Ian H. McKinley, The Winter Wars Interview
Ian H. McKinley is a realistic fantasy writer with five novels to his credit. He is also a Blood Bowl coach who writes a lot of in-league fluff. Here below we discuss his latest novel The Winter Wars, strong female characters, and Blood Bowl.
But first a short intro …
The story between Ian and I goes back several years, at a Blood Bowl tournament in a Montreal store (editor’s note: more precisely Longueuil; it seems Minotaurs are as fussy about geography as they are about their ball game) where Ian was carefully orchestrating his Orcs team. At the end of the day, Ian pointed me to a section of the shop where I could find his novels. The Minotaur scholar that I am couldn’t help but flip through them. This was the genesis of our collaboration on Up and Under.
The second time I met Ian was at a Blood Bowl tournament in Quebec City where his Black Orcs were defeated by the Dwarves of Mrs. Taureau Amiral – obviously well trained under my tutelage. I then took the opportunity to welcome Ian to the Club of coaches beaten by a younger woman (funny fact: I am also humbly part of this Club). To which he refused the honor because he felt there was nothing to make a fuss about.
The third time I met Ian, he bravely accepted my dinner invitation. I say “bravely” because Nuffle knows what or who Minotaurs can devour! Fortunately for him, the meal consisted of some black-dried fish – a favorite of mine. Little had I known that this tasty boot sole was too tough for his fragile human dentition! Nevertheless, under my inquisitive gaze, Ian was cautious enough to show signs of appreciation.
Now, having read Ian’s novels, I can say that they are in the man’s image. That is, they are meticulously orchestrated as great Blood Bowl coaches do, they grab you like a good writer would, men and women equally cohabit in them like in a humanist’s heart, and they are rich in cultures like a diplomat!
And now without further ado, here is my interview with Ian H. McKinley …
TAUREAU AMIRAL: How would you describe The Winter Wars to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?
IAN H. MCKINLEY: Herg Korgash, the enemy of our main characters, takes power in North Straeland, just across the river from Polgatia, a land that has given refuge and new lives to our heroes. Korgash rails against Polgatia for harbouring necromancers and Thorn People who spread evil in his land. He calls for war. Worried, Polgatia’s ruler reaches out to the Drovers of the taiga for three hundred of their famous horses to bolster his cavalry. Just as the nomads arrive with the horses, his brother, the Dark Prince, uncovers a plot to murder Korgash’s spies in Polgatia’s capital city. When events spiral out of control, with assassins and armies unleashed in one fell stroke, our heroes form a war band to confront the menace. Will they turn the tide against Korgash? Or, will they be offered up to the Straelish noble in exchange for peace? When the time comes to settle scores, who will do the settling, and against whom?
Obviously, this all builds on the two novels that came before.
TAUREAU: You have visibly spent a ton of time researching the Nordic theme as it is so well represented. Is it true that, while researching The Winter Wars, you actually had an audience with the true heir of Erik the Red?
IAN: Of course Erik the Red played a key role in the Norse expeditions to North America. He committed murder in Iceland and was banished. So he uprooted himself and his family and settled in Greenland. His son, Lief Eriksson, mounted an expedition to seek out strange lands that a Norse merchant had sighted after having been blown off-course during a storm. Lief established a camp at L’Anse-aux-meadows on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, from which he explored Vinland. The sagas speak of meeting indigenous people, trading with them, and then conflict that arose. The Vinland Sagas remind us how violence is an ever-present thread in human existence. This is a central theme to the Northern Fire saga and The Winter Wars in particular.
My wife, Josée, took me to see the historic site at L’Anse-aux-meadows and it fuelled my passion to bring Northern Fire to life, that’s certain. So Erik’s line certainly played a role in inspiring me, whether I met the true heir of Erik the Red or not.
TAUREAU: Speaking of Norse, were you inspired in some way by the Norse of Blood Bowl?
IAN: Yes. I played a Norse team I loved way back in the late-80s, early-90s. Can you guess the name of the team?
TAUREAU: The Nordhammers from Up and Under?
Yes, of course, the Hammarskjöld Nordhammers! Once I’ve thought of what I consider a good name, I extract every ounce of use out of it. Hence in Up and Under, one of our main characters Karsgaard Neuvil had been a former player and coach of those same Nordhammers. With the recent release of the new Norse team in Blood Bowl, I’m busy bringing the team to life again.
I loved that Norse team. They were always just good enough to get to the final and lose it! Many of the names that will be familiar to readers of Harbinger and The Broken Dream will be happy to know that the characters first saw the light of day on a Blood Bowl roster. However, the core characters pre-dated my first Norse Blood Bowl team, arising from some role-playing I did in 1990 (RuneQuest, for those who are interested).
You’ve reminded me, I’m going to have to squeeze a Yhetee into the final manuscript of Tears of the Ghosts: Book Five of Northern Fire!
TAUREAU: Has your background as a Blood Bowl coach and fervent writer of league fluff affected your writing? Or maybe is it the opposite?
