Each story from John Grant is like a single facet
of a larger jewel. Just as the surrealist
Salvador Dali utilized the repetition of certain images and themes across
his body of work, so Grant weaves characters, gods and images through
all of his novels and stories -- each part of a brilliantly conceived
cosmology that rivals in richness the work of famous fantasist Michael
Moorcock and HP Lovecraft. But John Grant is merely the penname of Paul
Barnett, the Commissioning Editor of Paper Tiger -- the world's leading
publisher of fantasy art books (and the US Reviews editor of this very
website, among other things). Under name and pseudonym combined, "John
Grant" and Paul Barnett have authored some sixty books, including the
Hugo-award winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy (with John Clute).
Recent works include Dragonhenge, a collaboration with Bob Eggleton,
and his fairytale The Far-Enough Window. He's also a hell of
a nice guy, so it was with genuine pleasure that I conducted the following
First of all, I should say that I feel like I'm interviewing
two persons -- John Grant the writer and Paul Barnett the editor. As
you know, I slip all the time and call you "John" in personal correspondence,
and I've taken to just referring to you as John-Paul now. So let's talk
about your dual role as editor & writer and how the two hats you
wear play off each other.
It really started when I was thrown out of work as a senior commissioning
books editor in 1980. I was living in Exeter -- a long way from London,
which was where most of the UK publishing jobs were -- and I had no
money and a wife and young daughter to support. Because of the young
daughter, I didn't anyway much want to move back to London; better,
I thought, that she should spend her childhood away from the big city.
So my only option was freelance work -- either as an editor or as a
writer, or, nervously backing two horses, both. At the time I'd published
a couple of books with David & Charles (where I'd earlier worked
as a senior commissioning editor) under the house name I'd created especially
for those, John Grant. It seemed sensible to launch my fledgling writing
career using a name that already had a couple of books under its belt.
Now, of course, I wish I'd not taken that decision; it causes a fair
amount of confusion, and anyway "John Grant" is a lousy name for a writer,
because it lacks any ... hm ... memorability. But I'm stuck with
it, especially since winning the Hugo under that name.
Of course, the original idea was that, once I'd worked out which of
the two horses was going to win the race, I'd jump onto it and regard
the other as merely an ancillary ride, as it were. But I've never yet
quite managed the trick. So I now have a full-time career as Paul Barnett
the editor -- notably for Paper Tiger, although that's by no means the
only editorial function I perform -- and another full-time career as
John Grant the writer. It makes for a busy life, and often a complicated
one; and it can make me pretty difficult to work with, too, I guess.
The dichotomy between the two halves of my life was really hammered
home to me at the recent World SF Convention in San Jose, actually,
and so I've been introspecting quite a lot about it these past few weeks.
Consider: At the convention I was lucky enough to receive a Chesley
Award for my role as Commissioning Editor of Paper Tiger, while two
of my special Paper Tiger "babies" -- books I'd commissioned and edited
(and indeed copy-edited) -- were shortlisted for the Hugo: The Art
of Richard Powers by Jane Frank and The Art of Chesley Bonestell
by Ron Miller and Fred Durant, the latter book winning the award. That
was, when I thought about it later, a pretty fair accolade for an editor
to receive at a single convention. Yet I myself still feel that
my more important work is what I've done as a writer, and more specifically
as a fantasy writer.
Your role in animation began with The Encyclopedia
of Walt Disney's Animated Characters. How did this come about?
That was all a bit weird, to tell you the truth. An editor with whom
I'd done a lot of work over the years, Christopher Fagg, one day asked
me to come up to London to have lunch with him. I assumed this was merely
because he'd recently switched companies, and was wanting to discuss
various projects he was wanting me to take over. However, on the way
to the restaurant he suddenly announced that his girlfriend would be
joining us. Eh? Chris and I had known each other a goodish while,
but we weren't so close that I should, as it were, be giving second
opinions on his girlfriends! So the three of us chatted away over the
lunch table, me growing steadily more mystified, until suddenly this
extremely charming woman -- Charlotte Parry-Crooke, who has since become
a very dear friend -- announced that she was Editorial Director of the
Justin Knowles Publishing Group, and had been sussing me out, at Chris's
recommendation, as possible author of a mammoth project she was planning
to commission: the Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters.
