Your Ranger’s Apprentice series starts off in a fictional medieval setting with the main character, Will, wanting to train to be a knight but getting rejected because he is too small. So he becomes apprentice to a Ranger, Halt. You have said you created the initial idea for the series to provide something your son would find interesting to read and to show him that not every hero had to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger type. What has been the key to sustaining this idea over a series of books?
I think it’s the fact that the characters solve problems by their wits and their skills. As the series progresses, the reputations of Will and Halt continue to grow. Yet they remain relatively small men. They don’t use muscle or overwhelming force to solve their problems. They use tactics and skill and innovative thinking.
I love the characters – the lead character and the subsidiary characters. And I love the fact that Hornblower, although he is a hero, is plagued by self-doubt and is human. I was devastated when Forester killed off Hornblower’s long-time friend and admirer, Bush – yet I realised later that his death was necessary for Hornblower’s character to progress to its final stage.
Your fictionalised medieval setting ranges from (the fictional equivalents of) Ireland to northern Africa. Do you do research for each novel, or draw on your existing knowledge to create the fictionalised settings?
A bit of both. I’ve travelled a lot and I draw on that. But sometimes I want to refresh my memories. For example, before writing The Kings of Clonmel, my wife and I revisited Ireland. We’d been there on our honeymoon, spending some time in the town of Clonmel, where I had relatives.
From the feedback you have received from readers, what have been the aspects of the Ranger’s Apprentice series that people have most enjoyed?
The humour, the adventure, the characters, the pace. I’m often told, ‘I can see it like a movie in my mind.’ That’s a very satisfying thing to hear.
Do you read much Australian fiction and do you have some favourites?
No. I don’t. I’m about to read Deb Abela’s new book, Grimsdon, and I’ll be reading Simon Higgins’ latest in the Moonshadow series over Christmas. But generally, I read American crime and adventure fiction.
Do you have any strategies for getting from an initial concept to putting words down, or is it as simple as you just do it?
Just do it? Oh no. I wish it were that simple. I spend months planning a book. First I’ll toss the original idea around, making notes and thinking it through over a long period. Leaving it, going away, coming back to it, letting my subconscious work on it. (Forester was a great believer in the subconscious.) Then I’ll formalise it, writing a four-page outline. Then I’ll write a chapter by chapter outline – usually around 20 pages long – print it out and keep it by me as I write. I’ll add additional hand-written notes to that as I go. The end result is a maze of typescript, crossing out, squiggles, arrows, notes and extra ideas. I figure only I could really understand it.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Don’t give up. Keep writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get. Your speling will improove too.
Can you tell us anything about what’s coming up in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, or any other writing projects you might have coming up?
The eleventh book is half finished. It’s a series of long short stories that cover the entire span of the series to date. Many of them answer questions I’ve been asked by readers. For example: What did Gilan do when Halt and Horace went to Skandia to rescue Will? What happens when a Ranger horse gets too old to continue? What happened when Halt first found Will? How did Halt and Crowley meet?
There will be a 12th and final book but I’m not doing that for a while. In the meantime, I’m starting a new series about a half-Skandian, half-Araluan boy who designs a radical new type of ship. The series is called The Brotherband and I’ll be doing that next year.
By the way, when I wrote ‘your speling will improove too’ I was joking.
The Australian Literature Review