Monday, 7 March 2011

INTERVIEW: Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Prolific author Jon Courtenay Grimwood has recently released a brand new series blending the complexities of historical fiction with urban fantasy touches to embark upon a Historical Fantasy adventure that takes the reader to a Venice that should have been.

Whilst the political intrigue is a key component of this new series, it has great action, seriously delicious characters as well as hidden mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the last.

We decided it was time we have a chat with this author and with a certain assassini currently MIA we got our own to deliver our demand and find out mroe about writing, nailing characteristics and cats...

FT: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

JCG: There are people who write novels simply because they're good at stringing sentences together and it makes a decent living and beats having a proper job. Mostly they're ex-journalists and I count several as friends (they tend not to be SFF).

Almost everybody I know in SFF writes because they have no alternative. And yes, that probably says something not very good about us... In my case writing is what keeps me sane and if I don't write I quickly turn into a gibbering wreck (takes about three days). I do think there's a strong truth for many writers in the statement that you don't really know what you think until you've written it down.

I envy writers who can stand up and toss out anecdotes or - even more scary, like China M - simply draw on a ground swell of waiting intelligence. My brain is a fruit machine in which endless tumblers whir away and very occasionally enough pineapples line up in a row and I think - jackpot!

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

JCG: I wrote my first novel at seven, drawing most of it because my writing was so bad. By the end of my teens I'd written two full length novels, both appalling. In my early twenties I threw in my job as a production editor and went to Spain and lived, very frugally, while I wrote another. I had great fun but the book was still shit. Over the next ten years I wrote the first 30,000 words of three very different books. And then, in the mid-90s was made redundant, wrote a novel over the summer, found an agent and got a two book offer that was turned into a four book offer. That's massively simplified, obviously.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

JCG: No idea if it's true or not. I hate writing short stories and envy people who find it easy or easy enough to approach with ease. My gut feeling is if you can think yourself inside a world and a set up enough to write a short story why the hell isn't it the first chapter of a novel? But that's my personal prejudice. And there are stories by Bruce Sterling, Will Gibson, Greg Egan and China Mieville I'd happily kill to have written.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

JCG: The Fallen Blade is a love story between a boy who may be dead and a girl who doesn't want to be what she is but isn't really sure what she wants to be. It's a riff off Othello, features an alternate 15th Century werewolf-infested Venice and introduces the first Vampire into Europe. Warning, contains occasional outbursts of weirdshit

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

JCG: Take first or last 20 words from the above.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

JCG: James Lee Burke, Haruki Murakami, Dona Leon, Those are the most recently bought general/crime novels. I'm not going to get into SFF simply because I'm a Clarkes judge and my answers would obviously reflect what I've just read.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

JCG: Every book starts with a single image (sorry if I'm repeating myself from elsewhere). For this book it was an impossibly beautiful naked boy chained to the bulkhead of a ship in the Venetian lagoon. From there all I had to do was work back to how he got there and forward to what happened next. I don't do psychological profiles, since most of being a writer is about having an ability to inhabit pretty much anyone's head.

What I do is the obvious. Hair colour, eye colour, height, body shape, distinguishing marks, like, hates, wants, fears, weakness.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

JCG: Writing relaxes me when deadlines aren't approaching like hundred mile an hour brick walls. Digging out the Triumph Bonnie and belting round the back roads of Hampshire works, as does walking and swimming.

I've just read my way through every book submitted for the Clarke Award this year and am slightly read out on SFF, and am obviously not going to comment on individual books! For total brain change I'm reading Hobsbawn's Changing the World, which is a collection of his essays. Strongly suspect Marxism may be more use as a glass to look at the world than a template for changing it.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

JCG: Like I'm going to tell you!

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

JCG: A doctoral student once wrote to me to ask what the significance was of cats in my books. And I thought, there are cats in my books? But yes, apparently there are. I have a black tom with delusions of grandeur who's slowly coming to terms with the fact he can no longer win every fight. He's not turned up in a book yet. (And would probably charge me for the privilege)

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

JCG: The hero, Tycho, was the hardest but also most rewarding. Nailing down the almost but not quite human is hard. Giulietta was fun because she is just so cross most of the time (she's based in part on someone I knew who had a serious temper that mostly manifested as fury with herself).

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

JCG: He's young, fantastically beautiful and has hungers he can't control and powers he doesn't yet know about (there is no similarity!) Obviously, every character in a book is a facet of the author or the author wouldn't be able to write the book. That doesn't make the character the author, or the author even approve of the character. I get fairly furious when people can't tell the difference. That said, I think all authors bring themselves to their books and it's pretty easy to tell a Peter Hamilton hero from a Paul McAuley hero, even if both are in space...

My main character is never going to be a right-wing misogynist who worries about what kind of car he drives and thinks money is everything simply because I don't like people like that enough to want to spent an entire book inside their heads! Equally, Mary Sues are really easy to spot and should be stamped on immediately.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

JCG: I worked in publishing and wrote for newspapers and magazines for years; and during that period I worked for and with brilliant, hyper-intelligent and talented people; and I worked with self-deluded idiots, and occasionally I worked for self-deluded idiots... You only have to have had one job you loathe so badly that getting up every day and going to work requires iron discipline to make you realise that being allowed to write for a living is a real privilege!

I understand the concept of writer's block but it's a job. You get up, you do it. If you sit there for eight hours and write the equivalent of la la la... then fine, next day you cross it out. I suspect, in the end, I'm too superstitious to give much thought to that particular fear. We all spent quite enough time staring into our own personal abysses without going out to hunt down other people's.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

JCG: I work from first thing until I'm done, unless I'm towards the end of the first draft, the edit, or the rewrite, then I just work and don't much care if its day or night.

I'm married to the workaholic editor in chief of a glossy magazine who writes novels in her spare time (ha!) She's spent the last two weekends away from home/out of the country, and I'm taking the eurostar to Paris next weekend simply so we can say hello. If I objected to living with someone who works 14 hour days 7 days a week the marriage would have been over years ago, and vice versa!

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

JCG: redRobe was written to Dutch Trance, and it shows. The Ashraf Bey/Arabesk books were written to Rai/North African punk. End of the World Blues was written to the Akira soundtrack. The Fallen Blade was written to Gregorian chant and Against Me, Sigur Ros and whatever came on the iPod when I couldn't be bothered to chose carefully.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

JCG: Right back at the beginning I managed through sheer luck to persuade a famous editor from a literary imprint to read two of my very early and thankfully never published novels. He came back to say the first book had an excellent plot but no real characters and the second book had excellent characters but no real plot. I was so crushed that for the next ten years I didn't even let my friends know I was still writing and I binned all three of the novels I started and subsequently gave up as having either crap plots or crap characters...

Looking back it was a funny if glib rejection letter, but I took it as gospel If you want to write you will write. Getting published is as much about luck as talent, which isn't to say you don't need talent but is to say you need luck also.

I got lucky.

To view our review of The Fallen Blade (Act One of the Assassini Trilogy) please go here.

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