Literaturschock: Before we start: Is there any question you are never asked, but wish people would ask you?

Stan Nicholls: No one’s ever asked about my recipe for chilli con carne. Which is a pity, because I think it’s pretty good!

Literaturschock: If you look in the mirror and into your own soul, what do you see? What would you like to see?

Stan Nicholls: I no longer see the sixteen year-old who lives in my head. I have this theory that most people grow up outside but not inside. The child is always lurking in your mind. People like me are very fortunate in being able to let that child loose to dream on the page.

What would I like to see in the mirror? Oh, Brad Pitt, John Travolta, Kevin Costner ... ! But I think my wife might find that a bit too exciting ...

Literaturschock: If you had a time machine, which times and places would you travel to, and what would you do there?

Stan Nicholls: There are countless answers to a question like this, aren’t there? It’d be fascinating to visit the age of dinosaurs - being careful not to step on any butterflies, of course - to see how dinosaurs behaved, and what actually wiped them out. I’d watch the building of Stonehenge, or visit the library at Alexandria before it was razed. Or stand before the gates of Troy as the wooden horse was rolled in. I’d discover the true cause of Alexander the Great’s death, watch Rome burn, or be at Christ’s tomb three days after his crucifixion. I’d see Napoleon and Wellington meeting at Waterloo, and stand by that grassy knoll in Texas on 22nd November 1963. Hear Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech firsthand, and watch Mohammed Ali box. Be ready to follow Jack the Ripper after he committed a murder, and attend the launching of the Titanic. Find out if Robin Hood really existed, and be there the night L. Ron Hubbard decided to invent a religion. Get a job as an extra in an Eisenstein film, and watch Orson Welles making Citizen Kane. See the Marx Brothers on stage, and have tea with Aleister Crowley. Visit Shakespeare at the Globe, and Marlowe in a tavern. Be taken on as Hugo Gernsback’s assistant, and try to befriend HG Wells. Watch the Empire State building going up, and the Eiffel tower and the Houses of Parliament. Witness the Great Fire of London, the destruction of Pompeii and Custer’s last stand. Go to Avalon and King Arthur’s court, smell the flowers in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, sail by the Colossus of Rhodes. Or maybe I’d just travel back a year to listen to George Bush and Tony Blair plotting to ravage Iraq, and find out the real reason. And if I could ask them a question it would be - How do you expect to sleep at night with the blood of thousands of innocents on your hands?

Actually, I think I’d prefer to visit the future. One of the great injustices of life is that everything’s a work in progress, and none of us will see the outcome. How is the human race going to deal with all the problems we face, environmentally, politically, socially? What’s to become of the great European project? Will the American empire prove benevolent or oppressive? When will we achieve global government - not to mention global consciousness? What will be the impact of increasingly sophisticated technology, like genetics and nanotechnology, and will our species retain true humanity? Where will evolution take us? When will we reach the stars? It would be intriguing to see the paths human beings take.

Literaturschock: When you're not writing, what are your favourite ways to relax and have fun?

Stan Nicholls: Like most people writing for a living, I smile at the idea of leisure - there seem to be few times when I’m not working! Writing can be an all-consuming passion that fills the hours. But when I do get time off, I enjoy walking, travel, visiting historical sites, going to restaurants, museums, art galleries, that kind of thing - which I’m sure sounds very ordinary and boring. I read, of course. And music is important to me, both to set a mood when I work and as a leisure pastime. I like going to the cinema, but increasingly find it disappointing rather than satisfying. Certainly as far as most blockbusters are concerned. I call them Chinese Meal Movies - two hours later you’ve forgotten all about them. There are exceptions, of course; notably Peter Jackson’s excellent adaptation of Lord of the Rings, which I think is near perfect. I like some anime, and generally prefer European to American or British films these days. They have more meat on their bones. But I confess to having become a bit of a snob about films. I regard literature as a far superior form. There are books that have had a profound effect on me, and some I’ve reread countless times. There are very few films I can say that about.

