Welcome Ian! Thanks for taking some time to chat about writing. First, a few quick-fire questions: Spicy or sweet? Coffee or Tea? And if you could ride any mythical creature to work every day then which one would it be?
Spicy! I’ve been pickling banana chilis all week and they are perfect on top of pretty much everything. I love coffee, I’ve been trying to get a bit more adventurous with my preparations but most of the time I just end up drinking it black. I’m quite forgetful so I have to be careful not to accidentally drink too much! If I could ride a mythical creature to work every day it would be a gryphon - no traffic in the sky!
"If I could ride a mythical creature to work every day it would be a gryphon - no traffic in the sky!"
Talk to us about your writing routine. Do you write in the morning or evening? Do you write little bits at a time or do you enter a trance-like state and write for hours on end? Do you schedule your writing or do you fit it around everything else you have going on in life?
I try to treat it as professionally as possible, making sure I’m at my desk and working away during the day. I used to be much more sporadic with timings but now I’m a lot more focused! I tend to start with world-building, and spend a long time making maps and writing little summaries, what different places are like, how their cultures act and interact, what the history of the land is. From there I move to character, and once I have a good sketch of my main characters I just get going! I normally have a pretty detailed plot outline, but it always ends up being discarded or utterly changed as I think of better ideas whilst I’m writing! I tend to work in iterative drafts- my first draft is a skeleton, functional but lacking depth and very messy (tone, pacing, character, you name it…) - but I find having that messy structure in place allows me to go back and analyze and build from it. If I’m frustrated or can’t get a scene to work I go back to world-building, or work on a different scene or story - for me it’s important to keep momentum!
Congratulations on your debut, The Gauntlet & the Fist Beneath, which launched in August 2021. What were a few highlights from the book launch? Any unexpected surprises? Any memorable moments? And last, but not least, any advice for other writers with upcoming debut launches?
Thank you! It was a fantastic experience. I was able to spend a few weeks in the UK around the launch, and one of the highlights to me was travelling around different bookshops and being able to sign copies. It was such an amazing feeling to have copies of my book up there next to some of my SFF heroes, in stores where I’ve bought a lot of books! Places like Forbidden Planet, Brick Lane Books, Foyles, and Waterstones, were all really supportive and it meant I was able to meet some of the booksellers out in the wild.
There were a few lovely surprises - The Broken Binding, a new online SFF speciality bookstore that launched in early 2021- they bought a huge pile of copies, and commissioned a special collectors version of the map at the front of the book. I was able to meet up with them and sign all their copies which was really fun. The other surprise was being chosen as the Goldsboro Books SFF book of the month for their SFF subscription - they produced a beautiful special edition with sprayed lightning bolt edges, which is absolutely gorgeous. That was a lovely moment for me to have someone objectively choose the book as something they wanted to share. In terms of advice for other authors around a debut launch, I’d paraphrase what my agent told me: you only get one debut launch, make sure you have a party to celebrate!
"The other surprise was being chosen as the Goldsboro Books SFF book of the month for their SFF subscription - they produced a beautiful special edition with sprayed lightning bolt edges,
The Gauntlet & the Fist Beneath is set in the Ferron Empire amid political, military, and environmental desolation. Captain Floré battles to ensure that a dying empire dies amid the horrors of the rotstorm. To do so, she must pursue searing celestial orbs which, as they fall, may portend the return of the slaving empire’s old strength. This is a rather grim and dire setting and I am curious to know whether you had a specific historical context in mind or if this was purely a fictional realm? What were some of your inspirations and where did you go when you felt stuck?
There are inspirations from many places, but the world of Morost is an entirely fictional realm. My initial inspirations for the project came from some etchings of a mass sighting of ‘celestial phenomena’ in Nuremberg in 1551 - these fantastic woodcuts that show strange lights over a medieval European town. From there I spent a long time thinking about the world I wanted to build. There are elements inspired by the traditions and legends of Celtic animism- I found it intriguing to think of how a society in a similar clime to Britain might have developed into the middle ages without the spread of monotheism. Morost is a world where magic is a force to be reckoned with, and the gods are demonstrable as potent forces- I wanted to ask how that might influence a world, and a society.
"My initial inspirations for the project came from some etchings of a mass sighting of
Most of our story takes place in the Undal Protectorate, a state built from the ruins of a colonial outpost - what I liked and wanted to explore was the decision of the people not to go back to how things were before the Ferron empire came, back to their chieftains and clans and old societal structure, but actually the decision to build forward - to try and make something new, and better, for all. The actual physical world is heavily influenced by Scotland - I wanted to evoke that sense of existing at the end of the world, in a place wild and raw and beautiful. I took a lot of inspiration from the ruins of Scotland and England, and I wanted to bring forward that feeling of an old world, where there was always someone before, and the traces of those people are indelibly marked on the land.
