Mythological landscapes – an interview with Alex CF

Alex CF is a noted fantasy artist. He has recently written his first novel, Seek The Throat From Which We Sing, a dark fantasy epic in a very British tradition which includes such animal fantasies as Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the deep-time pastoral fantasy of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. Over the last year I worked with Alex as his editor through the process of refining the novel into its published version. The book was issued in 2016 as a signed, illustrated, hardback, and is now available in paperback. Here I talk to Alex about the novel, its background, and a little about how we worked together.

 

Gary Dalkin: Seek The Throat From Which We Sing is a very ambitious and complex work for a first novel. When I read it I was particularly impressed by both the complexity of the world-building and the intricacy with which the story is told in the very detailed fictional world which has sprung from your imagination. Could you talk a little about how you came to develop the world and story, and how one influenced the other? How long did it take you to write the book? It was clear to me from the outset that a huge amount of work had gone into it.

Alex CF: About nine years ago I was living in Brighton, and would sit on the beach and watch the flock of starlings fly over the pier. I started to imagine their culture, what might their belief systems be. I wrote a few pages and forgot about it for many years.

I was always fond of animal mythology and a great deal of my illustration is based around this concept of imbuing animals with their own earthen ideologies, armours and wars, feuds and struggles. Many years later, after a conversation with a dear friend one afternoon, I decided to attempt to tie all of these loose threads together into one.

It took me four years to finish the book, but the first two were very slow. I had to find a quiet space to write, and was fortunate to find just that. It even had a contingent of birds and animals that would visit the window where I worked, and I could watch the crows and magpies interact with one another. It wasn’t just about telling a story about animals, it was honouring that which we often overlook, that animals live their own lives and indeed have their own cultural practices. it was a case of exaggerating that or playing with our misinterpretations of that behaviour.

I lived close to Highgate Wood in north London and would go for long walks, thinking through story arcs and characters and writing down little epiphanies so I wouldn’t forget. It had a point, about the roots of belief, about how these cultures share forgotten connections, my own feelings on family and also just this really strong desire to create a tangible mythology, something visceral and vivid.

GD: How would you describe the story, at least enough that someone might begin to form an idea as to if this is a book for them?

ACF: The story is based around a tale of dark animal mythology and fantasy. In a dilapidated seaside theme park, a flock of starlings known as the Startle have lived under the rule of the despotic gull king Esperer. Like all of his kin, Rune, an orphan, longs for a time when his people will reclaim sovereignty. In desperation he commits an act of violence that leads to banishment and he is cast into an unknown world, confronted by all the strange and cruel things that were once mere stories.

In his desire to find a sense of home again, Rune meets others who also seek something; Aggi the Collector, a magpie outcast who desires to know her purpose, and Onnar of the Drove, a stern yet compassionate hare who has always put others first. Together they travel through a land wrought with dangers, and encounter many of the species that have eked an existence under the uncaring feet of humanity, and who now vie for control in the wake of a disease which is consuming mankind.

In the steadily emptying city, the Vulpus, urban foxes – and the Morwih, determined domesticated cats, will wage war. Yet their squabble is but one of many… written into the lore and laws of all creatures, there is another world of magic and prophecy that Rune and his companions will unwittingly discover.

GD: One thing which does impress me is that although the book is the first volume of a series the story works perfectly as a self-contained stand-alone novel. I didn’t even know it was the introduction to a series until you mentioned a sequel. And frankly, at this stage, I haven’t a clue where you are going to be taking things next, as it all seems quite complete.

Now you are self-publishing Seek The Throat… in a beautiful, illustrated limited edition hard cover. Was this always your intention? What steps did you take towards publication? And at what stage did you decide you needed to being an editor into the process?

ACF: I think I found myself considering a sequel when I realised what the story was really about, and how I deliberately tried to stay away from the hero’s journey – in many ways the book presents itself as such but with the benefit of telling the story from multiple characters, I hope that it becomes very much a story of many heroes.

Towards the end of writing, certain story arcs became more beloved to me, especially that of the Vulpus and their supernatural elements – there was a whole story within this that gradually encompassed the original mythology in the first book and expanded upon it. The working title for the second book is Wretched Is The Husk, and is a much darker tale, but it also gives more weight to the original story and expands upon the value of the characters and the greater world within the book.

I guess my intention was to be able to hold the book, the validation was important to me – that the task was finally complete! I had hoped that I could find a publisher, and I am not ruling that out, but I’m not holding my breath. The self-publishing route is something I have gone along multiple times when I was a comic artist, and so it’s not that alien to me. It allows for freedom of expression and to be more in touch with those who buy a copy of the book.

Taking on an editor was very important to me. I wanted it to be grammatically correct of course, but also there is something very important about exposing the book to another mind – someone with knowledge to course correct any plot issues, or to make suggestions that will improve the book. Above all it is about getting the best out of an idea, and the validation of holding a physical book was secondary to the validation of someone with a position of authority to say ‘yes I thinks its complete’. This was very valuable to me.

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