A new book has arrived on the scene which makes short work of your social and sexual mores — no matter how liberal you believe yourself to be on this front — to say nothing of the way it dismantles the categories and limits of what genre fiction can and should do. BLEAKWARRIOR by Alistair Rennie is a work of ‘Sword & Debauchery’ that appears to be inspired in equal parts by Conan the Barbarian, Mortal Kombat and the steroid-pumped, airbrushed work of British comic book maestro Simon Bisley, but with a healthy dose of extreme pornography placed side-by-side with postmodern literary theory. In short, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and as my review of it confirms it certainly discombobulated my own brain in the most satisfying way imaginable.
Now, the man himself steps into these unhallowed halls to make some soft — or not so soft — disturbances of his own. Chief of which is the possibility of more BleakWarrior-related craziness in the future…
Alistair… first of all, welcome to the Soft Disturbances interview lounge. Are you sitting comfortably, and if not — why?
Not comfortably at all because you have reputation for asking difficult questions.
Okay, so… BleakWarrior appears to have emerged from a deep simmering well of adolescent rage, bile… but also an overarching enthusiasm for life (and death). It is a violent novel about sex, and a sexy novel about violence, with the permutations of that binary being stretched to the most scintillating spectrum you can imagine (or can’t, really… not until you’ve read it). Beyond the aesthetics at play here — we’ll get to those later if you don’t mind — in terms of the psychological experience of wanting and/or needing to tell this story, was this something you’ve been wanting to get off your chest in a while?
I suppose I’ve always had a rebellious, renegade instinct that’s been with me since the day I was born – not so much as a consequence of adolescence but because of what I am. It’s something that defines me and will remain with me indefinitely – through childhood, adolescence and beyond. There’ll always be an element of rage in anything I write. But it’s mostly a force for good – energy-bringing and inspiring.
BleakWarrior partly comes from this, yes, but it also sprang, quite suddenly, out of an idea I had for writing a graphic novel. But I didn’t know any artists who could draw a full length graphic novel, so I decided to create a graphic novel using words rather than images. Part of the extreme nature of the sex and violence in BleakWarrior is a sort of literal transcription of the kind of visceral imagery you see in graphic novels.
BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie
And then I also decided to be super ambitious. I looked at my favourite examples of fantasy – Conan the Barbarian, the Elric stories, and I thought, “What can I do to follow up on those examples? How can I push this in a new direction? How can I create a character who takes things in a new direction from Elric, in the same way that Elric took things in a new direction from Conan?” Conan is quite a forlorn, lonely figure in many ways. Elric is utterly tragedian and tortured. So, I thought, “how can I create someone who’s more tragic and forlorn than they are?”
It was quite a pompous approach, but aiming high can be a good way of reaching higher.
It’s also true that a lot of the rage in BleakWarrior actually comes from what was happening at the time I started writing it – the second invasion of Iraq, the most pointless stupid war you could possibly imagine in the modern day and age. The way our governments ignored our protests, our sorrow, our pleading with them, our more vigorous demands – it was infuriating, excruciating, too much to bear.
BleakWarrior is a very misanthropic novel. This is one of the main reasons why.
And underlying all of this is something perhaps more in line with stretching back to adolescence and beyond – my abiding fascination with extremes, taking things to their furthest limits. This is more of a Romantic notion that has always appealed to me – since I was a child, I think.
‘Overindulgence’ and ‘pretentiousness’ are two of the bluntest and most commonly distributed weapons for the populace to lob at authors, and artists of every variety. BleakWarrior appears to be poised as the perfect nightmare scenario for those who would lob said weapons: being a ‘clever’ piece of genre pastiche written in a style that only an alien entity with a skewed sense of proportion would call ‘minimalist’. Did this cultural tendency ever creep up on you as you were writing, and how did you react to its gaze? And generally speaking, what do you think about the tendency to extol the minimalist and outwardly modest as more ‘worthy’?
I think I was always aware of the risk that you take when you overstep the boundaries of measured writing, subtle writing, curated writing that exercises restraint and fine-tuning.
But it was the only way to do it because the stylistic excesses are part of the whole dynamic of taking things to an extreme – where the language itself becomes a physical embodiment of the thematic content of the novel.
The style has to reflect the subject matter in order to create a uniform effectiveness, I believe, which is to ensure that the work reaches its maximum potential, as well as to underline those thematic intentions. I opted for excess, for overindulgence, in the same way that we opt for overindulgence during festive occasions. Drunken revels, fireworks, crazy dancing, festival rites, cosplay – there’s a time and place for all of them – and the principle is as true in fiction as it is in real life.
Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta
Is it pretentious? Well, all fiction is pretentious in the sense that it pretends to be true. But I think if you remain true to an idea, to the vision of what you’re trying to create, then you’re doing it all with an honesty and sincerity that is the very opposite of pretentious. So I think, if you stick to the truth of the idea, then you’re likely to steer clear of accusations of pretentious overindulgence, because most readers will sense that sincerity, even if they don’t necessarily like what it’s offering them.
I also think that the idea that stylistic flamboyance, hyperbole, exaggeration are somehow equal to pretentiousness is a misunderstanding of their effectiveness as modes of expression in fiction. They are highly suitable, if not necessary, for certain types of storytelling. Fantasy and horror often benefit enormously from such a lack of restraint.
And, as for the question of applying greater value to a particular kind of writing, this is tremendously wrong-headed and can only serve to nullify the variety of writing that makes it both interesting and wonderful. To apply such values can only serve to impede any efforts towards originality that in writing – or any creative process for that matter – are necessary in order for it to thrive.
In a strange way, there’s a certain opacity to the novel too… the characters are alien (and alienating) figures with no real names, and plenty of emphasis is laid on the philosophical underpinnings of the characters and their world, with physical description being intense when it does appear, but it scarcely does. Were you ever worried that the novel won’t be ‘immersive’ enough for the reader?
There are one or two people I very much esteem who told me (in critiques of the first chapter) that they found it hard to relate to the story because the main characters weren’t human. I can understand where they’re coming from, because a part of our reading experience often depends on forming bonds with characters – or some of them – and from getting a sense of identification with them.
In this case, though, the criticism (which is entirely valid) doesn’t bother me, even while I take it on board as something to bear in mind for future work.
Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould
The reason is this: BleakWarrior is a book about outcasts, weirdos, misfits, creatures of the underworld, of the peripheries, which is also written *for* outcasts and weirdos, for people who don’t fit in, who’ve never felt comfortable with the social and political systems they’re forced to belong to as a matter of course – not through choice, but through the inevitable prevalence of the mainstream, its abysmal soap operas, its dire commercial music scenes, its hideous game shows, sterility of purpose and political idiocies, its obsession with drabness, the self-righteousness of its mediocre tastes, and the incessant glorification of its ludicrously unimaginative worldview.
BleakWarrior is a misanthropic indulgence which scorns humans for their useless inability to make life interesting.
Another question in relation to you vs the reader binary… The novel’s uniqueness makes it almost impossible to describe without lapsing into deadening cliches of the “It’s like XYZ on acid” variety. But there’s such a performative (bardic?) thrill to some of the most extreme set-pieces that it’s almost impossible not to imagine you thrilling to an audience reaction to them. So my question is, despite the novel’s extreme nature, did you in fact write it with the prospective readers in mind?
I’m always going to be a coming from a position of subversive intent, so I’m always writing for people from a cross-section of the real or imagined tribes I belong or aspire to – the Goths and punks and metalheads, the renegades, upstarts, malcontents, the nature freaks and eco warriors, the children of the underground, the activists, non-conformists and subcultural minorities of all shades.
I have to ask: where do we go from here? Is a BleakWarrior franchise in the offing? (My gods… it would be like the Bizarro World equivalent of Game of Thrones, wouldn’t it?) Or do you want to shift gears to something to completely different?
I’ll certainly be writing more BleakWarrior and have already got a substantial amount written for what I’m very imaginatively calling BleakWarrior 2. And I’ll keep trying to put it out there.
I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because I hit upon an idea that has a lot of potential for going in all sorts of directions, and one that fills me with enthusiasm. It can be very difficult to conceive of ideas that encourage you to keep going with them, without hitting a blank wall or losing heart. So, in this case, there’s always something to add, always possibilities for expansion, always openings for new paths to take. You can imagine that having a simple rule of taking things to extremes and imposing very little restraints on anything gives you a lot of scope for having fun.
But a franchise?! The seas would have to run dry before that happened. I do have a dream that someday someone will make an animated film or series out of BleakWarrior. In fact, it would be true to say that this idea has always offered a blueprint for me to follow when writing the story. It’s part of this idea of creating a graphic novel (or anime, in this case) that is created in words rather than images. It’s an abiding principle that’s been there from the start.
Red squirrels. And osprey chicks are very cuddly and vitally important for our aquatic ecosystems. But I also like being with friends; mountains, sea and sky; fleeting encounters with the Sublime; wine, *insert gender of your choice* and song; and the character of Ravenswood from Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.
That’s not what you were expecting, was it?
Do check in at BleakWarrior’s official website, which also features a free accompanying soundtrack to the book. Alistair Rennie’s freshly launched blog Dreadful Nights deserves a generous chunk of your time too, packed as it is with great cultural and political insights, along with a short, sharp essay on the Sword & Sorcery genres that is already appearing in various foreign-language publications. And in case you’re not already convinced that this inspired shot of crazy should make its way into your home library, do give my own review a whirl.