Today we welcome the Rollicking Tales Blog Tour, in the person of author and publisher Thomas H. Pugh, whose first pulp-style anthology, Rollicking Tales: The Farmer's Almanac, is currently open to submissions.
Rather than a formal interview, Tom and I have decided to have a more relaxed chat about our experiences of writing. I kick off, talking about moments of inspiration:
NB - The biggest inspiration I ever had as a writer came while I was walking the dog at the age of fifteen. I had the idea for an epic fantasy story that I called The Winter Legend, which involved heroes battling an evil sorcerer called the Winter Lord. I didn’t come home till I had the idea fixed – I knew I’d get distracted if I did – and the poor dog was exhausted, but I had the story.
I still haven’t finished it, though it’s changed almost beyond recognition by now. The story spread out, though, into a world I’ve now chronicled over seven continents and ten thousand years, and an immortal called the Traveller who wanders through it.
Have you had a similar moment of crucial inspiration?
TP - I don’t think I’ve really had an epiphany with regards to writing. On my father’s side I have a large rural family, where storytelling has always been a part of everyday life. It was impossible to have a family gathering of more than three people with out the old stories being wheeled out like family heirlooms, stories that everyone knew but none the less got pleasure from their retelling.
From an early age I was exposed to tales such as how my great-great-grandmother refused to give up the tenancy on the farm after her husband died, and threw the new tenant in the water trough when he tried to move in. Or how my granddad burnt out his pickup when someone closed the gate while he was stubble burning.
My mother was a more literary influence, as a child I read a lot of her books: Tolkien, Hardy, Mallory. I think these two factors where the main my influence, not only in wanting to create worlds and stories but also to share these products of my imagination. There is something about the timelessness of story telling, how it stretches back to our earliest history, prehistory even, for a long time before anything was written down stories were shared around the campfire. I feel very aware of this legacy and I want to be a part of it, to pass my own stories on.
So what happened to this story of yours between the age of 15, when it was first conceived, and now when you finally getting it out into the wider world?
NB - Well, initially I tried to write it in verse, which was one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time. The original story was what’s now part three (Dreams of Fire and Snow), but I fairly soon got the idea of a “prequel” set a few years ealier, which now forms part one (The Tryst Flame).
I wrote several versions of The Tryst Flame over the years. Initially, it was very old-school heroic, with characters who willingly took on dangerous quests because it was the noble thing to do. Gradually, my attitude to the story became much more realistic, leading to the characters as they are now – brave, to be sure, but also scared, clueless and muddling through.
For a long time, I only had two parts to the story, which didn’t have any obvious link, except that the different sets of lead characters were fighting the same enemy. I knew there was some unfinished business from The Tryst Flame, but it didn’t seem enough to make a novel out of. Then, after writing version #3 of The Tryst Flame, about twenty years ago, I got the crucial link and wrote the first version of part two, Children of Ice.
Neither of these, however, got anywhere with publishers (which, having rewritten them now, I can understand) so I didn’t go on to write part three. Eventually, during the 2000s, I did radical rewrites of both and went on to Dreams of Fire and Snow – the first time I’d tackled the story since 1969.
I ground to a halt with it about three quarters of the way through, for some reason (maybe even a slight fear of finishing something that’s been with me most of my life) so instead I did further rewrites on the other two. The Tryst Flame is ready to go; Children of Ice need a further substantial revision and a bit of polishing, and I’m more or less ready to finish Dreams of Fire and Snow.
In the meantime, the world and supporting characters that gathered around The Winter Legend have taken on a life of their own, but that’s another question.
How did you go about turning your love of stories into creating them?
TP - Well, first of all I put on the kettle. A story is always easier with a pot of tea to hand.
I’m still finding my feet a little bit with what works best for me, but generally I will have an idea which will either die off or thrive in my mind over the next few weeks. I rarely put anything down on paper at this stage.
If it thrives then I will eventually get down to jotting some notes about it. Usually at this stage the massive plot holes are revealed, sometimes I will be able to solve them at the desk, working through them logically, what character x’s motivation is or why situation y might arise. Sometimes though I need to incubate the ideas for a bit longer, thinking them through in idle moments.
