With The Gutter Prayer (paperback, Kindle), writer Gareth Hanrahan is kicking off a fantasy series that some have called epic…and he (in the following email interview) says it may also be kind of cyberpunk-ian.
Photo Credit: Edel Ryder-Hanrahan
I always like to start with an overview of the plot. So, what is The Gutter Prayer about?
The short version: three thieves are betrayed by the master of the thieves’ guild; one of them discovers that she’s got the magical gift of hearing the secrets sung to her by the bells of the city. She gathers her friends and plots to take her revenge.
That overview only covers about half of it, though. Their scheme for revenge intersects with other, larger designs to shape the future of the city of Guerdon. One of my elevator pitch lines goes “three thieves accidentally steal the fantasy equivalent of the Manhattan Project.”
The thieves are just one of the factions involved; they’re unwittingly trampling on the plans of the alchemists, The Church Of The Keepers and the warring gods. And such powerful groups don’t appreciate having their schemes interfered with…
Where did you get the idea for The Gutter Prayer, and how, if at all, is the finished novel different from that original idea?
I don’t think there was a single inciting idea, a single lightbulb-in-a-hole-in-the-ground-there-lived-a-hobbit moment. Bits that definitely went into the mix: worrying about climate change and the fragility of systems we take for granted; wanting to write about monsters; wanting to write a lead character who’d charge off at the slightest provocation.
I wrote the first 20,000 words to so, gave up, started something new, and then went back to The Gutter Prayer. After that, it went relatively smoothly. There were a few unexpected twists and turns, but the final book is very close to what I hoped might come out of that initial mix of elements.
The Gutter Prayer has been called an epic fantasy tale. Is that how you see it, or is there some other genre, or combination of them, that you think describes this story better?
“Fantasy” is undeniable; it’s full of sorcerers and monsters and alchemical weirdness. “Epic” is harder to pin down. The Gutter Prayerdoesn’t have any great journeys to strange new lands in it; all the action’s confined to part of a single city. There’s no obvious dark lord to be thrown down. Arguably, it’s closer to the cyberpunk tradition in some ways. Are we still calling stuff the New Weird?
If you want. Now, The Gutter Prayer is not your first novel. But are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Gutter Prayer but not on your first novel, Reality Optional?
Reality Optional was a comedic dystopian farce; The Gutter Prayer’s fantasy, so obviously there’s a big shift there. Though both revolve around the main character getting access to a mysterious source of information. I’d say the biggest influence was on the treatment of the numinous, where I drew a lot from Tim Powers, especially Declare, and Robert Holdstock, especially Lavondyss.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of them have a big impact on The Gutter Prayer?
“Impact” is the wrong word, I think. You know how volcanic soil is really fertile, and so you get great harvests a few centuries after an eruption? Like that. For example, Kelkin, an elderly politician in the tale, was really influenced by watching the old BBC version of House Of Cards when I was a kid. The Thief and Dishonored games played into the whole thieves’ guild subplot, though more the former. The industrial architecture a fantastical interpretation of Victorian engineering; there’s a real Bell Rock, for example, off the coast of Scotland.
And this is my last question about influences: You’ve written a bunch of table-top role-playing games, including Paranoia, which is connected to Reality Optional. How, if at all, did writing those games, and those kinds of games, influence what you wrote in The Gutter Prayer or how you wrote it?
Writing role-playing games really hones your skills for world-building and plotting. In a novel, you get to decide what questions are asked and answered. The reader can’t say, “hang on a minute, you just brushed past the question of how magic works, or why that god uses a spiked wheel as its symbol, or what the hell — Hobbits have clocks and umbrellas!?” In a role-playing game, though, the players choose what their characters do and what they investigate, so it’s harder to brush stuff under the carpet. You learn to extrapolate, how to come up with consistent and plausible — or at least satisfying — answers on the fly.
Also, you learn to love monsters.
The big thing I had to unlearn was how to handle protagonists. When you’re writing for a role-playing game, you have to leave as much as possible up to the players. You can’t dictate their emotional reactions or the decisions they make. My early attempts at writing fiction were very hollow because I kept subconsciously waiting for players to show up with the protagonists.
While some fantasy novels are self-contained stories, a lot are parts of larger sagas. What is The Gutter Prayer? Is it a stand-alone novel or the first book in a series?
The Gutter Prayer was written as a self-contained novel, but I left room for a sequel, currently titled The Shadow Saint. The Gutter Prayer is about a city falling into crisis; the second novel is about building a new order afterwards. The Shadow Saint. will be out in late 2019 or, more likely, early 2020.
There may be more books in the series, but I intend to keep them all as self-contained as possible. It’ll depend on the success of the first two books.
Now, normally in these interviews, this would be the point where I’d ask if your book had been options for a movie, TV show, or game adaptation. But given that you write games, I have to ask: Has there been an interest from other people, or inclination on your part, to adapt The Gutter Prayer into a table-top RPG?
It’s a little early to say. It’s certainly a possibility, and I’ve got ideas on ways to do it if it happens. But to adapt a novel into a game, it needs to be more than the story of just a few characters. You need to have space for the player to create their own tales and adventures, either through expansive world-building or by having a clear structure for repeated storytelling in that setting.
So, I’d probably wait until the second book comes out, which opens the setting up a lot and presents a very different set of perspectives to The Gutter Prayer.
Do you think that would be the best way to adapt The Gutter Prayer, or do you think it would work better as a movie, TV show, or video game?
Oh, interesting question. Obviously, with my background, I can see ways to adapt it to a table-top game. The plot’s probably too tangled for a movie, but if HBO or someone want to do it as a 10-episode television series, I’d grudgingly accept a wheelbarrow of cash. It would work quite well as a TV series I think. You’d just need some suitably grimy quasi-Victorian backstreets and a lot of pyrotechnics.
If The Gutter Prayerwas to be adapted into an HBO show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
Oh, I’m terrible at casting games. David Harbour could maybe do a good Jere, based on his Chief Hopper in Stranger Things. Toby Jones [Captain America: The First Avenger] is generally great, so give him Kelkin. Richard Schiff [The West Wing] or Mandy Patinkin [The Princess Bride] for Ongent. The younger characters I’m not so sure about. Cari and Eladora are tricky to cast; they need to be similar enough to be plausibly related.
Lastly, if someone enjoys The Gutter Prayer, what similar kind of fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence and Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, definitely; China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books. And I’m in the middle of Michael Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption, which I wasn’t familiar with before writing The Gutter Prayer, but has a similar vibe in places.