and Barnett Creates "The Polycosmos"
"No I don't, and I actually quite like doing it that way. Keeps me refreshed." - PB on whether he has difficulty switching between fiction and non-fiction writing
After Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, Paul Barnett continued to tiptoe just beyond the fringes of the fantasy genre with non-fiction tomes such as Great Mysteries (1988) and An Introduction to Viking Mythology (1989). But it was a popular British role-playing game that brought him into the realm of fantasy fiction writing.
"The editor at a company called Arrow (which, after several mergers and acquisitions, eventually became part of Random House UK), for whom I had written a book that was very much a potboiler, called The Advanced Trivia Quiz Book, left. And I was taken over for the tag-end of the project by an editor called Nancy Webber. Nancy and I got along like a house on fire - she's still a very dear friend. I'd bounced a few ideas off Nancy for other books and none of them quite caught her. And one day when I went to meet with her, she greeted me with, `Before you even open your mouth, one of the other editors here has a book which you would be ideal for.' And I sort of said, 'Gulp!' as one does . . . and she led me to the Children's Editorial Director of what was then called, unfortunately, Beaver Books; which was then the children's wing of the whole conglomerate. So Nancy said, `Alison, Alison, uh, this is the author you've been looking for.' And the Editor looked up and said, `Oh, oh . . . right.' And Nancy ushered me into her office, saying, `Go on, keep going . . .' And it was then that I learned of this series of game books, which I'd never heard of before."
And thus, The Legends of Lone Wolf novel series was about to be born. But not before the writer berated his friend Webber.
"I said, `First of all, you ought to have warned me. Second of all, I have no real track record that I could have brought to the meeting had I been asked for a track record,' because I hadn't written straightforward fantasy novels before, and [I felt] I wasn't really qualified. Had I been asked to present a couple of specimen chapters, I couldn't. But very luckily, the editor took Nancy's word for it, that I was the ideal person, and I signed the contracts; for four books to begin with, and for twelve all told."
Barnett's series emanated from the Tolkien-influenced sword and sorcery game books created by Joe Dever.
"The first two books in the series was rather stock stuff, I suppose," Paul explained, "then number three was quite good, and number four was actually beyond quite good. And number five was kind of tired because I hated the publisher. And then, a bunch of the rest of them were also quite good, with a couple of them very good: one, The Birthplace, I regard as among my foremost fictions. I'm very proud of the series as a whole, in fact." Although only seventy thousand words, the first book in the series took Barnett "forever" to write - about three months in real time. As the series progressed, the books grew longer than this. "One was about a hundred forty-five thousand, until the publisher slashed it," Paul added with exaggerated disgust. "The editor I was working with at the time told me it would make over 400 pages and no one would read a fantasy novel that long! I was stunned that she'd clearly never looked at the fantasy section in a bookstore and discovered that 400 pages is a short one. One of the things I've got to do, because the fans know that the publisher slashed it, is at some point get the series back into print - actually recreating some of the stories and putting back some of the stuff that was taken out."
Character creation was, in part, tied to the role-playing game. "I was sort of stuck with where the character of Lone Wolf went, because I couldn't disagree with the games books. Joe Dever would give me kind of a plot of what happened, a set of numbers to follow, and basically I had to do all the things that were there. Then it was up to me to put in all of the other things that Lone Wolf did. I was able to create secondary characters, though. And, after awhile, they just kind of took over. In fact, in one or two of the novels, Lone Wolf is a minor character." The plan was for Dever, who had creative control over the novels, to edit each. "But after a while, he said, `Uh, this all seems fine to me, carry on and do it.' From then on, he concentrated on, essentially, correcting factual mistakes; you know, me calling the monster by the wrong name or something like that. But there weren't any of those because as I got into them I started making my own stuff separate from the game books."
Among the "stuff" Paul made up was a comical barbarian warrior named Thog the Mighty, who would go on to become one of Paul's most famous and beloved creations to date.
"Thog the Mighty is sort of a middle-age barbarian berserker; well past his best, but he remembers when times were good. He looks back on the times when men were men and women were women - no, men were men, women were available and `lich' was a word on everybody's lips. I had used him as a comic cut in one of my Lone Wolf novels, and I became fascinated with the character about two or three novels later. I wrote one which was basically his novel, because I wanted to take a comic cut character and actually have the reader become deeply involved in his welfare. You know, sort of have the reader identifying with him even though he was a clown, essentially. But for some reason, the character got picked up by British sf fandom after we did `Thog's Masterclass'. In fact, Thog developed such a cult following that, at one Eastercon, he became a `Virtual Guest of Honor'. This was great because I, as his amanuensis, was given a free trip to the con."
Ah yes, Thog's Masterclass.
