Fantasy Author Interview: David Pilling on Bail

Fantasy sequel The Path of SorrowI often get asked how David Pilling and I go about co-writing our fantasy novels, The World Apparent Tales. One of the things we do is we each take ownership of specific characters and write their whole story. This means we can really get into the mind of each character and ensure they speak with the same ‘voice’ throughout the story.

With that in mind, I asked David a few questions about his character Bail, a ruthless cut-throat who plays a prominent role in The Path of Sorrow. I’ve removed all the vile language and graphic death threats and posted David’s answers below:

What was your inspiration for the character of Bail?

He’s a sort of anti-Aragorn figure i.e. a mysterious, charismatic wanderer with a hidden past. The difference is there is nothing remotely heroic about him: he is vain, selfish, greedy and rather cowardly. Sometimes he will fight like a cornered rat, but only because he has to..I suppose there’s more than a hint of Harry Flashman in his makeup as well.

What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would think that he was an appalling man, if entertaining on occasion. We would probably end up blocking each other on Facebook, which is at least preferable to hitting each other with swords.

Bail appears on the surface to be interested solely in his own welfare. Is there any compassion there, deep down?

None, or very little. That is partly down to his nature, but also to his upbringing. Bail has been alone all his life, and had to fend for himself at every turn. It’s only natural he should think of himself first.

Do you think some people have a natural tendency towards good or evil, or is everyone a product of their environment?

I think everyone is different, and born with certain characteristics. It may be possible to change those characteristics to an extent as a person grows to adulthood. It very much depends on the person. Could anything have prevented Harold Shipman becoming a mass murderer for instance, or was the impulse to kill written into his DNA?

Bail seems to be so ruthless that he has more of a struggle justifying an act of compassion than one of total self preservation. Is it difficult writing a character who never engages emotionally with another character?

Not at all. That probably speaks volumes for my own character! I think there is too much emphasis on compassion and emotional engagement in fiction. These values are promoted in our lives, because this is the modern world and we are supposed to be a developing species. Bail exists in a horrifically brutal sub-medieval environment in which any display of weakness could lead to his violent demise. Wolves don’t deal in compassion.

Bail’s life seems to have been a constant struggle for survival, from one squalid, brutal episode to another. Is he destined for something better, or will he never escape his past?

I can’t really answer that without giving too much away! You’ll have to wait and see…he certainly has the ambition, nous and sheer willpower to better his lot in life.

Besides co-writing fantasy fiction with me, you are a successful historical fiction author. How much inspiration do you gain from history when writing fantasy characters and world building.

Quite a lot. Certain historical figures have influenced some of my characters in The World Apparent novels, as well as bits and pieces of historical wars and political events etc. I try not to make those influences too obvious, though.

What fantasy and/or historical works are you working on right now?

I’m currently writing the fourth book in the Leader of Battles series, my Arthurian saga. The latest tale is based on the legend of Tristan and Ysolde.

* * * *

You can read a similar interview with me on David’s blog. I’m answering questions about Captain Wade, a flamboyantly murderous pirate who terrorises the high seas of the World Apparent in The Path of Sorrow and will return in the third novel in the trilogy.

The first two novels in The World Apparent Tales are The Best Weapon, followed by The Path of Sorrow. Both are available on Amazon on paperback and kindle. David and I are currently working on the third.

Saxons, Dogs and Rock & Roll Witches

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here is my dazzling reposte to my friend and fantasy co-writer, David Pilling’s blog post entitled ‘Uhtred Shmutred’, which is of course, utter swill. His post lays out his criticisms of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, which tell the story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg, a ninth-century Saxon raised by Vikings as a pagan warrior.

The difference between me and David, at least in terms of this particular little set to, is quite simple:

Pilling's magical box of facts

Pilling’s magical box of facts

David has the benefit of having studied history at university and of being a very studious, intellectual man of some moral fibre, who has a disturbing fixation with the facts. He writes historical fiction for a living. He’s good at it. He spends a considerable amount of time researching these ‘facts’ of his to make sure he gets this ‘history’ of his correct. He’s a clever lad, but then, my dad’s a member of Mensa with an IQ higher than I can count, and he didn’t understand that a vacuum cleaner needs to be emptied.

