Monday, December 5, 2011

Trent Jamieson on World-Building Hell

Today Trent Jamieson, who in his own write is a sombre, contemplative fellow with just a hint of edge, is talking about how he created the world of his marvellous Death Works trilogy.

World-Building as an Obsession - a Not Particularly Helpful Guide

Sometimes worlds are built through assiduous research, and other times they're just part of what you are.

If you're a writer, particularly if you're a fantasy writer, you like to build worlds - actually build in this case is too weak a verb, you like to inhabit them. And, like anything you inhabit, it starts to inhabit you a bit, too. You close your eyes and you're suddenly standing beneath the great creaking branches of a giant Moreton Bay Fig Tree (otherwise known as the One Tree), its root buttresses the size of hills. A dead soul, glowing slightly blue, bumps you, you turn to apologise but it's already marching towards the base of the tree.

Well, that's how it is for me. And the world of the Death Works is one that I've inhabited for a long time.

I grew up fascinated by the afterlife, and stories about the Underworld. The first time I heard the story of Eurydice and Orpheus shivers ran down my spine. The first time I looked at Brueghel's Triumph of Death - with all those crazy skeletons - I knew I had found a kindred spirit. It seemed inevitable that I would go to those places in my writing.

The world of the Death Works books isn't the only place I hang out in, of course, but it's the only one that is so closely focused on the Underworld, it's also the only one that has Brisbane as a setting. Which is appropriate, because Brisbane is my home, and these are some of the most personal stories I've ever written. Mixing my home with a fantasy land version of Hell didn't just seem appropriate, it was vital - I needed both to ground the other, any hesitancy and the books would just feel unbalanced.

When you're writing about Psychopomps and Stirrers and scone eating deities and belligerent talking tattoos you need to ground it in a place that's familiar, that has great coffee, pubs, and a lot of bridges (death and bridges go hand in hand, you see).

My Underworld is a mixture of mythologies and folk law. Everything from Norse to African, Sumerian, Greek and French is in there. Which made sense to me because I imagined all of these mythologies would hold a piece of truth in my world. But I also wanted to throw in my own bits and pieces, the Hungry Death, Wal the talking cherub, the nature of Mog, Death's Scythe, and the way Regional Deaths are promoted.

The One Tree is in part Norse, but it also borrows from European Folklore that looks at the journey of a soul as being of three parts, one of which is a journey to a tree - the World Axis - where the souls live in the branches. There was also the idea of reincarnation as a tree common to a lot of different cultures and fairytales, see the Grimm's "Juniper Tree" - which also uses birds in an interesting way (birds feature quite prominently in my books as well).

But it wasn't just folklore that I used. The books are loaded with references to other books that concern themselves with the underworld, too, I couldn't help myself - Mr D's bicycle and Steve's surname come from the book the Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. The blue glow of the dead comes from The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. There's even touches of Ursula Le Guin's Underworld in the Earthsea books. And that's not even mentioning Fritz Leiber's Death or Neil Gaiman's or Terry Pratchett's or the dozens of other novelists that I can't think of now, all of which have left their mark on the novels.

Which brings me back to the beginning, these Death Works books chart my reading of fantasy, the world is built on a lifetime's obsession. Sometimes that's all the research you need.

Thanks very much for those insights, Trent. A revelation – my worlds have a complete lack of scone-eating deities and I now realise what a flaw that is. Trent's next book is Roil

I've read The Business of Death, and loved it. For more info on Trent, The Business of Death and his other writing, where else would you go but the Trentonomicon,


  1. Mixing my house with a fancy version of hell is not only the earth, it seems appropriate, it is vital - I need both to land on the other hand, any fluctuations and the book will just feel unbalanced.

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