|Martin Scott Interview -
Conducted by John Berlyne
23rd November 2000
Glaswegian Martin Millar is the author of a number of mainstream novels including Lux the Poet, Ruby and the Stone Age Diet, The Good Fairies of New York, Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving and Love and Peace with Melody Paradise. His latest novel Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation is published by I.M.P. Fiction. He is also the author of a graphic novel, Lux and Alby Sign On and Save the Universe. Under the pseudonym of Martin Scott he has written four fantasy novels about a hard drinking private investigator "Thraxas". He is the winner of the the 2000 World Fantasy Award for best novel. Find out more about him and his work at his web site - www.martinmillar.com - JB
Growing up: Glasgow to London
"I left school and then left Glasgow and after a brief time moving round the country staying with friends I moved to south London. I've been here ever since really. Clapham Junction first and then over to Brixton and I've been around this area since then. Brixton used to be a place that you just ended up if you were poor - this was at the end of the seventies and it didn't have a shred of hipness about it then.
I was only young then - doing nothing really. I did write a book when I was at school - it wasn't published or anything but I did complete a whole manuscript so I got the urge [to be a writer] quite early. And when I was living in London with a girlfriend I wrote another two, though I never sent them away 'cos they weren't any good. That was maybe when I was twenty one or twenty three. The first one I wrote at school was a kind of science fantasy book but the two manuscripts I tried when I was a bit older where modern fiction.
When I was twenty six I wrote Alby which I liked so I pursued that and sent it away. I found an agent quite quickly but that took a while to get published.
I was doing all sorts of things to support myself - I was on the dole for quite a long time, casual laboring. It wasn't so great. I moved up after that. I was a library assistant at King's College in the Strand and my last job was a clerk for the GLC. I stopped working in 1988 after my second book was published so I've been writing full time since then. It's meant twelve years of not being very well off but I do like it better. There have been times when I've been broke when I've faced the prospect of going back to work without much enthusiasm I must admit but I prefer being self-employed like this."
Getting into Genre: "World creation is slightly harder to do..."
I was never particularly interested in writing fantasy but I was always quite comfortable with it. For instance some of the first books I read - after I'd moved on from Enid Blyton and "Biggles" - were stuff like Michael Moorcock's "The Eternal Champions" - thin fantasy books, far removed from the thousand page epics. I rather enjoyed them. I was a Conan fan, I liked Red Sonja and I've always liked "The Lord of the Rings". I'm not hugely well read in it but I did read more things like that when I was young. Anne McCaffrey. I don't count it as proper fantasy if there's no sorcerers in it really! My idea of fantasy is sorcerers and a dragon in the background! I think that's quite important.
I read Dashell Hammet and Raymond Chandler like millions of detective writers do - they must be a common starting ground for hundreds of people who write about detectives. They're both great writers. My original thought was that I'd like one of their characters in "The Lord of the Rings" - I though that would be a lot of fun to just put the character right in there with the elves and the hobbits and Mordor and suchlike."
"Of course I couldn't just do that - the Tolkein estate wouldn't like it for a start - but it seemed like an enjoyable mix. Writers intuition! World creation is slightly harder to do than my contemporary fiction. My other books tend to be set in south London so the background just comes automatically. But I read quite a lot of history and "Thraxas" is set in a kind of medieval/Roman world about which you don't have to be all that specific. It's not exactly a parallel Rome - it might be if I was a better historian! The political structure is similar and I've always been interested in Rome even from school. No particular reason.
Thraxas Origins: "the name has always sort of hung around"
MS: "I wrote the first "Thraxas" book after I'd finished another book maybe four years ago. It wasn't specifically done for money at the time rather I had time on my hands. But I did kind of put it away and do nothing with it. The book I wrote out in longhand in a notebook when I was at school in the pre-punk seventies, the character in that was called "Thraxas" - he wasn't an investigator, he was a sorcerer - and the name has always sort of hung around.
