David’s widow on her new book.
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.