Interview with Peter McLean

We are now heading towards the fourth and final book in the War of the Rose series – has your writing process changed as you have written each of the novels?

I think, kind of? I mean, yes and no. I’ve always known where I was going with this series. I’m a plotter so I always knew where Tomas Piety’s story would end when I started writing Priest of Bones. But the emphasis has definitely shifted from gangster family drama to political thriller as the series has progressed, but I knew that was going to happen. That means a change in tropes, a change in focus. It’s gone more from “who holds which streets, and who owes respect to who?” to “who’s in favour with the house of law and who isn’t? Who has the ear of the Prince Regent?”. Also, War for the Rose Throne was originally planned as a trilogy not the quartet it has ended up being (long story…). I was maybe 15,000 words into what is now Priest of Gallows when I realised that just wasn’t going to work out. I had a conversation with my editor, the brilliant Jo Fletcher who is the head of JFB at Quercus, and she completely agreed with me. However, cutting my original outline for Priest of Crowns in half and releasing it as two books just wouldn’t have worked so that required some serious plot gymnastics to make Gallows work as a book in its own right. I’m never doing that again if I can help it!

How was the process of getting your book published? – as a hopeful writer myself and there are lots of other readers out there too that would love some advice on the process.

Oh good grief, this is a whole column in its own right! Ok, I’ll do you a potted history,  but this is going to be condensed and my story is by no means typical.

I used to belong to a web forum called SFFWorld back in the early 2010s that had a writer’s board where we did a monthly writing competition; you had to write a flash fiction or a short story to a prompt and the members voted on their favourite. I won a few of those and enjoyed it, and one of my short stories got selected for a self-published anthology the forum was putting out. My story was called “The Last Hand” and it was an Urban Fantasy about a London magician called Don Drake. Fine, I don’t know if it sold many / any copies but I was chuffed at the time to be included. But… the thing was, I really liked Don Drake, you know? So I chucked away the end of that story and just sort of kept going, telling Don’s tale, until almost accidentally I had something roughly novel length and shaped. I shopped it to a few agents to total indifference in maybe 2011 and then forgot about it until I saw on Absolute Write that Angry Robot were having an Open Door submissions period (like most publishers they usually only look at agented submissions, but every year or two they open up to general public subs). I thought, “Ah, why not,” and sent the first few chapters as they’d asked for, and then largely forgot about it again. Angry Robot were going through a rough time then, being sold by one owner and bought by another, and I gave it up for dead until about a year later I had an email out of the blue saying that actually they’d love to see the rest of it. I sent that in maybe November 2013 (I can’t remember exact dates now) and forgot about it yet again until they called me in the early spring and said they’d like to publish it.

Obviously I bit their hand off for the chance, but even then without an agent I had the Society of Authors (the UK equivalent of the Writers’ Guild) vet the contract, and negotiated a few things. That done, I signed with them and they published first Drake and then Dominion and Damnation, the first three books of the Burned Man series. Then things got interesting.

Damnation didn’t sell well, there’s no glossing over that. But, the thing is I’d largely moved on by then anyway. Urban Fantasy is quite fun but I’d sort of written it on a whim, almost accidentally as I say, and it was never my passion. My passion is “swords and horses” fantasy, and gangster movies. I love them both – David Gemmell and Joe Abercrombie, The Godfather and Goodfellas, they’re my catnip. So I slammed the two together and wrote Priest of Bones, because it really was the book I wanted to read. Swords and horses fantasy gangsters, yes please!

Now obviously I’m on Twitter as that’s where I met you, and an unagented author on Twitter follows a lot of literary agents, right? We want to know what they like and what they’re looking for, of course we do. An agent I’d been following for a while and got on with one day posted a question about what she should spend some Amazon gift vouchers on, so I thought “what the hell, nothing ventured nothing gained” and sent her a link to buy Drake. She responded to say she’d already bought it with her own money and loved it, and that she was open for queries. I sent her Priest of Bones the next day. That was Jennie Goloboy at DMLA in New York, who is my agent now, and I signed with her two months later. She sold Priest of Bones to Penguin Random House in the US and Hachette in the UK six weeks after that when I was, quite coincidentally, on holiday in Florida with my wife. I did the deal over the phone on the balcony of my five star resort villa and have honestly never felt more rockstar in my life. I’ll always remember that.

