Stan Nicholls is a British author, journalist and the Chair of the Gemmell Awards. He has written over thirty books, most of them in the fantasy and science fiction genres, for both adult and young readers, and has been published in more than twenty countries. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, Film Monthly, Films & Filming, Movie, Rock Power, SFX, Sight & Sound and some seventy other publications. He very kindly agreed to answer some questions for me about his books, bookshops he worked in and the David Gemmell Awards.
I read that your first book shop was raided by the police and subsequently closed. What happened?
That was a long time ago, the 1970s, and it’s a rather involved story, but I’ll try to briefly summarise it. The shop was called Bookends, and I owned it in partnership with two other people, one of whom was the comicbook writer Steve Moore, who sadly died a couple of years ago. Bookends was a general bookstore in London’s Notting Hill Gate, with an extensive stock of science fiction, fantasy and comics, along with a lot of material that would have been labelled “alternative”.
You need to understand the context, both in terms of the times and the events that led to the raid. Older readers will probably remember the notorious Special Patrol Groups (SPGs), which were set up by the Metropolitan Police as roving units ostensibly to deal with street crime. They were a kind of autonomous force within the Met, and unlike most of the rest of the police in London they were armed. The SPGs were controversial from the outset, a law unto themselves you might say, and particularly antagonistic towards the black population. They were eventually disgraced and disbanded. In those days Notting Hill wasn’t the well-heeled, gentrified area it’s since become; it had a large black community, swathes of very cheap accommodation and many squats – a part of the capital that had a radical reputation, and consequently a target for the SPGs.
One day we witnessed an assault outside the shop. A young couple we knew as customers were set upon by three or four beefy men in civilian clothes. We saw the female of the couple knocked to the ground and dragged by her hair, screaming, towards an unmarked van. Steve and I went out and confronted one of the men. “Fuck off,” he said. When we persisted he repeated that and added, “We can shoot you, you know”, and pulled aside his jacket. He had a revolver, not in a holster but tucked into his belt. His appearance and attitude indicated gangster. In fact, as one of the other men curtly informed us, flashing his ID, they were a Special Patrol Group. The couple who were dragged off were released later that day without charge, though bruised and shaken. They told us that the SPG officers said they picked them up because “they didn’t like the way they looked”.
Bookends was one of a little parade of six or seven shops, and we weren’t the only people who saw this. Several other shop owners and their customers had also tried to intervene. A number of us, four or five I think, decided to make an official complaint. A week or two later we were all visited by a senior Scotland Yard officer who took detailed statements. A couple of weeks after that we received a letter saying, in so many words, that the incident never happened, and that if we kept making “false accusations” there would be “consequences”.
I can only speculate that what followed was connected to this incident, but it would be stretching things to think it was coincidence. We always had a good relationship with the police. The “real” police that is, like the neighbourhood bobby who frequently joined us for coffee and a chat. That changed. Apparently we were guilty of a string of minor offences against local bylaws. For example, we had an awning outside the store, one of those pull-down blinds, which in our case had the name of the shop on it. The police informed us that it was four inches too low and had to be adjusted on penalty of a fine. This kind of petty stuff went on for about a month, then things got really serious.
We stocked an extensive range of underground comics – titles like Zap, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Gothic Blimp Works and Air Pirates Funnies – most of which we imported from the United States. These were in a separate section and we were meticulous in selling them only to adults. Bright and early one morning the Vice Squad arrived, ordered all the customers out and made us close the shop. They claimed they’’d received a complaint from a parent whose child had bought some of these comix from us. They wouldn’t say who, and ignored our protests. Over the next couple of hours they loaded all the comix into a truck. Not just underground comix; they also took titles like Tarzan Adventures and Mickey Mouse Weekly!
I won’t weary you with all the ins and outs of what happened in subsequent weeks, except to say that it involved us hiring a very expensive lawyer and a long, detailed correspondence with the Vice Squad and Director of Public Prosecutions. Asked why they seized a totally inoffensive title like Tarzan Adventures the police told us they suspected it contained “homosexual erotica”! I know. You couldn’t make it up. In the end the DPP decided that there were no grounds for prosecution. But, invoking an obscure “power of discretion”, the police nevertheless had all the comics destroyed, including the Tarzans and Mickeys. No appeal, or at least none that we could afford. We still had to pay our American suppliers, and it was an enormous amount for a small outfit like ours. That alone didn’t put us out of business, but it certainly contributed to the shop’s demise. Of course, it was a different world then, and sections of the Metropolitan Police were infamous for corruption. It was like being in an episode of Life On Mars. Things have improved a lot since.
