You are in for a treat today, readers:
D.M. Cornish is here!
First--a little background. I came in late to the Harry Potter craze. By time I had any desire to read the books, the third movie was already out. When I finally did read them, I realized that "intermediate readers" books had really really advanced since I was the intended age group. After Harry Potter, I decided to peruse Books-A-Million to find similarly crafted awesomeness, when one book caught my eye.
I glimpsed the cover. Saw "Monster" in the title, and just froze. Had I found my next great YA adventure? I read the inside cover, learning that I was in for a dark and mysterious journey through monster-infested--"threwdish" (as in "haunted") woods--and my inner twelve year old was dancing for joy. Then...oh, dear friends...then I flipped to the back of the book. The famed Explicarium. 121 pages of definitions, calendars, legends and lore, and schematics of the ships used in this sailing-inspired story. I was near tears, marveling at the amount of detail that the author--D.M. Cornish--put into this book. It was then that I realized this wasn't just a story, Mr. Cornish had crafted an entire world.
I bought the book and was instantly transported to the Half-Continent, a fantasy land that borrows absolutely nothing from Tolkien. You won't find any elves, dwarves, or dragons here. No swords or magic or corrupt kingdoms. You'll just find sailors, tri-corner hats, and flintlocks...and lots and lots of monsters, bogles, and nicks of every shape, size, and philosophy. But, most of all, you meet Rossamünd--the antithesis of nearly every hero in the YA fiction category. Rossamünd is kind, patient, friendly, longsuffering, and hasn't an ounce of ego. He is well-mannered, hard-working, and is so darn likable and unassuming that even those who might be his enemies are won over by his goodnaturedness.
Mr. Cornish has finally finished his epic trilogy, chronicling Rossamünd's journey (so far?) and the books--and Explicarium--have only grown. After being a fan for so long, I'm very excited to have the author stop by today to discuss the origins of his most unique creation and talk all kinds of deep, writery things. Enjoy!
Greg Mitchell: Okay, we’ll start small: Give the new folks a rundown—what’s The Foundling’s Tale about?
D.M. Cornish: Too hard to answer in a nutshell really – usually to sum up any story rarely does it justice and, moreover, I have no notion of how to do this with The Foundling’s Tale (aka Monster-Blood Tattoo). To say it is about Rossamünd, a boy with a girl’s name, who leaves his orphanage to enter his trade as a lamplighter and what happens to him on the way, during and after does little to expound the whole vibe of the story, the setting etc. However, I suppose it will have to do. I have answered elsewhere on the web, equally evasively...
GM: It is a hard question, I agree. Now, take me back a bit to the beginning. You were, first and foremost, an illustrator, correct? I’ve heard you tell your story and it sounds like you almost “stumbled into” writing your Half-continent creation as a novel. How did this all come about?
DMC: That it was really. I had been inventing the Half-Continent for years (since 1992 or so, though there was a lot of preliminary playing around and reading that lead even to beginning to make the H-c). All the time I was refining ideas, building them, expanding them with a thought that they would need to pass public scrutiny (i.e., that the ideas had to be as solid as I could make, not entirely self-indulgent but comprehensible too) thinking maybe one day someone somewhere might see what I was doing and say “Hey, that looks workable; do us something from that pretend world you’ve got there.”
2003 rolls on in and I find myself back in my home town of Adelaide after nigh on a decade absence, without work and naught but an illustration folio under my arm (I was at the time a freelance illustrator – making the Half-Continent was a hobby). Off I pop to my local children’s book publisher, Omnibus Books, to find some covers to illustrate and/or picture books to picture and hallelujah, the publisher there gives me first a cover, then one picture book then another – I had work, food on the table and a roof. Phew!
At the time I would often sit in my publisher’s office and talk with her about life-the-universe-and-everything (goodness knows what work she was not getting done!) One day near the very end of 2003, she found one of my notebooks full of all manner of H-c ideas and asked what it was. I told her. She right then and there asked me to write a story set in this notebooked world, which I did, a chapter at a time until she felt I had something to offer (and could actually write …), contracts were offered, contracts were signed, publishers in other lands were shown, they signed up and here we are.
GM: I’ve told you this before, but I am so impressed with your notebook collection! It’s actually inspired me to keep my own notebooks regarding The Coming Evil series. How many notebooks do you have, now, that chronicle your thoughts on the Half-continent? Similarly, how many notebooks had you completed before you started “officially” writing Foundling?
DMC: Well, cheers. I am currently in the midst of notebook 36; I began writing Foundling (officially and unofficially – no form of it existed until my publisher asked me to write a story for her) at notebook 23.
