On Friday, August 7, OHP sat down in an exclusive interview with the creative genius behind the first Scottish Superhero, Saltire.
By D.Elisabeth Aymett
By D.Elisabeth Aymett
|John Ferguson and Saltire|
John Ferguson loves to talk all things big, blue and ginger. (We’re verra fond of big gingers here at OHP, but we're still pondering that blue thing…) John’s lovely wife, Clare, assured me the main man would be very forthcoming and he really was! Can’t say enough about how kind and generous John was with his time.
Clare describes John as “a bletherer.” So since this interview went a bit longer than anticipated, but was so thoroughly enjoyable, we’re breaking it into two parts. Don’t want our followers to miss a thing about John’s perspective on Scottish history, mythology and what makes a great superhero. Hope you enjoy reading about our chat as much as we enjoyed having it. (My second favorite answer was how John described Black Jack Randall – you’ll see!)
OHP: It’s wonderful to be speaking with you. It’s fantastic the success you’ve been having.
John: Yes, we’re very busy right now. The next book is coming out this month and we’re just dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. It’s been great and we’ve been really overwhelmed. Our books are now, within Scotland, outselling the X-Men. We always thought we’d be successful but didn’t know we’d be that successful.
OHP: Well, that’s good kind of problem to have, isn’t it?
John: Yes, now if we could just do that on your side of the water, that would be the next step. If we can get the American market interested in the same way the Scottish market is, that would be massive.
OHP: Well, we’ll do our part to try to help you get there.
John: Fantastic! Just relax and ask away and I’ll try and be honest (this was so sweet because he knew I was nervous).
OHP: So many of us in the States are dying to come and see your lovely country because of the Outlander phenomena. Your novels are deeply rooted in Scottish history and I was wondering when your interest in history started?
John: I’m Scottish born and bred. I call it home. My kids are Scottish (this all said in that wonderful Scottish accent!) I’ve always had a huge interest in Scottish history, but even more interest in Scottish mythology because it is almost unknown. People quite often know a bit of Irish mythology like leprechauns and Banshee and all that kind of stuff but when you mention Scottish mythology they don’t know anything about it. I found that odd because it’s a country that’s very famous worldwide, has a lot of famous elements to it, but nobody knows our mythology.
I’d written a couple of articles about Scottish mythology and that created an interest, or should I say a passion. Then I read an article that said that Scotland couldn’t have its own superhero because it was too boring and too drab. Do you know what the word “dreich” means?
OHP: No, I don’t. (Not to worry, John is good at explaining things.)
John: The word “dreich” means cloudy and rainy and the kind of weather that makes you want to stay inside. That’s what we call dreich. And this article said Scotland is too dreich and boring. And at the end said, “What would you call a Scottish Superhero anyway? Drunk man?” And I found that quite offensive.
In my mind, superheroes are the same as mythological characters. Whether it’s Spiderman, Batman or Superman, they’re all mythological characters like Hercules, Achilles or Beowulf. To me, superheroes and mythological characters are all similar. So we took Scottish mythology and the modern superhero dynamic that is so popular and put them together.
Then we wondered how to create a storyline and thought, don’t reinvent the wheel, just tell the stories of history. Because Scotland has such a rich history, as you know from reading the Outlander story!
OHP: Oh, yes!
John: And Scotland has a very long, fascinating history, going back to the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, and the Viking invasions, then the English wars of independence. So we’ve had a number of tumultuous battles with these empires. And that makes for great comic books.
OHP: Yes, it does!
John: And you can’t just have the heroes, you have to have the villains – give them a dastardly opponent. And Scotland’s story, as I’m sure you know, is one of being the underdog. We’ve always been fighting for our freedom against these invading powers. And we’ve just wanted them to leave us alone! All these stories have been told from the other side – you get the Roman perspective, the Viking perspective, the English perspective, but never the Scottish perspective. So that’s what we did and that’s why we like Outlander so much because it tells the story of the period in history where the British soldiers were very, emmm . . . unpleasant.
OHP: Unpleasant! Is that how you’d describe Black Jack Randall?? Unpleasant? (laughing)
John: Well, I was being polite. (laughing too)
OHP: You are the king of understatement, sir!
John: Instead of hearing our story from other perspectives, we thought, we can make a great narrative by telling history from our side. I have people tell me that our books read like a legend that might’ve been told hundreds of years ago, like a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation. And that’s exactly the feel we were going for, like something that might actually have happened, even though it didn’t, it might have. And we wanted to tell our side of history. That’s why we like Outlander so much because it does the same thing!
OHP: Well, it seems a wonderful way to reach out to younger people and get them interested in Scottish history. Was that a goal of yours?
John: We’ve got the books going into the Scottish education system this year.
John: They’re using the Saltire comic books to get young people reading. You know I’m sure it’s the same in America, particularly young boys have moved away from reading, whether fact or fiction, because of the internet age. They’ve got game consoles now, an Ipad or an Xbox, they’ve moved away from reading and one of the things they want to use to bring that back is the visual appeal of comic books. Because they still have to read a comic book but it has the visual element as well. It’s art.
OHP: It certainly is.
