Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Ronan Frost?
Well the official bio would tell you he’s a Brit living overseas, who has worked for the MoD and done some fairly interesting stuff. What it wouldn’t tell you is sure, he did all that, but he’s also a name I made up. It’s not a huge secret, given the decision was made to put my real name on the back cover with the quotes ‘Writing as Steven Savile…’ which kinda gives it away. How Ronan came to be, well, my editor wanted me to write a book like my bestselling novel, Silver, which just so happened to feature one Irish gent, Ronan Frost as one of the lead characters. So when we needed a name for the contract it seemed only right to give my editor what he’d asked for. Ahem.
So, instead we’ll tweak this one and say ‘Who is Steve…’ to give you a fairer idea who is on the other end of this. 49 year old ex-pat, living in the wilds of Sweden surrounded by trees, more trees and err, more trees. I swear there must be a few thousand for each living soul. More than that. I emigrated 22 years ago. I spent the early days over here teaching English and History, but turned full time as a writer back in 2006 when I signed to do a trilogy of fantasy novels for the popular game world Warhammer. I’ve done all sorts of weird and wonderful jobs, including writing the storyline for the massive computer game Battlefield 3, and most recently writing adventures and monster manuals for a couple of popular roleplaying games.
White Peak will be published by St. Martin’s Press. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
It’s a Russian nesting doll of a novel. It starts off with a fairly tight focus and you think you’re dealing with essentially a redemption arc thing, kinda like Death Wish, I guess. But that quickly opens up into something else as the top of the first doll comes off and you realise it’s more Indiana Jones than Death Wish… until the head of the next doll comes off and you realise the scope of things is opening up again, and again, until the sheer scale of it is made obvious. I’ve designed and plotted it out fairly tightly, running four books, but each one is absolutely a standalone, meaning you get a proper beginning middle and end, with genuinely satisfying resolution and an end to that particular part of the story, rather like the nesting doll idea. What I pitched was a series of hostile terrain thrillers, where the world itself was a major player in the story, so in White Peak we’re looking at the Himalayas, and in the other three we’re going into the depths of uncharted rain forests, into inhospitable deserts and under the polar ice… say we’re in an elevator and I’ve got the time it takes to go between floors to hook you, I’d say ‘The X-Files meets Indiana Jones…’ and think you’d come away with a decent idea of what the book was about, the spirit of it, and the mythology it was playing with.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I always find this sort of question tough, even after forty plus novels. I’d done two novels for my editor at St Martin’s, Glass Town and Coldfall Wood, that I loved, but neither of which were massively commercial. Pete said, ‘Why don’t you give us something like Silver’ which back in 2011 had been one of the top 30 bestselling books in the UK (according to The Bookseller). Which of course is easier said than done. As a writer I don’t like revisiting things or treading the same ground over and over. I’m not a fan of formula. I like to stretch myself and surprise myself. So, I looked at the core of what those books were, team adventures with mythology as an excuse to go into interesting places to combat terrorism, and thought okay, how about we invert some of this stuff, the mythology isn’t an excuse anymore, it’s a driving factor… and then it was just a process of asking that familiar writer question: what if?
In terms of inspiration, my mind never turns off. There’s stuff out there all the time that sets it off. I’m not talking about the big things either, not the stuff you can rip from the headlines, I’m talking about the small stuff. Like, for instance, years ago, I was visiting some of my kids who were doing their work experience placements, and this one guy is in Burger King in central Stockholm. I’m waiting for him. At a minute to three a woman walks in, looks at the clock on the wall, looks at her watch, shakes her head, and walks out. It’s a little thing, but it catches my eye. So anyway, my kid comes out and says, ‘Oh you noticed? She’s weird, every day she comes in at the same time, looks at the clock, checks her watch, shakes her head and walks out.’ And that little thing, that interaction, there’s a story there. I don’t know what that story is, but the fun is in finding out.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
The first book I ever bought with my own money was Pet Semetery. I was 13. It scared the living crap out of me. I was the literal cliché, reading under the covers with a tiny handheld torch. But I didn’t’ really discover genre for a while after that. I was a football player, a cricket player, rugby reluctantly, tennis, long distance, cross country, you name it I was into it as a kid as long as it involved running myself into the ground.
