About the Author
David Hambling lives in darkest Norwood, South London, with his wife and cat. He is a journalist and author and his fiction, starting with the collection, The Dulwich Horror & Others, explores the Cthulhu mythos in his own locale, using local history, folklore and historical characters. He continues the theme in a number of novels including the popular Harry Stubbs adventures, set in the 1920s, and the epic fantasy War of the God Queen, and has contributed to the anthologies ‘Black Wings’ V and VI (PS publishing) and Time Loopers: Four Tales From a Time War.
Describe yourself in six words or fewer.
South London traveler and cat lover
Tell me about your book.
War of the God Queen, turns some of the usual portal fiction tropes upside down. Jessica, catapulted back in time three thousand years, finds that her knowledge and skills are almost useless, and the local nomads are by no means dumb savages. They are fighting a war against the seemingly unkillable Spawn of Cthulhu, who had abducted Jessica as a host-mother. Jessica engineers the escape of a group of other women from different times and places and together fight the Spawn – not by learning how to swing a sword, but by using their varied talents, soft power and fast thinking. Jessica has to deal with an entrenched patriarchy, culture clashes between the rescued women and interference from hostile neighboring states who don’t care that they are being overrun by monsters…
This is not your usual tale of brawny barbarians and slave girls, or even kick-ass swordswomen. But it is a celebration of what a group of determined women can achieve against the odds.
The sequel ‘City of Sorcerers’ is now well into its second draft and will be released some time in 2021, with a third book (title TBR) in the trilogy planned after that.
What makes you and your books unique? Shine for me, you diamond.
My books show a love of language beyond the purely functional, a willingness to imagine beyond the ordinary, and an interest in characters beyond their facades.
What are you working on now/any future projects you want to talk about?
In the edit stage and hopefully coming soon: two more Harry Stubbs novellas featuring our hero tackling paranormal nasties from the Cthulhu Mythos in 1920s London. Each anthology is written with a small group of authors, with the stories linking together with a shared element.
“City of Sorcerers” : The sequel to War of the God Queen, and so Book 2 in the Age of Monsters trilogy is now well into its second draft . The original used a single viewpoint character which was limiting in some ways; this time we get to see things in different ways and I’m enjoying using several different styles.
Further ahead: “Destroying Angels” – the fifth Harry Stubbs novel. I wanted to get the novellas in first so that by this book Harry has reached a point in his career where he is no longer a sidekick but very much running the show, and has a wide experience of the type of enemies out there
Let’s celebrate. What’s one of the best things that’s happened to you as an author? Don’t be shy.
I was delighted when my collection of Lovecraftian short stories (The Dulwich Horror and Others) was picked up by ST Joshi, the foremost Lovecraft scholar and editor of our age; he wrote an introduction and persuaded PS Publishing to put it out as a hardback. That was the moment I started to feel like ‘a real writer’ of fiction.
Let’s talk about CRAFT
What is one thing that you’ve learned about yourself as a writer?
I’ve learned about the limits of my brain’s capacity to process a story.
I can write a short a short story or even a novella in one pass, the whole thing assembling itself neatly in my head, but with longer works its very much a multi-stage process. The first draft is a skeleton which later drafts flesh out, refine, expand on – and sometimes completely rearrange. It is a process of discovery, because it’s impossible (for me, at least) to figure out what every character is doing and how they will react to every new development.
I have nothing but admiration for authors who can write end-to-end in one draft. For me, the first draft is just the starting point of an exceptionally long process.
This is why my writing consists mainly of rewriting and editing, editing, editing. The temptation to keep changing this is almost irresistible, and the digital age – I can change a novel after it has been published! – only makes it worse.
What about self-publishing appeals to you? Why did you choose this particular path to publication?
I’m very much a hybrid author with a mix of self-published and traditionally-published works
Self-publishing is quick, easy and does not rely on anyone else to do things. You do not need to fit into a publishing schedule set a year in advance. It’s great to be able to write a book and simply put it out there as soon as you reach The End, and it’s immensely satisfying to be able to manage the whole business of book production yourself.
I have worked with several publishers on various books, and while things sometimes run smoothly it can often be an unhappy experience (euphemism alert). Staff changes mean that the person who was so enthusiastic about your work when it was commissioned may be long gone by the time it is in production. There are plenty of good people in publishing , but they are often overworked because it’s such a tough business these days, and may have little time to deal with authors, so being ignored is routine. The traditional publishing process takes a long time, with a surprising number of people getting involved and delays at every stage, so be prepared for a long wait. And they may want a cover, or even a title, that you do not like.
…But sometimes it helps to have a publisher with the marketing heft to shift some books. My Harry Stubbs books started out as self-published before being picked up by Crossroad Press, and it makes a difference
Let’s talk about diversity. How do you incorporate realistic diversity into your books? (Sensitivity readers, research, etc.) And why is it important to you?
