Peter Roman (aka Peter Darbyshire), is the author of The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and numerous short stories. The Dead Hamlets (Book 2 in The Book of Cross series), just came out, and Peter stopped by to answer a few of my questions about it, and more! Please give him a warm welcome.
Also, wanna win a copy of The Dead Hamlets? I happen to have an extra copy and it would love to go to one lucky US winner, so fill out the widget below the post and cross those fingers.
In The Dead Hamlets, Christopher Marlowe is a demon hunter, and you’ve given Shakespeare a supernatural twist (and much more!) Will you tell us more about the book, and about your very unusual hero, Cross?
Cross is the poor soul who woke up in Christ’s body after Christ shuffled off this mortal coil but left his physical remains behind. In true biblical fashion, the body resurrected with a new soul in it: Cross. And Cross is no saint. He’s a liar, a thief, a drunk, and a hunter of angels. It also turns out he’s immortal – he can die, but the body always brings him back to life. He gets into a lot of trouble in his early years, but he does mellow out over the centuries, so he’s kind of a charming rogue by the time readers encounter him. Think Highlander crossed with Indiana Jones and thrown into the Sandman comics and you kind of have an idea of what Cross is like.
Despite the near-magical powers of his body, Cross generally finds a way to get into more trouble than he can handle. In The Dead Hamlets, he’s managed to fall under the spell of the faerie queen, who he’s crossed – ha ha – more than once in his centuries of mischief. She’s got her own problem: a mysterious ghost is killing off the faerie one by one. She orders Cross to get rid of the ghost, and it’s not really something he can turn down. Once Cross is on the case, though, he quickly discovers that the ghost is not what it seems, and it has a startling connection to Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The Dead Hamlets is a ghost story that even Cross may not be able to survive.
Fans of the first book in the series, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, will be happy to hear that all their favourite characters are back – the faerie queen Morgana, the mischievous Puck, the eerie Alice from Alice in Wonderland. And yes, there are new characters, such as the undead Christopher Marlowe and the very supernatural and very dangerous William Shakespeare. There are a few other special guest appearances, but I don’t want to ruin all the surprises!
What inspired you to write these books? What made you decide to use real historical
The Cross series really started with the character himself. He came to me one night like, well, a divine inspiration. I remember thinking, what if Christ really did walk out of that burial cave where they’d left his body? Why would he do that if his time on Earth was done? Why not just leave and never come back? And then I thought, well, what if it wasn’t actually Christ but someone else in his body? Who is that other soul? I didn’t know who he was or why he’d come to be, and neither did he. So we decided to find out together.
I asked myself what I would do if I was immortal, and that’s how Cross became a drunken, thieving, self-loathing liar with murderous tendencies who tries to do right by his friends. He also struggles with issues of faith, as you would in his position. In the first book, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, I had him hunt angels because I wanted him to be a man at war with divinity. In a sense, there’s a bit of modern man’s struggle with faith and religion in these books. So The Mona Lisa Sacrifice became largely a story about a war between the angels left behind on Earth when God vanished.
I like writing crazy angels as much as the next fantasy writer, but I realized I didn’t want to make the seraphim the central focus of these books. And I’d really fallen in love with some of the weird and wonderful characters that populate Cross’s world, such as Alice and the faerie. So when it came time to write the second book in the series, I decided to take it in a different direction, and I wrote a ghost story instead of another fallen angel thriller. The Dead Hamlets still has plenty of supernatural action, but it really brings to life the other parts of the fantasy world. I mean, once you bring in some mythological characters, you may as well bring them all in, right?
The fantasy world of the Cross books is, of course, still our world. I didn’t want to write a completely fictional, stand-alone world that had nothing to do with our own. I wanted to write something that readers could connect with, that could maybe prompt them to see the magic and strangeness in our own world.
The funny thing is I didn’t want to put Shakespeare into the book at first. I got the idea for the ghost from some Shakespeare scholarship I read in university, which I can’t say more about because of spoilers. But I was really reluctant to include Shakespeare because I didn’t think I could pull off writing about a major historical figure like that. In fact, Shakespeare wasn’t in the first couple of drafts of The Dead Hamlets at all. Then I finally accepted I couldn’t write a Hamlet ghost story without including Shakespeare, so I decided to go for it. I realized I didn’t need to make him historically accurate, because there’s little scholarly consensus about the real Shakespeare anyway. Instead, I decided to make him another fantasy figure, just like the angels and Alice and all the other characters in the books. I gave him the supernatural powers of… well, I’ve probably already said too much. So yeah, I include some historical characters, but I certainly take liberties with them.