I explained that, while I enjoyed Disney animations as much as the
next man, and indeed quite often went to see them whether or not I had
a child in tow by way of excuse, I didn't actually know that much about
them, or even about animation as a whole. She countered by saying that
this was less important than my abilities as an encyclopedist -- and
a fast learner. She was a lot more confident about this than I was,
but I agreed to take the job on anyway; and over the next couple of
years I did indeed become knowledgeable about animation, fell in love
with it, and became a great crusader for it as a medium.
I still adore animation -- as witness my recent book Masters of
Animation -- and would like to write a bunch more books on the subject,
up to and including The Encyclopedia of Animated Movies, of course.
There's a major proposal for such a work floating around US publishing
at the moment, in fact, assuming my agent's doing his job; but the reaction
of all the publishers seems to be that it should be a 90,000-word book
that's mainly pictures -- a recipe for commercial disaster -- even though
what the readership wants is a million-word book, pictures optional.
I've sadly come to the conclusion that the book will never happen because
of this disparity between publishers' preconceptions and what is actually
wanted and will actually sell. But, as I say, there's a bunch of other,
less ambitious animation books I'd like to write.
The Legends of the Lone Wolf series
was your introduction (and initiation) to writing fantasy fiction, wasn't
it? What was it like cutting your teeth on a game tie-in?
I'd actually made a few minor contributions to, ahem, the literature
of the fantastic before this: aside from the sf anthology I'd edited,
Aries 1 (there never was an Aries 2, alas!), I'd written
two humorous sf/fantasy-sort-of fiction books, Sex Secrets of Ancient
Atlantis and The Truth About the Flaming Ghoulies, not to
mention the parody disaster novel Dave Langford and I had done together,
Earthdoom. So I wasn't a complete virgin. However, I was a bit
startled when I was asked to write this series of novels -- initially
four of them, in the end twelve -- because this type of high, fighting
fantasy wasn't the sort of fantasy I'd hitherto been much interested
in. Indeed, I'll go further than that: at the time I wasn't much interested
in fantasy at all, because too much of what I'd read was the
kind of generic crap that still, sadly, constitutes most of what's published
in the field. It seemed to me that fantasy, as a literary form, was
a dead end; all the good stuff had already been done by people like
C.S. Lewis and George Macdonald and Alan Garner and Lewis Carroll and
Mervyn Peake and Diana Wynne Jones and ... In short, I was a bit ignorant,
and hadn't realized the possibilities within fantasy. I've since become
a complete convert, to the point that I will argue at great length to
anyone prepared to listen that fantasy is the single most important
form of literature the human species has ever invented, and, as such,
is one of the most important means of expression available to us.
The novels started off as mere tie-ins, but I had the advantage of
having a publisher who was completely ignorant of fantasy and completely
uninterested in learning anything about it. The first half-dozen or
so of the novels were marked by constant arguments, and a couple of
them were butchered before publication; but thereafter the publisher
got bored and more or less left me to do as I pleased. Which was great!
What I was able to do was, with only a couple of exceptions, make each
of the novels different from each other in tone, atmosphere, "feel",
construction, style, you name it, so that I could get away from that
awful tie-in drabness you so often see and produce novels that were
actually, you know, novels. I always remind people that, if they
properly want to understand what I'm up to as a fantasist, they should
read The Birthplace, which was #7 in the series, plus a couple
of the others, notably The Rotting Land (#12).
There's a nice postscript to the story. I've recently been in touch
with an Italian publisher who wants to reissue the whole series in four
three-novels-apiece volumes, with me "reconstituting" the texts the
way they ought originally to have been published -- and at the same
time allowing me, in the earlier novels, to quietly amend some of my
more egregious deficiencies as a quasi-youthful writer. It's going to
be a vast amount of work, of course; but once I have the "real" texts
set in order for them I'll be able to hawk the books around publishers
in the English-language market as well.
