Today, Leticia Lara (from the wonderful blog Fantástica Ficción) and I have the pleasure of interviewing Peter Higgins, author of Wolfhound Century, one of the books I liked the most in 2013. You can read the Spanish translation of the interview at Fantástica Ficción. Hope you enjoy it!
Leticia Lara & Odo: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which authors have influenced you the most? Is there any current writer that you admire?
Peter Higgins: I’ve always been an avid and wide-ranging reader, and I have a lot of influences, but it was two books in particular that turned me into a writer: Little, Big by John Crowley and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. They made me see all over again how interesting and ambitious and surprising SF/fantasy could be. It was discovering those books that gave me a direction to go in, and the kick I needed to respond to the inner whisper, the long-ignored instinct that I wanted to write as well as read.
There are lots of contemporary writers I admire, but if I must pick just one, then at the moment it would have to be Cormac McCarthy. He writes with astonishing moral force and linguistic intensity, and he takes familiar genres (westerns, drug-dealing gangsters, a post-apocalypse journey) and makes them completely new and full of strangeness and dark poetry.
LL & O: Where did you get the idea for Wolfhound Century from? Have you ever been to Russia?
PH: I grew up during the Cold War, and I was always very aware of Russia as a presence in the world: somewhere powerful and frightening, but also mysterious, strange and (at that time) inaccessible. There was the feeling that nuclear destruction might descend on us from the Soviet Union at any time, that there were massed tanks on the frontier, and spies and all of that. Parades in Red Square. But there was also another side of Russia that was very visible then (more than now, I think): books by writers like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were prominent everywhere, on the shelves of bookshops and libraries. And as I grew older I became aware of Russian music, Russian art, Russian folklore, and also of the huge role the USSR played in the world wars, the Stalinist terror, the grinding bureaucratic oppression of the Eastern Bloc. I read Dostoevsky and Bulgakhov as if they were glimpses of an alternative, heightened world. I internalized this sense of Russia as huge, almost magical place, and a big part of it was that you couldn’t actually go there: it was a place on the other side of a frontier, through the looking glass, reachable only through story and imagination.
Wolfhound Century is about that imagined, mythologized Russia. It’s a perception of Russia from the other side of the curtain. It’s SF and fantasy and myth. I’ve never been to that country. If I did go to Russia now, the place I imagined wouldn’t be there, and if I wrote about the ‘real’ Russia it wouldn’t come out like Wolfhound Century.
LL & O: Do you think alternate history or historical fiction is a genre by itself or it belongs to science fiction? How would you classify “Wolfhound Century”? Or do you think that genre labels are meaningless?
PH: My own view of genres is that they’re not labels or boxes. Each genre has its own collection of ideas and techniques, its own ways of seeing the world, but they’re not mutually exclusive: it’s not either/or. For me, as a reader as well as a writer, books are places where genres can mix and collide. Each new book reinvents its own traditions and redefines its genres (or at least, it’s very dull and predictable if that doesn’t happen).
I can’t really say whether alternate history belongs to science fiction or not, because for me the lines are constantly blurring and shifting. There are some books, say Philip K Dick’s The Man In the High Castle, that seem to belong squarely in the SF tradition, but then there are alternate history detective stories (like Robert Harris’s Fatherland) or literary novels (like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America) which use the idea of alternate history but, to my mind, are trying to do something different from SF. I’m even tempted to say that, in one way or another, all fiction is alternate history: other versions of reality; characters and events that might have happened, history seen through the transforming lens of a particular imaginative sensibility, history with something added, something changed.
I think there is a particular tradition of alternate history which has its own rules: the idea of a Point of Departure; our history with one specific thing changed, but otherwise the world is recognizably ours and history follows the familiar rules of logical development. I’d call that ‘reputable’ alternate history. My books aren’t like that. The Wolfhound Century trilogy works with historical atmospheres and ideas, and some characters and incidents have ‘real’ roots, but I’m interested as much in the art and writing and ideas and emotions of a period as in political events. It’s about distorted, reimagined history and serious play. I’ve pulled in stuff from other times and places, and there’s fantasy and magic in the world-building. Sometimes I call it disreputable alternate history.
LL & O: How do you write? Do you have the plot in your mind and let yourself go or do you plan every little step of your characters?
PH: I do a lot of preparation and planning before I start to write. I make collections of ideas and images and possible characters first, before I start to think too hard about how they might fit together. Then I do a lot of planning, to work out the connections between the ideas I’ve gathered together and to develop a story structure. (I have a fear of getting lost, and not being able to finish, so I make sure I have somewhere to go before I start to write.) But the writing itself is always a surprising process: the characters take on a life of their own, and the story moves in unexpected ways. That’s not a problem: I just change the plan. And then when I’ve finished the first draft I usually edit and revise quite a lot: for me, the first draft is an exploration, and then I look back on it to see what I’ve got. That editing process is important, I think, because it’s when you turn the work into something which a reader can fully enter into and share.
