Today, THE FREE CHOICE E-ZINE is honored to talk with the very prolific and entertaining author Ian Watson, whose work is published under the byline I. A. WATSON, to avoid confusion with the other writing Ian Watson. So Ian, just what have you been up to lately?
|I. A. Watson|
I.A.W.: Recently a lot of projects have ganged up on me. Airship 27 has just released ZEPPELIN TALES, featuring my story “Airship 27”. It’s a tale of romance and adventure, when disgraced Navy weatherman Finian follows mysterious blonde Verity on the deadly maiden flight of “Airship 27”. As the blurb says: “What is the secret in Shed 13? What lies behind the strange sky phenomenon known as the fall streak? Who plots the destruction of crew and ship alike? And what are the strange creatures that dwell beyond the clouds?”
That was almost an accidental project. I needed to write something short to “cleanse my palette” between two bigger projects, and I thought a contribution to publisher Ron Fortier’s appeal for zeppelin tales might be just the thing. Unfortunately, once I got into the writing, trying to channel Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Jules Verne, and a pinch of H. P. Lovecraft, it became clear this was going to be anything but short. Hence the novella.
|Cover art by Mike Fyles for Airship 27|
Naming the airship in my story Airship 27 (after the publisher’s company) was pure cheek on my part. Ron Fortier has a fondness for airships, so it was really difficult for me not to give him a cameo within my tale too.
That’s just the latest of several short stories I've completed for anthologies – a Spider/Black Bat meeting for Moonstone in their THE SPIDER: EXTREME PREJUDICE volume, a pair of SHERLOCK HOLMES: CONSULTING DETECTIVE stories for volumes five and six of the Airship 27 series, an adventure featuring another classic character for Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint, a one-off tale about what happens to a superhero’s girlfriend after he dies, a jungle girl tale, and a couple of magazine stories, including “Mr. Li’s Laundry of Doom” for WONDERLUST magazine.
TFCE: Something tells me that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I.A.W.: I’m surprised I haven’t gone through more keyboards. I've also recently written a story for GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology for charity that might just have become my best-selling work to date. I've done a couple of Robin Hood novellas, one for issue 20 of Pro Se Presents magazine and one to save for later – and a short Robin Hood comic strip with Rob Davis for ALL STAR PULP COMICS #2.
I've more or less finished a two-volume novel called ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, despite not actually discussing it with any publisher; I just wanted to write it. For the same reasons I’m rattling off another novel without even a working title yet about a modern-day jobbing occultist in Soho, London, and his weird little world. I’m 80,000 words in plus six associated short stories and there’s no end in sight. And just last week I was commissioned for another novella set in the 1930s, so I’m about 29,000 words into that. It’s a shame it’s only supposed to be 30,000 words long, because I suspect it’ll take rather more than my remaining 1,000 words to get to the big finish. The villain has just showed up to boast and explain the plot.
TFCE: I’m dreading to ask what you do for fun.
I.A.W.: I've started going over some of my earlier work, revising it so it doesn't make me cringe, getting it fit
Finally, Tommy Hancock of Pro Se Press talked me into writing my first non-fiction book, a collection of articles and essays about writing and odd people throughout history. That’s WHERE STORIES DWELL, due out around the end of the year.
TFCE: With everything else you have going right now, how did that come about?
I.A.W.: I came to write WHERE STORIES DWELL almost exactly the same way I got my first non-fiction in publication. Around four or five years ago, I got hauled into a project by White Rocket supremo Van Allen Plexico. I’d written some articles on the Avengers superhero team for his two essay books ASSEMBLED! and ASSEMBLED 2. He passed my name on to Ron Fortier, Commodore of Airship 27 publications, who needed a Sherlock Holmes story, stat, to meet a deadline. I think Van must have described me using the words “fast and cheap”.
I've been writing as a hobby all my life, but I've shied away from fiction publication because when your hobby becomes a job you need a new hobby, right? On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is a fun character to write, and I hate saying no to creative folks with big ideas. So I wrote the story and thought no more of it.
