MAN OF MANY PARTS
Interview conducted by editor Paul Barnett in THE PAPER SNARL: JANUARY 2000 Issue #8 of the e-zine attached to Paper Tiger Books.
Someone once told us they'd always assumed Nigel Suckling was a Paper Tiger housename, because it was difficult to believe a single author could write so well and so variedly about so many artists. Well, as anyone who's encountered Nigel will tell you - and for many the 1997 World Fantasycon, the first con he'd attended, offered a fine opportunity -- this reserved, witty, modest (perhaps too much so for his own good) writer is very much A Real Person. We're delighted that Nigel was able to drag himself away from his keyboard long enough to let us interview him.
PS: I'm certain that, of all the interviews the Snarl has published, this is the one that many readers will have been awaiting most eagerly, because of course for many people your name has become, over the past decade and a half, almost synonymous with that of Paper Tiger. According to my quite likely erroneous count, you've written 22 books for the company, including many of the company's bestsellers, and have also written introductions for a number of others. What drew you to Paper Tiger in the first place?
NS: The basic attraction was that they were the most dynamic publishers of fantasy art books around at the time. I've had a thing about illustrated books ever since falling in love as a kid with Grimm's Fairytales illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Also Hans Andersen illustrated by some wonderful artist I've not yet managed to trace. Both books were lost at some point and on some level you could probably say I've been chasing them ever since.
Having said which, my actual introduction to Paper Tiger was a matter of pure chance. My friend Rodney Matthews wouldn't agree because he doesn't believe in chance, but I suspect we just use different terminology. To me it still feels lucky that he happened to need a hand with the text of his first Paper Tiger book when I happened to be around. Then one thing led to another.
PS: Your first book, however, was the self-illustrated novel The Cloth Merchant's Apprentice. No surprises, of course, that a writer of your calibre should have published a novel, but I'm sure the "self-illustrated" part of that will be news to many, as will be the information that you published a number of fantasy posters with Big O during the 1970s. Did you start out intending to be purely an artist/illustrator?
NS: Not at all. My original rather ambitious aim was to both write and illustrate, because I was equally interested in both. As soon as I sold a few posters I took a break and turned to the novel, hoping to bring the two strands along together. This seemed a bit perverse at the time, when it would have made more sense to concentrate on the posters. But it was possibly just as well because my writing turned out to be more popular than my pictures. So that's the way I've gone.
The art has pretty much slipped into the background now. Working with a lot of great professional artists is seriously inhibiting when it comes to sitting down and trying to sketch out your own ideas. I always immediately think of about six who could do far better in a fraction of the time. But who knows? I'm sure there's a fresh angle waiting to be found somewhere out there so maybe I'll get back to drawing one day.
PS: Could you talk us through The Cloth Merchant's Apprentice, please? Are there any plans at the moment to reissue it? And are there more novels in the pipeline?
NS: No plans at all for Cloth Merchant, though it would be fun. About a quarter of the story would have to be rewritten and a quarter of the line illustrations dropped, but otherwise it would be rather nice to see it back in print. There's a sequel too, hiding somewhere in the Ideas cupboard.
But first there's another novel that has been brewing for donkey's years and which I work on whenever time permits. Being a recent convert to computers and no touch-typist, I'm only halfway through transcribing it from yellowing typescript. So no publisher is in any great danger from it for a while, but hopefully it will get there in the end. Cloth Merchant will probably have to wait till then.
Generally speaking, though, pure fiction is definitely an area I would like to move more into in future. And it would be great to combine it in some way with illustration.
PS: Your relationship with Paper Tiger has been a long and, at least on the Paper Tiger side, a very fruitful one, and presumably will continue to be so. Imagine it had been really long -- centuries long! -- and you'd been given the opportunity to work on a book with one of the great fantasy (or thereabouts) artists of the past: Bosch, Rackham, Dadd, Grunewald, Fuseli . . . Which would be the one you personally would opt for first, either through love of the art or through fascination with the artist?
NS: William Blake has to come first on both counts, especially in his later years when he really seemed to achieve a kind of serenity. But close behind come dozens of others including those you mention plus, say, Gustav Dore, John Martin, Gustave Moreau, Arnold Bocklin and certain Pre-Raphaelites.
