Interview with Charlie Higson
bestselling author of The Gates of Death
On Thursday 5 April 2018, Scholastic Books published the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook written by bestseller author Charlie Higson, The Gates of Death. Most well-known for his Young Bond books and The Enemy series, as well as his work as an actor and comedian, Higson has been a fan of the Fighting Fantasy series since his student days, making him a more than capable pair of hands to take on the task of writing such an adventure.
The Warlock ventured out of his Firetop Mountain lair and tracked down the author to interrogate him further about the experience of writing The Gates of Death.
The Warlock: Congratulations on the publication of your first Fighting Fantasy gamebook. How does it feel to be the first new writer on the series in 25 years?
Charlie Higson: Wow, is it really that long? That’s quite an honour. I was intrigued when the books first came out in the early '80s – I was too old to be their target reader but I was a massive fantasy and gaming fan so I bought a few to check them out. I thought it was such a clever idea and I could see why they were so popular with kids. Never for a moment did I imagine I might one day be part of the phenomenon.
Years later I met Ian Livingstone when we were both on a panel together, something to do with gaming and computers, and we got talking. We were mutual fans. He’s a fascinating guy and has done so much for the gaming industry as well as being instrumental in getting coding taught in our schools again. I think it’s not going too far to say that without him (and of course Steve Jackson) the world would be a very different place today.
TW: How did you come to write a new FF gamebook?
CH: Ian and I kept in touch and he put me in one of his books (Blood of the Zombies). And then one evening over a pint he asked me if I’d ever be interested in writing a Fighting Fantasy book of my own. I’m always keen on trying new things and new ways of writing – over the years I've had a go at just about every form, novels, short sorties, film scripts, TV scripts, radio and even improv, everything, really, except plays – so the idea of creating a branching story line in which readers choose their own adventures was very tempting. Also, with the rise of gaming, interactive TV and VR I thought this might be a useful skill to master. Plus, of course, I thought it would be a blast. So we floated the idea that if the series was ever relaunched I might write a new adventure. And now I have, which is pretty cool.
TW: What were your sources of inspiration for writing the adventure?
CH: Obviously my main source was Ian and Steve’s original books and world of Titan they created. Also, when I was a teenager in the '70s I devoured any fantasy books I could get my hands on, including Tolkien’s, which had inspired the Dungeons & Dragons game and then Ian and Steve’s world. But I especially loved Michael Moorcock and his idea of The Eternal Champion, trapped in an eternal struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos. I liked the idea that neither side must be allowed to get the upper hand. Moorcock may not have invented the idea of the forces of Chaos, but he certainly put it out there in a big way. I channelled bits of this into my book and I also explored my own interest in possession and madness. The plot of the book concerns a demonic plague that turns people into monsters – which is not too far removed from my own ‘Enemy’ series, about a parasitic disease that turns people into psychotic freaks.
TW: How did you find the process of writing The Gates of Death?
CH: It was huge fun, very refreshing to be trying something different and also extremely challenging. I started out skipping gaily through Allansia without a care, but about a third of the way in I got stuck for about three days trying to sort out the mess I’d got myself into. After that I trod much more carefully and produced multiple maps and flowcharts.
It made me totally reconsider storytelling and how I write. I usually write a lot of dialogue and a lot of action, but in Fighting Fantasy the reader is the hero, so you can’t put words into their mouth. Only the characters you meet can talk and readers must choose their own responses. As for the action, once again that’s mostly provided by the reader, using stats and dice etc. The other thing I found interesting and that I hadn't fully taken on board is that you must constantly provide the reader/player with choices. I have over 400 sections/paragraphs (call them what you will), about three on each page, and each one needs to offer significantly different options. That forces you to come up with incident after incident after incident and really makes you think about how stories work, plus there’s a danger of your story spiralling out of control. The other important rule is that you mustn’t steer the reader too much along your core storyline. You need to make sure they can arrive at various important plot points by different routes and with different attributes, spells, equipment, weapons, or whatever.
TW: Is there anything in the book of which you are particularly proud?
CH: There are a couple of things that I hope are new – but I’m sure an expert like you could probably point out that they’ve all been done before! (And I won’t say what they are to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, in order to crack the ending you need to think counter-intuitively…) What was important to me was that I wanted to tell a substantial and satisfying story (or stories) without, as I say, steering the reader too much. So the book is probably longer than a lot of other FF titles.
TW: You are known for both The Fast Show and your YA zombie novels. Can readers expect to see some humour in The Gates of Death or is the book more like one of The Enemy series, in terms of its tone?
CH: It’s somewhere in the middle, I guess. Actually there’s a certain gallows humour in my Enemy books. Even in the direst circumstances humans use humour – we need humour. So I've put some humour into this book. There are a couple of jokes for die-hard FF fans and older readers, but also, I hope, a lot of fun for the real target readers - kids. I think it’s a challenge making sure the humour doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the story and the plot, but you don’t want it to get too earnest and dreary and gloomy. That’s the eternal battle between order and chaos.
The Gates Of Death is nowhere near as dark and violent as my Enemy books (although, with a title like that it’s hardly Noddy). As I said before, there’s a lot of action in my usual books, a lot of it extremely gory, but in a Fighting Fantasy book the reader creates all the mayhem and havoc and dismemberment with their dice and their imagination – so it can be as gory as you wish!
TW: Would you like to do it all again? If so, can you give us any indication of what your next adventure would be about?
CH: I’d love to do another if this one is popular and sells well. I have a much better understanding of how to write one now. But would I set it in Allansia or maybe do something completely different set in a different world? Who knows…? As with any good FF book I have many paths I could choose.
TW: Are you pleased with how The Gates of Death has turned out?
CH: It’s great to see it as part of a set with Ian and Steve’s original books (and The Port Of Peril, of course). I think the new covers are smart and clean and eye-catching and look good together. As to my book – I think it works (many thanks to you for your invaluable help and expertise on that front!). I was just away for Easter and my own (rather grown-up) kids were playing it together. They had a lot of fun and didn’t notice any mistakes. I just hope other kids out there enjoy it as much and that it might give a nostalgic kick to old school fans of the original books.