I, on the other hand, have a grade F in GCSE history from one of the worst performing schools in the country (at the time, it’s a bloody academy now and the kids get ipads. Unbelievable.). This is what gives me the advantage! I can look at Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles with the eyes of a reader who wants to be told a story, not a scholar or a writer of historical fiction. I can take the story on its own merits, and here’s why.

The Vikings. Pagans, warriors, fearless adventurers. They make for a good bit of story telling, don’t they? They were good story tellers too. In fact, I think Norse mythology is the most fascinating and imaginative body of fantastic tales history has to offer (although I haven’t heard all the stories ever told in the world). J R R Tolkein thought so too, much of his inspiration came from Norse Mythology, and this is clear in his creation of Arda and Middle-Earth. Consequently, you’ll see its influence in a lot of high fantasy.

As Mr. Pilling points out, Cornwell presents a vivid, visceral world. He also creates many diverse, interesting and colourful characters. Some of those characters existed in reality, and Cornwell may well use a bit of poetic licence to make them fit his own story, but he explains why he does this in his notes at the end. Where he is ‘unfair’ to someone, he openly admits it. His books are essentially good stories, and the writer never once pretends these are totally accurate depictions of historical events.

As for his portrayal of a pious Alfred and his ‘poison dripping priests’, I think my esteemed friend has been too quick to simply judge this as ludicrous and biased. This is a realistic portrayal of what people will do in the name of religion – history is full of tragic and barbaric acts committed by supposedly holy people. Look at the Catholic Church, or Muslim Extremists, or those nutters at The Westboro Baptist Church who turn up at soldiers’ funerals shouting about how god hates fags (they couldn’t find Nimoy’s, you’d have thought god would have told them where it was if he hated ‘fags’ so much). Cornwell has done nothing but write a realistic portrayal of priests in a time when organised religion was even more extreme and insane than it is now. To say this is bias, or that somehow Cornwell is trying to say paganism is ‘better’ by portraying Uhtred as a pagan warrior hero who loves to kill priests is a bit of an over reaction.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog...

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…

This brings me to ‘singing witches’ and ‘magic tunnels’. I didn’t feel that Cornwell was ‘pushing an agenda’ with this. I think Mr. Pilling’s sense of personal outrage has sent him over the edge, now he’s joined the paranoid legions of conspiracy theorists. Next thing he’ll be saying J K Rowling is hypnotising children and commanding them to enslave the elderly. No, as he does so well in the Warlord Chronicles (the Arthur books), he uses paganism as a fantasy element, and it is done more subtly than my good friend gives him credit for. He creates situations where pagan ‘magic’ is used, but it is never confirmed whether this magic actually worked or if it was just coincidence. Merlin, for example, claims to to be casting some spell or other when Derfel and his boys are trapped by the Irish, only for a mist to blow in and mask their escape. It is left up to the reader; did Merlin do it or did some mist just naturally occur? This is often how people started believing in magic. I mean, I could do a rain dance and then claim the credit when it pissed down, but in England that won’t hold much water (snigger).

In the Harlequin series, this fantasy element is replaced by a supernatural or celestial aspect, where the main character, Thomas of Hookton, hears the voice of an angel urging him on to good deeds. What’s this, Pilling? The hero of a Cornwell novel, in league with an angel? Aren’t angels generally Christians? Hang on a minute, Thomas of Hookton actually finds the holy grail, doesn’t he? The point is, Cornwell loves to play with this fantasy or supernatural element, and it does give his stories a magical quality, but it doesn’t go so far as to make them far fetched. He very much concentrates on the characters and what drives them, keeping the story real and grounded.

Uhtred: beautful British name

Uhtred: beautful British name

Anyway, on to the main to the main focus of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He’s lovely, isn’t he? Well, no, he sacrificed his dog to Odin. That’s profoundly mental. It would be all over Facebook if someone did that now, we’d be signing petitions and all sorts. But I get David’s point; Uhtred wins every fight, shags all the women and has dazzling wit as well. He’s a bit like me between three and six pints. You might say this isn’t realistic, well maybe not, but on the other hand, somebody had to be like that, didn’t they? Somebody won all the fights. And it is those people all the stories are written about. I don’t want to read a story about a man who is half decent in a fight, is occasionally mildly amusing and hasn’t been laid for a year. If I want that I’ll stick my Al Murray DVD on. No, it’s a story about a Viking warrior, so he’s got to be the hardest, cleverest, most promiscuous bastard the world has ever seen, otherwise I’ll want my money back.

