Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Angus Macallan?
The truthful answer is – nobody. Angus Macallan is a pseudonym for me, Angus Donald, and I’m an English novelist, 54, living in rural Kent, UK, who mainly writes historical fiction. I’m best known for creating a successful series about a gangster-ish Robin Hood called The Outlaw Chronicles. I always wanted to write a fantasy novel but I was advised that it was better to use a different name for a different genre of fiction. So my US publisher (Ace) and I came up with Angus Macallan as an alter ego, and that way I wouldn’t annoy the UK publishers (Bonnier Zaffre) of my historical fiction novels by luring away too many potential readers.
Your latest novel, Gates of Stone, was recently published by Ace Books. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Gates of Stone is an epic fantasy set in a sort-of 18th century Indonesia – magical swords, pirates, head-hunters, spies, sorcerers, and a kick-ass ruthless-bitch princess, as well as some really cool beasts called Ghost Tigers. It has three main characters, each on their own journey, and their paths cross at various times. I have only written volume one so far but I would like it to be a series, maybe three, six or even nine books. I have invented a world in which my characters could have multiple adventures. We will see, though. It depends on whether the first book takes off or not.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I was inspired to write the book by my time as a student anthropologist in Indonesia in the late 1980s. I was sent there from Edinburgh University, where I was studying Social Anthropology for a Masters degree, to investigate magic and sorcery in Bali. This fieldwork formed the basis of my dissertation and I had an absolutely fascinating time. The magical transformations in Gates of Stone are based on the beliefs of the Balinese villagers with whom I lived. I don’t believe in magic myself, but when the locals were enthusiastically demonstrating their unearthly powers, summoning up witches and demons and so on for my benefit, it was sometimes genuinely frightening. I always wanted to write a fictional account of the strange and wonderful things I saw in Bali thirty years ago, and Gates of Stone is the result.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I like to do something I call “optical research” – which basically means going and looking at the place myself. When I’m writing historical fiction I like to go to the battlefield I’m writing about and walk the ground, see the hill that the infantry captured at such cost. Look at the ford where the cavalry scouts first crossed the border, that sort of thing. To research Gates of Stone, I went to Bali for a couple of weeks and got back in touch with some of the witchdoctors I knew back then. I also went to see some of their magical rituals. But a lot of the time I was just wandering around, doing optical research, looking at the iridescent green of the paddy fields, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and the listening to the birds and insects. Getting Indonesia back into my mind before writing the book. I also do a lot of reading before I begin writing, sometimes months of just reading before starting a book. And while I’m writing I am constantly looking stuff up on Google.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing?
I first realised I wanted to be a writer in Bali in the late 1980s, when I was about 23. It was quite lonely for me in my little mountain village. There was no electricity, no bars or restaurants, and nobody spoke English, and I used to do a lot of sitting around and making anthropological notes. Eventually, to pass the time, I began to write a novel about my time as a beach bum in Crete. I spent a year there in 1984-85 picking fruit, hanging out on the beach, drinking cheap local wine with my pals, fighting, falling in love, and generally having fun. It was a magical time, a bit like living in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row, and I thought it would make a great novel. I was wrong. I never competed the tale and it was rubbish anyway. But when I was sitting at a desk, hand-writing it in a notebook on that sun-dappled veranda in Bali, I realised that I could be completely self-contained when I was writing fiction. I could be totally immersed in the literary world and nothing could touch me. It’s like a super power.
Do you still look back on it fondly?
Yes, I knew then what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I became a journalist for twenty years – working in Hong Kong, India and London, even doing a short stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan. I thought that journalism would teach me how to write – and it did, up to a point. But it was also a massive waste of time. I was forty-four before I published my first novel Outlaw. I wish I had had the courage and resources (I’ve always been broke) to start my book-writing career before then.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I don’t really read other fantasy books. Well, some. I’ve read Tolkein, and George RR Martin, and Stephen Donaldson. And I really like Joe Abercrombie. But I don’t really have an opinion on the genre. I think in general that there are fewer people reading fiction these days and many more people writing it: and that means less money for full-time novelists like me. I’ve had a decent portion of success but I still struggle to pay the bills every month.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I have a book coming out in November called Blood’s Campaign. It is part of a series about an extraordinary man called Holcroft Blood, who was a real English artillery general in the early 18th century. His father was the notorious criminal Thomas Blood, who tried to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London (as told in Blood’s Game, the first book in the series). So far in my series, Holcroft is still only a captain, and he’s off to Ireland to fight in the Battle of the Boyne in Blood’s Campaign. I am also writing another Robin Hood book at the moment called Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold. I expect to self-publish that sometime this year.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m reading The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian, part of his brilliant Aubrey-Maturin series about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve read it – and the whole series – many times. But I like to dip into it for the wonderful archaic language and the subtle humour. But I also have a lot of proper non-fiction history books on the go and I’m re-reading some of my own Robin Hood books to get my head back into the series for the new one.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
I’d recommend The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault. It is a beautiful novel about a homosexual love affair in Ancient Greece, during the Peleponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and it’s one book that I read and reread. I’m not gay myself – married for 14 years, two kids – but I find this book incredibly moving.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I was born in China. My father was a diplomat and I moved about quite a lot during my childhood. I lived with my parents in Greece, Hong Kong, Zaire and Indonesia before I was 18.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
To be honest, I’m looking forward to turning 55, which means I can access some of the pension money I put aside when I was a journalist. I love writing novels but the constant grinding poverty is exhausting. Sometimes I wish I’d chosen a more lucrative job.