G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of The Year of the Knife (Meerkat Press), Heart of Winter (forthcoming from Meerkat Press), Call Your Steel (Azure Spider Publications), Apocrypha, and others. He is also a full-time freelance writer and has ghost-written more than 50 books on a wide variety of subjects, although of course he can’t tell you what any of them are. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. In those precious few moments when he isn’t writing or parenting, he enjoys watching cartoons, playing games, reading more books than should logically fit into a week and complaining about his diet.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Why? What have you heard?
Honestly, I am not that interesting. I am more or less a hermit. I spend my days nestled under a large pile of cats, emerging only to walk the dog, collect my kids from school and hiss at anyone who tries to talk to me. When the most exciting thing about someone is that they sit quietly in a room and make up stories, there aren’t going to be any fireworks.
Describe your version of the perfect day.
I wake up with nobody screaming. I eat something with bacon. I go for a long quiet walk with the dog. I return home to my colossal tower of unread books and have all the free time that I need to read them. My deadlines are all behind me. I do not have to worry about anything.
Alternatively, there is the other extreme where I wake up at the crack of dawn, sit down at the computer and churn out 10,000 words in a day and slump into bed with a brain like mashed cabbage but a satiated feeling sinking down to my bones.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
My earliest memory was when I was about four years old, when my father walked into a lamppost and I fell over from laughing so hard. My second earliest memory was being thrown off the computer where I was working on my novel because I was using words that five-year-olds are not meant to know, or at least repeat. In short, whatever terrible confluence of events made me into a writer happened before then.
Have there been any authors or books that have influenced you over the course of your writing career? Who and why?
A Wizard of Earthsea completely blew my mind when I was a kid. As a teenager depression kicked in and I got really into Lovecraft and Poppy Z Brite. As an adult, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana showed me just how much you can actually say through the medium of a fantasy novel.
Your novel, The Year of the Knife, was published in November 2017 by Meerkat Press. Can you tell us a tiny bit about the novel?
I am going to cheat and paste in the blurb here, because the book has a central mystery I am always very wary about accidentally spoiling anything,
Agent “Sully” Sullivan is one of the top cops in the Imperial Bureau of Investigation. A veteran witch of the British Empire who isn’t afraid to use her magical skills to crack a case. But Sully might need more than a good education and raw power to stop the string of grisly murders that have been springing up across the American Colonies. Every one of them marked by the same chilling calling card, a threat and a warning in the form of a legion of voices screaming out through the killers’ mouths: “It IS tHe YEAr oF the KNife.”
Can you share a short excerpt from the novel?
In the tunnel ahead, purple spellfire appeared, sputtering from someone’s fingertips, presumably the killer’s. Sully’s face split into a wicked grin and she dropped into a low stance. Her own magic flowed out smoothly. She twisted the flames of it with her fingers and traced jagged, glowing sigils that hung where she left them, drifting in slow orbits around her hands. The scent of ozone started to fill the air, the smell of the gathering storm overpowering even the stink of tar on the train tracks. The dust, which hung heavy in the air due to the constant disturbance from the passage of trains in adjoining tunnels, started to take on shapes of its own. Geometric patterns formed in the clouds around the two of them as they prepared their spells.
Sully was ready, but she held back for a moment. She wanted to see what she was up against. A sizzling green bolt burst out of the darkness toward her, some backwater hoodoo garbage that she wouldn’t have wasted the time of day on. She slapped it away with a half-formed shield and then returned fire: a sphere of ice that her opponent managed to dodge with a stumble. The spells were the only light in the tunnel, and she had to blink hard when her magic collided with a pillar and exploded in a shower of snowflakes and sparks.
Another green dart was cast at her. She ducked under it with a wild laugh, not even wasting the effort to deflect it, and returned to her feet close enough to see the man in the glow of the sparks trailing from his hands.
He was taller than her—but who wasn’t. He wore clean-cut clothes and appeared well-fed. Good, definitely not one of the homeless residents trying to defend their turf. She snapped her fingers and set off a series of small concussions in the air above him. He scrambled back from the din and clapped his hands to his ears in a vain attempt to protect his hearing.
