Peter Higgins’s debut novel, Wolfhound Century, will be out on the 26th from Orbit, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, his influences, and more!
We also have a copy of Wolfhound Century up for grabs (open to US and CANADA), courtesy of the lovely folks at Orbit, so be sure to check out the details at the end of the post!
Your brand new book, Wolfhound Century, is out next week from Orbit Books and Gollancz! Will you tell us a bit about your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I came to writing slowly. I studied English literature in Oxford and Canada, and for a while I did teaching and research, but the division between serious and popular literature never made much sense to me. When I was supposed to be studying Renaissance texts, I spent a lot of time reading SF and fantasy and thrillers. I used to have a go at writing every so often, but I always got stuck. When I left the academic world and got a job in the civil service, I carried on reading, and found myself stopping off in cafés on the way to and from work to do bits of writing. In the end I thought, I really do have to do this seriously.
Once I’d made that decision, that commitment, I was able to think clearly about what kind of books I could write, and how to do it. Of course it took a while to come together – I have a stack of things that went, quite rightly, unpublished – but by the time I’d finished my first one I was hooked. Addicted. Seven days a week. There was no way I could have stopped.
Will you tell us a bit about Wolfhound Century and Investigator Vissarion Lom?
When the story opens, Lom’s a provincial detective with a strong internal sense of humanity and justice. He’s already made some bad enemies among his superiors and he’s in trouble. Out of the blue, he’s summoned to the capital city, Mirgorod, to take on a big case. Of course, it’s a nest of vipers. A poison chalice.
In Mirgorod, Lom’s world starts to open up. It’s a city of intellectuals and revolutionaries, marching crowds and modernist painters, propaganda cinema and noisy railway stations. It’s also a place of giants and rusalkas, dark alien voices and dangerous sentient rain. He meets a woman, Maroussia Shaumian, who’s living in a bleak apartment and working in a factory making uniforms. She wants to change the world, and she’s in danger.
So Wolfhound Century starts as a thriller, and in some ways it stays there. It speeds along in short, intense chapters with cliff-hanger endings. But Lom and Maroussia’s story reaches beyond thriller, to bring in SF and fantasy, myth and folklore and other kinds of writing. Wolfhound Century is about taking risks, stepping out of line, fighting back, going into strange places, exploring the further edges of what it means to be human.
I guess one of the ideas that holds it all together is, that being human is about imagination and deep emotions and dreams and memories and vivid sensory perceptions, the unconscious as well as the conscious. You can’t squeeze all that into just being an obedient productive model citizen, a particle of history, a tool of the state. And if you’re going to encompass even some of that breadth of humanness in a story, you need a way of telling it that brings as much to bear as possible, and isn’t limited to only one genre of writing.
What made you decide to set Wolfhound Century in an alternate Russia?
I’ve always been very aware of Russia. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still on. Russia was an immense psychological presence at the time. It wasn’t just that it was inaccessible and threatening and dangerous, the nuclear enemy: there were other aspects of Russia, the literature, the art, the revolution, the dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov and Ratushinskaya. You couldn’t go into a bookshop or watch TV without being exposed to some aspect of Russian-ness. I absorbed all that. It went very deep.
When I started writing Wolfhound Century, I wanted Lom and Maroussia’s world to feel like a huge, oppressive, dangerous totalitarian state, spread across a vast continent at war, and I wanted it to feel real, so that the characters story and their emotional world would feel real too.
At one time, I thought I might invent a world like that from scratch, but it felt flimsy and inadequate. On the other hand, I was uneasy about going head on into writing about actual, historical revolutionary and Soviet Russia. That was partly because I wanted the SF and fantasy elements of the story to feel real as well – part of the actual world the characters live in, not some tricksy bolt-on thing – and partly because, well, it just felt presumptuous. So I ended up taking Russia as a starting point, a source, and building a world that was like it but also different.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
For a couple of years I immersed myself in the period and the place – not only Russia itself, but also Germany and central Europe and the Baltic. I absorbed paintings and theatre and cinema, memoirs and newspapers, novels and poetry, philosophy and travel writing, geography and wildlife. History too, though as I’ve said Wolfhound Century isn’t historically accurate in the sense that you can point to a character and say, that’s Stalin, or that’s Lenin, or that’s a street in St Petersburg that really exists.
In your reading and writing, do you prefer grey characters, as opposed to purely “good” or “evil”?
For me, reading is very immersive: I want to get involved in the lives of the characters and explore their world with them, I want to feel that something real is at stake, and I want to care. I don’t often enjoy fiction that’s cynical, or tricksy, or clever for the sake of being clever, and I don’t like to feel detached from, or superior to, the characters.
I suppose every half-way-decent story involves some kind of conflict, and that means the characters value different things, so there’s a moral debate going on beneath the surface, if you want to look for it. It doesn’t have to be about good guys v bad guys, of course, but some kinds of fiction do need that good guy/bad guy thing if they’re going to work well, by which I mean work emotionally.
For example, if some big hero guy punches somebody else hard – really hard – and does them serious permanent damage, I think you want to feel the hero had a good emotional and moral purpose for doing that, and that it was resourceful, clever and proportionate. In other words, you need to be convinced that it’s a good guy fighting a bad guy, not just one violent sociopath punching another one’s lights out.
Who, or what, are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
When I’m writing, there’s a wide range of influences at work, in the sense that I feel the presence of different authors coming through in what I do. They tend to just appear at my shoulder.
For instance, there’s a passage in Wolfhound Century where Lom is walking through the city at night. He’s just arrived, he doesn’t know where he’s going, and it’s pouring with rain, absolutely pouring. When I was writing that, I was very conscious of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, and the fog in the opening paragraphs of Dickens’ Bleak House, and George Smiley walking home at the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré. There’s a theory – the anxiety of influence – that writers are supposed to want to drive those other authorial presences out of their work. But I don’t do that. I’m just grateful they’re there. If a reader picks up on any of those presences in Wolfhound Century, I hope it gives an added depth and resonance to what they’re reading.
On an entirely different level of influence, I still vividly remember the time when I came across, in quick succession and out of nowhere, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and John Crowley’s Little, Big. Those two books had a dramatic impact on me. They were fully in the SF/fantasy world and they were just so complex and so good. They switched on a light somewhere in my head, and every day I thank them for that.
What book(s) are you reading now?
I’m supposed to be reading a biography of Stalin’s head of secret police, Lavrentiy Beria. I’m actually reading William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, an epic fantasy adventure and love story about moles in an English wood.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a struggling writer?
That’s a hard question, because I think everyone needs to hear different things at different times. You progress for a while and then you get stuck. Then you pick up somewhere some scrap of an idea – a hint of a new way of looking at things, something you’ve heard before but hadn’t really understood – and it’s the answer you were looking for and you’re on your way again.
One thing I would say, though, is cast your net widely. If you’re trying to work out what kind of artist you are, where your own unique space might be, how to turn your talent and ideas into a productive workflow, don’t only study other writers. Track down interviews with musicians, painters, animators, actors, video-game designers, anybody who’s trying to do anything creative. You can pick up specific tips in unlikely places – I learned a huge amount from the bonus material about art direction, model making and costume design in the Extended Edition DVDs of Lord of the Rings – but more importantly, whatever the art form, everyone’s fighting demons from the same pack.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Human contact. Writing is a solitary business. At this precise moment, I’m watching my son play Dead Souls on the Xbox.
What’s next for you this year, and beyond?
Wolfhound Century is the first of a three-book series. The second is finished, and I’m in the early stages of the third. After that, who knows?
Keep up with Peter: Website
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