James Lovegrove is the author of several acclaimed novels for adults and children, including The Clouded World series and various books for reluctant readers. In the past few months his debut novel in the Redlaw series has appeared from Solaris, publishers of his Pantheon Age of… sequence, recently added to with Age of Aztec and the eBook Age of Anansi…
You’ve got at least two separate series running at the moment – do you go between working on Redlaw and the next Pantheon book, or do you work on one project until it’s complete and then move on?
I’m very much a one-thing-at-a-time person. I can’t multitask at all, so it’s each novel as it comes, start at the beginning and keep going until it’s done. I do break off now and then to write short stories, reviews or other bits of journalism, but otherwise I keep my head down and plod on to the end.
Looking at the Pantheon series first, what prompted the initial stories?
Basically, George Mann at Solaris asked me to pitch an idea for an alternate-history novel for them. This was back in 2007, before the imprint was taken over by its present owners, Rebellion, who also take care of the Mighty Tharg and his output. I sent George three ideas, and the one he chose, which happened to be the one I liked the most, was called Hieroglyph and posited a world where the ancient Egyptian gods not only exist but are in charge. I’d had a hankering to write a military-SF novel, and the two things – gods and soldiers – seemed a good fit together. An incongruous match, but original, I thought, and potentially very exciting. So that’s the origin story for the Pantheon series.
The Age Of Ra was received well and Solaris, by now in the throes of handover, requested more. There were plenty more pantheons available so I selected my favourite, the Greek one, and went from there.
Did you have an interest in mythology growing up?
I studied Classics to A-level standard, and have always enjoyed the mythical side of those subjects. As a kid I really enjoyed reading about Greek myths, and cherish the memory of a sumptuously illustrated edition I had of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, in which he retells several of the primary stories. I was also quite fond of the Marvel Comics Lee/Kirby interpretation of Thor, although I’ll admit he wasn’t my favourite Marvel superhero (I preferred the oddball, obscure ones like Shang-Chi, Luke Cage, Moon Knight and Killraven).
In essence, myths are terrific stories that can be retold and reinterpreted from age to age. They are metaphors, campfire tales, action adventures, and sometimes just crazy poetry. They’re never dull, especially when superhuman heroes and monsters are involved, and once ingested, they stay with you and never leave.
You say on your website that you thought it would be just a Pantheon Trilogy. What prompted the change?
I could be crass and say, “Money.” However, the truth is that ideas kept coming to me after the initial three novels, and each seemed too much fun not to do. I try and make each Pantheon novel as different from its predecessors as I can, and part of the creative process is developing a workable thriller plot from the elements already extant in the mythology. Every time, the nature of a pantheon and its interrelationships informs the writing of the book, and I derive great authorial satisfaction from reworking the myths to suit my purposes and developing ways of interleaving a story about gods with a story about men in such a manner that each complements the other and neither is compromised by the other.
With the series of e-novellas that I’m doing to accompany the release of each new Age Of… book, the aim is to explore the nature of divinity even further and move away from straight military-SF into stranger, less easily classified fields. Age Of Anansi, for instance, the first of the e-novellas, focuses on trickster gods and is, if anything, a dark comedy.
And have you approached the new novels (Aztec / Voodoo) differently from the initial three?
For starters, having tackled what I regard as the three main pantheons – Egyptian, Greek, Norse – I’m not able to rely on readers’ familiarity with the pre-existing material as much as before. So with Aztec and Voodoo, I’m having to explain a little more as I go, and I’m also taking a more oblique approach.
You could say that the next three Pantheon novels will be easily distinguishable from the first three. On a superficial level this will be apparent from the lack of definite article and head-god name in the titles (The Age Of Quetzalcoatl was pooh-poohed by the marketing department as a usable title, and rightly so, because it’s far to ungainly and unpronounceable). But I’m also taking the books into new territory by dealing as much with the religion and the worshippers of the gods as the gods themselves. So now we’re concentrating somewhat more on the human element than on the divine.
Can you say what the third book of the new Pantheon trilogy will be?
Not yet, because I don’t know. I’m toying with either something to do with the Hindu pantheon or the Celtic pantheon. The former might lend itself to a fun superhero-type saga. On the other hand, the latter would allow me to tackle Arthurian themes, perhaps, although I’m wary about it because the last thing I want to do is an airy-fairy, misty-Avalon effort.
What are the influences on the series – there’s a certain flavour to all of them, although they’re very discrete narratives.
The major influence in each instance is the mythology itself – the gods’ relationships, the stories that have accreted around them, the recurring motifs that figure most prominently. But other ancillary influences filter in. With Aztec, for instance, my love of superhero comics comes through, certainly in the early sections where the character of the Conquistador can be seen as a cross between Batman and V For Vendetta. And with Voodoo, I’m attempting a men-on-a-mission thriller, with a countdown to doom and everything, because I happen to have something of a sweet tooth for that particular subgenre.
The Age of Anansi has a very different feel: as I say in the review, there’s a definite “Roald Dahl Tale of the Unexpected” – or even a Twilight Zone – feel to the story. Why did you decide to adopt this for the novella?
A novella gives you room to experiment and change things around. It’s not a short story, it’s not a novel, it’s a halfway house somewhere in between where you can express an idea at reasonable length but also wrap it up in an involved and reasonably twisty narrative. I reckon readers allow you the liberty of going a little off-piste at novella length; they’re happy to invest the time it would take to read just a third of a full-length novel in something that isn’t quite what they might have expected but is rewarding nonetheless, in a different way. If I may use a dining metaphor, you like sushi for a light lunch or a snack, but not a full meal. The novella is literary sushi!
