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Interview with Clifford Beal

The-Guns-Of-IvreaHopefully you’ve seen yesterday’s review of The Guns of Ivrea by Clifford Beal. It’s a novel that features pirates, adventure and politics and throws in fantastical elements such as supernaturally gifted humans, magical objects and mermaids. I concluded my review with my feelings that “it’s highly readable, fast-paced, fun adventure novel that somehow manages to be all of that without ever sacrificing on character development, authentic descriptions, and vivid worldbuilding.”

Once I’d finished reading the book, I had a number of questions for  Cliff about it and his new direction too (he’d previously written books with a historical setting and had now moved on to a series set in a secondary world). As per my suspicions upon hearing he too is a Boston Terrier owner, he turned out to be a fine fellow. Here’s how he held up to my interrogation…

Could you tell us a bit about The Guns of Ivrea and the inspiration for it?

The concept entered my head in an instant of inspiration. Well, maybe more like a daydream. I was at a National Trust property in Sussex that had a display of decorative antique ceramics. There was a large plate with a medieval ship tossing on the waves surrounded by exotic sea creatures and mermen. Sailors on board were firing arrows at them and I thought, what if that world was real? What I ended up writing is a novel that although is epic fantasy (and a very traditional one at that) it has a very Mediterranean feel, set in a world with echoes of our own Italian renaissance.

The majority of this novel is set at sea, or at least involves characters whose hearts belong to the vast oceans. What benefits does this sea setting have to your more conventional and trending Fantasy Kingdom?

I enjoy reading about the sea and naval history and I thought an oceanic setting—an island kingdom—would give wide scope for action and would be somewhat different from other epic fantasies out over the past few years. It permits the reader to discover a world within a world: the life of men at sea. But it’s not all naval battles and long voyages as many of the thrills happen in the great cities of Valdur like Perusia, Torinia and Livorna. I’d like to think it’s a good mix of turf and surf.

Your writing always feels very authentic (e.g. sailors referring to parts of the ship using appropriate slang, or the religious orders feeling as though they have extensive and well-thought out histories), how much research went into this particular book?

Venetian-ships-256x300I did do research, enough to give the right authentic flavour to the writing. But you don’t have to be a naval buff to understand what’s going on. As this is a pseudo-renaissance world, the big challenge was in finding sources on naval matters prior to 1500. You can’t use lingo from 18th century sailing as the ships were different. Guns were just coming into use and most naval battles were still about closing with the enemy and boarding; fighting the same way you would on land with swords, spears, glaives and bowmen. It was rare to sink a ship with cannon fire then. Part of the plot of the book (the clue’s in the title) is about a new technology that will change naval warfare forever.

Of course, although everything feels authentic, this is a secondary world fantasy – your first, in fact. Did the secondary world aspect open or close any doors when compared to writing your novel Gideon’s Angel (based on the English Civil War)?

It’s definitely a case of swings and roundabouts. On one hand, there is the terrific freedom of designing your own world free from the confines of real-life history. On the other hand, now you have to make everything up and not just drop characters into actual historical events. And with secondary world fantasy, everything begs questions. New religion? Then how do they worship, how do they bless themselves, how is it organised? And so on. In many ways it’s a lot more legwork.

I really liked Lucinda (and her sister) who is blessed with visions (I know I probably shouldn’t). She is the most magically gifted character in the novel, although much of these powers are hinted at or unproven. Is she or her ‘class’ based on anyone or anything from history?

Lucinda and Lavinia are “Seekers” and possessed of Farsight as I call it, plus a few other “gifts” deemed to come from God. The magic in the book is more subtle than in other fantasy works and it’s also more supernatural in nature. There’s a tipping point where these gifts can be used for dark purposes. I loved getting into the psychological powers that Lucinda possesses and wields but I should stop there as we are sailing into spoiler waters now! She is modelled on some of the more ruthless of the Italian aristocracy of the 15th century, a time when some women, such as Caterina Sforza, became politically empowered in the city states.

The Merfolk feature prominently on the cover and through much of the novel they are literally ‘just below the surface’. How did you handle the creation and use of this race?

MerfolkTo sustain a mermaid as a major character at novel length, I felt I had to redesign merfolk. They are aquatic humanoids (they have legs instead of tails) and air-breathers and are more like marine mammals than fish. I also treated them as an indigenous but more primitive race than the humans who inhabit Valdur. There are echoes of the mistreatment of native peoples in our own era of exploration here and that’s intentional. My merfolk can walk on land and survive out of the sea for a time and that gives me more scope as a writer. More than that, a mermaid who’s a fish below the waist would have made for a very short romance with my pirate I suspect.

Speaking of characters, there is a great bunch of them in The Guns of Ivrea. Do you have a favourite?

That’s tough. I love all my “children.” But, at a pinch, I’d probably say Captain Julianus Strykar, a very jaded mercenary who’s running a lucrative narcotics trade on the side as the novel opens.

Moving onto writing, do you have any advice to aspiring writers on balancing descriptive, historical writing with action and the forward momentum of a story? You’re pretty damned good at it!

Thanks for that. It’s always a question of balance though. I avoid info-dumps whenever possible and prefer to let the world unfold through my characters’ eyes. This is above all an adventure story so plotting and pacing are key. The old adage of “show—don’t tell” is no bad advice. Narrative summary isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s character-driven scenes like in a play that push the story forward and keep readers turning the pages.

Also, you’ve gone from writing non-fiction to fiction writing. Was that always the plan and do you think that one benefits the other?

Cliff-BealWell, I had been scribbling fiction since I was a teenager and I did complete a novel in the 90s but at heart I always felt I was a historian so ended up writing and publishing a non-fiction popular history about a not-so-famous Anglo-American pirate named John Quelch. One ungenerous reviewer called it “fiction” so I decided what the hell and went hard over into fiction writing. I get far more enjoyment from writing novels. Novels and non-fiction are very different creatures and I myself never saw much in the way of crossover in tradecraft other than you are stringing sentences together in both.

I’m curious: when you get the inevitable comparisons to authors such as George R.R. Martin does that fill you with pride? A sense of dread? And how much weight do you put upon them kinds of author-to-author comparisons?

I think the only one comparing me to GRRM is my publisher! If Fantasy Faction did as well then I would be blushing all over. I’m a little bit dubious of author comparisons as they can pigeonhole writers but I do understand why publishers and marketeers use them. The entire fantasy genre is an increasingly wide spectrum of niches and sub-genres. It’s hard to link authors to the right audience because of that and author comparisons can perhaps serve as pointers.

Finally, Valdur seems to have incredible scope – whether you move forwards in time, backwards in time, across the word, focus on different characters, a different race, write more novels, novellas or even short stories, etc. Can you tell us about your plans for the sequel(s) and anything beyond that?

I can’t say too much about the sequel without blundering into spoiler territory but that said, it’s called The Witch of Torinia and should be out about a year from now. Nearly done with the first draft and what I can say is that many of the plot elements that pick up steam in Guns: the schism in the church and the slow descent into war across Valdur, will come to the fore (as will an ancient evil). There will be action on the high seas but also proper full-scale battles on land between armoured hosts. I’ve got several sets of characters and it’s a big world so the possibilities exist for more tales of Valdur down the road if the reading public shows an interest. Apart from Valdur, I’ve got some ideas for a few short stories and I would love to go back to historical fiction again at some point. It’s the closest we can ever get to time travel.

For more information of The Guns of Ivrea check out the Rebellion Publishing website here.
Form more information about Clifford Beal check out his website here.
If you’re feeling the need to stalk him online, his Twitter account is here and his Facebook Page is here.

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