Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Lowdown with... Toby Venables

Toby Venables is a writer, editor and lecturer in Film Studies at Anglia Ruskin University. His historical-horror-zombie-mashup novel The Viking Dead was published by Abaddon in 2011, and was followed in 2013 by Knight of Shadows, the first of the Hunter of Sherwood series in which Guy of Gisburne is the hero and Robin Hood a psychopath. The second volume, The Red Hand, was published in 2014 with the final book in the trilogy – Hood – due for publication in late 2016. He occasionally appears at conferences and conventions to talk about zombies, or medieval things, or both. He Tweets here.

1. Tell us three things about yourself.

- I'm also a screenwriter, and have had one commissioned screenplay - a heist story.
- I once turned down dinner with Cate Blanchett.
- There's a sword and a longbow in my wardrobe (not the only medieval accoutrements about the place, but the ones I like to keep handy).

2. What was the first thing you had published? 
I've worked for years as a journalist, so have published a lot – mostly interview features with a diverse range of people, some of whom are personal heroes (Ray Harryhausen, Bill Bailey, Chuck Palahniuk, Ray Davies...). In terms of fiction, though, the big breakthrough for me was The Viking Dead, which was published as part of Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead series. I had actually pitched a completely different idea for their steampunk series but didn't get the gig, then heard they were looking for standalone zombie tales. At the time, I had been doing a lot of research into Vikings (as you do) and the two elements clicked together in my head. Vikings. Zombies. Vikings seemed to me to be remarkably well-equipped to deal with a zombie problem, lacking as they do our slightly crazy attachment to mass-produced consumer goods and with a self-reliance which we would clearly need to rediscover if the brains ever hit the fan. I later discovered they also had zombies of sorts, in the shape of the draugar. If you don't know about them, get Googling...

3. Which piece of writing are you proudest of? 

In the first Guy of Gisburne novel - Knight of Shadows - there is a flashback to the Battle of Hattin in 1187. This was the 9/11 event of its day, at which the Christian armies in the Holy Land were annihilated by Saladin, who completely outmanoeuvred them. It was the first decisive blow in his campaign to take back Jerusalem and the event that precipitated the Third Crusade, taking Richard from his newly acquired kingdom (England) for years – with all that this implied. I had both Gisburne and Robert of Locksley (AKA Hood) fighting side by side at this desperate battle. The description of it drew on Arab eyewitness accounts – even quoting them in parts. I was very happy with how it came together. Beyond that, my proudest achievement is a totally ludicrous moment in The Viking Dead in which Viking fire ships crash into a harbour and unleash their cargo of flaming zombie wolves.

4. …and which makes you cringe? 

There are a few things that make me wince, though not too seriously. That's more to do with the need to let the stuff go than any notion of uniform excellence, however... We all have lapses of judgement and some of them get into print, but you just can't dwell on them. Take it on the chin. Move on. Do better next time. The one thing that really gets to me, however, is not a piece of writing so much as a nerdy detail that I got wrong. A lot of historical and social research goes into the novels, and while many outlandish things happen, I strive to make the settings as real as possible, with all the sights, sounds, smells. As much as possible, I want things to feel as hard won as they would have at the time. In The Red Hand, however, I had Guy of Gisburne in Jerusalem and then back in England a month later. It worked for the drama and so far only one person has picked me up on it, but such a journey would have been impossible in so short a time in the 12th century. Nothing to be done – unless I can cook up some fiendish explanation in the next book! [UPDATE: Toby now informs me that the impossible journey has in fact turned out to be possible after all!]

5. What’s a normal writing day like? 

I wish I knew... There is never a normal day – more often, it's a plate-spinning exercise, during which I am desperately trying to balance the various 'jobs' I do: editing a Peterborough lifestyle and entertainment magazine, lecturing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge (on film, journalism and screenwriting) and writing books and screenplays. Somehow, this works out, but it amazes me I have any hair left. Sometimes, days go by without any writing, which is bad; big writing projects gather momentum, and it's hard to re-establish that when it's lost.

6. Which piece of writing should someone who’s never read you before pick up first? 

Probably the first book, The Viking Dead. That's where it all starts. The Gisburne books have no supernatural or fantasy elements – it's all 'possible' – but if you like the historical elements of The Viking Dead, then you'll like Gisburne – and if you love the horror, you'll certainly like some of the things I have lined up next. The Gisburne books actually do have a distinct streak of horror in them, albeit more real-world stuff. Knight of Shadows has a minor character who is straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

7. What are you working on now? 

There are two things in the frame. The final book in the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy (AKA the Guy of Gisburne novels) is being written right now. It's called simply Hood and deals with the final confrontation between Hood and Gisburne. It's going to be a pretty bloody affair, with some big battles (including the siege of Nottingham Castle by the returning King Richard, which actually happened) and some rather shocking losses. That will be finished by winter 2016. After that, I'm returning to horror and zombies for a bit with a big, late-Victorian apocalyptic adventure set in London. It starts out as an entirely accurate and detailed depiction of London in the 1880s, focusing on a kindly doctor who has a very unusual problem locked away in his cellar. Then all hell breaks loose, and London is destroyed in an orgy of Wellsian undead steampunkery. It's called Zombie & Son.

Hood is available for pre-order here.

1 comment:

Toby Venables said...

As a post script to this... I mentioned in the interview a slip-up in the last Gisburne book with regard to the timing of a character's journey from the Holy Land (actually Tancred, not Gisburne himself, who does the journey in a speedy but more reasonable 56 days). Well, that was bugging me, so I looked into historical precedents – and it turns out that it IS possible to make the journey to the Holy Land in a month. It would require good travel conditions, but it could be done.

The most unpredictable part of the journey is the sea voyage from the Holy Land to Europe. This could take weeks, but there are some examples of it being much faster. The Icelandic monk Nikulas Bergson, for example, sailed from Brindisi to Acre in 14 days. 13th century traveler Ramon Llull is said to have sailed further – from Alexandra to Barcelona – in just 14 days. The prize so far goes to an account by Pliny the Elder, who talks of a journey from Messina to Alexandria taking just six days. So, with luck and a fair wind, it could be done - and in the final book of the trilogy, Gisburne gets to speculate about the kind of luck that made Tancred's swift journey possible.