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David Gemmell

David A. Gemmell

Gemmell signature

Gemmell's autograph.

David Andrew Gemmell (4 August, 1948 – 28 July, 2006) was a bestselling British fantasy author.  

A former journalist and newspaper editor from west London, Gemmell published his debut novel, Legend, in 1984. The work quickly became a classic, and he went on to write over thirty novels.  

Gemmell is perhaps best known for his Drenai series, home to some of his most iconic characters, including Druss and Waylander. His other work includes the Stones of Power, Jerusalem Man, Rigante, Macedon and Hawk Queen series. Gemmell's final set of books was the historical fantasy trilogy Troy. He also authored a handful of stand-alone novels, including one non-fantasy title under the pseudonym "Ross Harding".  

Receiving both commercial and critical acclaim, Gemmell's novels characteristically feature morally grey heroes, fast-paced action sequences and strong themes of honour, courage and redemption. He is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of heroic fantasy.[1]

Gemmell died of coronary artery disease while working on Fall of Kings in his home near Hastings in 2006. The novel was completed by his wife Stella Gemmell and published posthumously. The David Gemmell Legend Award for fantasy writing was established in Gemmell's memory and first awarded in 2009. 

Early life Edit

Childhood Edit

David Gemmell was born an illegitimate child on 4 August 1948. He had a harsh and troubled upbringing in a rough urban area in west London. Due to the absence of his father, David suffered taunts and physical abuse from other children as well as adults. Speaking of himself in the third person, he shared the following insight about his childhood at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, October 2000:

"Some of the other children had no father, but their lack was honorable. Dad died in the war, you know. He was a hero. This boy's lack was the subject of sly whispers from the adults, and open jeering from his peers. This boy's mother was – the boy heard so many times – a whore. Happily the boy was only six, and had no real understanding of what the word meant. Anyway the word was less hurtful than the blows that would follow it. Most of the blows came from other children, but sometimes adults too would weigh in."[2]

Gemmell enjoyed books from a young age, and had a particular fondness for Tolkien's The Hobbit,[3] and for medieval history. As a child, he "would have given anything" to stand beside King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.[3] More given to reading than fighting, Gemmell lived in constant fear of his bullies. He also suffered from recurring nightmares of vampires coming to suck his blood, for which his mother took him to see a child psychologist. The nightmares continued however, as did the fear, which he said was "grafted onto him" and became his "ever present companion".[2]

Bill Woodford

Bill Woodford, David's stepfather.

A major turn in Gemmell's life came when he met his future stepfather, Bill Woodford. At the age of six, during another occasion of teasing and name-calling, David punched one of his bullies in the face. The boy's father had chased after him and caught up to him when Bill stepped in, pushing the man up against a wall. In Gemmell's words:

"In a low voice, chilling for its lack of passion, [Bill] asked. 'Do you know who I am?'
The man was trembling. Even the boy could feel the dreadful fear emanating from him.
'C-c-course I know who you are, Bill. Course I do.'
'Did you know I was walking out with this boy's mother?'
'Jesus Christ... I swear I didn't, Bill. On my mother's life.'
'Now you do.'
The big man let the little man go. He slid part way down the wall, recovered and stumbled away. Then the giant leaned over the boy and held out a hand that seemed larger than a bunch of bananas. 'Better be getting home, son,' he said. The world changed that day."[2]

After that day, Bill became an important father figure in Gemmell's life. For David, his stepfather represented a "haven" and "safe harbour" in his childhood. Bill rid the young boy of his nightmares by telling him one night that he had snapped the neck of one of the vampires who was bothering him.[2] In later years, he compelled David to take up boxing and learn how to stand up for himself without "hiding behind walls or running away".[4] This philosophy informed much of Gemmell's writing, and Bill became the inspiration for Druss, Jaim Grymauch and several other characters.

Youth Edit

As a teenager, Gemmell was arrested several times and expelled from school at the age of sixteen for organising a gambling syndicate.[5] One psychologist's report from the time labelled him a psychopath, also stating that Gemmell showed a great ability to "be utterly single minded and screen out everything in order to complete a task."[6] Gemmell later stated that this greatly helped him to keep deadlines during his writing career.

