Big 4 Interview: Sean McMullen
Bec Stafford interviews Sean McMullen about his new fantasy series written in collaboration with Paul Collins.
Sean, you’ve recently collaborated with Paul Collins on a new 6-part fantasy series, The Warlock’s Child. The first two books (The Burning Sea and Dragonfall Mountain) have now been released and are enjoying a very positive reception. (Book 1 has, in fact, already gone into its second reprint). What was it like co-writing with Paul and what can you tell us about this tale of dragons, magic, and deception?
Paul and I have worked together before, so we have our collaborative roles, strengths and weaknesses pretty well sorted out. I helped Paul with the tech for a young adult story called Deathlight a while back, and after this was published, he started to expand it into a series. Because his publishing company is going really well, he ran out of writing time about a third of the way through. That’s why I was brought in. The language had to be easily accessible to an older child/young adult readership, but I have written for this age group before.
I decided that we needed to plan out a stronger series arc. Dragons are always popular, and Paul had Marc McBride lined up to do the covers. Marc does wonderful dragons, and I had some dragon themes that I’ve wanted to work on, so dragons became the driving force behind the plot.
Dantar, the fourteen year old cabin boy at the centre of things, presented a problem. He was just a cabin boy, and we needed the view from the top as well as the riff-raff’s PoV. I expanded the role of Dantar’s older sister, Velza, rather massively. Velza is an officer on his ship, and she gets to mingle with the leaders, so we see the big picture through her. I rather like Velza, because while she is brave and accomplished, she is also very insecure and highly approval-conscious. Heroes with weaknesses are way better heroes.
The story’s basis is that humans can only ever use one type of the four magics – earth, air, fire or water. Dragons can use all four, and they don’t want humans to become as powerful as themselves. While the dragons are immortal, they have become sterile, which is a big concern for any dragon. Now a human warlock has discovered the cure for dragon infertility, and he wants to trade this secret for power over all four magics. He is even willing to kill his son Dantar (the warlock’s child of the title), to get this power. Dantar is less than enthusiastic about being the raw materials for dad’s experiments, so he goes on the run in Book 2.
Two editions of your ebook collections, Ghosts of Engines Past (featuring steampunk stories), and Colours of the Soul (your recent science fiction and fantasy work) have been released through ReAnimus Press and Amazon.com. What do you enjoy about short fiction, and which is your favourite genre to write in: steampunk, science fiction, or straight fantasy?
Short stories are the motorcycles of literature, they allow me to dash in quickly and do some really exciting things, while the reader hangs on and hopes I don’t crash. They have intensity rather than complexity, but they are a definite challenge when fitting in character development characters and creating a plausible background. Novels are more like container ships, not as exciting but able to carry way more. I am currently about two months off finishing a steampunk novel, which may turn out to be a container ship that handles like a motorcycle.
Steampunk is my favourite genre, although I consider it to be a mixture fantasy and science fiction. The Victorian era backdrop that steampunk uses is easily as romantic as medieval fantasy, but you can also use electricity, steam engines, computers and telegraphs. Even better, a lot of people tried to establish a scientific basis for the occult and magic during the Nineteenth Century, so steampunk can have magic as well.
When writing steampunk, I enjoy the challenge of keeping the technology feasible for the period. In Ninety Thousand Horses I had a rocket powered train that can travel faster than sound, so the setting had to be 1899 – when liquid oxygen was commercially available. That said, Ninety Thousand Horses also needed a strong romantic theme. I based that part on Verdi’s La Traviata story of love, tragedy, revenge and assorted highly charged emotions. It won the Analog readers’ poll, so I seem to have got the balance right.
On your website, your fans can listen to a series of audio tales which you personally read. Hearing our favourite authors read their own stories is always a real treat. Do you enjoy reading your work? Which of your own favourite writers would you like to hear reading their works and why?
I love reading my work, it’s like being able to write more detail into the text without adding more words. I have a professional background in acting and singing, and have had training as an actor. That’s very important when doing audio recordings because readings are as hard to get right as songs – if not harder. It’s not uncommon to hear an author admit to buying a nice piece of audio kit to do readings of their own work, being horrified when they hear themselves reading, then putting the recording unit straight onto eBay. It’s a skill that needs a lot of work and practise, there is no doubt about that.
Neil Gaiman is easily the best reader among the authors I know. He has it all – breath control, characterisation, intonation and great material to read. I am particularly fond of Owls, his take on the Seventeenth Century antiquarian John Aubry. At his best, Douglas Adams was just as good. His reading at Melbourne University was magical, nobody did Marvin the Paranoid Android as well as Adams himself. Unfortunately, his commercial readings don’t come across as well; they sound as if they were recorded one sentence at a time.
In general, actors do a far better job with readings than authors; so, I prefer readings by actors. Tony Robinson, Peter O’Toole, Boris Karloff, Nigel Planer and Sean Connery and among my favourites. You may have noticed that there are no women among all those actors and authors named, and that they are all British. That is because I am probably (subconsciously) looking for examples of readings that I can learn from to improve my own reading technique. After all, I have a deep voice and I do a reasonably convincing British accent. I used to think I sounded Australian, but people kept asking me how long I’ve been out here, and whether I went to Oxford or Cambridge.
“Burns Brightest” could have various meanings, so I’ll make two attempts. The bad-boy wastrel John Glasken is certainly a favourite with many readers, and he does loom exceedingly large in the Greatwinter novels. He is a mixture of all sorts of people I knew from my university/rock band/folk music/party-all-night-and-try-to-sleep-at-work years. My attitude to him is similar to the way Rowan Atkinson feels about Mr Bean: a wonderful piece of character creation, but if he arrived to take your daughter on a date you would slam the door in his face.
My personal favourite is Zarvora, the dragon black chief librarian who invents the human powered computer, the Calculor, in Souls in the Great Machine. She is a bit like Terry Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari, a strong, ruthless leader who gets results and does not suffer fools gladly – yet she does get it wrong occasionally.
I have a great fondness for characters who are flawed but brilliant. If asked which character I wish I had created, it would definitely be the Sherlock Holmes from the Sherlock TV series. I shall be doing some more work on the fourth Greatwinter book later this year. It is set two hundred years after Eyes of the Calculor, so Zarvora is no more, but there is another chief librarian continuing the tradition of being brilliant, dedicated, flawed, focused, and just a little short of temper.