Maynard's third installment, Maynard Trigg and The Vanishing Empire is out now exclusively on UnderInk Press. An unmissable journey into darkness that forces Maynard to confront everything he's been running from.
"Creepy and hopeful and melancholic, the waystation is so well realised I can't do it justice: every single character, place and object feel infused with history and motivation. Will literally keep you guessing until the last page. Left my chest aching. Just... wow." - Kerstin V. Jene
We caught up with McNeill a few weeks ago after he sent the final manuscript for test printing. At our editor's suggestion, we met at a bar on the water's edge. McNeill is reading a well leafed paperback by Gray when we arrive.
Image courtesy of Ruby Hill.
Q: First, congratulations on The Vanishing Empire! Your third book this year via UnderInk Press, what an accomplishment.
Oh, thanks. If you'd asked me in January if we'd end up here I would never have believed you. While all three did release this year, it's not hyperbole to say that was only due to years of preparation and a healthy dose of luck.
Q: Let's start with the title then. Maynard Trigg and The Vanishing Empire, tell us about The Vanishing Empire, what can we expect.
It's such an exciting title for me - I'm not a big marketing person, you know, my names for the first book were pretty rubbish until we settled on what we went with. The Vanishing Empire is one of those titles that I stumbled on that finds a way to summarise the whole work without saying too much.
Q: What's the book about, then? What's so exciting about the title for you?
If book one is us learning that Maynard is willing to break his own rules and steal to survive, and book two is that question of will this obsession with learning his father's secrets destroy a potential home, then book three is the culmination of that conflict in a lot of ways.
Maynard hasn't been docile since we've seen him. He's ingratiated himself in Haven, honing his thieving, and we find him balancing studies at The Crucible, maintaining his friendships, all the while moonlight as a thief. He's found this place that makes sense, where he hands friends. A life. As much as he claims he's left the Seeker and Master Uskore and his father in the past, he can't let go.
And that inability to move on leads to some dangerous friends, and to some even larger threats to his way of living. Maybe the Crucible isn't so safe after all.
An old enemy surfaces, and he finds himself on voyage to Harfwere, a flooded mysterious waystation. None of the skills he's learned seem to help press back against the forces there, and the deep superstitions of the locals force him to take on a dangerous quest indeed.
The Vanishing Empire itself, to circle back, is woven into the rich culture of the waystation. Harfwere is the most complex and experimental place I've ever built out, and I'm beyond excited to see what readers think.
Also, this is the first sort of scary one, really. It's part horror, part political thriller, part pirate story. There's a lot here.
Q: Thinking back on it, a few of the early readers described it as a story about change, revelation, in some ways, does that resonate for you?
I'd say all stories are about change. But maybe I'd say it's about... realisation. You know it's really putting these characters that we know well in a dire situation and asking: what will they confess to save each other? What will they do for each other?
More than that, the story takes us to a place where Abbey's history and Maynard's father's history are kind of intertwined and it's about finding the truth of that. Abbey is this font of secrets. What don't we know about her.
Q: I've gathered that matters to you. We've been doing this for a few years now, and these stories keep returning to the truth of people.
That's Maynard's ultimate struggle for me. He's learning all of these skills like Detecting and stealing and what have you. These mechanisms to both interrogate and hide from reality, all the while chasing his father's deeds through time. Hoping to... construct the full picture of his father from what he's left behind.
It's an impossible thing, and that's sort of the heart of it, really. The people around him might sense it, but he doesn't know it. The other thing is his father is a small and important part of the world stage. He has this subversive proximity to these huge, mythic figures. And that's equally confronting for Maynard - it's that feeling of realising your parents are just people, too. But for him, it's also that his father was maybe deeply flawed. Or perhaps a genius on the cusp of a great discovery. Either way, it's this question of can you ever really know another person, or is there always another secret.
Maynard finds his place in The Crucible which has this apparent immunity to the white law, so what does that mean when politics arrives at the door while he's his father's son. And all of those things crash into each other in this book. We really see all of these big ideas layer on to each other.
Q: Those big ideas, can you talk about those?
Look this won't be a surprise, but the tension between the white law and those who oppose them is only increasing. The white law are a neo-liberal imagining of a subset of fascism: they're the authoritarians that have gotten good, really good at hiding their atrocities. The sky is big enough that unless you're a risk, a high priority, or in the wrong port, you wouldn't think about it.
Part of what I wanted to bring to The Vanishing Empire is the big, squinty parts of opression that we can't quite see day to day. You know the previous two stories mythologise pirates while questioning the place of the Sons of Dale [the failed pirate revolutionaries] because Maynard hasn't quite understood the way of the world.
To that end, I really wanted to deliver on something people have been asking for since book one: this time, we open up the scope of the world a lot more. Here there be pirates, as it were.
Q: Can you say more about that then, opening up the world?
Let me try this without spoiling anything...
You're going to see locations, people, even galleons, in this book that you've been hearing about since day one. A big part of the fun there is how the reality of these things diverge from how characters talk about them, and even how Maynard's perspective colours how we understand the world.
Q: You said this is the darkest story so far. Without spoiling why, can you elaborate on what that means?
Yeah look we pick up Maynard's life a year and change after the previous book. A lot's changed in his life. He's getting older. He's starting to see more of the truth of the way things work and candidly this world is pretty grim when you understand it properly.
I always wanted the world of Maynard to be built on friction. There's something really exciting about exploring the texture of things, finding those places where want and need come into relief.
