Ex-pat Geoffrey Wilson’s ironic imaginings are fuelled by his youth in South Africa and New Zealand, writes Stephen Jewell.
Composed in 1902 to mark the coronation of Edward VII, A.C. Benson and Edward Elgar's rousing anthem Land of Hope and Glory marks the last days of the British Empire. More than a century later, the popular Proms standard has given its name to London-based New Zealander Geoffrey Wilson's début novel - a historical fantasy set in an alternate England that has been invaded by the Indian Rajthana.
"[The empire] was pretty much over by then but I feel like we caught a little bit of the tail-end of it [in New Zealand]," says Wilson, 41, who attended Christchurch's Burnside High School in the early 1980s. "It was fading but hadn't completely vanished. It's an ironic reference to that and I had the idea for the title almost before anything else."
Born in South Africa, Wilson moved to New Zealand at the age of 5, creating his own comic strips before attempting to master prose. "Even before I could actually write I was making up little cartoon stories and I'd get my mum to write the speech balloons in," he recalls with a laugh. "When I was in my late teens to early 20s, I tried to write things a few times but wasn't very successful. So I gave up for a while until my mid-30s when I thought, 'this is what I really want to do'. So I tried it again and I got picked up this time."
After moving to London in 1998, Wilson helped establish a successful web development business before his Florida-based agent, Marlene Stringer, eventually sold his novel to Hodder & Stoughton. "She sent it out in America first and a few publishers were quite keen on it but weren't sure if it was right for the American market, so she tried sending it off back here and Hodder picked it up, which is quite strange," says Wilson, who lives in Islington, a couple of tube stops away from his publisher's Euston Rd headquarters.
"I've quit my job and for the next few years I'm just going to work at this full-time. I don't know what's going to happen but I'm really going to try and make a go of this."
A life-long Star Wars fan, Wilson discovered Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings before immersing himself in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. "The fantasy side of science fiction has always been a big deal to me," he recalls. "When I came back to writing, I thought, 'I used to be into fantasy so why not try it again but combine it with historical fiction, which I'm also into?'
"I started reading a lot of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy and it seemed a lot more open and broader than I remembered it being. It seemed like a good time to get back into it."
Along with best-selling historical novelists like Bernard Cornwall and Patrick O'Brian, Wilson takes his cue from modern-day fantasy scribes like Naomi Novak and Jasper Kent, who have added supernatural elements like dragons or vampires to past conflicts like the Napoleonic Wars. Though the book is set in a mythical 19th century England and takes the 1850s Great Indian Rebellion as its starting point, Land Of Hope And Glory is influenced by Wilson's formative experiences in Cape Town and Christchurch.
"My parents were anti-apartheid activists, which is partly why we left the country," he says.
"We were always talking about that kind of thing when we were young. In New Zealand, you've got the Treaty of Waitangi and all the issues around that. It was very much on my mind and I don't know whether someone who was born and bred in Britain would think that way. The story is a bit like, what if England was like what New Zealand was in the 19th century."
It is centred around former soldier Jack Casey - charged with tracking down his former colleague and best friend William Merton, who has become the enigmatic resistance leader The Ghost. The story boasts echoes of Joseph Conrad's 1899 post-colonial novel Heart of Darkness, which has informed many films and novels down the years, most notably Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.
"The next book draws on that even more," says Wilson, "particularly the ideas they had in the 19th century about savagery and civilisation. I also had things like King Solomon's Mines and Rudyard Kipling's stories in mind. A lot of them are great adventure stories but they're totally politically incorrect. But by flipping things over and being a bit ironic about things, you can tell stories a little bit like that. I wanted it to be a good fantasy read but I'm glad that people are picking up on the things I was thinking about."
Hard at work on the second instalment, Wilson initially conceived Land Of Hope And Glory as a fantasy trilogy. "If it goes well, they might ask for more books set in that world," he says. "But I've definitely got enough ideas for three books and I'm going to round it off at the end of the third. The second book is set a little bit in Scotland and continues Jack's struggles against the Rajthana."
Land Of Hope And Glory (H&S Fiction $39.99) is out now.