Interview: D.M. Cornish
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 08 March 2008
DMC: Certainly I am keen not to make the protagonist the ubiquitous, peerless, all-conquering hero; I want him or her to be more our access to the secondary world, one who struggles like I struggle, one who makes plausible (if also frustrating) mistakes like I do.
To describe MBT simply is to do it an injustice (if I may say this), but I shall try: It is a story about a child discovering the true nature of their wild world as they simultaneously discover the true nature of themselves, and in telling this it also becomes a story of one small part of the Half-Continent, which I see as a central -- even the central -- "character" in this tale and, Lord willing, in others to come.
SFRevu: The Half-Continent is a fascinating fantasy setting, with its mix of 18th-century technology, weird surgery, monsters (both natural and manmade) and alchemy. It's a world rich in detail and lushly imagined. How did you create this place, and were there any specific inspirations for it?
DMC: The process of invention for the Half-Continent was long and indeed it still goes on. It was not one moment; it has quite literally evolved, sprung originally from those first seeds sown by Star Wars (episodes 4 and 5 especially) at age 5 on, and then even more so by The Lord of the Rings at age 12. Star Wars had me creating my own worlds in play, LOTR had me realizing just the kind of scope I was really wanting in a pretend place. But, after a few copycat attempts in my early and mid-teens I realized I was too young, too immature to achieve the astounding vistas of a man 40+ years my senior. (Indeed, though some might disagree, I believe LOTR is untouchable.)
Later, during university, Mervyn Peake's tales of Gormenghast and particularly Titus Alone, with its lands beyond the castle walls, caused those seeds to germinate, and my initial thought was, "Would it not be great for a setting like Gormenghast to have a kind of depth and range like LOTR!"
A lofty conceit perhaps, but that is the truth, and so, influenced too by Frankenstein, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, Steppenwolf, The Iliad, the movie adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans (ooh, that scene of the ambush on the small column near the start of the film still gets me -- it is almost solely responsible for the inclusion of firelocks in the Half-Continent), even MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing, for the uninitiated -- a fine game) and so on, I began with one pretend city: Brandenbrass.
I moved to Sydney, did a whole lot of stuff to survive, and by 2000 with the world still intact and unharmed by Y2K (hmm, what a surprise …) was living near a library -- the North Sydney Library to be precise. What a goldmine! History books galore. Friday nights would see me walking home from work with an armful of books ready for a whole weekend reading. (I think you could safely say that I was, and do remain, a nerd.) It was these history texts that caused me to go from eight notebooks total from 1993 to the beginning of 2000 to 19 by the time I left Sydney in mid-2003. At this time I cite several works as having a profound influence on the forming of the Half-Continent: Our Language (Simeon Potter) -- for the sense of how language can flex and grow and connect; Nelson's Battles (Oliver Warner) -- for the whole naval vibe; The Road to Middle Earth (T.A. Shippey) -- for the insights into Tolkein's process and more on the flex and play of our most excellent language; Decisive Battles of the Western World (Maj. Gen. F.C. Fuller) -- for an initial sense of the movements and strange behaviours of peoples and races; The Worm Ouroboros (E.R. Eddison) … I could go on but here I will stop.
In all of this it must be said that Rossamünd's story did not exist. I did not begin his tale until asked to by my publisher (for whom I was working as an illustrator at the time) early in 2004. It was the setting for many stories I was working on, a functioning, internally consistent (I hope!) world in which lives could play out and be interesting just in being themselves, without the need for evil overlords or mystic, world-threatening objects or events.
SFRevu: The monsters come in many shapes and sizes. Were you drawing on Australian or maybe aboriginal folklore in creating them? In some ways, they remind me of beast-men archetypes common to Native American folklore.
DMC: Intuitively I would have to say I am; the sense of the Dreaming, of the connectivity of land and animal and people, of the watchfulness of the land, is an ever-present background theme in this country (if you care to stop and take it in). With this, and our own dark colonial history, comes the sense of things not being as they appear if you dare go beyond more than a shallow, un-inquiring glance. This idea runs deeper still for me -- the fixed point of view, the mindless acceptance of cultural norms -- but this conquered cultural inheritance definitely has its part to play. The fact that my ancestors beat upon another established people in order for me to live here is troubling and unsettling; how do I tackle with that? What best way can I respond?