Just one more point on the subject of Uhtred’s invincibility. If a ninth-century Viking warrior loses a fight, he’s generally brown bread, right? The Saxon Chronicles are written from the first person perspective, so it’s sort of a necessity to keep the main character alive. If Uhtred had died in his first fight, the series would have been a lot shorter. I suppose you would be happy then, wouldn’t you, Pilling?

The only reason I ever read historical fiction is because I was recommended Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles as a teenager. It was a brilliant interpretation of who the true Arthur might have been. It brought the myth into reality by putting Arthur in the shoes of a real man. Not a king but a ‘Warlord’ striving to halt the Saxon invasion. Cornwell makes historical fiction accessible. Of course we should be wary of inaccurate history lessons (don’t get me started on the national curriculum) and not be swayed by hidden agendas that may lie behind an author’s words. But any author who opens up a genre to readers who might normally shy away, and does it with such aplomb, should be applauded. Let’s face it, we’ll never completely agree on history, that’s what makes it so interesting.

Interview: David Pilling – co-author of Epic Fantasy The Best Weapon

Epic Fantasy The Best Weapon

Today we release our epic fantasy novel, The Best Weapon, on paperback and kindle. To mark the occasion I interviewed my co-author David Pilling.

I asked him about his character, Archpriest Flambard, The Best Weapon and The World Apparent (the fantasy world in which the story takes place) in general.

Below the interview is a link to my answers to his questions on his blog.

1) What was your inspiration for the character of Archpriest Flambard?

He’s a mixture of Cardinal Wolsey, Jabba the Hutt and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, as well as various bits and pieces dropped straight from my imagination. I wanted to portray a sly, Machiavellian, physically grotesque man who made the world around him dance like a puppet on a string.

At the same time I didn’t want him to be entirely unsympathetic. He is, at bottom, a human being who believes he is doing the best for the realm he is sworn to protect, including the sacrifice of his own desires. By the end of the story – if I’ve done my job properly – the reader should feel at least a sliver of sympathy for him.

Archpriest Flambard by Zennor Matthews

Archpriest Flambard by Zennor Matthews

2) What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would probably think ‘My God, what an appalling bastard’ and take pains to get away from him as fast as possible! Flambard is a dangerous man to be around. He tends to see other people as tools, to be used and disposed of as he sees fit. It’s impossible to be his friend, though occasionally someone makes the mistake of trying.

3) Do you think it is important that a writer always empathises with their characters, even the villains?

Yes. Otherwise they are just cardboard cut-outs, and of no interest (unless you make them funny). The reason a character like Darth Vader lodges in the public imagination is because of his striking physical appearance and enigmatic character – he was good once, now he’s black as sin, but can he be turned back again? The same with Long John Silver, a murderous pirate who readers are initially supposed to hate, but nevertheless charming and not completely devoid of scruples. A character with no chance of redemption, however slight, instantly becomes less interesting because it’s almost impossible to empathise.

4) What are your thoughts on good and evil characters? Can anyone ever be all good or all bad? Can they change from one to the other?

I’m not sure if a character can be plausibly depicted as entirely good – everyone has a dark side, whether or not they care to admit it. It’s possible for someone to be entirely bad, especially if they have convinced themselves that they do bad things for the benefit of others. The obvious example is Hitler, who committed all kinds of evils in the belief that it was all for the greater good of his country. Flambard is similar in that respect: he is entirely ruthless and there is nothing, literally nothing, he won’t do in defence of the state. At the same time he’s no coward or hypocrite, and demands the same levels of absolute loyalty and self-sacrifice from himself that he demands of others.

5) Archpriest Flambard lives in a society similar to real life medieval Europe. How important is it to consider real life history when creating a fantasy culture?

Speaking for myself, I found it important because my first love is history, and it was only natural that I should draw much of my inspiration from the same source. I usually write historical fiction, and it was fun not to have to check my facts all the time, and to cherry-pick what I liked from different historical periods. In general I don’t think its terribly important to consider or draw from history when creating a work of fantasy: the most important thing is the creation, whether you have managed to depict a living, breathing universe, rather than where you get your ideas from.

