David’s widow on her new book.

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Sue Jack­son

In an era when pub­lish­ers ex­pect au­thors to be seen and known as well as read, even the usual on­line bi­ogra­phies for Stella Gem­mell are sur­pris­ingly sketchy. This, it turns out, is down to the writer her­self. “They’re sketchy be­cause I’m not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in talk­ing about my­self,” she says. “With some re­ally daz­zling ex­cep­tions, writ­ers are gen­er­ally a dull bunch, liv­ing and work­ing in­side their own heads, pour­ing their emo­tional re­sources into imag­i­nary friends.”

Well, that told us, and it’s per­haps re­veal­ing that Gem­mell, widow of the late David, prefers to be in­ter­viewed by email. Nev­er­the­less, we’re keen to know more be­cause, as her new book The Im­mor­tal Throne shows, she’s a nov­el­ist of real power. It’s a se­quel to The City, an epic fan­tasy set in an an­cient and vast state that’s been at war for cen­turies, and where a re­bel­lion is brew­ing.

“The new book’s about what hap­pened next, and a bit about what hap­pened be­fore The City,” she says. “When you’ve shaped a dense, mul­ti­fac­eted world ( said one re­viewer), teem­ing with char­ac­ters you like, it’s very tempt­ing to go back. The most en­joy­able thing about be­ing a writer, for me, is putting fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters into a new sit­u­a­tion and know­ing ex­actly how they’ll re­act and what they’ll say. Some­times it’s more like watch­ing a movie and faith­fully re­port­ing on what’s hap­pen­ing, rather than a work of imag­i­na­tion.”

Nev­er­the­less, it takes a while to reach the point where char­ac­ters take on lives of their own. In the case of The City, says Gem­mell, that came about 100 pages into her first draft when she re­alised her plan to write a crime novel “set in a fan­tasy world be­cause I didn’t want to do the re­search” was mor­ph­ing into “a sort of fan­tasy-sci- fi hy­brid”.

un­der the sur­face

In ad­di­tion, adds Gem­mell, the books are rooted in her fas­ci­na­tion with the way cities are built upon ear­lier ur­ban it­er­a­tions. “The Troy of The Iliad, of Priam and Hec­tor, is only one ( num­ber seven) of mul­ti­ple Troys go­ing back mil­len­nia, all piled one on top of one an­other on quite a small hill­top site,” she says. “The same is true of Lon­don, of course, where un­der the new tow­ers lie thou­sands of years of his­tory, crum­pled build­ings and bones. An­cient rivers still flow to­wards the Thames un­der the present- day con­crete and tar­mac, some of them known about but per­haps many un­re­mem­bered.”

But there are lim­its to the way au­tho­rial in­ten­tion shapes books. “My hus­band used to say that ev­ery­thing you’ve seen and heard, and the ex­pe­ri­ences through­out your life, swirl around con­tin­u­ally deep in your mind,” she says, “and a writer is lucky enough to be able to tap into that and re­use it to craft his own sto­ries. I’m in my six­ties now and I’ve spent a life­time read­ing books, and watch­ing movies and TV. I sus­pect I’ve never writ­ten an orig­i­nal word in my life.”

Gem­mell says she’s con­scious of some of her in­flu­ences, and that The City owes much to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Aliens movies (“not the fourth one”). Against this, she says, she thought she’d made up the name Ar­change, un­til she “stum­bled on the orig­i­nal Ar­change… in a book I didn’t much like”. She adds: “Dave of­ten used to find that – some­thing he’d writ­ten that he thought was pure imag­i­na­tion turned out to be in a book he read as a child.”

re­search­ing a world

As to how Gem­mell got started as a nov­el­ist, her late hus­band had a key role. The two met while they were both jour­nal­ists. Over time, as David Gem­mell’s ca­reer took off, Stella “be­came more in­volved with his books”. When he wrote the Troy se­ries, she re­searched the late Bronze Age and the lat­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal work on the city. “He got to the stage in the first book, Lord Of The Sil­ver Bow, when a group of char­ac­ters ar­rive at Troy for the first time and he asked me what it would be like for them, what would the great city look like to some­one who’d come from the sticks, what would it smell like, what would you hear. Rather than me tell him about it, so that he could put it in words, he sug­gested I write the scene my­self. I was thrilled to be asked and we were both pleased with the re­sult so af­ter that I car­ried on writ­ing scenes to or­der.”

When her hus­band died in 2006, Gem­mell com­pleted the fi­nal Troy book, Fall Of Kings. In the worst cir­cum­stances imag­in­able, she was up and run­ning as nov­el­ist. Was she ever wor­ried peo­ple would think she was cash­ing in?

“Yes, a lit­tle,” she says. “A friend told me I needed to get a move on with The City, and fin­ish it and get it pub­lished be­fore peo­ple for­got the Gem­mell name. That gave me pause. But I’d al­ways wanted to write a novel and I’d had a cou­ple of ill- ad­vised stabs in my thir­ties. But it was years af­ter Dave died that I de­cided to try again and fi­nally fin­ished The City. And it would have been per­verse of me to sub­mit the book un­der any other name. If some of his fans think I’m cash­ing in on Dave’s suc­cess then so be it. Peo­ple be­lieve what they want to be­lieve.”

The Im­mor­tal Throne is pub­lished by Ban­tam Press on Thurs­day 24 March.

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