Having read a little into some of the Dreaming stories, there are certainly a lot of fascinating beasties there. I think, too, characters like Bottom (A Midsummer's Night Dream), or balrogs and orcs, minotaurs and pixies and giants and silkies and oni and all that, are common "mental furniture" of almost every culture the world over. The beast-headed man-creature is universally compelling; I certainly find them so. If you want to meet the equally compelling gelatinous, mollusc beasties you have to go down in the vinegar oceans of the Half-Continent.
SFRevu: And (possibly a spoiler) it seems, in Lamplighter, that there is a great deal more to them than the people of the H-C suspect. Could they be underestimating the bogles? Freckle, for one, is exceptionally clever and seems to care for Rossamünd, while the Herdebog Trought's actions seemed uncommonly purposeful …
DMC: Ahh, now that would be telling, would it not? But you are right; things are not as folks of the Half-Continent assume and keep telling themselves.
SFRevu: Let's talk about the characters a bit. Who is Rossamünd Bookchild? He's very resourceful and brave in both Foundling and Lamplighter. How did you conceive of Rossamünd originally?
DMC: Well, back in the intermediate creation period (2000-2003), Rossamünd was a supporting character, a farmhand living and working far out west of Boschenberg, playing second fiddle to his cousin Eusibus; he even had parents. Then as now he had a girl's name, given him by parents fixated on the appellation regardless of the gender of the child. It was during a probing conversation with my publisher, Dyan Blacklock, that the question was asked, "What characters do you have?" to which I responded (amongst other answers), "There's Rossamünd; he's a boy with a girl's name …" Dyan leapt on this and the rest unfolded.
As I have said on my blog, those closest to me (my wife, my parents) will tell you that Rossamünd is me in many ways (though I would hazard I am not as sweet, resourceful nor brave -- all bits of wish fulfilment, I reckon). In some ways Foundling is a kind of expression of my own journey out into the wilds of life, my shift from Adelaide to Sydney; that Lamplighter is about my struggle to become a writer and so on and on -- let us not get too Freudian here.
I think more than anything I want a sheltered child plausibly coming to grips with tackling his own life on his own terms rather than the unflappable, steely-eyed soul who peoples so many other tales; that fellow has been done ad nauseam, time for other types to get the spotlight perhaps.
SFRevu: When you developed the story, did you create the enemy/antagonist characters first or did you create the hero, then give him opponents to test his mettle?
DMC: I think more than anything, I put Rossamünd down in the Half-Continent and let him go to it, exploring both him and the world with him. I am sure this is the incorrect technique, but I don't automatically conceive of the traditional protagonist/antagonist coupling; it is more like moving through the H-C will bring up challenges just because of the way that it is, and any character will have to overcome them to survive. In that sense one could almost see the land itself as the antagonist. I do not know if this is revealing too much, but I almost see these stories as explorations of interesting characters responding to a living, breathing setting from which a plot emerges.
SFRevu: And Europe, the Branden Rose -- was she always meant to be a major player, or did she "graduate" from being a minor but useful character to being pivotal? There seems to be a great deal about her left to be discovered. What can you tell us about her?
DMC: She most definitely graduated. At first the Branden Rose was simply a novelty -- "Oh look! It's a lahzar!" -- going to take Rossamünd with her for a bit to help him out and them move on, leaving our young fellow to take a now non-existent westward road straight to Winstermill. But she too quickly became too cool to dump so easily, besides which Rossamünd's own sense of right-doing would have him going to meet Mister Germanicus regardless of any shortcuts because that was the original plan.
Very recently I actually had a powerful insight into Europe's past, her long-time relationship with Licurius (a working partnership mostly, no crazy romance nonsense -- though the exact nature of the connexion was getting blurry) but to say more is to tell the story before it is told.
SFRevu: On your blog, you describe her more as a villain than a heroine. Can you tell us more about that?
DMC: She is the thoughtless monster-slayer, self-absorbed, haughty, unconcerned with others' suffering, unconcerned with social justice or right-doing. From Rossamünd's perspective she is nearly his entire opposite. It struck me not long before that blog entry that to him she was indeed the villain -- reforming maybe, but still a villain, especially with the small revelations of her character and Licurius with her in Book 3. I mean, she sparks him in the head just for getting in the way in Book 1 -- that does not seem terribly heroic to me.
The challenge with Europe is to have her allow Rossamünd (and the reader with him) more access to her without removing any of her "claws", without having her come over all motherly and deeply, weepingly changed by the honest child's love of a brave boy. (I am getting all choked up here.) How does one change, improve, yet still be themselves?
