It’s easy to think that good things always start with good ideas. But in the following email interview about his historical fantasy novel The Carnival Of Ash (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Tom Beckerlegge admits that he started with a bit of rubbish.
To start, what is The Carnival Of Ash about, and what kind of a world is it set in?
The Carnival Of Ash is a historical fantasy set during the Italian Renaissance in an imaginary city called Cadenza, where writers and poets are its most important citizens. In the wake of the death of Cadenza’s ruler, the book traces the city’s decline and fall through a series of interlinked tales featuring a cast of would-be writers and warring poets, monks, and ink maids, a hapless kidnapping ring, and more than one set of estranged lovers.
Where did you get the idea for The Carnival Of Ash?
Basically, it all started with a rubbish pun: “authocracy” as a type of government where writers ruled the roost. I couldn’t picture it existing in the modern world, but the Italian Renaissance seemed like a natural home for it. The first things I wrote down in my notebook were “plague,” “pornography,” and “plagiarism” — a troubling insight into the way my brain works. The idea of Cadenza came together in my head quite quickly. It was the writing of the thing that took time.
Is there a reason you had Cadenza be run by poets as opposed to painters, sculptors, or actors? Because Charles Bukowski wrote a book called Post Office that makes me think he would not be a good administrator…
I fear there may be worse people in power at present than Charles Bukowski, which says a lot about the current state of the world.
I chose writers rather than any other artists because at heart The Carnival Of Ash is about story-telling — each chapter in the book tells its own tale and is inspired by a different genre of writing.
The Carnival Of Ash is your first novel for adults, and first under your real name. You previously wrote seven novels for kids under the name Tom Becker. What was it about The Carnival Of Ash that made you think this wouldn’t work for kids? Or did you set out to write a novel for adults and Ash is what you came up with?
I was working on adult manuscripts long before I wrote my first children’s book, so that’s always been going on in the background. I’m wary of drawing too sharp a dividing line between children’s and adult literature, as I think writers like Philip Pullman have shown you can present really complex ideas for a younger audience. But The Carnival Of Ash did offer me the opportunity to explore adult themes that would have no place in a children’s book, and I can’t deny I found that liberating.
So, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Carnival Of Ash but not on your other novels?
I think the best novels I’ve read have impacted on everything I’ve written, regardless of the audience. Because Carnival dips in and out of genres, it depends on the chapter — “Phobos, Muse” is indebted to the ironic short stories of O Henry and Damon Runyan; “The Palace Of Ink” takes its cues from Edgar Allan Poe. But above all there’s Guy Gavriel Kay. Tigana remains pretty much my favorite book — and given its setting in a Renaissance Italy-inspired world, it was obviously a huge influence on Carnival.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on The Carnival Of Ash?
The direct influences are all literary, but over the years I’ve been generally inspired by the writing on such HBO shows as Deadwood, The Sopranos, and anything by David Simon. I feel like there’s a particularly HBO way of putting a scene together that’s just better than the rest.
As you know, some fantasy stories are stand-alone novels and some are part of larger sagas. What is The Carnival Of Ash?
The Carnival Of Ash is conceived as a stand-alone novel. The ending is quite conclusive, and I don’t think leaves any room for a sequel. There may be other stories from different eras of Cadenza worth telling, but right now I’m working on a story set in a different historical era — albeit one also based in a city on the brink of collapse…
Earlier I asked if The Carnival Of Ash had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask you if you think Ash could work as a movie, show, or game?
If you’re allowing me to dream, I think the structure of the book would work best as episodic TV. I’m waiting for the phone to ring. Might be waiting a while.
And if the phone did ring, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I’m not sure how focused I am on physical appearance when I’m putting characters together, so I don’t tend to write them with specific people in mind. Having said that, I can’t picture Cadenza’s fearsome ruler Tommaso Cellini without seeing the Italian football captain Giorgio Chiellini. No idea whether he can act, however. With a young character like Carlo, I think it’s better to go with unknowns so that the audience doesn’t associate them with previous roles. [Game Of Thrones‘] Maisie Williams as Arya Stark springs to mind as a flawless example of that kind of casting.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Carnival Of Ash, what historical fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?