Thursday, 11 June 2009

INTERVIEW: Jonathan L Howard

Wanting to write from an early age, Jonathan, was creating tales that blended elements of Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and the Grimm Brothers. Yet it wasn't until he received a review for a game script that he'd co-written that he decided to give the novel authorship a go and dug out his old script featuring a necromancer named Johannes Cabal. We decided that it was about time that we brought Jonathan out into the light of day (a place that apparently isn't too healthy for a lot of writers) and feature him with his debut release...

Falcata Times: 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?

Jonathan L Howard: There's certainly some truth in it. I write pieces for my own amusement that I know are unpublishable, and that sort of activity seems to be scratching an itch. Actually, creating stories is the compulsive part in my experience. Writing them down is the grind part of the gig.

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

JLH: There are two interpretations of that question -- when did I realise I wanted to write, and when did I realise that I wanted to be a writer? The former was very early on. I was making up fantastical stories before I could write, fuelled by a mix of Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson, and a battered copy of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. I couldn't read it myself, but I could stare at the engravings and badger family members to read it to me. At school, discovering that writing down such stories was encouraged was a definite bonus. My local library had an interesting selection of books in the children's section, which is how I came to be reading Poe and Bradbury by the age of nine. At secondary school, creative writing was my favourite part of the curriculum, and the only reason that I didn't take English at "A" level was that at the time it was a purely critical syllabus with no actual creative work. I believe there is such a thing now, which makes me rather envious. So, the urge to write was on me from an early age. The realisation that it was actually possible to be a writer as a job, however, was much later.

I effectively backed into being a writer. I've been interested in games for as long as I've been interested in telling stories, and when the opportunity arose to join Microprose as a game designer, I jumped at it. Obviously, it's a creative job, and I amongst all the number crunching and describing things in painful detail for the artists and coders, I also had to write copy and script. This was very enjoyable, and I developed a special desire to work on an adventure game because this, I thought, would be the closest I would ever get to writing a published novel. Two companies later, I finally got that chance with Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, which I cowrote with Dave Cummins. Dave was a great chap to work with, and very talented; one of the many unsung heroes of computer game design. I think it was from him that I learned that the mad ideas that occur to you while creating a narrative shouldn't be thrown away, as these are often the seeds of exactly the sort of plot twists you should be looking for to keep the story out of a rut. The game was a great success when it came out, and reviews were especially nice about the writing. I remember the "Fortean Times" review (the game involved Templar treasure and the like, so the FT had an interest) singled out a scene I'd written for extra kudos as it succinctly condensed every major conspiracy meme into a single super conspiracy. I was very proud of that review. All this positive feedback made me think that just possibly I might have the ability to make it as a professional writer. I dug out a lot of my old notes from years before, and started working on them again. One set of notes was about a necromancer called Johannes Cabal.

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?

JLH: To be honest, I've never heard of this. In my opinion, if you can write a sentence, you can write a novel. There's no great secret or supernatural talent to novel writing that is only gifted to a few. Assuming that you have an idea that is large enough to support a novel -- and, God knows, there are enough novels around hung on a premise that would barely fill a limerick, so even that isn't entirely necessary -- then one simply kicks off with a sentence. Repeat several thousand times, and there you have it. All you need is an idea that engages you, and endurance. Stick at it and you'll have a novel. I'm not saying it will be any good, but you'll have a novel. Short stories are slightly different beasts; they're often that initial idea burning brightly if briefly. It's difficult to sum up why one idea is suitable for a novel while another is for a short story, but I'd characterise it along the lines of how you feel when you have it. If it's "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" then it's probably a short story, whereas if it's "Hmmmm..." you're probably onto a novel.

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?

JLH: What a bizarre question. If somebody goes into Waterstone's to buy, say, a Catherine Cookson novel about poor but honest folk in Jarrow, I'm going to have a tough time selling them a humorous dark fantasy about a German necromancer (which is also a quick way of defining it). If pushed, I'd probably try emotional blackmail.

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

JLH: It's got the undead, Satan, serial killers, candyfloss, ghosts, croquet, elemental evil, and true love. And a really nice cover.

This is why we have Sales & Marketing.

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?

JLH: I feel a list coming on, in alphabetical order yet. Blackwood, Bradbury, M.R.James, Lem, Lovecraft, O'Brian (Patrick and Flann), and Sladek. Put me in a room with their collected works and I would be happy for a very long time. My current great enthusiasm is for Boris Akunin, translated brilliantly from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. If you derive any enjoyment at all from the detective stories or thrillers of Conan Doyle, John Buchan, or even Ian Fleming, you absolutely have to read Akunin. Tsarist Russia of the late nineteenth century may seem very alien at first, but you learn the ropes quickly enough, and after that it's pure unalloyed pleasure.

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?

JLH: A mixture of the two. I need to know where roughly where the story is going, but I make up an awful lot of stuff on the way. I plot roughly using chapters as my milestones -- "In this chapter, this happens and that happens," "In this chapter, I need to illustrate this point" -- possibly scribble out some brief character profiles, and then off I go. The character profiles don't tend to stick, though. In the novel I'm currently working on, I went back to look at the profiles after finishing the first draft and was horrified to discover I'd forgotten to include a couple of characters. At first I was all of a panic about how to introduce them, but then I realised that I had't noticed that they were missing because the plot really didn't need them. In short, I've found it's fatal to be overly mechanistic. Organise, by all means, but when your instinct tells you to do something, even if it takes your story off the planned route, you should at least consider it seriously.