SFRevu: The supporting cast of the books is large and likely to grow even more. Do you have any favourites among the casts of Foundling or Lamplighter? Are there any spin-off stories you'd like to tell featuring any or all of them? I have to admit, I'm fond of several of them.
DMC: Favourites: Fouracres (with whom I penned the second-ever story about the H-C), Sallow (bumbling and uneasy and learning), Sebastipole, the entire watch of Wormstool, the Scarlet Tarquin, Dolours, Epitomë Bile, Saphine of the Maids of Malady, Swill, Doctor Crispus, Little Dog, the Herdebog Trought, Mister Carp (from Book 3) -- I reckon I could spin a story, long or short, about many of these. If collections of short stories sold, I would very much love to pen one telling of a moment in the lives of all of these.
SFRevu: The third MBT novel is being written now. Would you care to say anything about it?
DMC: Nope -- except that it will probably be somewhere between Book 1 and 2 in length, and that I am halfway into the story. … Oh, and that it is called Factotum, for now at least, and that I have just completed the map to go with it. So I guess then: Yes, I do have something to say -- but nothing "spoilery".
SFRevu: Let's talk about you for a moment. Were you a writer or an artist first? Did you go right into the creative world or did you (like many of us writers) spend time trying different careers and finding yourself?
DMC: I was drawing from "Day One" and inventing other worlds and stories to fit them from as far back as I can recall. Drawing has been an obvious strength of mine and I followed that to university, got qualifications as an illustrator and went to the big smoke to make it work. After nine years I quit job and home in Sydney and took a leap of adventure overseas (to the US of A, no less), where things did not go according to hopes or plans and I crashed back to my home town of Adelaide, to my old bedroom at my parent's house.
From here it turned out to be the best thing that could happen, for who knew that little old Adelaide would be home to Omnibus Books and perhaps the one person in the whole world of publishing who would take up my strange, incomplete ideas of a pretend world. Getting work with Omnibus Books as a freelance illustrator, it was only accident that had Dyan Blacklock discovering my notebooks and the notions in them. Call it God or astounding coincidence; I had never intended to move back to Adelaide, not in a pink fit as we say here.
So, after a fashion I suppose I was creatively engaged from the very start, though not as a writer in the formal sense; there were certainly a lot of unpleasant part-time jobs along the way too, to keep a roof over head and food in stomach.
SFRevu: What's your biggest ambition at this point?
DMC: Well, my deepest ambition, most fundamental hope for myself, is, quite frankly, to keep putting my hope in Jesus, learning how to love my wife and keep improving as a person. You might have to forgive the overtly religious content of my response here, but big questions call for big answers.
As to more writerly things, just finishing Book 3 would be an achievement in itself, though if deep, honest thoughts are to continue to be revealed, it would be that I get to continue to write Half-Continent books beyond the MBT series, that if a film is made of it this would be a most excellent offering (like Spiderwick -- an excellent adaptation, or so I hear) and that I get to be well involved in the process of making the films (not interference, just inclusion, even as a grunt), that the books I write are worthy and useful and even change some peoples' lives the way Star Wars and LOTR and all the rest changed mine, that despite these great hopes, I see my work for what it is, and not get ahead of myself. Becoming a writer is very unexpected and most very welcome, and my head is apt to turn sometimes.
SFRevu: If MBT were turned into a movie, as now seems very possible, do you have any casting in mind for the lead roles?
DMC: I had thought that nice lad who was the lead in Mr. Burton's re-do of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [Freddie Highmore -ed.], but he seems to be popping up everywhere now and will probably be too old for the role by the time (if) the film is ready to be done anyway. Occasionally I see some crusty fellow on TV or in a movie and think "Fransitart? Craumpalin? Mister Shunt?"
Some have suggested Angelina Jolie for Europe, but I think perhaps that is too obvious. How about Selma Blair? I love her brooding, soulful eyes. Maybe the girl from Mirrormask as Threnody [Stephanie Leonidas -ed.] -- now that I can see.
SFRevu: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
DMC: Simply, thank you for reading. I heartily recommend that if you have as yet to start, read the books in order; they are a continuing tale -- though apparently Book 2 does make a kind of sense without Book 1, though I intended Foundling as an introduction to the whole Half-Continent "thing", to ease folks into the concept. Finally, may I say beluae nunquam superarum: "May the monsters never get you".