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Jon Courtenay Grimwood

interviewed by Claire Weaver

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay GrimwoodJon Courtenay Grimwood is an award-winning English science fiction author.

Here he talks to Claire Weaver, editor of the BSFA's Matrix magazine, about his tenth novel End of the World Blues.

Set in modern Japan about fifteen years into our future, End of the World Blues sees a young baroness in exile from the end of the world trapped inside the body of a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl... Without realising it an Englishman called Kit steals her memories and is dragged into the dangerous and uncertain world of Lady Neku.



From the Hagakure -- the Book of the Samurai:

Purity is something that cannot be attained except by piling effort upon effort.

CW: What was the writing process of End of the World Blues?

Jon Courtenay GrimwoodJCG: Well, in the first draft it was a love story between an English guy who ran a biker bar in Tokyo and a girl from the end of the world. Only the first edit turned it into something else all together. Originally, Nijie (the Japanese girl) was a bit older, and Kit Nouveau was in his twenties rather than his thirties. But then this began to change, and End of the World Blues became about someone taking back control of his life, which seems to be something of a recurring theme of mine.

Also, because I wanted to do something that dealt with where we are now politically, Kit's back history is as a sniper. He's a sniper and a deserter. Although what we get in the back-story is not Kit in battle, but the impact his running away has on family, lovers and friends. He's on the run from this version of the Iraq War. So the flashbacks are all to our present and his present is actually about fifteen years in our future in Tokyo. Tokyo is recognisably Tokyo, but it's changed a little bit.

I think I lost about 25,000 words between the first and second draft, and I probably re-wrote about fifty percent of the text. A couple of main characters weren't in the first draft and a couple of characters from the first draft didn't make it through to the third draft. This is one of the reasons I never let people see early drafts of my books. Speaking personally, I think it's an incredibly bad idea! You know, you write something and then you decide it has to be something else and so you re-write it. And somewhere down the line you're supposed to give the first draft, a version you don't even like, to someone to archive.

CW: Do you think novel writing gets easier the more you do it?

JCG: No, I don't. I think it gets harder. Ignorance is a wonderful thing. If you don't know how hard it is to write a novel, and you don't realise how arrogant it is to assume you can create a story good enough for people out there to be interested, then you're free to just sit down and do it... I think writing the first novel is easiest because no one has told you that you can't. The second novel is harder. Obviously enough, because you know what writing the first was like. (Plus you have to do it again.) With the third and fourth novel you start worrying about the fact you might be beginning to repeat yourself. I think most of the writers I know worry more about this, about not becoming clichés of their own work, than they worry about anything else.

CW: Is there pressure from editors or marketing departments to do a repeat of your last one if it was popular?

JCG: Without wishing to be rude, most publishers would love to publish the same book repeatedly, with a slightly different cover and perhaps a slight change of location. Consistency sells for publishers. Unfortunately, it also drives most writers up the wall.

If you look at the writers who sell and who succeed big time in any genre, they've probably got one character, they've probably got several minor characters and they've probably two or three variations of the same story spread over up to a dozen books. I can name them all, but I'm not going to do so. Repetition sells, and we're talking about a number of novelists I happily buy in hardback. As readers, we all like reading the same character repeatedly. It's just that writers don't necessarily like writing the same character. That said, I've just agreed to write three new Ashraf Bey mysteries, kicking off with a murder at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul five years after the end of Effendi - and I'm really looking forward to doing so.

Even a poor penman will become substantial in the art of calligraphy

if he studies by imitating a good model and puts forth effort.

CW: Was the Japanese culture difficult to research?

JCG: No. I went to English public school. Its regulations were entirely arbitrary. Its rules made absolutely no sense. Different groups within the school were required to wear different clothes, to use different words and walk in different ways. Failure to obey was punished ruthlessly, either physically or by being thrown out of your peer group. It was the perfect grounding for understanding everyday life in Japan. The country is still incredibly hierarchical. And through it's changing, I felt entirely at home during the three trips I made. Almost embarrassingly so.

There's another factor, of course. Provided you don't actually insult the country, the Japanese are fantastically tolerant of foreigners. They have to be, because without ever realising it we break a hundred rules a day and commit social offences that would be unforgivable to someone Japanese. Tokyo is slightly different, in that it's a highly successful city first and everything else second. So the sense of community is slightly fractured. Tokyoites still wait for lights to change before crossing the street and bow almost incessantly, but you get the sense that most of them don't quite mean it anymore.

CW: And how did you research the language -- specifically how did you create the name for the floating rope world?

JCG: Well, I wanted ropes as a defining image for Kit, Neku and Nijie's worlds. End of the World Blues is about ties. It is about the actions and emotions that tie you, and tie you down. Your family, your relationships, your past love affairs. The things you do in life that you probably shouldn't have done, and the things you don't do that you undoubtedly should have done.

Kit's Japanese wife Yoshi needs binding to find emotional clarity and an ability to work as a potter. So there's this strong, very Japanese bondage element to those chapters, where Yoshi can't actually work unless she has first been tied up and left alone in darkness. In a difficult and increasingly desolate marriage it's the one thing her husband can still do for Yoshi, even though he doesn't understand or like her compulsion. And then, that motif is twisted in a sequence where Kit is captured and bound by his enemies towards the end. I wanted to combine the real ropes and the mental ropes, and show that the ropes with which we bind ourselves are sometimes stronger.