GM: That is insane! I am actually only to notebook 2 on my TCE notes :p Okay, let’s go all the way back now--tell me about the beginning of the H-c. It’s a fantasy world, sure, but it’s so far removed from what people might call “traditional fantasy”. No elves, no dwarves. Instead of a medieval Europe setting, you’ve got tri-corner hats and flintlocks. But this isn’t in our past, correct? This is a totally separate world with its own fully realized locations and languages and culture. How did you arrive to this? What was that initial spark? I mean, why boats and tri-corner hats?
DMC: "Why not?" is the best answer I can give.
GM: Fair enough!
DMC: In more recent times it has occurred to me that in a very real sense the Half-Continent and beyond is my way of addressing real history, that it is a pseudo-history rather than a fantasy, that in many ways it is just European history of the 17th & 18th centuries but with monsters added.
I can certainly say that the H-c is a way for me to take all sorts of real historical things I think are “cool” but that would not otherwise fit together, bring them together and make them seem as if they actually fit as a whole and have always done so.
It is the aesthetics of an item, a word, a custom, even an event that usually appeal to me first.
GM: Something I’ve written to you about before is that you write some dynamic action scenes. When the monsters start storming the gates and people are dying to fend them off—it’s explosive. But, what I find interesting (and sometimes frustrating :p) is that these are not “action” books. They’re almost designed as guided tours throughout the world, with your characters as our host. It’s very slice-of-life and so, so detailed—I don’t think I can stress that enough for people who haven’t read it. The books are, I’d say, written from an in-universe perspective, meaning I could imagine this very book being found within the world it describes, as even the “narrator” is from the H-c. I want to say the books are “mundane”, but I’ve got to stress that the writing is far from average. The prose is silk, here. But, the story is very much about an ordinary-ish boy sort of stumbling into experiences he’s perhaps ill-equipped to face. But he leads a somewhat simple life and we follow him through his walk as he matures and discovers the world—both in a literal sense, and metaphorically. Was this a result of wanting to explore your own creation or did you set out to write something that felt more “day-to-day living” from the start?
DMC: Both at once.
I am still not sure if it is the right thing to do or a good origin for any story, but a major motivation for writing is to take people through the Half-Continent and show them what it is like. The H-c is actually the main character of the story, which the human characters, the events, the “technologies”, monsters, geography and all the rest all work together to show as best as I can possibly make it, whilst still actually writing a properly engaging tale. This is the goal at least – still learning how it is done, and if it can be done.
As perhaps a lead up to the next question, the day-to-day element is very much about me being conscious of not needing to tread the already well and/or thoroughly told line of the Great Quest to thwart the Ultimate Threat.
My hope is that the pretend world will be interesting enough in its fundamentals that the life of some average soul from that world ought to be a tale in itself - at least to make a good short story.
Sometimes I think with TFT/MBT that I have not gone day-to-day enough…
[SIDE NOTE] Just to address the idea of the “narrator” in TFT/MBT: I wrote very conscious of the words I was using. All too often when reading other otherwise excellent tales I find myself frustrated to find their language and idioms are modern and from our world, thus constantly drawing me out of my suspension of disbelief. It seems imperative to me that the language used to tell a tale supports the mood as much as any other element, especially if you want to sell that it is otherworldly.
GM: In keeping with that thought, you recently posted on your blog how you previously shied away from the “global threat” that most fantasy books cover. That sort of Ultimate Evil that is jeopardizing the entire land--a Voldemort figure. I subconsciously picked up on that, but it wasn’t until I read your thoughts on it that I realized “Oh, yeah.” Why have you avoided the Ultimate Evil and do you think you will eventually bring the H-c to that sort of threat level? If you think you will, why the change? What are the pros and cons of having an Ultimate Evil?
DMC: There are two cons that animate me about Ultimate Evils:
1/ it’s done to death already, so easy to avoid – others have told this story to varying degrees of excellence, so why not try other avenues to create tension and threat in my pretend world.
2/ I wanted the Half-Continent to carry on in its emerging form rather than be altered forever by some cataclysm (ahh, the sadness as the elves leave Middle-earth for good...!). Perhaps this is some expression of my dismay at death and decay, at the constant passing of beauty.
This said, there have certainly been all-changing cataclysms in the “history” of the Half-Continent and beyond, so I see them as necessary, obviously, and suspect I have not been sooooo original with some of my ideas for these – there is much of the history that has yet to be truly fixed down, but certain cataclysms.
(Most importantly the destruction of the Phlegms who called up false-gods in lust to further their already vast knowledge, necessitating the intervention of the many urchin lords including the Dukes of Sparrows and the Duke of Crows to send the falsegods back to the crushing deeps, bringing destruction to Phlegm in the progress of so mighty a conflict.)
GM: I. Want. That. Story. NOW.