After The Priest of Crowns comes out later this year – what adventures will you take us on next? Have you more stories in the pipeline?

Oh there’s always something in the pipeline. Every author I know has more ideas than they know what to do with. What exactly it will be though I’m not sure. I’ve got another fantasy book on the back burner, multiple limited third person in the Abercrombie style in a totally new world, but I’m not 100% sure on that one yet. First person feels like my home, my voice. I’ve only ever published short stories in third person before, and I’m still deliberating doing a whole novel that way. I’d like to do more IP Tie-in too – I’ve done Warhammer before, and although I’ve moved on from that now there’s another property I’m eyeing that I’ve loved since I was literally a schoolboy and would love to write for, but that’s probably all I can say about that at the moment. And although Tomas Piety’s story is definitely told and done by the end of Priest of Crowns there’s a whole big wide world of the Rose Throne out there that I would love to return to.

Tomas Piety is growing to be one of my favourite characters within Fantasy reading – What was the inspiration behind this character?

Ah, where did Tomas come from? I get asked that a lot, and I’m honestly not entirely sure. He’s pretty much the archetypical gangster family story main character, the Michael Corleone or Tommy Shelby or Paulie Cicero, the abused working class kid / traumatised war veteran who made his life better the only way he knew how, through applying the violence that had been directed at him to other people. The thing with the classic gangster archetype is, it only ends one of three ways: he dies, he turns snitch, or he goes into politics. I went with politics, as I find that the most interesting outcome. The lines between government and organised crime can become extremely blurred, after all, and that’s something I wanted to explore. But he’s not me.

A lot of people tend to assume that an author’s main character, especially if it’s written in first person, is a self-insert. It’s not, or at least in my case it isn’t. I wasn’t abused as a child, and I’m not a war veteran (although I’ve had enough actual veterans assume I must be to make me feel quite proud of how I wrote that aspect of the book), and although I wasn’t exactly a good boy growing up I’ve never been a serious criminal. That’s the thing you have to understand about Piety: he’s a complete bastard.

He’s a gangster, and gangsters are by definition horrible people. I’ve met a few in my time, and they’re terrifying. But put Piety in the context of his world, his people, his adversaries, and I think you can see why he is how he is and why he does what he does. “The lighter of two evils” is a major theme throughout the series, and I think that’s what makes people end up rooting for Piety even if it is against their better judgement.

The world you have created is gritty, dark and betrayal is around every corner – was this how you originally planned your story or did the darkness creep in as you wrote?

Oh no, this was completely played for. The world of Priest of Bones is basically Tudor Edinburgh, and by the time you get to Dannsburg in Priest of Lies and especially in Gallows you’re in Regency London. Those were both extremely grim times for common people, and if anything I played down just how horrible the living conditions were in both eras.

People talk about “Grimdark” fantasy (even if nobody can agree what, if anything, that actually means) but I’ve never read a fantasy world, with the possible exception of R. Scott Bakker who I’ve only recently got into, that was more horrible and depraved than actual history was. I love historical fiction, and I’m a big fan of Laura Shepherd Robinson. Honestly, her completely period-accurate 18th century London makes my setting look quite sanitised by comparison. The “Good Old Days” were… not.  

The Priest of Crowns is the final novel in this series, can you give us any hints to what we can expect within these final pages?

Priest of Crowns is indeed the last book of the War for the Rose Throne, and, well… if you’ve been paying close attention I think you know where it’s going by now. Think about it. As Tomas says in Priest of Gallows, “Respect, power, authority, those are the levers that move me.” No spoilers but think about his character, and remember that he’s a gangster at heart, and has opportunity in front of him. What do you think he’s going to do?

Apart from Piety himself, who is your favourite character within the series?

Oh, Bloody Anne hands down. I deliberately wrote her to be the best mate / big sister I wished I had. She’s Tomas’ conscience, and by the end of Gallows her friendship is really the only thing keeping him human. Anne is the hard, scarred veteran with the tragic past, the woman held together by friendship and loyalty and the love of her soulmate. If one of those things breaks, what then?

I wrote a stand alone Bloody Anne short story for Grimdark Magazine last year (The Blade’s Edge, Issue 22) and I really think she could carry a novel in her own right, but I guess we’ll have to see what the publishing gods have to say about that.

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