In terms of inspiration, I also wanted to write my own version of the books that I loved when I was younger. Some of my earliest memories are of being carried away by Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, which mixed our world with his fantasy creations. They’re still my favourite books – I want to be buried with them and a few other choice titles. I wanted to do my own take on that sort of thing. I’m honoured that some people have said my Cross books remind them of Zelazny’s writing.
What kind of research have you done for the novels, and what is one of the most interesting things you discovered?
I do enough research for the books to be believable (hopefully) but I try not to overdo it. I find there’s a line I have to walk when writing about the real world. I want enough historical details for the scene to ring true. But if I do too much research, then I start trying to turn the story into a history book. That can cause problems when you throw in fantasy characters. If it’s “too real” for me, then I sit there at my keyboard thinking, “But the historical record says there weren’t really any angels at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre….” Plus, the thriller element can get a little bogged down when you’re excitedly detailing the nature of chamber pot usage in the time period of the scene because it’s just such a great historical detail!
Most of the moments in my books are inspired and informed by past travels. The angel chase through Barcelona that opens The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, for instance – I think I was able to really capture the feel of the city and include enough unique scenes from it that it rang true because I’d travelled all those streets and toured the Gaudi church. The same thing goes for the scene at the Globe theatre in The Dead Hamlets. I saw a play there during a stormy night the last time I was in London, so a lot of that night made it into the book. There are other things you can’t directly experience, of course, but you can always find what you need through Google or questioning an expert in the subject. My advice to any aspiring fantasy writer is to make friends with a good demonologist! Saves you a ton of messy research.
There’s no one interesting thing that stands out over others when it comes to the research I’ve done. Instead, I’ve developed an awareness for how many curious and quirky things have been mostly forgotten by history. I find I’m constantly checking sites like Atlas Obscura now, or reading about the secrets of London, that sort of thing. Every day I have a moment where there’s some revelation or another. “Really? There was a secret library forgotten in that monastery for hundreds of years? Oh, and the tomb of that saint actually contains a mystery text?” I file all these things away in my memory, and then some of them wind up in the books. Real life is always stranger and more interesting than fiction.
You have a journalism background, but have you always wanted to write fiction? Will you tell us a bit about that progression?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, even as a child. I’m not really sure why. I sometimes wonder if I was evil in a past life and got cursed by a witch or something. “In your next life, you’ll be doomed to poverty and you’ll have to spend years locked in a small room, arguing with imaginary people!”
I’ve been writing all my life, but it was mostly gibberish until I went off to university to try to learn how to become an actual writer. I took an English degree, where the seeds of much of the Cross series were planted. I also met other aspiring writers, which was huge. Community is so important to writers. My degree introduced me to many literary fiction writers who taught me so much about craft and voice – Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Annie Proulx, Italo Calvino. I was exposed to things I never would have found on my own, like theatre – hello Beckett and Stoppard and Pinter and, of course, Shakespeare and Marlowe.
I published a couple of literary fiction novels after grad school that were really well received despite being completely not viable commercially. They were rather dark and absurd, which was fun, but I also wanted to write genre stuff as well. I started publishing a few weird western stories and the like at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and other places, which was great. I could tell it was confusing some of my readers who were used to the literary stuff, though. So I invented the Peter Roman persona just to brand my different streams of writing so people knew what they were getting. Now Peter Roman seems to have taken over. He’s locked me in the dungeon of an abandoned castle on the moors and he only stops by periodically to feed me press clippings. Help!
I really have no idea how I became a journalist. I never went to j-school, and I somehow stumbled into a newspaper job when the industry was in the midst of collapsing and no one was hiring. I’m still not quite sure how that happened. But I get to write about books and interview writers and read and write for a living, so I’m not complaining! God, I hope none of my journalism colleagues read this. They’ll murder me.
What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading SFF?
I think maybe reading something that engages the imagination is like applying the shock paddles to someone who is dying. You know, the day grinds you down and at the end of it you’re just in a funk where you don’t care about anything. Then you pick up that book and CLEAR! ZAP! You’re alive again!
I know the crazier and more unconventional the book or story is, the more of a shock it is for me, and the more likely it is to excite me. I’m not one of those readers who wants more of the same old thing – I want the writer to surprise me, to break all the rules, to create something I didn’t even know was possible. Bring my imagination back from the dead!
