Interview: Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan‘s debut fantasy novel, The Machinery, is coming this September from Harper Voyager. I interviewed him about the book as part of the publisher’s #VirtualVoyager online festival.

JA: The Machinery has a striking concept–an omnipotent machine that rules an empire. How did you get started writing it? Did the idea come from anywhere in particular?

GC: Thanks! It’s slightly different than that. The Machinery picks the rulers of the Overland through a process called Selection; they could be anyone, no matter their age, wealth, etc. Its Selections are then communicated to the people by an immortal being called the Operator. So technically, these people rule the empire, though the Machinery has of course put them in place because it has identified them as appropriate leaders.

Six people are Selected: the Strategist, who is the ruler of the Overland, and five Tacticians, who serve under the Strategist. There is a Tactician each for the North, South, and West, a Tactician for Expansion (war, basically), and a Tactician for Watching, a kind of intelligence service meets secret police.

However, there’s a problem – an ancient Prophecy claims that the Machinery will break in the 10,000th year of its existence, Selecting someone who will bring ruin to the world. It is now the 10,000th year, and a Selection is about to take place.

The idea just came to me one day about seven years ago. It started off as the central concept – a machine picking the leaders of a country – and everything else came from there. I liked the idea of placing a very unusual system of government at the centre of a Fantasy story.

Gerrard Cowan

JA: What books (or movies etc.) influenced The Machinery?

GC: To be honest, I didn’t have anything in the front of my mind when I first came up with the idea. My reading at that point was heavily tilted towards non-fiction, particularly history and biography. There is a political element to the book that certainly stems from my interest in those subjects.

That being said, I absolutely love the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake, and the Viriconium series by M. John Harrison. I love fantasy that disrupts and plays with your sense of time and space. I read both when I was already well into the writing of The Machinery, but they really resonated with me.

JA: What is your writing process like? How long did it take The Machinery to go from initial idea to publication?

GC: Developing a writing routine was such a challenge for me. I first thought of the central conceit of the book in the summer of 2008. I then worked on it very sporadically, and found myself tinkering with the same chapter over and over again. It took about two years until I resolved just to get cracking on the whole tale, no matter how messy the first draft would be. What seems to work for me is getting up early on weekday mornings and doing a bit before going to work. Once I got the routine going it took about two years before I felt able to send the completed novel around.

JA: Giant machines are something one traditionally associates with science fiction rather than fantasy. Is your book straight fantasy, or something that blurs the boundary of fantasy and science fiction?

GC: I’ve always thought of it as Fantasy, though the looming presence of something called ‘the Machinery’ does give it a sci-fi flavor. It’s set in an early modern-type period, in which technologies such as gunpowder and the printing press are disrupting society. So it’s probably 95% fantasy.

JA: Will we get to see how the Machinery of the title works, or is it a mysterious black box? How much of its workings do you have figured out?

GC: I have a clear idea of what it is. It has been hidden from the people of the Overland for ten thousand years, in a strange, alternate dimension called the Underland, so I hope there is an air of mystery around it and that the reader is intrigued by what it could be. But all will be revealed come the end of book three, so you’ll just have to buy the whole trilogy! On a serious note, I would hate to just keep it hidden away forever – it would feel like I was cheating the reader.

JA: Tell us about your main character. She’s an Apprentice Watcher–what does that mean?

GC: Katrina Paprissi is a member of one of the most powerful and wealthy families in the Overland. Her father was the head of a banking house, and the first Overlander to establish trade routes with other lands. However, the family falls apart when Alexander, Katrina’s brother, is kidnapped by the Operator. Alexander is able to communicate with the Machinery, which has told him it is breaking, and what will happen when it breaks. The Operator, who hears the Machinery speaking, eventually finds Alexander. He does not believe what the boy says, though, and so he kidnaps him to interrogate him in the Underland.

Katrina witnesses this event, though she does not know the reason behind it. Her father leaves the Overland, and her mother commits suicide. Katrina is entrusted to the care of Tactician Amyllia Brightling, a friend of Jaco’s and the head of the Watchers.

The Watchers make up a shadowy organization that enforces the will of the Machinery, and fight a never-ending war against those who speak against it – even in the slightest way – who are known as Doubters. The Watchers wear strange masks, often shaped into animal heads, that allow them to see into the souls of potential Doubters.

Katrina is an Apprentice with these people, though she has serious doubts about her suitability.

JA: The Machinery comes out on 10 September. Do you have anything special planned for your release day?

GC: I’ll just watch as it rapidly climbs the Amazon charts. Ha, no, I will be on social media, banging on about it! I’ve been thinking of some other things I could do but nothing set in stone as yet.

JA: What’s next for you as a writer? Is The Machinery the start of a series?

GC: Yes, there are three planned books. Part Two, The Strategist, will be out on ebook next May.

After that, who knows? I have ideas for books set in the same universe, but I guess that will depend on the reception for the first trilogy. I will always keep writing, however, even if it’s only for myself!


The Machinery is released on 10 September 2015. For this week only you can pre-order it for the reduced price of 99p (UK) / $1.99 (US).


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One Response to Interview: Gerrard Cowan

  1. Pingback: Guest blog post and interview | John Ayliff

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