June 29, 2024

Interview with Richard Harland, author of The Ferren Trilogy

Hi friends! I'm pleased to be featuring author Richard Harland and his newest book from the Ferren Trilogy on the blog today. It was super fun getting to chat with him and get to learn more about the book and the author himself. This book will be available in a month, so be sure to add it to your TBR today.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Richard!

About the Books

Book 1: Ferren and the Angel

An angel falls from the sky and crashes to the ground! Miriael, the Fourteenth Angel of Observance, has been shot down in the thousand-year war between Heaven and Earth. Damaged and helpless, she prays for extinction. The young tribesman Ferren finds her lying in the grass. She ought to be an enemy, since his people are on the side of the Earth. But seeing her there, unable to fly, his curiosity outweighs every rule and every warning. Ferren knows almost nothing about the terrifying world he's grown up in. Now he's going to learn the truth about the war, the Humen army camp and what military service really means. His unique friendship with Miriael is about to change the course of history.

Check out the book on Goodreads

Book 2: Ferren and the Doomsday Mission (Releasing July 29, 2024)
The unique friendship between an angel and a human is the only hope for the future - but can they remain friends? It's one thousand years since medical scientists brought a dead brain back to consciousness. When they discovered the reality of life after death, they laid claim to Heaven and set off a war against the angels. Now the Earth is a ruined wasteland. Descendants of the original scientists continue the war with their armies of artificially created Humen. When the greatest of Doctors, the all-knowing Doctor Saniette, takes control of the Bankstown Camp, the fighting moves to a terrible new phase. Miriael is the angel who fell to Earth, ate mortal food and can no longer return to Heaven. Ferren is the young tribesman who has been her only friend since her own kind abandoned her. Together, they work to unite the tribes in an alliance independent of the Humen. But suddenly Miriael has another friend. A beautiful, caring angel visits her in secret and offers her what she most desires: the chance to return to Heaven. The consequences will be extreme ... for her, for Ferren, for the world.

Q&A with the Author

What made you decide to become an author? Was it a lifelong dream or something that happened later in life?

It was an aspiration that started very early and didn’t come true until very late!

I first thought how great it would be to be a writer when I was about ten. My best friend and I had this junkyard area at the back of his house – all sorts of junk, like packing cases, old tin baths, metal drums, carpets, pipes, wire, you name it. We used that junk to build submarines, airplanes, fortresses, tanks – and we built on a big scale, big enough to walk around in the submarine or airplane or whatever. Andy supervised the construction, he was very mechanically minded, but I took the lead when we’d finished building and started making up adventures that could happen in the things we’d built. Wave after wave of attackers coming against us in the fortress, some traitor letting them in, a fire, pinned in a single last tower … Or attacked by an enemy submarine, forced to hide under an ice cap, running out of oxygen, surfacing through ice and ripping a hole in the hull … We came back after school every day and added to the story, and some of our stories went on for weeks.

Then one time it rained non-stop for a week – did I say I was living in England back then? We couldn’t get out to our junkyard, which was called ‘the Chicken Run’ for some reason, and we were so bored we decided to write down some of our stories, like pretend books. So that passed the time. But then Andy’s older sister Kitty, who was as bored as we were, started reading some of our stories.

“Hey, these aren’t bad,” she said. “Why don’t you try selling them?”

She had an idea how to do it too. We had to copy our five or six best stories using an old-fashioned duplicator (these were the days before computers!), then we took them to school to sell in the school playground. Only we didn’t exactly ‘sell’ them, because none of our friends had spare money or they didn’t want to part with it. Instead, they did swaps for our stories: candies, comics, even some of their school lunches!

I guess that’s when I first learned that being a writer isn’t the easiest route to being a multi-millionaire. But I learned something else too – that there’s no better feeling in the world than to have someone read a story you’ve written and say, “Hey, that was great, you got another one?” You know then that something you imagined inside your own head has gone across into someone else’s head. They experienced it too! Absolutely no better feeling – makes your heart beat faster!

That was the moment when I thought how great it would be to become a writer. But, a few years later, when I applied myself seriously to making the dream come true, that’s when I hit writer’s block. Twenty-five years of it! So many stupid reasons why I could never finish anything I started - like manic perfectionism, being too proud to listen to advice, trying to write a more literary form of fiction that didn’t come naturally to me, etc. Only one thing I did right for all those twenty-five years – I never gave up trying!

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

Ah, my big problem over all those wasted years was not listening to advice! Too proud! – so I had to learn everything the hard way, by trial and error and bitter experience. I managed to overcome all my issues in the end, but my own best advice for other intending authors would be, Whatever you do, don’t do what I did!

Of advice I learned to listen to, one of the best bits came from a fellow author in a writing group, who said, Get ten ordinary readers to read whatever you write and give you feedback. I discovered you often have to dig to unearth negative reactions and find out what wasn’t working as well as it should have. I also discovered that if one reader isn’t happy about something, it may be just an individual quirk – it’s when two readers say the same thing you know you’ve got a problem to fix!

