Sunday, 13 February 2011

Author Interview: Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Fallen Blade
End of the World Blues
9Tail Fox
Stamping Butterflies
Lucifer's Dragon


> What's The Fallen Blade about?

It's a love story between a living girl and a boy who isn't quite sure what he is other than not entirely normal; between an ex-slave and a Millioni princess. It's set in a 15th century Venice where magic still exists and werewolves terrorise the city at night. Into this city comes Tycho, an impossibly beautiful boy with wolf grey hair, who is first seen chained naked to the bulkhead of a ship in the lagoon.

The story riffs off the first half of Othello and steals bits of Hamlet but you don't need to know the plays or even notice that's what the novel does. Someone described that bit of the mix as, 'Shakespeare casserole – delicious, and not too fitting,' which works for me.

> Why did you choose to set your novel in Renaissance Venice?

It's the darkest and yet most glittering place I've been. And where better to set a story that aims to be both dark and glittering than in an insanely surreal city that breaks all the laws of how cities should be built?

Venice was the powerhouse of Europe; rich and powerful and greedy; and regarded by the rest of Europe as somewhere between a brothel and a den of thieves. That's an ideal dark fantasy setting before I even start to think about what makes Tycho's story fantasy. Throw in werewolves, mages and alchemy and it was hard for me to resist. Also Venice has a *very* strange feeling, like history is over layering itself and ghosts - and quite possibly fallen angels - are watching every step you take.

> How was writing The Fallen Blade different from writing your science fiction novels?

Instead of creating the future - say the far end of time on the other edge of an ice age for End of the World Blues, or a ringworld with a Buddhist AI for redRobe - I had to create a version of the past that worked for Tycho. Historical fantasy and the kind of SF I write share enough points for that not to be a problem:

Both need real characters, both need a world you can see and dialogue you can hear. Both have to tell a real story and can't simply hide behind the window-dressing of space ships or beautiful and lush palaces or filthy backstreets. So far, so separated at birth... The tricky bit was deciding how much fantastical stuff to include and whether or not to explain it.

My view is, if you live in a world with werewolves you don't need them explained any more than we need someone to explain to us that we live in a world with cats, so certain things I've simply taken for granted. Magic exists, mages exist, shape changing exists. None of this is common place, but everyone knows it's there. The problem is Tycho; he's the first vampire into Europe and no one knows what he is.

Hell, he doesn't know what he is. The very first part of the book is Tycho's struggle to understand where he is, who these people are around him, why he's in a city with water for streets.

> What's the neatest place you've travelled while researching one of your books?

Venice is fabulous and v. v. strange. Marrakesh in the Atlas mountains in Morocco manages to mix of African, French and Berber with a medieval walled city inside a French city (that looks like it belongs in 1950s Paris), inside a modern city inside an outer ring of jerry-built slums. As a crash course in the history of North Africa it is hard to beat. I set a large slice of Stamping Butterflies there. Tokyo, like Marrakesh and Moscow, is one of those city's where most Westerners can't read the road signs, which produces a cognitive dissonance that makes us look at the world around us a little harder. Mexico City was just turning itself into a war zone in the fight between the narco lords and Calderon's govt the last time I went and I'm probably too nervous to go there again for a while.

But the place I really liked, which was in Fallen Blade and then I cut it in the first edit, was Nordkap, the northern-most point in Europe, hundreds of miles above the Arctic circle, where the sky looms huge and grey above you and cliffs fall thousands of feet into a gunmetal coloured sea. It is like standing in
the middle of a Norse saga.

> What made you want to be a writer?

I've had stories in my head for as long as I can remember. Some of them have run for years and some of them get reprised, it's a cerebral back ground scribble that never really goes away. When I write I see the places I'm writing about and hear what the characters say. Writing was just a decision to start putting this stuff down.

> What was the first novel that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?

When I was seven I wrote a novel about a monkey that escaped from a zoo and stole a NASA spaceship and escaped to the moon. I was trapped in a very English boarding school at the time and it doesn't take a psychiatry degree to read the subtext! Since I found the writing quite hard I gave that up after the first third and drew the rest. It took me weeks and weeks, although most of that probably went on the plans for the rocket.

> When and where do you write?

I have a study upstairs and a hot desk outside the kitchen... That said, if I'm in the house I usually work at the kitchen table and if I'm not in the house (more likely), I write in a cafe, occasionally in pubs and bars. Trains, planes and airports are also good. The cafe is so used to me that they let me have the table all morning in return for two coffees and a muffin!

> What’s the best/worst thing about writing?

The work/the work.

> What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?

After working in factories and at Oslo airport, I lucked into a job as production assistant at a London publishers, ended up as production editor, left to write a really bad book in a little house in the mountains in Spain on the money I'd saved (my budget to live was £7/$12 a week), returned to the UK, became as assistant editor at another publishers, worked up through editor, commissioning editor, publisher, was bought and sold a few times, worked for more than my share of idiots, and left to go freelance when I found myself a single parent needing to look after a small school-aged boy... I had very few illusions about the industry by the time neoAddix sold.

> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Write, keep writing, read, keep reading... You need to do both, you also need to be ruthless enough with yourself to realise that most of what you write at the beginning will not be very good and only exists to let you learn how to do it better.

No one needs to write seven versions of the first chapter and I have non-published friends who have spent ten years writing and rewriting the same book. Write it, finish it, put it in a drawer and nail the drawer shut. Start the next book. All first drafts are crap unless you're a genius, in which case you don't need my advice. Write the first draft quickly and edit it into something better, that's what everyone else does.

> Any tips against writers block?

I don't believe in writers block! We write from our unconscious and shape it into fiction with our conscious. I'm too superstitious as a writer to want to stare into that particular abyss without need.

> How do you discipline yourself to write?

I get up in the morning and start work. I'm lucky enough and privileged enough to do this for a living. Writing when I was looking after my son was harder. That's why my natural working hours still revolve around school hours and I instinctively go back to work in the evening after he would have gone to bed.

Without discipline it's an impossible job. I always write at least a 1000 words a day (2000 is the target) or edit 20 pages. Do that every day and even if you write three drafts, which I do, you have a book in a year. And nothing beats the feeling of holding the first copy of a new novel in your hands or walking into a good bookshop and seeing it on display.

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