Article published on November 30, 2017.
After having read and reviewed The Year of the Knife, Gill Chedgey posed some question to G.D. Penman:
Gill Chedgey: You were a new novelist to me so I did a little Googling before I read your book and I love that you describe yourself as writing ‘speculative’ fiction. It’s a term Margaret Atwood used when The Handmaid’s Tale was being called science fiction. Could you tell us a little about what you mean by the term?
G.D. Penman: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are the genres that I tend to lurk around in. They all use allegory to a certain degree to examine elements of life and society. When I say “speculative fiction” I mainly mean that I am extrapolating story elements based on human responses to similar things. I don’t know how people would deal with aliens showing up on their doorstep, but I do know, historically, what has happened when human beings from wildly different cultures first interacted.
Margaret Atwood used the term because she didn’t want to be relegated to the “genre fiction” ghetto when she believed that her work was “literature.” I use it because it is easier than rattling off the dozens of genres and sub-genres that it encompasses, and it gives me a little bit of wiggle room within those genres.
Gill Chedgey: This may follow on from that question. In the front of the copy of the book I received there are several suggested categories; Fantasy/Urban, Fantasy/Paranormal, Romance/LGBT/Lesbian, Alternative History. Do categories and genres interest you?
G.D. Penman: Because I have made the terrible mistake of writing a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a single category, I now have to wrestle with a list of 15 different genres. The Year of the Knife is a hardboiled detective mystery. But it is also an urban fantasy book. But the technological advancement has been limited by the existence of magic so it is also verging on Steampunk or Gaslamp fantasy. But the existence of magic has also caused history to diverge wildly from ours so it is an Alt. History book. But vampires and skinwalkers exist so it could also be called a paranormal fantasy book. The main character’s growth is certainly tied to her romantic engagements, so I suppose you could just about classify the book as romance?
Some people have an interest in categories and genres, some have categories and genres thrust upon them, and I suspect that I may be in the latter category (or genre).
Gill Chedgey: There were various sections of the book which, when I was reading, I could clearly imagine myself playing some kind of associated video game. Is this incidental or was it a conscious part of your writing?
G.D. Penman: Video games are where I go to wind down, and I have a history of writing for games, so it isn’t too surprising that some gamey logic might have slipped into the book. And of course, I would be delighted if someone were to come along with a wheelbarrow of money to Witcher my book.
I think that games have had a lot of flexibility in terms of the scale of conflicts portrayed compared to cinema over the last decade, so when I am constructing some of the larger set-piece conflicts it is only natural that our minds are drawn to them.
Gill Chedgey: Sully is a great character but when I first started reading “Agent Sully” it immediately made me think of “Agent Scully”, so obviously Dana Scully and the X Files. That made me wonder what your influences might be?
G.D. Penman: By the time I realised that there might be a Sully/Scully problem I was already far too attached to her to change something as integral to her character as her name.
I did enjoy (some of) the X-Files, but they certainly weren’t an influence on the book. Laurell K. Hamilton’s early Anita Blake books were my go-to urban fantasy when I first started reading the genre. I ghost-write a lot of True Crime, so the criminology of real cases viewed through a more fantastical lens probably fed into it too.
Gill Chedgey: I was impressed by the world you have created in this story. I was thinking, for example, of the Schroedinger units and the references to Dante Aligheri and how they all nestle so comfortably within the story yet the historic and scientific allusions are there. Did you have to do a lot of research before writing the story?
G.D. Penman: I read an awful lot of non-fiction, and I have done so for decades and while I seem to be incapable of remembering things like how to turn on the damned washing machine, my brain seems to retain strange trivia without any issues. You could argue that I have been researching the book for years? No. Honestly, I had to do some serious reading about American History to make sure that I was portraying things accurately, but things like Dante and my very tenuous grasp on Schroedinger’s experiments with the degradation of nuclear materials were just things that were knocking around in my head, waiting for an opportunity to escape.
