When you put two authors together, interesting things are bound to happen. Such was the case when David Barnett, award-winning journalist and author of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, got to talk with Ben Peek about his latest novel, The Godless. Peek tells the story of a world built upon the bodies of dying gods, a young apprentice with powerful new abilities, and a war that threatens to tear everything apart.
Tor has followed The Godless from its cover reveal to a sneak peek at the first five chapters, and now we get to know the man behind the mythical realm. Check below the cut for walkabouts in the outback, what’s next for Ben Peek, and psychedelic koalas!
David Barnett: You’ve written a sneaky superhero book masquerading as fantasy here, haven’t you? Or is it the other way round?
Ben Peek: Nah, it’s neither, really. Most of the powers come from that old style gods that you see in places like old Greek mythology. Ares is the god of war, Hades the god of the dead, Zeus the god of thunder, and so on and so forth. I just took the idea that, if they were all dead, their divine nature would leak into the world and infect people.
In truth, I’ve never been a big superhero fan. I don’t mind some of the movies, and a couple of the cartoons were alright—that Batman series from the early nineties where Mark Hamill voiced the Joker is sweetness. But largely, I’ve not really had much time for superheroes. I grew up reading 2000AD and the occasional Transformers and GI Joe comic, but when I could finance comics myself, I lasted only a little reading superheroes. I was put off by a couple of factors, the biggest one being how awful the creators were treated. The history is totally disgusting—and it still goes on in DC and Marvel, if the treatment of Alan Moore and Gary Friedrich is any example. So I read them for a while, and then sorta drifted into different comics where the legacy is different. David Lapham’s Stray Bullets was a total favourite and I’ve heard a rumour he’s bringing it back, which is excellent if true. I’ve really enjoyed B.R.P.D. since its first days when Guy Davis was an artist on the title, and if anyone is looking for an end of the world Cthulhu apocalypse title, Mignola and Arcudi and the artists who work the title do a fantastic job. Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT, a kind of crazy spy story of people with powers, is superb, and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen continues to be this wonderful treasure of references and research that I adore. I’ve also got a huge soft spot for the IDW reboot of Transformers, which I thought would struggle after the old hand Simon Furman left, but More Than Meets the Eye is probably one of the best little science fiction titles due to Alex Milne’s superb art and James Roberts’ wonderful craziness on it.
Wasn’t this book called something else when it was acquired by Tor UK? Why the name change?
Yeah, it was originally titled Immolation. Well, when I say originally, I mean that after I had finished the book, I retitled it to something I thought better, because I didn’t think anyone would go for The Godless as a title. The Godless was the working title.
Anyhow, the title got changed during edits, for all the reasons that titles change: marketability, branding, etc. Turned out that Immolation was not as good as The Godless. Turns out that I have the least marketable and catchy titles in the world. It’s probably true. Enough people have told me it. I mean, let me tell you a story, right: so, a couple of months ago, my girlfriend was in New Zealand. It was shortly after my collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories had been released, and she was in a bookstore. So she decided to head up to the counter and ask them if they had a copy of the book, there.
“Dead Americans?” the woman at the counter replied, openly horrified. “We’d never carry a book with that title!”
Personally, I think Dead Americans is the best title I have, but you can’t win with everyone. Titles have to be short, catchy, not too obscure, not offensive, and still capture the genre, and so on and so forth. Takeshi Kitano has it about right when he says he’d just like to title his films by number. Takeshi Kitano, number fourteen. Ben Peek, number six. In a perfect world, I tell you.
Tell us a bit about how you write. Are you a plotter and planner, or more freestyle?
I’m a rewriter.
I plan a little, in that I have a few plot points to hit, like, y’know, A has to happen here, and B there, but the joy of writing to me is finding all the connective tissue between those points, and I might do one version, and then I’ll rewrite it. Every pause, every moment I struggle with a new section, I’m back working previous sections, reworking characters, changing dialogue, sharpening descriptions, and so on. When I teach, I often describe a first draft as vomit. Everything is spewed out onto the page and every draft otherwise is cleaning it up and giving it shape and rebuilding the food. A beautiful image for everyone to take home, that.
There’s a fairly specific magic system in The Godless. Did you come up with that before writing or did it evolve throughout?
Like everything, it evolved throughout, a bit here, a bit there. A lot of the time, I find that the narrative informs these things. So, after I had all the gods lying dead on the ground—well, in a state of dying and death—I had to ask myself how it is that witches and warlocks would be able to use magic, and what price they would have to pay for it. Everything connected to the dead and to the blood of men and women seemed like the ticket.
Ayae is a strong female character—as a roughty toughty Aussie bloke, did you find her hard to write, or did getting into her head pose no problem?
