AW’s own Peter McLean kindly consented to an interview. McLean’s fourth novel, Priest of Bones will released by Ace on October 2,2018. Priest of Bones is the first of McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series; the second novel, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019. I’ll definitely be checking it out, but in the meantime, McLean’s previously published urban fantasy Burned Man trilogy (Angry Robot) is a great way to spend time waiting for the next book in the War for the Rose Throne series.
Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had been studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with martial arts and practical magic. He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and spent 25 years working in corporate IT. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.
What’s your elevator pitch for Priest of Bones?
It’s The Godfather meets Peaky Blinders, with Swords.
Did you have a playlist for Priest of Bones?
Oh yes, I always write to music and it’s always stuff I know so well I don’t have to listen to it, just feel it throbbing away in the background. Priest of Bones was written almost entirely to a steady stream of the marvelous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with various 80s heavy rock albums.
Every main character get’s their own theme music, in my head — Tomas Piety’s theme tune is Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, which is also the title music to Peaky Blinders. Bloody Anne’s is “It’s My Life” by Wendy O Williams, and Ailsa enters to “Sanctified” by Nine Inch Nails. Billy the Boy gets “Dio’s Evil Eyes”, and Jochan’s is “Reckless Life” by Guns n’ Roses.
Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Priest of Bones? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?
I’m largely an outliner so I usually know where the story is going overall, but all my stuff grows arms and legs while I’m writing it so there’s always something to discover on the journey. I’d never planned for Billy to develop as quickly as he does, and had envisaged Old Kurt being his “wise old mentor” figure. Turns out Billy wasn’t having that, and I wasn’t going to argue with him!
Priest of Bones is the first in the War for the Rose Throne series. Did you set out to write a series, or did it evolve into one?
I originally wrote an outline for a single book, but by the time I’d drafted the first fifty thousand or so words and was still on the first paragraph of my synopsis I realised it was going to be half a million words or something ridiculous if I didn’t break it down into multiple books.
I’m mostly a plotter but still partly a discovery writer. I always have the main plot points outlined, and I sometimes even write the very end first, but as I said my stuff always evolves in the writing process and ends up twice as long as I think it’s going to be — and it still always gets longer in edits. I may write a stand-alone novel one day, but this is not that day.
The second instalment, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019
What’s your writing process like?
Chaotic. I’m not one of those rigorous “write x number of words every day” people, my head just doesn’t work like that. I’m absolutely a binge writer, and as I work a day job those binges are usually Friday and Saturday nights, often going to 3 or 4am if I’m in the groove. I’m naturally nocturnal, I’m sure I am, and I’m never much use creatively in the mornings so I take the opportunity when I can get it.
I’ll start with a rough idea for a setting or a character, sometimes both at once if I’m lucky, and just doodle a few thousand words to see if I like it. If I do, I’ll decide how the story wants to end and write that bit, or at least the last few lines to set the closing tone, then outline my way from beginning to end.
Once I start actually writing it’s start to end in chronological order, with no jumping about, and I absolutely do edit as I go despite what everyone says about that – it just works for me. Each writing session starts with tidying up the previous session’s work then blasting out a new chunk, which can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words at a go. I’ll also go days without writing anything at all, but if I get a neat idea for a line or a scene I’ll jot it down somewhere and slot it into the outline next time I sit down at the computer.
One thing with me: once it’s written it happened. I very rarely go back and fundamentally change something, so sometimes the plot goes a bit off piste and when that happens I’ll adjust the outline to fit the story rather than the other way around. The upshot of that and the continuous editing is that once my first draft it done (three to four months for a 100k novel) it’s pretty clean. I don’t do re-writes or multiple drafts. Once it’s done I’ll park it for a few days, then print it out and do a pen-and-paper edit, make the changes, read it through once more and it’s good to go to my agent.
What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I’m really lucky with this – we only have a small house, but the previous owner had the garage converted into a self-contained annex and that is now my office. It’s the place I can sit and write until the early hours and blast my music as loud as I like without my wife wanting to murder me!
Tools wise I’m very straightforward – it’s MS Word, and that’s it. Publishing runs on Word and Word comments and Word track changes, and trying to use anything else just feels like making life hard for yourself, to me. All I ever need is Word and a web browser and connection, and I’m good. My PC is an ancient, on-its-last-legs Windows 7 box that I flat refuse to upgrade because it just works, but I have a high-end keyboard and monitor as those are the only parts of the system I really interact with.
