The idea for the Ferren books arrived in a dream. Many of my best fantasy ideas do – I used to have very vivid dreams. (Lucky I’ve got a stock of ideas in reserve because my dreams nowadays are so boring!). In this dream, I was under a blanket looking out at the night sky, seeing strange lights passing across, hearing weird unearthly sounds. Then – have you had dreams where you suddenly know something, as though you’d just been told? – I suddenly seemed to know, ‘This is the War between Heaven and Earth going on.’ And as I was looking out, a bright shape fell out of the sky and came hurtling towards me …
I woke up, but I was still in that vague state half in and half out of the dream. And, as usual with me, I began telling myself a story. The bright shape was actually an angel in Heaven’s army shot down by the forces of Earth. Which is exactly what happens in the first two chapters of Ferren and the Angel – only the experience happens to Ferren, not me. All I had to do was copy it down.
But a starting point isn’t a novel, and I had obvious questions to answer: how did this great war come about? why would Ferren be looking out from a blanket instead of a bedroom window? It took years for all the answers to fall into place.
I had that starting point given to me over thirty years ago! I can’t remember which came first, the idea for Ferren and the Angel or the idea for The Vicar of Morbing Vyle. I know the idea for Worldshaker was only a year or two later. But there were whole worlds and backstory to create in every case. With the Ferren backstory, there was a huge amount of work to do researching angelology – the traditional lore about angels, fallen angels, Heaven and Hell. I remember exploring Fisher Library at the University of Sydney, where I’d failed to complete a postgrad thesis and finding Gustav Davidson’s book on angelology buried away on some forgotten dusty shelf. Nowadays, it’s easy to find books on angels, but back then, that magisterial tome was about it. I swear no one had opened the book in donkey’s years!
I did research as a postgrad student and as an academic, but never really enjoyed it. I’m the opposite of a natural born researcher, with one exception – angelology! I loved unearthing all that traditional lore – loved it for its own sake, far more than I needed for a single book or a hundred books. It was like exploring a whole wonderful world! From Davidson’s book, I moved on into reading the Books of Enoch and many other original sources.
My original idea was to write Ferren and the Angel as an adult fantasy, and to write it in the present tense, like watching a movie. When I finally got it finished (after several attempts, like all my early books), it went off to various publishers in Australia and the UK – no luck! Some useful criticisms came back, along with the recurring suggestion that it would do better as a YA novel. After all, the main character is the right age for a YA hero …
But I was pig-headed and bad at taking advice in those days. When The Vicar of Morbing Vyle started its run as a cult novel, followed by the Eddon and Vail SF series for Pan Macmillan, Ferren and the Angel went on the backburner. I hardly thought about it again until I was talking to Dmetri Kakmi, one of Penguin Australia’s editors, and he was interested. But by now the previous advice had sunk in, and I wanted to rewrite the novel in the past tense as a YA fantasy.
The YA reorientation was a great improvement, because it gave me a reason to junk all the sexual stuff, which basically wasn’t working well anyway. The change to the past tense wasn’t so much an improvement as a way of making the book more accessible to readers. (I still think that writing in the present tense is a good option in our visual media age – perhaps an option whose time will come!)
At the time, I thought of Ferren and the Angel as a standalone novel, but by the time Penguin published it, we were talking about sequels. So I followed on with the story, which expanded in scope and reached a big and very satisfying conclusion in Ferren and the Invasion of Heaven. I wasn’t so satisfied with the middle book, Ferren and the White Doctor, where I was still feeling my way, but I loved how everything unfolded and came together at the end of the trilogy. It’s so satisfying when accidental elements (like the Morphs) turn out to have a crucial role that you never guessed at first. That’s when the story seems to be telling itself!
That first edition of the trilogy, which came out between 2000 and 2003) was a success with many readers, but never so much of a general success as it should’ve been. Don’t listen to an author’s opinion on that! – but it’s been said often enough by people who loved the world and characters and story. Fans have been writing to me ever since asking where they can get hold of copies – usually to give to their own children to read! I guess – familiar tale – the trilogy fell between the cracks in the publishing machine.
I moved on and had much greater success, in Australia and internationally, with my steampunk novels, Worldshaker and its sequels. But at the back of my mind I always had the nagging thought that the Ferren books didn’t only deserved better marketing, they deserved better writing by their author. There still isn’t a single thing I’d change about the world, and the basic story still looks pretty good to me … but the way it’s told, the motivations and narrative connections … I kept coming back to the idea they could’ve been done better.
So it was like a gift from the gods when IFWG wanted to republish the whole trilogy in a new edition. I’ve never wanted to rewrite any other books I’ve written apart from the Ferren books. And especially Book 2, Ferren and the White Doctor. IFWG’s idea was to republish the books as classics in their “Masters of Fantasy” line of titles – the rewriting was up to me. And guess what? The rewriting took on a life of its own – and not only for Ferren and the White Doctor. The new edition of Ferren and the Angel really is a wholly revised version. All the old successful elements are still there, but working together better than they ever did in their first incarnation. Same imagination, better storytelling!