What was it like working with Joe Dever?
Joe and I are like chalk and cheese, which means we've always gotten
along extremely well! Essentially, Joe would give me a map of a possible
route through the gamebooks, and this would serve as one strand of the
plot -- that strand involving the character Lone Wolf himself. But the
novels and the series as a whole -- the metanovel, if you like -- ended
up having a very complicated, multi-stranded plot, and in some of the
books Lone Wolf was almost a peripheral character. For example, The
Birthplace and The Book of the Magnakai, which are thematically
a single novel although they have quite different feels to them -- the
former is pretty serious metaphysical stuff while the latter's more
a fun, adventurous romp with a lot of jokes in -- are actually about
Qinifer, with the latter also being about Thog the Mighty. Once I'd
written the books, Joe would check through them to make sure I'd done
nothing that'd conflict with the rest of the Lone Wolf canon, and that
was it. It was very kind of him not to interfere too much -- just to
have confidence that I knew what I was doing.
That seventh book of that series, The Birthplace,
ranks as one of your "important" fantasies. Is this where your ideas
on the polycosmos first began to crystallize? Is it a problem that characters
like Qinifer and Alyss occupy not just the world of Lone Wolf but also
the rest of the polycosmos?
It was really as a result of two books together, The World and
The Birthplace, that the polycosmos all began to come together
in my head. Initially I was going to call it the Multiverse, but of
course Mike Moorcock had already snatched that term for himself; although
the two concepts are pretty distinct, they do have their similarities,
and so of course it'd have been stupid for me to re-use the name. So,
a quick switch a better Greek form and -- presto! I now think the term
"polycosmos" is a much better description of the concept than my original
notion of "multiverse".
Because of the nature of the polycosmos, characters like Qinifer and
Alyss -- indeed, all characters, real or fictional -- have
to co-exist in all possible real, created or dreamt worlds; it's just
that, obviously, I tell the stories of only relatively few of that transfinite
infinity of individuals! Of course, they're playing hugely different
roles in their various manifestations, and the relationships between
them can vary quite dramatically, but the essence of them remains the
same. The actual mechanics of how all this comes about is explained
in The World. In The Birthplace Qinifer comes close to
a realization -- or maybe a revelation -- of it all, but at the last
gasp is constrained by the fact that she can think of her encounter
with the Birthplace of the title solely in physical terms, solely in
parochial, one-world terms. Yet even that encounter with the ineffable
(although I hate that word!) changes her, so that later on, in stories
that haven't all been told yet, she gains the understanding to be able
to put it all together -- which means that eventually she puts the truth
about herself together as well.
This series is where Thog the Mighty (and
his subsequent Masterclass) initially comes from, yes?
Indeed. He was initially just a nonce-character introduced for a quick
two-page joke encounter with Alyss -- a seedy over-the-hill berserker
who'd seen better days and thought he could mug this little slip of
a girl, not realizing she was a godling -- but I liked him enough that
I reintroduced him later in a slightly larger role. Then he decided
he's like to become one of the lynchpins of The Book of the Magnakai
-- and who was I to refuse? Around this time Dave Langford and I were
doing the newsletter for a British Eastercon, and we started putting
in some Thog the Mighty jokes. A couple of years later, at another Eastercon,
we were again doing the newsletter and we came up with the idea of Thog's
Masterclass as filler material we could prepare in advance of the con.
That item proved so popular at the con that Dave decided to continue
it in Ansible ... and the rest is history.