Classical Athens too but that seemed a little bit small - I needed quite a large, grimy city. Another thing was apart from the fun of putting an investigator into a kind of sword and sorcery world I like having a lot of Thraxas's world in slums and docks. It's not a particularly original idea but it is far removed from the kind of "great quest" sort of thing. There is the underworld feel too - the Brotherhood and the Society of Friends and the drug problem which is getting worse all the time, weakening the city. Thraxas himself is such a committed drinker that, of course, he doesn't realize that he's as much of an addict as everybody else. "Thaziz" and "dwa" are really my parallels for dope and heroin."
Thaxas Characters: Inhabitants of Turai
"Using established races does set up very conveniently for good guys/bad guys. One problem with Tolkein is that the good guys are too good and the bad guys are too bad. You couldn't really have an Orcish society which is just entirely savage. Once a society is advanced enough to be forging weapons then they'll be able to make some kind of art and sculpture if only for kings wanting to commemorate victories. There'd be some kind of ceremony leading to some kind of theatre probably. The inhabitants of Turai do just think that the Orcs are savages but they're probably mistaken. It does strike me though that people do tend to think of their opposing countries just as barbarians, even today. What did the Crusaders think of their enemies? They didn't look on them as human at all and Tolkein never wrote one positive thing about Orcs. But once a society evolves I don't think it can evolve in a way which doesn't have at least something positive about it."
Magic in Thaxas
"Magic in the "Thraxas" books is designed to be limited. I wanted to have magic around but I didn't want too much of it really. Thraxas is such a poor sorcerer - hardly a sorcerer at all in fact - the reason for that is that he can't remember enough. He doesn't have the mental capacity to hold the spells in his mind anyway. It seems to weight things to much in favor of the sorcerers is they can just use endless spells. If the magic was all-powerful you wouldn't need an investigator. Magicians in the books do work for the government and help with the security but it doesn't work perfectly for them. It depends of the conjunction of the moons. If they could do that sort of thing perfectly Thraxas would be out of a job!"
Thraxas the PI, Marlowe with Magic: "if there's one thing Philip Marlowe wouldn't do it was let down a client."
"Thraxas is a good investigator because he's dogged. He's got a few things in his favor - yes things against him too, his drinking and his bad temper - but he's good. He always gets flashes of inspiration and he doesn't give up on a case and he doesn't give up on a client. That is very inspired by Raymond Chandler - if there's one thing Philip Marlowe wouldn't do it was let down a client. That kind of redeems Thraxas - he might not be so nice in various other ways but in that way you can trust him. He's a good guy really but he's disillusioned. He does stick to his central tenet of not giving up on an investigation but he probably couldn't explain why he does that. But other than that he has really given up. He's worked for the city but didn't get much reward for it. He had a good job but got thrown out for drinking and he probably wasn't very good at political maneuvering. But he was good soldier - very good in fact. In fact in "The Elvish Isles" he tells a story to Makri about the largest tournament in the far west where all the best fighters go to compete for a large prize. He tells her that he's seen it, in fact that he entered it and she asks him how he did. "I won it," he tells her and that's probably true. One reason for that is that it keeps him alive. He's meant to have very good fighting skills. He's very bulky and over-weight now but he still fancies his chances against three hoodlums. That's kind of important to him."
Thraxas and his friends; Makri: "Some fantastic or dramatic thing will happen to her at some point as she's just that kind of person."
"She's full of contradictions. I don't have much desire to for deep explanations about her in the books but she is meant to be - well, super-human gives the wrong idea 'cos she's not - but she's top of the range, about as good a fighter as someone in the city can be. She's also young and passionate which Thraxas doesn't particularly understand. He likes her because she's helpful but he doesn't understand her particularly well. Though she's keen to get on at the university she's also tempted by the youthful good time and the drug culture. Makri will continue and I don't know how long I'll write Thraxas books for but if I get to write lots of them then she will have some sort of spectacular future ahead of her. Some fantastic or dramatic thing will happen to her at some point as she's just that kind of person."
