Paul Grech talks series, and meets two of Malta’s foremost series-writing authors to chat about what challenges and thrills the format gives them:
Angering fans by taking exceedingly long to finish books has become something of a hallmark for George R.R. Martin. Winds of Winter, the latest book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series – on which the Game of Thrones TV series was based – was first rumoured as nearing release in 2017 but so far has not been finalised despite various promises that it was close to being finished.
Whilst the series has brought Martin huge fame he does not seem to be too interested in giving its fans the conclusion that they’ve so desperately been waiting for. Despite his insistence that finishing it is his primary focus, his attention has been all too easily diverted by other projects like the worldbuilding of the Elden Ring game. To add insult to injury when he did finally announce the publication of another book in the Song of Ice and Fire series earlier this year, it turned out to be a prequel to it rather than the continuation everyone is waiting for.
George R.R. Martin might have the next chapters of the story mapped out in his head, but whether he has the desire to put them on paper seems to be an altogether different matter.
If that really is the case he would not be the first author to end up despising that which made him popular. Arguably the most famous instance is that of Arthur Conan Doyle who got so tired of Sherlock Holmes that he decided to kill him off only to have to bring the detective back to life to appease fans (and when his subsequent work flopped).
In a way, the reaction is understandable. Authors tend to have many ideas that they’d like to play around with but a successful series tends to limit their options: when the pressure to produce the next book is increasing it is hard to find time to work on new projects.
It might be that I’m making this sound overly negative. Most authors who are lucky enough to bring a character to life that does well enough for people to keep asking to know more tend to be incredibly thankful for this. All acknowledge that there’s a particular skillset to it which probably explains why some find it so hard to keep the momentum going.
But perhaps the best way to get a feel of what it means to write a successful book series is to talk to a couple of authors who have actually done it. John Bonello is a prolific author who published his first book and has kept going ever since at an incredibly prolific rate. Among his most famous titles are the YA trilogy Il-Logħba tal-Allat and the sci-fi thriller duology Unus Mundus. Currently he is in the middle of writing the detective series for children Irvin Vella, Investigatur Virtwali.
Mark Camilleri also writes detective novels but his books are aimed at an adult audience. Last year he published Alias, the fourth instalment of the widely popular Gallo series and currently he’s working on the follow-up to that.
Did you plan this to be a book series?
John Bonello: Yeah, in a wide sense. My wish was to work on a series where I could show character development. I did not know how the first case of Irvin Vella would be received, so I was very careful to prepare the way for other books if it happened to be a success. At the same time, I also made sure that in that one book I would satisfy all the curiosities of readers in case there weren’t more books beyond it.
Mark Camilleri: The first time I sent the Prima Facie manuscript to my publisher, the thought was along the line of “maybe a dream may come true, then we’ll see”. It was with the immediate success of the publication and the welcome of Inspector Gallo’s character that the idea of a long-running series was born. Then I also became the first Maltese detective novelist to ever write four detective novels in a series, because my predecessors Ivo Muscat Azzopardi and Pawlu Xuereb – two great writers – came up with three books when they created detectives Bendu Muskat and Tarcy Saydon respectively.
What is that aspect that you have to keep in mind when writing a series that most people would be surprised to know or probably wouldn’t think about?
JB: I would say continuity. The most important thing for continuity to make sense is that the characters undergo real and natural changes. For example, if there was a death in the family (as in the case of twins Luca and Laura, Irvin Vella’s cousins who are always involved in the cases) this traumatic experience affects the characters in some way. This is something I thought about from early on and made sure to reflect in the writing.
MC: Probably it would be about how they’re going to develop their main characters from one book to the next. Primarily how to keep readers on edge, how to always create a sense of suspense and how stitch the narrative together in a manner that allows readers to follow the story thread even if years pass between the publication of one book to the next. But most importantly of all it will be around how to create stories that, although fictitious, feel very real as well.
Do you play your main characters to show the passage of time?
JB: Showing the passage of time in a series is a crucial aspect of writing. I put a great effort on this, making sure that the characters in the series Irvin Vella, Investigatur Virtwali, grow and mature as time goes by. I play all of my characters, even the secondary and tertiary ones. This technique helps solidify each character. The fact that they “age” also helps keep the arcs of the characters fresh. This gives greater satisfaction to readers that consume all the books at once because they are able to see the progress of the characters.