6) In The Best Weapon, we only see a small part of The World Apparent. Will later books explore the world further, and what can we expect to discover?

They will indeed. The sequel, The Path of Sorrow, explores a land to the west named Temeria, which has a bit of an Ancient Assyrian/Byzantine feel to it. Future installments will ‘fill in’ other spaces on the map. There is the potential for setting entirely separate tales inside the same world – much like Robin Hobb does in her Realm of the Elderlings series.

The World Apparent

The World Apparent

 

7) What do you hope to achieve in terms of your own development as a writer when you write a novel?

To write something that is an improvement or progression from the last book. I’m not sure I always manage it, but it’s the effort that counts…(probably)…

8) What are your writing plans for the immediate future?

Busy busy busy. I plan to release new editions of Book Two and Three of my series The White Hawk (set during The Wars of the Roses), a new edition of the sequel to Folville’s Law (the first book I ever had published back in 2012), and the sequel to The Best Weapon. I’m also working on Book Four of my Leader of Battles series (an Arthurian saga set during the Dark Ages) and am toying with ideas for a belated sequel to The Half-Hanged Man (a novel about medieval mercenaries set during the 14th century). As well as various other projects. So there’s plenty to keep me going!

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You can keep up with David’s work by following his blog: Pilling’s Writing Corner. You can also check us out at the Bolton and Pilling Fantasy Fiction Facebook page.

Click here to read my interview on David’s blog

Sorrow Part 14: The Eagle’s Slumber

Fantasy Sorrow Part 14: The Eagle's Slumber

Coming Friday 21 February 2014

Threads of a patchwork king, unpicked by the eyrie’s wind.

Sorrow Part 14: The Eagle’s Slumber, the latest in the epic fantasy series is now available for pre-order from Musa Publishing and due for release on Friday 21 March 2014. Here is the blurb and an excerpt.

An uneasy peace has descended over the World Apparent. The Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom are recovering from the cataclysmic events of the Twelfth Reconquest, while in the south, the Djanki and the Sharib retreat to lick their wounds from the battle at Temple Rock. To the east, the divided Empire of Temeria is nearing the end of a long civil war, in which rival Generals have fought like mad dogs to seize the long-vacant Imperial Throne.

Colken’s mercenaries sign up to Hoshea’s army as it marches on the High Bloods to attack their ruined fortress, The Eagle’s Slumber. Meanwhile, the High Bloods are distracted by the fulfilment of a prophecy. Bail, with Sorrow’s help, has found their sacred relic, The Heartstones, and so must be crowned as their new king. But not everybody is convinced, and while his coronation descends into squabbling amongst the clans, war looms.

Fantasy Sorrow Part 15: The Last King of Ghor

The penultimate episode, coming Friday 21 March 2014

Excerpt:

Bail endured a scratchy uncomfortable night, haunted by bad dreams that felt like prophecies. All through the long hours of darkness he kept the Heartstones clasped tight to his chest, knowing his life depended on it. And on Sorrow, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished when the clan stopped to bed down for the night, and Bail’s unsettled mind imagined him drifting through the pitch-black woods like a wraith, silently communing with all manner of ghouls and dark spirits.

He was jerked awake at the crack of dawn by the torturous bellowing of the bull horns and opened his eyes to see Sadaf standing over him. For a moment he thought the man meant to murder him, but then saw he held Bail’s cloak and crown. The hard lines of Sadaf’s lugubrious face split into a simpering grin, and he went down on one knee to offer the makeshift regalia at arm’s length.

“I liked you better when you despised me,” said Bail, wincing as his stiff joints cracked and complained. After taking a few gulps of fresh morning air, he took the crown and steeled himself to play the king.

The clan moved a little quicker this time, for all could sense they were close to the half-legendary Eagle’s Slumber and were eager to see the sacred place. The sun was high in the sky before Sorrow reappeared, trotting out of the woods with his cloak wrapped tight around him. He ran to Bail’s shield-bearers, cupping his hands over his mouth to be heard above the din of horns and chanting.

“The woods are full of High Bloods, warriors, and their families!” he shouted. “I tracked them all night. The nearest are less than two miles away, to the south-east.”

