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Col Buchanan about ... Farlander

Farlander by Col Buchanan
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Read the Book Review of Farlander by Col Buchanan
Col Buchanan interviewed Mar 2010 by Sarah Rudd

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Thanks for agreeing to talk to us about your debut novel – Farlander, The Heart of the World: Book 1 (a mouthful if ever we saw one!) – a brilliant new SF series that we’ve instantly fallen for. What was the inspiration behind the creation of the Farlander?

Hi Sarah. Very glad you enjoyed the read! Actually the book is simply called ‘Farlander: Book One’. The series itself is called ‘The Heart of the World’.

I guess what I set out to do with Farlander was to write something that recaptured the thrills and spills of those adventure stories I loved as a boy, both in novels and in movies, though written with mature sensibilities and with a greater emphasis on realism.

I love books and movies that are an experience in themselves. Where they grab your attention and pull you in almost immediately. Where you feel as though you have lived through something tremendous for however many hours you have been watching or reading them. And I love stories that aren’t afraid to have fun, and where the passion of the writer or director shines through.

Before I sat down to write Farlander I realised that I wasn’t having this thrilling, immersive experience nearly as much as I did as a boy, yet with the pressures of grown up life I still yearned for it. So I wanted to try and recreate it for myself as an adult, in the hope that others might get a similar kick out of it too.

Your choice of main character (Ash) could be considered quite radical. Ash is not only black, but also in his sixties and yet you have him lurching between bouts of intense physical pain and jaw-dropping fight scenes. Is this unorthodox choice deliberately intending to challenge our preconceptions, based on a belief system or simply derived from a desire to create a uniquely unconventional character?

If I have any belief system, in this respect, it’s that I try not to have any preconceptions about people. I try to take everyone as they come. Like most open-minded people I abhor prejudice. Like all anarchists I also abhor the notions of status and hierarchy, or at least the judgements that come with these. I’m not saying I’m a saint, :-). Just someone who’s been on the wrong end of prejudice often enough. I think too, when you grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, you see very clearly the ultimate results of prejudiced thinking.

But I didn’t sit down with any of this in mind when I wrote the book. Not consciously. In truth I simply like to have fun by creating expectations and then subverting them. I’m also a natural born romantic. I identify with the underdog in every situation, and I relish any do-or-die, back against the wall scenarios, real or otherwise (as I think we all do). So it was actually fairly natural for me to choose an ageing black protagonist with ailing health. That’s a dramatic set-up before you’ve even unleashed the character upon a story.

One of the inspirations for the story, and I see this now more than I did during the writing of it, was the David Gemmell book ‘Legend’. I was a great fan of that particular book when I read it as a teenager. The protagonist in Legend is old and suffering from a bad heart. Yet he’s called upon to perform some truly heroic feats that continually threaten to break him. I found that truly gripping. There is too the aging swordfighters in those wonderful Akira Kurosawa samurai movies. It was their experience that always won through, and their heart and commitment, not their vitality.

We were particularly impressed with your total disregard for conformism; so many SF authors are reluctant to treat their characters so harshly, instead preferring to somewhat mollycoddle them. Almost no major character is left unscathed, which is highly unusual – did you do this for creative effect or is there some deeper meaning behind this seemingly wanton destruction?

Again, this is partly to do with what I’ve mentioned already. Back-against-the-wall situations. It doesn’t get much more back-to-the-wall when one of your main characters loses his hand in the midst of a fight and your protagonist is reeling near dead with the effects of poison.

And it was also, again, part of my attempt to recreate youthful thrills with an edge of gritty realism. I’m not that keen on comic-book violence. When writing action scenes, I wanted something more akin to Saving Private Ryan than Lord of the Rings. I wanted to capture some of the intensity and madness and fear of violence, (which fascinates me, I must be honest), and for there to be some real consequences of this violence for those involved, and for the reader to know this, and to feel it.

Religion is a major theme of Book 1, with the introduction of the cult of Mann. The religion itself is startling and yet reminiscent of both the time of the Inquisition and also reverberates with ancient civilisations where barbaric acts of slaughter, torture and human sacrifice were the norm – but it is the notion of a complete lack of conscience that is particularly chilling. Where did this come from or why did this concept appeal to you?