Oh, dear. I said I’d keep it brief and I’ve gone on quite a bit. I did say it was an involved story though.
You were the first manager at Forbidden Planet. What was the bookstore like back then?
After Bookends I was invited to be the Manager, and subsequently Company Secretary, of Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, at that time Europe’s biggest sf and comics shop. I was there for five or six years, as the shop moved from fairly modest premises in Soho’s Berwick Street to a much larger venue in St Anne’s Court, between Wardour and Dean streets. When I eventually left I was headhunted as a manager by the trio who wanted to set up Forbidden Planet. A year or so later, and very regrettably, Dark They Were went out of business. That was a real shame. Under its owner, Derek Stokes, it was a trailblazer, and there was room for two sf retailers in London. But it was not to be.
Forbidden Planet broke the mould in that its three owners – Mike Lake, Nick Landau and Mike Luckman – backed their ambition with business degrees and a professionalism lacking in many of the other specialist genre shops that mushroomed at the time. Even so, FP had humble beginnings. It started in a lock-up garage in Shepherd’s Bush, where we stored the mostly American imported stock, a space so small that when it rained we tossed a coin to determine who stayed outside and got wet! Eventually a shop was found, in London’s “Tin Pan Alley”, Denmark Street. My assistant manager, and comics department supremo, was Paul Hudson, who would later have his own shop, Comics Showcase, on the Charing Cross Road. Another co-worker was Josh Palmano, who went on to open the Gosh! comic shops in central London. FP was obviously a breeding ground for budding comics entrepreneurs.
In those early years Forbidden Planet was a rather different place to the chain it’s grown into. The majority of the stock consisted of sf, fantasy and horror books, with the rest of the shop taken up by comics. There was merchandising, mostly film material, but initially that existed on the periphery. The balance has changed quite dramatically in the years since then, and some people decry the fact that books have less prominence. But the truth is that FP had to expand the merchandising and other incidentals in order to survive and thrive. Otherwise it might well have gone the way of other great shops that stuck to purely books – the late, lamented Andromeda in Birmingham being one example.
I worked with some good people at FP, and got the chance to help set up the New York branch, and my experience as a bookseller taught me a lot about the sharp end of the book trade. But it was always of lesser interest to me than writing, which was and remains my central passion. I only really got into bookselling to be near to books, meet authors and hopefully learn something about the writing game. Eventually I got to the point where I had to make a choice and decided to jump ship to pursue the dream.
When did you become a full-time writer?
That’s an interesting question. On one level the answer’s simple: I took the plunge as a full-time writer in 1981, and have earned a living at it ever since. But I was writing in what spare time I had when working in the bookshops, and occasionally selling my work. I actually sold some pieces of non-fiction when I was a teenager, and I published fanzines. In fact, I began to write when I was nine years old. That was when I wrote what I flippantly refer to as my first novel. I used a spiral-bound reporter’s notebook and different coloured felt tip pens. I knew that novels had things called chapters but I had no idea how long they were supposed to be, so I made every page a new chapter with its own title. The plot involved a group of children, and their courageous dog, who spot flying saucers over a bleak moor and end up preventing an alien invasion. Even then I was drawn to fantastical subjects. It was bloody awful, of course. Given that I came from a very impoverished background and a home with no books, I guess the wonder is that I wrote anything at all. But I was always a bit of a cuckoo in the nest.
How did you come to write your first novel? I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger was indirectly responsible…
My first book, more accurately, and Arnie was very, very indirectly responsible! When I decided to try going full-time I knew enough about the publishing industry to be aware that it’s extremely difficult to make a living as an author. My way round this was to find work as a freelance journalist, so that I had an income while figuring out how to write books. Then I was asked by one of the book publishers to try my hand at being what the Americans call a first reader, and which here is less kindly referred to as a slush pile reader. Reading and assessing manuscripts sent in by members of the public, in other words. I did that for four or five publishers and a couple of agents. Without wanting to sound unkind, what I learned mostly from that was what not to do if you want to be a published author. I read countless of manuscripts and found no more than a handful good enough to be published.