I don’t think I picked up a book for four or five years after that early King, unless it was a school book. I’m a child of divorce, and I always figured my parents must have really ended up hating each other because they moved to opposite ends of the country, meaning I had a nine hour coach journey from one to the other during school holidays. And nine hours on a coach with nothing to do is an endless hell. So, this one time I decided I was going to visit the library, pick a book to read and keep myself busy. The book was The Enchanter’s End Game – David Eddings – and just so happened to be the fifth book in a five book series, so talk about dropped in at the deep end, learning as you go. But it was mindblowing. It was unlike anything I’d encountered.
I started actively looking for fantasy novels, Hugh Cook, Jonathan Wylie, Peter Morwood, Michael Scott Rohan, Stephen Donaldson, David Gemmell. For a while I devoured it all. It got to the point around 18-19 where my friends thought it was the only thing I’d read. But almost like flicking a switch it all went much darker overnight. A cover in Waterstones was enchanting me. The title was simple. RAIN. It was blue, streaked with silver rain. Written by Stephen Gallagher. Suddenly I had no time for magic, it was all about the macabre. And that was just as immersive, and for a few years, again, it was all I’d read. So it was inevitable I’d be drawn to something almost mythological, and yet with strong resonances of darkness to it, I guess.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
It’s who I am. I don’t even know how to describe it really. It’s been me for so long it is literally how I think of myself. There was a while, a few years back, after I’d signed the deals with St. Martin’s for those two books, and with Titan for my straight crime novel Parallel Lines, when I wasn’t a writer. My dad had died and for nearly nine months I just couldn’t find the words, not even a decent paragraph. It was more than just an identity crisis, it was existential. I identified myself as a writer, but if I wasn’t that, what was I? The grief was a bastard. I just couldn’t find a way through it to the other side where I could actually write again. But my editor was patient. He understood I was a mess and knew I’d find a way back to it eventually. I love writing. I love the process of sitting down, visualizing and taking what is in my head and putting it on paper, bringing it to life for other people.
But I hate publishing as an industry. I hate the way it has changed from when I was a kid and a new writer would get time. I remember my first rejection letter from Transworld when I was 19. It said, and I quote, this maybe isn’t a bestseller, but it’s a book to buy if we want to build an author. And that was what happened back then. I remember reading a great how to book around the same time, by Andre Jute, and he described how when his book didn’t get a deal the editor invited him into the house to meet him, and encourage him to give them his next book, fostering a career. All of that changed somewhere during the last fifteen-twenty years and it became about numbers. It became reductive. If your first book sold ten copies into a store, but customers only bought seven copies, the store would look you up on the computer when buying your second book, and only order seven, because why waste shelf space? So then that would only sell four copies because it wasn’t as visible as when you had ten there and everyone thought wow, there’s ten of those, that book must be good, they expect loads of people to want it. And once you were down to four chances are that book would only sell 1-2 and you’re done. Diminishing returns have diminished. It used to be they said a a writer didn’t find their audience until their third book, and what you sold with your third would pretty much be an indicator of what you’ll sell for your 7th… and 9th… you find your size. And that assumed growth. Now book three, thanks to the influence of central ordering and computers, it’s not about growth anymore. So you need to be a realist. And that can be depressing.
So, the thing I try and remind myself is not to get caught up in this stuff, but rather to focus on the moment, enjoy it for what it is, and not crave more, or what better or different. Live in the now. It’s the best way I can think of telling people to survive this industry, because if you’re unlucky it can be really brutal. But I wouldn’t stop writing for anything, which means this is my industry for life, for better or worse. And there are a lot worse out there. I remember working in several of them…
Of course, not liking the mechanics of something that has become so utterly numbers-dependent doesn’t mean I don’t like the people involved. I do. To an extent we are a tribe: Book people. This is how we identify ourselves, not by the clothes we wear of the inks we put on our skin, but by the books that shaped us and made us into who we want to be. I’ve found some of the nicest people in the world in this particular industry, some lifelong friends, and some people I still get tongue tied around because of the impact their early works had on me.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I’m that terrible beast, a coffee shop writer. It’s a lonely job. If you aren’t alone it doesn’t get done. So, if I worked in my study day in, day out, I could easily go days, even weeks, without seeing another living soul apart from my wife, so I use it as a way to connect with people. But what this means is I need to have headphones on, and music and a decent enough volume to shut out the world, so that everything tunnels down to just the words on the screen and the music inside my head, and then I can work for hours as though there’s no one else around. Of course, I’m so used to that set up now I can no longer work in a nice quiet house… So I’m a little bit broken.
