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Discovering The Ranger's Apprentice series and author John Flanagan

Interviewed June 2005

John FlanaganIt's been said that you wrote The Ruins of Gorlan primarily for your twelve-year-old son (who is now in mid-twenties) but it wasn't actually published until 2004 - can you tell us why?

I could say that for some years, no publisher was astute enough to recognise the potential of the books. But the main reason is as follows:
I began writing a series of short stories for my 12 year old son Michael, to encourage him to read. The main character, Will, was loosely based on him, which made it more interesting for him.
I wrote about 20 chapters, which basically developed the principal characters and the setting. But then I became busy working on a TV series called Hey Dad! (I don't know if it ran in New Zealand or not). I worked on Hey Dad for 8 to 9 years, during which time I didn't do anything with my 20 chapters. When Hey Dad finished, I decided to turn the 20 chapters into a book. The book grew and grew and I decided it had better be two books. It kept growing and growing and ended up being four. All this took some time. I then re-wrote the first book, adding in more events, changing the order of some events and so on. For example, in earlier drafts, the offer of transferring to Battleschool was made to Will after the boar hunt but I felt such a big event was happening too soon in the story.
There was one section I made sure I didn't change in the slightest, however. Not a comma. Not a word.

When I had the series ready, my agent then had to find a publisher. This always takes time.

But as far as I'm concerned, it's been worth the wait.

