In the world of literature, the realm of fantasy has the remarkable ability to transport readers to far-off lands, uncharted territories, and unexplored dimensions. Award-winning author Richard Harland has been a maestro of this journey, guiding readers through his imaginative worlds with an enchanting storytelling prowess that defies the conventions of genre. With a career spanning diverse realms of speculative fiction, from the intricacies of science fantasy to the macabre realms of horror, Harland has made an indelible mark on the international literary scene.
As we prepare to delve into his forthcoming work, “Ferren and the Angel,” we had the privilege to sit down with Richard Harland to discuss his unique background as a writer, his creative process, and the themes that continually resonate with him as a storyteller. In this exclusive interview, we explore his world-building techniques, his experiences in captivating a global readership, and his sage advice for aspiring authors. Join us as we venture deep into the creative mind of an author who has masterfully blurred the lines between genres, leaving an indomitable mark on the literary landscape.
But First, Who is Richard Harland?
Richard Harland was born in Yorkshire, England, and later migrated to Australia at the age of twenty-one. He always aspired to write but faced difficulties completing the stories he embarked upon. Instead, he pursued a meandering path as a singer, songwriter, and poet. Later, he transitioned to a career as a university tutor and eventually became a university lecturer. After enduring twenty-five years of writer’s block, he finally accomplished his dream of completing his first book, the cult horror novel, “The Vicar of Morbing Vyle.”
Once he secured a contract with a major publisher, he made the life-altering decision to resign from his lectureship, allowing him to fulfill his original dream of becoming a full-time writer of speculative fiction. Since then, he has seen seventeen novels published, spanning the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, catering to audiences of adults, young adults, and children.
Among his significant accomplishments is the international success of his young adult steampunk novels, “Worldshaker,” “Liberator,” and “Song of the Slums.” These books were published by leading publishers in the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and Simon & Schuster in the US. Notably, the French translation of “Worldshaker,” known as “Le Worldshaker” was honored with the prestigious Prix Tam-tam du Livre Jeunesse. Harland has garnered six Aurealis Awards, the Australian Shadows Award, and the A. Bertram Chandler Award.
He currently resides south of Sydney, Australia, nestled between a lush escarpment and a series of golden beaches. His household includes his partner Aileen and Yogi, the labrador. For Harland, it’s all about writing, writing, and more writing, as he endeavors to make up for the productive years lost during his earlier writer’s block phase.
Richard Harland’s Books
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer? What initially drew you to the world of storytelling?
I was always a storyteller, making up stories around the games we played as kids. Then, when I was about fourteen, I entered a big short story competition with a very different sort of fiction, full of symbols and stream of consciousness and all sorts of arty-fartiness – and won! But my story only came out of my reading, where I’d jumped ahead of other kids my age. It was clever and impressive, but it was totally fake. And winning that prize was a DISASTER for me! Because it gave me the idea this was the sort of avant-garde, literary writer I ought to become and could become.
I paid the price when I tried to write more literary fiction, and ended up with writer’s block. Twenty-five years of it! I couldn’t finish a single novel or story I started. I still have a wardrobe full of unfinished manuscripts.
Eventually, I went back to the sort of writing that came naturally to me, creating imaginative worlds and exciting stories. But it was too late. Writer’s block had taken hold, and I bogged down every time.
But there’s a happy ending because I never gave up, and after twenty-five years of frustration, I actually started and finished a whole novel. The Vicar of Morbing Vyle came out from a small press and turned into a cult. I’ve never looked back since! With seventeen novels published, international success, and prizes, I’m living the dream! And, best of all, it feels like a blessing just to be able to finish every novel I begin. I’ve never bogged down again!
2. You’ve had a diverse writing career, with works spanning fantasy, science fiction, and horror. How do you navigate between these different genres?
