Friday, 19 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #2 - Phil Rickman

 Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Phil Rickman (incensed)

The 1st of November sees the much awaited release of Phil Rickman's 'The Heresy of Dr Dee' - the second novel to feature astrologer, mathematician, (and according to some) infamous sorcerer, Dr John Dee. I've been a huge fan of Phil Rickman's books ever since his debut novel 'Candlenight' propelled him into the supernatural thriller limelight. After another four standalone novels, including the momentous 'December', Rickman changed direction and clambered onto the crime shelves, creating a new sub-genre within the boundaries of crime fiction with his Merrily Watkins Mysteries series. He also published two cult novels under the name of Will Kingdom which have recently been republished on Kindle under the Rickman brand name. And there's also brace of teenage novels as Thom Madley. The first of the Dr Dee novels 'The Bones of Avalon' was published two years ago and widely acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. Astonishingly 'The Heresy of Dr Dee' is Rickman's 22nd published novel - no mean feat when you consider how many excellent writers have perished along the way due to cut-backs and the sort of budget-slashing that would impress even Freddy Kruger.
So what is the new book about? I'd give my right arm to tell you but Strachan McQuade trumped me by actually posting his right arm to Rickman and getting the nod.The jammy sod.

Strachan McQuade
Phil Rickman

McQuade: Dear me, still no proper theme music? Why am I not surprised? (pulls out harmonica and plays a few bars of Z-Cars) A bit of music makes a world of difference, doesn't it? Now then, Rickman, it pains me to say it - but I thoroughly enjoyed your new historical novel 'The Heresy of Dr Dee'. All that swashbuckling sword-play, buckets of blood, burly chaps wearing doublet and hose, and not forgetting frequent mentions of busty serving wenches, got me all misty-eyed and nostalgic for my home town of Invergallus. I particularly liked the sex-starved, brainy book-worm character called John Dee whom you used as your main protagonist. Did you just make him up?

Rickman: Actually, I did some research in Invergallus, which is why no buckles are ever swashed, the swordplay tends to be squalid and desperate, the doublets cheap and drab and the serving wenches sad, droopy and well over the hill. However, John Dee being a REAL PERSON, is indeed sex-starved and book-laden, but far too intelligent to be a graduate of Invergallus Tech. He went to Cambridge University at the age of about ten, graduated in advanced mathematics, Greek etc. and by his mid-twenties was famous all over Europe as a Very Smart Person. However, in the UK, as it was not called then, smart people, especially those who knew all about astrology and stuff, were usually suspected of being in league with the Devil. Which is why John Dee is always terribly paranoid - or would have been if the word paranoid had existed in the sixteenth century.

McQuade: As this novel is set in a specific period of bygone history and includes real people from that time frame, it must be difficult to get all your facts straight, although as a former journalist I imagine you never had to bother much with that sort of minor detail in the past. Do you visit your local mobile library to research this stuff? And have you ever unwittingly inserted any anachronisms? ie John Dee buying a packet of Benson & Hedges from his newsagent or listening to Greensleeves on his Ipod?

Rickman: Ah... if only it was that simple. At first I thought it would just be a question of knowing how to get JD from London to Hereford without a sat nav. But you wind up questioning every damn thing you write. I seem to recall that even my much more qualified colleague CJ Sansom once had a bollocking from a reviewer for describing somebody as being built like a sack of potatoes at a time when potatoes hadn't yet been imported to England. It's a bloody nightmare, Strachan. I've spent a small fortune on Elizabethan history books - many of them secondhand, I'm afraid. But it keeps Hay-on-Wye open.

However, worst of all is the dialogue. Now I really like doing dialogue that sounds natural - but how do we know how people really spoke back then? We know how they wrote, but that's not the same thing at all. What was the Elizabethan equivalent of 'So I was like really pissed off with this bastard.' If you say, 'I could suffer no more of this knave!' it sounds a bit stilted these days, even if that's what they actually might have said. So you have to find some way of avoiding making hard-nose street talk sound quaint and twee, and that's not easy.

