Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Matthew Ward?
That’s a question that takes a lifetime to answer – halfway through, I’m still not entirely sure. Eccentric? Probably. Introvert? Definitely? Cat Servant? Without question (as I write this, there’s a tabby purring on my knee and pawing at me for attention).
Beyond that? I’m a novelist and freelance creative consultant via dropping out of university before I actually started, followed by a dozen or so years developing game systems, lore and product ranges for Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and The Lord of the Rings at Games Workshop.
Your debut novel, Legacy of Ash, is published by Orbit. It looks pretty epic: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Legacy of Ash is the tale of a new generation fighting the mistakes of the one that came before. It’s character-driven epic fantasy, full of action, intrigue and flawed men and women facing impossible choices. I’ve seen folk favourably compare it to Game of Thrones, with the caveat that it’s light on graphic content/language.
As you say, it’s quite long? I’d encourage anyone intimidated by the length to consider it equivalent to a series of TV – it’s even structured a little that way, if I’m honest.
Ash is the first part of a trilogy, but it’s 95% standalone – by which I mean most everything set in motion during the book is resolved during the book. I’m a firm believer in giving readers a satisfying ending, but painting in a world that continues after the final page. The remaining 5%? Well, that would be telling.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve had the idea rattling around in my head for twenty-odd years at this point, so precise inspirations are tricky to pin down – there are slivers of so many things in there. There’s definitely a lot of our physical world feeds into the process. Older cities like York, London and Lincoln. Places like the Cornish coast and deep forests where you catch glimpses of times long since gone. I like how history echoes about those sites, and try to reflect that in my writing.
I like exploring the dynamics between characters – what makes folk allies or enemies. For all that battles and magic abound in Legacy of Ash, the characters are the heart. If you’re reading comics or watching a good TV show, they’re the reason you pick up the next issue or tune back in. The fighting, intrigue and all the rest are crucible and catalyst for those character interactions.
I’ve become a habitual asker of ‘Yes, but what if?’ so there are bits and pieces of everything filtered through my brain and onto the page. The Lord of the Rings, Shannara, The Warlord Chronicles and Heir to the Empire books-wise. Dark Souls and Thief (the original trilogy) from video games. And so much folklore from across the world.
Shake all that together and iterate over and over, and that’s how you get something like Legacy of Ash.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
If we don’t count the Tim and the Hidden People reading scheme books (about a boy who finds a magic key that allows him to see and talk to ghosts, sadly long out of print), we’re talking The Hobbit at maybe age 5 or 6, quickly followed by The Lord of the Rings. Fog on the Barrow-downs scared me enough that I didn’t read that chapter properly for years.
From there, I discovered Target’s range of Doctor Who novelisations, which saved me from the school library’s range of mediocre ‘for children’ books. An honourable mention should go to Eric Morecambe’s The Reluctant Vampire, which fed my interest in the supernatural bloodsuckers at a young age.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I think there’s a distinction to be made. I was a writer for years, and I seldom had extensive control over what I was writing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good job. Hell, when set against the prospect of a 14-hour A&E shift or the like – I could never do that, and have the greatest respect for those who can – it’s positively luxurious.
Being an author, though? That’s great. I get to visit new worlds of my choosing, whatever the weather outside. I consider myself hugely fortunate.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
The main thing is trying to stick to something approaching a regular work day. It’s a job – I have to treat it like such, otherwise it’s too easy to get sidetracked.
Technique is very much a ‘start and the beginning, and when you reach the end, stop’ process, though I’ll often end up going back to revise details along the way. A lot of my redrafting goes on while I write, because I don’t really have it in me to push on with a narrative if the building blocks aren’t already in place. Actual redrafting is much more about cutting down word count and making sure the world building flows together as it should – squeezing 10% more into 20% less.
As for research? Writing in the fantasy genre means you can do as much (or as little) as you like. In my case, that tends to emerge in the etymology and ‘feel’ of names more than anything else.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing?
Really realise? Probably about eight or so years ago, but I remember enjoying writing stories as young as eight or nine. We had one lesson a week for creative writing, and I always had to leave blank pages in my English workbook for the intervening grammar and spelling lessons as my stories were seldom ‘done’ within that one lesson – much to my teacher’s combined amusement and irritation.
Unfortunately, as far as careers advice was concerned, I might as well have wanted to be an astronaut. “Hi, you’re a creative introvert. The software says you should be a prison officer or a carpet fitter.” Thanks.
(Not that those aren’t skilled and necessary vocations, but… really?)
