Philiip Ambrose had just published his first novel, “Portal to Logres” through Wilde City Press. It’s an epic fantasy but at the heart of it and running through the book is a fascinating and full-blooded romance between two students, Marcus and Toby.
Q: Phillip, tell us why have you published your first novel now?
A: For many years I was a public servant in the UK and my day job was to write official papers, briefs and letters. I have aspired to write a novel for years (since I was a teenager I suppose, but it was very difficult to balance my full-time job with creative writing. The styles were just too different! At work I had to write in a succinct unemotional and detached way that avoided adjectives or anything remotely imaginative. If, when I got home, I tried to write in a different way the results were about as interesting and readable as a legal document!
I was describing the problem to a sympathetic colleague one day, and said that if I tried to write a love scene, it came out strangled – something along the lines of “I came, I saw I conquered!”. “That’s wrong,” joked my friend, “It would have to be ‘I saw, I conquered, I came!’ Your version would be premature ejaculation!”
After an evening trying to be creative, I’d return to work with my creative juices flowing, and that ‘contaminated’ my official work. I’d get told off. So, while I made notes for stories, planned and scribbled, I didn’t complete anything and began to feel I never would!
Then I retired and stumbled across m/m fiction. I read some great books and the genre connected with my own sexuality. It seemed to free me and the ideas began to flow. Encouragement from a warm and terrific published writer in the field led me to complete the first draft of “Portal to Logres” in little more than a month. My ‘mentor’ suggested I make a pitch to a publisher and to my amazement the book was picked up. A second volume (actually the continuation of one very long story) will appear soon.
In short, retirement has provided me with the opportunity to do what I have always wanted to do. And m/m fiction is a vehicle that I love.
Q: Why did you choose to write an M/M romance?
A: Well, first off, I’m a gay man, so relationships between men are something I know a bit about; have some interest in; and are something I want to explore. I feel comfortable with the genre and the ideas it generates.
The fact that I was writing about two men (rather than a man and a woman) seemed to free me. I lost my inhibitions and felt at ease with what I was doing.
Finally, as an author writing in this area, I can take any character I want and put him in any situation I want. I’ve said to people before now, I am unlikely ever to have a relationship with a handsome Hollywood star, but as a writer I can create such a character and do with him whatever I want. I find that exciting, intriguing and fulfilling.
I suppose you could say, m/m stories allow me to bring my fantasies to life!
Q: How is your ‘epic fantasy’ different to others?
A: “Portal to Logres” is about two young men who get transported to a parallel universe, akin to Tudor England.
Actually, there are TWO fantasy worlds in the book. One is Logres (of which more in a moment). The other is a fictional university city in 1970s Britain, where the story begins. Thus I had to create and make live the ‘modern’ setting as well as the ‘fantasy’ one.
As far as Logres is concerned, the reader can treat (and hopefully enjoy) it as they would any other fantasy world. But for anyone interested in history there are a couple of other aspects to it. First of all, they can play the game of identifying the parallels from our own history both in the characters and the places. I’m not going to give too much away, but I will say that many of the characters do reflect ‘real’ historical people, sometimes quite straightforwardly, sometimes in combinations of traits or roles.
Secondly, I am interested in what is sometimes known as “alternative history”. I try to explore what might have happened if…? The Tudor period is full of such moments. Some of them will unfold in the Logres books. To take one example: Elizabeth I almost died of smallpox only a few years after taking the throne. What would have happened if she had died? It would certainly have changed English history – civil war? A return to Catholicism under Mary Queen of Scots? By changing the details and fictionalising the individuals involved, I find it easier to get away from the “but she didn’t die” syndrome and to explore that alternatives. I hope readers will enjoy that adventure too.
Q: How do you go about writing – plotting, creating characters etc?
A: I’d like to say that my two lead characters, Toby and Marcus sprang fully-fledged from my head, but they didn’t.
“Portal to Logres” was my first completed book and I had to learn as I went, but plot and characters began as separate threads which soon began to influence and change each other.
Marcus is a young fencer with Olympic potential. That came about because I felt one of my two principal actors needed a fighting skill in a sixteenth-century style world. Sword fighting then was different to what it is now, but at least he would have some knowledge that might be useful and allow him to survive.
While Toby and Marcus were pretty real and complete in my head, I did consciously set out the similarities and distinctions between them so that they would be clearly differentiated in the reader’s mind. Thus Toby became noticeably shorter than his lover. One is fair, one is dark. One is stocky, one is athletic and lean.
I think the lessons I have learned from the plot are:
1. Work both ways – from start to finish and from the climax backwards;
2. Be clear about the ending. You can make it more dramatic and change it, but have something to work towards.
3. Don’t worry about the opening. I used to get completely hung up about this. I know you don’t need to! Finish the book and how it starts will suggest itself. “Portal to Logres” started with a flash-forward to the moment the two students arrive in Logres. At almost the last moment that was changed and the book now unfolds chronologically. The reasons for my earlier decision were no longer valid.
I hope that these thoughts might be useful to anyone thinking of starting a book.
What I am most proud of, is that I have achieved what I always wanted to do. I have long wanted to write a gay fantasy. But I did not simply want to ‘token’ gay men doing what all fantasy heroes always do. In “Portal to Logres” I believe that, rather like the double-helix of DNA, the romance and the adventure unfold together and are unbreakably intertwined.
Q: What do you most like about your two main characters?
A: In a sentence, Marcus’ vulnerability under an outwardly confident manner and Toby’s niceness and openness.
A friend tells me that I like Marcus more than Toby, and I do talk about him more, but I do love both of them very much. They are two people I would like to meet in real life, and at times they have written their own story – certainly some scenes.