“War of the God Queen” set out as a counter to the traditional portal fiction tropes, which ever since Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” have featured white males going back and showing the ignorant locals how to do things, and being hailed as gods or wizards for their modern knowledge. Instead we have a modern woman who has to cope with an extremely patriarchal society, and who cannot conveniently invent gunpowder. And while Jessica initially thinks the locals are backward, she soon realizes that when it comes to surviving in their environment, they know a lot more than she does. It is not just a matter of ‘educating’ the ‘ignorant’ and the interplay between different cultures is a key theme.
In the period in which WotGQ is set diversity was not recognized and roles were fairly rigid. However, the arrival of several female characters, all drawn from different historical and cultural backgrounds and with their own knowledge and skills (with white modern Europeans being the minority) , gives the chance to challenge the status quo. Everyone brings something to the party, but that does not make it a Disneyesque harmonious rainbow coalition, more of a constant wrangle. It’s more interesting when you have to fight for your values rather than just assume them.
As a man, I tread lightly when it comes to women’s issues – and plenty of female beta readers helped – but it was interesting to touch on issues like contraception and the ethics of prostitution which fantasy tends to sidestep.
What does your research process look like?
I always waaay over-research. (Sarah’s note: Same.) Perhaps the worst offender was the first Harry Stubbs novella, The Elder Ice, for which I ended up reading several books on Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century, extraordinarily little of which made it into the finished work.
War of the God Queen was supposed to be a simple research-free work with the emphasis on imagination and characters rather than nits and bolts. But I re-read Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and some other ‘portal fiction’ for starters, and ended up reading a lot about life, religion and technology circa 1,000 BCE, plus goat husbandry, weather patterns in grasslands and invertebrate biology – specifically the issue of how a boneless octopus-like creature could walk on land.
The challenge is to get the research in first so the flow of writing is not held up by questions like “what are the prevalent diseases in ancient cities” and “what did they eat for breakfast in Mesopotamia?” Unfortunately…
Weapons are cool. They often require research. Tell me about a cool weapon you’ve researched and used in your writing.
My day job is freelance technology journalism, and a lot is defense-related – I was once described as an ‘exotic weapons guru’ which seemed cool.
There are so many wacky ideas out there for weapons, which fortunately have not yet proven practical, like isomer-based nuclear weapons the size of hand grenades. I have covered a lot of novel non-lethal concepts, including MEDUSA – Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio– which my editor called ‘the microwave scream in your skull’, It uses microwaves to induce sound inside the head which no ear protection can screen out. The concept was apparently never developed beyond the lab, but it matches rather closely the effects described by US diplomatic staff in Cuba and China.
And who could forget the Pentagon’s plans for a Gay Bomb which would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other, causing what the proposers called a “distasteful but completely non-lethal” blow to morale.
Recent favorites weapons tech stories include the CIA trying to weaponize lightning (using a wire between a thundercloud and the target) and a Turkish swarm of stealthy robot stingrays with explosive warheads to sink ships.
In fact I’m keen on all sorts of drone swarms , following my 2015 nonfiction book “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” which is turning out alarmingly accurate. Recently I wrote about a Chinese barrage drone launcher which fires a swarm of 48 kamikaze drones; this sort of thing is already reshaping warfare.
Sarah’s note: this entire answer might be the coolest thing I’ve ever read in my life. I love stuff like this.
Let’s talk about BOOKS
Tell me about the most recent book you’ve read.
Jose Saramago’s “Blindness”, which was recommended to me as a book about a modern pandemic, in this case a mysterious form of infectious blindness. Unfortunately, the translation is clunky, full of dialogue like “those rogues ought to be whipped!” which I can’t imagine being spoken by anyone outside a 19th-century novel. This made it a difficult read, where you keep tripping over lines and having to re-read them.
Also, the author did not appear to have done much research on sudden blindness and how people react to it, and the sexual politics were painfully antiquated even for something written in the 90s. The characters were ciphers and the plot implausible. While Blindness is essentially meant as a fable and not meant to be taken literally, I was distinctly underwhelmed.
But what do I know? Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature.
One of my takeaways from this book was that you can get away with a lot in literary fiction which would never make it in SF or Fantasy. When you have the halo of literature dazzling your readers, they do not notice the lack of elements the SF crowd would take as basic foundations. In our genre you have to work a lot harder, because readers expect decent, imaginative, well-researched world-building. ‘Blindness’ may be a great book – 87,000 people gave it five stars on Goodreads — but is not, in my humble, even half-way decent SF.
What book would you like to see turned into a movie, and who should play the leading roles?
At the risk of being controversial (and sounding grouchy), I don’t want to see any book turned into a movie. Books and movies are two quite different media, and the overlap between them is smaller than people realize. Great movies are distinguished by brilliant acting, impressive cinematography and directorial vision, things which do not exist on the page. A great novel has a distinct writing style, a turn of phrase, an authorial voice: nobody is ever going to capture the essence of Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, or HP Lovecraft on screen, let along PG Wodehouse.
