MEET THE AUTHOR! Getting to know Richard Harland, author of “Ferren and the Angel”

MEET THE AUTHOR! Getting to know Richard Harland, author of “Ferren and the Angel” 732 1024 Reader Views Kids

Ferren and the Angel

Richard Harland
IFWG Publishing International (2023)
ISBN:  978-1922856296

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 my first book, the cult horror novel, “The Vicar of Morbing Vyle.”

As soon as I had a contract with a major publisher, I resigned my lectureship to follow my original dream of being a full-time writer of speculative fiction. Since then, I’ve had seventeen novels published, ranging across fantasy, SF, and horror for adult, YA and children readerships.

My greatest international success has been with my YA steampunk novels, “Worldshaker,” “Liberator,” and “Song of the Slums,” which were published by major publishers in the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and Simon & Schuster in the US. The French translation of “Le Worldshaker” picked up the prestigious
Prix Tam-tam du Livre Jeunesse. I’ve also won six Aurealis Awards, the Australian Shadows Award, and the A. Bertram Chandler Award.

These days, I live south of Sydney between a green escarpment and a string of golden beaches, with partner Aileen and Yogi the labrador. Writing, writing, writing… I have a wasted twenty-five years to make up for!

Hi Richard. Welcome to Reader Views! Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer.

I first thought how great it would be to be a writer when I was about ten. My best friend and I had this junkward 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 to us 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, 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! As I described in my bio … and there were many stupid reasons why I could never finish anything I started, stupid reasons 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. But the one thing I did right through all those twenty-five years – I kept on trying, I never gave up!

What is Ferren and the Angel about and what inspired this story as the beginning of a new trilogy?

It wasn’t planned as a trilogy from the start. But the world behind Ferren and the Angel grew so big it demanded further novels to match its scale – ending up with an all-out invasion of Heaven by the armies of the Earth.

But to start with, the war takes place mostly at a distance, in the sky. Alone of all his tribe, Ferren is brave enough to peer out at night and watch the terrifying sights and sounds, but he doesn’t understand the nature of the fighting. Then one night an angel is shot down and crashes to the ground not far from his tribal settlement. In the morning, secretly, he goes to investigate.

The inspiration for the novel came from a dream, in which I was Ferren, peering out and watching the fighting in the night sky, then seeing one particular light shot down, hurtling towards me, crashing to the ground close by. I’ve always been very lucky with my dreams, long and vivid dreams almost like movies. The first ten pages of the novel were just given to me!

When Ferren goes to investigate, that’s the beginning of a unique friendship between a ‘Celestial’ and a human being. It’s unique because angels aren’t supposed to survive in the terrestrial atmosphere after they’ve lost their protective aura, as Miriael has. But Ferren pours water into Miriael’s mouth while she’s semi-conscious and feeds her a few morsels of mortal food. She’s no longer a being of pure spirit, she’s a tiny bit physicalized, too.

Their relationship is a difficult one. Miriael regards Ferren as a low and disgusting life form. She hates that she’s lost her powers, and she can’t accept the change to her own body. Ferren is fearful of her since he’s grown up thinking of Heaven as ‘the enemy’ but he’s also curious and in awe of her beauty. Gradually, they come to accept one another; Miriael learns to value Ferren’s qualities and discovers that tribespeople like him are actually descendants of the original human beings. Ferren, on his side, is more than half in love with her. By the end of the novel, they join forces to build a shelter and protect Ferren’s tribe from all the psychic and spiritual forces unleashed when Heaven and Earth fight an ultimate battle right over the tribal settlement.

But there are major developments between the start and the end. Ferren has to go into exile and journey across extraordinary landscapes. When he comes to the Humen Camp, he breaks in, explores and searches for his sister, who was taken by the Humen for military service. Did I explain that the artificially created Humen are the new rulers of the Earth, responsible for continuing the war which has now gone on for a thousand years? Anyway, Ferren finds out what ‘military service’ really means, and vows vengeance.