TFCE: But obviously, and thankfully, you were wrong.
|Art by Mike Manley for Airship 27|
I.A.W.: Right, but here’s where the namedropping gets really bad. I went to aparty – that’s a whole other interview really – and was talking to a Personage there about my brush with publishing. It was suggested to me that I should consider pitching a book. The argument was that the discipline of writing to deadline with an editor could only improve my abilities. At that time Airship 27 wanted stories featuring classic heroes, and Robin Hood’s really an archetype. So I went for it. The odd route was: writing for fun, editor asked for material, someone at a party gave me a push, I fell.
garden Buckingham Palace
TFCE: It sounds like you were a bit reluctant to undertake the WHERE STORIES DWELL assignment. Why?
I.A.W.: I’d already written quite a bit of my first non-fiction volume for my own interest. I often run off little articles about things that catch my attention, either to help me process and remember them, or just because I like telling stories. When I’m researching a historical period for a fiction tale, I often write a factual essay to get me into the era and the mood. Then I inflict these articles on other poor writers who share mailing lists with me.
One day, the unquenchable Mr. Hancock e-mailed me about collecting the stuff into a book; except that Tommy’s e-mails are never simply a little ping of the inbox. Somehow Tommy has the talent to make every message seem like it’s been written on the wall by a blazing finger. Anyhow, he wanted a book. I needed convincing. He gave me the finger.
And then I went to another party. I’m not really a party animal. I think I've now mentioned both social events I've been to this millennium. It was just that, in real life I set up projects for people or troubleshoot businesses, and I’d happened to make (or save) this particular company an awful lot of money, and they insisted I come to their event. They took over most of a county for it, I think, and I was the only person there who didn't arrive in a private helicopter. Long story short, I got talking to a lady whose name I cannot recall but whose dress I can remember exactly, what little of it there was. She convinced me that I was interesting enough to, um, go away and write down things I said. From her perspective, preferably in a dark room, far away. In a different county.
Anyway, I've been quite busy recently, and I've got a lot of “latest work” piled up on the desk right now.
|Art by Ingrid Hardy for Airship 27|
TFCE: So we now know basically how you became a writer, but why do you write what you do?
I.A.W.: I’m a big fan of old stories. I don’t mean stuff that was published a mere century ago or whatever, although I read and like a lot of that. I’m thinking of the Greek and Norse myths, of the medieval legends, of the Biblical narratives, of fairy tales that go back hundreds if not thousands of years. Those stories are deeply ingrained in our society. They shape it - and us.
All the great stories of today are recombinant retellings of older ones. Jason and the Argonauts is the archetypal team-goes-on-a-quest adventure. Robin Hood is the lone maverick who defies the system to bring true justice. King Arthur’s round table is the heroes’ varsity, banded together for common noble cause. Perseus and Andromeda or St George and the Dragon are template hero-kills-the-monster-saves-the-princess stories. I love ‘em all!
When I write, all those things are unavoidably crammed into my head. I’m not really interested in telling slice-of-life/world-is-a-bleak-place mundane narratives. I want big concepts, I want good and evil. I want hard choices and unexpected twists. I like stories with deep roots, old associations, hidden meanings, layers.
Those ancient storytellers in their fire lit caves, those cloistered monks with unfettered imaginations, those starving dime-a-word writers at their battered typewriters, they all knew that they had to grab their audience and hold it. They did it by going for the stuff that matters most to us – life and death, hope, love, betrayal, danger, triumph, tragedy. They did it by dazzling the minds and quickening the hearts of their readers through words and plots that spoke to the intellect and the emotions. On my best days that’s what I’m aspiring to emulate when I sit down to write.
TFCE: So you apply the lessons of the past to today when you write?
|Cover by Bryan Fowler, from Airship 27|
I.A.W.: Where applicable, yes. Editors or publishers often ask me to write stories featuring established characters. Those are challenges because one wishes to honour the work of those characters’ creators and delight fans of that work, while telling a new story with something fresh to say. I've done half a dozen Sherlock Holmes mysteries now (I've even got an award on my mantel for one of them). I’ve told stories about detective airman Richard Knight, about African adventurer-for-hire Armless O’Neil, about Sinbad the Sailor, Harry Houdini, the Spider, the Black Bat, and plenty of others. I enjoy the discipline of having to follow another creator’s lead – and I love to dig back to the archetypes behind the story.