You have a lot of experience in script editing and writing for television - when you write these books, do you ‘see’ them as movies or a drama series?
No. I can't say that I do. I hear them. Because I believe that the written word for a book is different to the written word for a TV show or movie. A TV script is a mixture of dialogue and technical direction, whereas all the words in a book add to (or detract from) the emotional experience the reader is undergoing. In a TV script, you write partly for the audience, partly for the actors and partly for the director and crew. I find book writing far more satisfying because I feel (and it's my opinion only) that it's a more uncluttered form of expression of emotion and narrative.
Have you worked out the plot for the rest of the series or does it come to you as you write? How many more books are going to be in the series?
There are four books in the first series and they cover the first two years of Will's apprenticeship. These four books are already written.
I do plan them before I start writing. If you do it any other way, you can lose your direction and become lost very quickly. I'm half way through book 5 but like Books 1 and 2, it's getting too long so it's going to turn into Books 5 and 6. They are set five years later than the first series.
Aside from that, I have the basic idea for a seventh book, which takes place a long time in the future, and a prequel that takes place many years before Ruins of Gorlan and deals with Halt's recruitment into the Rangers.
When I look at that sequence of books, I feel there is probably a need for an eighth, which would sit chronologically between Books 4 and 5.
Is Will going to grow older with each new title - like Harry Potter - so that your readers grow with him (The Burning Bridge does seem to be aimed at an older market and the reviews on the back cover are from older readers, 13 & 15)
In the first four books, Will grows older naturally as time passes. They span a period of roughly two years, so by the end of Book 4, Will should be about 17. Incidentally, you'll find at least one of the reviews on Book 2 is by someone who also wrote one for Book1. But he's a year older.
The bottom line is, I don't think Will's age isn't overly important for readers. If you like him at 15, you'll like him at 19.
After all, many of the younger readers really like Halt, and he's nearly as old as I am.
And of course, we tend to forget that Book 1 is still out there on the shelves, so 10 and 11 and 12 year olds can start with that and move through the series, growing older with the characters.
Are there any plans for Jenny, Alyss & George to make a come back or will the focus remain on Horace, Will and Evanlyn?
Alyss makes a return appearance in Books 5 and 6. As for Jenny and George, I haven't seen them in some time, I'm afraid.
Are your characters completely fictitious or do they resemble people you actually know?
Will was loosely based on my son Michael. Horace was very loosely based on his best friend at school but has developed so much that he now bears little resemblance. I think when you create characters, you draw from experience , so that characters become an amalgam of people you have met over the years.
If the books were made into movies who would you like to see playing the parts of Morgarath and Halt?
Oh God, what a question! The first thought is to go the obvious way I suppose and say someone like Jeremy Irons for Morgarath. But then it'd be nice to go against type, wouldn't it? I think Russell Crowe would be an excellent Morgarath. But then, I think Russell Crowe would be an excellent anyone.
As for Halt, well, Russell again. (As I said, he can play anyone!) But if he didn't want to do it, maybe Gabriel Byrne (because Halt is originally from Hibernia, which is sort of loosely based on Ireland).
Incidentally, Russell's wife Danielle Spencer would make a great Alyss. I worked with her some years ago on a sitcom and she's a very accomplished actor. And it'd be nice for them work on a movie together, wouldn't it?
Just wondered if you wrote The Burning Bridge to appeal to a wider female audience as Evanlyn (who is so cool - girls can do anything!) plays such a predominant part in the story - any feedback from your readers on this?
I didn't want to just have a token girl who would have to be rescued or stand around just admiring Will. My agent, Rachel, suggested when she read the first book that it might be a good idea to have a stronger female presence in the series. But I didn't want to just have a token girl who would have to be rescued or stand around just admiring Will. That's why Evanlyn is so feisty and so capable. And she's a nice balance for Will and Horace, I think. As for readers' feedback, they seem to like her.
The setting, atmosphere and some characters definitely seem to have a Celtic/Norse influence - names, accents, clothes, bagpipes, etc. In actual fact, the map looks very similar to a vague outline of UK (minus Ireland) - The Fens as East Anglia, Picta as Scotland, Celtica as Devon, Cornwall, etc. Or are we just imagining it?
Okay, you got me. The setting is obviously Europe in the Middle Ages. Araluen is based on England, as you say. Skandia is Scandinavia, Celtica is Cornwall ( where I had a fabulous holiday in the 60's). When you reach Book 3, you'll find names like Gallica, Teutlandt and so on. No prizes for guessing that they are. But I will say that in Gallica, on parle francais.
There's also a race called the Temujai, who are based on the Mongols under Genghis Khan (whose actual name was Temujin).
The reason behind all this is that I wanted to do a mediaeval story but I didn't want to be constrained by history. So I guess it's a parallel world to this one, or an alternate world.
Was it difficult to come up with so many unique names (which by the way sound just right) - Wargals, Kalkaras, Araluen, Gilan, etc.
Wargals and Gilan were easy. Morgarath as well. Have you noticed there seems to be a convention that the evil characters' names usually start with M?
Araluen wasn't so easy. Originally, I called the country Arathon and the series was called the Arathon Rangers. But then the Lord of the Rings movies came out and the publishers felt Arathon was too close to Aragon. They asked would it be a big problem to change it. Of course, I said "no problem at all" and then spent days racking my brains trying to find an alternative.
My brother Peter solved the problem. He had been doing research on our early family and found that some of them had lived in an area called Araluen in NSW. Araluen is also a place nbame in Ireland. Lik emost Irish names it has a lovely internal rhythm so I chose it for the new country name. You might notice that in the books, Araluen is the country and Araluan is the adjective. I wish I hadn't done this. In the US edition, we made it all the same "Araluen".
The Kalkara was a total headache. Originally, I called them the Balpargi but Michael (my son, remember) said he thougth that was too close to a Balrog - damn that Lord of the Rings again - so I had to find another name for them. It took a while.
So I'm glad you think the names all seem right and natural.
Do you think humour is important in children/teen fiction - you introduce a lot of it especially through Gilan Have a swing. Take a whack. Lop my head offJump off the cliff. It'll be less messy. And then there's Will's stomach rumbling away when he's spying on the Wargals who have meat roasting on fire - most inconvenient and also most real.
I think humour is important in any fiction because it's part of normal life. I liked Lord of the Rings when I first read it (in the 1970's). But if there was any fault, I felt it was just a little too serious. When I read David Eddings' series, the Belgariad, I loved the way he mixed humour with adventure and excitement and likeable characters. I like Patrick O'Brian's novels about Jack Aubrey (on which they based the film Master and Commander) for the same reason.
What would you say are the three most important ingredients for a successful novel?
Seeing how you said "a successful novel" and not necessarily "a good novel" or "a well constructed novel", I'd say the three ingredients would be:
  • A good agent.
  • A good editor.
  • And a lot of good luck - or good timing.
How do you manage to write such realistic dialogue - any advice?
Thank you for that. I always try to make the dialogue realistic. It possibly stems from 8 years' writing a sitcom. As to advice, I think the best way to learn to write dialogue is to listen to the way people speak. Really listen. Listen to strangers on buses or trains or in the movie queue behind you. Listen to yourself. You'll find we often don't speak complete thoughts, we speak in shorthand and it's our inflection and timing that add meaning. And we'll branch off in the middle of a thought and start a completely different one. Sometimes you can't accomplish this in written word but it's worth trying.
For what it's worth, I think Ed McBain, who writes the 87th Precinct series of novels, is the best dialogue writer going round. He has a great ear for how people speak and jump from subject to subject and then back again. Forget Hemingway. Ed McBain's the master.
The descriptions of physical fights and battle strategies are extremely detailed and quite brilliant. Did you have to research this subject or was it something you already knew about?
Again, thank you. I"ve just always had an interest in battles and strategy and history, I guess. It's nice to feel that I might be getting it right. I love reading historical novels, maybe because I didn't study history in school. So I guess I've absorbed a lot of it.
Best thing about writing?
Planning the story, watching the meat grow on the bones of the framework, realising that your characters are taking on a life of their own and beginning to determine their own actions and how the story develops. Letting it mull round in your head for days or weeks. Putting it aside for a week and them coming back to find it's grown more detail in your subconscious while you weren't thinking about it. Great stuff. Great fun.
Worst thing?
The times when you can feel in your mind exactly what you want to express but you can't find the right words for it. You know they're there, just out of reach, hovering round the periphery of your consciousness, but you just can't reach them. God that's annoying!
And now I'll give you two alternate answers, because there are so many bests and worsts about writing.
The best thing: finishing the story. Finally typing "THE END".
And, paradoxically, the worst thing is finishing the story because it leaves an immense gulf in your life. Suddenly, you realise that the people who have been visiting you every day for months aren't coming to call tomorrow. I find that as I get closer to the end, I write more and more slowly, because I don't want to finish.
And now here are ten more best and worst things… naaaah! Only kidding!
Finally - when is Book 3 coming out? It's unfair to keep us waiting too long. And we hope you take this as the compliment it's meant to be because it's just like waiting for the next John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began series.
I take all questions as compliments because they mean people are interested in what I've done. Book 3 will be out in November 2005. Book 4 will be out in May 2006. That will complete the current series.

Comments from readers

Daniel writes

this is my all time favorite series and i own the first four books and my life time goal is to own the whole lot, 9/9. i love John's books. he's my favorite author. i do hope i will one day meet this awesome guy. Daniel Catchpole

February 2009

Madeline says

i have enjoyed the first 8 but i cant get the 9th yet oh yeah has john just renamed england and europe i dont mind if he has i was just wondering. Madeline Donegan, 13.
Madeline - we're not sure - we'll try and find out for you!

October 2009