Meanwhile, Mirial has been discovered by Humen Selectors and chained to a wall in Ferren’s tribal settlement. She has to endure humiliation at the hands of the Selectors, then a different kind of humiliation when the angels who have come to her rescue despise her for being less than purely spiritual. Eventually, she learns the whole mythical history of the war itself …

What a dynamic character you have in your new protoganist, Ferren! What is the significance of starting the book with Ferren witnessing an angel falling from Heaven? How does this event set the stage for his character development, considering he initially knows so little about the larger world he’s part of?

I suppose it’s the ultimate coming of age story! At fifteen, Ferren is completely ignorant of the larger world, weighed down by his tribe’s rituals and false beliefs, sunk in the daily grind of mere survival. But he always has a spark of initiative and curiosity that will enable him to grow. And grow he does – he’s a very different individual by the end of the book. He’s endured exile from his tribe, he’s learned to forgive them, he’s come through experiences and dangers far outside his previous nose-to-the-ground existence. He’s lived so many lifetimes in so short a space of time!

Miriael is characterized as a lower rank “Observance” angel rather than a higher-ranking celestial being. What prompted this choice and how does her specific rank shape her interactions and decisions throughout the story?

There’s a good practical reason why Miriael needs to be of a lower rank – because she’s never been taught the full history of the war, so she can ask the questions the reader wants to ask and can learn as the reader learns. But I don’t remember it as an actual choice: I just never thought of her any other way.

I could call her story a coming-of-age story too, except that angels are ageless! Like Ferren, she finds out an enormous amount about the world and about herself in the course of the novel. The difference is that Ferren is at least aware of his ignorance, whereas Miriael thinks she already knows everything worth knowing. She has to shed her assumption of superiority, which is the typical assumption of her angel peers in Heaven’s armies. If Ferren needs to rise to a higher level of intelligence and leadership, Miriael needs to come down to a more human level and recognize weaknesses she never knew she had.

How did you go about crafting the intricate details of the post-apocalyptic world, from its history to its social structures and angelic lore? Could you share the process you followed to give the setting its depth and allure?

First, there was research. After the dream set me off running with the novel, I soon realized I couldn’t get far without a background in angelology. I became a university lecturer in those years when I had writer’s block, yet I never enjoyed academic research. But researching the lore of Heaven and the angels was something else again. I loved it! I had to dig out books – probably untouched for decades! – in dusty corners of research libraries, I had to rediscover all the old lore that was once so vast and important but has since been forgotten. I loved that research for its own sake, and kept at it for years, way beyond what I needed for my book. About 99.9% of my research never made it into Ferren and the Angel, nor the whole Ferren Trilogy.

In fact, the research only gave me static raw material – whereas I needed a narrative history. Since Ferren’s world is a thousand years from now, how did our familiar world turn into his utterly unfamiliar one? I started from the fact that, in our own time, medical science is making the boundary between life and death less and less clear cut. So, what if doctors and scientists developed a means of bringing back to consciousness the brain of someone who’d died – and what if the patient reported they’d really been to Heaven and lived among angels?

I named that event the Venables-Hirsch Experient and followed through with the kind of sensation it would create on TV and social media. But there was still a long, long way to go. I came up with Project Olympus, ‘psychonauts’ and the Devastation at Mount Horeb to explain the transition from exploration to war; then the Age of the Undead, the False Truce, and the Great Collapse to explain the destruction of modern civilization, the rise of the Humen and the marginalization of the original human beings.

I love it when one new idea opens up and unfolds into further ideas. It’s as if it was all there waiting to come out, all just meant to be! I remember that particularly with the return to Heaven of the Fallen Angels and the withdrawal of the Supreme Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Those were both issues I needed to deal with – but when I dealt with them, one idea led to another, and the result was so much more than mere necessity. In fact, it became the driving force for Book 2 of the trilogy. And the problem of what has happened to ordinary human souls after death – once I’d invented the Morphs, the problem became a source of new developments that appeared in Book 1, took off in Book 2, and became absolutely crucial in Book 3.