And the rest of the crew - "they're kind of Brixton crusties really"
"There's Gurd [the innkeeper at the Avenging Axe] and Tanrose [the cook], and there's Palax and Kaby the buskers who I'll probably make more of sometime. They're hanging around and haven't done much yet but I like to have them around - they're kind of Brixton crusties really, but as traveling musicians I figured that was Ok! I've got several villains which I'll probably have trouble killing off. There's Glixius and Sarin the Merciless, a woman I like with short hair and a crossbow. And Captain Rallee, Thraxas's old friend from the army - I like the idea that Thraxas and him used to be close but they've grown apart now. Because the city is going to hell, crime spiraling and drugs flooding in, Captain Rallee is close to defeat as well. He's kept his looks and his hair though, which Thraxas comments on. It's nice to have these characters which can have their own stories or at least can intrude on the investigations by getting in Thraxas's way."
On being Edited: "Wasn't that person dead by then?"
"Orbit have the books that go to the copy editor from hell - which is good really! In a work of literary fiction a few inconsistencies here and there don't seem to matter very much but in a detective novel you really can't have them. In all four manuscripts which I turned out as carefully as I could, the copy editor has come back and said "What about that? He was there that day!" or "Wasn't that person dead by then?" - so that has been rather more of a problem than it has been with all my other books."
How long should a book be?
"The first one came out like it is (60,000 words) and that seemed like a good length and a good idea. It would be strange now to turn in one twice the length. It could be sustained but I've found the best length - it's best to get in and out of it at that speed I think. I'm writing in the present tense too and it might be a problem sustaining that. I liked that tense for the kind of film noir connotations and the American gangsters. It can be wearing reading things written in the present tense but it seems to work. In the "Thraxas" books there's no purple prose, no descriptions of architecture or landscape or anything really except briefly. Pulp fiction writers used to do that and the books came out more or less like that. In all my writing from the start I've always found that you can make characters interesting in just a few strokes. It would be nice to be Dostoyevski or Jane Austin but it's something I wouldn't really be able to do so I don't attempt it"
Plotting: "It tends to go Wrong"
"There is a difference in writing "Thraxas" from my other writing in which I tend not to plot at all in advance - I just have the characters and an idea of they're going to do next. But with "Thraxas" I plot more thoroughly. I do find that my plotting is not fantastic. It does tend to go wrong. Books two, three and four have been reasonably well plotted in advance. I'll write a plot that may get me three quarters of the way through and I'll hit problems after that, though I do have an idea of what's going to happen. The first one was different. Chaotic. I had several widely variant plot lines from the first draft which I tried to combine and got in rather a mess with. It took me some time to sort that out. In fact it was after the chaos of the first one that I thought "I can't go through that again!"
Future plans: I'm sticking with "Thraxas."
"I'm writing a fifth "Thraxas" novel now. I won't explain the reason for this - it comes about by accident - but in this one Thraxas sort of accidentally ends up in a minor official position which he really doesn't like. So he'll probably be oppressed by that for a little while. In the longer term, depending on how many I get to write, he'll keep on investigating, but meanwhile the city will get more and more degenerate. The West will start to crumble and they'll have trouble from a huge invasion of Orcs from the East. I don't know how many books that will take. As far as genre writing goes, I'm sticking with "Thraxas.""
World Fantasy Award: "I'm still surprised!"
"I've never won an award before so I was very pleased. I've never even come near to winning an award. I was very surprised to get on the shortlist - I'm still surprised! And yeah, I was amazed and delighted to win it. It will make a difference to sales and probably to foreign publishers buying them. There have been some foreign sales already - to Holland and Poland but they were pre- the award. Since the award I've sold to Turkey and though there's no separate US edition, Orbit are now starting to export more copies over there. Also when the fifth one comes out Orbit will probably do new covers saying "Winner of the World Fantasy Award" - which is great! Ha! I'm real pleased to win an award. I think it'll draw me into the genre world a little more too. I'm thinking of attending Eastercon next year which I wouldn't have done before.