The writer who builds worlds

The last instalment in John A Bonello’s Il-Logħba tal-Allat trilogy was recently released to the delight of fantasy fans in Malta. Fantasy epics set across multiple worlds are not exactly common genres with Maltese writers. You could say that the only other  bona fide fantasy trilogy written in our native language was Simon Bartolo’s and Loranne Vella’s Fiddien. So how did this trilogy come about? I quizzed the author about alternate realities and how they fit into our Maltese heritage.

What attracted you to science fiction/ fantasy as a genre?

I believe that fantasy and sci-fi attract me so much because they are a means of escapism from reality and I’m allergic to too much reality. Not just in literature, but also in art, in filmography and even in music.   I still remember the first time my father took me to the cinema to watch Return of the Jedi in 1983. I was only seven but I still feel the same thrill every time I hear the Star Wars theme. It was the same with books. I started off with Terry Pratchett and soon discovered that this was the genre that most appealed to me and soon found myself reading never-ending epics such as Tolkien’s works and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. World-building is a most fascinating process.

The first book in the trilogy was self-published 3 years ago: how did the inspiration for the story and the setting come about?

I self-published It-Tielet Qamar in 2008. I went through a very long process until I finally came up with the plot which was to become my first published work. I had been experimenting with writing as a different medium to oils, acrylics and pastels – that is, I wanted to paint a picture with words and had been trying on and off for almost four years. I couldn’t dedicate the required time to this project since I had been studying after work for years, but then everything happened at the same time. I finished my Advanced Diploma in IT and my son Luke was born in January 2007. He sparked my imagination and fuelled my inspiration. I just couldn’t stop writing.

The general idea was to create a story where I could explore a different world, a different culture and develop a story of adventure with some realism. As it turned out, when I looked back at the first draft of It-Tielet Qamar, I found that my childhood experiences had strongly influenced my writing, especially the nephew/grandfather relationship. I was amazed because it was quite unintentional and it was a way to relate to my subconscious. Likewise, the relationships between the main characters of the story are echoes of real friendships and most of the characters are based on real-life people I came across sometime or other. Even for the villain of the story, Mikiel l-Anġlu, I portrayed a real-life person whom I consider quite evil and probably that is why he came across to my readers as so real.

As for the setting – Had-Dingli has a hold on me. The cliffs call to me and to my imagination, and I used this strong influence to create the cradle for the trilogy. I think I managed to capture the spirituality of places such as Għar id-Dwieb, Migra Ferħa, Fomm ir-Riħ and today I realise that there are many people who feel the same way about these places.

The temples of Haġar Qim are an integral part of the plot: would you say you are into Maltese heritage/history in particular?

In the story, I make reference to six Neolithic structures, (matching the number of gods), the most prominent of these

The writer received Gieh Had Dingli for his literary work in 2008

being Haġar Qim, since it holds the portal stone which provides access to the different dimensions of Sii, Muur, Teer, Nuur and Baal. I’m not an expert in history or archaeology, but I am very keen on the subject. My parents used to take me and my brother to museums and temples and caves since we were very young, and their library at home was always full of Maltese history books and material which eventually proved to be a gold mine for my research. They helped me develop the love I have for Malta and its history.

To describe a particular scene in L-Aħħar Holma (the marriage of Salvu and Serina), I went to Mnajdra three times to witness the solstice. Mnajdra is the favourite temple of all.

How did the story creation process evolve? As in, did you know immediately that this would be a trilogy and were you exactly aware of where you wanted to take the stories plot wise or did it happen gradually?

The trilogy concept was not a requirement when I started writing. I just wanted a way to tell a very long tale and I only decided I would go for three books when the first one was nearing completion. The three books evolved in completely different ways. For It-Tielet Qamar, I knew how my tale would start and decided to start writing that part of the story, hoping that the rest would come along. It did eventually, and it worked.

As I was developing the story of the ancient people found in Qim, I wrote a lot of background stories to help give more credibility to the tale. This eventually became L-Aħħar Holma, published by Merlin Publishers in 2010 – the actual plot for this book fell into place so suddenly while I was out for a walk. I stopped at a friend’s and asked him for pen and paper so I could jot down the chronology of the events. I saw it in its entirety, something which has happened to me only twice until now.

Is-Sitt Aħwa was different. I changed the plot a number of times; I changed sequences and re-wrote many parts, even the ending. At one point, it had two different endings and I asked three friends for their opinion. They all chose the same ending, (although it wasn’t the one I would have chosen!).

I wanted the last part of the trilogy to have two different and opposing climaxes and strove towards this goal until I was satisfied. From the reactions I have so far, I think I managed to do this successfully.

Fantasy novels are sometimes pegged as belonging to the purely teenage market: how true is this (in general and also in particular to your works)?

I disagree with this. Perhaps this notion arises from the fact that our everyday life is a hectic, chaotic mess and we don’t have time to fantasize, while young adults have all the time in the world. I know for a fact that older people do appreciate fantasy – I received most feedback from such people.

You started out studying art and today you work in I. T. How did the shift in creative outlet occur? In many ways, I.T. and writing are diametric opposites – one is a precise, formula based science while the other is based on subjectivity and creativity: how do the two co-exist?

I think the two co-exist because for a long time I kept them separate – I ‘used’ I.T. to earn a living, while I treated writing with passion as a hobby. I strongly believe that when you start doing something for money, you often lose the love you have for that particular art. I started studying I.T. because I saw achievable working opportunities and gradually built up experience in a field that has become the fulcrum of modern life. I was lucky enough to find a job in which I could combine my knowledge and expertise in I.T. with my passion for writing and today I work with an international software organisation as a technical writer. My main duty is to write and maintain software product guides, i.e. a set of instructions that help you use a software application.