Amkur Beg heard him and limped forward with surprising speed to grab the boy’s arm. “How did they look?” he demanded, briefly dropping his mask of deference. “Did any of their warriors have paint on their faces? Did they carry their knives naked, or sheathed?”

“They did not look dressed for war,” replied Sorrow, gently disengaging his arm. “But they are moving fast and will catch up with us very soon.”

Amkur’s face creased into a hideous grimace, and he turned to shout orders at his kin. Almost immediately, the bull-horns and the chanting died away, and the clan sprang from a stately walk into a gallop. The unwieldy clan banner dropped into the dust, as did the horns, and for a moment, Bail thought he too might be dumped onto the ground. Instead, his shield-bearers picked up their pace without any apparent effort, and he found himself clinging to the rim of his shield with one hand and holding his crown in place with the other.

It was in this undignified position he first saw the Slumber, a mighty spur of rock surging up from the eastern flank of the nearest mountain. Much of the crest of the spur was taken up by a wide plateau, nestling in the shadow of a taller peak with layers of snow and ice crystals glistening at its summit. The remains of early morning mist clung to the spur, hiding much of the crest, but Bail could glimpse a number of decaying walls and stone buildings. These were perched on artificial mounds of soil and rock, much like baronial keeps back in the Winter Realm, but here the mounds were arranged into neat squares piled on top of each other, like the steps of a ladder.

The frantic pace of the clan slowed for a moment as each member broke stride to gaze in awe at the Slumber. Then the sound of bull-horns sounded faintly behind them, and Amkur’s cracked, harsh voice jolted them back into a run.

“Quickly! Quickly, now!” he shouted. “They are almost upon us!”

CARAPACE – a 900 Club Short Story

Happy First Birthday to The 900 Club

Happy First Birthday to The 900 Club

Please join me wishing The 900 Club a happy first birthday. We have just posted our twelfth monthly batch of five  very different short stories, we would be honoured if you would pay The 900 Club a visit and have a read. Soon we will be publishing the 2013 anthology to mark a year writing together, so keep your eyes peeled for a unique collection of tales in all styles and genres.

Fantasy Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan

In other news, Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan, latest in the epic fantasy series was released today in ebook format by Musa Publishing. The story is nearing the end now, as part sixteen is the final part, and the plot thickens.

Below is my latest offering for The 900 Club, I hope you like it.

* * * *

Carapace

by Martin Bolton

The weatherman used the phrase “mainly windy”. That made me laugh, not just because it sounds like such a ludicrous phrase when considered out of context, but also because the weatherman was my husband, and that was exactly the sort of thing he came out with all the time. He made me laugh every day then.

I remember that laughter now like a distant dream, another life, a memory shrouded by the mists of time and the madness that comes with it – and time is madness when it is all you have. It seeps into you, it eats away all the tiny barriers in your mind until you are left with stark reality, and with that comes raw madness. I have learned that since I was trapped here, in the darkness, with nothing but the silence, the cold, and this… thing.

I was Professor of Arthropodology, specialising in arachnids, for The Department of Zoology, Oxford University. We were on an expedition to Laos to visit the caves in the Mekong Subregion and follow up on local reports of a species of spider thought to outgrow the biggest known – the giant huntsman.

Had I known what really existed, deep in the heart of these ancient caves, I would have stayed in England, safe in my laboratory, where my scientific mind could cling to its superficial pretensions that man’s innate fear of the dark is purely visceral.

Our intention was to explore beyond the mapped network of passages with the purpose of plotting more of the cave and discovering new species. We were about a mile into virgin tunnels when I came upon a vast crystal chamber about the size of a football pitch. As I shone my halogen lamp across the space, the light was refracted by huge, perfectly transparent crystals like cut diamonds. The effect was breath taking: the vivid display of colours, the dazzling kaleidoscope of alien shapes. The rest of my team were behind me, but I was transfixed, enthralled, as though in a dream, isolated from the real world. Then the floor of the cave opened like a trapdoor. The colours vanished, replaced by blackness.

I ran out of breath screaming long before I hit something. I must have struck a ledge or a protruding rock, because I felt my legs shatter, making a soggy crunching sound. The impact sent me spinning helplessly into empty, black space.