You have created a rich multi-cultural world with multiple religions. Any particular suggestions about world building?
Oh boy, I can geek on about this for hours! The key thing for me is making it all work as a consistent whole. You can have magic in your world, sure, although I don’t personally like to have too much of that, but I still need a fantasy world to actually work properly. You can’t put a city in the middle of the desert, for example, without me immediately wondering where their food and water comes from. You can’t have Irish nobles wearing silk without evidence of international trade, which means foreign traders and the resulting ethnic diversity that they bring. If you have gunpowder weapons, which in Priest of Bones I have, then you need a sufficient level of industry to manufacture the cannon, which means foundries, which means mining, and so on and so forth.
I really don’t like settings that feel like a stage set, where there’s nothing there that the characters aren’t going to interact with. There are things in Priest of Bones like the Temple of the Harvest Maiden on Trader’s Row which is just there because it is, because there’s more than one religion in the world because of course there is, because there would be. In the same way there are black and brown people and children and gay people and old people and disabled people in Ellinburg because of course there are, because why wouldn’t there be?
I absolutely obsess about this stuff if I’m reading anything other than pure mythology, so I went to a lot of trouble to get as much of it right as I could. I’m no historian so I’m sure there are things I’ve missed or got wrong, but I certainly tried to make my setting feel like a real, living country rather than a stage set.
What inspired Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, the deity your hero Tomas Piety serves as Priest? (For those who have not yet had a chance to read Priest of Bones, Tomas has this to say of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows:
Our Lady doesn’t help. Not ever. She doesn’t answer prayers or grant boons or give a man anything at all however hard he might pray for it. The best you can hope for from her is that she doesn’t take your life today. Maybe tomorrow, aye, but not today. That’s as good as it gets, and the rest is up to you.
I build the worship of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows around Tomas’s character. He’s not a particularly religious man by nature, so I had to come up with a faith that he could actually get behind. Some reviewers so far have referred to Our Lady as the Goddess of Soldiers, but she isn’t that. She’s worshipped by soldiers, yes, but really Our Lady is the Goddess of Death. As Tomas also says:
Us conscripts don’t want glory or honour. We just want to not die today. That’s what Our Lady offered, if you were lucky and you fought your balls off.
Worshipping of Our Lady is basically appeasing Death, so She doesn’t take your life today. Soldiers have always been a superstitious lot and Tomas has always had to make his own way in the world, and that’s sort of what I was going for here – the idea that there’s no help in this world, you own your destiny and you can make of your life what you will if you just fight hard enough for it, so long as She doesn’t take your life today. So you offer up a prayer to Our Lady, and go out and take it for yourself. I think that’s exactly the sort of religion that would appeal to a man like Tomas Piety.
What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?
Oh wow, there’s been so much brilliant fantasy out in the last year or two and so much of it from new authors. Big favourites of mine have been the Empires of Dust novels by Anna Smith Spark, The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, and also Blackwing and Ravencry by Ed McDonald.
They’re two incredibly different series, but both absolutely marvellous. Smith Spark’s work reads like real mythology, powerful prose designed to be read aloud, while McDonald’s are gritty, noir, magical post-apocalyptic thrillers. I’m currently reading RJ Barker’s Assassins trilogy and enjoying that a great deal as well.
There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.
Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
I’m not honestly a big fan of books about writing. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and thought it was a fantastic autobiography, but his method and mine are so wildly different that I found I didn’t really agree with him about almost anything on the subject of craft. What he does obviously works brilliantly for him, but it wouldn’t work at all for me. My head just isn’t made the same way his is, and that’s fine. I think a mistake a lot of beginning writers make is thinking that there’s one right way to do this, and there just isn’t. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.
Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?
I think I’ve already been asked just about everything that I’d be prepared to answer in public by this point! I did a speaking engagement in a prison once, and some of their questions were really quite extraordinary: have I ever been in prison? No. Am I a real gangster? No. Have I ever hurt anyone on purpose? Yes. Did I win the fight? Yes.
What’s your favorite charity?
Cancer Research UK. I lost my mother to cancer a long time ago, and my wife has had it twice and been successfully treated both times. Those people are literally helping to save lives.
You can find reviews of Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones at Publishers Weekly and at Fantasy Book Review. Peter McLean has a Website, and you can find him on Facebook. You can buy Priest of Bones and Peter McLean’s other books at online retailers including Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and Apple, as well as your local independent book store.