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

JLH: I walk a lot, which is actually part of the writing process for me. It helps me think. I enjoy the cinema, and -- that secert sin again -- reading game rulesets. I also play a lot of computer games.

Recently I've read Russell T. Davies' A Writer's Tale, some assorted Edwardian ghost stories by different writers, Akunin's "The State Counsellor," and I'm currently on a collection of Philip K. Dick shorts fronted by "Minority Report."

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

JLH: You'll forgive me, but I don't care to answer that question. There are certain things that must remain sacrosanct between a man and his defence barrister. Oh, you mean something legal? In that case (as opposed to the case of Regina vs Howard), I have a terrible urge to collect games. Board games, card games, dice games, roleplaying games. It drives my wife mad.

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?)

JLH: I like dogs, but we've never lived anywhere that was suitable for one. Currently, we have hamsters, which aren't nearly so interactive. As for writing them into a novel, who on Earth would want to write a hamster into one? Well, as it happens, me. I've written most of a novel for my daughter that features a hamster, and hope to get it finished when I've got a bit of spare time.

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

JLH: Johannes Cabal himself, probably. He's an impressive individual in many ways, yet so deeply flawed. There's a lot to admire about him -- he's very capable, very self-contained, very knowledgeable, but on the other hand he's an unmitigated bastard. I think some of my favourite scenes with him are the ones where we see the swirling greyness within the armoured carapace; his uncertainties and doubts. Those were enjoyable scenes to write.

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

JLH: Not in the slightest. I don't know anything about any illegal exhumations. What are you suggesting?

In his positive respects, he embodies many talents I would love to have. He's a brilliant chemist and mathematician, two disciplines I have long admired yet at which I have proved dismal, although I do have a small talent for statistics. He has an excellent memory, is a talented linguist, and nothing scares him. Those are all rather wonderful attributes. Of course, they're more than offset by all the assorted ways that he is messed up, his prodigious list of mortal enemies, and his utter social incompetence.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

JLH: As I mentioned earlier, I'm a rabid gamer. I don't even play that often, but I enjoy reading rulesets, and seeing how they model their virtual realities. Sounds a bit eccentric when I put it that way. I've got a novel planned out that uses a lot of game theory although, like the novel with the hamster in it, it's on the backburner while Cabal is my main focus.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

JLH: Bless you! I have been wondering when I would be asked that question for the first time, and you win the coconut. Generally from "What if..?" thoughts suggested by reading or just thinking things through to the point of reductio ad absurdam, or any "Wouldn't it be cool if..?" thoughts that occur. The seed of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer for example was that, while I love Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, I've always wondered how Cooger & Dark came into possession of an evil carnival in the first place.

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

JLH: In my experience, it's not so much a block as a slough of despond, a terrible reluctance to move on. The creative spark has gone out and the muse isn't returning calls. It has never lasted long, and the trick just seems to be to put your head down and run at it. The chances are you'll bin what you write because it will not be worth preserving, but at least it get you back into the right state of mind, the pilot light is reignited, and the muse has taken you off voice mail.

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

JLH: I try to work a working day. When I was in the games industry, I was expected to be creative on schedule and in office hours, and that has given me a degree of discipline that I'm glad I have. Sometimes, you end up writing in the wee small hours because you have a burning need, but I try to work during office hours.

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?

JLH: Normally I don't listen to music while writing, but Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was an exception. I listened almost constantly to Salva Nos, the Mediæval Bæbes debut album, throughout the writing. No special reason -- I just liked it a lot -- but I do wonder if it had any impact on the book.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publsihing field when you were first getting started?

JLH: That getting an agent was easy. I've since found myself in conversation with people who fancy becoming an author, and who start their plan with, "Well, first I'll get an agent, and then..." At which point they're interrupted by my hollow laughter.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

JLH: If you can explain to me how Swedish death metal can be described as the food of love, I should be delighted to answer your question. As it is, I think the premise is flawed.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

JLH: It's a detective story. Cabal mentions in the first novel that he used to read the Sherlock Holmes stories because he liked the way that the scientific method could draw order from chaos. Well, he gets the chance to apply that method on his next outing, because his life depends on it.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

JLH: BBC News, The Escapist, Live Journal,, Daily Illuminator.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

JLH: Nothing really. I made up the numbers for a one day Robert McKee thing for thrillers that my employers at the time sent me to, which was more interesting than I anticipated. I don't think I learned anything about writing itself, but it did demonstrate the story beats in a good thriller movie. Whether that's planned or incidental upon good writing is another thing.

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

JLH: Sheer bloodymindedness.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

JLH: As of this writing, my first novel hasn't yet come out, so my opinion may change after that. Currently the best thing is doing what I fondly believe I'm good at, and getting paid for it. The sheer novelty of having supportive professionals on my side whose every criticism is guaranteed constructive is a huge pleasure. The games industry is still immature in many ways; one has to develop strong impulse control to avoid thumping managers who feel empowered to demand swingeing narrative changes to finished scripts apparently on the grounds that they have an expense account and you don't. Not having to put up with that any longer is a vast relief. The worst thing I anticipate is some folk think that because they bought your book, they own a piece of you. I hope that doesn't happen.

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