In the case of Anansi, the material – about tricksters, liars, storytellers – seemed to lend itself to a sharper, more humorous type of tale. The next e-novella, which may well be Age Of Satan, will be similar, I think. Come on, with a title like that, how can it not be?
Anansi also overlaps the various pantheons in a way that the previous books don’t (if I recall correctly – please correct me if I’m wrong!). Why did you decide to do that, and will that be the case in future novellas?
In Ra, other pantheons do feature, but only tangentially. With Anansi, I thought I would tackle a thematic motif among the various divine mythologies. There’s almost always a trickster god somewhere in every pantheon, so why not include them all (or as many as I could find)? It’s like Marvel’s Avengers or DC’s Justice League: all the big names, assembled under one roof. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that with Age Of Satan, though. It’s more likely to be a Dennis Wheatley pastiche, set in the 1970s, the last great era of Satanism. Expect acolytes in hooded robes and naked virgin sacrifices.
Will there be future novellas?
Yes, there will be, I think. I’m pretty sure Solaris want more. They’re selling okay. And if, some time in the near future, we have three of them in all, then it’s likely they’ll be put out in a single paperback omnibus edition, for people who don’t have e-readers (which includes me).
I suppose it is, in as much as I was very much aware of Von Däniken’s ideas when I was a kid and may even have read one of his books, or at least casually leafed through someone else’s copy. It was kind of thrilling to think that gods might have been astronauts, a theme also taken up in Jack Kirby’s Eternals series. At any rate, I thought so as a kid. Since then, Von Däniken has been pretty comprehensively debunked, but space gods is a good idea that’s never really gone away. Stargate uses it, doesn’t it? The movie did, for sure, although I can safely say I hated every second of that film.
The movie was not only boring but badly made. It fumbled a decent SF concept and it was one of those films where I was aware throughout that the director (Roland Emmerich, I believe, who went on to bigger and louder things) didn’t really have a clear grasp on the material. Kurt Russell, who I’ve normally got a lot of time for, looked embarrassed throughout, and the less said about Jaye Davidson’s performance, the better. At the end of the showing I went to, in Hammersmith, someone stood up and said, “Thank God that’s over!” and everyone else in the auditorium cheered in agreement.
Redlaw as a character has been kicking around in the back of my head since the early 1990s, when I and an artist friend, Adam Brockbank, were trying to sell a comicbook series about him. It didn’t quite come off – we were victims of the collapse of the Marvel UK imprint – but the concept of this religious vampire-hunting cop stayed with me, and in the intervening years morphed and hardened into something different. Finally, a couple of years ago, he seemed ready to re-emerge, and that was how Redlaw the novel came about. In addition, I’d been wanting to write a series based on a character rather than a concept, and he seemed the ideal vehicle.
I kept seeing Edward Woodward somewhere between his 1990 persona and The Equalizer in Redlaw – were either of these considerations?
Now that you mention it, there is something of Edward Woodward about him, isn’t there? If you factor in his character in The Wicker Man, the Christian virgin sacrificial victim, you’d have a pretty good mental image of John Redlaw. I think of him as a cross between Solomon Kane, [Die Hard’s] John McClane and Judge Dredd.
You seem to be a fan of the non-sparkly vampire – i.e. red in tooth and claw rather than suffering from great emotional turmoil for most of a book/film. Which vampire tales were most influential?
I’d have to go back to I Am Legend and ’Salem’s Lot. Those are the kind of vamps I prefer. Also 30 Days Of Night, the movie, not the comic. Proper, ugly vampires who are as much victim as villain, but seldom suffer from teen angst or existential crises.
Why did you prefer the movie to the comic?
It’s another case of a great concept mishandled. The movie made everything much clearer, and I admit it fumbled the core relationship between the Sheriff and his wife by giving them marriage “issues” instead of making them the tight conjugal unit they were in the book (much more original and satisfying), but it conveyed the animalistic motion and otherworldly horribleness of the vampires superbly, I thought. And Danny Huston was a brilliant baddie leader.
I don’t see why not. I’m not religious at all myself, but I thought it would be interesting – and a challenge – to come up with a heroic character who is. Redlaw is tormented by his faith but at the same time it’s a rock he leans on when in need. To me, there’s something reassuring about that, even enviable, although I know it’s not ever going to work for me personally. I don’t think one can disassociate vampires from Christianity. They hate crucifixes, for example, and Count Dracula himself is shown to be a damned Catholic in Stoker’s novel, an apostate, and he, as the ur-figure of the modern vampire mythos, cannot be overlooked or ignored.
Redlaw: Red Eye picks up pretty much where Redlaw left off, only Redlaw himself has become an outlaw, much like the vampires he used to police, and has to rediscover his role in life and his identity, now that he’s no longer working for SHADE (the Sunless Housing And Disclosure Executive). The book opens with him on the run from the authorities and relocating to America, where vampires are being victimised in a particularly brutal fashion. What develops from there is a cat-and-mouse game with the baddies, a group of well-armed military mercenaries, and points the way forward to the action of the third Redlaw novel, Redlaw: Red Sun, which I think is going to be set in Japan.