I still use the ten-ordinary-readers principle. Editors are better at articulating problems, other authors are better at bringing up new answers, but ordinary readers are the ones you can trust!

This is not the first book series you’ve published - what makes The Ferren Trilogy different from the others?

I may be bragging, but I don’t think I’ve ever written the same fantasy world twice. And as a brag, it’s sort of a self-damning admission too. Anyone in the publishing industry will tell you that the way to go is to build a brand – so that readers could buy a Harland book knowing what they’ll get out of it. I can’t help myself, I need to do something different to get the creative juices flowing. And after my history of writer’s block, I can’t risk them drying up again.

The Ferren trilogy is fantasy, but’s also SF in its past premise and a retro-future/post-apocalyptic dystopia in its present setting. Often it’s steampunky and surrealistic in its scenery, while the story has a lot of mystery-investigation and a few moments of horror.

The setting is the far future, a thousand years from now, after human scientists began exploring life after death, revived the consciousness of a subject who’d died and learned that he’d been in Heaven living among angels! That leads to the biggest news sensation ever, an international competition to explore and lay claim to the First Altitude of Heaven and war between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth.

In Ferren’s time, civilization on Earth has been destroyed by a thousand years of war, leaving only scattered ruins. The original human beings have been reduced to ignorance and degradation, living in fearful, isolated tribes. The new rulers of Earth are the artificially created Humen – Hypers, Doctors and Plasmatics – who battle endlessly against the angels and plan an ultimate invasion to conquer Heaven.

The novel begins when junior warrior angel Miriael is shot down in a night-time skirmish and crashes to the Earth. Damaged and unable to fly, she waits for extinction. But the young tribesman Ferren has seen her fall and tries to save her, even though she ought to be his enemy since he’s on Earth’s side and she’s on Heaven’s. When he drops terrestrial food and water into her mouth, she survives as no angel has ever survived on Earth before, but she’s no longer a being of pure spirit and can no longer return to Heaven.

That’s just the beginning of the Ferren Trilogy. But very different, don’t you think? I can’t guarantee no one’s ever written anything quite like it before, but I guarantee I haven’t! 

What would you consider your biggest success as an author to date?

My biggest success would have to be my steampunk fantasy books – Worldshaker and its sequels. They were published in the UK, France, Germany, Australia and by Simon & Schuster in the US. In France, Worldshaker took out the Prix Tam Tam du Livre Jeunesse (an honour shared with the first Harry Potter book – usually the winners are French YA authors).

Without spoilers, what is one significant way your book has changed from the first draft to the final draft?

The time between the very first draft and the very last is decades long! I’ll have to give a potted history!

There’s an earlier version of The Ferren Trilogy called The Heaven and Earth Trilogy, which came out only in Australia, published by Penguin Australia. It had some success, but wasn’t marketed well (internal publisher politics!) and Penguin let it go out of print. That was twenty years ago …

Now for the best bit of the story! After the Penguin version dropped out of print, and after I’d moved on to other writing, there were still fans of the original trilogy who’d fallen in love with it and refused to forget about it. They wanted those novels back in print and wouldn’t let them die! They hounded publishers year after year, until they finally succeeded. One day, out of the blue, I received an email from IFWG Publishing, saying they’d like to do a reprint of the Ferren books. Yay for people power!

But I wouldn’t go along with just a reprint, I insisted on doing a total rewrite. Even while I was writing other books, the trilogy hung around at the back of my mind. Fans of the book always believed it deserved better from its publishers, but I believed it deserved better from me too! The raw material was there, the incredible future world where the armies of Heaven do battle with the armies of the Earth – so much potential! But I hadn’t made the most of it. After twenty years of mulling it over in the back of my mind, I just knew how Ferren’s story could be better told. And now it is!

It's a wonderful thing, to be given a second chance at something you didn’t do quite right the first time around!

So that’s the size of the difference between the first draft and the last. The elements are often the same, but the telling now has 100% more impact. One easy-to-describe change is that Ferren and the White Doctor (as Book 2 of the Penguin version was called) starts with events among the tribe of Nesters, then shows Doctor Saniette on his way to the Bankstown camp, then moves to events with the Sea-folk. Whereas Ferren and the Doomsday Mission starts with Doctor Saniette, then moves to the Sea-folk, then goes on to the Nesters. That’s the first two-thirds of the novel completely swapped around. It would take a long while to explain why the new version works so much better, but it does!

What was your hardest scene to write, and why?

One scene that gave me a whole heap of difficulty was the scene where Miriael first goes up to Heaven in a visionary dream. I’m talking the first version of Ferren and the Angel now. I needed the right image of Heaven, but the more I tried to create a sense of splendour and beauty, the more it didn’t ring imaginatively true. So many times I reimagined and rewrote. Then finally it came to me I was on the wrong track going for a sense of splendour. Beauty, yes, but a quiet beauty, a simple beauty … in a word, a sense of serenity! Utter calm, utter peace, utter tranquillity. Once I’d discovered the right track, the chapter almost wrote itself, and it’s one of the chapters in Book 1 that I’m most pleased about. In fact, it’s one of the few chapters that has stayed almost the same all the way through to the IFWG version.

