John Gwynne "...Probably the book that had the most impact on me and got me hooked on fantasy was Lloyd Alexander’s ‘The Book of Three,’ which is book 1 of his ‘Chronicles of Prydain,’ series. I was seven or eight years old and have a vivid memory of my teacher sitting my class down in a circle around him and beginning to read to us. It was ‘The Book of Three’ and it hooked me so much that the next day I begged my mum to buy me book one and two. After that it was a slippery slope of hobbits and Ringwraiths, of dragons and minotaur’s and Holy Grails...."
If you are a lover of fantasy, you will have come across John’s tomes. He is the author of the David Gemmell Morningstar awarded novel Malice which kicked off The Faithful and the Fallen series. Another series you might have seen, Of Blood and Bone, is set 100 years after the concluding events of The Faithful and the Fallen. Now he has released his new series with a new world, The Bloodsworn Saga with the first book out this month, The Shadow of the Gods.
We are very lucky to have John sitting down with us for a chat about his writing and life.
John was interviewed by both James Tivendale and Elizabeth Tabler.
BWG: You were born in Singapore and moved around a lot due to your father being in the RAF. Has your semi-nomadic lifestyle affected the way you write and approach story creation?
Hi Grimdark Magazine, and thanks so much for the invite, it’s wonderful to be here.
That’s a great question. I’m not sure how much moving around has affected the way I write, but I would suspect that it did have an impact on me becoming a writer. Moving around so regularly was definitely a part of why I read so much. Once you move three or four times during your childhood you get used to moving away from friends, and so for a long time books became my friends. For a while I became a bit of a loner and books were my favorite companions.
Not a tragic story, though, I did eventually settle during my mid-teenage years and made wonderful friends for life.
BWG: You are known for your battle scenes and action pacing. How do you approach battle scene creation?
That’s really wonderful to hear, thank you.
I’ve always approached writing combat in the same way, and that approach was very much influenced by an experience I had at the cinema. It was when I went to see the film Braveheart, back in 1995/96?
In terms of how it portrayed combat it felt groundbreaking at the time, stripping away that Hollywood gloss and taking all the glory out of war, showing the horror, terror and agony. And the way it was filmed, this kaleidoscope of fractured images coming at you, swamping the senses, it felt as if you were standing there on the field of battle.
From the moment I began writing I was trying to capture that and put it on the page.
I hope that being a Viking re-enactor has helped, as well. I think it definitely adds layers of detail and authenticity to combat, with so many of those little details that I could never imagine. Like how heavy a shield feels after about 10-15 mins of combat, or how you must remember to put your gloves on last and do up all of your buckles – weapons, belt, helmet chin-strap and so on – before you put your gloves on, as gloves make you fumbled and slow.
Also, those other moments to do with battle and combat that aren’t necessarily to do with actual combat, like how it feels to wear a coat of mail, and how difficult it is just to put it on. Yes, I have been stuck in my mail before, much to the amusement of my family and those around me. Being a Viking is not as easy as it looks.
BWG: What came first for you, rejuvenating vintage furniture or reenactment and practicing with the spear, sword, and shield?
Rejuvenating vintage furniture. And by that, I mean my wife was the brains and I was the one who did the fixing, painting, carrying and sanding
My daughter, Harriett, is profoundly disabled and my wife, Caroline, and I are her carers. Harriett always needs a lot of care, 24/7, but there was a period back when I was working at a local University when Harriett was extremely unwell and so I stepped out of Uni to help more at home. But bills still needed to be paid and my wife already ran a successful vintage furniture business, so I became more involved with that – it was something that could be mostly managed from home, so fitted in well with our circumstances.
I’ve been involved in re-enactment for the last five or six years, and it is an absolute blast.
BWG: I know that you are a lover of books as much as a writer, and you started reading early. What was an early book that affected you greatly, and why?
Probably the book that had the most impact on me and got me hooked on fantasy was Lloyd Alexander’s ‘The Book of Three,’ which is book 1 of his ‘Chronicles of Prydain,’ series. I was seven or eight years old and have a vivid memory of my teacher sitting my class down in a circle around him and beginning to read to us. It was ‘The Book of Three’ and it hooked me so much that the next day I begged my mum to buy me book one and two. After that it was a slippery slope of hobbits and Ringwraiths, of dragons and minotaur’s and Holy Grails…
Without ‘The Book of Three’ I don’t think I’d be writing today.
BWG: Where do you think fantasy as a genre is heading in the next couple of years? Do you think we will stay on a grim path mixing a bit of grit in with our fantasy? Or, bounce to more noblebright type stories as a reaction to 2020 and 2021.