It's the same with expletives. Words which have become innocuous to us were really strong stuff back them. Like 'Damn you!' was wishing somebody into hell at a time when that really meant something. So, to get the strength of feeling across, I might have to resort to saying 'Fuck you'. Although the word fuck does appear to have been around back then, it may not  have been used as an expletive. Nearly all the swear words back then were related to religion and blasphemy - God's bones!, for example, must have been very heavy stuff when you think about the theological implications. I bet even you, as a Church of Scotland minister, would have thought twice about using that one in a sermon, and even... erm, are you asleep, Strachan? I realise that was quite a long answer...

McQuade: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Eh? Whashat? (pauses to reinsert dentures) That's better. Where was I? Right. One of the main plot strands in Heresy involves a nationalistic group of Welsh brigands, who under the name of Plant Mat once roamed around the countryside killing and raping and stealing before (presumably) settling down in Abergavenny where they remain to this day. Their wicked leader, Prys Gethin, is possibly the most insidiously foul character you've ever spawned throughout the long course of your writing career. Tell me this - how do you deal with casting out of these abominable personalities who infest your head while writing about them? Do they linger around for a while and make you plunder your neighbour's cattle and then ravage any unwary milkmaids at nearby farms? Or do you have a mental sluice that washes them clean away?

Rickman: You think Prys Gethin is... unpleasant? Good heavens, you defame a national hero! My countrymen have suffered for centuries under the yoke of the English and their Norman overlords. We're the last of the REAL BRITS, descendants of Arthur, speakers of the oldest language in Europe. So we kill a few here and there, steal their money and their cattle, rape their spoiled wives... that's nothing to what the bastards have done to us... nothing, do you hear me? Now step outside, you decaying old fart, and take those glasses off...

Oops, sorry. What happened there? Could I have been temporarily possessed by Dee's dark antagonist...?

Good job you always carry holy water with you, Reverend McQuade. At least, I hope it was holy water.

McQuade: By Jove! You gave me a real start there, laddie. And if I'm not mistaken, I've peed my trousers...... again. Still, as a strict Presbyterian, a little urine is always preferable to Holy Water. While I wait for this stain to dry, let's talk about your Will Kingdom novels, 'The Cold Calling' and 'Mean Spirit'. Generally considered by those in the know to rank among your best work, they suffered sales-wise due to publishing them under a pseudonym. Personally you'd never catch me publishing under a pseudonym (Editor - That's what you think mate.....) and obviously your publisher agrees as they've now been republished as Phil Rickman novels on Kindle. What steps are you taking to promote these excellent novels and perhaps make possible the likelihood of a third novel in the series? I'd be more than happy to put up a small-ad in my butcher's window for you.

Rickman: Well, to begin with, I've signed on for Cindy Mars Lewis's Internet correspondence course in ventriloquism. Henceforth, my voice will be coming from the opposite corner of the room, so if you could perhaps move your chair over there...

McQuade: (sound of chair being dragged back) .................Is this far enough?

Rickman: Thank you. (allows himself to breath again) Yes, The Cold Calling and Mean Spirit. Originally published by Transworld under my old family name of Kingdom in the hope that people in search of a Stephen King novel would pick one up by mistake. Actually that's not true, and if it was it wouldn't have made any difference as very few copies ever made it onto a bookshop shelf, with the exception of the cheapo rack in The Works. When their widespread invisibility became unavoidable, I rang the Transworld marketing boss whose name as I recall, was Jonathan King (no, not that one!) and came off the phone wondering why they'd bothered to buy the books in the first place. The answer may have been simple: because I was cheap. 

But then, so was Dan Brown, apparently. (£5,000, I'm told) Dan and I were, in fact, signed by Transworld at around the same time.

'Just bought a novel from a guy who does your kind of thing,' Bill, my editor said one day. 'I'll send you one.'