Hollywood is a ruthless machine which stamps everything into a pre-determined pattern; PK Dick is one of my favorite authors, but movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall are travesties of the stories they are based on. Blade Runner is of course great in its way, it just doesn’t have much to do with the original “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
Hollywood cuts out anything which is not commercial, abridges, simplifies, and loses the subtlety. It mangles novels as badly as it does history. Because doing so plays better with audiences and gives a better bottom line, and that’s showbusiness, baby! On the screen you get Peter Jackson’s LotR, not JRR Tolkein’s.
Actors are great at interpreting character; it’s what they do. It’s an incredible talent, but in a novel each reader gets their own unique and personal version. Ian McKellen gives a great Gandalf, but he’s never going to be my Gandalf. Also, in the movie he’s just a wizard, with no deeper suggestion of an immortal, angelic being 2,000 years old sent by the gods.
Also…I worry how cinema is affecting the current generation of fantasy novelists. Back when I was growing up there were basically no fantasy movies and it was an entirely written genre. Now I get the feeling that many writers get their ideas and outlook from the screen not the page, so they are familiar with story arcs, snappy dialog, and sudden reveals, but not extended metaphor or a well-turned sentence. The writer’s art, which ought to be all about words, is in danger of turning into something else. Our imagination is becoming visual at the expense of all the other senses, and everything is strangely weightless, odorless, historyless. A character’s inner life may be replaced with handy visual cues that will look good on screen.
That said, it would be entertaining to see a few different movie versions of any of my work. A Christopher Nolan version of ‘The Elder Ice’ vs a Guillermo del Toro version. Tom Hardy as Harry Stubbs vs Jason Statham? One day there will be software that will turn any novel into a movie with a director, style and cast of your choice…
Hobbies and All Things WEIRD
When you aren’t writing, what can you typically be found doing?
Favorite activities include birding, photography, walking and travel. So frequent trips to interesting countries to photograph birds are usually a big part of my life. Except that this year has been a little different…still, there are some amazing birding sites within driving distance of London.
We recently went to see a ‘Snettisham Spectacular,’ a place in Norfolk where thousands of waders are driven inland by the tide rising over shallow mudflats, which is quite a sight. When the birds rise into the air they carry out incredible, coordinated aerobatic maneuvers – then settle on the mud in a perfectly choreographed landing pattern.
Birding does sometimes interrupt the writing; my desk looks out on to the back garden, and I sometimes leap up to get a closer look (and a photo) if something interesting is flitting around. Or just the parakeets, which have invaded South London and are the commonest birds on our feeders: I watch them, and they watch me back.
Tell me about something in your life that brings you joy. What is it, and why?
Cookery is an enduring pleasure. It’s probably the closest thing to alchemy, taking a few ingredients and transforming them into something delicious by following a set of instructions from ancient grimoires. I enjoy exploring new recipes and tinkering with familiar ones, right from the very simplest up to the most complicated. Like produce from your own garden, home cooking satisfies like nothing else can.
What’s your favorite holiday and why?
My wife and I have traveled a fair amount across several continents. One stand out was the West African country of Benin, which we visited after reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah.
Benin is a land of red earth, where men sit with beers outside bars with hand-painted signs, and women swathed in amazing fabrics glide past with baskets of produce balanced effortlessly on their heads (women working, men lazing is a common pattern…). In rural areas, everyone has tribal scars on their cheeks – lines, crosses, circles – showing their background.
As usual, we traveled independently; much of the transport was in ancient Peugeot 504 taxis, the only vehicles robust enough for the bumpy dirt roads. Getting around was not easy, and even finding the hotels we had booked could be a challenge. Like much of West Africa, Benin’s national language is French , and luckily schoolboy French (which is useless in France), worked brilliantly.
Being white in Benin gives you an idea of what it feels like to be a celebrity. People look at you with curiosity wherever you go to see what you are doing; small children point and delightedly shout ‘Yovo, yovo!’ when they see you, as though they have just spotted a strange animal (which they have).
The national religion is Voudou (voodoo), and there are occasional reminders – religious processions, the remains of blood sacrifices by the side of the road. The serpent temple in Ouidah stands opposite a Catholic basilica; a guide showed us round, and insisted we posed for pictures with the pythons….because that’s what they expect tourists to do. He joked that the snakes go and eat the Catholic rats in the basilica….
Benin was a great example of how mind-expanding it can be to see places and cultures that are totally different and realize that everything you think of as ‘normal’ is relative. And, as a fantasy writer, to see how people live in an essentially pre-modern agricultural society without modern conveniences.
What’s your favorite food from a country you do not live in?
I’m very fond of South Indian cuisine – there’s cluster of great South Indian restaurants near us in Tooting which are terrific for dosas (like savory stuffed crepes), uttapam (somewhere between pizza and pancake), hoppers (between pancake and crumpet) and thali (a selection of dishes served on a platter). All quite spicy….we will definitely be celebrating with a meal when we can eat out safely again.
Tell me a strange, random fact.
‘Dark flight’ is the term for a meteorite’s path through the atmosphere after it burns out and stops glowing but before it hits the ground. It’s a great metaphor for something.
Any final thoughts?
Thanks for having me, it’s been fun!