For those of you who don’t immediately recognize the name, Stan Nicholls is not only an veteran of the writing industry,the Chair of the wonderful Gemmell Awards for Fantasy (sort of like the Hugos or the Nebulas but the big award is a FUCKING AXE), the first person to write orcs as protagonists, and, from all accounts, an all around nice person. And he was nice enough to take the time to answer my silly questions. I just want to thank him again for doing this because wow, he is a busy dude. A note before you get to his answers, while I asked everyone else to focus on orc-centric works by other people that they favored, given Stan’s status, I accepted a general answer from him. Again, his time is precious and, well, he’s the guy that did it first.
When did you start creating?
That’s an interesting question, and in my case raises the whole nature versus nurture debate. I come from a very poor background and a household where books were practically non-existent. Yet from as early as I can remember I was drawn to storytelling, and was fascinated by the power of written words. When I was nine I wrote what I naively imagined to be a novel, not that I had much idea of what a novel was supposed to be. I wrote it in a reporter’s notebook somebody gave me, using different coloured felt-tip pens. I knew that books had divisions called chapters but was clueless as to how long they should be, so I made every page a new chapter. What I laughingly refer to as the plot had a bunch of schoolkids, plus their faithful dog, foiling an alien invasion. Even then I was drawn to fanciful stories. Needless to say this “novel” was so bad that if aliens really did invade they could be repelled by reading it to them.
I wrote for fanzines, and published several, when I was a teenager and into my twenties. When I became a bookseller, during which time I managed several specialist sf shops, it was really to be near books, and publishing and, hopefully, writers, in order to learn about the trade. Busy as I was working in those stores, I still wrote whenever I could. I finally got to the point where I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do, and took the plunge. I knew enough about the business by then to realise that it’s difficult to make a living as an author, so I did lots of journalism while I was learning to write prose, and supplemented my income by reading the slush piles for various publishers and literary agents. I took any paid writing work I could get – in-house magazines for companies, mail order brochures, advertising copy, even the wording on the back of cereal and soap powder boxes (somebody has to write that stuff). Eventually I began to break into authorship; projects like film and TV tie-ins and quiz books at first, then books I originated myself. I’ve made a living as a writer one way or another ever since deciding to give it a go, through feast and famine. Usually the latter.
As far as that nature or nurture thing’s concerned, the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t know where my fondness for stories and writing originated. On the face of it I shouldn’t have taken that route at all, given where I came from. I was kind of a cuckoo in the nest in that respect. Because it seems to me that very few people are born with an innate talent – for writing, art, music or anything else. Some are, of course, and I’ve met one or two who seemed to have an inbuilt facility for some form of creativity, but it’s incredibly rare. I think it’s more likely that people are born with, or develop early on, a predilection for a particular kind of expression and learn how to cultivate it. As a journalist I’ve interviewed lots of people from all walks of life, and a not uncommon reaction when asking them about the source of their creativity is that they don’t want to go into it too deeply. Professional comedians, for instance, are frequently loathe to explore the radioactive core of what makes them funny, maybe because they’re afraid that if they do they’ll lose it. I have some sympathy with that.
Why do you love orcs?
I don’t know that it’s a case of loving orcs so much as a tendency to empathise with outsiders. There are times in most people’s lives when they feel different, odd or even outcasts. That’s especially true of our teenage years, which can be turbulent as we try to find a place in the world. I think that’s one of the reasons the Harry Potter books were so successful. What alienated young person wouldn’t love to find out that they were unique in some way, and invited to become members of a secret elite commanding remarkable powers? It’s classic wish fulfillment. In my experience many writers feel like outsiders, maybe even mildly sociopathic, given that they tend to live in their heads and create their own realities. We have an affinity with the marginalised, with those on the edges. An identification with the “other” was one of the things I wanted to explore in my Orcs series.
My starting point in those books was that the orcs had been misrepresented – they had a bad press, you might say – in the way that here in the so-called real world perceived enemies are demonised prior to attacking them. The orcs I depict are savage and relentless, they live to fight, but they’re not actually evil. One of the tasks I set myself was to make these supposedly heartless characters sympathetic.
What’s your favorite piece of your work?
Whatever I’m currently writing, or thinking about writing next. I find that quite a chunk of time has to pass before I can look at anything I’ve written objectively. Occasionally I’ll come across some forgotten piece and think, “Hmm, that’s not too bad”, but basically I’m too self-critical to make the sort of judgement a reader might apply to my work. There’s a danger that if you become too self-congratulatory you get complacent and start to think you can’t improve. Writing is very much a layers of the onion thing; you spend your whole life learning the craft and will probably never get to completely master it. You’re in trouble if you believe you ever have. All you can hope for is an acceptable level of competence and professionalism.
I’m quite a competitive person, but not in the way you might assume. I’ve no problem with other writers’ level of expertise or the success some achieve – anyone who even finishes a book gets a million points from me. I’m competitive with myself. In the sense that I try to make whatever I’m working on better than anything I’ve done before, if only in small ways. As a self-employed person I’ve never had a more unreasonable, slave-driving boss.
What’s your favorite piece of someone else’s work?
There’s far too much to list here, and if I tried I’d worry about who I’d left out. But I’ll say a couple of things about this. The first has become something of a cliché, but cliché is just another word for truism so I’ll say it anyway: if you want to be a writer you must read. A lot. That’s particularly important when you’re starting out, so you can see how other people do it and learn from them. Second, although science fiction, fantasy and to some extent supernatural fiction are my passions, and what I almost exclusively write, I read fairly widely outside those genres. Apart from a general interest in the whole spectrum of literature, I think it’s important to have a grasp of what’s going on overall. Simply put, if you read nothing but, say, science fiction, you only have other science fiction to judge it against. I try to maintain a broader outlook. Three, and this will contradict my first point to some extent, I don’t read very much fiction at all when I’m writing my own. Because a) it can be a distraction; b) there’s the fear of unconscious plagiarism (I stress unconscious); and b) there’s always the risk of reading someone so good that your own efforts seem feeble by comparison!
What’s your biggest hope for orcs in media?
If you mean my own orcs, well, there’s been interest from a couple of movie companies in the past but it never came to anything. Some of my other books have been looked at by movie and TV producers too – I do write books that aren’t about orcs, you know – and they fizzled out as well. This is quite common for authors – books get optioned, your hopes are raised and eventually the deal falls through for one reason or another, usually a lack of finance. So I no longer get too excited if there’s an approach, and I tend not to mention it publicly. I’m certainly not holding my breath.
If you mean orcs in general, then I guess they already have a presence in media; there are a hell of a lot of books featuring them now and, of course, they’re a staple in gaming. It’d be nice to see a film or TV series that presented them in a similar way to mine though.
A big thank you once again to Stan for joining us. And thank you to everyone who joined the festivities, readers and creatoes alike. This was a lot of fun and I fully intend to do it again next year. Happy Halloween and happy Orctober!