What I landed on was not rock, or I would certainly be dead. How I long for such a blissful end now. We go through life fearing death, all our instincts geared to towards avoiding it. I wonder if our primeval ancestors knew what I know now. Surely if they did, they would fear the end no more, because they would know as I do, there are things on Earth so much worse than dying.

After landing on this strange, springy surface, I lay for sometime. The pain in my legs was intense, and I passed in and out of consciousness. Either that or the dreams I had of daylight, laughter and fresh air were just hallucinations caused by agony and shock. I lifted my head to look down at my body. I could move my arms but my legs were a twisted wreckage. I moved my head from side to side, initially relieved there seemed to be no injuries to my back or neck. That relief turned to dismay, then terror, when I saw what I lay on.

On either side, stretching away into the seemingly infinite darkness, were taut, thin strands of some tough, flexible material. I tried to move my upper body and felt the surface give slightly beneath my elbows. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself, almost imperceptibly, swaying back and forth. There was only one thing I knew of that came close to the description forming in my mind.

A web.

No sooner than the dim light was finally extinguished by the inevitable death of the batteries in my headtorch, I felt vibrations. Something moved in the darkness. The web shook more violently, and soon I felt its touch. The way the web moved, either side of me, gave me the impression that whatever it was, it was behind me. It was on the underside. Then I felt a sharp pain in my neck, a bite, and just before I succumbed to paralysis I felt the web shake as the thing scampered away.

I wish I had been devoured then, but the grisly fate I had imagined for myself was nothing compared to the sickening reality. It is now apparent when that thing bit me, it set into motion a ghastly, insidious process; a metamorphosis more hideous than anything I have seen in my study of arthropods, or ever imagined possible. Nor did my paralysis bring with it the inability to feel sensations, so I have felt the realigning of my very molecules like a permanent, tormenting itch.

To my horror, the first parts of my body to develop their new form were my eyes. I can see again now, even in the total darkness, only this time I can see in all directions at once. I can see myself, or at least the thing that used to be me. My transformation is at an advanced stage: I have a complete cephalothorax, spiny carapace and abdomen, and the beginnings of eight huge legs.

Cyber Monday – Get Fantasy The Best Weapon Half Price

Half Price Fantasy Fiction at Musa Publishing

Half Price Fantasy Fiction at Musa Publishing

Tomorrow is (02/12/2013) is Cyber Monday at Musa Publishing. Check out the website to get any publication, including epic fantasy The Best Weapon and the Sorrow series, HALF PRICE. This offer is on for one day only, and all Musa Publications are half price, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to get half price Christmas presents for fantasy fiction lovers.

Cyber Monday also marks the first day of the Thirteen Days to Christmas promotion. The release schedule of the 13 Days Free Reads is as follows:

The Silence of Reza by IJ Sarfeh 02/12

The Break-In by Carrie Russell 02/12

Christmas Crossroad By Viki Lyn 02/12

Out of Magic by CD Coffeit 03/12

Boughs of Halle by Holley Trent 04/12

Medusa by Kaitlin Bevis 05/12

The Terrible Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith 06/12

Jump by Shannon LC Cate 07/12

War Crimes by Jennifer Povey 08/12

Dream Stealer by HL Carpenter 09/12

The Last Stage by Nicky Penttila 10/12

Looking for Home by Lyn Rae 11/12

Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Devin Hodgins 12/12

Sweet Revenge by Liese Sherwood-Fabre 13/12

Marisa Becoming Fourteen by Kadee McDonald 14/12

The Smartest Fish In The Ocean by Heather Lockman 15/12

The Wicked Duke and the Yuletide Gift by Emma Lane 15/12

Poppa’s Fruits – a 900 Club Short Story

The 900 Club has published its five short stories for September. The two word phrase was “side effects” and once again I am really pleased with the different ideas the five of us have come up with. It is an honour to write along side Simon Evans (the creator of The 900 Club), Paul Evans (his brother), Adam Stones (his brother in law), and John Pilling (my fantasy fiction co-writer, David’s father).

We started The 900 Club in January and it, nine months on, it is still going strong. The diversity of writing it has produced has been an inspiration to me, I’ve learned a lot from the four talented people I’ve had the privilege to write with, and I think this experiment has prevented me from getting writer’s block.

