Jon Courtenay Grimwood
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
CW: How difficult was
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
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
After reading books and the
like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.
CW: Do you read many
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,
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
Jon's website is www.j-cg.co.uk.
End of the World Blues is published by Gollancz on August 17th
Order online using these
links and infinity plus will benefit:
...9tail Fox from Amazon.com
...End of the World Blues from Amazon.com
in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: