What was the inspiration behind An Inquisition of Demons?
A lot of things! But the starting point came when I was thinking about traditional depictions of hell – flaming pits, pitchforks, torment by demons – probably after watching an old Simpsons Halloween episode. I found myself wondering what the demons did when they weren’t torturing sinners – how did they relax? What did they eat? I wanted to explore that, and so Barbas the demon was born.
Why did you choose a medieval setting?
Well, once I had demons, I really needed my characters to exist in a world where consorting with demons could have terminal consequences. So any time before the Enlightenment, really. The 17th century is a bit of a cliché now, after Witchfinder General and Ken Russell’s The Devils; and since I’m a fan of the 15th century, and I don’t feel it’s been really exploited in fiction, I decided to set it there.
What particularly appeals to you about the 15th century?
I think it’s the idea of a society in transition. It’s not really the middle ages any more, but it’s not fully modern either. You have the issues around religious reform, with Wycliffe and the Lollards and the desire for a Bible ordinary people can read. You have the death throes of feudalism, with trade and commerce – economics – starting to drive politics and society. Warfare was changing too, with the introduction of cannon which could just knock down castle walls, the end of the longbow. So, yes, everything really.
Why did you decide to set the book in Calais?
Even though the book is essentially about England and the Wars of the Roses, I wanted to distance myself from the country of England, and show a microcosm of society in a high pressure situation. After the French finally drove the English out of France, Calais was the last stronghold left on French soil, and that always intrigued me. But I also had in the back of my mind those old, great crime novels of the twenties and thirties – Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was definitely an inspiration – where the private detective goes to a town where the cops are in the pay of the local criminal gangs, and the whole environment is hostile, the hero has to walk a narrow line. Making my protagonist a Yorkist in a Lancastrian town could only really happen somewhere like the Calais I invented. But this obviously isn’t the real Calais – it’s an alternative Calais of my own creation with magicians and demons.
Your demons aren’t very demonic, are they?
No, they’re not! Once I started writing them they quickly evolved into the wisecracking, sarcastic, urbane sophisticates you find in the book – though you’d still be unwise to trust them too far, I think. But no, there’s not a pitchfork in sight.
Why did you decide to move away from the demons as depictions of evil?
Well, there is still evil in the book, I think. Some of what happens isn’t very nice – though it’s mostly the humans who are responsible for that. But I felt the whole question of temptation and corruption didn’t fit into the book I was writing, except in the minds of other characters.
Parts of the book involve quite explicit violence. Why did you decide to include that?
In the world of my book you have creatures who can alter reality, who can cure or heal serious injuries ‘as if by magic’. In that kind of world, there’s not that much of a threat: if your hero gets injured, so what, he can just go and get himself healed. So I felt that when he’s threatened, my hero really has to be at risk of his life – the reader should be peeking between his or her fingers, and hopefully forget that there’s a magic reset button that will make it all better. And torture is horrible, you can’t shy away from that. It shouldn’t be used for simple entertainment.
You’ve described the book as the ‘Wars of the Roses with demons’ – and yet it takes place before the Wars of the Roses actually starts. Can you say what your thinking was here?
Well, let me put it like this. I’m a big fan of the novel Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. He wrote a sequel, Gormenghast, which is perfectly fine as a novel – but if you think about it, everything that happens in Gormenghast is prefigured in Titus Groan. I’m not knocking Gormenghast, not at all, but in a sense – for me – it didn’t need to be written, it’s redundant. That’s how I felt about An Inquisition of Demons. I wanted it to encapsulate the wars, to prefigure the next thirty years. I wanted to incorporate everything I felt about the period we call the Wars of the Roses in one book. Religion, economics, society, religion, warfare – it’s all in there, bundled up in a murder mystery, along with metaphysics and the nature of good and evil, and the risk of stagnation in a utopia. That’s why I have no plans to write a sequel – because I’ve pretty much said everything I wanted to on the subject.
If you’re not planning a sequel, what comes next?
My next book is called The Bone Fire, and it’s another fantasy mystery thriller, but this time set in contemporary Edinburgh. The basic plot is someone trying to track down his niece who’s gone missing from university, but there’s a lot of other stuff in the mix as well. You have homeless people disappearing from the city streets, you have a young boy whose insecurities manifest themselves as abuse from animals – seagulls, dogs, you name it. You have an Arthurian knight awoken from centuries of sleep, while Merlin has become a rather inept magician who performs at children’s parties. And the climax of the book takes place in the shaman spirit world. So it’s a fun ride, I hope.
And when’s it coming out?
The Bone Fire will be published on Kindle in September 2012.