I am stoked to be able to bring the latest instalment in our interview series. This week we are featuring Ben Peek, author of the fantastic book The Godless. Ben graciously took time out of his busy schedule to chat about various things, including his weapon of choice for fighting Rjurik Davidson!
Ben Peek, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thanks, man. Appreciate the time.
First up, tell us a little bit about yourself and your novel The Godless.
Well, I'm a Sydney based author. My previous books are Black Sheep, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, Above/Below, and the collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories.
The Godless is my first fantasy novel. It's an ensemble cast piece, switching between three main characters, and set in a world where the bodies of Gods lie upon the ground, dead but still alive, due to the nature of time in the book. It has fanatical armies. It has dead things. It has sword fights and magic. It even has a cartographer. But mostly, it's about people stuck in a siege, and the things that they will have to do to survive.
I've been writing for a long, long time.
I sold my first piece of short fiction about twenty years ago, back when I was in High School. I never got paid, and it never got published, but I kept writing, since that seemed somewhat successful. At least, that's what I told myself.
The Godless was an idea that I had had lurking around in my head for a while, but it wasn't until around 2010 that I started to write it. I had gone through a rough patch with what you would call my career at the time. A lot of authors had: the GFC had come and a lot of the slots that existed for new authors like me were drying up. I'd lost a book deal. I'd gone through two agents. It was rough, but not so unusual that I need to go into all the details for it, again. The end result though was that I thought I'd sit down and write a fantasy book. I'd loved them growing up, but I'd only been in and out as an adult, and I thought I'd take this idea I had been turning round for a while and simply write it and see how it went. At the end of it I had this book, and this series idea, and within a couple of months, I had a new agent, and a shiny book contract.
What challenges did you face in writing The Godless?
Mostly it was the kind you face having to sit down every day and write when you have no one interested in what you are doing. I think that the desire to continually produce work when no one appears interested in it is the hardest thing for an author.
One of the things I loved about The Godless was its embracement of strong and interesting female characters (Ayae and Lady Wagan for example). Was this done on purpose, and do you feel that fantasy writers should step outside the ‘white male hero’ archetype more often?
That's a sad reflection on our world, isn't it, that question? In it is this idea that female characters are weak and boring.
One of the basic choices I made when I sat down to write the Godless was that I would build the world of the book from a position of equality. By that, I mean that no matter your race, your sexuality, your sex, whatever, you're as equal as the next in the book. It's not a hard line for me to take, since it's my natural outlook on the world, but within the traditional building blocks of the fantasy feudal system and its monarchies and so forth is the idea that not everyone is equal. Mostly, I tend to think it's a blind world building choice: just like you'll accept that your hero will have a sword, ride a horse, and see a castle at least once, you'll accept that women don't have the same freedom as men. Well, white men, really. It's not something I personally respond to, but at the same time, some authors use it well and get narrative tension out of that. You can even create whole narratives out of gender swapping, in which a woman dresses as a man, or a man as a woman. But it's not what I'm interested in. So I made that decision early to build from a position of equality.
I don't think it's such a big deal, personally. Like I said, it's my outlook in life.
As for other fantasy writers? Well, they've all got world views to present as well, and they'll make the choices that best suit them, really. I suspect changing expectations in their audience will have more impact than anything I'd say.
What’s your favourite book? Why?
My favourite book, huh?
It's never the same, one week from another, but today, I'd say Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. It is a book set during the purges in Stalinist Russia, and has one of the finest final lines I've ever read (though you have to read the book to get it it). The English version is translated by Daphne Hardy and it's totally beautiful. She had, apparently, been living with him at the time. But seriously, it's a great book. Completely and utterly.
You know, probably the one that will surprise you is the Dime novel influence in the creation of the mercenary groups. I deliberately drew from the late 1800s, and the role that the Dime novel had in mythologising the West. I honestly can't tell you why - the world building was pretty organic, and most of it was shaped during rewriting, but that's the one that I was conscious of drawing on the strongest, and I think it's one of the smallest pieces of world building in the book. The rest of it, I'm sure there are bits and pieces. I was conscious of the fact that the Spine of Ger echoed the Great Wall of China, for example. And I constantly find myself having to look up ships for whenever anyone rides for a page or two on a ship. But there's no huge strand similar to those Dime novels.
It is a fact that we both share a love of Transformers (not the hideous Michael Bay movies), but what else influenced and shaped you into becoming the writer you are today?