Every now and then Dave and I mull over the notion of doing a Thog's
Masterclass book-length collection -- and Ursula K. Le Guin volunteered
forcefully to supply the Foreword -- but nothing much has ever come
of it. I also dickered for a while with the notion of a series of Thog
the Mighty comedy novels -- taking him into a completely different region
of the polycosmos (even into sciencefictional venues, in fact) -- and
John Jarrold, then at Legend (Random Century's UK sf imprint, now defunct),
was eager to publish it, but his Marketing Dept wouldn't let him, presumably
on the tried and true adage that "Comic Fantasy Never Sells".
Now we come to Albion and The World
-- this latter book probably being your most ambitious and important
work, and certainly the work where your ideas of the Polycosmos crystallize
and grow. Did these works grow out of, or in opposition to, the groundwork
you laid in Lone Wolf?
Well, sort of yes and no. The stuff I was up to in the Lone Wolf books
had convinced me that there was a lot that could be done with High Fantasy,
something I'd not have credited before. Also, though by this time I
was being allowed quite a lot of creative freedom in the Lone Wolf books,
there were some things -- including ridiculously trivial things, like
using the word "shit" -- that I wasn't allowed to do. So Albion
represented for me something of an unfurling of the wings, an exploring
of the freedoms I'd discovered existed within fantasy that weren't being
explored by most of the other kids in the playpark.
Even at the time I thought that first flight wasn't a frightfully successful
one, but the critics disagreed and, far more importantly, so did my
publisher, who was I think appalled when I turned in the manuscript
of The World to her. (The book ended up being published in the
middle of December, doom time for any book, so that by the time the
generally astonishingly good reviews started coming in the book was
halfway to the remainder tables.) It was supposed to be a nice, cozy
bit of formulaic High Fantasy, and yet here was me bringing in stuff
from quantum mechanics, telling bits of the story in a vaguely Damon
Runyonesque style, switching between one reality and another, smashing
universes together, and so on and so on and so on. The structure of
the book mimicked that of a black hole, with the first part as the accretion
disk, the second as the plummet from the event horizon to the singularity,
and the third the emergence into the fresh "elsewhere"; I tried to get
some of that into the various writing styles I used, too. There was
lots of other stuff in there as well. I'm still amazed by my ambitions
in writing that book, and even more amazed that -- in my entirely objective
judgment, you understand -- I pulled it all off. Much of the time I
was writing the book it was as if I were simply sitting in front of
the screen letting my fingers dart around the keyboard, as surprised
as anyone else by the way the story unfolded.
Of course, The World having been such a predetermined commercial
disaster, the publisher was none too keen on taking on the other intimately
related novels I wanted -- and still want -- to write, of which there
are three. Their titles are, in case you're interested, Empire,
Beast and The Spider. Those are the ones that are, as
I say, "intimately related", but of course the bulk of the fiction I've
written since then jigsaws in with The World in some way or another,
as you know.
While we're on it, can we get a definition of the
polycosmos now and how you conceived of this intricate cosmology? I
love that characters like Thog and Qinifer and the Girl-Child LoChi
weave through your work like threads, or musical chords in a jazz riff
reinterpreted over and over throughout the larger song. But sometimes
this means that I feel left out of the larger story -- because while
I've read a lot of your work, I haven't read it all.
And what better excuse could there be to rush out and read it all?
If I could "define" the polycosmos in just a few words I wouldn't have
to write so much about it! Normally it takes me about half an hour and
a lot of waving of hands. I guess in essence it's sort of the sum of
all possible worlds, "real" and created, interrelated, mutually influencing
each other and sharing similar skeletons, as it were, overlapping in
ways yet in other ways impermeably distinct ... you see, already I'm
waving my hands in the air! Your question is rather like: "Define 'love'!"
The idea that you only ever see a part of the whole is intrinsic to
my way of thinking and hence to my fiction. It's something I explored
very frontally in The Birthplace and also in a short story called
that you published in your anthology Outside the Box. Did I ever
tell you that I'm a great fan of Godel's Theorem? Extending that philosophically
-- as Bertrand Russell did in a far posher fashion than I ever could
-- you get to the realization that no worldview can ever be complete
... which of course links up to the Uncertainty Principle on the one
hand and to the Islamic notion, on the other hand, that only God can
create the perfectly complete and the completely perfect. Each of those
incomplete worldviews is, of course, a completely viable world in itself
so far as the polycosmos is concerned ...