"Thog's Masterclass comprises quotations discovered primarily in science fiction and fantasy books; also in horror books and occasionally in crime books, their sentences or extracts of which are differently good."
Proving that unintentionally awkward usage from respected authors does have amusement value, especially when it finds its way past professional editors and into print.
Paul told the origin of what has become one of the genre's more infamous wink-and-nodders. And in explaining it, he gave insight into his long friendship with writer David Langford.
"Dave and I have been writing to each other for the past twenty-five years or so," Paul began, "and he and I gossip constantly - it used to be by letter, then it became by fax and now it's by email - every two or three days at least, we're in touch. At one point, I sent him examples of some funny stuff I had come across [humorously awkward usage in books or professional publications], and then he'd send me a little. We weren't really doing much with it. Then we got a bit more conscious about it when we were writing the initial Earthdoom! [spoof disaster novel] because we'd found bits of stupidity that we could use as chapter head quotations. About the same time, Neil Gaiman's and Kim Newman's Ghastly Beyond Belief came out, which we both enjoyed. Years later, we were running the newsletter at an Eastercon and we were thinking beforehand, `What could we put in the newsletter from stock stuff that we can take along with us?' I said to Dave, `How about some of those idiotic quotations that we'd been exchanging all these years'? And we did it, and we'd assumed it was just going to be a `one-off.' But by the end of the convention, we had members coming to us with quotations they'd come across; so Dave kept it going in Ansible [Langford's Hugo award-winning fanzine].
A downside to writing a series so closely tied to a role- playing game was in the marketing. "Basically what the publisher had done - which was very stupid - was that they tied the novels terribly closely to the game books, which meant the novels were getting stocked alongside the game books, so they ended up in the game book section of the book shops. You never saw them on the fiction shelves, which, to a great extent, defeated their purpose. It also meant that when the role-playing game book market collapsed - which happened quite suddenly - it left the novels high and dry." And like many a role-playing game from the eighties and early nineties, the Lone Wolf gamebooks and The Legends of Lone Wolf series still attract a cult following, primarily on the Internet, to this day.
I wondered how Barnett and Dever got along.
"Very luckily, Joe and I are terribly different people. I haven't seen him for years, but Joe used to be very formal; suit and tie at all times. If there was a meeting, then there ought to be minutes and somebody taking down notes to produce a record of it afterwards. And then there was me, you know, in my jeans and tee shirt, my usual scruffy self. And it was quite good, because we had nothing in common except an interest in this particular series of books. So as it were, we hit it off. He and I went to conventions and had a great time together; which of course was quite confusing to the other people at the convention because here were two (apparently) such different people who were obviously having a hell of a good time."
*** *** ***
During the time he was writing the Lone Wolf books, Barnett was also at work creating two other fantasy novels. I asked Paul how he came to write the novels Albion and The World, the latter being his most ambitious work of fiction to date:
"The Lone Wolf series meant I could do Albion and The World because, suddenly, I had a track record in writing genre fantasy, which I hadn't had before. And I suppose there was also the element that ideas were coming into my mind the whole time I was writing Lone Wolf books that I couldn't possibly put into them; in large part because, as far as the publishers were concerned, they were supposed to be for fourteen year-olds. In fact the case was, they were being read by people between the ages of fourteen and thirty.
"But the truer answer is that I have difficulty thinking about almost all of my fantasy writing in terms of different books and stories, because, in my own mind, the whole lot are part of one single work. I can point to a few stories that are quite out on a limb. They're different. But all the others - in my own mind, they link up. And there are links between, for example, The Legends of Lone Wolf and Albion and The World; there's actually a shared character or three in them. And those characters have turned up in all kinds of different contexts. There are one or two other characters from TLOLW that have turned up in short stories. And Thog the Mighty has appeared in all sorts of stuff, also. A character I created for TLOLW called `Qinifer' - that's Q-I-N-I-F-E-R, not Q-U - has in fact appeared in all sorts of contexts, as has Alyss, who's the other main shared character between TLOLW, Albion and The World. But since reasonably early on, I haven't been able to answer questions about specific books, because, as far as I'm concerned, all of those books are part of something else which is bigger."
I asked what that "something else" was.
"Given the ideal world and I didn't have to worry about publishers' contracts, what I'd like to do is a pretty large sequence of novels and short stories which are all tied in with each other, painting a picture of what I call the "polycosmos", which is very loosely similar to what Mike Moorcock calls the "multiverse". And the trouble with writing about the polycosmos is that, in essence, there is no kind of limit to the interrelated stories and novels that lie there. If I were to have, say, four novels and God knows how many short stories to write, I know that if, tomorrow, I sat down and was able to write the four novels, by the time I'd finished writing them I would have created another dozen or so in order to complete the painting.
