jack Barron), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the 1st six Black Sabbath albums, Mike Moorcock, Bill King, Robert McKee (Story), William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, George RR Martin, David Gemmell, John Brunner, the synth music of Jim Kirkwood, the soundscapes of Peri Urban, Symphony No 11 (The Year 1905) by Shostakovich, and the works of Bill Hicks.

Do you still find time to read, and if so anything in particular?

Read a lot of progressive stuff like ‘Planet of Slums’ by Mike Davis, ‘Rogue State’ by William Blum, or ‘Nickel and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich. I do the occasional review for Interzone and look forward to reading something which I genuinely, even effortlessly enjoy. There are different types of enjoyment and you have to be in the right frame of mind for certain types of books; some books demand a level of attention in order to keep track of whats happening, which I prefer in shorter lengths, to be honest. I enjoy reading fiction which is immediately comprehensible on at least one level but has sufficient layers to permit deeper enjoyment on rereading. Karl Edward Wagner’s fantasies are like that, moody and grim yet offering extra delights for those who return. I really hope that I`ll be that good one day.

How do you go about your writing – are you a meticulous planner, make it up as you go or somewhere in between? Do you have a regular routine when you’re writing?

Sometimes I think I’m a meticulous panicker. I do have a regular routine but somehow I usually find that I’m pressed for time as deadlines approach. As for planning, yes, I always have an idea of where the story is going; I have to know how it ends, and I have a skeleton of the main dramatic turning points which lead the narrative there, but with sufficient grey areas for me to dabble in and convolute and recomplicate and elaborate, hopefully in a readable way!

Along with some other published authors, including Hal Duncan and Gary Gibson, you’re a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle. Has being a part of this helped you in your approach to writing and editing?

Yes, membership of the Circle was invaluable at the stage when I was writing short stories – without their obsessive eye for detail there are many flaws I would have missed. I don’t know about helping me to self-edit though – I still feel that other eyes have the power to see things to which a writer is generally blind. For example, in my first novel, Shadowkings, it was noticed by one of the Circle’s best critics, Craig Marnock, that many of my characters undergo possession of one kind or another, something which completely eluded me. Echoes of unconscious patterns emerging, which can be a good thing so long as it doesn`t make you look like an axe murderer.

Can you tell me a little about your first books, the Shadowkings trilogy?

The Shadowkings trilogy was a heroic fantasy trilogy that originally stemmed from the idea of – what if at the end of Lord of the Rings Sauron actually won but, crucially, overreached and screwed himself over? In Shadowkings, the Lord of Twilight has triumphed over the Khatrimantine Empire but at the moment of his triumph breaks into 5 separate entities which scatter across the world, manifesting as these 5 men with dark, demonic powers, the Shadowkings.
The first two books, Shadowkings and Shadowgod, were conceived as two parts of one part of the story, and book 3, Shadowmasque, took place 300 years later to resolve the mysteries left at the end of Shadowgod. My thinking was that usually you have one fantasy trilogy followed by another set some time after the first, so I wanted to do that in the one trilogy, where the events of books 1 & 2 would form the historical backdrop for book 3. Unfortunately, the readership didn`t seem to go for this at all, and my publisher at the time had decided to close down their SF and fantasy imprint (add to which I was on my 4th editor) so the book made little impact.
In retrospect, if planning out the Shadowkings books now I would definitely do it differently, keeping the story and characters together till the end.

Without giving away too much can you briefly outline Seeds of Earth?

Okay, a century or so from now, Earth has explored most of the solar system, but is attacked by the Swarm, insectoid hiver creatures; 3 colony ships with hyperspace drive flee as the Swarm converges on Earth. 150 years later, a lost Human colony called Darien is found thousands of lightyears from Earth, which survived the invasion with the help of an immense empire called the Sendrukan Hegemony.
Darien Colony is made up of Scots, Scandinavians and Russians, and unknown to them a weapon of staggering power, left over from a titanic battle at the dawn of galactic civilisation, lies hidden on the planet Darien which becomes the focus of intrigue, melodrama, deception and betrayal. Powerful forces gather as the other two lost colonies come to light and are drawn into the conflict which builds towards a crescendo. Soon the pillars of heaven and the crypts of hyperspace will tremble and when Humans find themselves standing at the focal point, the axis of reality, what will they decide to do?

Why space opera?

The sheer mindbending, senses-shattering scale of it all! There is a certain freedom in space opera to explore and imagine, which can also be a trap if you`re not careful about heeding the demands of the story rather than the wilful demands of whim.

What can we expect from the next book in the series?