I spent most of the rest of my education funneled into ‘practical’ science subjects, and didn’t really come back to writing until I was in my late teens, where I had a crack at a Babylon 5 novel – long since lost to merciful posterity. Another fifteen or so years after that, and I finally gave the whole ‘author’ thing a proper go. Six(ish) years and a few self-published or tie-in novels later, we’re at Legacy of Ash.
Do you still look back on it fondly?
That Babylon 5 thing? Oh, it was probably awful (though the people I showed the couple of completed chapters to were kind). The plot was certainly… ambitious.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
That’s a tricky one. Though I’m making an effort to read more than I have in recent years, I’m not really aware of current trends. When I say, ‘I’ve seen folk compare Legacy of Ash to Game of Thrones…’ that’s not me being coy. I’ve not read Game of Thrones or watched an episode of the series. I very much operate in the area of “write something you’d want to read, and see if it finds an audience”.
That said, I do have a sense that fantasy is starting to get a little broader – not just in diversity of cast and character (which has been a long time coming) but in tone. Despite my background, I’m not that much of a Grimdark writer. Oh, I like awful moral choices, bleak moments and tragic deaths, but I prefer to think of them as part of the palette, not the whole. That’s not to say one approach is superior, of course. It’s just what I prefer, and I think it’s great that fantasy’s so big right now that a reader’s spoilt for choice.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Let’s see now… Legacy of Steel (Ash’s sequel) is pretty near done, and the third book is well underway.
What’s next? Well, where do I start? There’s a whole series of stories set in Aradane (the world of Legacy of Ash) that I’d love to write, should there be a demand. There’s also a long-gestating vampire story that I want to get to, as well as – of course – getting some full-length Coldharbour novels out into the world (think ghosts and monsters in the hidden places beneath contemporary London and you’re not far off).
I seldom have fewer than a dozen or so speculative synopses sitting around, and as many more ‘What If?’ ideas. We’ll have to see what comes next.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m re-reading Dennis O’Neil’s run on The Question, thereby undermining my ‘I like a broad palette’ comment from earlier. They’re a bleak bunch of comics! Next on my list is Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which I understand to be a very different kettle of fish.
Also John Byrne’s run on Alpha Flight – classic superhero comics with a Canadian theme. And I have Carrie Fisher’s autobiographies scowling at me from the shelves, and I really should get to grips with those.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
I… can’t. Reading is a personal and intimate thing full of subjectivity. No single recommendation works for everyone. That said, I’ll happily defy current trends and recommend The Lord of the Rings to any kid who’s showing an interest in fantasy (in many ways it’s a better book for children than adults). For darker, historical fantasy I’d point folk at Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. For action/thriller I’ll normally steer someone towards one of the cheerier Alistair MacLeans – Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll or San Andreas. Fantasy or humour, it’s Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms. For a blend of sci-fi and thriller, there’s Timothy Zahn’s The Icarus Hunt, or Night Train to Rigel…
Like I said, it depends. One of the wonderful things about books is that there are so many good ones to get stuck into.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve a houseful of musical instruments, some of which I can play well (cornet), reasonably well (guitar, trombone, recorder), barely (ukulele, fiddle, piano, sitar) and let’s just not (bodhran, harmonica, theremin). The cats are not fans.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Getting the manuscript for Book 3 of the Legacy Trilogy polished and ready. It’s the end of one journey, and the start of another thereafter – though what that is, who knows? I think the conclusion of one’s first trilogy should be something to celebrate. It’ll be a milestone easily lost among the weeds, if I let it (I’ve always got an eye on what comes next) but I want to take the time to look back and go “Yes, I did that.”
Here’s the full synopsis for the novel:
An unmissable fantasy debut–an epic tale of intrigue and revolution, soldiers and assassins, ancient magic and the eternal clash of empires.
A shadow has fallen over the Tressian Republic.
Ruling families — once protectors of justice and democracy — now plot against one another with sharp words and sharper knives. Blinded by ambition, they remain heedless of the threat posed by the invading armies of the Hadari Empire.
Yet as Tressia falls, heroes rise.
Viktor Akadra is the Republic’s champion. A warrior without equal, he hides a secret that would see him burned as a heretic.
Josiri Trelan is Viktor’s sworn enemy. A political prisoner, he dreams of reigniting his mother’s failed rebellion.
And yet Calenne Trelan, Josiri’s sister, seeks only to break free of their tarnished legacy; to escape the expectation and prejudice that haunts the family name.
As war spreads across the Republic, these three must set aside their differences in order to save their home. Yet decades of bad blood are not easily set aside. And victory — if it comes at all — will demand a darker price than any of them could have imagined.