Paul Kearney is one of my favorite authors. The best way to describe Paul is as a creator of ultra-realistic, soul-wrenching, action-gripping novels. Or the Father of Grimdark, in shorthand. A couple of weeks back, I asked Paul for an interview, and he has graciously accepted.
1. Can you please introduce yourself?
I’m 51 years old, smoke a pipe, enjoy a good malt whisky, and I have been in more fistfights than I can remember – most of which I have lost, once or twice with terrible consequences. I’m Northern Irish, brought up to be a strict Catholic. Inevitably, I have left most of that upbringing behind, but the ideas we are inculcated with in our childhood cannot be entirely forsaken. So I remain fascinated by religion, although I am now an atheist. I managed to get into Oxford University, and immediately fell in love with the place. I was going to be a professional soldier, and indeed I was for a time, but writing was always my first love. After years abroad I came home again, to Ireland, and now I live in a modest house which faces onto the sea, with my wife, my dogs, my boat, and lots and lots of books.
2. Your writing is undoubtedly very grimdark – in my view, the grimmest there is, which is what makes your writing so compelling. Do you find this observation true? Or surprising?
The term ‘Grimdark’ is pretty new to me. I had my first book published when I was in my early twenties, over a quarter of a century ago. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living out what was once a hobby. I never set out to create a persona or a theme for my books – I just told the stories as they came to me. I always hated – from a precociously early age – those books wherein the author was talking about War, but clearly had no knowledge of armies, of combat, or how men behave when they are all cast together with different rules to those of everyday society.
I grew to know about some of those things, and I brought that experience to my own fiction. It was not a conscious decision – I just wanted to tell the truth, and portray such things as they are, not as they might be in some imaginary morally-uplifted world.
3. Another observation is that there’s very strong melancholy in your protagonists – Hawkwood, Corfe, Rol. They are often forlorn and sad if determined. What is the reason behind that? Is there some part of Paul in the books’ heroes?
Possibly. I do not believe that mankind is basically good with a few bad apples in the barrel. I believe that mankind is intrinsically weak and selfish and will happily indulge evil, provided it does not interfere with everyday life. Some shining exceptions exist, but they are by definition not the rule. So for those who have some experience of the world outside their comfortable little box, this is a given. Life is hard. It makes you pay. You must struggle merely to survive. I guess that attitude bleeds into my characters.
4. A painful question, when will we see The Sea Beggars series completed?
Possibly never. Not only are Bantam not willing to consider publishing the ending, they are preventing me from writing it. They own the copyright to those characters. I have never known such a hard-handed mercenary attitude from a publisher.
5. Do you think your books are too “heavy” for the casual reader?
If they are, then the ‘average’ reader is a moron.
6. What motivates you to write?
What motivates you to breathe? It’s that simple. I am happiest when I am writing, and miserable when I am not. It is the thing which I was meant to do. I am a cynic about most things, but I believe this with weary constancy.
7. Do you have a writing routine?
I’m a morning person – all my best work is written before lunchtime. I have worked through the day and the night before now to meet a deadline, but on an ideal day, I’ll start around nine (after walking the dogs), and finish around 2pm. The rest of the day is given over to reading, walking the dogs again, and making something nice for dinner. (I love cooking.)
8. What’s your best work?
The Wolf in the Attic. I love that book, I love the central character, and it was a labour of love. Note the repetition.
9. What’s your worst?
The Wolf in the Attic. It was a complete commercial failure, and is still the only novel I’ve ever written that has not been translated into another language. Such is life.
10. Is there a literary theme you’d never put in your books?
No. But whatever I do put in my books is largely accidental. I don’t set out to inject stuff into the story – it arises out of nothing – that big nebulous cloud of memory which we all carry with us. Some writers are structured, planned – they plot their stories from start to finish. Not me – I am a seat of the pants kind of writer. That’s not to say that I don’t have an overarching design. I just hate to micromanage it.
11. The depiction of battles in your works is quite accurate and realistic, especially anything that has to do with maritime concepts. To put it simply, how do you do that?
I have served in the army, as an infantry lieutenant.I know how soldiers behave, how they talk. I was also a re-enactor with the 6th New Hampshire when I lived in America, and took part in some incredibly large events – at the 1997 Antietam re-enactment there were 16,000 men taking part. I know what gunpowder tastes like in the mouth as you bite the end off the cartridge. (Strangely cold). I know what a full brigade of rifle-musket-armed soldiers, two thousand strong, looks like in real life. That experience was incredibly central to my own depiction of battlefields in my fiction.
12 If I’m not mistaken, you have also written books for the Warhammer game universe. Is that any different than doing novels where you fully create the world and the characters? Do you feel limited by the constraints of this type of project?
It’s very, very different. But I am lucky enough to have a superb editor (Nick Kyme), and also, I used to wargame Space Marines when I was in college, and I was always fascinated by that dark, bloody universe. So when I was given the chance to dive into it, I seized it with both hands. To have the opportunity to take one of the most famous figures in that canon, Marneus Calgar, and make him my own, was too good to pass over.
13. Tell us more about The Wolf in the Attic.
It’s been cited by several NGOs as a must-read text for the refugee experience in modern fiction. It has also been criticised because of its portrayal of the ‘Romani’. I am at once racist and inclusive, it seems… I do know that is far and away the best thing I have ever written.
14. What’s next for Paul on the literary front?
I am writing a sequel to The Wolf in the Attic (I just can’t give up on it), and I am involved in designing a world for a computer game. I’m also writing another Warhammer novel.
Note: Paul recently announced that the sequel is going to be called The Burning House, and it should be published in Autumn 2019.
15. Any tips for people aspiring to make it big in the writing world?
Do it for real. Don’t tailor what you write for other people – tell the story that is in you, and it will be genuine. All editors worth their salt can see a fake a mile away.
Closing words: Many thanks Paul for a fantastic, touching interview!