This is Carl's Brain
10 Questions with Ross Lawhead

1. The Realms Thereunder is steeped in Celtic lore. What type of research did you do for this series?


There’s a hint of Celtic in there, but mostly it’s Anglo-Saxon lore that I used, especially for the names, and Old English is what some of the characters will break out in, every once in a while. The titles were also taken from the G. K. Chesterton long poem The Ballad of the White Horse, which is all about King Alfred’s fight to regain his kingdom from the invading Norse armies. So it’s more post-Roman Britain I was looking to, not pre-Roman.


And for that I went pretty deep, but kept mostly to the primary sources, which is mostly poetry. I was able to take some adult learning classes to help teach myself how to translate from original sources and understand the context that they were written in. Luckily, at the time, I was living in Oxford, England, so I had access to world-class professors through the University’s Continuing Education department. I was also able to build a sizeable library very quickly and cheaply by going around to the secondhand bookstores in town, which are full of academic works that would be impossible to find elsewhere.

2. What’s the greatest moment in your writing career?


There have been a bunch of great moments. I think that publishing the !Hero graphic novel just edges into the greatest of them all, purely by virtue of the fact that it was the first thing I did that was published by a real publisher.


3. You have written novels, graphic novels, and poetry. What is your favorite medium to tell stories?


That’s a tricky question. I love using different media to tell different stories because of their various inherent strengths. The ideas I have for stories usually break up very clearly into, “This is a novel,” or, “This is a poem.” All in all, each one of them scratches the itch for me. I do think it’s a shame that we live in a time where 18,000 line poems are not considered marketable because I’d love to write a book-length poem. People have done it, and I always like to track those efforts, but it’s not like there’s a section at the bookstore you can go to for those. On the other hand, I am so glad that Graphic Fiction has really come into its own during my lifetime. When I was a teenager you could pretty much only get superhero stuff and I was crying out for different types of stories than ones that were broken down into 22 page chapters and punctuated by people hitting each other. But now, in just the last ten years, it’s become a tremendously diverse landscape, and one that I plan to dive into again very soon.


4. What are the positive and negative aspects of being an author and the son of a prolific writer such as your father, Stephen Lawhead?

I can really only think of the positive aspects. Growing up our dinner table conversations were often about books we’d read, movies we’d seen, and the criticisms we had about them, or about grammar and word use. I also observed his work ethic, which is highly disciplined. Instead of waiting for lightening to strike, or for the muse the descend on him, he just went into his office every day and made it happen. Some days were hard, some days were easier, but he always did a full day’s work. I think that’s the most valuable thing I learned from him.


When I was asked to collaborate with him it was great to have him alongside to really mentor me. Now that I’m writing professionally on my own, my dad and I will still call each other and discuss plot and character problems that we’re having, or even throw about ideas for our next projects.


If there is a negative aspect, I think it’s that publishers commonly think that I’m an extra Stephen Lawhead, and that the assumption is that I’ll write for the same market and all his readers will flock to me as well. And while it’s true that there’s some synergy at work there, I always notice the point at which they get frustrated when they discover that we are, in fact, two different writers.


5. What current writing projects are you working on?


I’ve got a few things making the rounds, but publishing is a notoriously slow-moving industry, and once you lose momentum with a publisher, it can be real hard to get the wheels turning for you again. And the industry operates in cycles regarding various appetites. So while I’m always working on something, nothing is moving for me professionally at the moment. I’ve got three completed novels in my drawer that have been stymied at the various agent/editor/marketing department stages, and that can be a little frustrating. I’m not going to give up on writing novels ever, but I feel like stretching into something else for a while.


So I’m going to try to break the logjam with something completely new and out-of-the-box. I’ve started working on a project that circumvents the usual channels and will be free-to-read, with an option to buy later on. It’s a few months too early to say anything more than that, I’m afraid, but watch this space. I’ll be making announcements on the socials.


6. How do you think the Marvel comics franchise compares with the Star Wars franchise?


It’s really interesting to compare the two because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is for us now what the Star Wars universe was for us back in the 70s and 80s. By that I mean it’s place where adults can feel like kids again and kids become inspired enough to feel like they can take over the world. Movies that deal with dark elements, but are ultimately about hope, goodness, and sacrifice.