Haha. I don't know that Transformers influenced me all that much beyond being an entrance level science fiction show for me as a kid.
But otherwise, I guess we're all a sum of our experiences. The writer in me probably owes a debt to authors such as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, David Gemmell, Lynn Abbey, Katherine Kerr, Terry Brooks, RA Salvatore, and all the other fantasy writers I read as a kid. They were the books I found when I was young, and no matter what we'll say about the quality of some of their books as adults, they gave me such joy and love when I was a kid that I'll always be indebted to them. As an adult, the list is even longer, but when I was a poor kid growing up, those were the books I loved.
The Godless is a large book. How long did it take to write?
Probably about two years, give or take. Like I said earlier, the motivation to complete a book is hard to find when no one wants it. The second book, Leviathan's Blood, is a little longer, and that took me just over a year to write pretty much full time (I teach part time). It really is amazing how someone waiting for your work changes your output.
In your opinion, what are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
I'm totally one hundred percent a complete author with no faults at all. Except, perhaps, my spelling.
But, more seriously, I don't think I write the romance well. I mean the genre, not romances in books. Likewise, hard science fiction isn't really my strength, either. Everything else I'd feel confident with, but everyone is going to have their opinion on what they like and don't like in your work, though, and they can all have at it. Just not near me. I don't really care to hear how I'm less than perfect. I have an editor for that and she does a fine job.
What would be your weapon of choice for gladiatorial combat if you faced Rjurik Davidson?
Henri Lefebvre's left arm.
How much say do you have, as an author, in relation to the cover art for your books? (I thought The Godless covers were stunning by the way.) And what’s the best piece of cover art you have ever seen?
It really depends on what country we're talking about. In Germany and in the US, I was just shown the cover after it had been made. But in the UK, which is my main publisher, I had a bit of input into it, mostly about the look of the characters and such. My editor, Julie Crisp, and I went back and forth on how we should frame Ayae on the cover, and in the end, we put it out to vote, and used that as a strong guide. But by and large, I don't have a huge say in it, which is, really, quite fair. If cover designs were left up to me they'd look awful - cover artists and publishers know what they're doing.
As for favourite cover art, I have no idea, to be honest. I always thought Shaun Tan's covers for his picture books were pretty sweet.
The Godless has so many intriguing and multi-layered characters. In your opinion, what makes a good fictional character?
An ability to surprise, to react in a way that a reader is not expecting, but which remains true to the text, so while the reader can be surprised by what happened, they don't feel cheated.
Speculative fiction here in Australia seems to come and go in popularity. What do you think of the local scene at the moment? Are there any local writers whose work we should check out apart from your own?
Well there's Anna Tambour and Rosaleen Love, for starters. Trent Jameison has a new novel out this year, I believe. Rjurik Davidson has one as well.
But I think you should read outside this scene, as well. It's nice to support local writers - and they do need supporting - but you have to be diverse in what you read, and at times, this little scene is not that.
Time for the standard cliché question… best writing tip for beginner writers?
Read, and read widely, and read everything.
I know it's such a cliche answer, but over the years, it's really what I've found makes a difference. You want to be around for a long time? Read. Read everywhere and everything.
How many trials of strength must a blogger go through to receive an ARC of the sequel to The Godless? *hint hint
You'd have to ask Sam Eades, but I suspect, if you were able to capture Jo Nesbo alive and deliver him to her doorstep, you'd be on the right path.
(More seriously, I'll help you out. Not in the kidnapping of Jo Nesbo, though. I mean, hes not my type.)
What are you working on right now?
Third book of the series. What will it be called... who knows? Every title I have is bad.
What can fans of The Godless expect in the sequel?
Happiness. Sunshine. Cute girls on ponies. Cute boys on boats.
But my book is called Leviathan's Blood and it'll have none of that stuff.
And finally, will you be appearing at any events (Supanova, etc) this year? (We fans do like to stalk our favourite authors!)
At this point, nothing is decided, so maybe. I tend to be a bit reclusive, so I tend not too stress the convention stuff too much, really. But I suspect I'll do a few things - a couple of people have asked, but there's nothing set in stone at this point.
Ben Peek, thank you for taking the time out to talk to Smash Dragons!
No probs, man. Happy to do so.
You can find a copy The Godless at all decent online book retailers and stores. Ben is such an incredibly nice guy, and has a razor sharp wit that is very thought provoking. Get behind him, and purchase The Godless. You won't be disappointed!