Eventually I will have an outline I am happy with. I will jot down more notes, major plot points and the like. Sometimes I will rough out the chapter outlines, more often I will just start writing though.
So, you’ve been working on this idea for a long time. Have you found it difficult to maintain enthusiasm? For me sometimes going back to an old project can feel like failure, I suppose I think if it was worth doing I would have done it before.
NB - Ah yes, the kettle’s essential, though for me it’s to make coffee.
No, I’ve never found that going back to an old project feels like failure. I have (somewhere) a copy of Poul Andersen’s The Broken Sword, which is a revised edition of a book he had published when he was fairly young. In the introduction, he comments that he’d like to think the young man who wrote the book would have been happy to take advice from an older and more experienced person.
I think of it in the same way. I first had the idea for The Winter Legend at fifteen, but there’s no way I could have written it as it currently is back then. It’s an organic thing – a bit like Tolkien’s image of the tree, where you start with a leaf and gradually add the twigs, branches and trunk, and finally the landscape around it. It’s a process that can take a lifetime, and that’s OK with me. Though, of course, I hope this version is going to be the one that’s published.
An idea isn’t the same as its execution. If I haven’t done justice to it the first time, I’ll have another go. Finding faults in your past work is really a measure of how you’ve improved. When short stories have been around for a while and no-one wants them, I often go over them again and improve them. I can think of at least two I did that to last year that got snapped up pretty quickly after I’d worked on them.
Which of your writing projects, past or present (or future, come to that) do you feel most excited about?
TP - I’m excited about all of them. I don’t try and write what I think will sell, I try to write stories that I would love to read, and I read pretty wildly. At the moment I am putting the finishing touches to a novella that is going to be the first in a series, provisionally called the ‘Walls of Tamorria’. I have some pretty big plans for the series as a whole; it is an epic dieselpunk fantasy, with action sweeping a whole world, though it is going to be a long time before it is finished. The characters that I have created are really beginning to come to life and I am chomping at the bit to start on Book 2.
I’m also working on a Victorian murder mystery and a Cthulhu Mythos/Steampunk cross over. Both of these are short stories and are being written for particular markets and I am very excited about both of them.
Do you tend to write a short story with an anthology or magazine in mind or do you try and find a market after you’ve written the piece? I find I do a mixture of both, though having a market in mind does help with word counts etc.
NB - I very rarely write for a specific market, though I have done so on occasion. On the whole, my short stories tend to come about one of two ways – or sometimes a mixture of the two. One is that I have a number of recurring characters – the Traveller, Eltava, Kari and Fai, and a few others – and I’ll sometimes get an idea for either a continuation of their stories, or else an idea that can fit into the sequence somewhere, often in a way that’s a bit different from the other stories.
The other way is that I write a lot of stories (or sometimes beginnings of stories, which I continue later) in response to challenges, of varying degrees of formaility. Some are just for fun, but the results can often be interesting. Something like “write a story where a character’s returning after a long absence”, say. Sometimes, the story will involve one of the recurring characters. About a dozen of the stories I’ve had published or accepted have started that way.
Actually, the story I’m writing at the moment is a combination – it’s a story about Eltava, which started as a challenge, and I have an idea about the anthology I want to submit it to. That’s rare, though.
Then again, I am looking for ideas for a story involving agriculture to write for a certain anthology.
Dieselpunk fantasy and Cthulhu/steampunk suggest you like to try the unusual. What’s the appeal of doing that, rather than writing squarely in a familiar genre?
TP - To be honest, although I have been looking at genre a lot while editing Rollicking Tales, I don’t normally think about it too much when I am developing a story. Obviously when I am aiming at a market that demands a certain element, I need to give it some consideration, but generally I find that thinking of stories in terms of their genre can be restricting. It is all too easy to say to yourself ‘this is a high fantasy/sword and sorcery/Steampunk story therefore it needs to contain x, y and z.
I prefer to look at each piece as a free standing story, and try to encumber it with story elements that are added simply because they should be there. Even when I know the finished story will have to fit into a given genre I try and give thought to how it is constructed. Sometimes missing or changing something that is considered de rigueur for a genre can lead to interesting possibilities.