The way it works is that you supply the editor with a kind of memo outlining the plot and, most importantly, your judgement about the manuscript’s quality and whether it should be further considered for publication. You’re expected to be brutally honest in these memos which are intended to be seen by no one except the publisher. I was given the manuscript of the novelisation of Schwarzenegger’s movie Kindergarten Cop. It was actually quite good; a slick, professional job, which I suggested should be considered for publication. In the event the publisher decided against it; the price being asked was too high, I think. I forgot all about it. What I didn’t know was that when they rejected the manuscript and returned it to the agent they accidentally included my memo. I got a phone call from that agent, asking if I was the reader of her client’s book. Oh God, I thought, she’s going to blame me for the rejection. But no. What she said was, “Have you ever thought of writing a book?” She’d seen something in that memo – hastily written and not meant to be seen by more than a couple of people – and reckoned I had the makings of an author.
She became my agent. Via her, my first book was actually a quiz book, based on the Gladiators TV series. The series was being filmed as I wrote it, so there was an element of groping in the dark. I did it for a fairly modest fee, and no royalties. I remember talking to my agent a few weeks after the show was aired and she mentioned in passing that the book had sold over 100,000 copies. But I had no regrets about not getting a cut. That was the deal and I went into it with my eyes open. A number of film and TV novelisations came along after that, with the terms slowly increasing each time. I also wrote several celeb biographies, some ghosted.
They weren’t necessarily something I was burning to do, but I was very grateful for the work. You take what you can get when you’re starting out, and in this business your credits are your collateral in the sense that one book hopefully leads to another. Eventually I got to the point where I was writing my own books, so to speak, most of which at that stage were young adult novels. I later moved on to another agent – I’m fortunate enough to be represented by one of the best in the business – but I feel indebted to my first agent for the start she gave me. I guess the whole thing is an example of how a small happenstance can lead to bigger things.
Your best known books are probably the Orcs series. How did you come to be so fond of orcs? What did you find specially intriguing about them?
I’ve been known to refer to my orcs books, perhaps glibly, as my “five minute idea”. Because that’s about how long the idea behind them took. My thought was “Suppose the orcs weren’t really evil but maligned and misunderstood?” What if they were portrayed as heroes, albeit flawed and savage, and humans were the villains? It seemed such a simple idea, and I was surprised no one else had come up with it. So I set myself the task of making these traditionally villainous creatures sympathetic, and to tell a story from their point of view. As the concept developed I worked in other aspects, like religion, alienated groups and the environment . In that respect fantasy, like science fiction, can be used as a vehicle for examining issues in the real world. I also wanted to see how much action I could cram into the story while keeping the narrative balanced. Above all, I was drawn to the notion of outsiders. It’s a kind of recurring theme in my work, I suppose. Almost everyone feels like an outsider at some time in their life, particularly when young, and it’s a feeling that many writers certainly have.
I should point out, as I have numerous times, that my orcs aren’t Tolkien’s orcs. People believe, understandably but mistakenly, that he invented them. My approach was to use them like any of the other mythical beings available to writers of fiction – elves, trolls, gnomes, gremlins, giants, dragons, vampires and all the rest. What I definitely wasn’t doing was emulating Tolkien in any way, or trying to add anything to his creations. I’d have to be insane to try doing that, any writer would. And, much as I admire Tolkien, whom I first read in my teens, I deliberately avoided re-reading him when I was writing the orcs series. I didn’t want any hint of influence to creep in.
It’s ironic. When I began writing the orcs books I naturally hoped that they’d do OK, maybe supply a bit of money to enable me to go on to write other books I wanted to do. No one was more surprised – make that shocked – when they did as well as they did. The eight titles in the series comprise just a quarter of the books I’ve had published, yet I’ve a feeling that they’ll be mentioned on my tombstone!
What kind of books do you enjoy as a reader? Have any titles stood out for you in the last few years?
Fantasy, science fiction and to some extent supernatural fiction are my lifelong obsessions, but I think it’s important to read more widely than that. If you only read, say, fantasy then all you have to judge each book against is others in the same genre. You lose perspective. So I read over quite a wide spectrum. Having said that, I don’t read nearly as much as I used to, though I believe it’s vital for a writer to do so. It seems to me that this is fairly common among writers. It’s partly because we’re all so consumed with writing our own stuff, and partly due to a dread of unconscious plagiarism. I stress unconscious. I think a lot of us fear accidentally sucking up something we’ve read, if only a character or place name, and inadvertently using it.