I’m not sure I write actually in any genre! The Dark Edge and its sequels are more science fantasy than science fiction, and they crossover between SFF and murder mystery. My horror novels, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade are black comedy as much as horror, grotesque and macabre, very bizarre. Worldshaker and its sequels are steampunk, so neither exactly SF nor fantasy, and the backstory to my steampunk world diverges from our own as a form of Alternate History.
Ferren and the Angel – well, I call it fantasy, because that’s its mood and feeling. But it could also be called SF, because it’s set in a far future and has an SF-ish backstory – when human scientists broke through the boundary between life and death, revived the consciousness of a dead subject, and learned that the subject had been to Heaven and lived among the angels! Leading to the greatest news sensation ever, the development of psychonauts, and the outbreak of war between Heaven and Earth. That’s where the SF premise shifts into full-on fantasy.
At the time of Ferren and the Angel, we’re a thousand years into the future – where everything has gone backward because of the endless war. So the setting is also post-apocalyptic and dystopian, with Ferren’s tribe and other tribes surviving in primitive conditions in a state of ignorance and degradation. Only ruins remain from a previous civilization, about which the tribe has distorted, ancestral memories and myths. The landscapes that Ferren explores when in exile are often surrealistic.
As for the supernatural war, I call that fantasy, but a very non-standard sort of fantasy. Ferren becomes gradually more involved in it, due to his friendship with the damaged angel, Miriael, and his own natural curiosity. We not only encounter other angels but go up to Heaven with Miriael in her visionary dreams …
Then there are the Humen, the new rulers of the Earth, and their military Camp is industrial in a steampunk kind of way. Grimy, smoky, with very strange machines (I can’t reveal how they work without giving too much away!)
Did I mention there’s a strand of satirical comedy running through the book as well? But it’s all part and parcel of the same world and story – everything fits together when you read it, I promise. It’s only the genre labels that look all over the place, the book makes perfect sense!
3. You have a significant international following. How does it feel to have your work appreciated by readers from different parts of the world?
I love it! I love the fact that fantasy can work for everyone everywhere. You’re creating new societies and ways of living, so you don’t depend on the reader to fill out scenes from their own experience. OK, I’ll take that back, you do depend on the reader filling out scenes from their own experiences – but the most basic, small-grain experiences, not tied down to growing up in a particular place and time.
When I talked to young readers of Worldshaker at the big French bookfair of Montreuil, it was as though we were talking the same language. (Metaphorically – my French isn’t that crash hot!) They related to my exotic steampunk world exactly the same as any Anglo reader.
4. Your novel “Ferren and the Angel” is set to be released in November 2023. Could you give us a glimpse into what inspired this particular story and the creative process behind it?
Maybe it sounds corny, but it came from a dream. I was peering out from under some sort of covering, watching eerie light effects in the night sky, listening to terrifying sounds – and I just knew, the way you know things in dreams, that this was the great battle going on between Heaven and Earth. Then one particular light came hurtling down, almost on top of me, with a long, wailing cry. I didn’t know it in the dream, but I thought it when I woke up: that must have been an angel falling to the earth. The dream-scene became the opening pages of the novel, and the whole history and geography of “The Ferren Trilogy” grew from there.
Where did the dream come from? I’m sure I hadn’t been reading or watching anything even remotely about angels. But who knows where dreams come from anyway? I got into reading about angels afterward, when I realized I’d been gifted the start of a novel – then I read and read and read. It was the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done.
5. “Ferren and the Angel” explores themes like friendship and curiosity. Are there specific themes that consistently resonate with you as a writer?
Hmm … easier for other people to say, maybe. I’m just absorbed in the story and following it through where it wants to go. Themes emerge through the characters and story. I never set out to write with a theme in mind, so it’s mostly an unconscious thing for me.