Beyond Undal, there is the rotstorm - an arcane storm that has raged for three centuries, beneath which lies the ruined empire of Ferron. Here, I took a lot of inspiration from science fiction and space exploration, the idea of this utterly inhospitable and alien place that doesn’t follow the rules we expect - but where nevertheless people must try to survive. This is perhaps the most fantastical region in the book - a nightmare of geography made real! Whenever I got stuck on the dynamics of the world I’d refer back to history books, to try and find how people act under different types of pressures. For inspiration I’d also refer a lot to concept art, ancient maps, diagrams of old forts, or a walk in the woods where I can soak in the atmosphere and feeling.
"Whenever I got stuck on the dynamics of the world I’d refer back to history books, to try and find how people act under different types of pressures."
As a bit of an aside, some might be interested to know that you have a PhD in clinical epigenetics. Many might think this suggests that you would be a Sci-Fi writer rather than an author of Fantasy. How do you think that science, specifically biological sciences such as genetics, can aid authors in creating fantastic worlds full of intriguing magic?
I think one reason I chose to write this fantasy novel rather than a science fiction novel was partly due to the large focus I have on science! When I wrote Gauntlet I was working as a scientific editor, and so working on fantasy allowed me something of a release from those strictures. The magic system and mythology within Gauntlet is on the softer side of magic (more like Tolkien than Brandon Sanderson)- something inherently impossible to define, but perhaps possible to harness. I think my background in biology is helpful with regards to this as biology is so intricately amazing and complex and bizarre and to an extent unknowable: even as we understand more and more the constituent parts and patterns that create life, it remains a field where there is always mystery and discovery. My love of biology also stems from a deep love of the natural world, and I hope that my passion for nature is something that underpins the world-building for the series.
This is a bit of a selfish question for me to ask as it’s specifically of interest to me, but how has your experience as a Scotsman living in Algiers been? I recently co-edited an anthology of historical fiction with Muhammad Augrangzeb Ahmad exploring the historical interactions between Vikings and Muslims; there are saga attestations of Viking journeys to Northern Africa as well as well-documented raids into Islamic Spain. I’m interested to know, do you draw on any Algerian history or on your experience of modern Algerian society for your writing? If not, what has been the best part of living in Algiers?
That sounds fascinating, I’d love to read it! I moved out to Algiers a little over a year ago, after I’d completed The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath - it has been a difficult year to try to get to know a new country with all of the restrictions on life that have come with COVID, but I’ve been able to travel a little within the country and dive into some of its incredible history. In terms of influence, it is interesting to me how much the themes of empire and colonialism I was working on with Gauntlet are so clearly mirrored here at varying stages in history - how that influences my portrayal of these power dynamics and their legacy in book 2 and book 3 of the series will hopefully incorporate some of what I’ve learned. It has been invaluable to be able to spend time living somewhere so culturally and geographically distinct from so much of my experience. As a Scottish person living in Algiers, I have struggled quite a lot with the heat though! And you can’t get hold of Irn-Bru for love nor money.
"...it is interesting to me how much the themes of empire and colonialism I was working on with Gauntlet are so clearly mirrored here at varying stages in history- how that influences my portrayal of these power dynamics and their legacy in book 2 and book 3 of the series will hopefully incorporate some of what I’ve learned."
Can you tell us about your next upcoming project? Is it the sequel? Another story altogether? And, if you’re able, can you give us a sneak peek or a little teaser?
My current project is book two of the trilogy that began with The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath! I can’t yet reveal the title, but I’m just polishing up the final text based on some editorial notes and then it should be moving into the world of production soon. After that I’ll be working on Book 3 to finish off this tale. For Book 2, Floré must race to cure her daughter Marta from the encroaching skein-sickness she has inherited, whilst trying to rally the Stormguard as the remnants of Ferron press into their lands. And in the shadows, older foes bide their time, ready to step into the light… It is even more action packed than the first book, and a chance to explore more of the world of Morost and spend more time with your favourite characters!
"For Book 2, Floré must race to cure her daughter Marta from the encroaching skein-sickness she has inherited, whilst trying to rally the Stormguard as the remnants of Ferron press into their lands."
Last, but not least, where can readers find your books and keep up with your future publications?
You can find me on Twitter or on my website - that has all of my publications and contact information. Stop by and say hi!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.