I'm waving my hands in the air again, aren't I?
You mix science and magic in some interesting combinations
in several of your tales. Let's talk about writing "quantum fantasy."
To be honest, I think a question like this reflects an almost universal
misconception concerning what fantasy is. There seems to have
grown up this notion that the boundaries of fantasy should for some
unknown reason be strictly limited -- you know, wizards, dragons, unicorns,
elves, berserkers, virgin princesses, pigboys-who-shall-be-king, all
that sort of stuff is within the remit of fantasy, as are Native American
spirits in modern cities and so on, but outer space isn't. It's as if
you were to tell someone: yes, it's all right for you to use your imagination,
but not too much -- rather like the Soviets repressed so much
fantasy literature because they thought it was dangerous. That was the
biggest compliment ever paid to fantasy, of course, because fantasy
should be dangerous, and (in the broadest sense of the term)
subversive, and threatening to the status quo of the reader's mind.
In the West, of course, we have very much the same sort of censorship
of fantasy in place, only because it's a commercially motivated one
(and in commercial terms misguided, in my opinion) we don't call it
"censorship" but instead say it's "market forces", or some such.
My very strong feeling is that fantasy should be allowed to do anything
it damn well pleases, should explore every possible venue, should be
as unconstrained as it wants to be. The fantasy writer's playground
should be one with infinitely distant boundaries.
So when I take my fantasy into the kinds of territories more commonly
associated with science fiction, I don't feel I'm "mixing" anything
-- all I'm doing is going into a rather unpopulated part of fantasy's
natural playground. There was a fantasy story of mine called "The Glad
Who Sang a Mermaid In from the Probability Sea" that was published in
Interzone. Before offering it to Interzone I had offered
it to a couple of fantasy-anthology editors over here and been told
very firmly that it wasn't fantasy, it was science fiction -- just because
it was set in large part in between our Galaxy and the Andromeda spiral.
It didn't have a mermaid in it (well, sort of didn't ...), despite the
title, but it was a full-blooded fantasy nevertheless. In fact, I discovered
some time after the award had gone to someone else that the story had
been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award, so clearly someone
recognized what I was up to. Similarly, a short fantasy novel of mine
called Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi (soon to be published
as half of a "double" book, the other half being Colin Wilson's The
Tomb of the Old Ones) was widely bounced by fantasy editors on the
grounds that it was "obviously horror" just because I'd drawn on the
werewolf archetype for a small part of the story -- not even werewolves,
just the idea of them!
So I guess you could say that I'm one of those rare members of the
Fantasy Liberation Front! Fortunately I'm not the only one, but it gets
pretty lonely nevertheless ...
The Hugo Award-winning mammoth Encyclopedia
of Fantasy. I'm aware that's a statement, not a question -- but
the work itself is a pretty amazing statement.
Er, yes. That was several years of my life. It helped formulate my
ideas of what fantasy ought to be doing, but too often isn't -- as indeed
has my long-term professional relationship with my dear friend John
Clute. It wasn't in the context of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy
at all that John has had his biggest-ever influence on my thinking concerning
the playground fantasy writers ought to be playing in. There used to
be -- perhaps still is -- a workshop in Britain called Bl*t, a sort
of one-day mini-Milford that happens every few months at someone's home.
At one of these Bl*ts I presented the first half of my long fantasy
story "Snare". People said nice things about it, and obviously asked
me what I planned to do with the second half. I said that I hadn't made
up my mind yet, but what I really wanted to do was have it as
an apparent ghost story in which there wasn't a ghost, for the very
good reason that the person whose ghost was haunting the narrator wasn't
actually dead (that's a poor description, but at least it's short.),
only I didn't think I could get away with doing that because everyone
would hate it. John turned to me and said, "Look, Paul, if that's what
you want to do then fucking well do it." I can be slow to learn,
but I wasn't that day. As soon as he said the words I realized that
I'd been allowing my own fantasy to be governed by other people's narrow
preconceptions of what fantasy should be allowed to do. It was intensely
liberating. So I went home and finished the story the way I wanted
it, and sure enough all the editors hated it because it "wasn't fantasy"
until Sean Wallace took the plunge and published it in his Strange
Pleasures anthology and the next thing I knew it was getting an
hon mensh in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.