I came to this story when it was called Monster-Blood Tattoo. What a great name! Sadly, I’ve discovered that the publishers have re-branded the series to The Foundling’s Tale. Can you talk about the switch? The reasoning behind it? Your feelings?
DMC: This change was made only by the US publishers, in the great big world beyond North America’s shores it is still called Monster-Blood Tattoo – or whatever variations of language bring to this original title.
It was thought that the old title (Monster-Blood Tattoo) was putting off more readers than it was attracting, so something more benign was sought
GM: Confession time--I’m still reading Factotum, the third and final book in the Foundling’s Tale—so I don’t want to get too much into spoilers for my own sake :p But what’s next for the H-c? And beyond the H-c? Do you foresee yourself creating any more fantasy worlds? Can your house fit that many notebooks?
DMC: I reckon ONE magnum opus world is enough for any soul. I do not make worlds up for the sake of a story, I really prefer to write about a pretend place that to a necessary measure of invention already exists.
DMC: However, I do have a couple half-baked other other worlds floating about my mind, but none anywhere near as realised as the Half-Continent. Some odd “super-hero” notion set in our world that morphed into a grimmer setting of secret societies and odd biological powers etc etc etc.
Right now I am working on what I hope will be the next book, set in the Half-Continent of course, but we will drop Rossamünd’s story for now and seek to see the lives and adventures of a whole new cast of characters (and no, Europe will NOT be in this new tale...)
GM: No Europe! Many fans will be disappointed! I’d like to talk a little about your faith, if that’s alright. It’s funny, your books make no mention of religion--in either a positive or negative slant. It’s just not there. I don’t think I’ve even read of any of your characters praying or any churches in the area or anything. There’s no Christian allegory that I can find, no “deeper spiritual themes” necessarily (though, of course, there are great morals about kindness, hard work, humility, and friendship), yet, when I found out that you were a Christian, I wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, I felt like I already “knew” somehow. How has your faith influenced your writing? Or, has it? Does God exist in the H-c?
DMC: Well, if we take faith to mean as most think it does, to be a set of ideas I hold in my head and chose to believe as being so, consequently couching them in stories so as to make people think the same thoughts as me, then no, not at all.
If by faith it is meant, instead, that I operate in the genuine hope that Jesus is who he said he is, that he was/is God as a man, that he did die and did rise again to life, that he does by his Spirit dwell within me (and others, of course) and is changing me by degrees (slow and clumsy as I am to learn) working in me to do better things, and that if this be so that he might naturally come out of the things that I do without me needing to be falsely pious or self-consciously forced, then yes, absolutely!
GM: A fine answer. Well put.
DMC: I am a hearty adherent to Tolkien’s notion of applicability. Allegory is perfectly worthy of course, but I find trying to find one-for-one substitutions for so big an idea as the Half-Continent not only impossible but also terribly limiting to my honest and truthful expression of what is actually bubbling away inside me. Beyond either of these, determined purposes to indoctrinate through story appear to me a misuse of the fiction form – surely it is through characters being genuinely human that it might be hoped to impart some encouragement or revelation.
GM: I agree about allegory. I think it can become a slippery slope as any story that is "one-by-one" in its imagery/meaning probably makes for a rather limited reading experience.
Moving from faith to monsters: Monsters are, obviously, a big component of the series. What were some of your favorite monster stories growing up? What about monster movies? What inspired you and what keeps you inspired today?
DMC: Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak always always springs to mind first. That and the many dinosaur text books my primary school library stocked; love those murky old school illustrations of weird, half-mythic beasts that actually once roamed this world!
I think the biggest continuing source and influence for monsters are H.P.Lovecraft and manga and all of God’s creatures that walk and crawl, swim and fly on this home of ours. Real things are (obviously, I suppose) the best wellspring to draw from for wacky beasts.
GM: I love that you just name-dropped, Lovecraft, manga, and God all in the same answer. That really makes me smile :) I’m very thankful to you for taking the time to hang out and talk books. I wish you the best with the trilogy and everything else you’ve got planned for the H-c. But . . . one last question:
Do you have a monster-blood tattoo? Come on. You got inked, right? You can’t write three books about it and not have one, right? Right?
DMC: Well actually no, I do not have a tattoo.
The spoors and cruorpunxis of those in the Half-Continent are in truth me harking to body marks being done for proper and meaningful purpose, to display something ‘real’ about their wearers – i.e. “I AM a monster-hunter of this kind and THESE are how many monsters I have killed”. By real I do not mean some affected pose of “I am cool” or “I am hard”, but that the mark represents more than just the whim of its wearer.
I bet you weren’t expecting such an intense response to this bit of playful banter... Sorry about that.
Thanks to everyone for reading. Head over to Mr. Cornish's site to keep updated on his writing and here's a helpful link to order your own copy of Foundling, Book One of Monster-Blood Tattoo!