How did you find writing to novella length? Did it change your style or process at all?
I would never have thought of writing a novella if Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press hadn’t asked me for one; I didn’t actually have to look ‘novella’ up in the dictionary, but I wasn’t familiar with the form. Now I reckon it’s my favorite. There are so many nice ideas that are too big for a short story but which won’t fill up a novel without padding on a Falstaffian scale; you have enough room to develop a character, work through a theme and construct a well-engineered narrative, but not quite enough rope to hang yourself with.
There’s a sense of a huge, richly realized world just outside the focus of the lead in The Last Witness. How much worldbuilding did you do?
I don’t build worlds, I steal them and file off the serial numbers. That’s one of the pleasures of fantasy; you can mix and match choice titbits of real-world history in a sort of narrative special fried rice. One of the many things I learned from my friends in the antique forgery biz is that nothing makes a fake (sorry,a pastiche) more convincing than bits of the real thing stuck in where they can be plainly seen; a few hand-turned Georgian screws here, a sheet of centuries-old parchment there (look out for 18th century title deeds; you can erase the writing on parchment with sandpaper and there you have a blank sheet of almost-period parchment to create your brand new Dryden sonnet on). Nothing, in my opinion, helps the fantasy writer to induce the vital suspension of disbelief more than a scattering of the real thing – genuine events, historical characters, descriptions of authentic objects and real-life everyday life.
Your point about art forgery and fantasy writing is a very good one (I also desperately want to ask more but don’t want to get anyone into choppy legal water). What bits of the real; thing did you scatter through the novella?
To be honest with you, I can’t remember offhand; and you wouldn’t be cruel enough to make me go back and read one of my own books just so as to be able to answer the question.
Do you have plans to return to this world?
I tell myself that everything I write is set in the same world, but spread out over about two thousand years; so that some things stay the same but most things don’t. On that assumption, ‘Purple and Black’ is the oldest episode, and ‘Let Maps To Others’ and ‘The Hammer’ are the most recent.
How did the novella evolve as you were writing it?
I started with a basic idea – if you got rid of all the witnesses, would the dreadful thing you once did ever have happened at all? – and designed a main character who I felt could handle it. After that, I mostly followed where he led me. I have to get to know a character, by writing him, before I can reliably predict how he’s going to act and react.
The exploration of selective memory in the novella is fascinating. What sort of research did you find yourself drawn to for that?
I can’t remember…
What’s your next project?
I’m continuing with ‘Two of Swords’, for Orbit; I’ve written another novella for Tor, due out next year – it’s the further adventures of my favorite KJ Parker character, so it was great fun to write; I’ve done another novella for Subterranean Press (“Downfall of the Gods”), and yet another as part of Jonathan Oliver’s Five Stories High project. Meanwhile, my evil twin, Tom Holt, is about half way through his next effort. If you can’t do quality, do quantity instead; the typewriters-and-monkeys school of literature…