I guess that shows that, although I did plenty of worldbuilding before I began Ferren and the Angel, the world kept on building itself afterward. As though I’d only planted the seeds for something to continue growing in ways I’d never anticipated!

Ferren and the Angel raises significant ethical questions about the limits of scientific advancement, almost serving as a cautionary tale. Can you discuss the complexities you aimed to explore through this theme and how you see it resonating in our own world?

Yes, the cautionary tale is there in the backstory of scientists and doctors stepping over the boundary between life and death, then exploring Heaven without respect or reverence in a way that’s virtually a form of conquest. I’m not in general anti-scientific, but I do think it’s dangerous to let science simply follow its own logic and progress from step to step without anyone ever raising the big ethical questions. Because, in the end, it’s the big ethical questions that should guide our decisions.

What complexities did you face when blending angelology elements from various religious traditions in your story while maintaining a neutral stance on any particular religious viewpoint?

The strange thing is that the three religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so much alike in their lore about angels and Heaven. The names of individual angels change, but then they change already within each tradition. So much is common belief! I suppose the system of angelology goes back to a point before the three traditions go their different ways. Even Zoroastrianism has many similar ‘mythological’ elements.

The richest sources for information are the texts of slightly off-center sub-traditions. In the case of Christianity, Gnosticism, and the books of the Apocrypha; in Judaism, the Kabbala; in Islam, the Sufi mystics. In all cases, these are the realms of esoteric knowledge and secret systems – not that they disagree with orthodox beliefs, only that they extend a far wider ‘mythology’ around the same basic elements.

Maybe I should confess that I’m not exactly a believer in any religious system – but something about those systems stirs me deeply. I have the emotions of a believer, but the head resists and says no! I’ve been told I’ll probably be a deathbed convert, and I suspect it could be true!

Talk a little about your writing process. How do you go about planning a trilogy?

I didn’t plan Ferren and the Angel as the first book of a trilogy. It was a standalone until my publisher said they’d be looking for a sequel. It was the same with my steampunk novel, Worldshaker – I hardly thought about a continuation of the story until it was asked for. Ditto my first mainstream publication, the SF murder mystery, The Dark Edge.

In some ways, that’s a good way of working for me. If I had to contemplate a whole three books from the start, I think I’d just balk and never get the first sentence written. Especially with my history of writer’s block! But it’s also risky, because it means starting Book 2 from scratch, and there’s liable to be a lull before the momentum kicks in again. The great danger in trilogies is second-book sag, when the second book is only serving as a bridge to the third.

I think I’ve finally managed to get the best of both worlds in the Ferren Trilogy. Three stories each with its own separate build-up and climax, three different stories with new inventions and new interests coming in. But at the same time, each one mounts up on the shoulders of the one before, each story is bigger than the one before.

I’ve always had this thing about giving my books huge, rolling climaxes, where everything comes together in a thunderous conclusion. Often, the climax runs for about a quarter of the book. But that can be a problem for generating a further development of the story in a sequel. With the Ferren Trilogy, I think I’ve got it just about right, every new invention and interest unfolding out of what went before, but larger and larger in scope. My hope would be that, for the reader, it looks as though the trilogy was written as a whole!

How has overcoming a 25-year-long writer’s block shaped your career, and does this sense of ‘making up for lost time’ influence your current pace and choice of stories?

I wish it meant I was a fast writer! Alas, I’m slow, always was, am now and probably always will be. My average is between two and three pages a day. All that saves me is consistency – as long as those two or three pages keep coming out every day, I’ll still have the first draft of a Ferren-length novel finished in half a year.

The good thing about all those years of writer’s block – apart from a determination to keep those pages coming out – is that I have so much material stored up and ready to use! Not whole novels, I’ve never wanted to finish the old novels I couldn’t finish before. But episodes, ideas, characters, experiences – I have a backlog there that will never run out.

