The first question I'd like to start with would be what attracts you to writing fantasy? When I was a boy, fantasy and science fiction were my drugs of choice for escaping my circumstances. School was a prison guarded by teacher-wardens, home was troubled, and the rest of the country was engaged in a low-intensity civil war; bombs and constant shootings, religious fanatics, extremely ugly sectarianism. Violence and fear was the atmosphere I most remember from those years. I was a pretty sensitive kid, and I felt like I had been dropped there from another world. As an alien, a stranger in a strange land, I naturally turned to stories that allowed me to escape from the planet. I sought out everything I could in the genre, every medium. In secondary school, I made it through an entire term just by stealing and devouring every aging, neglected Stainless Steel Rat book they had in the school library, which seemed apt to me at the time, and still does, considering the nature of the books' protagonist - a troubled loner teen, who becomes an outlaw living outside of society's norms. Somehow I was soothed by possessing these books that were like companions.
As a writer, the attractions of fantasy are more varied: having no limits on where your imagination can take you, save for your own tastes on realism and world-crafting; turning these imaginings into something visceral and compelling and alive for the reader to fall into; the potential to set up clichés of genre in order to subvert them; and the traditional focus of fantasy on adventure, thrills and wonder.
The Heart of the World is a series in which the central protagonists are not Kings and Princes vying to conquer the realm, or magically chosen heroes set on a quest to save the world, but rather characters who have fallen into extraordinary lives and now find themselves with their backs against the wall. Violence has real consequences and the imagined world reflects much of our own. Realism is paramount, though as a writer I've combined this with my boyish love for smart adventure stories which grip you fast and don’t let go.
The setting for the Heart of the World is more a pseudo-historical model than a mythical fantasy one. Anarchists clash with tyrants and class exists as a real and ever-changing dynamic. Revolutions are not uncommon - in fact they've become increasingly more common over the last century due to the example set by the Free Ports - and they are as bloody and unpredictable as all real-life revolutions. A form of gunpowder is prevalent, as is the technology for flight. Economies compete against each other. Propaganda sells the people lies.
In terms of geopolitics, an empire has taken over most of the known world: the Holy Empire of Mann, lead by a nihilistic, fiercely hierarchical cult which worships only the divine flesh - the self and the self's most animal desires. The whole world, it believes, should be cast in its own image through the use of force and coercion – invasions, sponsored coups and counter-coups, economic embargoes, the control of information. All other ideologies and ways of living are considered an affront to its self-evident truths. All nations, for their own good, must open up their resources and markets for its exploitation.
On the opposite side of the spectrum stands the League of Free Ports, a confederation of islands who follow the ideals of the democras - ‘people without rulers’ - a form of democracy which is openly hostile to the idea of rule. As imperfect as they might be, the Free Ports remain the only nation in the known world to remain free. The overall story arc of the Heart of the World follows their struggle to survive in a war against the berserker empire of Mann.
Can you tell me what films and books have inspired you?
That's a big question. Where would I even begin . . .
I guess I could start by thinking back to childhood again (I must be in a nostalgic mood these days). First to come to mind are the books like Gemmell's Legend and the ones I've already mentioned, Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, which I still adore even now (the early ones, not the dreadful, lazy later ones – I suspect that old Harry returned to the series solely to pay the bills). And then there are the films I used to watch in the early mornings before school with my younger brother, when my father would wake us up after getting home from his long, hard night shift at the local mill; he would put on some VCR movie he'd hired for us from the local rental shop, usually science fiction or fantasy or straight action - he knew as boys we wanted escapism and thrills and people getting shot at.
Later in secondary school I caught the new releases whenever I used to 'mitch off' for the day with a friend, and ride the bus down into Belfast to the city's double-screen cinema (a whole two screens!), where the queues snaked all the way around the block and everyone chattered in the sun as though they were on holiday – it was always sunny on those days. As a young teenager in otherwise grim circumstances, movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark made huge and lasting impressions on my troubled mind. I was transported into their virtual worlds with something approaching a religious experience, and I didn't much like leaving them – so I didn't. I slowly turned to writing escapism myself.
Dune was another world-shaking shock to my system as a teenager. At that point I hadn't read much science fiction that had been written like epic fantasy. What a story, I thought. What a setting. Even now I consider it to be one the finest science fiction novels ever writtten.
Getting older, I naturally became something of a film lover. Tastes mature and broaden as you get older, hopefully, but I never lost that passion for clever and spirited adventure stories. I discovered over the years that any film scripted by William Goldman was going to be something special. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, they all blew me away. Goldman is a genius for structure and character, and he always does it it with immense heart and charm.
With books, I matured into writers like Philip K Dick (what a mind, what a madness), Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, and many other monstrously talented bastards who made it all look so easy when I was first starting out with any seriousness. I didn't pick up much of a taste for non-genre literature, which I found stuffy and rigid in comparison, especially the British stuff that we were always forced to read in school and college. Not until I came across writers like Charles Bukowski, Cormac McCarthy, Kerouac - writers with real nerve, writers who could turn the people and events of gritty life into something mythical, legendary.
Much later, as an adult, it was the new golden age in television dramas that fired me up. Dramas like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica: high quality dramas that had space enough to be structured like novels, with acting and scripts better than most serious films on the big screen.
These days, as a fantasy writer constantly writing fiction, I tend to mainly read books that are non-fiction. What now inspires me most are things in the real world. I think the world has fast become a more riveting, insane place than much of the fiction now out there.
Who has been your favourite character to write so far?
Ash, by a very long way. He comes, of course, from a love of Kurosawa’s samurai movies, and old Zen stories about those lunatic monks of China and Japan.
Ash is a contemplative man of action. His spirit is a free and playful one even as he remains haunted by what he has left behind him – he's a revolutionary exile, a black farlander in a land not his own, sixty-two years of age and dying. Ash is a character who I can have fun with, wild adventures with, while maintaining depth and meaning.
And finally, what’s next for the series?
The third book, which I'm frantically working on now :). Book three is the climax to what the first two books of the series have been leading up to. Most of the characters find themselves in or around the besieged city of Bar-Khos, and the story follows the battle for the city and the fate of its people. The story also expands on the world we've seen so far. Ash, along with Serese and Aleas, travels through the Great Hush and eventually to the mythical Isles of Sky, in a race to save both Ash's dead apprentice and the Free Ports. Unlike most quests however, the ending, I hope, should be a great surprise to the reader. Beyond that though, into book four, I should say no more . . .
Col Buchanan was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1973. In school he was the quiet dreamer who always sought out the back of the classroom. Later, in stretches of work as a copywriter, he would be the quiet dreamer who always sought out the back of the office. In recent years he has mostly settled down, and loves nothing more than a late-night gathering around a fire with good friends. Click here for his website, which has recently been redesigned and we think looks pretty cool: