Orcs: Tales of Maras-Dantia

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Stan Nicholls is a British author and journalist. He has written numerous novels and short stories but is best known for the internationally acclaimed Orcs series. London-born Nicholls currently lives in the West Midlands with his wife, science fiction author Anne Nicholls (formerly Anne Gay), and they are joint guests of honour at this year’s Novacon, the UK’s longest-running regional science fiction convention.
Orcs: Tales of Maras-Dantia (published by Newcon Press, with cover art by Chris [Fangorn] Baker ) will launch at Novacon. I was thrilled when Stan agreed to discuss the new book, sexy orcs and other interesting topics.

FB: The Orcs series brought you international acclaim. How did you go about making the orcs your own? How well were you acquainted with European folklore at the start of your journey?

SN: I don’t claim to be an expert on European folklore, but I know enough to be aware that orcs as a mythical race have roots that go back many centuries.
That aside, I approached using orcs as characters in the same way that many authors, film-makers, games developers, etc, use elves, goblins, vampires, werewolves and the host of other fantastical creatures that have come down to us through legend and fiction. In other words, as raw clay to be fashioned. And the way I wanted to shape my version of the orcs was, I think, different to their traditional depiction. I set myself the task of presenting them as sympathetic; still ferocious warriors, and merciless to any opposing them, but with reasons for being the way they are. I wanted to make them more rounded. Customarily, orcs have been presented as mindlessly evil and little more than arrow fodder for the good guys. There was never any back story, no hint that they might have a culture, customs, hopes and fears. I tried to give them those things, and even a certain nobility. A central element of my conception is that the old truism about winners writing the history books applied to the orcs. That they were maligned and unjustly demonised. The ultimate outsiders you might say, which is a theme in a lot of my work.

Haskeer, by Chris Baker.
Haskeer, by Chris Baker.

FB: Was JRR Tolkien an influence or a challenge in the creation of your orcs?

SN: This relates to your previous question. There’s a general belief that Tolkien invented orcs, but the reality is that he didn’t. What he did do was dig into that European folklore you mentioned in search of the villainous horde he needed as a counterweight to his heroic characters. He lighted on orcs and moulded them for his own purposes. So he certainly popularised orcs even though he didn’t create them.
Was he an influence or a challenge? Both. Tolkien casts a long shadow over the fantasy genre. Rightly so, because what he did was brilliantly original and a feat of storytelling with amazing depth. The last thing I wanted to do was to try to imitate him or attempt to add to his canon in any way. I think any writer who tried to do that would be making a big mistake and heading for a fall. My orcs books are in no way connected to Tolkien’s world, any more than the Twilight series is connected to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to take a random example. I guess he may well have been some kind of influence on me in that I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, at a time when the books weren’t generally known, and I suppose there could have been an effect on my desire to be a storyteller, if only subconsciously. But I’ve never wanted to emulate him or augment anything he wrote. In fact, I avoided re-reading The Lord of the Rings when I started writing my orcs books precisely because I didn’t want to be influenced by him on any level. These are my orcs and my take on them.

FB: Maras-Dantia is a rich invented world, parallel dimensions aside. In it we find a complex belief system (the Manis and the Unis representing respectively followers of polytheism and of monotheism), and a negative human impact on the environment. Fiction writers are reporters of the world for posterity: do you purposely feel the duty to reflect current society in your stories?

SN: There’s a sense in which I think we don’t have a choice. I have a theory that no matter where we set our stories – be it a totally invented fantasy world, a far-flung planet or the distant future – we’re still writing about the here and now. We can’t help it; we’re trapped in our bubble of time.
I consciously put a number of our current preoccupations in the orcs books, as I have in some of the non-orcs novels I’ve written because I believe speculative fiction is an ideal vehicle for real world topics. This is something that science fiction has often done, and its cousin, fantasy, is now mature enough to do the same. I try to write stories that operate on two levels. On the surface they are, I hope, entertaining adventures. But underneath that, and sometimes not too buried, there are other issues. In the case of the orcs series that includes concerns about the environment, religious extremism, the nature of violence, colonialism, and how those who are different are regarded. I’m not saying that my ideas about these things are any more relevant than anyone else’s, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that my books are diatribes, but those aspects are there if you look for them.

Coilla by Chris Baker.
Coilla by Chris Baker.

FB: When we read a book we construct full-bodied characters in our head. I clearly remember my first read through of Orcs – by the end of it, the character of Coilla, in my mind, had turned out to be a very sexy, hard-ass female orc! Now, in 2015 there’s a lot of talk about geek feminism and the lack of female leadership roles in SF and fantasy. I do believe, however, that Coilla is a very strong female presence in the books. What thought process went behind creating her, bearing in mind that you wrote this pre-1999?

SN: I’m really pleased that you picked up on that. I like women. I mean in the sense that I regard myself as pro-feminist, and feel an obligation to deal fairly with fifty-one per cent of our species. This might stem from my upbringing. There was no father around when I was growing up; I was reared by my mother, grandmother and various aunts. There were male members of my family around but they were rather distant figures. So I’ve always had a respect for females and their many attributes, and have tended to favour strong women. I’m from a very humble, working class background and the women in that situation have to be strong.
Maybe because of all that, my favourite characters, the ones I create, are almost always female. I have a very soft spot for Coilla, along with Shani Vanya in my Nightshade Chronicles trilogy and Serrah Ardacris in my Quicksilver novels. I even have a sneaking regard for the villainous Jennesta in the orcs books! Though I do worry, as a man, that when I write female characters I’m getting it right and giving them their due.

Stan Nicholls (with Anne Nicholls and Juliet McKenna), presenting the Gemmell Awards. Stan is the Chairman of the Gemmell Awards for Fantasy.
Stan Nicholls (with Anne Nicholls and Juliet McKenna), presenting the Gemmell Awards. Stan is the Chairman of the Gemmell Awards for Fantasy.

FB: You have been writing for a long time, both fiction and non-fiction. If you had to comment on the advent and impact of social media in the life of writers, what would you say? How to do you view the changes in the way authors relate to their audience?

SN: I consider readers to be a very important part of the process, perhaps the most important. After all, they are who you are ultimately trying to reach. I don’t take lightly the fact that readers are the ones who put their hands in their pockets, or purses, and make a writer’s life possible. I appreciate that and I’m grateful for it.
I’ve always tried to interact with readers, and the advent of social media has made that much easier, which is good. If I have a small concern it’s that, unless you’re careful, social media, and the Internet generally, can be a big drain on your time. And also on your output, in the sense that it’s easy to squander your creativity on what is essentially a transient medium when you should be channelling it into your writing. As with all things to do with the craft, self-discipline is essential.

FB: Throughout your career you must have written in many different places. Is there a writing memory tied to a special place that you would like to share with our readers?

SN: I guess I’m a bit conventional in this regard, in that I feel most comfortable in my workroom at home. A couple of years ago I finally got round to creating my ideal workroom. I put an enormous amount of thought into it, right down to the best colour scheme and the ideal number of power points! I wanted an environment that was as conducive to writing as possible, and what I’ve ended up with turned out near perfect. I’ve written in lots of places in the past – on kitchen tables in cramped flats, on beaches, airplanes, in lush countryside and coffee houses, to name a few – but I’m happiest and most productive here in my own little domain. But the really interesting places are in my head.

Orcs: Tales of Maras-Dantia, a prequel to Stan’s Orcs trilogies, will be available in paper and ebook editions from this weekend!