For the future sequences I wanted ropes that actually encompassed the whole world, holding the sky in place above a dying planet. And I wanted to combine this with the traditions of the famous 19th Century floating world prints made famous in the West by Hokusai. So I e-mailed Hayato Kato, with whom I'd worked on the Japanese translation of a short story a few years before and asked him for help. He talked to his friends and they came back with lots of suggestions. But the one I really liked was nawa-no-ukiyo, which Hayato assured me had the right mix of elegance and artistic subversion. Along with a friend of his, Masato Inoue, he then translated sections of the Way of the Samurai for me!

CW: In the novel, what's the end of our world like? What's happening there, what would it be like to visit?

JCG: We're so far into the future that evolution is in reverse. Evolution doesn't literally go into reverse, but what seems likely is that species on a planet rises to a point of complexity and then begin to die back. The longer lasting the species the more time it's likely to last. In that, the simpler and the hardier the species, the more likely it is to make it through to the end of the world.

In the future sequences we are on the far side of an extended ice age, which I refer to throughout as 'The Big White'. As part of the process of enabling humanity to survive, the authorities have dumped all the refugees, all the criminals, all the social problems and all the political nuisances into the far future. (Once you realise you can time shift thousands, then how better to rid the world of undesirables than ship them somewhere else, so they become somebody else's problem? You simply tell them they're going to have a new life and new opportunities, and then you go shove.)

Unfortunately, time shifting turns out to be very imprecise. And what should have produced a functioning society in one place at the end of the world, ends up fly-tipping millions of people across thousands of years into an environment where all of the humans have left; and wouldn't recognise us as human anyway, because they're already so far post-human they we would look like farm animals. So what you get is a squatter camp at the far end of time, which is slowly imploding. The only things keeping this far future world going are the ghosts in the machine. What Lady Neku thinks of as the kami are actually the last traces of a vast AI system that's keeping human beings alive out of kindness.

We learn about the sayings and deeds of the men of old

in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdoms and prevent selfishness.

CW: Your earlier novels have been described as hard-boiled dark cyberpunk. Would you agree that you've moved on from cyberpunk and that whole genre of hard-boiled fiction?

JCG: I definitely still use aspects of it. Anyone who writes what are essentially crime novels or thrillers is going to use tropes from hard-boiled fiction. It took me two and a half books to learn to write. So I don't feel that I knew what I was doing until about halfway through reMix. By the time I got to redRobe, I kind of knew what I wanted to do and how I could do it. The Arabesk books, the Ashraf Bey novels, were a total change of pacing and style and content.Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

CW: How difficult was that change?

JCG: Very, because with redRobe I got to a point where I could throw in everything. I could literally chuck in the fiction equivalent of the kitchen sink and it didn't matter. Keep it moving and keep the dialogue reasonably slick and you can get away with murder. Or, in the case of redRobe, several murders...

With the Ashraf Bey books, I made myself slow down, obey the rules of crime writing and also totally change my sentence construction. I ditched the really short 'hammer hammer hammer' sentences. That's why there's so much description in the Ashraf Bey books, because I taught myself to slow down by writing description, by looking at an object or place or emotion really carefully and then trying to write it as precisely and accurately as I could.

CW: And how was the change from writing a trilogy (the Arabesk books) to three standalones (Stamping Butterflies, 9tail Fox and End of the World Blues)?9tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

JCG: Stamping Butterflies was the longest book I've written, and undoubtedly the most complicated. It was also a transition between the worlds and sentiments of the Ashraf Bey novels and real world settings of 9tail Fox and End of the World Blues (and I'm using real loosely). But having written Stamping Butterflies, the thought of writing another book that complicated drove me to despair, so I wrote 9tail Fox, which has a linear, tight third-person point of view, with very few flashbacks and only one historical episode. End of the World Blues is a synthesis of what I learnt from writing both of those earlier books.

After reading books and the like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.

CW: Do you read many books twice?

JCG: I've read Master and Margarita probably five or six times. I've probably read War and Peace three times, maybe four. But no, I don't... There are only a handful of books I've read more than once.

I once got into trouble for saying that books are disposable. Very few of the books that we read or write will outlive our lives. There's a bit of me that's purist. If you buy books, you keep books -- you look after books. And there's a bit that thinks I get rid of my DVDs and my videos, why are my paperbacks different? I've got to a point where I don't automatically keep all the books that I buy. I mean, I take rejects down to a charity shop rather than bin them but I have a set number... So instead of adding to that number, I improve the quality! I have about three rooms full of books, but I still end up taking twenty or thirty a month down to Oxfam.

CW: Do you think you're entering a new stage of your own evolution?

JCG: Yes, I certainly hope so. I'm looking forward to writing the next three Raf books, but I'm already thinking about what I can do with them that I didn't do with the others. A shift of location is the first thing, maybe a shift of emphasis onto Hani as the main character and a twist to the politics.

And I'm also writing a series of three magic realist crime novels set in Mexico, Heaven and Hell. My main character is a convicted serial killer, who is in love with the memory of Joan of Arc. And it features a bunch of fairly scuzzy angels and a couple of metaphysically impossible crimes. I've turned down a contract for these, as I want the freedom to write them in my own time.

The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere. On beaches and in bars and on trains. It's total freedom (apart from the deadlines, obviously!).

Jon Courtenay Grimwood also spoke to Claire Weaver at NewCon 3 about San Franciscan police, Chinese mythology and whether he would survive in his own novels. You can find the interview at Matrix magazine.

Jon's website is End of the World Blues is published by Gollancz on August 17th 2006.

9tail Fox by Jon Courtenay GrimwoodEnd of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

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