Anyway, I’m not going to bang on about it, I’m just going to give you my latest contribution, which I have called Poppa’s Fruits. I hope you like it, and even if you don’t, please check out The 900 Club because there are a lot of original stories on there and they’re all very different.

Poppa’s Fruits

by Martin Bolton

It was a squalid farm, but I loved it dearly. Those were simple times, and we were a simple family. Ma was a lumpy woman whose belly undulated soothingly as she waddled around her filthy kitchen.

“Can we eat some veg at Christmas?” she would ask Poppa.

“No fucking way!” he would bellow, “we’ll eat dirt like we always do!” Then he would fetch her a loud slap to the buttocks and she would giggle and drop my tiny little brother on his head, leaving a circle of muddy brown froth around her fist-sized nipple.

I can picture Poppa now, stomping around the farm yard, his mouldy boiler suit stretched around his seven foot wide frame, his gaping naval glaring at me between two halves of a press stud resigned to the fact they would never be one. Occasionally he would drop to all fours and cram fistfuls of soil into his mouth, groaning with ecstasy.

He was a brutal man, even when he didn’t mean to be. One loving hug from those callused, lumpen paws would leave you bruised and breathless. Each year he grew bigger, while I remained a withered, constipated, translucent carcass. I couldn’t stomach all the dirt, I hadn’t the same feverish cravings for mud to which Poppa was a slave.

Had I known the long term side effects of that diet I might have tried to talk to him, but what was a I to do? He was the head of the family, and he had decreed long ago that this family were to live off the land. Literally. So every dawn we were marched into the yard and given our breakfast of dirt. I suppose, for someone who enjoyed the taste of God’s brown earth, it was perfect, there was an endless supply. But I dreamed of one day eating an apple or some bread – things branded as obscene and decadent by Poppa and banned from the house on pain of a grubby thumb nail to the eyeball.

The physical changes in Poppa were increasingly apparent, though Ma pretended not to notice. His hair seemed to be taking on a green tinge, and I knew it was not just the advance of the moss that grew on his eyebrows. He became sluggish, and would stand completely still for ever longer periods. Eventually leaves began to sprout from his fingers. As time went on, an array of flora populated Poppa’s flesh, but still dear old Ma pretended nothing was happening.

It was one morning in spring that I was surprised to wake up well after dawn to silence. Why had Poppa not jabbed me with a stick and hollered in my ear to get outside and eat my fill of God’s dank firmament? Why could I not hear him outside noisily devouring clumps of terra firma? Something was wrong.

I got up and went outside. The yard was empty, but I could see fresh footprints leading off into the meadow. They were wide and deep and punctuated by blobs of the foamy brown milk that my stunted five year old brother still supped from Ma’s voluminous breasts. I set off in her tracks at a spindly canter. I knew something was seriously wrong but nothing could have prepared me for what I was to witness at the far end of that vibrant meadow.

I found Ma staring dumb-founded at a vast tree. A tree which had not been there the day before. Poppa’s shredded boiler suit was stretched around the great trunk. Where the boiler suit parted at the waist a squirrel popped its head out of a whole and spat out a mouthful of blue fluff. The remains of Poppa’s boots were twisted around the roots. Right at the top of the tree, I could just make out his flat cap, swaying the breeze. Ma put on a brave face, but she was never the same after that morning.

I set about planting a vegetable patch that very day, then went into the forest to collect berries and mushrooms. Now that we were free from Poppa’s tyranny, I was the man of the house, and I was damned if we were consuming any more earth.

It was a few weeks later, spring was in full swing, the birds were singing, and my skin had taken on a milky opacity previously alien to me. I was in high spirits. I took a stroll across the meadow for my daily visit to the “Poppa Tree”. I found I loved Poppa more than ever now that he was a tree. There was a serenity about him, he had found a unique sort of peace that many people would never know.

As I stood there gazing at his impressive trunk, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Along his branches he had sprouted several collections of dangling appendages. I moved closer and reached up to touch one. It was soft and wrinkly with coarse hairs growing from its earthy brown skin. Inside I could feel the fruit moving as my fingers manipulated its outer “bag”. I was tempted to pluck one, but I couldn’t be sure they were ripe.

I resolved to wait until one dropped and stood back to admire them with a tear of pride in my eye. I knew than that everything would be all right. Poppa’s hairy fruits were exquisite.