It was Angels and Demons, and it did indeed look like my kind of thing. So I read up to about page 25, where Dan reveals that his hero, Robert Langdon, is known to his students as 'The Dolphin' because of his prowess in the pool... and, erm, could go no further. I fervently hoped that Bill would never ask me what I thought of it, and, give him his due, he never did... although this may have been because of the additional responsibility of becoming boss of the entire company in the wake of Dan's success. 

This hurt just a little as I thought (and still do) that these two novels were among my very best. Anyway, eventually we got back the rights to both books, and I thought of republishing them under the name Dick Brown, with a hazy picture of an albino monk on the front, but instead opted for a Kindle job with much classier covers designed by Bev Craven, with a John Mason pic for Mean Spirit. We kept the original Cold Calling picture because it had actually been taken by me (for which I don't recall receiving a penny and even had to buy the film - I bet Dan Brown didn't have to draw his own albino monk!) and displayed it to, I hope, much greater effect. Result: it became an Amazon crime and thriller top 20 bestseller within two weeks. Bloody hell, I sound like Stephen Leather... quick, ask me something else... No, don't come any closer, Strachan, just... you know... shout...

McQuade: It's a known fact.... sorry, too loud. It's a known fact that you live with a large menagerie of wild animals such as dogs, cats, donkeys, and a ferocious peacock named Dave, who reduced Watson to tears when it scuffed the paint on his brand spanking new car by attacking its own reflection in the door panel. I laughed for days over that incident. However, it must be said I loathe dogs due to having certain vital components of my skeletal structure buried in the garden by the thoughtless beasts. Cats on the other hand, I tolerate as they can be easily bribed with sardines to carry out light domestic duties such as dusting and polishing the church brasses. The thrust of my discourse is this - animals in your novels regularly get involved in brutal skirmishes with black hearted villains, although very few (if any) ever have to be given a lethal (but merciful) injection by the vet or a passing drug addict. Do you find it far easier to kill off humans than members of the animal kingdom? And would you ever consider writing a novel where the animal is the main character? Examples I can offer are Watership Down, The Jungle Book and Black Beauty. Moby Dick doesn't count as basically that was a story about a big fish.

Rickman: Probably not. Maybe I'm insufficiently adventurous, but a novel where all the dialogue consists of woof, arf and grrrr just wouldn't work for me, somehow. I might be soft about animals, but I'm not anthropomorphic. (The rumours about me having a little Gomer Parry T-shirt made for the dog are entirely untrue. It was for Dave the Peacock. Who's very sorry about Allan's Porsche, but he would insist on having band practice in Dave's barn...)

Dave the Peacock
Yes, this thing about no animals being harmed in the making of these books.... well, it's not true, for a start. Arnold the dog lost a leg and Ethel the cat got a good kicking, and the fact that the perpetrators of both these atrocities came to unfortunate ends... nothing to do with me, guv. 

Actually killing the dog is a horror novel cliche I decided I wasn't going to buy into. The dog always gets it first - have you noticed that? Stephen King's done for over a dozen - remember the one that was slowly poisoned in The Tommyknockers? I've always avoided reading Cujo. And as for James Herbert sawing all the legs off a poodle... well, as you know, that was the one that went into the woodstove.

Another horror cliche I always avoided was the Undead. In fact I can't believe I'm talking to a deceased person from Aberdeen. I'll wake in a minute. Maybe not even in Aberdeen.

McQuade: Before you leave, Rickman, you don't have any pipe-cleaners I could borrow, do you? No? That's a shame. I was going to show you my party trick of twisting one into the shape of a sausage dog. Anyway, thank you for your forthright views, no matter how ill-conceived. As a parting gift please accept this jar of home-made lemon curd. Unfortunately I didn't have any lemons and made do with cabbage instead. I'm sure you can see yourself out, you know where the door is......... no, no, that's a broom cupboard. And to think this man is one of the country's top writers. Join me next time for another thrilling installment of 'Dead Man Talking' where I'll be chatting with - erm.... someone else.(takes out harmonica and begins to play the theme tune of 'The Virginian')
 Check out Phil's web site here

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