I’ve been thinking of taking up archery again - I dabbled in it when I was much younger - which would at least get me out of the house more. It makes a nice surprise for burglars, too ...

Literaturschock: You depict orcs as smart and kind (most of the time), and the human race as often barbarous. A lot of Tolkien fans have strong feelings about your orcs novels. What was your intention when you came up with the idea of these "new" orcs?

Stan Nicholls: I simply wanted to turn things upside down and see the world from their point of view. All the other races in fantasy - elves, dwarfs, dragons and the rest - have their stories, their backgrounds, cultures, hopes and fears. Why shouldn’t orcs? They’ve had a bad press! I wanted to redress the balance a little. I also liked the idea of having humans as the rapacious, nasty villains. It’s funny, but wherever in the world my orcs books have been published, they divide opinions. People either love them or hate them; there isn’t really a middle way. This is certainly true of Germany. I get a lot of mail from German readers, and they’re either very kind about the books or extremely hostile. Maybe that explains why I get so many emails with virus attachments originating in Germany! It’s the same with French, Spanish and American readers, and it’s certainly true here in England. Every author understands that you can’t please everyone - you’d go mad trying - so you learn to be philosophical about some people not liking your work. But I’ve never had the kind of reactions I get for the orcs. I have to say, though, that the good reactions far outnumber the bad. So maybe I’m doing something right.

I think some of the hostility about my orcs is based on two misunderstandings. First, a lot of people think that Tolkien invented orcs. He didn’t, of course; the name, and the concept of a race perceived as totally evil, goes back a very long way. Tolkien needed an evil horde and plucked them out of European folklore. Second, some people seem to think that I’m being disrespectful to Tolkien in some way. That does trouble me a bit, because no one could respect or admire him more than me. I enjoyed writing the Orcs trilogy a great deal, and lately I’ve been pondering the idea of writing more. Those characters got under my skin, and I’d like to see what they’ve been getting up to.

Literaturschock: What is the most difficult thing about writing, and the easiest?

Stan Nicholls: I’ve just finished my twenty-second book, and in some ways it gets easier; in other ways, it’s much harder. It’s easier because you learn certain tricks and techniques that help you get the job done, and that hopefully make it a positive experience for readers. It’s harder because you always want to do better than your last book, both on a technical, line-by-line basis and as a storyteller. You don’t want to repeat yourself, and you certainly don’t want to short-change your readers, so you find yourself working harder to outdo yourself every time. Also, writing is the classic example of a craft that should get better the more you do it. The writer who tells you that they can’t improve on their style or storytelling skills is fooling themselves. I think of it as being like exercising a muscle - the more you do it, the stronger it gets.

I’m fortunate in that I spent a number of years as a journalist - both as a science fiction, fantasy and horror specialist, and as a general jobbing hack. Journalism teaches you some good lessons. It teaches you to get on with putting those words down. It teaches you to hit deadlines, be disciplined and cut the crap. Maybe one negative influence of journalism is that it can make you a bit too compressed, a little too clipped and sparse. That isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re writing fiction. Then again, I work hard to keep up the pace in my books, and to make the reader want to turn the page. One of my criticisms about a lot of modern fantasy is that the books are too damn long and too densely written. A lot of them would definitely benefit from losing at least a third of their length.

Literaturschock: What are your current projects? Can you give us a sneak preview of your next books?

Stan Nicholls: I’m writing a fantasy series called the Quicksilver trilogy. Book one, Quicksilver Rising, came out in England last August. Heyne are publishing it in Germany this July as Der Magische Bund. Book two, Quicksilver Zenith, I’ve just finished. That comes out in the UK this August. I’ll be starting book three, Quicksilver Twilight, any day now. There are no orcs in these books! There is a lot of action and adventure, but also some interesting characterisations and plot twists - I hope.