I truly believe creative work is never completely wasted. Even when you have to kill your darlings – or in my case abandon them unfinished – still, what was creatively good will find another home, and better home, in the end. If you’ve forgotten discarded episodes and ideas that probably shows they deserved to be discarded; but if you still remember them years later, there must be something genuinely good there, still waiting for the right story to flourish in!

In Ferren and the Angel, the Morphs as excluded souls come from a very old idea of mine – the idea of insubstantial beings that exist not as solid bodies but as lines and patterns that might be drawn across space between the projecting points of solid bodies. The idea must have found its proper home at last because it just kept on giving and giving in the context of Ferren’s story!

You’ve had a diverse career before becoming a full-time writer, including as a singer, songwriter, poet, and university lecturer. How have these varied experiences influenced your approach to storytelling?

I’m trying to think of something in Ferren and the Angel … The experience of singing and performing on stage was central to The Song of the Slums, one of the steampunk sequels to Worldshaker. Ah, I know something in the Ferren Trilogy, not Book 1 but Book 2, Ferren and the Doomsday Mission. Ferren and Miriael are traveling from tribe to tribe, persuading them to stop being exploited as ‘allies’ of the Humen and join a Residual Alliance with other tribes instead. (The original human beings are called Residuals) So Ferren learns how to work an audience and draw them in, he discovers how it feels to have them hanging on your words. There I was remembering my experience as a university lecturer. (I wasn’t a very ‘academic’ lecturer, more a performer – but like Ferren, I always felt I had something very urgent and important to communicate!)

I guess all sorts of experiences find their way into a novel. When I’ve conducted workshops on fantasy writing, I always like to set up a scene that couldn’t exist in our own real world, then ask the participants how it would actually feel to be there. And they discover that there are always bits of experience in their own memories that can help them imagine exactly how it would feel to be there – what you’d see, what you’d hear, what sensations would be running through your body, what thoughts would be running through your mind. There’s no situation so wildly fantastical that you can’t make it real by drawing on small-scale parallels in your own real experience. One of the secrets to fantasy writing!

You’ve written in a variety of genres—from fantasy and science fiction to horror—and for different age groups. What motivates you to diversify your storytelling in this way, and do you have a favorite genre to write in?

For me, the world and story come first, the genre comes as an afterthought. That’s probably why almost everything I’ve written doesn’t fall simply into a genre category. Worldshaker was an interesting case – it’s steampunk, but I didn’t know that when I planned it and built the world for it. Steampunk at the time was a niche sub-category of SF that I hadn’t paid attention to. Only when steampunk became a big thing did I realize – that’s what I’m writing! Worldshaker is steampunk!

With Ferren and the Angel, I don’t know, but everyone says it’s a very different kind of fantasy. I call it fantasy, but some people call it SF because of the evolution of Ferren’s world in the future of our present-day world. It includes horror elements, comedy elements, surrealist elements, and, yes, steampunk elements. And although it’s marketed as YA – because it has to be marketed to some age range – I’ve always felt it can appeal just as much to adult readers.

What’s next for you? Can you give us a glimpse into what readers can expect in the next installment of The Ferren Trilogy?

The next installment is Ferren and the Doomsday Mission. It continues on from Book 1 in that Ferren and Miriael are busy persuading the tribes to ally together and drop their alliance with the Humen. But meanwhile, a terrible new kind of being takes over leadership of the Humen, a ‘Doctor’ unlike any of the previous ‘Doctors’ – and he brings with him reinforcements and secret weapons. Meanwhile, Miriael is feeling sidelined by Ferren’s success and wishes she could return to her previous life. Enter a new angelic character, with a very tempting offer – perhaps she can go back up to Heaven after all?

I’m finding it hard to describe without spoilers because there’s one huge twist I mustn’t give away!

Book 3, Ferren and the Invaders of Heaven, is planned and drafted, but still to be written. It’s the culmination of everything that’s gone before – but with some major surprises as well!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that Ferren and the Angel comes out worldwide on November 6th. It’s priced at US$16.99 for the book and US$5.99 (or discount offer) for the ebook.


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