Please welcome Peter McLean to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Drake (Burned Man 1) was published on January 5th by Angry Robot.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Peter: Hi! I’ve been writing since I was in school, well over twenty years now although I’ve only really had the time and the drive to take it seriously in the last five years or so. As for why… well, that’s probably a question for a psychologist! I’ve always had a head full of characters and places and fragments of story, and writing them down gets them out of the page where I can keep an eye on them.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Peter: A bit of both really - I tend to pants the first chapter and the last scene first, then plot out how to get from one to the other. I may not completely stick to the original plan along the way, but having a clear end in sight from the beginning certainly helps me keep my sanity while I’m doing it.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Peter: Simply making the time to do it is always the hardest thing. I work a busy full-time job and am frequently on call out of business hours too so sacrifices have to be made in other areas to clear time to write. Don’t ask me what movies I’ve seen recently because I haven’t!
In terms of the actual writing the most effort goes into creating the plot. I find characters and dialogue really easy, whereas I do have to work at storylines.
TQ: What has influenced/influences your writing?
Peter: My biggest influence in terms of becoming a writer was Tanith Lee, although my writing isn’t anything at all like hers. I loved her books so much when I was younger (and indeed I still do) that it gave me the urge to try and write for myself. I also had a wonderful highschool English teacher who encouraged me a great deal, and to whom I will always be grateful.
TQ: Describe Drake in 140 characters or less.
A demon-summoning hitman and a murderous, chain-smoking angel fight Furies and the Devil himself in a search for redemption.
TQ: Tell us something about Drake that is not found in the book description.
Drake actually started life in a thread over on the Absolute Write forums where we were challenging each other to write a great opening line to a story we hadn’t written yet. I came up with what is still the opening line of Drake, and I knew I had to follow it up with a short story. That short story turned into a novel, and with the editorial help of Phil Jourdan at Angry Robot that novel turned into Drake.
TQ: What inspired you to write Drake? What appeals to you about writing genre?
The inspiration for Drake comes from the old black and white “men-in-hats” noir movies of the 30s and 40s, blended with religion, mythology and magic. Although Drake is set in the modern day I’ve tried to take that noir vibe and adapt it to the setting. The book is set in the ganglands of South London which lend themselves well to that whole oppressive feel.
I grew up on the genre. My mother was very academic but she was also a huge Tolkien fan, and I remember her reading Narnia and The Hobbit to me before I even started school. I grew reading Joan Aiken and Dianna Wynne Jones and Alan Garner, and progressed to Tanith Lee and Stephen King via James Herbert and Dennis Wheatley. The genre has always been my go-to place, and other than possibly straight-out crime fiction I can’t imagine ever writing anything else.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Drake?
Peter: In all honesty I don’t really do research if I can help it. There are two main things in Drake – gangland, and magic. That gangland is drawn from a largely fictional set of tropes and easily-recognisable archetypes that are already nice and familiar. The other main thing in the book is magic, and again I didn’t have to research that much for the book but only because I’ve been studying it for years anyway.
The magic in Drake is mostly drawn from real-world occultism, although obviously greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect. Don Drake practices a variant of the classic grimoire tradition of the Goetia, aided and abetted by his very own enslaved archdemon in the form of the Burned Man. You’re not going to learn any magic spells from reading the book, but anyone already familiar with classical magic will probably find a few things in there that will make them smile.
The only thing I really did have to research was the Vodou that Papa Armand practices. This isn’t something I have any personal experience of but I do have a great respect for the tradition so I wanted to get it as right as I could.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Peter: Don himself was far and away the easiest to write. Once I nailed his voice he almost started to write himself in fact. That said my favourite character is Trixie. She’s an angel but she’s a very Old Testament type of angel rather than the sparkly New Age kind. She has most definitely not fallen, she’s very clear on that point, but she has certainly slipped a bit to put it mildly. She chain-smokes Black Russians and is not above killing people who stand in her way, and was just tremendous fun to write.
The hardest was probably Debbie, Don’s long suffering girlfriend. She’s a very intelligent woman, a chemistry PhD and a practising alchemist, and I knew from the outset I wanted her to be a real person and not just another “damsel in distress” type of character who’s only there for the hero to rescue. Getting this across while only being able to show her through Don’s eyes took some work, but I think she makes her point in the end.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Drake?
Peter: I think it depends on your definition of social issues. Drake is fiction and is by necessity is set in a slightly fictional version of London. A lot of the London in Drake just isn’t there anymore outside of the collective unconscious of everyone who grew up in England in the 1980s. Although Drake is set in the modern day it’s a modern day in which inner city house prices never soared through the roof and brownfield gentrification simply hasn’t happened. Don Drake lives in a London that grew out of 1970s crime dramas and cop shows, a London of diamond geezers and drinking clubs and dodgy pubs, flash motors and hooky shooters, the London that Michael Caine and Edward Woodward came from. It’s the London I remember from my childhood but it’s not really today’s London.