That’s really tough to call. I think there’s a certain level of authenticity within fantasy now that readers expect, on a human, emotional level. But this doesn’t mean that every character needs to be a self-serving anti-hero. In real life there are people who perform heroic acts, such as jumping off of a bridge to save someone who is drowning, just as much as there are self-serving people who tend to usually act in their own interests. I think there are trends in fantasy, but more than that, I see the fantasy genre as expanding, rather than narrowly focusing on some genres and excluding others. I think there’s room for everyone, and every genre, as long as it’s written in an authentic, engaging way.
BWG: Your sons have a great channel on youtube called The Brothers Gwynne, where they talk fantasy and do book reviews. What do you think about that, and have you had a chance to check it out?
I love that they are doing their YouTube channel. They are so passionate about books and it’s lovely to see them sharing that passion and chatting about books. I’ve watched their videos and even been interviewed in one of them
Watching them now, it just reminds me of all those times when I and my wife Caroline would sit and read to them at bedtime, and then as they grew older that I would poke my head into their room to check they were okay and see them sitting in bed with the lamp on and their nose in a book. It’s wonderful that we all share a passion for reading in the Gwynne household, and books are never far from our conversations.
BWG: I recently saw on Instagram that you completed the second book in The Bloodsworn Saga, Dead Gods Rising. Congratulations. Would you be willing to reveal something about that novel that hasn’t been mentioned yet? (If there are any new point of view characters? How many pages it is?)
Thanks so much.
What can I reveal? Not too much without stepping into spoiler territory, I’m afraid. Um, okay. I’ve added two more Points of View, so we have five POV’s in this one, to make sure that the conflicts can be seen from all sides. Also, at the moment it’s a little bigger than book 1 – book 1 weighed in at around 160,000 words, and book 2 came in at 203,000 words (but that’s before my editor has got their red pen out ).
BWG: In The Shadow of the Gods you have three perspectives, Orka, an ex-warrior who lives with her husband and son at a quiet steading. Varg, a thrall who is running to escape his slave masters, and Elvar, a young warrior trying to find battle fame with the monster hunting warband the Battle-Grim. Out of the three, which would you say was the most difficult to write and why?
Difficult? In this book I can honestly say none of them. I had SO much fun writing this book, both the characters and the world. I think because I’d spent a lot of time thinking about the series, researching, constructing the world and characters that when I got down to writing it just kind of fell out of me.
Writing book 2 was a harder experience, but that was because with one of the characters I took much more of a gardener approach than I usually do (usually I do a bit of both – some plotting and some gardening). I could see a scene at the end of the book, and I needed a new pair of eyes to tell that scene, as it couldn’t work with any of the existing characters, so a new character stepped up to the spotlight – they feature in book 1, but not as a point of view. It was a challenge to write this character because I was working out their journey to that end scene as I wrote it. Looking back, though, it feels like they came out okay. I hope. (Fingers crossed.)
BWG: You’ve spoken previously that you did a lot of research into Norse mythology when writing The Shadow of the Gods. I wondered what were some of your other influences that assisted you in the creating of The Bloodsworn Saga and Vigrið? I noticed what I thought were homages to Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, which I know is a series that you rate highly.
You’re absolutely right, my influences definitely stretch to include some Bernard Cornwell and the Last Kingdom series. That is because I am a HUGE Bernard Cornwell fan, so as a tip of the hat I included a unique insult that Bernard’s character Uhtred of Bebbanburgh uses (one of the all-time iconic characters of historical novels).
Also, the Last Kingdom and my series do have a kind of cross-over point, even though the Last Kingdom is a historical series and my Bloodsworn Saga is a fantasy series. I wanted this series to feel historical, to seep a sense of Norse, Viking-era history, (even though it has dragons, trolls and all manner of other Scandinavian monsters lurking within it), and so I did a great deal of research into that historical period: the ships they sailed, the clothes they wore, how they fought, what they ate, and so on, and of course the Last Kingdom is about the Anglo-Saxon’s and the Danish Invasion during the Viking period, so there is hopefully a similarity between them (at least there is in my mind ).
BWG: If there was a way that your two fantasy worlds could cross over somehow, are there two characters, one from Vigrið and one from the Banished Lands, that you’d love to meet in a scene, and what drama do you imagine would follow? Whilst I was reading The Shadow of the Gods, I kept having visions of Einar Half-Troll arm wrestling with Balur One-Eye to the delight of all around who witnessed this challenge of might and strength.
Ha-ha, I love that thought of Balur One-Eye arm wrestling with Einar Half-Troll.
I think Craf meeting Orka could end up in some amusing conversations.
BWG: Are there any books that you’ve read or are most excited to read in 2021?
One of the ironies of writing for a living is that you get less reading-for-pleasure time – so much of the time I do have is taken up with research. I do manage to squeeze in some reading time, though, and I have recently read The Pariah by Anthony Ryan, which I thought was fantastic. Also, The Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff was exceptional. And right now, I’m reading the Forever King by Ben Galley and I’m enjoying it a great deal. It’s been a good year for books so far.