I went into the outback, I went walkabout, to use the term the indigenous people of my stolen land use. I went out and I went to return to my most primal state. Only as a pure man could I find the mind of a woman. I took with me but a pair of pants and a knife. I stood in the heat and I hunted the most poisonous of the life in the heart of Australia. I ate it in the traditional Vietnamese style: I took a shot of bile, a shot of blood, and then I swallowed the still beating heart. I followed it with a healthy amount of hallucinogenics. It was the only way that I could understand women! I could do it only by a mystical, out of body experience! I knew it and I knew I knew it when I felt the heart rise up in me. The sky expanded. I heard someone say, “That’s not a knife,” and it was a crocodile, old and bitter, and wearing gold chains and leaning on an old stick. I went to disagree, but as I rose my hand, I realised that I held in it not a knife, but a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Horrified, I tried to shake it free, but to no avail! This wasn’t a woman, I shouted. The sky unraveled. I beat my chest but the book softened my blows. A giant lizard emerged from the ground. It hissed, “To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been bought forward.” A kangaroo hit me from behind. “How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!” it shouted. More and more, Australia’s native wildlife emerged from the ground and spoke to me in this fashion. With no knife, I was at their mercy. I just had this book, this book that I could not use to cut my way through them, that could not allow me to do any of the so called roughty toughty things that I was so well known for. I thought of Bear Grylls and considered drinking my urine. That was always his solution, but the sky was purple, and I could not find the buttons of my pants.
And then, in my psychedelic, dehydrated haze, a black furred, angry koala dropped from the sky. It had a tiny parachute. It landed on a broken, bent tree before me and it said, “Don’t be a douchebag. Women are just people. Treat them equally and you’ll be fine.”
It’s a big old chunk of a book—how long did it take to write? How far along are the subsequent books in writing terms?
The book took about two years to write, on and off, but I had no deadline, or contract for it, and that always leaves for a more laid back, lazy form of writing. As for the second book—currently entitled Leviathan’s Blood—I have finished that, so its off for edits. In a couple of months or so after everyone has finished reading it, I’ll go back and fix up what is wrong with it—a good editor, they make you look so much better than you have the right to look, really. I have good editors and good readers and they made The Godless a much better book than it was when I finished it. They are worth their weight in gold.
I’ve started writing the third book, now. It’ll take maybe a year, assuming no delays, and alla that, and then there will be the whole edit phase again.
The Godless isn’t your first published work, but this fantasy setting is something of a departure from your earlier work, isn’t it? What prompted that?
It’s probably not that true to say it is a departure from my earlier work (or even my later work, to be fair: it is the sister to the Red Sun stories, really). But when I was seventeen and I began trying to sell my fiction, I originally tried to sell fantasy novels and short stories, but I wasn’t all that successful, if I was to be honest. A few of those pieces probably still exist in the depths of the internet.
But The Godless is my first straight fantasy book, yeah. It was inspired by a bad patch I went through in 2009, 20010, maybe even 11. The global financial crisis hit around the world, and a lot of authors suffered through that, including me. At the time, I was trying to sell a novel I had written, and I did, verbally, only for the deal to fall through. I went through two agents. It’s a big, long story, but I’ll spare everyone it and say, simply, that it is no different to what a lot of authors go through. At the end of it, though, I was left with this question if I wanted to keep writing, and why I was, in fact, writing. In an answer, I read all the old fantasy books I had read as a teenager, the books that gave me the original desire to be a writer, that started my love. I was searching for that original spark again and at one point while reading these, I thought I’d write a fantasy novel. Mostly, I thought, I would write it for myself, and if at the end I thought it was good, I’d try for another agent, and try to sell the book, but I honestly wasn’t sure if I would do it. I was just writing this book for the adult me and the memories of my childhood. At the end, I had The Godless.
What’s next after the Children trilogy? Have you found a comfortable home in fantasy, or do you have other plans?
I am kinda digging this fantasy book stuff, to be honest. It’s this huge canvas I made, and I feel like there’s a lot of life in it that I haven’t explored, and I’d like to stay with it for a while longer, if people are with me for it. Of course, that will depend on how the books go and what kinda reception they get—so if you dig the book, be sure to tell people about it, y’know?
Give us an elevator pitch as to why we should read The Godless.
The psychedelic koala says, “Dead gods! Girl on fire! Saboteurs! A strange men in charms! Fights! Battles! All the goodness of the world! With shocks and surprises!”
And who else are you reading at the moment, and what’s good on the Peek bookshelf?
I’m currently reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which is pretty cool, so far, but I’m being slow with it because of my habit of watching the World Cup (despite FIFA being an evil empire). Before that, I read Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, which was fabulous, and I have been working my way through the work of Lucius Shepard that I hadn’t read. The latter was an excellent writer and a friend, and his last novel, Beautiful Blood, ought to be arriving at my doorstep sometime soon, I think. For lovers of fantasy, you will want it, just as you will want a copy of The Dragon Griaule, which collects his stories about the comatose, malevolent dragon, Griaule.