Posted on June 25, 2019 at 8:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
If you could send Steven Savile back to 1985 and tell him what his future held, he wouldn’t have believed you.
The sports-obsessed teen who once ran a half-marathon on a lark would’ve struggled to envision a world in which he published fifty-five novels, won writing awards, worked on such TV shows as Stargate, Doctor Who, and Torchwood, and wrote the computer game Battlefield 3.
But it all happened, as did the various other dramatic professional experiences he’s had outside of the literary field.
Savile, who has also written as Alex Archer, Matt Langley, Ronan Frost, and twelve other names he won’t reveal because they appeared in “lad magazines,” shared a peek into his colorful career with us.
SADYE: What incident or series of incidents inspired you to make a career out of writing novels?
STEVEN: Stages, really.
I decided around 1986 I wanted to be a sports journalist, but I completely picked the wrong academic line for that and ended up doing a politics degree, then a post grad in comparative religions, and ended up working for the Ministry of Defence in the UK during the final stages of the Gulf War conflict.
Something happened during those university years. I was roleplaying a lot, goofing off watching movies (we had the equivalent of a dollar theatre right behind the university) and reading compulsively.
I was doing a book a day, every day. I remember somewhere in that time thinking, “You know, I'd really like to write,” and borrowing my aunt's old Imperial typewriter — the kind with the round mother-of-pearl keys that you had to hammer down to make an impression.
It was the summer between college and university, I think, or the summer break between uni courses, and I wrote the first fifty or so pages of a comedic fantasy called Old Yawn and the Wizard's Banana.
Magic was sourced from the stuff of the earth, needed nutrients to fuel it, and no mage could reverse another mage's spell, it was unique.
So when an old wizard had been kidnapped by demonic mafia and forced to bring on the deluge — 433 consecutive days of rain — our hero, a PI based on Bruce Willis in Moonlighting (ahem), was hired to find him and save the world from a very wet fate.
It was terrible. But I sent it to Richard Evans, the science-fiction editor at Gollancz in the UK (who was Terry Pratchett's editor), and he wrote the most fabulous rejection, saying 50% of it was pure brilliance, the other 50% pure crap; please send your next thing — and holy cow, you are only nineteen?
So I did, a science fiction comedy this time, called Bix, which got another wonderful rejection and a phone call where Richard basically said, “Kid, you've got the goods. Do not give up. Next one could be it.”
Before I wrote my next, though, tragically, he died, and my interest in comedy shifted into a darker horror.
So, aged twenty-one, I wrote The Secret Life of Colours, a vampire novel, which got me an agent, and then got me my first contract with a major publisher (only to be let go because Sting went on his rainforest crusade and the price of paper skyrocketed, so several first novels never made it).
But what happened in this weird time of hope and failure was I made friends with a writer called Stephen Bowkett, who was just the nicest guy.
He heard my tales of woe, figured I could write, and introduced me to his editor, Lucy Bator, at Hendersons (became Dorling Kindersley).
I did three preteen romance pitches for her, before she finally hired me to write a book — and she couldn't tell me what it was until I'd signed the nondisclosure agreement; all I knew was the project had something to do with space.
Turned out it was a kids adaptation of Return of the Jedi, which was my first actual published thing, and that was followed by a data file for Jurassic Park 2.
At that point I was on that long slippery slope, still doing the day job, but knowing I wanted to do more — the question was how to turn what I'd got into a career.
There's a line I picked up fairly early on, back with the preteen romances, really, and that's “I can do that.”
I never believed a writer should be only one thing. You write what fires your soul, what you LOVE, and if that is strange, well, great.
SADYE: Can you pinpoint a few ways in which your nonwriting jobs have benefited your fiction?
STEVEN: I've been lucky in that I've had a few peculiar jobs. One part of my MoD training, for instance, meant I did a rotation on a nuclear submarine.
We only travelled the English Channel, and up around the British coastline, never really that far from land, but it was the most surreal and unpleasant experience, being down in this pressurised container crawling across the top of a nuclear reactor to get from one end to the other.
That kind of visceral feeling is burned in now, so I can do that sort of claustrophobic thing pretty well. (Confession time: I can't swim; being in that sub freaked me the hell out and nearly drove me out of my mind, you know, skull-clutchingly crazy.)
