The Black Iron Legacy: An Interview with Gareth Hanrahan
Words By Gareth Hanrahan, interviewed by Aisling O'Mahony
How did the concept for The Black Iron Legacy series come to fruition?
I don’t know if there was a single core concept—it’s very much an agglutination of bits and pieces that have been floating around my head for a while. I knew I wanted to explore a dark, bizarre city. I like playing with ideas of strange architecture. I wanted to think about politics and beliefs and cultural forces, but I also wanted to write about monsters. So, I made a setting where the two concepts were one and the same. But for a long time, it was just eight or ten blobs of concepts that I liked thinking about. I had (or arguably have!) a lot of trouble writing a story—I can easily come up with setting material, background and secondary characters, but protagonists and story beats remain bugbears for me. So, I came up with a primary character who’d just charge ahead and explosively drive the story.
I wrote about 20,000 words without any clue where it was going, then a few months later came back to it and actually started planning a bit, building on the foundation I’d made.
The world within The Black Iron Legacy series is incredibly intricate and tangible. How did you go about worldbuilding and where did you draw inspiration from?
Worldbuilding may be a misnomer. The author and the reader only know one world—this one. It’s more like world deformation—if I add this concept, this nation, how does the world change? If I change this rule of reality, what happens? The world of the Black Iron Legacy is very, very vaguely based on nineteenth-century Europe, and a lot of the elements are drawn from our world and history. The city of Guerdon’s a combination of London, Edinburgh, New York, and Cork in varying degrees—there are kings and lords, but also parliaments and voting, churches, and monks. Most things work roughly like the reader already knows.
What you do, then, is take something that resonates with you, or that you need for the story, add it to the world, and think about how everything changes and fits together. The thing you add can be anything, as long as you do the work of supporting it and integrating it. You need to think about second- and third-order effects. For example, if you’re writing a world where, for example, the aristocracy are all werewolves, you’d need to think about how that ripples out into, say, medicine—if a werewolf can only be hurt by silver, is a silver scalpel the mark of a doctor to the nobility? Or inheritance law—can lycanthropy be transmitted by a bite, and if so, does that count as kinship? What happens around the full moon if everyone in charge turns into a ravening monster—does the whole society shut down, or are there seneschals and assistants in place who take over for a few days?
The inspiration can come from anywhere. You can draw on anything, add anything, as long as you convince the reader that it makes sense in context.
Was there a specific character you found challenging to write or one you found particularly relatable?
In the first book, Professor Ongent was a bit hard to write—he likes talking and explaining things and knew far too much of the plot already. I had to keep shuffling him “off-screen” before he gave too much away. Rat’s always fun to write because it’s such an odd mindset—I either find myself rewriting a lot of his passages because they’re not ghoulish enough or disturbing myself when I reread and find I wrote some disturbing observation without noticing. So much of writing a character is finding their voice—some you have to look for, some pop up and demand attention.
What type of scenes do you most enjoy writing?
I can ramble about pseudo-history or other bits of background quite happily for page upon page, and that’s very enjoyable to write—possibly less so to read, except for a small minority of readers. I also really enjoy the latter parts of a book, when all the set-up is done and the plot and characters have their own momentum, and it’s less a question of moving pieces around and more about writing ahead of this runaway story. A huge part of the challenge of writing is getting to the point that the book starts writing—or at least suggesting—parts of itself for you. You realize that the apparently irrelevant stuff you tossed off in a random aside twenty chapters ago can be brought back and tied into the plot or that minor character you threw in for flavor can be reused in a later scene. It makes you feel very clever when the book starts fitting together.
There can often be pressure for a second book to live up to the hype of the first. Did you face any difficulties when writing The Shadow Saint (The Black Iron Legacy, 2)?
The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy, 1) was written as a stand-alone novel, but the publisher asked for sequels. Fortunately, I’d ended on a sufficiently ambiguous note that there was plenty of scope for expanding the story. Honestly, the writing of The Shadow Saint was easier—I’m used to writing on contract, with deadlines and the (relative) certainty of payment. Writing The Gutter Prayer on spec, without any idea if I could sell it, was very much an indulgence for me—I was squandering writing time which could have gone to paying projects on something that might well have ended up languishing in the depths of my hard drive forever.
Hype wasn’t a factor—I had the second book ninety-five percent finished by the time the first one came out. You’re almost always working a book ahead.
With The Broken God (The Black Iron Legacy, 3) having just come out in May, are you currently working on the next book in the series, or have you got any new books in the works?
I’m working on a different novel series, planning book four, and doing lots of freelance game design. And, y’know, hiding from the global pandemic. It’s hard to find unencumbered time to write at the moment, but you have to teach yourself to snatch writing time in bursts and fragments. The world’s never going to co-operate with your planned schedule.
I’ve got another dozen or so ideas that bubble to the top of my mind every so often, although that doesn’t equate to a dozen or so books. I find that a book needs at least three really good ideas to stay afloat.
How has your work as a game designer influenced your writing or vice versa?
A lot of the skills are instantly transferable—coming up with plots, descriptions, worldbuilding, prose. The challenge was changing my instincts, as there are a few places where what’s desirable in a game is actively harmful to a novel. Protagonists, for example—when you’re designing a game, you want to make the players the heroes, and you want to give them as many meaningful choices and options as possible so they make their own story. You might give the player some direction as regards playstyle and thematic inspiration—this faction is the fighty guys, this other faction is the sneaky guys—but you want to leave as much as possible up to the player. With a novel, you need a compelling, characterful protagonist, not a blank slate for the reader to fill in.
Who are some authors that inspire you and why?
In fantasy, Tolkien, obviously. Jeff VanderMeer. William Gibson. Tim Powers. Robert Holdstock. Claire North. I love Umberto Eco’s mix of academic rigor and playfulness, the delight of connecting and remaking ideas. Flann O’Brien, similarly. I’m also a big fan of John Higgs’s books, again for the surprising connections.
Is there anything you wish you could change about the publishing process within the industry as a whole?
If I could wave a magic wand, then I guess some level of transparency as regards sales figures and targets. It’s hard to know if a book is doing better or worse than expected, or even how “expected” is determined. I know there are other authors out there who can ignore all that and just concentrate on the writing, which is an ability I envy—it’s probably much more productive than obsessing over digital tea leaves in Amazon rankings.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
Right now, my short-term goal is just getting back to some sort of routine post-pandemic and post-young-children and then finding a sustainable balance between fiction and freelance game writing. Very few writers can afford to write fiction full-time, but I’m in the odd position of having a “day job” that’s also writing. It gives wonderful flexibility and it’s very rewarding, but there’s a lot of time management and creative exhaustion involved. I’m trying to work towards a situation where I can spend more time polishing and researching, as opposed to cramming writing into every spare minute. In terms of craft, I’m experimenting with feeding some of the skills I’ve picked up in novel writing back into game design, paying more attention to the emotional impact and dramatic tension of the stories that the game generates.