The extremely talented, and award winning, Chris McMahon agreed to the following short interview. He’s a good friend of mine, and one who has always impressed me with his work ethic and generosity with other writers. He’s a Thursday Critiquer [one of our former critique groups] and one of those people who can tell you when a story is wrong, and usually offer a solution that within a few days you’re certain you actually came up with yourself. A lot of my stories have come from conversations had with Chris over a beer or a coffee.
Is it true that you were raised by wolves? (It’s nothing to be ashamed of, I was raised by a family of field mice.)
Actually it was even stranger. After being lost in the wilderness, surviving on wild Mulberries, I wandered deep on hidden paths. There I met an ancient grasshopper philosopher, carrying the next generation of grasshopper-sages on his back. He took me on a journey to the realm of thought and possibility, and when I returned, began to instruct me in his wisdom with great urgency, yet in profound silence.
Although my time with him was relatively brief, I did enjoy the Mulberries.
In a hundred words or less, how would you describe the Calvanni?
The Calvanni features a truly unique fantasy world – one without swords – where all metal is magical. The book follows the adventures of Cedrin, a street-wise calvanni (knife-fighter), and Ellen, daughter of the assassinated Sarlord, as they find themselves on opposite sides in a sudden civil war. First in the Jakirian Cycle, a planned series of six, the books follow Cedrin and Ellen as they confront the world of Yos and come to face deeper and more hidden threats – with plenty of great action, political twists and relationship tension. Eventually they must face a final challenge as the most ancient secrets that bind their bloodlines are revealed.
Who are your influences?
That’s a tough one. I certainly have my favourite authors — David Gemmell & Steven Erickson for example — but I think I am more defined by my lack of early influences.
My exposure to books started late — so in a sense I had been creating my own worlds, my own stories before I was exposed to any others. The sort of books my contemporaries were reading never featured in my growing up. I created things in their place.
When I was old enough to take books out of the local library myself, old enough to take command of my own education, a whole new world opened up for me. Later I went on the read the usual ‘mainstays’ of SF&F, such as Tolkien, Moorcock, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, C.S. Lewis, Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson, Stephen Donaldson, David Brin etc
You’re a trained engineer, and it shows in your world building. Yos is a fascinating place, that feels real. How do you think your background as an engineer affects your approach to writing – that is, if you think it does at all?
I guess I tend to be methodical, and that is an engineering trait, but I think I have that personally anyway.
My career and scientific background have definitely impacted my writing. Often something I would be working on or a research thread in my work would lead me to a really startling idea. I guess coming out of my engineering career a lot of those were science fiction ideas — but not necessarily.
It also had an impact thematically. Later in my career I worked at a policy level for a company many considered the ‘bad guys’, so I really got to see some issues from the inside. Some of the things I confronted, some of the choices I saw others make — good or poor moral choices — the way situations that impacted on individuals and communities were dealt with: these things really influenced me and my writing.
My move from the consulting to corporate world in 1998 completely transformed the tau-Ceti Diversion (my unpublished SF novel), which was undergoing one of its many re-writes at the time. The whole plot became a lot more political as apposed to military/space opera. The central character became a corporate executive desperate to restore his families waning fortune at any cost. It was great to explore those issues on the page
Fantasy or Science Fiction, which way do you lean?
I love both. I could not pick one over the other, although my passions do run hot and cold for them. Right now I am working on a new fantasy novel, so I guess I am more in that space, but that doesn’t stop me from pursuing SF concepts and reading science.
For me this question is a bit like the old conversation starter – ‘What single album would you pick if you were stranded on a desert island?’ I find that impossible to answer. I like a huge range of music, but am equally fickle about what gets me really going at any given time.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a stand-alone fantasy book set in neo-bronze age Ireland, Tower of the Mountain King. Its been a lot of fun to research.
The central character, Lathel, is the youngest son of a powerful clan. He was never trained to be a warrior, and was marked from an early age for Druidic training. He is rejected by the Druids after his testing as a Seer. Memories of the testing emerge only in fragments, along with crippling headaches.
In a sudden, ruthless attack, all of his brothers are killed, and the young prince finds himself thrust to prominence. The embattled forces of the West find themselves faced not only with an invading army, but dark magic. To succeed Lathel must embrace his mysterious heritage and take his birthright — the magic of the ancient Sidhe race.
You’re a Brisbane based writer. How important is the landscape of Brisbane to your writing?
That really depends on what I am writing. When I created Yos I did try and make it a hot, sub-tropical world (when the suns aren’t eclipsing that is), more like our own climate than say your typical European fantasy book with people trudging through the snow.
Most of my fiction is set in totally unique environments, so being a Brisbane writer doesn’t really impact on setting.
Although when I wrote Murtagh’s Fury, which was one of the pieces selected for the One Book, Many Brisbanes anthology, I really tapped into my own memories and feeling for Brisbane. I found a rich source of material there, and a lot of images and memories emerged that gave richness to the story.
My novel Warriors of the Blessed Realms (unpublished), is also partially set in Queensland, so I used my own experiences to get the feeling of Brisbane, and of being out on the bay, on Fraser Island, where the central character Liam discovers a magical Gateway to the Blessed Realms.
Do you write every day? And if so how much?
I try to write something every day, although its often impossible between the demands of family and business (my wife and I run a Speech Pathology practice). Even the ‘business’ end of writing itself can threaten to swallow up your writing time.
In terms of my major projects, I try to write at least 10 hours a week, mostly during the weekdays, although this can be as little as four hours if things get hectic. If I am really firing — I’m the sort that really runs to the finish line — I might be at the keyboard 30 hours in a week. I find I can’t really focus for more than six hours at a stretch, although I have done more. I get exhilarated by my writing, particularly when its flowing, but it does tax me at a fundamental emotional level.
Once I ‘come down’ from a big stint like that I feel satisfied, yet drained. I used to do a lot of travel with my work, and I was lucky to always have had a laptop for that – so early in the morning before work, or late at night after I finished I could always go back to the hotel room and tap away.
When I travelled up to Gladstone for work, there were always quite a few of us in the same hotel and I think they were pretty convinced I was a hermit, or at least anti-social.