John: So take something exciting like a superhero and ask a ten year old who maybe doesn’t read very much and struggles with literacy and say, “try this”. Give him a superhero who’s from Scotland and the interest level is there. So we’re excited about getting people engaged with Scottish history, with aspects of Scottish mythology, with aspects of learning.
And we’ve got the books being translated into the Scots language and Gaelic. And that’s great for our culture. We’re trying to save these languages. You know Scotland doesn’t have just one language, it has three.
OHP: You have three? I did not know that.
John: People say Gaelic is a dying language but we don’t agree! Gaelic is a vibrant language that just hasn’t been portrayed much. We try to put it into something popular and promote that we have these other languages and it’s worked well so far.
OHP: Well, Ahdamh O’Broin will be absolutely thrilled to hear that!
OHP: I was wondering if you were told Scottish Mythology stories by your parents or grandparents.
John: Well, yes. You know it’s one of our things in Scotland. We are a very, very old country. You live in California. To us, that’s the new world, only about 200 years old, which we see as almost brand new. You guys are all about the future, new concepts and ideas. In Scotland we tend to look more at the past because we have such a long history and because of everything that’s happened to us. Our family traditions are, like, “let me tell you the story of…” and you get these great tales of Scottish mythology. Some of them you may be aware of, like the Loch Ness Monster, which is world famous.
OHP: The Waterhorse!
John: Yeah! And that’s a story that actually comes from the Dark Ages which is 1600 years ago. Most people think it’s a modern thing but it’s a very ancient myth in Scotland as are the tales of dragons in our country. The last dragon was supposedly slain by a farmer in Scotland and died on the banks of the River Tay, just next to where Clare and I live. And that’s the kind of story you get passed down. You know, “here’s a story for you before you go to bed.”, so that’s how I first heard the myths of Scotland and that’s how they’ve been passed down for generations.
OHP: I thought you must’ve heard great stories as a kid growing up.
John: Oh yeah. In Scotland we have fantastic myths. But our myths are quite dark, they’re not all sweetness and light. Our fairies are quite mysterious and dark. You know Disney came along with Tinkerbell and people got the idea that fairies flew around Christmas trees. But our fairies could be quite shady and do bad things as well. You learnt when you got a bit older the versions of Scottish fairy tales that make you realize it really isn’t all sweetness and light and Barbie dolls!
OHP: laughing – I’m not much of a Barbie fan myself. So I notice in the origin story of Saltire, and please tell me how to pronounce his name correctly.
John: Like salt for your food and a tire on your car. Saltire.
OHP: Thanks, I didn’t want to be mispronouncing it. So the leaders of the various areas of Scotland come and they’re consumed in the creation process of Saltire. He absorbs the life from them and that is the sacrifice that forms this character. What inspired you about the various characteristics of those leaders?
John: Well, I’m quite well travelled throughout Scotland and have many experiences of the different people from the regions. It’s the same kind of thing as in America. You know if you meet someone from Texas, they’re very different than the people from New York or Washington, or California. So it’s the same in Scotland, people vary in the different areas of the country.
You’ll get very different people in Glasgow than from Edinburgh, who differ from those on the Islands or in the Highlands. The people of Glasgow are known for being quite cheeky and funny, outgoing and everything is a joke with them. Where people from the Islands tend to be a bit reserved and keep themselves to themselves. People from the Highlands also tend to be quieter and like the solitude of the mountains and the peace.
So we thought we needed to have a representation of the different areas. We wanted people to be aware that Scotland has always had a clan culture and the clans have these different personalities. But whenever Scotland has been in trouble, they always band together for the greater good. And that wasn’t just me making it up for the character of Saltire, it has always been the way of Scotland.
OHP: I was trying to read a good bit about Scottish history this week to prepare for talking to you.
John: (laughing) It’s quite vast, isn’t it? That’s a subject that really takes a couple of decades to read through! I’m still not finished.
OHP: So here’s my super question for you. If you could choose just three battles in Scottish history where Saltire could come and make a difference and change the outcome of battle, which would be your top three?
John: Oh, goodness. What a good question. (Significant pause from John where you can tell he’s really thinking about this….)
Well, you know my go-to answer is the obvious number one, has to be Culloden, which really sticks in everybody’s craw, as we say here in Scotland. So we’ll stick that one in there as the obvious one.
Emmm, now what else? I think I would say the battle of Falkirk, which was the great battle between Edward I, Longshanks who was known as the Hammer of Scots and William Wallace, that great battle. You know the movie Braveheart, if you’ve ever seen that movie.
OHP: I did.
John: So you know that was very sad and everybody dies. So that would’ve been a nice battle to stick Saltire in the middle, I think that would be quite cool.
So, that’s two of the top three battles where John would have his superhero Saltire come and change the outcome of battle and history. What do you think number three is? I’ll tell you, his answer was quite surprising to me.
John talks about how Scotland might be different if Saltire could’ve changed the outcome of Culloden – like Jamie and Claire will try to do in Season 2 of Outlander. His take on it is very interesting! Come back and check out our blog next week to see that answer and read more of our interesting chat with John. Promise you’ll enjoy it!