Bec Stafford interviews DM Cornish:
Friday, September 3rd, 2010 4:30pm. Hilton Hotel, South Wharf, Melbourne.
D.M. Cornish was born early enough to have witnessed the very first Star Wars film and, full of the glee of such a wondrous spectacle, has been making up secondary worlds ever since. When his publisher – for whom he was at the time illustrating picture books – discovered one of his many his notebooks containing his thoughts and ponderings on his own creation – the Half-Continent – he was quickly set the task of turning said notes into a story. This he promptly did and the result was the Monster Blood Tattoo series: Foundling (2006), Lamplighter (2008) and to be released in October this year Factotum (2010). He as also contributed a shorter tale (“The Corsers’ Hinge”) to the most excellent Legends of Australian Fantasy, edited by Jack Dann & Jonathan Strahan.
At this year’s AussieCon4, I was lucky enough to have a chat with the multi-talented, engaging, and all-round nice guy, DM Cornish. Those of you who’ve read his amazing Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy or been blown away by his phenomenal art work will no doubt be curious about what inspires DM and how he became the creative powerhouse he is today. Read on and wonder no more…
BEC: The art on your website’s amazing. You’ve got this incredibly striking illustrative work and then you’ve done impressive commercial stuff, too. Your background’s in commercial art initially, right?
DMC: Correct. I trained as an illustrator at university. Drawing’s always been the thing. ‘Oh, David’s good at drawing’. For me it was quite natural, though not very well thought-out… When I was getting towards finishing year 12… When people would ask ‘oh, what university course are you going to do?’, I’d think ‘I don’t know!’… So my parents stuck one of those books in front of me… One of those course guides. And I thought ‘Oh, illustration! There’s drawing involved, so I’ll put that at number one’. My Dad’s an art teacher. My parents were really encouraging about that. It was always ‘whatever you find your hand to do, as long as it’s not wrong, go to it.’
DMC: It’s funny. My Mum plays with language. She plays with people’s names all the time. So I think I’ve picked up a certain playfulness from her. Dad’s very much more technical. He’s often trying to encourage me to do more technical things. So, Lego was definitely an expression of my creativity… making Lego. And he would say ‘make things with gears and cranes and stuff.’ And I’d want to make space ships.
BEC: Ah – It was always speculative fiction, from early on!
DMC: Star Wars! It was that whole thing. I wanted to do that… And the thing that was always driving me, and still drives me now, is this idea of ‘why’? So I’ve made a spaceship. But why? What’s its setting? What’s its context? It’s got these kinds of devices on it. But why? And Dad taught me a lot about perspective and tricks to drawing. Deliberately, but casually. It wasn’t ‘ok- I’m going to sit you down and teach you things’, but in the process of hanging out together and him showing me things, by the time I got to uni I already knew how to do perspective.
BEC: What was school like?
DMC: Ohhh, I was the pariah in school. You know? The outcast. The bullied one.
BEC: Oh, I’m beginning to think that happens to creative people in general.
DMC: Exactly. I’m just part of that tradition. So that gives me credibility, I hope. It was only when I got to uni that people around me started growing up enough, and I grew up enough, to realise that I can be liked. And that was important. That was when the whole Half-Continent really began – at uni.
BEC: So there was a combination of a lot of support at home and the bullying at school. Then, in the midst of that, you always had your art to escape into… It sounds like it was a bit of a rollercoaster you had to weather. But your family was your rock?
DMC: Somewhat. Home life wasn’t amazing either, as for many people. Parents are human and go through their own crap. I don’t think you can make something like the Half-Continent and not have a list of issues as long as your arm. You know what I mean? It comes from real pain and it comes from me learning, really early, that I could escape to my own head, my own right brain, my own inventions. It’s the usual thing. They were safe and I had control over them. I wouldn’t deliberately work things out. I wouldn’t get the bully and beat them up. I followed archetypes, because humans naturally do that, it seems. So this ability to tell a story… and the Lego… and the drawing… and playing with plastic soldiers… and that sort of thing, came from early on. I’d be in my room a lot, making stuff up.
BEC: As a teen, too?
