Interview: Daniel Polansky

the_straight_razor_cureDanielPolanskyDaniel Polansky was born in Baltimore, read philosophy at college, and taught English in Taiwan. Back in America, he found a job to pay the bills and started to write the Low Town series of fantasy noir novels. An avid historian, he spent part of his time while in the UK earlier this year researching at the Imperial War Museum in London, and also sat down with Paul Simpson to discuss the Low Town saga…

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Are we going back to Low Town any time soon?

Yes, there’s the third book in the series coming out some time next year; I had a meeting with my editor over here earlier today. There’s revising to be done. You always submit them feeling like, “This one, not a lot to do here…” but I guess I’ve got 30,000 words to go back over!

The flashbacks to the war in the second book, Tomorrow, The Killing are so vivid; did you research any particular campaigns to influence the battle scenes – there’s a feel of the First World War, and late Victorian campaigns…

I’m a huge history buff. I love military history in particular: you get into particular historical events, and then discover the global sweep of things.

I read a fair bit. I’m always keeping an eye out for things that will influence stuff down the line that I’m writing. Within the second book, it’s a bit of a mishmash. There’s classic pike warfare, and then obviously there’s a great deal of World War I, to the extent there can be influence without guns.

What I got from the historical end, beyond trying to think about things in a narrow tactical way, was, “What would it be like if you had a spear and the guy in front of you had a spear?” As opposed to the more action film thinking about violence.

More than anything, I was influenced by ways of showing how terrible war is, perhaps in ways that don’t get dealt with that much in modern fantasy. As all history buffs know, prior to World War II, two-thirds of all casualties [were caused by] disease. I was thinking about things like that, the misery of doing this on a day to day level, rather than heroic charges with heavy cavalry.

It wasn’t so much that I woke up and decided to model the book after particular events; more that I’ve got a fair bit of background at this moment, reading about different eras and different campaigns.

Tomorrow the KillingHow much of the backstory we learn in book two had you devised before completing The Straight Razor Cure?

Not a ton. I guess I probably had a thematic feeling about the Warden’s background. I knew the basic breakdown – he was a street kid who went to war – which was loosely outlined in a grand sense in the first book. I had an idea about how he felt about the time he spent in the military, and how I wanted to portray that part of his life. But in terms of concrete terms, not so much: I certainly didn’t have any idea about the main mystery of the story.

His attitude to war informs everything that he does; he’s a scarred veteran, both physically and mentally, with survivor guilt… What made you interested in that side of war?

Forgive me for waxing poetic for a moment and I’m painting with broad strokes here. I find the way that – not without exception of course – war gets treated in fantasy to be quite distasteful, and often quite childish: the idea that whether you’re talking about it on a narrow level – where battles consist of two people riding into each other and one rides off – or on a much grander level, that there is a purpose to war, and it’s a moral act.

Most modern fantasy comes essentially from Tolkien. And Tolkien essentially is an analogue for World War II. And the thing about World War II, that anyone who understands anything about military history in general knows, is that this is the definitive outlier in human history. You do have a good side and a bad side, there is a definitive end to the conflict, and bad is punished. It has a real moral dimension.

The truth is, in the grand history of human conflict, that’s almost never the case. I went into the Imperial War Museum today, and looked at the various campaigns being fought: why exactly did Britain or America do these things? Oftentimes you feel the wars are pointless: the reasons people begin them are foolish, the leadership is incompetent or immoral or both. It’s generally paid for with the blood of people who don’t know what is happening, who are rolled into it by reasons of patriotism or nationalism.

Ultimately I’m writing an entertaining book, and that’s my first and last goal. But it does seem strange that we have this mythmaking apparatus based around the notion that war is basically a good thing, that there’s a good side and a bad side and the good side always win. That’s not really the case. I wanted to suggest a counter to this narrative that we have in the genre; that idea did appeal to me.

Big SleepWho are your influences on the noir side? Raymond Chandler? Robert Parker?

Yes. I love Robert Parker although I don’t know how much I’ve taken from him. Chandler would be the one that is the strongest, Chandler and [Dashiel] Hammett. The opening of the second book is basically The Big Sleep: it walks the thin line between homage and straight theft. It quickly goes in a different direction, though.

I love noir: it’s really where my heart is in terms of style. In terms of the prose, I think Chandler is as pure a writer as the twentieth century produced. There is so much myth and vitality in these images and concepts. I have not yet tired of playing with them.

Anyone who’s read much of this stuff can see the influence of Chandler and Hammett.

Would you like to write a straight detective novel?

I would love to at some point. God willing, if I am still in a position in five years’ time to still be writing, I would love to get to a crime novel. Contemporary probably – although it’s pretty abstract at this point.

It’s an interesting task, particularly with the dialogue, filtering all your perceptions through a fantastical lens. There are some really fun things you can do, but it’s difficult with Low Town, where you can’t use modern slang or modern conceptions, or references to real world things. That limits a lot of what you can do in terms of description, and dialogue.

It’s really hard to make up slang: as a reader, your hero can come up with a fireball, fine, but the minute the writer inserts a fake term that one person is calling another, your brain screams “Liar! No one calls people that!” To be able to write at some point in a contemporary vein where you don’t need to be making up the terminology, that would be quite satisfying yes.

What is the most challenging thing about writing Low Town? Is it that lens?

It’s hard to say, because I haven’t written that much else. Writing can be kind of hard. I guess probably that would be it. I work hard at trying to get the dialogue tight and this sort of patter sharp, which is difficult when you’re making up words rather than saying, “you’re uglier than…” I now can’t think of an ugly person! Lee Van Cleef, or whoever. Eli Wallach from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Talking of which, there’s a little bit of that spaghetti western vibe about the relationship between the Warden and his friends…

I love those things. I’m a huge Sergio Leone fan. I don’t know how much there is in Low Town other than how he manages the violence of the whole thing. And some of the patter in those films is so great – “get three coffins ready”.

We’ve talked a lot about influences, but what do you bring of yourself?

[Long pause] I guess I would say you’re always keeping your eye out for people and things to steal. That’s another thing that is difficult about Low Town because it is hard to take anything directly from life without filtering it through the fantastical mirror. But there definitely are characters in the book who are people I’ve met, in terms of their mannerisms, certain aspects of their characters, or physical descriptions.

There are moments when the Warden is bitching about something, and that’s me. Most of the Warden is nothing to do with me, but there are moments where my friends and family read it and know that I hate the same things. I sneak in people where I can, and some of his feelings about life mirror mine.

When you’re writing in the first person, you’re sharpening part of your mind into a certain narrow way and writing with that. Not in terms of his physical prowess or his accomplishments which obviously I don’t match, but the Warden’s outlook on life is me on a really bad day, on a miserable evening when I’ve drunk too much.

deadwood_1Who do you think who could portray the Warden either on screen or audio?

People ask me this and I don’t have a stock answer. There aren’t enough ugly actors any more. The guy in Drive – no one that handsome would have to do half those things. Ian McShane someone suggested and he would be pretty good.

Or Ray Winstone?

I was a fan of Robin of Sherwood: he would be good.

How long do you think we’ll be going back to Low Town for?

I think, at this point, it’s going to be a trilogy. I have an end in mind. The dangling mysteries get resolved, maybe not necessarily in the way you’d hope. The things left unsaid, I think get said in the third one.

Thanks to Kerry Hood at Hodder for her help in setting up this interview.

Read our review of The Straight Razor Cure here; and click here for Tomorrow, The Killing

Click here to order Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure from Amazon.co.uk

Click here to order Tomorrow, the Killing from Amazon.co.uk

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