TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Peter: Thank you for having me! It’s fantastic to be here.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Peter: I was a slow starter. I was always a reader though. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by books. All kinds of books. Anything I could find. Thrillers, fantasy, SF, Victorian novels, the Greek and Roman classics, folktales, comic books, history, biography, science. Absolutely everything. I’ve never felt anything was off limits. It’s all part of one big wonderful book.
I used to make attempts at writing from time to time, but I always gave up. I couldn’t get beyond the initial idea and the first few pages. Looking back now, I realize that I wanted to write, but technically I just didn’t know how to do it. Eventually, I found myself stopping off in cafés on the way to and from work, scribbling in note books, and I decided I really did need to try and do it seriously.
About that time – I’m really not sure now whether this came before or after I’d made that decision to commit to writing seriously – I was poking about in a carton outside a junk shop and I found this old book. It was by Joan Aiken, whose stories I loved when I was nine or ten, and it was about how to write. I mean, not what makes a good book – plots, themes, characters – but what the actual processes of making a story are. It was like someone had taken me into a workshop full of tools and shown me how to use them.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Peter: Well I’m not sure how to answer that. Every reader has their own internal compass … But there are a couple of things I find really interesting when I’m actually doing the writing (sorry, I’m being greedy – having two).
I love trying to capture the atmosphere of places and periods. A crowded café in a northern European city a hundred years ago, in the rain. A path in the forest when the wind is blowing hard. An immense bureaucratic office building. It’s not really about accurate description, because every reader has their own places like that, which they visit inside their heads. I guess I’m trying to find the thing, or sound, or smell, that will trigger those imaginative memories, and make spaces in the story where a reader can bring their own imagination with them.
Also, I ask myself the most wild and off-the-wall question I can think of: such as, what would be it be like if the rain knew you were there and didn’t like you? And then follow it through with absolute care and seriousness.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Peter: Plotter. Definitely. I like stories that are tense and move fast and have lots of mystery and surprises. I work all that out first, so there’s a good strong spine to the book, because when the actual writing starts I get absorbed in the moment and the characters, and if I didn’t have a good idea of where it was going I’d be lost in the woods. Of course I don’t always stick to the plan. Sometimes a new character just walks in, or something unexpected happens, and I go with it. Change the plan.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Peter: Mixing genres. I love thrillers and I love fantasy and SF, and in Wolfhound Century I wanted to write a book that would work as both, at the same time. I didn’t want to choose. So Wolfhound Century is a thriller, and it’s set in a world that’s different from ours in some important ways. It’s a lot like Soviet Russia, but there are giants there, and every few decades a monstrous inhuman creature falls from the sky, and usually they’re dead. The people call them angels, but they’re not.
There’s no reason why you can’t mix genres – books and movies and TV do it all the time – but I learned that it’s a kind of balancing act. There are times when the different genres pull against each other. For example, SF and fantasy books often take their time over world building. If you introduce something new and strange, you can expand a bit about what it is and give it some context. But thrillers don’t work like that: you have to start with a bang, in the middle of the action, and the pace can’t let up for too long or the book starts to sag and the sense of urgency and threat gets lost. That was certainly a challenge: finding ways of slipping the world-building in naturally along the way.
TQ: Describe Wolfhound Century in 140 characters or less.
Peter: A city of artists and revolutionaries and secret police, a monstrous alien presence in the forest, a woman sewing uniforms in a factory who wants to change the world …
TQ: What inspired you to write Wolfhound Century?
Peter: I found the basic idea almost by accident. A long, slow accident. It was really an exciting moment when I finally got there. I jumped out of my skin.
I was reading a lot of fantasy at the time. Robin Hobb. I was obsessed by Robin Hobb. I wanted to write a big, wild fantasy. But I just couldn’t find a way in. Every time one of my characters picked up a sword, or did some magic, or heard about a dragon, I felt someone else in another book was already doing that better.
So, quite slowly, I started shifting my story deeper into central Europe, and north to the Baltic shores in winter, and I was moving forwards in time. Revolvers not swords. Trucks and trains not carts. Suddenly I found myself in St Petersburg in the early twentieth century. The idea just exploded into life. Suddenly I had marching crowds and modernist painters and propaganda cinema and noisy railway stations, and all the darkness and emotion of that historical period, and I had giants and golems and an endless forest. And I could make the story a thriller, an investigation, a race against time, a struggle against the overwhelming power of the state.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Wolfhound Century?
Peter: A lot more than found its way into the finished story. I spent a lot of time, not only with history books, but also with artists and cinema and novels of the time. Old photographs. Travel books and guide books. Wildlife documentaries. Menus and recipes. I wanted to know what it felt like to be there, what it smelled like and tasted like, what they were afraid of, and what kind of things could happen. Where Stalin came from and how he took power.
I was always very aware that the events I was researching were real, and caused the deaths of millions of people and ruined the lives of millions more. I’ve tried to let that awareness come through in the book, as a kind of quiet undercurrent, so that Wolfhound Century doesn’t trivialize or exploit its background.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Peter: The bad guys were the easiest, for sure. Josef Kantor, master terrorist with his eye on the main prize, and Lavrentina Chazia, head of the Secret Police. As they develop, they just get crueler and crueler, more and more powerful. Each has their own plans, and they pursue them ruthlessly. They spot their enemies’ weakest, most sensitive points, and they stick their fingers in and they push. If you have any kind of a malicious streak in you, writing villains is great fun.
The heroes were the hardest – Vissarion Lom, the police investigator whose refusal to toe the line starts the story rolling, and Maroussia Shaumian, the woman he meets, who wants to change the world – because they grow and deepen as people. You have to think about that really carefully: they’re thrown out of their familiar lives and experience terrible things, and they have to respond, emotionally, but not to the point where they become ineffective and they can’t push back. You don’t want them to come over as callous or unaware either: what happens affects not just them, but their families and friends and other people. They have to make hard decisions, knowing there’s a price to pay either way. And of course they respond to each other, too.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in Wolfhound Century?
Peter: When I think about Wolfhound Century now, it’s often the quieter moments that come back most vividly. The pauses after the action. For example, there’s a scene where the heroine, Maroussia, has just had to run and fight for her life, and she knows she’s going to have to leave her apartment for ever, but she has a moment where she goes back home and washes the dirt off her cuts and bruises, changes her clothes and packs a bag. It doesn’t take long. She doesn’t own much. The passage only takes a paragraph or two, and I wrote it quickly, but I felt I’d got close to who she really was. What it was like to be her.
TQ: What's next?
Peter: Well, Wolfhound Century is definitely not the end of the story. It’s the first in a series of three. The second is already written, and I’m working on the third at the moment.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Peter: Thank you for inviting me. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
About Wolfhound Century
Vissarion Lom 1
Orbit Books, March 26, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 380 pages
Inspector Vissarion Lom has been summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist --- and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police. A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown terrorism with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists. Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.
And the recently revealed cover for Truth and Fear (Vissarion Lom 2):
I love the Russian included on the seal on this cover (and yes, I know what it means).