Laughing now, Sully let a long, razor-thin coil of flame trail from her hand, then snapped it up to catch the next bolt he flung. The captured spell swung around her in an arc, charring a long curve into the concrete walls of the tunnel. She flicked it back toward him and watched the man’s glassy eyes follow the blaze of light. The green bolt hit him in the chest and his clothes started to disintegrate instantly. He frantically tugged at his coat, trying to get it off before the spell spread to his skin, but it was too late. Bruises blossomed across his newly-bared chest, and blisters rose to the surface in a horrid yellowed mass before popping in a shower of bloody fluids. He screamed and the magic in his hands vanished. Only Sully’s fire kept the tunnel lit as she stood and watched him die by inches, the flame of her whip coiling and lashing around her like a snake caught by the tail.
It was only after the man had collapsed onto the ground and was starting to decompose that Sully realized she was still laughing—although cackling might have been a better word. She stopped herself, feeling the build-up of adrenaline start to recede. She sat down on the side of the track and dug her cell phone out of her pocket, hoping for enough signal to call the office.
How do you best describe the genre?
I try not to at this point. It started off as a hardboiled detective novel, set in an alternate history where magic rather than technology rose to prominence. Magic, contemporary setting, probably going to get filed under Urban Fantasy. But the alternate history part also effects the plot. History is vastly different due to the existence of functional magic. The age of Empires never came to an end. What we think of as America is still, mostly, a part of a British Colony. The odd level of technology has also resulted in people calling the book “steampunky.”
Is there a particular character you identify with in your books? If so, who and why?
I am reluctant to admit to identifying with any of my characters because there is a lot of grey morality in my books, and even the heroes tend to be a bit… bad. I definitely identify with the anger that drives Sully in The Year of the Knife. The whole world has tried to step on her, and rather than being crushed it has just made her angrier. She takes every injustice that she sees personally.
What else have you written?
In addition to The Year of the Knife and its prequel Heart of Winter, a Lovecraftian Fantasy named Call Your Steel was published earlier this year. I have also published a book of my short stories and novellas, collected from magazines and anthologies over the years. It is called Apocrypha. Because I am bad at titles. Oh, I have also written a D&D inspired romance called Lovers and Liches which comes out in January.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer?
Ignore anyone who tells you that it isn’t a viable career path. I spent almost a decade working jobs I hated to support my “writing hobby” when I could have been doing what I loved the whole time. Also, read more, and read critically. Working as a critic did wonders for my ability to break down a story into its component parts, it taught me the rules of fiction so I could get to work strategically breaking them.
Please tell us about your writing process. Are you a planner or a pantser?
I used to be a devoted pantser, writing when inspiration struck and letting the story carry me wherever it would. Then I started writing full-time and realised that was a very good way to end up homeless. Now I outline my books down to the chapter level and let myself wander around within that structure.
What do you do to overcome writer’s block?
I recognise that a lot of what other people call writer’s block is just depression raising its ugly head. When I am miserable for no reason, I put whatever project I am working on down and switch to something productive that doesn’t require creativity. Once I get the sense of having accomplished something, I am usually ready to get back to writing. Obviously, this only works over long periods of time when I have enough leeway to catch up on deadlines. In the short-term I just remind myself that I like to eat, and that if I do not get paid then eating will also become imaginary.
Members often ask how to write a query letter. What advice can you offer?
Every agent and editor is an individual, which means that they will respond differently to different query letters, so no advice is going to be universal. I have a specific structure that I use for mine, where I outline the genre, setting, characters and the plot as succinctly as possible.
The important thing to remember is that the goal of a query letter is to get rejected as quickly as possible. The sooner they see the key words that tell them this book isn’t for them, the sooner you can get back to sending it out to the person who it is perfect for.
Where you can go to find out more about G D Penman and his works:
For an overview of my work I have a website www.gdpenman.com
For my incessant ramblings you are best to check out www.twitter.com/gdpenman
Although that is also mirrored to www.facebook.com/gdpenman
The Year of the Knife book page: www.meerkatpress.com/books/the-year-of-the-knife/