Q: You mean Harfwere. I certainly noticed it felt different than the other places in the world so far. Not more science fiction, exactly, though there is certainly that, but more dynamic? The Crucible is sort of one thing. The Ferry is sort of one thing. Harfwere is expansive.
You read my mind.
Harfwere is one of the more curious places in the skies. You know we've seen Carthage, this mudder community that feels grungy, working class. Haven is kind of our middle of the road city, it's got a lot of range. All types of folk.
Harfwere is completely different. It's this waystation, disconnected from everything. The rest of the sky passes through it, ferries and galleons sure, but it's this anicent community with it's own traditions, superstitions and rules. And it's so visually distinct and bizarre that I hope people will enjoy some of the more unusual things we get to see.
Q: I completely agree - just visually Harfwere is so intriguing and alien. On that note, we were discussing this in our emails so I was hoping you would talk about what you did differently writing this book than the others.
I'll try and elaborate without blowing up anyone's spot.
The long and the short of it is this book started as a breakup book, really.
I wrote the majority of this manuscript in a NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in the aftermath of a few fairly messy relationships falling apart. It's a big part of what inspired the tone and focus while paying off some things I had planned from the start.
There's this strange thing that happens when relationships end where you sometimes find clarity about the nature of those relationships. Sometimes instantly, sometimes it takes years. And I wanted to channel some of that into a story, and so that's the story I ended up with.
It's a vulnerable, dark exploration of Maynard's choices and friends.
I sometimes think with breakups there's two outcomes, right. You either watch that other person go on to do something you understand. Something that makes sense. And that's comforting, in a way. Typically, if they date, you know, David 2.0, or even a generic, idealised sort of person, those things make sense. You did really know this person.
On the other hand, what if they go and do something that makes no sense. Maybe even contradicts everything you thought you knew - or hoped you knew to be true. And this book is kind of channeling that energy. Maynard is on this ill-fated journey to learn about his father, and at times it's sort of a cosmic compulsion, right? He needs to find out what happened. To close that loop and feel as if he truly did know his father.
Q: One more thing on that then we'll switch gears. I'm putting you on a tight rope here but I want to dig into that a little more. Can you elaborate on that idea of trying to know someone - closure, I suppose - and Maynard himself?
I think of like this. Maynard is driven to find out these secrets. He will lie and steal to do so, but he feels conflicted about it almost every single time. Where this, for me, is interesting, is how he is kind of echoing his father's mistakes. George Lucas talks about Star Wars rhyming and for my money I think most series do this.
If Maynard finds out someone close to him like... wait, I almost said the thing. If he found out someone else close to him had been hiding a tremendous secret from him, what right does he have to judge? To not forgive? That space is where I want to keep pushing the characters toward because that conflict is the experience of growing up. Of change. A million tiny revelations can feel like betrayals.
Q: "A million tiny revelations can feel like betrayas" - that's a t-shirt right there. The other piece we touched on was process, and the mythical database.
Good grief, yes, the unhinged internal wiki, as my friend calls it.
I'll give you the high level: I realised mid-developmental edit that there's too much stuff in Maynard's world to keep in my head, and there's only so many times you can re-read your own books. So I started a database - an internal wiki - of everything in the books, and everything that lives in my head. All the lore, locations, character history, references and so on.
It's currently somewhere north of five hundred thousand words and only growing.
Q: You've anticipated my next question well. A consistent theme in industry reviews is the secrets and connections that go unnoticed on a first read, do you think that's part of why the database became necessary?
Partly. the other piece is I'm driven to make this world do compelling things. I've learned so much about what stories I want to be telling in the last few years, and speculative fiction, science fantasy in particular, has such range to do things no other genre can.
There are questions raised in these books - in this book, the other two - that don't have neat, tidy answers. Sometimes what characters think about the world is plain wrong. Sometimes it's half-true. The database let me codify those ideas for proper, precise use. You can't paint a canvas without organised brushes and paints. Same deal here.
Oh, and slightly anxillary benefit, I have a few secret projects coming up that... required somewhere to centralise the world building information.
Q: Ahah, you mean the novella, don't you?
Hah! This is why I stopped posting things online.
Not specifically what I meant, no.
Q: Any comment on the novella then?
Mmmm no comment at this stage. This'll go at the end right?
In that case, we'll say it's a treat for reading to the end.
I'll tell you this: a manuscript exists set in the world that doesn't have Maynard Trigg in the title.
Q: Good enough for me! Actually, that reminds me, I heard some speculation that this might be the final book for Maynard.
I keep hearing that too, not true folks.
I've got a few more in the chamber! Originally I'd planned on four books in the series, but having revisited the final mansucript I've realised it would be far too long. Our printing company literally doesn't do books thick enough which was a tip off maybe it needed a rethink.
The intention at this stage, don't hold me to it, is to release book four and book five as companion books, as they really form half of one whole crescendo.
Q: That's exciting. Any final thoughts, anything you'd like to add?
I think we've covered what I'm most excited about without spoilers. I'll say this: this book owes a lot to Riddley Scott's Alien, The Book of the New Sun and the perpetual influence of Neil Gaiman and Pat Rothfuss.
Last thing here - I've never been more excited about the future of UnderInk. Becoming fully independent is a dream come true, and next year we're in the process of figuring out how to open up submissions for unsolicited manuscripts from up and coming authors. Watch this space.