But I do have personal inclinations, and they keep coming out, of course, they do. I can only write experiences I feel strongly about myself, so I guess that has to be a window into my soul! I’ll try and step back and take an outside view …
OK, one experience that often comes into my books is the need for shelter. I think I’m a bit of an agoraphobe – I can never go to sleep on a beach, for example. So there’s Ferren and his tribe hiding under their blanket at the start, even though Ferren dares to peer out; then there’s the night when Ferren is cast out by his tribe and runs this way and that across the open plain under the unearthly terrifying lights and sounds of the war in the sky; finally, there’s the ultimate battle between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth when Ferren and Miriael help the tribe convert the empty ruined Swimming Pool into a covered shelter to protect them from the violent psychic and supernatural forces flying around.
Another theme would be respect and reverence. Ferren feels an instinctive awe in the presence of an angel (once he’s overcome his fear), Miriael feels an instinctive awe when visited by the great archangel Uriel. On the other side, the human scientists of a thousand years ago showed no respect or reverence when their psychonauts began exploring and trampling across the fields of the First Altitude of Heaven. The present-day footsoldiers of the Humen army, called Hypers, are irreverence personified, with their harsh, jeering attitude towards everyone and everything. When two Hypers encounter Miriael, one of them wants to stamp on her wings just because she’s such a ‘pretty-pretty’.
6. Can you discuss the process of developing and world-building in “Ferren and the Angel”? How did you balance creating an imaginative, post-apocalyptic setting with the need for reader engagement?
I love the second part of your question! Yes, I enjoy world-building, and advanced reviews have been saying nice things about my world-building in Ferren and the Angel. Like most of my novels, the world-building for the Ferren Trilogy lasted for many, many years, gradually accumulating and developing a vast history and geography. But what inspired it all was that dream-gifted opening I described in answering question 4. So when I felt I was ready to begin writing, all the world-creating sank into the background, and I went back to my original starting-point of a particular character in a particular situation, and his particular experience and emotions as he watched the battle in the sky, then sees the angel come hurtling down. My starting-point was always the start of a story.
That saved me, without even having to think about it, from the world-builders curse – having so much world at the front of your mind that you just want to tell all about it from the get-go. Which isn’t what engages a reader! By the very nature of my starting-point, I took on the classic strategy of otherworld fantasy – starting from one very small corner of the total world. We can relate to Ferren, feeling what we’d feel as human beings, since he is a human being, unlike the angels in Heaven or artificially created Humen who dominate the Earth. He’s the opposite of all-powerful and all-knowing – he’s very small and insignificant and helpless in the middle of all the great cosmic doings that play out, literally, over his head. Because of the way Ferren’s positioned, we work our way into his world very gradually.
I suppose that’s one way to describe the story of the novel: a marginalized individual becoming gradually less marginal, less helpless. Gaining knowledge too – in the dream that started me off, I/Ferren didn’t really understand the war going on between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth. He gains knowledge very slowly all the way through the book – again, a classic strategy for a fantasy writer, to let the reader explore and discover the world as the protagonist does. In Ferren’s case, the exploration and (shocking) discovery is especially motivated by his wish to find out what happened to his sister when she was taken away for so-called military service.
7. What was the most challenging or rewarding part of writing “Ferren and the Angel”?
I think the most challenging thing was creating an impression of Heaven, when Miriael dreams her way back up there. I started imagining all sorts of grandeur and magnificence, but somehow it didn’t have the right feeling. The most important quality wasn’t magnificence, I decided, but serenity, a much quieter quality. So that’s where it became personal – what scenes gave me a feeling of serenity? And I discovered that I find very simple scenes the most peaceful and calming. Gardens, fountains, green lawns, birdsong … and that clicked with an image of Heaven that already existed in a painting I’d seen years ago in Belgium, the famous Ghent Altarpiece by a medieval painter, Van Eyck . Funny how things come back to you! Van Eyck’s version of Heaven wasn’t in any way fine or grand, but simple and serene and beautiful, like an ideal version of a medieval town with gardens.