Other times I’m working with fellow writers creating new collaborative mythologies. My contribution to these efforts is often in the world-building, drawing on the mythic roots I was talking about. For example, my short story in BLACKTHORN: THUNDER ON MARS, and the subsequent novels BLACKTHORN: DYNASTY OF MARS, and BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS was underpinned by all sorts of background material I generated, some of which is available for inspection at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/blackthorn/whoswho.htm and the pages linked off it. I was similarly enthralled by the historical planning necessary for the GIDEON CAIN: DEMON HUNTER anthology.
|Art by Adam Diller, White Rocket Books|
TFCE: But what inspires you to write?
I.A.W.: Funny story. After my visit yesterday to a parent/teacher evening at my son’s school, his classmatesasked him if his father was a member of the Mafia. I went straight there from work, business-suited and black-long coated, and I suppose I trailed the grim professional demeanor I need to adopt as a management consultant and business troubleshooter. In my view, I probably looked more Russian gangster than Italian.
Anyway, my day job in the business world is getting projects off the ground, sorting them out if they falter, and making things happen. Actually, that does sound like a Mafia job. It requires a lot of fast-talking, a lot of hard-headed planning, tough, sometimes horrible decisions, and a work persona that keeps people listening to what I tell them.
So when I get home, when I relax, I want to do something entirely different. Fiction and essay writing are escapes, very different from preparing business plans or development assessments or redundancy lists. I can sit alone in my study all night, without anyone arguing except the characters in my head. I can make worlds with narrative sense to them. I can travel to times and places far away from grey office rooms. So I write to escape.
TFCE: A lot of people are avid readers, but never have any interest in becoming a writer. What first sparked your interest in writing?
I.A.W.: I first told stories to amuse playmates as a child. Then I wrote stories and plays for friends to act as a teenager. My first theatre directing credit was at age sixteen, for a play I’d written. Later I wrote stories for my wife, and after that for my children. My daughter is probably my most prominent reader now, and my severest critic. So although I write to escape, I also write to entertain. I enjoy communicating the worlds and words that were in my head with other people. Even writing is something of a performance art.
Finally, I suppose when I’m not working for the Mafia, I like to make people happy. Writing stories is often an attempt to do that. Whether it makes a small-print publisher or online magazine editor happy, or a member of my family grin, or a paying audience of book-purchasers feel they spent their money well, I like the idea that I’ve done something that helped. In fact a few publishing projects I've been involved in, like this year’s ALL STAR PULP COMICS #2 and GRAND CENTRAL NOIR have been charity fundraisers, so they tick the boxes twice, once for hopefully giving folks an enjoyable story and once for raising some cash for much-needed good causes.
TFCE: Considering our conversation so far, what has influenced your style and technique?
|The Saint (logo)|
I.A.W.: I read a lot as a child. Some seminal formative authorsinclude J.R.R. Tolkein, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Leslie Charteris (The Saint), T.H. White, Robert E. Howard, Bram Stoker, William Hope Hodgson, Sir Walter Scott, and the books The Good Companions and Watership Down. I also discovered Shakespeare, but that was more through acting than reading. At university I discovered Anne McCaffery, M.R. James, Michael Moorcock, Terry Pratchett, Raymond Chandler, and H.P. Lovecraft. All of those must have left their mark because I still catch myself recycling phrases or situations of theirs if I’m not careful.But alongside that I was massively influenced by comic books. I stumbled across a
The influence of those comics was incalculable. The serial nature appealed to me, and has tended me towards long-running series in my own writing. The interactions and banter of those flawed, yet heroic early Marvel characters informed my own growing perception of how to effectively use a cast. The reveals and sub-plots and cliffhangers all shaped my own style, and still do.
Finally, very few British children of my age grew up without exposure to Doctor Who. I was, and am, a massive fan of the series. It’s a great programme that recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary! For a slightly odd child who was sometimes “too brainy” it was a massively life-affirming thing to watch a hero who won by being smart, and who saved the day because he was different from everyone else. There is a basic decency and underlying eccentricity about the programme that has somehow, without me ever intending it, suffused almost everything I write.
TFCE: With everything you've done and have in progress, what would be your dream project?