Toby is totally out of his comfort zone in Logres, Indeed, he’s scared out of his wits at times. But his intelligence makes him fascinated by his new surroundings. Equally, Marcus feelings for him and his own for Marcus mean that he is living a dream come true. I find it incredible to see how that is changing the lad and how he comes to terms with everything that is happening to him.
Marcus too is changing. He’s always been a never-apologise-never-explain sort of guy. But now Toby’s presence in his life is allowing him to open up, to reveal deep insecurities, but also barriers he has created in himself which seem to prevent him accepting the love being offered to him.
They are two very different individuals, but their love for each other – once they accept it – is strong. How they explore that and each other is at the very core of the story.
Q: Do you find explicit sex scenes difficult to write?
A: I have always enjoyed reading explicit sexual scenes (gay, straight or bi) so I suppose it follows that I would enjoy writing them.
I did amuse me though, when a friend who has read the book once asked, “Have you done all the things that you write about?” Since “Portal to Logres” includes beings being killed and ‘occult’ episodes (and I have neither killed anyone nor engaged in black magic) I am not sure why it is assumed that I have ‘enjoyed’ all the sexual things mentioned.
I believe that good sex scenes should arise naturally out of the story and the personalities of the characters involved. I like to write about lads who have a high sex drive, so it follows the sex (or at least sexual situations) will be pretty frequent and ‘hot’.
I am currently experimenting with a story that is told through the sex, and I am an admirer of – and would like to write – stories that are carried or driven by the sex. Geoffrey Knight and James Lear write the sort of stories I am talking about, where the sex is the main event in each chapter and is used to extract information or take the plot on to the next character or situation.
I have learned from descriptions of sex scenes and derived fantasies from books I have read. I hope I can be an inspiration for others. Equally, I am put off by sex scenes that seem impractical or are unclear. Hence, I feel the scenes should be explicit and vividly descriptive.
I tend to approach sex scenes in a series of ‘waves’; first outlining the location and blocking out what happens physically. Second, fleshing out the detail and ensuring it all works. Finally adding the emotion and perhaps ensuring that the ‘viewpoint’ is the correct one.
One complication is the issue of ‘safe sex’. I am a great believer in and practitioner of safe sex, but it can be anachronistic. I also believe that great care has to be taken with subjects like under-age sex (though many characters might have experienced it); non-consensual sex (though it might be appropriate in certain plots) including rape; and some aspects of kinkier sex.
But I do hope readers enjoy what I have written and I am not embarrassed about it in any way…
Q: Why is the book split into two parts? Was splitting to book difficult for you?
A: “Portal to Logres” was written as a single book.
I understand that publishers have limits on the size of books and thus was ready to break the story into two.
This was not difficult, but did involve making sure that there was an ‘ending’ to Book One, as well as a ‘hook’ that (hopefully) will incline readers to look for Book Two.
You will need to read both halves to get the most out of the story.
Mar: Why’s he want us here?
Tob: Why ask me? Ask him.
Mar: Well, you’re the bright one, sunshine. You normally know what’s occurring.
Tob: Not this time. Haven’t we got enough to do in the book?
Mar: I’d say so. Hey! Do you think he wants to get us naked again?
Tob: Not that you need any encouragement, Marcus!
Mar: When did you ever complain?
Tob: I didn’t. I can see why he likes to get you stripped down. Same reason I do!
Mar: Which is?
Tob: Well, you are eye-catching. You look good in the buff, all that toned flesh not to mention…
Mar: Don’t go there!
Tob: Not embarrassed are you?
Tob: All that public school education. Cold showers in the dorm before breakfast. Communal showers after the match, all that sort of thing?
Mar: Well, you play football. Don’t you take showers with your teammates?
Tob: Did I deny it?
Mar: You’re just winding me up! Anyway you look good naked too. You have muscles, I don’t.
Tob: Like my muscles do you?
Mar: Mmmnnnhhhh! Can’t get enough of them. Hey, is all this talk making you horny?
Tob: Not just the talk… but I think Phil wanted us to talk about the book.
Mar: Oh… two fingers to the book. You’re here and you look sexy as hell. Goldilocks!
Tob: Don’t call me that!
Mar: OK, if you insist. I think the name fits you though. Hey! You’re unbuttoning my shirt!
Tob: Yeah. Can’t keep my hands of you. Never could, never will…..
Mar: Oh no! You know what that does to me!
Tob: You have the most suckable nipples I’ve ever seen…
About Portal to Logres
Two 1970’s students, Marcus and Toby, are stranded in the dangerous parallel kingdom of Logres. Full of treachery and intrigue, as sinister puppet masters pull at the strings of ambitious noblemen, who can they trust?
But, an ancient evil is re-emerging from the lost shadows of time. How can they defeat an enemy with such power?
As they explore their deepening love for each other, and with only each other to trust, Marcus and Toby must navigate this unfamiliar world. The fate of the kingdom rests in their hands. Will their ultimate destiny draw them together or drive them apart?
Available at: Wilde City Press
About Phillip Hill
Whatever his chronological age, Philip Ambrose has never really grown up, still has the enthusiasms of an eleven year old and is happiest in a world of imagination and invention. He has a passion for history (real or invented) especially historical mysteries from the “princes” in the Tower; Jack the Ripper, ancient Egypt, the Wars of the Roses and military history. Perhaps that interest relates to having been brought up in an English Cathedral City where each day he was surrounded by Roman and medieval buildings. Now retired, Philip Ambrose was for almost forty years in the public service but could not possibly comment on whether that affected his writing style! Writing for publication has always been an aspiration but was not a realistic prospect until work was behind him. Today he lives surrounded by books and and loves meeting people, enjoying a good meal, conversation and reading as well as writing the sort of books he would like to read.