Gemmell also developed a love of Westerns in his teenage years, particularly Will Kane in the film High Noon.[3]

Employment Edit

Gemmell’s first job was as a labourer, digging foundations. He later worked as a lorry-driver’s mate for Pepsi Cola.[3] In the evenings, Gemmell found work as a bouncer at various nightclubs in Soho, landing the job due to his six foot four inch and 230 pound frame. He rarely had to bounce customers, however, preferring to use his gift of gab and “silver tongue” to resolve the situation.[7]

Gemmell's career as a journalist began when his mother set up a job interview with a local newspaper. Of 100 applicants, he was probably the least qualified for the position, but was hired owing to his display of arrogance during the interview, which was mistaken for self-confidence. He went on to work as a journalist for several local newspapers in East Sussex, eventually becoming editor-in-chief for five.[5] He also worked freelance as a stringer for the Daily MailDaily Mirror, and Daily Express national newspapers.[6][8]

Writing career Edit

Early attempts at fictionEdit

It was during this period that Gemmell began writing fiction in his spare time, although none of his work was published. Gemmell himself said about his very first attempt at writing, a crime thriller titled "The Man from Miami", that it was "so bad it could curdle milk at fifty paces".[3] After becoming a published author, he often entertained his fans at book signings by reading out rejection slips he had received from publishers, one of his favourites being the following: "You mention in your resumé that you are working as a lorry driver's mate for Pepsi Cola. This is an occupation not without merit. Good luck with it."[9]

"The Siege of Dros Delnoch"Edit

Dros Delnoch the Fortress - Didier Graffet

Dros Delnoch the Fortress - Didier Graffet

In 1976, Gemmell was tested for cancer after suffering extreme weight loss and urinating blood. When his wife suggested that he do something to take his mind off the cancer, which they feared may be terminal, he began writing a novel. "The Siege of Dros Delnoch" was completed in two weeks; the story centred around the defence of a fortress against an attacking barbarian horde, a metaphor for Gemmell's own situation.[4] He purposefully left the ending open, awaiting the results of his test before decided whether the fortress would stand or fall.

The cancer turned out to be a misdiagnosis of a kidney infection caused by an earlier injury, and Gemmell forgot about the book for some time. Four years later, in 1980, a friend read the manuscript and encouraged Gemmell to refine it and try to get it published. Gemmell rewrote the novel while maintaining the core story, a process which took about a year, until it was accepted by Century Hutchinson late in 1982 and published in 1984 as Legend.

Legend achieved considerable commercial success.[4][5] Gemmell later mentioned that it remained his personal favourite of all his novels, saying that while it had "all the flaws you expect in a first novel", it had "a heart that wouldn't be bettered by improving its style".[3]

Published author Edit

Gemmell autograph

Gemmell signing a book for a fan.

Gemmell's journalism career overlapped with his career writing novels until the publication of his third novel Waylander in 1986, when he was fired after using colleagues' names for characters in the book. Gemmell later said that his Managing Director had regarded it "a poisonous attack on his integrity."[10] After the publication of Waylander, Gemmell became a full-time author, writing 32 novels in total, some as part of long-running series, others as standalone works. Most of his novels were in the heroic fantasy genre.

Gemmell's most popular series remained his Drenai Saga, set in the world of Legend. Other series include the Stones of Power, Rigante and Hawk Queen series. His final work was Troy, a trilogy of historical fantasy books set during the Trojan war. The last book of this trilogy, Fall of Kings was completed by his wife Stella and published posthumously in 2007. Gemmell's books have sold more than one million copies worldwide.[6]

Gemmell's only non-fantasy work published during his lifetime, White Knight/Black Swan, is a modern-day crime thriller published under the pseudonym Ross Harding. It is also the only one of his books not to become a Sunday Times bestseller.[6]

Death and posthumous publications Edit

Fall of Kings (2007)

Gemmell was working on Fall of Kings when he died.