More melodrama, all derring do, alla da time! Okay, in book 2, The Orphaned Worlds, we`ll meet the descendants of the colonists from the other 2 colony ships that fled Earth; we`ll see the tragedies that befell them and how they coped. We`ll also see the consequences of the Legion Knight’s scheming, and find out what happens to Julia and the Enhancees. And Greg, Catriona and Robert get pushed to their limits and beyond.

I know it’s a question that most authors hate, but where did you get the initial idea for the Humanity’s Fire trilogy?

This’ll probably sound a little weird but the ideas for the HFire trilogy grew out story concepts for another mega-story…or rather the interstellar background, races and politics did, and then came the notion of Scots In Space and the Lost Colony, the devastating weapon from the dawn of civilisation, and the vast underlevels of hyperspace too – it all seemed to come in a rush. The original megastory will actually be the next epic set in the Humanitys Fire universe, once the tale of Darien and the Legion and the Hegemony is done and dusted. And it`ll be a monstah!

Will you be doing any signings or appearances for the Seeds of Earth release? If so, where will these be held should anyone want to go along?

In March I`ll be signing stock at Waterstones and Borders in Glasgow, rather than having an official open to the public type signing. And I`m going to Eastercon, the UK national SF convention, being held in Bradford in the midlands, which makes it highly affordable too. I hope to be taking part in some panels and events, and should be doing signings there.
What do you think your strengths are as a writer and storyteller?

In terms of technique, I wish I had a lot more time to write novels, actually. The nature of modern publishing doesn`t really allow for excellence to emerge via authorial woolgathering. Often you come across connections and meanings during extended fallow periods that you would never have arrived at if you were scribbling and typing away all the time. Personally, I like description, I like evoking strangeness and scale `cos, guess what, I like to experience that when I`m reading. I enjoy writing dialogue much more than I have in the past; I love a good, breathless balletic action sequence – while writing it I try to keep in mind some of the action sequences from the Three Musketeer movies, the ones with Oliver Reed. They depicted a close quarter combat that was scrappy and improvised and not at all gentlemanly. Ollie Reed was such an intense actor, such a shame that he died. If he’d beaten his demons I`m certain he would have gone on to be the kind of King-actor that Sean Connery has become; he had stature and presence and man, could he put on a show!

And any weaknesses or areas that you feel you need to work on or improve?

Heh heh, you want me to give away my secrets, my awful Kryptonite-style weakness? Okay, then. Characterisation is a failing, I feel – but this is due to my own foolish fondness for multiple characters, which inevitably dilutes the focus and impact. That said, if you look at works like Dave Wingrove’s Chung Kuo sequence, or George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, there you have gigantic narrative stages populated with dozens of characters, all excellently and pertinently drawn. Maybe I`m cursed with the urge to create ensemble pieces, then end up having to choreograph this mob while trying to keep them distinct and induhvidual.

As someone that reads about 90% science fiction I’ve noticed that it’s fantasy that seems to be the big hitter these days. As someone that has written in both genres what are your views on it?

It seems that way, although the lines have become a lot more blurred over the last decade, at least in terms of artistic licence and the parameters of the debate. In commercial terms, the big publishers still want to have something that they can present and advertise with set, almost stereotypical genre imagery (although I get the impression that departments are always trying to beat the system somehow). That imagery has become a bit more sophisticated than in the past, but there are still plenty of writers willing to stay within certain boundaries, with regard to tropes, characterisation, conceptual elasticity. Fantasy remains a bigger hitter than SF but I think that its high-water mark is past; heroic, epic fantasy, from my experience, permits a smaller pallette than SF, but then it does high melodrama far more effectively than SF does (and yeah, I know these are generalisations). Science fiction, on the other hand, allows me a wider licence, a broader, more multifarious backdrop, and the opportunity to overtly discuss concepts, notions and philosophies.
But then, fantasy is more than just pseudo-medieval epics and as the edges have blurred a lot of interesting hybrids have emerged from writerly brains. Stuff like China Mieville’s books, Hal Duncan’s crazed scrivenings, and Jeff Vandermeer’s tales which sometimes read like someone reporting in from a sequence of escherian pocket universes. And the new fantasy is being written with serious intent, and is taken seriously too, sometimes too seriously I think. Science fiction has that tendency to be given closer scrutiny, since it is more likely to shake itself free of stereotypes and stylisation than regular fantasy is. Well, at least that’s what I think this week!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Like many out there, I`ve been amazed and entranced by recent big vid-games like Bioshock, Halo, the Witcher and Oblivion, games which show an unabashed love for narrative and drama. I would love to see one of my stories, maybe even this story, turned into a game, so I’m just saying that I am open to offers! Of course, if anyone wants to shower me in movie option money, I’m all ears to that too!

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