The e-zine The Paper Snarl has grown
to become a major part of your output. What is its history?
Actually, the Snarl isn't a major part of my output at all ...
although a bunch of the interviews I've done for it have recently been
published as a book, called (lemme think now) The Paper Tiger Fantasy
Art Gallery. I had to think there because the book was originally
to be called The Paper Snarl Interviews, which I think would
have been a much better title. Whatever, it seems to have done pretty
well, because there's a second volume penciled in for Spring 2004.
The Snarl is in abeyance at the moment, by the way, and it looks
ominously as if this state may be a permanent one. A pity, because I
reckon the zine has done more than anything else (aside from the artists,
of course!) to put the revived Paper Tiger on the map, especially in
the USA, but the decision's not mine.
Let's talk about recent and upcoming works. I understand
that the just-released Perceptualistics: The Art of Jael is a
book you've wanted to do for some time.
You bet! Ever since I saw a painting
of Jael's called The Dream Lives a good few years ago I've wanted
to see a book of her work. Then, a few years back, at the World Fantasy
Convention in Providence, RI, I met her for the first time -- it was
the late Ron Walotsky who banged our two heads together -- and also
went along to her slide show. Yes, there were some nice fantasy illustrations
up there on the screen ... but then suddenly she showed a painting that
was completely different: basically abstract, but absolutely stuffed
with that fantasy sensibility -- you know, the zing you feel
when suddenly fantasy takes off. Pam and I looked at each other in the
gloom, mouths open. Jael showed a few more of similar type in among
the straightforward stuff, and my feeling was, "Why the fuck is she
bothering with fantasy illustration when she can do this?" So
over the years Pam and I basically bullied Jael into becoming more public
with these Perceptualistics, as she calls them. Nowadays she shows them
at convention art shows -- successfully -- and of course eventually
I persuaded her to publish a book of them. She got her revenge, though:
she told me she'd only agree to do the book if I agreed to write it.
So there I was in a cleft stick ... For the second time, in fact, because
Anne Sudworth insisted that I write her book Enchanted World.
A nice postscript is that Jael, who has since become a very dear friend
of ours, generously allowed me to use The Dream Lives -- the
painting that started it all -- as the cover image for the almost-impossible-to-find
reissue of The World.
Your upcoming fantasy novel, The Far-Enough Window,
is a departure for you, isn't it? What led you to write a fantasy of
Um, it's not really a departure at all -- it's just me playing in a
different part of the fantasy writer's naturally entitled playground!
When I was a kid I used to be devoted to reading in bed (anywhere else
as well, but Bed Woz Best), and what I loved above all were the fantasies
by people like George Macdonald and Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll
and H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and C.S. Lewis and ... you
can fill in the rest of the long list for yourself. Thing is, I suddenly
realized a while back that as an adult I still liked those books
-- I still thought, leaving aside my sheer pleasure while reading them,
that they were excellent fantasies. Furthermore, I gained enormous,
almost ecstatic pleasure just from remembering that glow I felt
as a kid tucked up in bed reading one of them. I put all this together
among my slowly jostling brain cells and let it fester for a while.
What I wanted to do was write a shortish novel that would encapsulate
all these feelings for me: it would take the form of a children's fairy
tale like Macdonald's At the Back of the North Wind (one of my
all-time favorite novels) or The Princess and the Goblin, but
would be for grown-ups -- "for grown-ups of all ages", as we put it
on the cover -- and have a definitely late-20th-century riff to it.