In mid-2006, Gemmell was on a trip to Alaska when he became discomforted. Immediately travelling back to the UK, he underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery in a private London hospital. Within two days he was able to take physical exercise and returned home to resume work on his latest novel.[8] On the morning of 28 July 2006, four days before his 58th birthday, Gemmell was discovered by his wife, slumped over his computer, having died of coronary artery disease.[11]

At the time of his death, Gemmell had completed 70,000 words of Fall of Kings, the final novel in the Troy trilogy.[12] Only hours after his death, Gemmell's wife Stella resolved to complete the second half of the novel based upon his chapter plan and notes, contacting Gemmell's publisher two weeks after his funeral in order to make the offer. As a former junior reporter, aspiring novelist and subeditor, and having been involved in Gemmell's writing process for a number of years, Stella Gemmell felt she was "the only one who could do it." Preparing for the task, she reread her husband's previous work, deconstructing the battle scenes in order to build her own. Fall of Kings was published in 2007 under the joint authorship of David and Stella Gemmell.

Another novel, Rhyming Rings, was released in 2017, eleven years after Gemmell's death. The manuscript was discovered in his papers by Stella and the novel – a semi-autobiographical crime thriller – was published by Gollancz, an imprint of Orion Publishing.

Personal life Edit

Stella Gemmell

Stella Gemmell, David's second wife and widow.

Marriages and family Edit

David Gemmell married twice. His first marriage to Valerie Ballard produced two children (a daughter, Kate, and a son, Luke). He later married Stella Graham, whom he had worked with on several of his novels. The couple made their home in Hastings on the south-east coast of England until the author's death.

Lifestyle Edit

Though he spent much of his time working on his novels, Gemmell was a "restless man" who "enjoyed life and embraced the fruits of material success".[8] He admitted to leading an unhealthy lifestyle; in his own words: "I smoke heavily, drink more alcohol than is considered good for me, and have a passion for chocolate and foods full of animal fats. In short, in health terms, I am a walking disaster waiting to happen."[13] Gemmell also enjoyed playing video games, such as Age of Empires.[3]

Religion Edit

David Gemmell was a devout Christian.[8] His religious beliefs are reflected in the consistent theme of redemption in his works. Gemmell has himself claimed that all of his novels have a religious basis, calling them "essentially Christian books" and saying that Christianity stopped him from "promoting the cause of evil" by writing "mindless savagery".[4]

Political views Edit

Coming from a staunch socialist family, Gemmell carried banners and campaigned for eventual Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s, nevertheless admitting a grudging alignment with Thatcherite policies on issues of foreign policy, especially the Falklands Conflict,[4] and with Reaganite views on East-West relations.[3]

List of works Edit

Gemmell bookshelf

A collection of David Gemmell novels.

Drenai Saga Edit

Stones of Power Cycle Edit

  1. Ghost King (1988)
  2. Last Sword of Power (1988)

Jerusalem Man series Edit

  1. Wolf in Shadow (1987)
  2. The Last Guardian (1989)
  3. Bloodstone (1994)

Greek series Edit

  1. Lion of Macedon (1990)
  2. Dark Prince (1991)

Hawk Queen series Edit

  1. Ironhand's Daughter (1995)
  2. The Hawk Eternal (1995)

Rigante series Edit

  1. Sword in the Storm (1998)
  2. Midnight Falcon (1999)
  3. Ravenheart (2001)
  4. Stormrider (2002)

Troy trilogy Edit

  1. Lord of the Silver Bow (2005)
  2. Shield of Thunder (2006)
  3. Fall of Kings (2007) – with Stella Gemmell; posthumous publication

Stand-alone titles Edit

Non-fantasy Edit

Unpublished novels Edit

Graphic novel adaptations Edit

Legacy Edit

David Gemmell is fondly remembered as being a part of the pantheon of great fantasy writers worldwide,[14] particularly as one of the finest writers in the genre of heroic fantasy.[1] When he died in 2006, obituaries were featured in The Times,[5] The Guardian,[8] The Telegraph[15] and BBC News.[10] According to Wayne MacLaurin, David Gemmell has "done more to rid the genre of fantasy from mediocrity than anyone save possibly Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber."[16]