I think, maybe, this has something to do with Northern Ireland again - my apologies, by the way, if I’m sounding like another Northern Irish writer obsessed with his troubled upbringing. I guess it’s because I am.

I was raised in a particularly fanatic and medieval version of Presbyterianism. I have nothing against Christians and I’ll say that now. I have respect for its core values of forgiveness and compassion. My grandparents, in particular, were great examples to me of true Christian charity.

However I don’t in any way have time for doctrines and religious prejudice. I recall at an early age talking back to my family minister. I had already refused to any longer attend Church by that point. ‘Why do you like to wear black so much, Colin?’ he’d asked me, in my grandparent’s house, implying some allegiance to the devil (at the time I was going through a phase of black clothing). He expected me to be cowed by the status of his white collar - that was the kind of man that he was, and the kind of religion he espoused. So I told him, honestly, I didn’t know, and I looked at his own attire, and asked him why he himself wore black all the time.

At other times, I recall attending several funerals of family members. Each time the minister would focus on the sins of the deceased in the grave before him. Once, the minister continually mistook the name of the deceased, then used the occasion for a half-hour sermon on our sins – aimed mostly at the women, for reasons that were beyond me, save that maybe he wasn’t getting any.

I guess what I disliked most of all about the Church when I was growing up was the fear and guilt involved with it. Fear isn’t something that anyone’s spirituality or philosophy should be based upon. And as though Northern Ireland needed any further additions to its climate of fear.

Maybe the Troubles are also why I’m so interested in barbarity. Barbarism is clearly one long continuum in the history of man, and so I’m not only referring to ancient times when I write this stuff. I’m referring very much to the present. In particular, the question of how can you be a good person when it all breaks down, when all civilising influences are stripped away? Like Cormac McCarthy’s recurring theme of how to be a decent person in an indecent world. Of ‘carrying the flame’.

On the flipside of that, in my modern, relatively pampered life, I’m also deeply interested in the secular western civilisation that we now live in. This culture of self worship, and consequently of celebrity worship. Of success and status, of look-at-me (he says, giving an interview…). We’ve thrown out that archaic notion of a father-figure God, but often it seems like we’ve merely replaced it with competition and consumerism and vacuous pursuits of self-image.

In a way, I was trying to reflect some of this with Mann, and with its nihilistic worship of the divine flesh. These are questions I’m interested in raising even if they are in the midst of fast-paced adventure story about a man and a boy.

You have a cynicism and cathartic approach to telling your story: how much of this is your personality and how much is down to the need to tell it a particular way?

Entirely my personality I think. I’m a romantic by nature but a cynic by experience.

I was pretty shy and withdrawn as a child. My mother often pointed out that still waters run deep, and she was right, beneath the surface ran deep passions. As an adult, it often seems to me that I can only ever express my emotions through writing, or when I’m watching or reading or listening to something that moves me (I’m a ‘cry at a sad film’ kind of guy, much to my friend’s amusement).

We’re sensing that you consider yourself a bit of a maverick – what is the most insane thing you’ve ever done?

I guess I just like to go my own way in life, and my way does often run against the common grain. There’s little choice in it though. Just following my nature.

I’d have to say the most insane thing I’ve ever done was following this path of writing. I’ve been following it for a long time now, a dream of making a living by writing. Even knowing how difficult that is. Even knowing that most writers write to support their teaching job (that’s a joke I heard the other day, made me laugh), even then I kept following it, and still do. Over the years most people thought I was crazy. For a while, when I realised how much I had lost because of it, I thought I was crazy.

I guess though I’d rather be considered crazy than to go some way that isn’t right for me. And I guess this comes from my upbringing again – which felt like a trap to me, all those years. When I turned eighteen and left home I very much had it in my heart that life wasn’t worth living if it wasn’t lived on your own terms.

Ok, spill – we want to know what kind of naughtiness you got up to in order to find yourself as a ‘guest’ of the local constabulary? You can’t dangle that in front of us and then not expand on it... we want details!!