"I've never been much of a short story writer. They're few and far between, as far as I'm concerned. The trouble with part of my creative process is that I get an idea for something, and then another idea comes along and layers on, and then another idea comes in. And by the time I've got six or eight ideas and I think, `Yeah, those all blend together, I can make a story out of those, it's no longer a short story. And so, even if I keep it short, it's going to be sort of a novella with a whole lot of things mixed into it."
Paul doesn't get strangled by all of the layers to his stories. "But I think they may begin to strangle the reader. The more layers there are and the more ideas there are intertwining, then the happier I am, because that means the whole story becomes an adventure for me, too."
Getting back to Albion and The World, I commented to Paul that when I hear "polycosmos," I think "alternate universe" story. Was I close?
"The polycosmos is the collection of all the possible alternate universes that there are. And it's not just the collection of them; it's a kind of enveloping and over- embracing of them all as well. If I were by instinct a science fiction writer, I would love to get into the physics of that. But I am by instinct a fantasy writer, and I'm not just writing a whole string of alternate universe stories; what I'm doing is trying to fill in the stories that could come from anywhere in the polycosmos and yet share aspects with each other. In other words, I'm interested in how the alternate realities could relate to each other, and what remains constant through the alternate realities and what doesn't. So I may come up tomorrow with an idea for a story, and I know what the story is, but I haven't yet worked out its part in the polycosmos."
"And I think that, even in what appears to be fairly dry prose sometimes, I think that passion comes through." - PB On The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant
In building up to Paul Barnett's work on two award- winning encyclopedias - the first being The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the second, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy - I asked how he met his collaborator on both, John Clute.
"It was actually through my association with the publisher of the first edition of my Disney book. Justin [publisher Justin Knowles] told me he would like to do an encyclopedia of science fiction and I told him frankly, there was no point in doing one unless it was better than the Peter Nicholls/John Clute encyclopedia, which I showed him. And he said, `Okay, do you want to do it?' I suggested, since the book was ten years out of date, that we contact Nicholls and Clute and see if they'd like to do a revised edition. Then, not only would we have two experts in the field, but since the book is so much the standard work already, it would be a commercially better prospect [to update it] than to start from scratch with a new book. So he went along with this. But then, his company went bankrupt. By that time, a fellow named John Jarrold, who was then working with Macdonald Publishing, had wanted to buy the book from Justin as a package. He then said he'd buy it directly from Clute's and Nicholls's agent, which he did, but I was still going to be the out-of-house freelance editor putting the whole thing together. Then, three- quarters of the way through the project, Macdonalds found itself in a difficult position. The owner, Robert Maxwell, fell off his yacht and died, and suddenly it was revealed that what everyone thought was a profitable publishing company wasn't, and that it was going down the tubes fast. Receivers were called in and all that sort of thing. And there we were, about three-quarters of the way through this thing, apparently not having a publisher. Fortunately at that point, Little Brown, the American company which had a tiny division, Little Brown UK, stepped in and bought Macdonalds. And although it scrapped almost all of the ongoing projects that Macdonalds had, among the relatively few it kept on was The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction."
I didn't understand why the entire encyclopedia was revised, as opposed to writing a supplemental edition. "First off, the only way one could do a `Volume Two Updated' would be to get the initial publisher to re-release Volume One, and that wasn't going to happen. The other thing is that it wouldn't have been a commercially successful proposition because Volume Two would have cost almost as much to do as a completely revised Volume One - even with half thickness it would have cost just about the same. And it would've had a substantially lower print run. Plus, there were things that John and Peter had not been happy about in the first edition . . ."
*** *** ***
Clute and Barnett came up with the idea for their Hugo award-winning The Encyclopedia of Fantasy together. "Before we even started on TEOSF, I had become much more interested in fantasy than science fiction, primary because . . . Well, ten years before, my attitude was that fantasy was kind of rubbish, because I had read so much bad fantasy. And then, because I had done the first few of the Lone Wolf novels, I was becoming interested in fantasy from doing it. I was also reading a wider variety of fantasy and discovering there was quite a bit of good stuff out there. You know, ninety-five percent of it was garbage, but there was the five percent of good stuff, and I was getting very interested in what fantasy could do. And also, coming to the conclusion that science fiction was merely a subset of fantasy. So it really came to a head around the time John and I were working on the entry for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on the definitions of science fiction. I contributed a definition to the debate that science fiction was a form of fantasy which pandered to the scientific pretensions of its readers and writers, and this caused a ghastly silence from Australia [where Nicholls lived]. Whereas John phoned me up and said, `You bastard, I think you were right, dammit,' although he then added, `But we're not going to put that definition in the book.' It was about then that John and I began thinking, really, we ought to be doing an encyclopedia of fantasy with science fiction just a part of it, although at that time it was more an idea than a going concern. It was later that we knew we had to do one. For various reasons, we decided to do it between the two of us, with people like Dave Langford and Ron Tiner as `significant helpers.'