DMC: I was a little more outward in high school, fellow students were a little kinder. Hallelujah! In primary school, our school was just down the street; whereas, in high school, we were catching trains into the city and back out, and suddenly ‘here’s the whole wide world’. It was at this time that I saw Lord of the Rings for sale in an ABC shop off Rundle Mall.
BEC: About what year was that?
DMC: About 1985.
BEC: It seems to me that it’s a very significant moment in spec fic fans’ lives when they discover Tolkien.
DMC: Some people, I’m sure, would sneer and scoff and say that they think Tolkien’s overrated and that kind of stuff. But I think they’re the kind of people who came to it at the wrong time in life. Maybe they came to him 2nd or 3rd or 4th, after they’ve read all these people who were deeply influenced by him but sort of did lesser versions of what he’s done. Yes, I think it’s powerfully significant. I think it’s the source of the modern… not of the genre… but of the desire and the realization that there is more.
Ah, and I’m reading it at 12, thinking ‘this is the book that should’ve always been written!’ I’d always hoped that a book like that existed and was thrilled when I actually discovered it.
I was looking for that stuff, even from primary school: Fighting Fantasy books, those Steve Jackson books where you roll dice to choose your own adventure, or those old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manuals, where you’ve got a random dungeon generator (which is to help the GM make up a map but you can use it, as a player). I was always looking for something more; role playing’s fine and I always think the GMs are authors who should just stop GM-ing and start writing their damn book!
DMC: Kind of. I understand how painful it is, so I’m not someone who’d say ‘here’s some pain for you-go to it’. Hah. I am an author by accident, so it’s not like I can claim some great facet or character, like I’m some great paragon of diligence.
BEC: So what separates you from people who say they’ve always wanted to write but haven’t? What ingredient do you have?
DMC: Well, I guess I just started making up the Half-Continent as it’s now known. I struggled for years to try to find that area and what that would look like and what it would feel like…and the characters and what they would look like. Your conscience lets you know when you’re not heading in the right direction. When I read Lord of the Rings, it was like: here’s this astounding book and I want to do something just like it. It was so profound. It’s homage. It’s this possibility that’s opened up and I wanted to get into it as well. I wanted Middle Earth to keep going. And why do folks re-read Lord of the Rings – those that do? We know the plot already. Why then? To be in Middle Earth again. Transcendence is part of it, too. The idea that there is more. It isn’t just the banal, the drag, and the urban/suburban middle class. All this material privilege brings certain disconnectedness. It leads to a malaise. So we’re comfortable but the comfort reduces our courage, and so we don’t engage.
DMC: No passion, no.
BEC: Would you consider a graphic novel next?
DMC: Yes. Definitely. That’s one of the many things that I’m thinking are possible. I just need a moment to take a breath. And perhaps I need to do something not Half-Continent just for the moment.
BEC: What part do belief systems play in your world?
DMC: I think belief drives everything. They talk about the Descartes thing. I mean, I think he’s been taken out of context. What he was talking about… ‘I think, therefore I am’…What he’s saying there is, ‘I have thoughts. And they are a product of my being, there fore I must exist if only I have these doubts, these thoughts.’
BEC: When you’re not writing to a deadline, what are your ideal writing conditions?
DMC: I think knowing I have the room. If I feel squashed or the sense of, dare I say it, domestic constraint, it can be really limiting. Probably my most prolific time, other than the Monster Bloods, was in Sydney. There was a particularly intense period in 2002/2003 before I went on a crazy adventure overseas. I lived near Stanton library. On a Friday evening, when everyone else was going out for drinks, I’d be going home with an armful of books about military history or general history, and I went from 8 notebooks to 20 in 2 and a half years.
BEC: That’s a lot of notebooks! Lined or unlined?
DMC: Those were lined. When I went to the States, I discovered blank ones.
BEC: They’re freeing, aren’t they?
DMC: Totally! And my writing got a lot smaller. They are incredibly freeing, actually. So that’s what I use now, little A6 notebooks.
BEC: Who are your literary heroes?
DMC: Oh, Tolkien. T.A. Shippey… He is a brilliant writer who illuminated for me the soul of Tolkien’s process: not the details, the orcs and the elves and all that, but the soul driving them- the true engine of any idea. Kafka. E. R. Eddison. H.G. Wells. Ms Austen, definitely. I really wish I could write as well as she did.