IAN: Writing feeds more writing. It’s a habit that manifests itself in novels (such as The Winter Wars or even Up and Under that appears on Blood Bowl Strategies), accounts of Blood Bowl games posted to league websites, and in helping generate content for websites (such as my Gorn N’hleg Chronicle for BBS). But I must admit that writing about the Blood Bowl I played in Montreal, specifically, led to a richly rewarding experience when you, dear Minotaur, reached out to me to see if I wanted to write a story recounted in episodes on BBS. Having gone through that epoch in 2018-19, I felt like I had stalled and was worried that all this Blood Bowl I was playing was diverting me from getting stuff accomplished. But you saw a lot of that daft stuff I was publishing to the league website and you took note of my latent talent and my evident interest in the game. The astute daftness of Gorn and the hijinks of Jacyntha Strong wouldn’t exist had I not been doing a deep dive into league fluff. So, thank you!
TAUREAU: Speaking of Gorn’s Chronicles and Up and Under, they have been full of surprises much like The Winter Wars. In truth, I’ve been impressed by your foreshadowing abilities. How do you construct your stories to surprise the reader, so that he doesn’t see much coming?
IAN: Surprising the reader is tricky. As an author, you don’t want to cheat and just pull the most unexpected idea out of thin air when you get to a key moment in the plot. Ideally, a reader will go back and see that hints were laid down earlier and feel that the surprise, although unexpected, was 100% credible. One advantage the writer has that the reader doesn’t is that you can pop inside the mind of a character and review what he or she knows and doesn’t know. As a writer, you can play on that, building a sense of certainty that the character has about something, knowing that from another angle, that of a different character, there are other possible outcomes to a crisis.
There were a few big surprises in Harbinger and The Broken Dream but I think they are all entirely credible. Indeed, I have had a few readers reach out to me with guesses about what would happen in The Winter Wars based on the logical extension of some of those past surprises, and one or two of them were even on the right track, so that’s positive. There are many unexpected things that happen in this book, but a reader will look at each event and, hopefully, not think these things have popped out of nowhere.
Be warned, though, that my really big surprises – properly foreshadowed throughout the series – occur in book five, Tears of the Ghosts.
TAUREAU: You have a reputation to tell stories effortlessly featuring strong and complex female characters that ring true. Where do you get your insights into the female mind?
IAN: I can be a lot of things, including an ally to the women in my life, but I can never actually be a woman. So I do a couple of things to make sure I’m on the right track when I write female characters. First, I try to write all the characters the same. Yes, I know in our world a female might react to something differently than a male because of the stereotypes and behaviours that are imposed upon her. However, writing fantasy allows me to escape the constraints of the real world. Secondly, I run everything by my editor-in-chief, my wife, Josée. She keeps me on track.
TAUREAU: But, really, a woman has to be very strong to survive in the worlds that you put them in …
IAN: Does she? Well, I don’t often place weak characters, be they male, female, both, or neither at the heart of my stories. I have known and respected strong women all my life, from my sister, who died young piloting an airplane after breaking through barriers to her advancement, to some dear friends who are now ambassadors or high commissioners of Canada in far-flung countries around the world, to my wife who advanced further in public service than I did. They have had to be strong and they all serve as my inspiration.
TAUREAU: Speaking of women, how come your stories depict violence but are almost sexless? I mean, are readers more frightened by sex than violence? Or is it because critics usually pan books leaning too heavily on the subject?
IAN: I’ve thought about this a bit in the past. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not comfortable writing about sex. Also, I’m not always sure sex is key to the plot of a story. But in The Winter Wars, we do see Lora reflecting on sex and the freedom she currently enjoys to explore that mysterious realm. We can also deduce that Cairn has been having sex. We can also deduce that sex is enough of a risk between Thay and Siançiorny that this latter’s grandfather deploys her brother, Nehemiah, to act as a chaperone. But it’s true I don’t like actually writing about what’s going on. Perhaps that’s a failing as a writer, perhaps it’s just good manners, not wanting to intrude into my characters’ intimate moments!
TAUREAU: It is reassuring to know that this choice was not driven by the fear that it might not end well for you as an author. Well, in relation to The Winter Wars, I don’t want to spoil anything and readers shouldn’t read too much into this next question… But, how do you feel about happy endings?
IAN: Happy endings for whom? (asked rhetorically, with a smile)
It’s all there in that counter-question. Happy endings occur. Of course they do. And all the endings in my works are happy endings for someone. Sometimes it’s even for a main character or two. But a lot in the real world depends on perspective, so my endings depend on perspective too.
TAUREAU: And that is why it feels lifelike. You describe yourself as a realistic fantasy author and it is true that your stories ooze empathy and grittiness. How do you write against the classic fantasy type?