But something changed when Disney bought Star Wars. I really feel like Star Wars has lost their way. And it’s not just because it’s Disney, because after all, Disney owns Marvel as well, but the movies are not about being inspiring any more, and not about having fun. They seem to have some other agenda which even they can’t articulate. And there seems to be a real schizophrenic mindset around who these movies are actually intended for. You can’t take a ten-year-old to these movies—they’d get traumatised by Rogue One and just plain bored by The Last Jedi. But they can watch the Rebels cartoon. And an adult who does want to explore the nature of good and evil as presented by The Last Jedi isn’t going to find anything in Force Awakens to interest them. Then, after being told, relentlessly (almost spitefully) to “let the past die”, why give us the nostalgia-driven reference-fest called Solo? It’s common practice to blame us Star Wars fans for attacking the franchise, but we’re really trying to defend it. The moviemakers seem hellbent on alienating any sort of core viewer. Speaking as someone who came to love the franchise during the dark ages of the 90s, it actually feels like a personal attack. Also mystifying, especially to the “let the past die” mindset, is the decision to kill three out of four new characters introduced. Think about it. I mean, really think about it. The old characters are dying at a much slower rate that the new ones. Tell Snoke, Holdo, Beckett, Vos, Phasma, and the entire cast of Rogue One to “let the past die”. Samuel Johnson is credited with saying “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” That sums up how I feel about Star Wars right now.


Now look at Marvel. Fun movies in which the main character has a strong emotional drive, with discoveries and revelations that are earned through basic storytelling principles. They are good stories told well and don’t habitually go in for a surprise reveal, or a reliance on past successes to keep momentum. We’re what, edging up to 25 movies into the franchise and it still feels like they’re breaking new ground. Look at Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. They are all on-brand, but have a completely different vibe from each other and all the movies that came before. Now, I’m not saying that everyone has to love these movies—if superheroes aren’t your game… well, my condolences on the current state of Hollywood—but you can’t deny that they’re nailing it. And the stories tell us that there’s hope for success, even in the darkest times, and that true redemption and change comes through personal sacrifice. Plus, the characters in the movies actually do something. They actually, you know, help people out. It’s such a basic thing to show, but Star Wars seems to have difficulty grasping that lately. And so does DC. Wonder Woman is the only movie I’ve seen of theirs where one of their heroes decides to do something heroic of their own volition, and not under apparent duress.


7. What role does setting play in The Ancient Earth series?


It was intended to play a large one, but I’m not sure how successfully that came across. I’m a writer who looks back on his past work and can only see the flaws. I think I wish I leant harder into the setting side of things. But readers have different tolerances for descriptions and I got feedback from both sides saying that my descriptions were beautiful and imaginative, and others that they were too long and held up the story.


To me the setting was always important because I really tried to tie the motifs of place and belonging into the themes. In many places it’s a discussion about who we are as inhabitants of a land and what makes us feel we own a place, when really we’ve fetched up there often by chance or by someone else’s decision. It’s a discussion that’s a lot more relevant today than when I wrote it just a few years ago, and came from my impressions as I started to look more and more into the Anglo-Saxon world. Here is a land that is the same as the land we’re living on, but one that is 1,000 years in the past. And because of that removal, it is strange to us, and beautiful because of that strangeness. And now we’re claiming that it’s ours, even though we’re mostly descendants from a different place.


So I decided to make that metaphor a reality for the story. My characters literally go underneath the country to discover the past that is figuratively buried beneath them.


8. What made you start writing?


I think it’s more a case that nothing has ever made me stop writing. But at the same time I always describe my drive to write as an undiagnosed psychosis. I have to do it in order to stay sane and relaxed. People who know me well can tell when I’ve missed a few days of writing—I get all jittery and distracted. I would write even if I never published anything ever again. It’s just what I do.


9. What are the most important aspects of world building in fantasy?


I don’t know if I’m qualified to say, after only taking one stab at it. I would say that the world building has to have ties to reality. For me, I used the touchstone of history and myth. I never made anything new, I only borrowed things that were very, very old. We’ve all seen it go wrong when people let whimsy override logic and just let anything happen for any reason, without consequence for the other whimsicalities that they’ve introduced. Someone has a blue dragon for no reason except that the author wants a blue dragon and no time was taken to really think through the implications of what it would mean for anyone to have a blue dragon and how that would affect the world around them. It can quickly devolve into a world where anything can happen, and if anything can happen then it isn’t a surprise that anything does happen and the conflict loses all its drive and the characters are no longer in tension with the created world.


10.  If Hollywood was making a film adaptation of The Realms Thereunder, and the director asked you to cast the role of Daniel Tully and Freya Reynolds, who would you choose?

It would have to be unknowns, no question. But for Swidgar I always imagined a kind of Liam Neeson type. For Ecgbryt I’d want a John Rhys Davies type. Timothy West would be a great Ealdstan, and Modwyn would need to be a British actress whose earned a real gravitas; I think Hayley Atwell or Rachel Weiss would be perfect.