It's amazing how often the same names come up when asking Paper Tiger artists about their influences. I've often thought that gathering them all together would make a rather stunning book.
PS: Recently you've been responsible for writing a couple of "found document" books, which Wayne Anderson has illustrated for PT's sibling company Pavilion: The Leprechaun Companion (1999) and Year of the Dragon (2000). What inspired these?
NS: The Leprechaun Companion was another instance of chance often being more helpful than forward planning. Someone in Pavilion happened to mention that they wanted to do a book about Leprechauns but had no writer or illustrator for it. I believe it was Muna Reyal at PT who suggested they try me, as I seemed to know a bit about that kind of thing. Again, things grew from there.
It happens that Irish mythology and folklore are among my main interests, so I leaped at the chance. Writing under the pseudonym Niall Macnamara was just a bit of fun, though I do have some claim to the name. My mother's family originally came from Cork and some were called Macnamara, so I've always carried this kind of Irish alter ego around inside me. It was great to be able to give him a voice because he's wittier than me for a start and has a really great accent. But it created a few interesting problems later in radio interviews, because it's not something I can do on air.
Year of the Dragon began as a book about dragons in general and seemed a great idea to follow up with because Wayne is famous for his dragon pictures (see Paper Tiger's Flight of Dragons) and I'd wanted to do a book about them for years. Then I think it was Colin Webb at Pavilion who suggested focusing on Chinese dragons because of the approaching Year of the Dragon, beginning that February. He also suggested that it should be a "found" book, some lost journal that had just happened to turn up. I confess I didn't really see the point of this at first, but writing from the viewpoint of an anonymous 18th century traveller did actually work amazingly well. The book is far better for it.
Despite their fictional frames, both these books were based as far as possible on genuine folklore and involved a fair amount of careful research. By way of reward, our third outing with Pavilion, Gnomes and Gardens (2000), is a lot looser and was really great fun for both of us. Apart from the deadline, but then you can't have everything.
PS: When not writing art books, what are your other occupations?
NS: For the past couple of years I've been too busy writing to do much else, but I've lost count of the number of jobs I've had at other times. For many years I had a useful sideline as an educational and technical illustrator. The technical side was often a bit tedious but the other was great. I really enjoyed coming up with drawings and cartoons to try and cheer up all those unwilling kids stuck in Science class on a hot afternoon.
I've also occasionally done a bit of editing, proof-reading and that kind of thing, but most of my other occupations have had nothing at all to do with art or publishing, which is always refreshing. I'm lucky in being surrounded by small businesses which all get overloaded at times, so I've had a crack at most of them over the years.
About ten years ago I tried setting up a small business myself with a friend, publishing board games. But we rapidly learned that the games trade is even more lethal than book publishing and retired before we got our fingers too burned. Pavilion have managed to find room for two games so far though, at the back of the Leprechaun and Gnome books. I'm thinking of putting the rest on the Net for free, once I work out how it's done. Unless they can be fitted into other books first.
PS: Do you have strong views about the written forms of fantasy and science fiction in general?
NS: Not really, and I especially don't have strong views about genres and whether books do or don't fit into them. I tend just to take each one as it comes and consider the genre later.
PS: And finally, without giving away any confidential information, are there any writing projects on the stocks at the moment that you're particularly excited about?
NS: On the stocks? Well it's all thankfully vague at the moment as far as deadlines go, though I believe there's a project with Boris [Vallejo] and Julie [Bell] coming up soon, which should be a treat. They are both wonderfully refreshing to work with, so charged with energy that it doesn't feel like work at all, more of an adventure.
On the publication front there is Year of the Dragon due in February followed by Bob Eggleton's Greetings from Earth in late March, which I am really looking forward to. For Bob's fans it is a real visual blast and wide-ranging in content. Then later in the year we should see Gnomes and Gardens, which is the first Pavilion book to bear my name on the cover. Other than that the main thing on my desk at the moment is a book about vampires which has been hanging around for a couple of years now and could really do with being wrapped up.
PS: Nigel Suckling, thank you very much.