MC: Undoubtedly. It is a must. To me that’s sacrosanct if I really want the characters to be realistic, as if they are people of flesh and blood, and much more so that readers can empathise with them. So much so that in my notes on the series I have the dates of birth of each character I have ever created. A 50-year-old man no longer thinks like he did ten years ago. Life experiences help you, for better or for worse, and you don’t want to be the same as you used to be. The writer must put himself in the shoes of every character, major or minor, in order to truly understand how much and how much he has changed.
What do fans of the series want? Do you feel extra pressure because of them? Have you ever held back from a particular story because you might upset them?
JB: I don’t feel extra pressure – I only have a limitation because Irvin Vella’s series is mainly aimed at children, so I have to be careful how I deal with certain topics and arguments. It’s not the first time the editor has suggested changing words, expressions, or even entire scenes because of the audience and the fact that many schools don’t accept certain material. I used to hold back because of this. That said what fans of the series want does influence me a lot – when I talk to students in schools, I get a lot of feedback to help me develop the stories.
MC: To be honest with you, I write the story first and foremost for myself, because I want to get it out there – after a long time of having it locked in my mind – and become a reader as well. If I don’t like the story myself, it won’t please the readers. That’s a fundamental rule I’ve embraced since the beginning. I write because I have a story to tell. And at no point in time will it be shaped by what I think the fans of the series want and god forbid I should do so!. Even because in the four books I think I gave them more exasperation than joy; I wrote scenes that aroused anger or disgust, and that was the purpose as I wrote them. It permeates the emotions of the audience. As for pressure, of course there will be that encouraging insistence of Gallo’s fans on “when will the next one come out?” or “don’t take long to write”. However, I think it’s more a matter of pressure on myself knowing how much of a perfectionist I am than external pressure.
Did you ever get tired of writing the series?
JB: No, not at all – in fact, this series gives me energy, especially when I talk to young readers who have become big followers of Irvin’s character.
MC: The moment I feel fed up writing the series, it will mean that the time has come for me to pack up and stop. Because if you don’t have enthusiasm for a new project, the writing will reflect and the project will come out half-baked. If you do not believe enough in yourself, how will your readers believe in you? On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that I am writing in my spare time. And after a long day at the office, it’s not always easy to find energy and motivation. In fact, I believe that to write a novel you have to be disciplined with yourself and be committed to writing at least four or five times a week. otherwise the book would never be finished.
What is the key ingredient of a successful series?
JB: In the context of this series, I think the main ingredient is the location of the stories, that is, the fact that Irvin’s cases contain Maltese elements, such as places, traditions, foods, customs, expressions and situations that are linked to our identity. In a general context, it is important that the series continues to advance and grow by not repeating itself, but exploring new things and situations – the bigger the challenge, the more it keeps the audience interested.
MC: Consistency in every aspect: of the writing, of the plot, of the characters, of the setting, of the dialogue, of the realism and, above all, of the story itself. Then another important ingredient always remains the relevance of what you are telling, how you are telling it and the voice you are telling, whether it is the narrator or the characters. Readers want to feel an integral part of the story as they read as they delve into its depths. The stories need to inspire them to feel a variety of emotions, depending on the situation and the characters. I received angry comments when readers discovered that I had “gotten rid” of characters that were dear to their heart and I take this as a positive!
Do you have a plan on how to end the series?
JB: I don’t have a plan for the ending yet because so far I’m still having a lot of fun writing new cases in this series!
MC: So far I don’t have any detailed plan on how and when I will bring the series to an end even because it all depends on how the story will unfold in the fifth book. Sometimes I say it will end with the fifth, other times with the sixth one. Camilleri’s Hamletic Doubt! This may sound strange, but Inspector Gallo has a life independent of what I might have planned. Despite spending 14 years in together, it doesn’t mean I know every corner of his life!
Paul Grech is an avid reader particularly of sports, sci-fi, fantasy and non-fiction books. He is also a writer of a couple of ebooks about Italian football and also one about the forgotten Maltese World War II heroine, Henrietta Chevalier. His book about the Italian football coach Carlo Carcano was recently translated and published in Italian under the title Il Genio Dimenticato del Calcio Italiano.