CB Harvey, a man with a PhD in videogame storytelling, recently took some time out to answer a few questions about his latest novella Dead Kelly.
1. The Journal of the Plague Year is made up of newcomers to Abaddon – could you explain the process by which you came to publish with them and how the editors influenced your story, if at all?
I’ve been a big fan of Abaddon for a long time. Dark and pulpy shared storyworlds are very much my thing. Some time ago Abaddon held (a highly unusual) open submissions round for new storyworlds and I seized my chance to pitch something to them. Although editor David Moore really liked my submission he liked another storyworld someone else had pitched a teensy bit more and had decided to go with that. However, I cheekily enquired as to whether, in that case, I could pitch to one of their existing lines..? Fortunately for me David said yes and the result is Dead Kelly.
David was great at reining me in, particularly when I used seventeen words where one very pithy one would do just as well. But the plot and my menagerie of despicable characters remained untouched.
2. You’ve written in a few shared worlds, how was it entering into the Afterblight realm and what kind of research was necessary for your story to fit?
By now I’ve written for a few different licenses in different media. Licensed media can be quite prescriptive in terms of the stories which are told – understandably enough, because someone’s effectively lending you their characters and storyworld and they want them back in pristine condition. At other times doing licensed work can be surprisingly flexible, depending on the property and the nature of the licensing arrangement.
By contrast, the Afterblight stories aren’t licensed but there’s clearly a need to maintain consistency with what’s gone before. I made sure that there were some references to elements in other Afterblight stories, at least up until the point at which the Cull really took hold. At that point I thought, because of Australia’s distance from everywhere else, and having established points of commonality, I could go on my own merry way. That said, I changed a particular twist because it was starting to seem way too much like a twist in another of the previous Afterblight stories: in the end that was serendipitous because it allowed me to take part of the story in a completely different direction, a development I was very happy with.
3. I’ve described Dead Kelly as ‘Mad Max on steroids meets Ned Kelly on crack’ – it’s an harsh tale of revenge and power: what was the kernel behind its inception?
When Abaddon originally put out their open submissions call I tried working up a ‘Weird Western’ idea set in late nineteenth century Australia. In the end I couldn’t quite get it to work so I instead pitched a completely different idea but Australia was clearly stuck in my head. Given that I’d only just moved back to London from Australia I guess that’s not surprising. I mean it’s the most extraordinary place in loads of ways and the environment seemed perfect for an Afterblight story. Given the globe-trotting nature of the Aferblight storyworld, it seemed a no-brainer to pitch a story set there.
While in Australia I’d talked to some friends about Ned Kelly, a character I’d been interested in for a long time. What really fascinated me was the time period, the mythology around him, but most of all that utterly iconic look. I mean, the helmet and the armour has got that steampunk-style incongruity about it which I find really intriguing. I wanted my protagonist, Kelly McGuire, to steal that look and use it to build his own mythology. In addition, while I was growing up my older sister and eldest brother were both a bit obsessed by the Mad Max films (this is before Tina Turner got in on the act), so they’re part of my cultural DNA. Clashing Mad Max and Ned Kelly together seemed entirely logical, and I needed a high-adrenalin style to make it work (hopefully it has).
4. The setting in Australia was inspired – how did it come about and did it require research?
The biggest influence was that I lived in Australia for eighteen months in an amazing place called Leura, which is just up from the Blue Mountains. My wife had been offered a job at the University of Western Sydney, so we moved ourselves and our kids from our cosy urban existence in South London to live in the mountains. It was a bit like ‘A Year in Provence’, only with snakes and spiders that can kill you.
Dead Kelly still required a lot of research, mainly because although I’d been to Melbourne I hadn’t lived there and I didn’t know it brilliantly well. I spent a lot of time getting the flora and fauna of the area around Melbourne right, as well as the geography of the city. Then I stumbled on the amazing web of storm sewers that runs beneath the city and the people that explore them. I really wanted to include those sewers, but getting it right was a real challenge.
5. There is the idea and use of myth or legend, a cunning notion by your protagonist – could you explain this idea of myth as power in your story?
The concept of a protagonist trying to create his own mythology emerged as the story developed, although looking back it’s clearly implicit in the idea – in the title Dead Kelly in fact. McGuire takes and wears Ned Kelly’s armour because he knows its impact, what it means to the people he’s trying to intimidate. Then he uses it to take revenge on the people he thinks betrayed him, and anyone who might be a threat. His ultimate goal is to build an empire, but also to ensure the survival of that empire and his legacy by any means possible.
While I was writing Dead Kelly a certain high profile politician died. I became fascinated by the way this individual’s flag-bearers sought to control this person’s mythology, and to cancel out any competing narratives. In fact, this idea of control versus chance is really key to Dead Kelly. McGuire is determined to control events; I guess we all know, or have known, people like that (though hopefully they don’t go on murderous post-apocalyptic rampages wearing armour).
6. Your Bio is quite intimidating (a PhD in videogame storytelling) and extensive, from comics to academia – how do all these forms of narrative, as different yet similar as they are, inform each other in your work?
Well, like lots of writers I augment the millions I earn from writing with a paltry academic salary. I teach and research what’s called ‘transmedia’, which is storytelling across media. I’ve always been interested in different kinds of storytelling, whether it’s books, comics, films, videogames, television, you name it, and the relationships between different kinds of stories. But it’s quite hard to find jobs where they’ll pay you to talk about this stuff. Academia affords me a way of doing it which is socially acceptable (or I like to pretend it does, at least. I may be delusional).
That said, the academic stuff doesn’t really cross over much into my fiction. I can’t actually think of anything guaranteed to kill a story quicker than difficult academic theory. And yes, I’m looking at you, The Matrix franchise.
7. How do you think you would fare in the apocalyptic wastelands and what strengths or skills do you possess to help you survive?
In the event of an apocalypse, I am not likely to be of any use to anyone, except possibly as a meal. Or maybe a mascot. I’ve often joked that I should carry a tag reading ‘No User Serviceable Parts’. My wife, she’d be fine. She’d whittle the family a three-bedroom house, no problem. And probably a Blu-Ray player. But she’d have me for breakfast. Literally.
8. What can we expect from you next – any more Cull stories currently being drafted?
The next thing of mine to appear will be a completely different kind of pulp novel for a small American publisher, set in a very familiar storyworld. In the meantime, I have something else I’m working on, which again will be very different.