I.A.W.: A while ago, in correspondence with Pro Se overlord Tommy Hancock, he pointed out that I was
|St. George by Hans Acker, Circa 1440|
Nowadays I vary my fiction writing time between responding to publisher or editor requests for stories on subjects they set and writing stories that nobody has asked for but that interest me. I’ve been working on that huge ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON story for a couple of years now, and it’s complete now at around 160,000 words except for a final scene – but I have absolutely no idea what to do with it next! The same’s true of a World War II-based Saturday-matinee-style fantasy adventure that’s been awaiting a last-draft proofread for a year so far. And for a murder-mystery set in the Biblical Tower of Babel. It would be lovely to place some of these at some point so that readers could (hopefully) enjoy them.
TFCE: With such a busy schedule, where do you foresee yourself within the next few years?
I.A.W.: I have a vision of a fat, bald, gurning madman in some dirty and cluttered attic typing away at a grubby keyboard, not speaking to anyone for weeks on end, obsessively typing out words. Perhaps occasionally I will mutter to myself.
And I will finally learn to keep my sentence length and commas under control.
TFCE: With such a large bibliography to your credit, is there any character you would love to write, but have yet to have the opportunity to do so?
I.A.W.: Tough question. It depends on the genre and on the suspension of current copyright law, which are governed by different rules here in
In detective fiction, I’d really want to produce some new material for Simon Templar, the Saint. I’m a big fan of Charteris’ early work. The later stuff, much of which was ghost-written by others, is interesting but can’t compete. I’d want a Saint who runs around with the glorious Patricia Holm, who spars with and infuriates the gum-chewing Inspector Teal, who fights alongside big-hearted Hoppy Uniatz. I could so do a series with that Simon Templar and his war upon the ungodly.
In science fiction, I’d enjoy a go at Lois McMasters Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series – when she’s finished with it. It’s an excellent set-up full of rich nuanced characters, and I’d love to try my hand at it.
For horror, I’d enjoy a chance to redo the original penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire for a modern audience. It’s been such an influential tale in the development of the genre, but it gets no respect or regard. Originally published serially in 220 chapters from 1845-47, predating Dracula by nearly forty years, the rambling 667,000 word story would strike most modern readers as slow and soapy, but its got a compelling core concept and it’s ripe for a modern retelling.
For historical series I’d probably pick George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, even though the research required to get to half of what the original author simply held in his head would be massive. Fraser hinted at, but never really covered Harry Flashman’s exploits in the American Civil War and I always regretted that he never explained about the rogue’s second meeting with Abraham Lincoln or how he came to be decorated for merit and valour by both Unionists and Confederates.
In the adapted-from-other-media category, it would have to be Doctor Who. As I mentioned, I’m a big fan and the series has shaped me. I’d enjoy a chance to chronicle the first or seventh incarnation of the Doctor. Actually, I got a chance to write a pastiche story for an upcoming new SF series that allowed me to channel my inner Who-writer; that project should be announced presently.
TFCE: With everything we've discussed, what's next for Ian Watson?
I.A.W.: That depends on publishers. There’s plenty of things out there in the queues waiting to go to press. I've mentioned the forthcoming Pro Se non-fiction WHERE STORIES DWELL, the first in their new Pulp Studies imprint. Any day now the weird fantasy magazine WONDERLUST will be out with my short story “Mr. Li’s Laundry of Doom”. I’ve turned in work for SHERLOCK HOLMES: CONSULTING DETECTIVE volume 5, the most unusual Holmes story I've ever written and one I don’t think anyone had done before like that, and another mystery for CONSULTING DETECTIVE 6. White Rocket will be bringing out an anthology of tales about a classic historic fictional character sometime soon that will include my Lovecraft-tinted offering. Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura library is due to expand with some more work of mine about a classic occult hero. Airship 27 intends a series about a real-life person’s fictional adventures and I've turned in my work for that one. And just yesterday, Pro-Se Tommy talked me into writing a Richard Knight novella sometime in the next four weeks.
That should keep me busy for now.
TFCE: Perhaps, but we are not done with Ian folks, for there will be a follow up interview later on where we discuss Ian's historical fiction in greater detail, especially his visits to Sherwood Forest and writing the adventures of Robin Hood. Until then…
All of Ian's work is available via Amazon through its respective publishers, but for a complete list of his published works and links to free stories, visit his personal website at:
For more specific Robin Hood material, including maps and character profiles, feel free to visit
and for additional Blackthorn stuff, including a full online novel, SPIRES OF MARS, visit
All accompanying images provided either by the author, Wikipedia, or Google Search.