Literary awards Edit

During 1988-2006, David Gemmell served as patron for the Hasting Writers' Group, where he set up and sponsored an annual short story competition, the Legend Writing Award. A section for flash fiction was also later introduced. Gemmell judged the competitions himself from the short-listing stage. After his death, the competition continued to be held until it was discontinued in 2010.[17]

The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy were established in 2008 with the dual intention of honouring David Gemmell and encouraging new artists in the genre of fantasy.[14] At the inaugural ceremony in June 2009, the first recipient of the David Gemmell Legend Award was the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, for his novel Blood of Elves. Two new award categories were added the following year, for best debut novel (Morningstar Award) and best cover art (Ravenheart Award). A steering group of 18 authors is chaired by writer Stan Nicholls and the three awards are decided by public vote.

Legends Edit

Legends: Stories in Honour of David Gemmell, an anthology of original short stories from 13 fantasy authors, was edited by Ian Whates and published in October 2013. A second anthology, Legends II, was released after the Gemmell Awards ceremony in 2015 and features 12 stories from a different set of authors. Stan Nicholls has written introductions to both books.

Fanbase Edit

With all of his fantasy novels being bestsellers, and many of his books being translated into other languages, David Gemmell maintains a wide readership worldwide. There is also a dedicated online fanbase, with some of the more prominent websites including the Legend Readers forums, Drenai.com and the (no longer active) Deathwalker Online. There is also a Facebook page named David Gemmell Novels where fans regularly share comments and musings about Gemmell's work.[18]

While David Gemmell fanart other than official cover artwork is rare, there are some examples to be found on online communities such as DeviantArt. The David Gemmell Wiki hosts the internet's largest collection of Gemmell artwork; the gallery can be browsed by subject or by artist.

Raven Armoury has produced several replicas of weapons from Gemmell's novels.

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Author: David Gemmell", The Random House Group. Accessed 23 September 2015.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "David Gemmell", Transworld Publishers. Accessed 31 October 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 "Interview with David Gemmell", Science Fiction and Fantasy News, 1 August 1998. Interview provided by Orbit. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "Stan Nicholls Interview", Deathwalker Online. 1989. Accessed 19 May 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Stan Nicholls. "David Gemmell Obituary", David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy. Accessed 22 September 2015. Originally published in The Times, 1 August 2006.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Sandy Auden. "Heroic Intentions: an interview with David Gemmell", The SF Site. 2005. Originally on Sci-Fi Channel UK. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  7. "David Gemmell", OverDrive. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Christopher Priest. "Obituary: David Gemmell", The Guardian. 2 August 2006. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  9. Gareth Wilson. "David Gemmell Fan Guide", The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy. Accessed 22 September 2015. Originally published as "David Gemmell: a Fan's Introduction" in Dark Horizons #54, British Fantasy Society, March 2009.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Fantasy writer Gemmell dies at 57", BBC News Online. 26 July 2006. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  11. Jane Wheatley. "Last Writes", The Times. 25 August 2007. Accessed 27 November 2007.
  12. Thomas M. Wagner. Troy: Shield of Thunder review, SFReviews.net. 2007. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  13. Steven Savile, "David Gemmell Interview", SFRevu. 2005. Accessed 22 September 2015.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Homepage, The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy. Accessed 23 September 2015.
  15. "David Gemmell", The Telegraph. 1 August 2006. Accessed 23 September 2015.
  16. Wayne MacLaurin & Steve Tompkins. "David Gemmell: An Appreciation – an heroic career in heroic fantasy", Black Gate. New Epoch Press, 2006. Accessed 23 September 2015.
  17. "Our history and achievements", Hasting Writers' Group. Accessed 23 September 2015.
  18. David Gemmell Novels, Facebook. Accessed 23 September 2015.

Notes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 The novels Knights of Dark Renown and Morningstar, though generally considered stand-alone works, take place in the same world as the Drenai series.

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