My day is always set up the same, I get up fairly late, make myself a cup of coffee, put on Netflix and watch an episode of something, then I feed the dog and we mess about a bit. I’ll catch up on social media, take care of the emails, then go out with Buster for a long walk in the woods that clears my head and gets the blood pumping. There’s no actual writing at this stage, though during the walk I may well spent most of it thinking about the scenes I’ve got coming up, working through them like movies in my head time and again before I sit down and write them. It’s as close as I’ve got to a ritual, but it works for me.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I was quite young. I’d been harbouring ambitions of being a journalist. I remember coming downstairs at the beginning of one summer vacation, maybe 16 or 17 years old, and telling my dad (who was working in the garden) ‘I know what I want to be.’ Him smiling and asking, ‘Oh and what is that then?’ and me with the arrogance of youth saying, ‘A sports journalist.’ It was a way of combining my love of all things competitive and this newly burgeoning interest in writing. That ambition survived the summer, but not the next. By the following year I had tried a few misfires, opening pages of stories. I recall a few titles, like ‘The Hallelujah Man’s Circus’ which was about a street corner end of the world preacher who was an exiled magician from a fabled land who everyone thought insane as he cried out for the loss of the land he had left behind. There was another about some snow blasted castle that was under threat from some sort of invisible demonic foe. But like everything nothing got beyond the basics until that summer when, for some unfathomable reason I wrote a title, ‘Old Yawn and the Wizard’s Banana’ and had no idea what on earth that was going to be but within about two hours had begun a noir fantasy that aped Raymond Chandler by way of Moonlighting, the old Bruce Willis TV show, and Terry Pratchett. A great wizard had been kidnapped after being forced to cast a rain spell, which meant it had now rained on the city of Old Yawn for 347 days straight and wouldn’t stop because it indeed the casting wizard to unmake his cursed spell. It was filled with bad puns and classic tropes, and to be honest was really stupidly good fun. It was then I knew for sure this was what I wanted to do. After that I wrote another comic fantasy, The Ohmygodnotagainriad — which earned me a rejection from Interzone that closed ‘The world doesn’t need another Terry Pratchett. To be honest, I’m not even sure we need this one.’ But I wasn’t about to be deterred, I spent the next few months writing a comic sf novel in the vein of Red Dwarf, called BIX which was about an alien called Bixtamorphelous which was an inversion of the last man story with the alien looking for a new world. It was kinda absurdist, with a villain called the Postmaster General who was hunting him across the universe because the postman always delivers. I’ll be honest I don’t remember much of it now, though it had all sorts of moments, including stuff like a Looney Toons end with Bix racing down a street, chased by the Postmaster, and disappearing into a wormhole that he closed behind him like Bugs…
I submitted Bix to Richard Evans at Gollancz — remember I was still only 18 at this stage, and had no real clue about anything. Richard was gracious. He wrote a lovely rejection asking to see my next thing because half of Bix was brilliant, and half of it was awful but it promised a proper future in this game and he wanted to be part of it. I was working on that follow up when he died tragically young.
There was a weird career inversion at this point, maybe since, my reading had moved from fantasy into horror but in the course of about three weeks I wrote the thing that changed my life. There was a magazine back then, FEAR, and in it they posted a call for long stories — 40,000 words — that they wanted to serialise in their sister magazine, FRIGHTENERS. So I decided I was going to go for it, write this ‘thing’ and sell it. 40,000 words felt like a massive amount, beyond anything I’d ever attempted. And it couldn’t be comic, but it could be dark, fantastic. So working mainly at night, from 11 until two or three every night for three weeks I wrote The Secret Life of Colours. I remember the night I finished it. I only had a few paragraphs to do, so I thought I’d do them before I went out with my girlfriend to a nightclub in town. But reaching the end I started sweating and shivering and was utterly spent. It was as though the frenzy of three weeks came pouring out. I sat on the floor in the front room and couldn’t get up again. It feels ridiculous now, but back then actually finishing something felt immense.