As to the future ... well, I often say that I’ve got more ideas than I’ll live long enough to write. I’m hoping that my next book, or books, will be a kind of fantasy-detective crossover set in an alternate world that has both magic and a form of fantastic technology. It’s too complicated to go into in detail, and I always feel a little uncomfortable talking about ideas I haven’t realised yet, but I have high hopes for it. Of course, I have to convince my publisher to take it - everything a professional writer does is predicated on what your publisher and the reading public will accept. We’ll see. If that doesn’t work I’ve got plenty of other notions queuing up for their place in the sun. I want to write more short stories. Some ideas are short story ideas, if you know what I mean - they would collapse under the weight of a novel - and I have a number of those I want to get written.

There’s the vague possibility of a film - despite what I just said about movies! It’s not an adaptation of one of my books; it’s an original concept. I was approached by a producer who wanted an idea for a horror movie, to be shot in London, and he very much likes my outline. I’m not going to hold my breath though. Several of my novels have been optioned by film companies in the past, and nothing ever came of it. I had one book “in development” for over three years by a Hollywood studio, then they simply dropped it. There are probably satisfactions in working as a scriptwriter, but there seem to be a lot of frustrations, too. And most people in the movie business appear to be mad, which doesn’t help ...

Literaturschock: Do you write whatever you want to write? Or are there ideas that sleep in your head for years?

Stan Nicholls: I’ve been lucky so far in that I’ve been able to write more or less what I want, and the books have found a market. I’m an unashamed commercial writer - I write for a living - but up to now I haven’t been asked to compromise myself.

Some ideas sit in your head for years - that was the case with several of the things in the Quicksilver trilogy – just waiting for the right book to appear in. Other ideas you generate almost spontaneously as you go along. The whole thing about idea generation is a bit mysterious and spooky, and I don’t pretend to understand where some ideas bubble up from. It’s part of the genuine magic inherent in the writing process. I’ve learnt not to mess with it!

Literaturschock: What makes a book very special for you? And/or what makes a book by another author important to you? Does it have to contain a message? Or amuse you?

Stan Nicholls: I think you kind of know if a book - yours or somebody else’s - works. It’s difficult to pin down what makes a successful book. I guess I’d be very rich if I could. A book that touches you emotionally, or has you racing through to see how the plot is going to develop, or that contains imagery that lingers in your mind - those are some of my definitions of a good book. Messages and/or amusement are optional.

Literaturschock: Who are your favourite writers, and do you find the time to read them? What are you currently reading?

Stan Nicholls: Oh, God; there are so many. I have a lot of favourite writers in the sf and fantasy fields, as you would expect. But I also believe it’s important to read outside the genre, otherwise you lose perspective. If the only thing you have to judge science fiction novels by is other science fiction novels, things can get claustrophobic. I read widely - fiction mostly, but also popular science, history books, biographies and so on.

I try to keep up with the sf, fantasy and horror fields, but with so much coming out these days that’s almost impossible. For years I was both a first reader for a number of publishers - you know, reading the slush piles - and a review for various magazines. I read so much during that period that it was starting to spoil reading for pleasure. Also, I try not to read anybody else’s fiction when I’m writing my own. Like all writers I have a fear of unconscious plagiarism; plus you can read somebody so good they knock you off balance! At the moment I’m going through a phase of re-reading a lot of stuff that influenced me when I was young and just getting into an appreciation of this field. People like Jack Finney, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Eric Frank Russell, Philip K. Dick - loads more. Some of them still hold up after all these years. Others don’t, I’m afraid. I won’t say which! I’ve also being going back to non-sf people, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Right now, I’m working my way through the collected works of HG Wells. That’s a pleasure, though it strikes me how literary styles date over time. No matter how modern and cutting-edge you think your writing is now, time will turn it into something antiquated and leaden for future generations. I think that’s a good lesson about how impermanent everything in life really is.

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