There are later visionary dreams in Books 2 and 3 where I did need to incorporate some splendour and magnificence into higher Altitudes of Heaven. But I hope I’ve never lost sight of that basic sense of serenity!

If you could meet your characters in real life, would you get along? What would you say to them?

Ferren admires the angel Miriael from the start, but he doesn’t exactly get along with her – and I’m pretty much the same as Ferren in that! She superior and supercilious, and views him as a dirty, rough physical sort of being. It’s a clash of species, mindset, everything – but the great thing about characters in a novel compared to real life is that you can always see the other person’s perspective. In real life, I’m with Ferren – hurt and offended. But as a novelist, I can share Miriael’s experience too.

I’d love to ask Miriael questions about her education and life as a warrior angel in Heaven. In the Ferren Trilogy, it’s all done by glimpses and suggestions – I’m only a human, I can only imagine so much! But there a million answers I’d like to have.

I don’t know that I’d want to meet Zonda, the third major character in Ferren and the Angel.

She’s bumptious and bouncy, infinitely self-confident and pushy – but I love her in the novel because she’s always totally herself! Does that make sense? In real life, I’d hate to have her as, say, a classmate or a sister!

What comes first for you - the plot or the characters - and why?

I guess the Ferren Trilogy started with a world. The original inspiration came from a dream where I was peering out from under some sort of covering like a blanket, watching eerie light effects in the night sky, listening to terrifying sounds. Then suddenly I knew - the way you can know things in dreams, as if someone’s just told you -  that this was the battle going on in the war between the armies of Heaven and the armies of Earth. 

Then one particular light came hurtling down, almost on top of me, with a long, wailing cry. I didn’t know it in the dream, but I thought it after I woke up: that must have been an angel falling to the earth. And when I thought about that, I realised I’d been given the opening for a novel. The same exact scene has stayed as the first half dozen pages of Book 1 through all the huge changes the trilogy’s gone through.

I guess that was an idea of a world with a potential story attached. For many years after the dream, it was the world I focused on, building a history and geography which could make sense of a war between Heaven and Earth – and of me (or Ferren) peering out in fear and wonder from under a blanket.

When I set to work on the story – well, the dream helped me with that, because obviously I (or Ferren) would want to go out in the morning to investigate. And when I imagined Ferren finding Miriael lying injured and helpless in the grass, their relationship grew out of that, and their characters became the characters for that relationship. 

I hope everything fits together seamlessly in the end, so that you could hardly guess which came first. The geography and history of the world don’t look as though they came first because they only emerge very slowly, not really presented until three-quarters of the way through Book 1.

What piece of art has most influenced your writing? This can be an actual piece of art, a movie, a book or even a video game - whatever makes the most sense for you?

It must be because of your question before, but the first piece of art I think of is the painting that helped me over the hump when I was trying to imagine a vision of Heaven for Miriael’s visionary dream. The answer – serenity, a quiet and simple beauty – was embodied for me in a medieval painting by Breughel called the Ghent Altarpiece. I guess medieval paintings are the obvious place to go for visions of Heaven! Breughel’s version, in the central image of the Altarpiece, is green grass, a small fountain, a few distant clusters of trees. Serenity!

I visited Ghent long ago, saw the famous Altarpiece and bought a book of Breughel’s paintings. If I hadn’t, maybe I’d still be struggling to work out how to imagine Heaven!

What projects do you have coming up next?

Book 3 of the Ferren Trilogy, titled Ferren and the Invaders of Heaven. I’m working now on the rewrite, just coming up to where the biggest climax ever starts rolling!

About the Author

I was born in Yorkshire, England, then migrated to Australia at the age of twenty-one. I was always trying to write, but could never finish the stories I began. Instead I drifted around as a singer, songwriter and poet, then became a university tutor and finally a university lecturer. But after twenty-five years of writer’s block, I finally finished the cult novel, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, and resigned my lectureship to follow my original dream.

Since then, I've had seventeen books published, all fantasy, SF or horror/supernatural, ranging from Children’s to Young Adult to Adult. My biggest success internationally has come with my YA steampunk fantasies, Worldshaker and its sequels. I've won six Aurealis Awards (Australia's Nebulas) and the Prix Tam-tam du Livre Jeunesse for Le Worldshaker.

I live with partner Aileen near Wollongong, south of Sydney, between golden beaches and green escarpment. Walking Yogi the Labrador while listening to music is my favourite relaxation—when I'm not writing like a mad workaholic, catching up on those wasted twenty-five years …

My website for The Ferren Trilogy and other books is at www.ferren.com.au. I've also put up a comprehensive 145-page guide of tips for writing fantasy fiction at www.writingtips.com.au.

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