There’ll be other Altitudes and regions of Heaven to appear in the next two books of the trilogy, so I’ll be looking to create different impressions. The simplicity of the region Miriael visits goes with the fact that these are familiar, nostalgic scenes from her past. But even if I develop a sense of magnificence for the higher Altitudes. I still want to maintain that sense of perfect serenity.
8. What are some of the most rewarding aspects of being an author?
For me, there are two best things about being an author. One is when ordinary readers get back to me and ask, Are you going to do a sequel? They want more because they’ve liked what they read so much! And there’s just the wonderful feeling that a world that only existed in own imagination has gone across into someone else’s imagination. They’re living it too!
The other best thing is the best part of the writing process, when I’ve set everything up right and the later stages of the story just unfold all on their own. It’s exhilarating, like being on a toboggan and hanging on for the ride. Not a sense of speed because I’m never a fast writer, but a sense of being totally caught up and gliding effortlessly downhill. Sometimes I find myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror wondering whether I’m about to clean my teeth or I’ve already done it!
9. Could you tell us about your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or habits that help you stay productive and creative?
Habit, habit, habit. One technique that helped me overcome my twenty-five years of writer’s block was to set up very strict and regular habits for myself. Writing every day of the year except birthdays and Xmas, writing from straight after breakfast until half past one – I know I’m going to do it, so I don’t have to fight myself about doing it. Not the most romantic image of the author’s life, but a lot of writers will tell you it works! You don’t wait to feel inspired, you just trust that inspiration will come once you start writing. And it does! Sooner or later, it always does!
Another thing I do is what I call ‘pre-filming.’ After writing through the morning, I do jobs around the house, then sometime in the afternoon I relax into a sort of vague, unfocused sort of state and start picturing the episode I’m going to write tomorrow. Like a movie! I think of it as if I’m there, how it’ll look and sound and unfold. But I don’t write it down, it’s just a better version among a hundred other possible versions.
Instead of trying to fix it and clarify it, I let sleep do the job for me. That’s the real trick! I go to bed with all that pre-filming floating around in my head, and the unconscious mind goes to work on it. The not-so-good possibilities are shorn away, and what’s left when I wake up in the morning is the episode as it has to be, the single definite movie! It’s not my imagination anymore, it’s as if it really happened. All I have to do is record it.
I don’t know if any other writer does that – I suspect not. Me and my weird visual imagination …
10. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, particularly those looking to write in the fantasy genre, based on your experiences in writing and publishing your work?
My first piece of advice would be, to enjoy the writing process for its own sake – and especially the toboggan glide! You’ll have to do promoting and marketing work, which is hard going with fantasy – you don’t have the obvious real life hooks that appeal to journalists and media people. And fame and success goes down as well as up. You surely don’t want to be pinning all your hopes on becoming a multi-millionaire through writing! But if the stories you have to tell drive you on, and you love building fantasy worlds for their own sake, that’s all you need. Go for it!
Listen to other people too, and their reactions and advice. I think of storytelling as a collaborative thing – it needs the reader’s imagination, you make the novel between the both of you. But don’t listen to any single other person. Everyone carries their own individual baggage, and their baggage may get in the way of appreciating your book. But if a lot of people come back with the same reaction, that’s when you pay attention!
True, you do have to pay attention when a single publisher’s editor finds a problem. Then you need to find a way of rewriting that’ll keep your editor happy while also completely believing in it yourself. You need to feel the improvement in your story when you revise or rewrite. In my experience, that usually means bigger changes than you’re being asked for. Even the most practiced editors never seem to realize how you can’t alter one small element without disturbing a whole lot of other elements – especially in a highly interdependent fantasy world. But look on the bright side: every rethinking is also an opportunity for doing something even better!
We extend our heartfelt thanks to Richard Harland for sharing his creative journey and insights. Your dedication to storytelling is an inspiration, and we eagerly anticipate the release of “Ferren and the Angel” and your future literary endeavors. Thank you for granting us a glimpse into your world of imagination.