LL & O: How do you use the rich Russian folklore in your books? Where did you know about paluba, giants…?
PH: I took ideas from a lot of different sources. I particularly love a collection of stories for children called Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, but I also found good things in scholarly collections of Slavic mythology, the Finnish epic Kalevala, and Scandinavian stories (not everything in Wolfhound Century is specifically Russian: the endless dark forest of folk tales is bigger and older than Russia). And some of it I simply made up, or at least, I think I did: when images come into your head it’s not always possible to be sure where their roots begin.
The presence of myth and folklore in the world of Wolfhound Century, where it’s all real and involved in the story, is part of building a world that’s absolutely full of possibility and potential, where people (most people) perceive and experience the world in endless ways; the private, the strange and the magical as well as the public and the officially permitted. There are old things, strange things, out there, the natural world is full of life and sentience, and fully human consciousness is part of it. The totalitarian state, the bureaucratic oppressive regime or the mind of the absolutist terrorist focused on a single goal, isn’t compatible with that, and much of the conflict and energy in the story comes from this collision.
LL & O: Have you read “The secret history of Moscow” by Ekaterina Sedia? Do you think they are written in common ground but with different scopes?
PH: I know about Ekaterina Sedia’s work, and it sounds brilliant, but I haven’t read it. In fact I’ve deliberately avoided it so far: I’m going to read The Secret History of Moscow once the Wolfhound Century trilogy is finished!
LL & O: I’m interested in espionage, and find fascinating the history of NKVD. I dare to say that the same happens to you. Is that true? Will we see more intrigues in the next books?
PH: Yes! And yes! I love espionage thrillers as much as fantasy and science fiction, and I find the whole history of secret police and surveillance – the apparatus of the watchful, fearful state turned against its own citizens – grimly and horribly fascinating. There was a time after the end of the Cold War when all that seemed to be finished with, but it’s come back with a vengeance in the last few years, with a whole new twist. The sequel to Wolfhound Century, which was published a few weeks ago (called Truth and Fear) returns to the same territory and pushes it further, with some dramatic new developments.
LL & O: Can you explain to us the etymology of the word mudjhik in your books?
PH: The mudjhiks are larger-than-human figures, usually a dark brick red or purple, something like golems, which the regime in the Wolfhound Century world manufactures and makes use of in war and oppression. The root of the word is mujhik, which is Russian for peasant. I added the d for a complex set of reasons: partly to make it Russian-ish not Russian, and also because golems are often made of mud and the English word peasant, like the French paysan or the Spanish campesino, means ‘man of the land, man of the country’. There’s also the idea that Adam means ‘red earth’ and Adam was made out of earth, while my mudjhiks are a sort of pseudo-creation, a half-alive animated abomination.
And finally, I went for this word because of a dramatic painting by the Russian artist Malevich which is sometimes called ‘The Mujhik’, and which shows a gigantic red inhuman, and to my eyes robotic, figure wielding a scythe. It’s a kind of animated, threatening avatar of the hammer and sickle, and captures something of the atmosphere I wanted to evoke in Wolfhound Century.
LL & O: Are social networks important for you relationships with other authors and with your readers?
PH: They’re hugely important: the community of SF and fantasy readers and writers is a large and powerful presence, and if you put out something into that world you’re participating in a dialogue. It’s a knowledgeable, creative, inspiring and mostly very open and welcoming community, full of energy and sensitivity and surprise. I’ve learned a lot from it: I think that writing fiction is about communication, not just self-expression, so it’s fantastic to have a sense, through social media and websites and blogs and conventions and all the rest of it, of all the other people who are out there reading and writing and talking about the same kinds of books that I am.
But I also find I have to be slightly careful, as there’s a risk it can become overwhelming: in the end, writing fiction is a solitary business and you have to protect your privacy and quietness, so that your own ideas can emerge. So I don’t have a Twitter account, for example.
LL & O: What are you working on right now? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
PH: Just now I’m doing the final work on Radiant State, the third and final part of the Wolfhound Century trilogy, which completes the overarching story that begins with Wolfhound Century and continues in Truth and Fear. Radiant State will be published early in 2015. And after that? Something different, but I haven't decided yet what.
LL & O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
PH: My website is at www.wolfhoundcentury.com. I also have an author page on Facebook and I sometimes post about books I like on Goodreads.
LL & O: Any other thing you'd like to add?
PH: Only to say thanks for inviting me to do this interview! It’s been fun, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
LL & O: Thank you very much for your time and your answers!