It wasn’t until I had finished Book 1 of The Walls of Tamorria that I gave any consideration to what genre it actually fell into, even then that was only so I will be able to pitch it to publishers.
How important do you feel genre actually is? Is it a useful tool that allows readers to know if they will like a book or is it constricting?
NB - I’d agree with you – it’s more a marketing issue than anything. It can be a useful shorthand to indicate the kind of story I’m writing, but if it starts to become prescriptive instead of descriptive, it can lead to cliché and formula.
I like to try and do different things. Because a good deal of what I write is set in the same world, and spread over thousands of years, I introduce different types and stages of civilisation. Traditionally, other-world fantasy tends to be set in an iron-age/mediaeval kind of era, and I’ve written plenty of those, but I’ve gone early too (bronze age, and even neolithic) and also later – flintlocks, Victorian-style industry, airships, and even a modern-style computer age. But these stories are still based on the same overarching assumptions of my world, and aspects from the past turn up.
I like to mix it up, too. I’ve had stories in standard fantasy setting where someone’s created a steam engine, or even in one case an atomic bomb. In another story, one of my regulars from a pre-gunpowder culture finds an obscure corner of the world that has a steampunk civilisation – steam-powered super-computers, and clockwork androids.
So no, I don’t bother much about genre while I’m writing. Sometimes, I have to try and figure it out afterwards, though.
It’s a cliché of fantasy for heroes to start out as farm-boys. As a farmer, what do you think of this kind of portrayal, and how do you portray agriculture differently in your work (if you do)?
TP - I can understand where the cliché has come from. Everybody loves a rags-to-riches story and if you are looking at a pre-industrial society then most people in rags are going to be involved in agriculture somehow. It is not too far off the mark to suggest a young farm labourer would probably be naïve and would not have seen much of the world, and this does make an ideal character to push into the greater world. His learning informs the reader in way that a world-weary soldier’s wouldn’t.
The trouble is that this has been done so many times that if this is the route you want to take to take you will have to be very careful as a writer that you are not just retelling the stories that have gone before. Like most clichés I think it can be done, but it shouldn’t be the default setting, if this is the road you go down it needs to be done for a reason and the writer needs to be aware of the clichéd pit traps that await them.
I suppose being a farmer I am well placed to bring a level of realism to agriculture that some people may struggle with. Having said that I haven’t really included it as a major component in any of my stories yet. Obviously when it comes to world building agriculture is always going to be there, no matter what technological level your world is at, that’s why I chose it as a subject for an anthology. In ‘The Walls of Tamorria’ there are a few references to agriculture; quite often it is the little incidental details that make a world for me. The main character though is very much an urbanite and hates the countryside, I suppose this is taken from the attitude of some people I have come across – how can you live in the middle of nowhere, type of thing.
How has your work influenced your writing?
NB - I’m not sure that my work has influenced my writing that much – other than that I’ve less time to write when I’m working, of course.
Well, let’s see. My first “proper” job (apart from a whole string of short-term ones) was as a bookshop assistant – in a bookshop entirely devoted to horses (books about horses, that is, not books for horses). That inspired me to take riding lessons, though I never got into riding all that deeply, and I suppose both that and what I learnt from the books has helped me when I’ve written about characters riding horses. That tends to loom large in the more traditional types of fantasy.
A good deal of my working career involved caring and advocating for people with learning disabilities. I’m not sure I can think of any specific influence from that, although it must have helped my general understanding of human nature, especially seen in extreme circumstances. I think it reinforced that humans are always humans, however different they might seem.
My most recent job, before my current position of fall guy for the government’s austerity measures, involved reading newspapers and magazines all day. OK, not just reading them – I had to find cuttings for clients too – but again, all that reading about current affairs (from national and international politics to local flower shows) must have rubbed off.
One of my greatest idols, Bob Dylan, said “Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it”. So yes, it’s all influence.
The Various Electronic Missives of Thomas H Pugh
Rollicking Tales: Pulp Stories for the 21st Century