I’m so honored to have Brian Ruckley on the blog today. Brian is the author of The Edinburgh Dead and the Godless World trilogy. He’s also super nice and was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me!
Please welcome Brian to the blog!
Brian, it says in your bio that you held a variety of jobs after university. What was your most interesting one, and what would you say was your least favorite of the bunch?
I got very lucky, and never really had to do a job I didn’t like. The low point was probably working in a tea factory/warehouse thing for a month or two (some interesting colleagues there: one of them threw a screwdriver at me once – just for a laugh), but even that I found kind of enjoyable, since I had the luxury of knowing I wouldn’t be there very long. It’s actually kind of fascinating how tea goes from imported tea chest to teabag on your breakfast table, but this is probably not the moment to get into that …
Best job, hands down, was one I did for four or five years, working for a charity that ran projects for young volunteers around the world. I was part of the advance planning team who set up the projects, so I got paid to visit some seriously far-flung places and organize environmental and community projects there. Great fun, though not quite as glamorous as it sounds, since living out of a suitcase in fairly basic hotels loses its appeal rather quickly.
I read that writing has been an important part of your life since you were a child. What were some of your favorite authors or books growing up?
When I was young I read indiscriminately, anything and everything. Restricting it to fantastical stuff, I devoured things like Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain fantasies, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books (probably the best of the lot, looking back), Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen. All that kind of stuff. And The Hobbit, of course, which as I got older led inevitably into Lord of the Rings, Stephen Donaldson and so on and so on. Thus was a fantasy fan (and eventually a fantasy writer) made.
Do you have any contemporary favorites?
Far too many to list, so a randomish sampling of folk who’ve written at least one book I read and enjoyed in the last few years is probably the best I can do. In sf and fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay, Richard Morgan, Jeff Vandermeer, Dan Simmons. In historical non-fiction: John Julius Norwich. In crime: Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell. In literary or classic fiction: Jose Saramago, Tolstoy. I could go on and on, really; ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a whole different list. I’m fickle like that.
What’s one of your favorite lines from a book?
I hate to be boring, but I think by far my favourite single line from any book is one of the most famous and oft-quoted in all of literature. Which is fair enough, I guess, since it’s famous and oft-quoted for good reason, being a neat little work of genius. Tolstoy’s opening line to Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Concise, memorable, insightful. Utterly inspired, in fact. The rest of the book’s good too, but that first line is, basically, perfect. And perfection is pretty rare in writing.
History features prominently in your novels. If you could meet anyone from history (alive or dead), who would it be, and why?
Too many choices! My brain could tie itself in gnarly little knots trying to make a final decision on a question like that. The people whose seem to have seen further than or differently to their contemporaries kind of appeal to me: Darwin, Galileo, Ghandi. I guess I’d probably want to go further back, though, just to take maximum advantage of the opportunity. For a long time, I’ve been interested in the Byzantine Empire – which was kind of like something out of a fantasy novel itself – so maybe one of its great emperors. But in the interest of making a final decision, I’ll just go for … Queen Elizabeth I of England. An amazing woman – she must have been remarkable to have achieved all she did, in the Britain of that time – who we know a lot about but not nearly everything.
You’ve traveled extensively (to Borneo, no less!!). What has been one of your favorite destinations?
I’ve got a soft spot for South-East Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which own parts of Borneo: fantastic food, diverse cultures and history, some great bits of rainforest (which isn’t necessarily the kind of thing everyone likes wandering around in – much less exciting and less pleasant than it usually appears in those pretty nature documentaries on TV – but I rather like it), and in the case of those two countries in particular pretty straightforward languages that are not too hard to learn. My single favourite area from those I’ve visited, though, is probably southern Chile, down Patagonia-way, which is a pretty amazing part of the world. Rains a lot, and I’m using ‘a lot’ in the sense of ‘almost continuously’ there, but the most astonishingly wild and beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen by quite some distance.
If you could pack your bags and go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
I’ve gone soft in my old age, so when I travel these days I need a bit more in the way of comforts than I used to. Flushing toilets, proper beds, safe food etc. My first choice would probably be the good old US of A: New England, maybe, since I’ve not been to that bit before and it sounds ever so civilized and pleasant. For something a bit more adventurous, and if I’m going to be given a big enough budget to buy myself some proper luxury, I’d quite like to go back somewhere I’ve been before: Sabah, which is a bit of Malaysia tucked away on one corner of Borneo. Lovely place. Best seafood I’ve ever had, some of the best wildlife in the world, awesomely friendly people.
What do you miss most about living in London?
I’m a fan of cities in general, and the thing about London (and places like New York and Paris, which I also love) is that it’s kind of the ultimate expression of ‘city’. It feels vast, in constant movement, a diverse world unto itself, and I always loved that. The sense that somewhere in that huge sprawl you could find anything and everything, if you just knew where to look. Some people hate that kind of thing, of course; I just happened to thoroughly enjoy the sensation of stuff happening all around me, constantly: it all felt very alive and important and energetic. I love Edinburgh, where I live now (which is obviously part of the reason my latest book is The Edinburgh Dead), and it’s got plenty going on, but with the exception of the few other super-cities, everywhere can feel a bit subdued after London.
If someone were visiting London for the first time, where would you suggest they go first?
Depends what they’re into.
For art, especially of the modern sort: Tate Modern, the most entertaining museum of modern art I’ve seen anywhere, as much for the amazing building it’s housed in as anything.
For views: the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel-type thing that gives you – on a clear day, anyway – by far the best views in London. Great, if you’ve got a head for heights.
For a bit of greenery: Wimbledon Common, the wildest of London’s many famous green spaces.
For books: Foyles, because it’s probably London’s most famous bookshop, and although I believe it’s modernized since I was last there, I suspect it still feels rather like something out of a bygone era.
What’s the best bit of advice you’d give a struggling writer?
I tend to think that anyone who’s going to succeed in the writing business (by which I really just mean get stuff professionally published: that definitely counts as success!), anyone who’s going to succeed is going to find their own way through the maze. The really important stuff – persistence, talent, determination etc. – is stuff that’s either in there or it’s not, and advice from other folk may or may not help bring it to the fore, but it can’t create it if it’s not there.
One minor suggestion for aspiring writers: beware the extremes of your self-judgement. If you think something you’ve written is utterly brilliant and absolutely perfect just the way it is, you’re almost certainly wrong; quite possibly very, very wrong in a way that’s going to stop you ever making any progress. Humility is a valuable lesson to learn. Equally, if you think something you’ve written is an irredeemable heap of garbage that stinks like rotten fish and has not one single positive element to it, there’s a decent chance you’re wrong. Try to see that which is good, or at least has potential, even in the stuff you’re downright embarrassed to have written. Like humility, a certain degree of positivity and self-confidence is a good thing.