I've also sat in meetings where my direct superior was involved in brokering official meetings with foreign government officials, which meant offering the right kind of bribe/incentive for the sitdown, etc.
So for the thrillers I've got an element of real-life experience I can draw on — bailing out of a helicopter, being escorted at gunpoint.
More directly relevant, for instance, was my dad's love of mountain climbing. He actually fell once and tore his hand from his wrist and was forced to carry it back to the ambulance because mountain rescue couldn't get in close enough — and my last novel with St Martins (White Peak, written as Ronan Frost) had a lot of hostile condition mountaineering in it.
I draw from real life quite a lot, I must admit. My crime novel The Black Shepherd, for instance, draws quite heavily on religious cults and bears a little similarity to a well-known one.
I won the Writers of the Future Award many moons ago and went out to Scientology central several times to do guest lectures, listening to the stories that floated around.
Look at it this way — when you die and go to heaven and the Big Guy is waiting at the pearly gates, he's not gonna greet you with, “Ah man, I wish you'd written to market, kiddo, you coulda made a few bucks,” or, “Ah, why couldn't you have been more like Stephen King?”
He's gonna say, “Why couldn't you have been more like you, your unique voice? There's only ever gonna be one of you, be the best you that you can be.”
So that's pretty much my life path now — aiming at being the best me I can be, wherever that takes me.
SADYE: Are you at liberty to tell any of your stories of being escorted at gunpoint?
STEVEN: I’m not entirely sure how much I can explain, given as it was covered by the Official Secrets Act, though it is over twenty-five years now, so should be available under the Freedom of Information Act.
Anyway, I'd been working on a tit-for-tat expulsion of spies between the UK and Russia — we'd kicked a few of theirs out, they'd kicked a few of ours out — and I was liaison officer for one of the intelligence workers who was expelled.
So, there was a knock at my apartment door; six armed officers and a diplomat turned up and very politely told me to gather whatever I needed. I was being asked to leave the country because of my relationship with the expelled officer.
They were all very polite, but six machine guns were pointing at me all the way to the car, then again when I got out at the airport and met with the embassy officials.
Let's just say it was interesting.
SADYE: How is writing for game and comic worlds different from fiction?
STEVEN: I've done a couple of different kinds of game writing.
What I did for Battlefield 3, for instance, was more akin to writing the outline for a novel — I wrote the storyline for the game, breaking down the various sections of game play and building the narrative for the game play.
It was about two months’ work, but only about 10,000 words. Every step of the way, you are thinking, “Is this cool?” and wanting the player to have agency in their choices, not just be led to a destination, so there's a lot of old if/then/goto thinking (if you remember the old BASIC programming).
Then I worked on a kids game, Spineworld — which really was like Club Penguin, I guess — and that was writing loads of mini-quests that were maybe ten minutes of game play that would amuse an eight-year-old.
So you'd come up with the most bizarre missions you could think of just so the kids would think, “Wow, this is cool!” (That kind of thinking ran through the games all the time.)
But in the last couple of years. I've done a lot of roleplaying game writing — old-school D&D if you like. Right now, I'm actually writing a monster manual — my first — for a game called Lex Occultum, and I have to admit it's a blast.
I'm doing twenty short stories in the form of an explorer's journal, and then almost autopsy notes on their anatomy, special traits, etc, with a final “advice for the games master” on how to play the monsters to give their players the most fun.
Both of these involve a completely different way of thinking and framing a story to give the most enjoyment AND be useful to the players.
SADYE: What has been your least favorite nonwriting job, and why?
STEVEN: Without doubt, the worst one lasted three hours before I walked out. It was at the FINDUS fish factory in Newcastle. I couldn't do it. The stench was vile.
The second worst, I did for a day, and that was on a farm in Epsom and was basically killing the turkeys for Christmas.
Well, technically not the killing, just the holding them and carrying them to the woman who broke their necks, then carrying them away as their nervous system continued flapping.
That one meant I never ate turkey again in my life. Both of those two actually deeply impacted me — I don't eat fish, either.
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Categories: Author Interview