Gareth Hanrahan, from Cork, Ireland, is the author of The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint, the first two books in the Black Iron Legacy series. He has also written short stories for a few different anthologies (such as the Cthulhu-based Delta Green anthology, Extraordinary Renditions), but prior to his work as a novelist, Gareth was known for his game designing. Initially a computer programmer, he decided to turn to writing and never looked back.
He wrote Mongoose’s fifth RuneQuest setting, Hawkmoon: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the Traveller Core Rulebook (2008), which managed to outsell RuneQuest and become Mongoose’s new #1 game. Later, after a mountain of work for various publishers (that included Middle Earth, Doctor Who, and Warhammer Fantasy environments), Gareth became a full-time writer for Pelgrane Press, producing incredibly imaginative material for Trail of Cthulhu (Lovecraftian RPG), 13th Age (epic story-based RPG), and Night’s Black Agents (espionage and vampire RPG). He has recently developed an RPG adventure that takes place in his Black Iron Legacy setting.
Mr. Hanrahan was very gracious in accepting my request for an interview. I tried to avoid spoilers, especially when referring to The Shadow Saint…I tended to ask more generalized questions about it. The timing of the interview is perfect, as I’m currently working on a review of The Gutter Prayer.
My questions are in bold and referenced as “HA”, while Gar’s answers are represented by “GH”.
HA: According to other interviews I’ve read, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, the UK House of Cards, the comic book V for Vendetta, and even the video game Thief are all influences on your writing, and elements of these are identifiable in your work. Monsters, thieves, gods, alchemy, and political intrigue abound. Is there any influence or aspect that you *haven’t* worked into your stories yet, but that you want to explore?
GH: Arguably the biggest is humour; I used to write a lot more funny stuff. There are a few jokes in the Black Iron Legacy, but it’s a pretty grim place, and while it does sometimes descend into farce, it’s usually more “oh god, everything’s exploding and six different people are betraying me simultaneously.” Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse don’t quite fit into Guerdon – although Wodehouse does sneak in a little.
HA: Did you have anyone close to you read and critique The Gutter Prayer? How much re-editing did you do before publishing? How long had you been working on it?
GH: A few friends read various drafts of The Gutter Prayer, and gave different degrees of feedback. The biggest influencing factor there, of course, was my wife’s insistence that I actually finish the manuscript instead of junking it and moving onto another shiny idea.
Later, when I signed with John Jarrold, he did a full edit of the manuscript before he started shopping it around to publishers. It didn’t change that much in editing – it was mostly polishing and tightening. I started working on it in… November 2014, I think, and it was done by the start of 2016 or so.
HA: What was your publishing experience like? Did you have to shop your book around a lot? How did you end up with Orbit?
GH: Once I finished the MS, I sent it in to a couple of open calls. I didn’t even try to get an agent, because some friends of mine had complained about how hellish and exhausting the process could be. So, I thought I’d bypass it and go straight for the open calls.
As far as I can tell, I made it to the later stages of all three open calls, but didn’t get any requests for a full manuscript. I also wasted far, far too much time trying to read tea leaves on twitter, hitting refresh on my inbox, and generally obsessing over a process I had no control over.
When the last open call announced they were done, I thought I’d try self-publishing – while I haven’t really self-published anything, I have a lot of experience to draw on from working for years in tabletop roleplaying publishing, so I have a vague idea of the process. My plan was to wait and save up some cash to pay for good cover art, then run a kickstarter.
While waiting, another friend mentioned that his agent was always open to submissions. I sent it off without much thought – as I said, my impression was that finding an agent was a demoralising grind, and I’d already worn my nerves out with the open calls.
But John Jarrold liked it, offered to represent me… and within a few months, there was a great deal on the table. So, from one perspective, the publishing experience was all totally painless and easy – but it took me a long time to get there.
HA: I’m always curious how much a writer works their own personality into characters in the book. Do you feel like any of the characters reflect you in some way?
GH: I think that’s inescapable. Even if I set out to create a character who’s absolutely nothing like me, I’m drawing on the negative space of my personality. Certainly, all the main characters are either partly derived from my own thoughts and experiences, or are a commentary or reaction on them.
Is “reflect” the right word here? Maybe “refract” is more like it. Someone like Spar has bits of me in him, but a lot of the character is defined by their place in the world, by their own upbringing, by the needs of the plot.
The character who has the most me in them… might actually be the Spy, because he’s not defined by anything, so he’s going to take on more colour from the refraction, so to speak.
HA: When you started writing, what came first conceptually: your characters, Guerdon, or early plotting?
GH: Of those three, bits of Guerdon – I have some notes on elements of the city that go back years, although ‘concepts’ is probably overblown. It’s really just a list of evocative location names. I started writing without any real clue what was going on or who the characters were, grabbing names and ideas that had been swirling around my head for ages. Then, after about 20,000 words, I sat down and actually worked out something approaching an outline of a plot.
HA: What’s the most difficult thing about writing viewpoint characters from the opposite sex?
