Author interview: Pat Kelleher

The celebrated author of the No Man’s World series talks to Stephen Jewell about sci-fi, soldiers and sequels

Pat Kelleher tells SFX about transporting World War One battalion The Pennine Fusiliers to a harsh alien planet in Abaddon’s No Man’s World series.

SFX: In the introduction, you meta-fictionally suggest that the 13th Battalion vanishing without trace is a real life event. Did you enjoy blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction?
Pat Kelleher:
Most definitely and especially when people wonder whether the Harcourt Crater actually happened. The introductions themselves are a tip of the hat to the early Scientific Romances that usually begin with a note from the author explaining the provenance of the story you’re about to read, either someone they met or a journal they found. It was fun constructing an alternate history and drawing in real figures like Tesla and Crowley. When I hit upon the audacious idea that it was the actually the grainy black and white silent film footage of the battalion on the alien planet that inspired the pulp SF boom of the ’20s and ’30s, I grinned for days. And although I don’t have space to deal with it directly in the books, as an aside I do cover various aspects of the Earthside history in the wake of what happened to the Pennines on the No Man’s World blog.

SFX: You’ve described Black Hand Gang as resembling “Charley’s War drawn by Kevin O’Neill.” Did Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s classic Battle comic strip influence you?
PK:
Charley’s War definitely made an impression on me when I first read it as a teenager, and during my research its influence was hard to avoid since Pat Mills used many of the same primary sources that I came across – only he and Joe managed to do it all without the aid of the internet.

SFX: Were you also inspired by the science fiction of the day?
PK:
For the sci-fi elements I drew a lot on the scientific romances of the time and authors like HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edwin L Arnold and Jules Verne to a lesser extent along other contemporary writers such as Conrad, Kipling, Maugham, Barrie, Baum, Bulwer-Lytton and a hint of Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson – who himself died at Ypres in 1918.

SFX: You’re from Stockport, near Broughtonthwaite, the fictional town from which the Pennine Fusiliers originate. Did you have to do a lot of research to get the tone and historic details correct?
PK:
The Pennine Fusiliers themselves are closely modelled on the likes of the Bradford and Salford Pals, so the research started there. Whether I had to do as much as I did is another matter. I just got sucked in. I’d decided that if it was going to be First World War soldiers on an alien planet, then it was important to get the details right, otherwise it might as well be anyone on an alien planet. I started out with the local library, mined Amazon and the internet and ended up seeking out War Office training manuals from specialist military publishers. A number of characters in the books are actually inspired by people I came across in my research and I now have bookshelves full of reference material. I’m an absolute fund of useless World War One knowledge and will quite happily sing a medley of Tommies’ trench songs for the price of a pint.

SFX: The first few chapters of first volume Black Hand Gang are set completely in the trenches and are as harrowing as any fictional hellish scenario that you could come up with on the alien world…
PK:
I wanted to spend some time in the trenches, establishing the characters and their situation in the reader’s mind. I wanted to ground the characters in reality as firmly as possible so that, when their transition to the alien world came, it would carry the readers with them and be as jarring to them as it was to the characters. I think I’d set myself a high bar by beginning in as hellish a place as the Somme, though.

SFX: The Battalion is very regimented in their social order but does their command structure break down as time by on in the alien world?
PK:
The battalion is made up from men of different backgrounds and politics and their one unifying cause is the defeat of the Hun. Take that away and their reasons for volunteering come into question. In Black Hand Gang, the military hierarchy holds sway. As months pass without a way home and the officers attempt to maintain the status quo, some men have doubts about their right and ability to do so. The first cracks in the façade appear in the second book, The Ironclad Prophecy. Then in the next book, The Alleyman, the potential breakdown of the command structure provides a source of internal tension and conflict that is as dangerous to the future of Pennines as any threat from the planet itself.

SFX: The Alleyman is out in October. What can you tell us about it?
PK:
It isn’t the end of the story by any means. It’s a game-changing season finale. Questions from the first two books are answered (leaving new questions in their wake) as Lieutenant Everson quells unrest within his own ranks while helping foment insurrection among the alien Khungarrii. Lance Corporal Atkins, his Black Hand Gang and the crew of the ironclad tank, Ivanhoe, face the horrors that lie within the massive Croatoan Crater, a place inextricably tied to the history of the alien chatts and native urmen alike, while Lieutenant Tulliver of the Royal Flying Corps discovers the true scale of the planet’s mystery. As for who or what the Alleyman is, it’s difficult to say anything without giving it away. I guess you’ll just have to read the book!

SFX: Thanks Pat!

Read more about Pat Kelleher’s work at his blog and follow him on Twitter. His official Abaddon Books page is here. Issue 226 marks the last of 2012′s annual Summer Of Reading celebration in SFX so be sure to check that out, where you’ll find bonus author profiles and book-themed content.