Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Peter Tomlinson - The Genre Strike

One Author Who Believes Pigeon Holes Are For The Birds - Part One

Peter Tomlinson put his literary life on the line when he turned his back on the genre stereotypes agents, publishers and retailers love to slot into their gold-lined pigeonholes – and he’s never looked back.

After bravely ploughing an independent furrow in a field of his own, the first two novels in his Petronicus Legacy series have already been released and the third in the trilogy is under contract and its first draft is complete.

But even with a solid reputation as the author of nearly 300 poems in eighty poetry and short story magazines in the UK and abroad, the path less trodden – avoiding all genre models – was no easy route for Peter. Mainstream houses turned down flat his first four novels and two one-act plays because they didn’t fit neatly into their well-ordered catalogues.

Only when he submitted his fifth novel to an independent press with a more open mind did he pique interest … and not only interest in that book; the publishers were so impressed that they immediately offered a three-book deal for Peter to get to work on following his 80,000-word The Stones of Petronicus with The Time of Kadrik and The Voyages of Delticos to make up a series.

And, said Peter at his home in rural Shropshire: “There are heavy hints that the series won’t end with a mere trilogy.

“You see, each book is absolutely self-contained; the lead characters in each are different, but descendents of characters past, the time setting is different, but is the result of times past, the situations are different, but are extensions of situations past … there’s a common thread of development that bonds them. Making up history as I go along means that I could tie together as many Petronicus books as life allows me to write.”

It’s as though Peter developed a genre of his own when he took his first character, Petronicus the scribe, and placed him in a time and country that, ‘real world’ as it is, can’t be identified … but which is, certainly, a million miles from the land of fantasy.

He said: “There were times when I felt I was getting nowhere as publisher after publisher told me they just weren’t interested in me if I couldn’t produce a book that would fit their lists so that they could easily identify a target readership for the marketing boys and retailers. But I was determined to go my own way.

“So I lowered my sights from the major publishing houses and looked around for a reputable small independent. I found BeWrite Books and we just seemed to click. Far from being frightened off by the fact that the book fitted no established genre, they not only went for it, they immediately signed me up for two follow-ups.

“Stones of Petronicus came out last year, Time of Kadrik was published in the spring, and I’ve just completed the first draft of Voyages of Delticos for a winter release. Together, they’ll make up the trilogy, The Petronicus Legacy.

“The novels are not typecast in the mode of conventional adventure/historical fiction; the location, characters and civilisations described are entirely fictitious. I take readers into places they have never been before and to meet characters they will meet again only in their dreams … or maybe their nightmares, as one reviewer put it.

“The first book follows the theme of a perpetual search for truth and the nature of human existence. All the books explore the relationships between old and young as they complement each other through interaction of enquiring and often precocious youth and the steadier more experienced wisdom of the elder.

“There is no conflict between them except, at times, some understandable impatience. Together they face great dangers as horror and wickedness descends on their idyllic world, and here we see how the combination of youthful energy and mature wisdom triumphs.

“But never could the work be labelled ‘fantasy’, in spite of a touch of the mystical and the introduction of some pretty fabulous creatures. My characters have no magical powers and they face purely human struggles in an earthly landscape. The result is education in its purest form.

“And it couldn’t be written off as ‘adventure’ because so much of the adventure is of the mind. It’s not ‘historical’ because there’s no factual framework. And it couldn’t get by under that vague and confusing ‘literary’ banner because … well, because there’s always a beginning a middle and an end to the stories.

“The books couldn’t even be classified in terms of potential readership; they would appeal as much to young people as to mature adults, as much to a female as a male audience. And if there’s the slightest whiff of ‘coming-of-age’ (another genre these days), you’d be hard pressed to say whether the coming-of-age applies to a young character, an old character or even a whole civilisation.

“In Petronicus, for example, we have the young apprentice to life learning at the side of the master craftsman as the two main characters journey through the joys and tragedies of their lives together.

“Sure, I can understand why it is my books would confound publishers whose first question is ‘what genre?’ But I wasn’t about to compromise my work to squeeze it into a narrowly defined slot to suit commercial trends.”

Although there is conflict and great danger in the lives of the principal characters, Peter avoids falling into the trap of relying on gratuitous violence to carry the story along. The writing creates vivid images in the minds of his readers and he often crafts his writing in terms of acts and scenes in a visual drama. Perhaps unusually for an author, he is predominantly an ‘imager’ and this visualisation – actually being an eye witness to what he creates – is demonstrated in his writing. He has often said that reading is better than watching film; the scenery is better.

In his second novel, The Time of Kadrik, which is set in the same fictional landscape ten generations later, Peter casts his players onto a much wider canvas. Here we are introduced to different characters in a different time. The principal player is Kadrik who we follow from boyhood into maturity as he is forced by catastrophic circumstance to question the beliefs on which the survival of his community depends.

With only his wife to support and encourage him, Kadrik lives through several lonely years until his fate is decided by an inescapable imperative and a resolve that comes to dominate his life. In order to save his community from complete collapse, the very young Kadrik must embark on a perilous journey both geographical and intellectual. He undertakes this journey in the company of three unlikely companions: a nameless outcast and two members of a mysterious humanoid species known as the Men Half Made.

“Even so,’ Peter insists, “I avoid straying into the realms of fantasy. The ‘quest’ is a very human endeavour toward human goals. The Men Half Made are not mythological mermaids; they’re merely an earthly breed apart. And, although I draw heavily on a lifetime of historical research, there can be no confusion between the books in this series and a historical novel because of the way I’ve used what I’ve learned to create an entirely new and fictitious historical base. I’ve travelled widely to research the backdrop to my scenes. But, again, I’ve used what I’ve learned to create a new reality rather than a Neverland. A reader might occasionally think he’s worked out where in the world the characters are playing out their roles – but he’ll soon find that he’s mistaken.”

BeWrite Books editor, Neil Marr, said: “One of the beauties of being an independent press, driven by factors that are by no means entirely commercial, is that we have the freedom to experiment with work that doesn’t necessarily fit some tried and tested, money-spinning formula.

“Peter’s books break new ground – and that’s their problem in the mainstream where genre is all important. Big-business houses – their marketing departments and their retailers – are tied to established best-selling formulas to keep afloat. A small independent like BB is free of those restrictions.

“In the end, it’s the reader who benefits. Peter’s work is consistently at the top of our ‘most reviewed’ lists. Readers who read the first couldn’t wait for the next … and already, we’re getting emails from people desperate to know when the next will be available. These books are fresh, you see. There’s nothing else like them out there."

Read Part Two here

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from The Stones of Petronicus, The Time of Kadrik, The Voyages of Delticos

Visit The Petronicus Legacy site

Click here for Peter Tomlinson's biography

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