Wednesday 12 June 2019

Interview with Hûw Steer

We welcome to the TFF Press blog author Hûw Steer, who wrote the charming “The Vigil of Talos” in the Making Monsters anthology, and now also copy-edits and sets our e-books for TFF magazine. Hûw has a novel out this month, a fantasy adventure heist caper with a dashing archaeologist/tomb-robber protagonist, and he dropped by to answer a few questions.

The Boiling Seas are the mariner’s bane—and the adventurer’s delight. The waters may be hot enough to warp wood and boil a hapless swimmer, but their scalding expanse is full of wonders. Strange islands lurk in the steamy mists, and stranger ruins hold ancient secrets, remnants of forgotten empires waiting for the bold… or lying in wait for the unwary.

On the Corpus Isles, gateway to the Boiling Seas, Tal Wenlock, the Blackbird, seeks a fortune of his own. The treasure he pursues could change the world—but he just wants to change a single life, and it’s not his own. To reach it, he’ll descend into the bowels of the earth and take ship on burning waters, brave dark streets and steal forbidden knowledge. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and fight—but he won’t get far alone. The ghosts of Tal’s past dog his every step—and one in particular keeps his knives sharp.

The Blackbird will need help to reach his goal… and he’ll need all his luck to get back home alive.

Where did the idea for this story come from? Did you start from the setting or the characters?

Definitely the setting. I had the original idea during a production of The Comedy of Errors. As tends to be the case with university drama, it was a bit weird—we had a chorus onstage at all times playing background characters and it was set in 1950s Yorkshire—and so for most of the play I was sat stage left at my greengrocer’s stall eating grapes and occasionally reacting to the plot. We had to be idle in character; we read, played cards… and I brought a sketchbook. During one of the monologues, I started drawing a map of some islands. Maybe it was the play that did the rest, subconsciously. The Comedy of Errors opens with a shipwreck, it’s filled with inversions and subversions of expectations—I think that bled over into my thoughts while I was drawing that map, building that world, and so I ended up with this inverted ocean and all the perils that came with it. It’s a strong enough setting that I’ve been seriously considering trying a D&D campaign in it for years…

Oh, and bonus points if you can tell me where the name ‘Port Malice’ came from!

Are there creatures living under the hot waters of the Boiling Seas? What do they look like?

(Disclaimer: little of this will bear any resemblance to actual science)

So the Boiling Seas are hot because of massive volcanic activity on the ocean floor—there are rivers of molten rock and iron constantly heating the water. This also means they have a much higher mineral content than normal, minerals like copper, iron, carbon... see where I’m going? The fish in the Boiling Seas are sleek and shiny and mean; they have literal iron-hard scales to help reflect the heat and stay alive! It’s the same story with ships—anything without a metal hull won’t last long, because the caulking between planks just melts. There are no squids or octopi; they’d cook in seconds; but there are steel-scaled sea-serpents—huge things, big enough to take on warships by themselves. And there are proper flying fish too—they’ve evolved to breathe the steam from the water for extended periods so they can glide for much longer! It’s a brave fisherman who tries to make a living on the Boiling Sea.

…and now I’m wracking my brains trying to figure out how to do an underwater sequence in the sequel without killing my protagonists…

How fine do you think is the line between deciphering the traces of an ancient civilisation and imagining a fictional one?

Often very fine. I’m no archaeologist but I’ve studied enough Greek and Roman history to know that when you’re going through ancient sources there are always fascinating facts and snippets that, on closer inspection, turn out to be completely fabricated. Some of the most celebrated ancient historians—Herodotus, Ctesias, etc.—lied all the time about places they’d been and things they’d seen. I recall one passage of Herodotus where he states that the people of ancient Libya were “all wizards,” and more besides. Even when things are heavily documented it’s still easy to interpret them in a romanticised or otherwise distorted way—I know I’ve been guilty of this! If you’re not careful then you can build up a totally fictional image of an ancient society from reading the wrong sources… or even the right ones.

Which ancient artefact or object has the most amazing story, in your opinion?

There’s a Micronesian island called Yap that once used limestone discs as currency. Some of them were only a few inches across, but some weighed over 4 tonnes! They were quarried on another island and brought back by boat, and it took so much effort to move the big ‘coins’ that everyone agreed to just remember who owned which stone, regardless of where it actually was. Why was this important? Because one 4-tonne coin, en route back to Yap, got hit by a storm and sank to the bottom of the sea. Obviously there was no way to get it back, but that didn’t matter—as 4 tonnes of stone wasn’t going to get up and walk away the islanders just carried on trading with it. So there’s a piece of currency that’s been at the bottom of the ocean for centuries, and it’s still legal tender!

Whenever I get all existential about how ephemeral modern money is, it helps to remember that there’s one economy that’ll never crash completely.

What was your favourite fairy tale when you were a child?

Probably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I had (still have, in fact) a CD version of the Arthurian mythos by Benedict Flynn, narrated by Sean Bean of all people, and some passages are indelibly etched in my memory. Gawain’s journey of self-discovery about his own courage was important to me because it showed his flaws, in a way that the other heroic stories I read (and there were a lot of them) never did as well. He was a Knight of the Round Table, but the whole way through the story he was scared, falling to temptation, quaking in his armoured boots—but he kept his word, and did the best he could, and won respect for it. Sean Bean’s last words in that section, as Arthur, always stuck with me: “None of us are perfect. We can only try.”

Thanks for joining us, Hûw.

Hûw Steer is an author, historian and sketch comedian from London. He’s previously been published in Making Monsters ( Publishing, 2018), and the UCL Publisher’s Prize anthologies for 2018 and 2016. This is his first published novel.

You can purchase The Boiling Seas: The Blackbird and the Ghost for Kindle from Amazon US or Amazon UK (and all other local Amazon stores).

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