TQ: Which question about Drake do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Peter: I’m really surprised no one ever asks me about the Burned Man itself. It’s only a nine inch tall fetish but that fetish contains the soul of an imprisoned archdemon with absolutely no morals or sense of right and wrong whatsoever. It’s like Mr Hyde on steroids, a truly repugnant thing that none the less gets some of the best lines of dialogue in the book. Writing the Burned Man requires looking into the dark depths and asking “what would I say if I honestly and utterly didn’t give a damn about you or anything else?”
TQ: Give us one or two favorite non-spoilery quotes from Drake.
The Rose and Crown was one of those places where you could buy anything from a van load of Polish cigarettes to a stolen Maserati without anyone batting an eyelid. Most of the regulars were what were affectionately termed “characters” in the local parlance, which was a sort of friendly euphemism for “hardened criminals”.
“Ah,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Actually, no. I’m half dead from heroin comedown, and I’ve been paralysed with borrowed magic. There’s a dead body on my office floor, brains and bits of head all up my wall, and apparently you’re mates with a fallen angel. I am a pretty long way from fucking all right as it goes, Trixie.”
TQ: What's next?
Peter: At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches to the second Burned Man book ready to ship to Angry Robot, and a third is already in the first draft stage so there will definitely be more Don Drake in the future.
I’ll be at EasterCon in Manchester, UK in March, and hopefully at FantasyCon UK in September as well.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Peter: Thank you for having me!
TQ: As a special treat here is the synopsis reveal for the next Burned Man novel:
Deep in the tunnels under London, Don Drake and an Earth Elemental called Janice are searching for an entity the gnomes call Rotman.
The gnome Matriarch tells Don that Rotman is actually the archdemon Bianakith, the spirit of disease and decay whose aura corrupts everything it comes near. Now Don, Trixie and the Burned Man have to hatch a plan to keep Bianakith from bringing down London.
But the past never stays buried, and old sins must be atoned for. Judgement is coming, and its name is Dominion.
Burned Man 1
Angry Robot Books, January 5, 2015
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 320 pages
Cover Art: Raid71
Hitman Don Drake owes a gambling debt to a demon. Forced to carry out one more assassination to clear his debt, Don unwittingly kills an innocent child and brings the Furies of Greek myth down upon himself.
Rescued by an almost-fallen angel called Trixie, Don and his magical accomplice the Burned Man, an imprisoned archdemon, are forced to deal with Lucifer himself whilst battling a powerful evil magician.
Now Don must foil Lucifer’s plan to complete Trixie’s fall and save her soul whilst preventing the Burned Man from breaking free from captivity and wreaking havoc on the entire world.
File Under: Urban Fantasy [ One Last Hit / Both Ends Burning / Going Underground / London’s Finest ]
Don Drake, a down and out diabolist/hitman, has feelings for his ex-girlfriend, drinks a lot, gets in serious trouble with the Furies (who are extremely unpleasant), has to deal with an angel who is a bit less angelic then she used to be, has to face off against various demons, magic users, and more. To say he's having a bad time of things would be a massive understatement. Don is not truly a bad guy, but he does have a tendency to make very bad decisions.
He lives in a seedy part of London and ends up owing money to an unpleasant demon named Wormwood. Drake is working off his debt to Wormwood by killing people who Wormwood wants killed when things go terribly wrong.
His partner in things magical is the Burned Man. He may be an archdemon chained to the mortal world but he is often the funniest thing in the room. He's awful, foul-mouthed, nasty, rude, and I enjoyed reading about him immensely despite how terrible he is. Don is the sardonic straight man to the Burned Man's off beat and off color humor. McLean intersperses the history of Don and the Burned Man throughout the novel and it is both illuminating and fascinating.
Don manages to get himself in and out out of trouble repeatedly in Drake. He doesn't do the getting out of trouble alone most of the time. The Burned Man helps (as if he had a choice), but so does Trixie (the falling angel). The story is deeply engaging in part because you just have to see what Don will do next and how the Burned Man will respond.
There is a lot of action, unspeakable creatures, magic, and unusual and engaging characters. Drake is dark, sometimes violent, often very funny, and very well-written. This is a terrific debut! I'd almost make a pact with a devil to get the next Burned Man book now.
Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had begun studying since the age of 13.
He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with studying martial arts and practical magic.
He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and now works in corporate datacentre outsourcing for a major American multinational company. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.