Gill Chedgey: The Year of the Knife was also a song by Tears for Fears released way back in 1989. Just a coincidence or…..?
G.D. Penman: I wish that I had found the phrase “The Year of the Knife” in Tears for Fears’ b-side back catalogue. Sadly, it actually came into my life while researching the trial of O.J. Simpson. His son suffered from schizophrenia, and he was considered to be a suspect in the murders. In amongst the mound of diaries which were entered into evidence against him was the phrase “This is the year of the knife.” Which was considered quite chilling and pertinent evidence, given the way that Nicole Brown Simpson had been killed. If they had realised he was just quoting lyrics in his diaries like every other teenager they probably would have gotten through that investigation a lot quicker.
Gill Chedgey: The setting of the novel intrigued me; Sully is a witch of the British Empire yet the action takes place in the USA, which creates a wonderfully imaginative fusion of locations. Can you tell us a little about this?
G.D. Penman: Well, I just hate the American spelling of words so much that I had to find a reason for my American characters to still be writing properly.
Seriously though, when I introduced magic into the history of The Year of the Knife, I knew that it was going to cause some divergence. Because technology and disease were less relevant, the whole geopolitical landscape was going to shift massively.
This meant small things like the Roman Empire still kicking about in a vestigial form. But it also meant that the Age of Empires never ended, the war for America was fought by evenly matched forces, Africa was never exploited by Europe, the Transatlantic slave trade never occurred, the AIDS epidemic never wiped out the generation that were fighting to secure equal rights for queer people decades ago… the list of differences is endless.
I strongly encourage readers to try to backtrack from any confusing changes in history to try to work out what happened because if I had to suffer through puzzling it all out, everyone has to!
Gill Chedgey: Following on from that question, are these areas that interest you? Or are they just specific to this novel?
G.D. Penman: I am a history fiend. This book just happened to provide a more obvious outlet for my love of history than most of the other things that I have written. The world would greatly benefit from knowing and learning from its history. As recent events have proven yet again.
Gill Chedgey: I thoroughly enjoyed the humour in the book. Does that come naturally? Or did you seek to inject it into the story for a little light relief?
G.D. Penman: I don’t know if I wanted the book to be funny, exactly. I was conscious of the fact that this is a book about magic, and that the best magic in fiction is as whimsical as it is powerful. As for Sully’s sarcastic commentary, that is all her, don’t blame me.
Gill Chedgey: Something I love to ask writers, are you an avid reader yourself? If so, can you remember the first book that moved you to tears (if any have)?
G.D. Penman: You cannot be a good writer if you are not an avid reader. You just can’t. It would be like a chef with no sense of taste.
As for the first book that moved me to tears; I cry at the drop of a hat. I cried just thinking about Thorin and Bilbo in The Hobbit last month. Me crying at a book isn’t a testimonial to its emotional power, it is just a sign of my emotional instability. Literally any book I read as a child could have made me cry, so I can’t give you the first one, but the most recent one to reduce me to proper hour-long blubbering was Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Errand.
Gill Chedgey: And finally, having enjoyed this novel so much, I am bound to ask whether you have another book in the pipeline?! And if you’re prepared to divulge anything about it? Will there be any more Sully stories?
G.D. Penman: I have some romance books coming out in 2018, starting with Lovers and Liches in January, and Heart of Winter, the prequel to The Year of the Knife that focuses more on Sully’s relationship with Marie should be available shortly after the first book comes out. As for sequels… if one were hypothetically being written right now it would probably be coming out in 2019? As for the plot, it is difficult to talk about anything after The Year of the Knife without giving the ending away, so I am afraid you will just have to wait until then. In theory. If I was writing a sequel. Which I am neither confirming or denying.
We’d like to thank both G.D. Penman and Gill Chedgey for this excellent Q&A.
The Year of the Knife by G.D. Penman
Meerkat Press 9780996626286 pbk Nov 2017