Nothing morally wrong, I’ll say that much. The problem with providing an interesting bio of your life is that you’re then called to elaborate on these things! Which is fine, I don’t mind talking about them. But you then run the risk of sounding like you’re in love with your own internal myth (probably true that), or that you’re ‘bigging yourself up’ for the sake of credibility.

I guess though I should lay the question to rest by offering an answer.

The latest time I was arrested was during a peaceful sit-down protest. I simply refused to move from the middle of a road when asked to do so. Admittedly, we were blocking the main entrance to a nuclear submarine base. As a result it was twenty-four hours in a Glasgow police cell without charge (a recently implemented law that). I don’t recommend a Glasgow police cell to anyone by the way, not cold sober at least.

Before that … well, I’ve had two instances in which the door to my home has been kicked down and my home has been raided, one of which lead to an arrest. The first time, I was three or four years of age. I was wakened by a lot of noise. Torches shining in my face. A rifle pointed at me. I was dragged out of the bed, my brother dragged out of his. The beds were thrown over, the house ransacked. That turned out to be the British Army.

Much too long a story to get into here.

The second time, I was twenty-one, twenty-two, living in a flat with my girlfriend of the time. We happened to live upstairs from a dealer. A friendly guy, and handy to know. Unfortunately both flats shared the same entranceway. So to anyone who happened to be watching it from outside, it wasn’t clear who all the people were calling in to see.

I woke up one night to the front door getting kicked in. The whole house was shaking with it. My flat was tall, two floors of living space with the main stairs running down to the ground floor. A lot of stairs. My girlfriend asked me what was going on. I got out of bed and opened the door of the bedroom on the top floor, and stood there in the darkness bollock naked, a claw hammer in my hand, listening to boots thumping up all the stairs towards me. This was a time in life when you didn’t know who might be coming through your front door. Men in balaclavas for all you knew. So when I saw the police rounding the stairs I was, actually, quite relieved to see them.

So another ransacked house. And an arrest for £10 worth of hash on a record sleeve in the living room. A Christmas treat to myself. It was three days before Christmas. The tree was still on in the corner of the living room, the cards were sitting on the mantelpiece, the coals of the fire banked, a cosy scene. And all these armed police officers tearing the place apart and the flat beneath us; a female officer laughing (in front of my girlfriend) because my girlfriend’s budgies had dropped dead in their cage from the shock it.

The tale had a reasonably happy ending though. The IRA subsequently blew up the main forensics lab on the outskirts of Belfast. My charges were soon after dropped due to the evidence having been ‘lost’. :-)

Being homeless, no matter for how short a period of time, cannot have been fun (or maybe you did enjoy it – we’d love to know); what was the most poignant lesson you took from that experience?

I don’t want to make this sound as though I was one of those poor sods living rough on the streets due to unfortunate circumstances in life, and without a family structure to offer them support. My ‘rough times’ were nothing compared to theirs. I was without a home for six months or so but it was a choice that I made.

I had lost my job due to redundancy, I had lost my long-term partner, and I had received the final rejection letter for my (previous) novel, all roughly at the same time.

I fell into a bleak stagnation. I couldn’t see any steps out of it. Nothing I tried worked out. I wondered why I had wasted my life on a pipe-dream.

In the end I took a leap of faith. Or maybe it was just a nervous breakdown. I gave away everything that I owned and gave up the house. I vaguely hoped that the sudden vacuum would attract new things to it. I lived with a rucksack and tent, crashing when I could with friends or family.

It worked though. I came to accept that I had no choice but to follow this path of writing, and to do so with all the commitment I could give it. And in the end new opportunities did fill the vacuum.

If you had to describe yourself using 5 adjectives – what would they be?

Romantic, cynical, shy, passionate, driven.

Finally, whilst we’re eagerly awaiting Book 2 – are there any little sneaky titbits you can offer us to satiate our hunger for more?

I can say that it’s a story of revenge. And that it has another twist in its tail. And love.

Read our full review of Farlander by Col Buchanan

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