Paul's list of friends and acquaintances had grown substantially by the time he and Clute began work on The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, so he had several notables he could call upon to contribute. "Oh yes, [besides Langford and Tiner] there was Brian Stableford as well. And [critic] Gary Westfahl, a friend of John's who is now a dear friend of Pam's and myself. And Roz Kaveney was the other Contributing Editor."
I wondered how it fell to Paul to write all of the movie entries in TEOF. "That was from the outset, when we were talking about it initially and deciding which bits John would actually do and be responsible for, and which bits I would do. It was decided that John would be responsible for the vast bulk of the authors, and I would do what turned out to be just about all of the cinema entries. Then, John did the bulk of the theme entries, although I did a few of them and Dave Langford did a few of them; but John did the bulk of those. The thing about my doing the cinema entries was that it was born out of my Disney career. And I was the one on the team who knew a lot about the movies."
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy was a harder sell than The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "Because initially, they wanted to contract us for TEOF at under half the length of TEOSF. In fact, we did sign the contract for the book to be that length, but after six months time we realized that it just wasn't possible. So we gradually broke it to Little Brown that it was going to be longer and longer, until in the end, when we told them it was going to be longer than TEOSF they had a fit, so it ended up being just slightly shorter. But ideally, it should have been twice the length that it is to even approach covering the topic as fully as we would have liked."
And yet, the critics loved it.
"When we'd finished it, we felt it a much stronger book than TEOSF, while at the same time, we'd thought it a much rougher book. You know, we knew the bits that were missing that we hadn't had the time or the space to tackle. We knew there were a few entries we weren't too happy with but there wasn't a thing we could do about it; again, for reasons of time and/or space. But we felt it had a kind of vigor to it, and I still think it has a vigor to it. I mean, it seems silly to say about a reference book, but I think it's quite an exciting book, basically because there's so much in it about which John and I feel quite passionately."
It seemed a natural for another encyclopedia to be created - an encyclopedia trilogy, if you will - that being an encyclopedia of horror.
"Stan Nicholls - no relation to Peter - wanted to do one, and he wanted us to write for it. We were actually pretty keen on this, because neither of us wanted to actually do an encyclopedia of horror ourselves. John doesn't like horror at all, and I don't feel passionately about it, either. I kind of like horror insofar as it's fantasy, but I'm not really much of a horror reader. And so, when Stan said he wanted to do a horror encyclopedia, that sounded great to us. But then in the end, Little Brown looked at Stan's proposal and decided not to do the book."
Of course, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy brought Barnett a Hugo award ("My first Hugo," Paul clarified. "I hope.") as well as a World Fantasy Award. Did Barnett think he had a chance to win the Hugo when TEOF was nominated?
"John and I looked at the shortlist. One of the nominees was the memoirs of a much-respected science fiction writer [Robert Silverberg], and we thought the wise money was on that. But the only book on the shortlist we really worried about from a moral sense - forget who the Hugo actually goes to, just think about the moral competition - was Vin Di Fate's book, Infinite Worlds. So John and I looked at the list and we got on the phone to each other and I said, `There's that book, and that's the only one, frankly, that if it wins rather than us, I won't be unhappy. Obviously it will be a bit disappointing for us, but I won't feel as if we were robbed.' And John said, `That's curious, because that's exactly what I was thinking; that's the one I wouldn't mind losing to.' And later, after I'd gotten to know Vin, I told him this tale and he said, `You know, when I looked at that shortlist, I thought the only one I wouldn't mind losing to was TEOF."
Paul and I speculated on the crop of non-fiction books that might pull in this year's Related Book Hugo. We both agreed that the Barnett-edited The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III could reasonably be considered an early front runner. "I would hope so," was Paul's reaction. I mentioned that another Barnett-edited Paper Tiger book, The Art of Richard Powers by Jane Frank, could also make the shortlist of nominees. "It's possible that they could both lose out because they were both there. Split votes can cancel each other out. But that's sort of speculating overconfidently because, of course, we have no idea who'll get on that shortlist."
I asked if he and Clute still ever worked together. "We haven't worked together as such for quite a while now, although we do have various vague plans for books involving each other, because it'd be nice to work together again. There was some talk about doing on-line editions of both Encyclopedias. We did quite a lot of talking about how we would organize it, but the plans fell through. Basically, when the various dot-coms went bankrupt we couldn't do anything as a result."
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