GH: Breaking down characters is always really tricky, at least for me. Systems and structures, in general, need to make sense. If you’ve got, say, a flying castle, then there has to be a reason it flies, or it needs to be in a setting where a flying castle is unremarkable – in which case, everything else in that setting needs to align with those assumptions. Guerdon’s a quasi-Victorian steam-punk-ish city in a setting full of mad gods and sorcerers, so everything there has to work under those constraints.
Characters, though… they’re their own little worlds, and they don’t have to make sense anywhere outside their own heads. Taking them apart tends to expose those contradictions and quirks. So, when I’m writing a woman – or a man, or a ghoul, or a psychotic candlestick or a god – their sex is only one part of their character, and trying to pick it out and analyse it in isolation wouldn’t not make sense. Would, say, Carillon be a different character if I wrote her a man? Yes, but I’m not sure how.
HA: You have said that in The Gutter Prayer you had written your characters into a tough spot and didn’t initially know how they would get out of it. Was it difficult to find that “way out”? Did you ever worry that you wouldn’t find a satisfactory conclusion?
GH: Nah. The glorious thing about writing is that you can go back and change stuff, and no-one will ever know. You can have a revelation about how they’ll escape, and then go back and add more material to justify that revelation, and then tweak everything until it’s a satisfactory conclusion. The rough shape of the ending was always there, I just needed to figure out the details.
HA: You started The Gutter Prayer as a standalone, but now The Shadow Saint is out, and I hear you’re working on a third book, and possibly a fourth or fifth. Despite starting with a standalone, in your mind, is there an overall arc that would tie the books together? Are you thinking that far ahead as far as a unifying concept?
GH: There’s definitely an arc, although I’m trying to tell a more-or-less complete story in each book. I wrote The Gutter Prayer as a standalone, but Orbit offered to buy a sequel – which meant unpacking some plot threads I’d intended to just leave as tantilising hints. And the sequel, similarly, leaves some threads open. I do intend to wrap the series up conclusively when the time comes.
HA: When did you start thinking about plot and characters in The Shadow Saint – or when did you start to conceive of it as a sequel?
GH: I’ve had bits of the plot and some of the characters in the back of my head for years, long before I wrote The Gutter Prayer. I don’t think you ever start a book from scratch – you’ve always got ideas that are just drifting around for years, waiting for the right place to take root. When I needed a sequel to The Gutter Prayer, I was able to slot those concepts in to the already-built world.
HA: What would you say are the biggest differences between The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint, from not only a story perspective, but also in the writing process when crafting the two books? Did you feel any pressure when writing The Shadow Saint based on the success and positive feedback of The Gutter Prayer?
GH: Structurally, the two books are quite different. The Gutter Prayer was, at its core, a bunch of people trying to unravel a mystery. While the different protagonists each had hold of a different part of the elephant, they were all on the same side, more or less. In The Shadow Saint, the three main characters are each representing one side in a struggle for control of the city, and there’s a lot more intrigue and conspiring instead of investigation. The second book is also a little slower and more considered but that’s mainly because the main characters have different outlooks.
The Shadow Saint was more or less done before The Gutter Prayer came out, so there was no pressure or feedback to consider for that one. Book 3 is a different story…
HA: How much interaction do you have with readers/fans of your books?
GH: I live on twitter. I lurk on goodreads and reddit. I’m cautious of too much interaction, though, because my instincts were honed by tabletop gaming, so my initial reaction to comments is often to give advice or suggest tweaks. That works for a tabletop game, but not for a novel.
HA: Are there any “Easter eggs” in your books, things that maybe only you or your friends/family might recognize, or small things you’ve hidden in The Shadow Saint that pay homage to The Gutter Prayer?
GH: Oh, yes. Most of the locations in the books are inspired by places in Cork, as are some of the names. There are some roleplaying in-jokes in there, too. There are lots of little connections between the books – I’m not sure if they count as Easter eggs, but a big theme of the series is the connection between past and present, how places get repurposed and history gets layered on and reinterpreted. So, the same locations get used in several books but for different purposes and from different perspectives.
HA: If you had a chance to sit down and bounce ideas off of any author you’ve never met, alive or dead, who would you choose and why?
GH: Oh. I’m unsure how to choose. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t mind having a chat with Robert Anton Wilson, of the Illuminatus! series. I adore his Masks of the Illuminati in particular. His was a fascinating mind.
HA: Bonus question: your Fall of Delta Green and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops material sounds amazing. Could you ever see that material making its way into a novel?
GH: The Fall of Delta Green is based on the Delta Green property – there are a bunch of novels and short stories out there already (shameless plug – I have a story in Failed Anatomies).
As for Night’s Black Agents, I co-wrote a novel (sort-of) that ties into that, in the form of Dracula Unredacted.
I do have a few modern-day ideas for weird fiction lurking around, but nothing planned for the medium term…
Many thanks to Gareth for taking the time to answer my questions in an engaging manner – I was fascinated by his responses. The Gutter Prayer and The Shadow Saint are both currently available for purchase a most bookseller outlets. The third book in the series has a currently projected publishing date of January 2021.
For more about Gareth Hanrahan, you can check out his site at https://garhanrahan.com/