IAN: In modern fantasy there’s more and more grit. I dislike what I perceive as “grim-dark” meaning hope in the story only exists to be crushed, good guys/gals in the story only exist to get tortured and killed, or that the most vile means to an end are those that invariably succeed. So, I try to avoid that. However, as nihilist as I categorize “grim-dark”, neither is life split into neat camps of good and evil wherein good will always win. For me, the stories that are the most interesting are the collisions or alignments of human interests, wherein people are motivated by ambition as much as by honour. What I try to do is think about a character’s motivations and then ponder how those might manifest themselves in actions, to which either protagonists or antagonists have to react. The story you allowed me to drape upon the hallowed halls of Blood Bowl Strategies has an unexpected ending because of someone’s twisted sense of honour. Didn’t the ending of Up and Under benefit from that? I’d argue it did … mind you, of course I’d argue it did, I wrote the damned thing!
But usually I have main characters who aren’t pure as the driven snow, facing adversaries who aren’t the direst of villains, just people pursuing their own interests. In The Broken Dream: Book Two of Northern Fire, we met Herg Korgash Hasselmann. He’s clearly the antagonist to our main characters, but is he evil? No, he’s the hero of his own story. He’s protecting the land from violent outsiders, people who raid and kill.
TAUREAU: But still, you don’t seem to go “all in” into realism as you also mix in your story some classic fantasy elements such as a long sword with a name and a prophecy. Why is it so?
IAN: I love fantasy, but I dislike some of the absolutes … pure good versus ultimate evil, for example. And yet, I like to play on tropes, turning and twisting them. What’s not to like in a heart-stirring prophesy? People cling to such things as an expression of a glorious future that awaits them. Does the idea that King Arthur lies sleeping under the hills to return someday not make the heart leap? And yes, conflict … human interests advanced on the point of a sword or the blade of an axe. Who doesn’t like a good fight? The swords and sorcery sub-genre rears its head in my work, certainly. But sometimes the set-up for the twist means I have to draw out the existing trope before giving it a bit of a torque.
TAUREAU: Yeah, and to be honest, that is what we want to read about! All those things that you mentioned!
IAN: Exactly. That’s why people buy fantasy. Indeed, it’s why having genres is important in publishing. It’s to help ensure people who want to read a historical romance don’t end up buying one of my books, or to make sure that people who want to hear about prophesy and sword fights don’t find themselves cracking open a book about the aftermath of election fraud on a remote planet.
TAUREAU: What’s next after The Winter Wars?
IAN: The Rune Slate: Book Four of Northern Fire is ready to go but won’t get released until spring 2023 at the earliest. I am about halfway through the tweaks that will lead to version two of the draft of Tears of the Ghosts: Book Five of Northern Fire but the publisher hasn’t done more than glance at it, so there’s lots of work to do to finish off the Northern Fire saga. But I expect that’ll get done in due course for release in spring(ish) of 2024. Then there’s the project you got me working on with Meunier, Up and Under. I have a lot of material written already for Season 2, but I’m struggling to get it to flow. Some of it might have to get pruned out (perhaps popping into Season 3). It’s funny … Up and Under Season 1 exploded to life so quickly. I thought I had the formula nailed down and that Season 2 would just roll off the keyboard. But it’s not turning out that way. It’s like pulling teeth trying to get Season 2 down on paper. Oh well, I have time to pull it together.
TAUREAU: And other than writing, at some point, as a diplomat, do you plan to go dipping again into the political world?
IAN: This past federal election, I didn’t get engaged because I was on holidays when the election was called, but also because of disenchantment with the political party I support (the Green Party). During the prior election, though, I worked about four hours/day as a volunteer. I see the world heading towards environmental collapse – everything from climate change to losing biodiversity to destruction of habitat – so I reckoned that it behooved me to get involved and try and make a difference. But I’m not so committed that I’d run for office … Canada or Québec doesn’t need another angry white guy thumping tables. Besides, I’d never get elected. I’d be telling the electors hard truths and we all know they prefer easy-to-swallow lies!
TAUREAU: Anyway, to help you go through these uncertain times, I am sure you are planning plenty of Blood Bowl games! One last question before you regain your freedom. I always ask coaches this question. What are you coaching now?
IAN: Oh Nuffle above! Well, in our league, we have a flexible approach to what teams you can play. I’m currently in the play-offs for the minor cup with Norse (yes, the Hammarskjöld Nordhammers). In the major cup, I’m running Shambling Undead, with a team name that is a play on words for our local Canadian Football League team, the Ottawa REDblacks … my team’s called the Rottawa DEADblacks. The DEADblacks are going to get killed (or re-killed, if you prefer). The NAF World Cup team I’m on just had a draft to see what coach will play-test which team with a view to taking that team to the next World Cup in Alicante, Spain. For that, I had just come through a disastrous tourney with Skaven, so I selected Black Orcs … Gorn N’hleg will rise again! To top it off, I’m still our league’s reigning champion with Imperial Nobility.
TAUREAU: Well, Ian H. McKinley, thanks a ton for taking some time to share with us. It was fun!
IAN: Thanks for putting me between the horns.
Now, back to Up and Under Season 2 … or else you’ll trample me!
TAUREAU: Yeah, but only after you have pulled all your teeth out!