BEC: I’m amazed when people diss her. It’s insane.
DMC: Yeah, and it’s easy too. It’s like people dissing Tolkien.
DMC: Genius is an apt word. Oh, and HP Lovecraft.
BEC: Ah Lovecraft, yes.
DMC: The quality of his writing’s amazing. I mean it’s purple prose. It’s a bit like Mervyn Peake, another person I would definitely say is one of my heroes. He’s the whole reason the Half-Continent exists. Reading Mervyn Peake made the seed that Lord of the Rings sowed germinate for me. Tolkien made me want to write the world. Mervyn Peake gave me the ability to make the world happen. I read Lord of the Rings and made my own map. I could tell that I wasn’t old enough to do what Tolkien had done. And then I read Mervyn Peake. And it was the third book. That was the thing that got me going.
That, and reading the Iliad and works like that, too. That really helps. And HP Lovecraft. The kind of over the top, formal, wonderful, colourful, poetic way that he writes, and the notion of these great, ancient creatures outside of existence waiting to come in and destroy us all. You only see glimpses of them. And it does not work when they try to make a film of it. It looks stupid because it’s all relying on not seeing. Oh, and the sense of the impending, just barely withheld doom. And these things science can’t explain. I think we get fed up with science always explaining everything away. It is said now that human emotion’s just a bunch of chemicals. I think part of it is expressed chemically but I think we look at it from the wrong end. It’s like the Ayn Rand thing of ‘if I can destroy a thing, I can control it’. If I’ve pulled it apart, I can control it.
DMC: No, it’s impossible. Because I’m doing it, I’m going to be in it.
BEC: The decisions you’ve made. The words you’ve chosen…
DMC: Yeah and it’s sub-conscious. I can’t help it. Jack Dann was talking, this afternoon, about how we write the story and all the under-carriages… The theme and all that sort of stuff is kind of accidental; it just all happens as a process of us writing the story. More than belief systems. More than all the things we assume. We bring things to the story without even trying – and without needing to try, really.
Never-the-less, as much as we might attempt to make a fantastic setting seem as real as it can possibly be, in the end they’ll still have 20th…21st century aspects. There’s still the sense of you not being able to escape who you are. I work really hard to make my characters seem like they’re in the worlds they’re in. But I can’t really, truly think like they do. I can’t think like an 18th Century person. It’s like a left brain/right brain/soul sort of thing. The soul is the languageless function of our selves.
DMC: It’s not even insistence. It’s a function of me being me, as is the Half-Continent a function of me being me. I quite naturally will see things and think ‘oh, that fits in the world’. I’ll hear a word… misread a word… misspell a word… whatever… and have to write it down. It’s like a butterfly. You’ve got to get it. The moment is there. Don’t lose the moment. Get it down. Move on. It’s a strange thing to be doing.
BEC: And a wonderful thing.
DMC: To be able to express it is a dream beyond my wildest.
BEC: How much of a dreamer are you? Do you daydream a lot and have to force yourself back to reality?
DMC: Ah, yeah. Depends on the time and what’s happening. But oh yeah… I can drive through a set of lights and go ‘uh-was that green or red?’ But I’m pretty present in the moment, normally.
BEC: Oh, on your website I saw the lush, lush edition of Monster Blood. Those 3 beautifully-bound editions. I bet people are desperate to get their hands on them!
DMC: Yeah, well the problem is that they’re limited edition. So, the idea was… well, there
were several ideas… I was a lucky boy with Omnibus, in that Dyan Blacklock really loved the ideas and was prepared to take me on. I mean, I’ve taken a hit to my royalty to be able to afford to make those books, but I believe, in doing that, that I could make the book an experience. You know? It’s actually, texturally, an experience. If you get really lucky, you might be able to find 1 and 2 of the Australia/New Zealand edition in hardback still around. Book 3 comes out in October. (Shows me a copy of 3. It’s lush, I’m telling you).
BEC: How beautiful!
DMC: The idea was to reward people who got in early with a special edition.
BEC: Well, they’re gorgeous. Congratulations. And thanks for being so generous with your time!
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