I generally don’t comment on titles that have stood out for me, particularly in the fantasy field. As Chair of the Gemmell Awards I have to be aware that anything I praise, or perhaps criticise, may be taken as an endorsement or a condemnation of a title that could end up in the running. It’s a rule everyone connected with the awards does their best to observe.
Could you please tell us how, when and why The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy were founded?
David Gemmell was a good friend, and a remarkable character. His untimely death, in 2006, was a terrible shock to all who knew him and to many fellow writers in the fantasy genre. A number of us got together after his death and tried to think of a way to honour his name and work, and an award seemed the most fitting tribute. The driving force behind this was the writer Deborah Miller, who pursued the idea single-mindedly and kept the rest of us on track. Deborah developed breast cancer, and fought that with the same determination and a deal of courage, but tragically succumbed in May 2013. The awards probably wouldn’t exist without her vision and all the work she put into them.
Gemmell was a great believer in the importance of readers, and on that basis we decided that the best way to determine an outcome was by an open, public vote. We were also of a mind that if people were good enough to put their hands in their pockets to buy books they were good enough to vote for their favourite titles. In addition to that, we felt that having a jury, no matter how impartial and honourable they might be in their deliberations, seemed contrary to the spirit of the times. So we put our trust in the wisdom of crowds, which given that people have voted in their many thousands seems to have been the right decision.
Initially we had just one award, which of course we had to call the Legend after Dave’s first and mostfamous book, presented for the title judged the year’s best. Our first awards ceremony, in 2009, took place in the theatre in London Magic Circle headquarters, which is a remarkable venue and served as our home for five of our ceremonies. In our second year we introduced two additional categories – the Ravenheart Award, for best book cover art, and the Morningstar Award, for best debut. We were particularly keen to bring in the Morningstar as Gemmell was noted for the support he offered to new and aspiring writers. In 2013 we were privileged to hold our ceremony as part of the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, and in 2015 we staged it at the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London. This year we’re very pleased to be having the ceremony at Fantasycon in Scarborough. In the same way that we want to involve the reading public in the voting, we also try to make the ceremony itself as accessible to as many people as possible.
We’re particularly proud of the trophies we present. The Legend trophy is a scale replica of Snaga, the butterfly axe wielded by Gemmell’s most popular character, Druss. That’s specially made for us by Simon Fearnhamm of Raven Armoury, and we believe that, with a value of £3500, it’s one of the most valuable trophies offered for a literary award. The Morningstar and Ravenheart trophies are also specially commissioned, from artist Lee Blair, and are extremely impressive in their own right.
How do books and covers get nominated?
It’s always been our aim to keep things as straightforward as possible. We invite the publishers to submit books and covers for consideration. Providing they meet the criteria they go onto the three category longlists. The public are also asked to suggest titles that might have been missed, and any that are eligible are added. Voting on the longlists boils the contenders down to five finalists in each category, and these shortlists are presented for the second, final vote. This year we’ve begun to invite independent publishers to nominate titles, and given the evolving publishing landscape I think we’ll see more of that in future. At the time this interview is being conducted we know the results. But you’ll have to wait until 24th September to find out.
I can see that allowing self-published authors to nominate themselves could drown you in entries and make your long list stretch to hundreds, but are there ways they might be considered? For example, taken from the finalists of competitions like Mark’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off?
That could be one way to go, and I have briefly discussed the issue with Mark. It’s an area we’d have to approach with great care. Say what you will about the major publishers, and they certainly have their flaws, but I think there’s something to be said for the gatekeeper argument. If you pick up a book published by one of the major houses, irrespective of whether you end up liking it, you can be pretty confident that it’s been through a vigorous, professional editorial process and is going to be of a publishable standard. The same applies, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, with the better independent and small presses. There’s no such assurance with self-published work. Of course, we could simply allow every self-published book that meets the criteria to go on the longlist, and with the best will in the world watch as they garner no or very few votes – a real possibility given that there’s still a lot of prejudice about self-published books, much of it justified. That doesn’t serve anyone well, particularly the authors. There must be a better way of doing it. We’d have to give a lot of thought to the process if we go down the road of admitting self-published authors. Don’t get me wrong; our instinct is to make every aspect of the awards as democratic and all-embracing as possible. But we’d need to start as we mean to continue, which means doing it right.
by Agnes Meszaros