Receiving the Premju Nazzjonali tal-Ktieb in 2011

The first story you wrote was?

The first structured novel I wrote was called The Life of Derek. Between 1992 and 1993 (I was sixteen then) I wrote this humorous tale about a freakish British weatherman who embarks on a quest to find his better half in the hot sands of Tunisia. I wrote this tale in English, and it remains unpublished. Sometimes I read parts of it and still think it’s funny. Before that, I used to write short stories for my friends, tell tales mostly, which I would share with them when ready.

Is-Sitt Aħwa is the conclusion that fans of the trilogy have been waiting for three years. Does it deliver all the answers? Is the ending what fans will have been expecting or does it deliver surprises?

I believe I tied up all the loose ends, although there are a couple of ‘mysteries’ I left open to interpretation – it’s a way to interact with your readers, letting them use their imagination. Everyone needs a character like Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil in life, because if we had all the answers life would be so boring.

As for surprises, I haven’t settled for a conventional ending, because I wanted to put a point across – that every decision in life leads to consequences – good or bad, depending on conditions, circumstances and perception. It’s akin to Newton’s third law: to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

Can you give us a sneak preview about your next work? Will it also be related to fantasy and in the shape of a trilogy? Will it be set in Malta? When can fans expect it on the market?

The next work approved by my publisher is a surreal psychedelic tale which is more science fiction than fantasy. It is not part of a trilogy, but rather, the first of two volumes, each book having three parts. It is a voyage of sorts, it involves an extensive amount of ‘travelling’ and it does start in Malta. In Valletta actually, close to the Tritoni fountain. It will hopefully be released next year and is intended for an adult audience. There’s a lot of action and since the narrative is in first person past, the subject tackled comes across quite strongly. Being backed up by a good publisher goes a long way towards helping to fulfil my projects. It was difficult to self-publish and I was incredibly happy when Merlin decided to publish my second and third books.

What was the last book you read and what’s your verdict about it?

A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire saga. It is definitely the best book in the series so far. Martin is unpredictable and has a unique style of building up hope and a strong plot only to destroy it so abruptly that it leaves you numb. He is brutal and harsh and yet I still find his writing inspirational.

I’m going through A Feast for Crows at the moment, the fourth book in the series. For the time being it fails to compare to the other three books, perhaps because it takes so many different paths and threads without a clear sense of where the storyline is leading to and leaves out favourite characters (or what’s left of them) for most of the book. I also noticed a change in style from the previous ones.


Which authors do you find inspirational?

There are so many. But the main ones are definitely Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson. They are both able to describe a scene so well that it becomes real and tangible. I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a number of times and every time I’m left awed, with certain sections providing such strong emotions. Donaldson, on the other hand inspires me not only in his mastery with words but also with his ultra-negative feeling that crawls out of the pages. You feel an urge to crawl in the story and kick Thomas Covenant (the main character) hard so he can see the big picture and stop being so self-centred.

Something that can encourage young ones to read more is?

Let them see you read. Lead by example. It’s the simplest, yet most effective way to spread the affliction of fiction. And non-fiction I guess!

Ebooks or good, old-fashioned paper books?

In principle I am anti-Ebook, in the sense that I want to own the books that I read and I want a copy in my library. However, I understand the benefits of electronic publishing and have also considered the idea for publishing a short novel in Maltese in electronic format. It is an opportunity to reach a wider and different kind of audience. It is also a platform for exposure. At the moment, I am doing research in this area, trying to evaluate the opportunity as a reader – in fact I have recently purchased a device and downloaded the Arsené Lupin series by Leblanc.

What do you tell people who say they have no time to read?

Nothing, actually. I can respect the fact that for some people reading a book is a stressful activity. Inviting them to read would be similar to telling me how enjoyable flight is and how much I’m missing out in life. I just hate flying.

Do you find that Internet as a way of life has aided or hindered the art of reading?

The Internet both helps and hinders, because it has transformed us. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias, technical guides and all sort of legal documents are published online. Information is always available, a question is answered with a Google search. Research can be carried out without ever leaving home or your office.

For book lovers, Internet has provided a way to keep up to date with latest releases; we can pre-order books, read excerpts and be notified on what might appeal to us based on analysis of buying patterns and sites we visit. I follow favourite authors on Facebook and have the opportunity to interact with them. And then when I’m immersed in a good book that finally arrives after a six month wait, I switch off my Internet connection…On the other hand, it’s sad to hear of yet another bookshop that closes down because people prefer to buy their books online (including myself).

Is sci-fi and fantasy your own favourite genre?

It is, although I also enjoy good written crime (the Montalbano style) and techno thrillers such as Tom Clancy’s books.

What do we find on your bookshelves?

A special section for Maltese autographed books, including favourites La Bidu La Tmiem by Alfred Sant and Pierre Meilak’s Qed Nistenniek Nieżla max-Xita. These are surrounded by all of Tolkien’s works, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, the legendary Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and over forty titles by Sir Terry Pratchett, and many, many more. I have also a special place for a growing collection of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series. All my books are dated and nearly all of them hide little secrets – I like to keep receipts, cinema tickets, photographs and other memos tucked inside the pages.

When you are not reading/writing/working, you are…?

I spend a lot of time with my wife and with my sons Luke and Ben, aged 5 and 19 months respectively. I have inflicted my Star Wars addiction on both of them so we are constantly role-playing Jedi vs Sith, watching the six episodes time after time and all the Clone Wars animation series. If I had a daughter I would have called her Leia!

I cook when I can and I like early morning walks. I am a Marillion, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fanatic. I try to keep up with Castle, The Mentalist and other TV series and if there is still time left I try to sleep. Did I mention wine-making? I did it for eight consecutive years!

This interview appeared on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).