That’s why I write. I want to be the shock paddle in someone else’s life.
What are a few of your favorite authors?
That’s a tough one. I mentioned some of my influences, but these days I’m more excited about my contemporaries. I’m in the middle of reading Kristi Charish’s Owl and the Japanese Circus, which is a lot of fun. I think we have a very similar sensibility when it comes to writing fantasy or urban fantasy or whatever it is. She’s got the whole thriller thing down, and she also mixes together all sorts of mythology in her world. The book is a great romp and I’m looking forward to reading her next one.
I recently finished Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien De Castell and loved it. He’s created a world that’s half Zelazny and half Dumas and all greatness. It has some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read while at the same time being an incredibly thoughtful novel. He’s got some more books coming in the series, and I think we’ll be hearing a lot from him in the future.
I still read some of my old favourites, such as Steven Brust. I love how each of his novels is a completely different kind of story from the other ones. His Jhereg series was a big influence on the Cross books, in terms of a morally questionable narrator and someone who constantly has to figure out how to deal with a situation he can’t possibly handle on his own. It would be easy for Cross to become a boring character – you can’t really kill him, after all – but I think I keep the tension up by putting him into situations where more than his life is at stake. Sometimes he’s looking out for friends, other times he has to figure out how to save the world. I learned a lot about how to up the ante when it comes to a dangerous character from Brust.
Ian Weir is another writer I’m raving about these days. His novel Will Starling just launched in the U.S. and it’s incredible. It’s told from the POV of a surgeon’s assistant in the 19thcentury who operates in a shady realm of grave robbers and physicians who are as much mad scientists as they are doctors. Weir gives some nods to other literary classics, such as Frankenstein, but he also blows up the rules of writing with the book, and it has the literary voice of a fallen angel. Incredible stuff.
I could go on about other writers all day – Annie Proulx’s incredible voice and magic realism in Close Range, Ian Rogers’ eerily great Black Lands tales, Peter Watts’ insane science fiction classic Blindsight, David Nickle’s impossible to describe books The Geisters and Rasputin’s Bastards, Jonathan L. Howard’s delightful Johannes Cabal necromancer series, Max Barry’s magical literary thriller Lexicon, Zachary Jernigan’s attempt to blow up the fantasy genre with No Return, any of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s visionary and incredibly important work, Edward M. Erdelac’s mystical gunslinger in Have Glyphs Will Travel, Gemma Files’ beautifully crazed Hexslinger westerns, Charles Stross’s Laundry series of Bond meets IT meets Lovecraft. It’s really such an amazing time to be a reader.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
That’s actually a tricky question to answer. I still list Zelazny’s Amber books as my favourites. But I’m aware a lot of my feelings about them are coloured by nostalgia. I read the first series in elementary school, and the world has changed a lot since then. I have no idea if they would have the same effect on me if I were to read them for the first time today.
What I would like to experience for the very first time again is that moment of magic the Amber series caused in me as a young reader. I think it was the first time I fell in love with a world a writer had created and cared about the characters like they were real. I’d love to be able to go back to that moment when a book makes everything change for you – when the universe rips open and gives you a glimpse of the heavens.
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing off the third Cross novel, The Apocalypse Ark. It’s a crazy book – absolutely mad. The most action-packed and wildest thing I’ve written yet. I’m really excited about it. And I’m starting to think about the fourth Cross book. It’s got a name and the general idea of a plot, but I’m not willing to talk about it quite yet.
Who knows? Maybe one of these Cross books will finally free me from that witch’s curse!
About The Dead Hamlets:
Something is rotten in the court of the faerie queen. A deadly spirit is killing off the faerie, and it has mysterious ties to Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet.” The only one who can stop it is the immortal Cross, a charming rogue who also happens to be a drunk, a thief, and an angel killer. He is no friend of the faerie since they stole his daughter and made her one of their own. When it appears she may be the next victim of the haunting, though, he must race against time to save her. He encounters an eccentric and deadly cast of characters along the way: the real Witches of Macbeth, the undead playwright/demon hunter Christopher Marlowe, an eerie Alice from the Alice in Wonderland books, a deranged and magical scholar – and a very supernatural William Shakespeare. When Cross discovers a startling secret about the origins of “Hamlet” itself, he finds himself trapped in a ghost story even he may not be able to escape alive!