I sold the novella, only for the parent company to go bust and I was left with something I’d never be able to sell. So I went to the library and got their copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook and picked ten agents to send it to. I wrote a long letter which broke pretty much every submission rule, and sent them off the next day. Within 48 hours nine letters came back asking to see the book. This was back in the days of typewriters being the height of tech. I didn’t have multiple copies, I had the single copy that I’d typed out. So, it meant a visit to the local stationers and paying ten pounds for photocopies. I sent them away, which cost about thirty pounds. And waited. Forty quid back then was two months of living money for me. It was a massive investment. I got a phone call the next night, at ten o’clock. Tanja Howarth, a literary agent, had just finished reading the manuscript and wanted to meet me in London to discuss my future because she didn’t believe I was 19, or English, and needed to see who she was taking on as a new client. I borrowed the money for the train and went to visit London for the first time, booted and suited. Her office was in New Row, in Covent Garden. I signed on the spot. When I got home seven more offers of representation were waiting.
So yeah, I look back now, we’re talking thirty-plus years, with immense fondness on those early attempts and that first trip down to London. It felt like I’d made it, but it was only ever the first step.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on out there these days, the quality of writing seems to build every year on the work of the past. A lot of those books I grew up loving would struggle to get published today. That’s a sobering thought. It means that every time we sit down to work we need to push ourselves to be better and create better work. Sure, some of it is trend, but a lot of it is craft and its exciting as a reader and daunting as a writer. We’re always going to be judged against the best, and when the best keeps getting better, that’s a dizzying thought.
I don’t think it’s my place to say where I fit, though. I leave that to others. All I want to do, be it with something like Glass Town or with a new beginning like White Peak, is write the very best stories I can do, and hope that someone finds entertainment in them. If others find worth, then even better. But primarily, it’s all about entertainment. If my story can help someone forget the world for a while it’s done its job. One of the most humbling things that ever happened to me as a writer was back when I wrote for Primeval and I got a letter from someone whose mother had died the day after she bought my book. She’d read it three times in the days between her death and the funeral and wrote to thank me because it was the only thing that had helped her not think about how her life had changed forever, and had given her a place to escape. That’s a letter I’m never going to forget. And more than anything, it negates every shitty review I’ve ever had or will ever get. Because for one person when they needed it most one of my stories gave them everything they needed. It’s humbling as hell.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m out of contract at the moment, so that means I get to play around doing stuff just for me. It’s a liberating feeling as much as it is a terrifying one. So I’m noodling about with a few different ideas. One is a straight thriller, Blood Will Have Blood, the other is an SF thriller about nanobees. I’ve promised my agent she’ll have both by the end of the year. The ‘day job’ at the moment is writing a monster manual, Carte Monstrorum, for the roleplaying game LexOccultum, which is a blast.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m about forty pages into the latest Stephen Lawhead novel, In the Land of the Everliving. I love Lawhead’s stuff. I’ve been reading him since I was maybe 18, and met him a few times. Non-fiction tends to be articles rather than books. I’ve just finished reading a sobering one about how we’ve already failed as a planet to prevent the 2 degree climate change that will end to an extinction event. Sobering reading.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Oh lord. That’s an unforgiving question. One book? Okay. I’m going to go back to something I haven’t read for thirty years, which you can’t pick up in the stores these days, so isn’t likely to be something your readers are familiar with: The Time Master trilogy by Louise Cooper – The Initiate, The Outcast and The Master. They’re beautiful books, the old Unwin editions have captivating covers, and it’s an ambitious story of the eternal conflict between chaos and order, much akin to Moorcock’s Elric saga. Louise tragically died a decade ago, and over the years since her books have just slipped out of the public consciousness.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I emigrated without realising it. It wasn’t exactly an accident. But it wasn’t planned. I went on holiday and never went home. I phoned my mum up about an hour before she was meant to leave the house to pick me up at the airport and told her I wasn’t getting on the plane. It was the most ridiculous decision I’d ever made. I turned my back on my old life and started from scratch, with only the few things I had taken with me in that backpack. That was in 1997. 22 years. This has to be the longest holiday ever.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
It’s my fiftieth in October. The last decade has been good to me career-wise, and family wise. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next has to offer.