Then along came a time when I actually had a couple of weeks to myself
-- a publisher had let me down badly on a signed contract -- and I thought,
"Well, here's the chance to write that novel." Trouble was, I knew the
"feel" of the book but I hadn't yet got a plot for it. I went to bed
that night and, before I went to sleep, just set my mind free to wander
where it wanted to. By the following morning the character Joanna had
entered my mind, and from there on she took care of the plot for me.
But I had only those two weeks before the next slodge of work was due
to come in, so essentially I had to enter a sort of trance state for
a fortnight to write the book.
I gave it to my agent and told him it wasn't a genre fantasy and should
be offered to mainstream editors ... so he offered it to all the genre-fantasy
editors, who naturally turned it down flat -- a couple of them, friends
of mine, mentioned that they'd been puzzled it had been sent to them.
I wasn't sure if I was puzzled or furious, because the agent had done
exactly what I'd told him not to. As far as he was concerned, he'd offered
it to half a dozen editors who all hadn't liked it, so obviously it
was a lousy book. Once I'd moved to the States I asked my new agent
to take it on, but he just said it was a lousy book and he'd never be
able to sell it. Then, for various reasons too complicated to discuss
here, I came across this new small press called BeWrite. Pity about
the name, but I was mightily impressed by what they were doing -- unlike
so many small presses, they seemed really professional about what they
were doing and planning, and the books they'd so far published looked
good. I asked their editorial supremo, Neil Marr, if he'd be open to
a submission; he said yes, and less than a week later he came back to
me saying he adored the book and very, very much wanted to publish it.
Sure enough, Neil's a mainstream editor ...
Right from the start I'd wanted my ol' buddy Ron Tiner to illustrate
it -- all the best of those children's fantasies had had nice black-and-white
illustrations in them, and thus so should this one, to help sustain
the affect I was after. Ron had been a sounding-board when I was initially
thinking the novel over, and he knew precisely what I was after
with it -- he had exactly the same emotions as I had about those childhood
times of being in bed with a good book! Luckily Ron was free to do the
illustrations, and he's done a stunning job -- they're truly lovely.
In writing The Far-Enough Window, you are
stepping into a tradition of children's coming-of-age fantasy stories.
Your novel is very aware of this tradition, with multiple references
to the preceding works of the field, but what constraints did this place
on your narrative? What expectations did it raise that you felt compelled
I didn't feel any constraints at all. I knew what I wanted the book
to do, and I knew what I wanted from it myself; I just sort of sat back
and wrote it, guv. The whole process was utterly natural. I guess if
I'd been thinking, "Wow, I'm doing something a bit different here" I
might have become a bit self-conscious and felt restricted in some way
by the form of the novel, but as I've said I don't think any
longer about fantasy in those terms: as far as I was concerned, I was
simply having the time of my life writing a new fantasy novel, which
was something I hadn't done in a while.
Who is your target audience? There seems to be just
a hint of sublimated sexuality in this. And yes, I admit that is something
that can be said of quite a few of the traditional children's fantasies,
but Alice in Wonderland never had anything like Ron Tiner's illustrations
of Joanna lying butt-naked on the grass.
Only the one illustration! And it's perfectly innocent, at that.
This is, after all, a novel for "grown-ups of all ages". That said,
I did tease Ron something rotten about always making sure he got tits
into the picture somehow ... I'm not in the slightest worried about
any kids who read the book being traumatized by the picture; it's always
struck me that certain sections of society throw up their arms in horror
at the very idea that a child might see a naked body, when any child
can see a naked body by the simple means of going and looking in a mirror.
Yes, the undercurrent of Joanna accepting her own sexuality as part
of her acceptance of all the rest of herself that she's been repressing
is perfectly deliberate -- and I'd say it's more than "just a hint"!
By the end of the book she's gone from being this rather irritatingly
tedious little mouse whose behavior is entirely governed by what other
people (and books, and movies) expect of her to a fully fledged, independent-of-mind
human being. That's what the last line of the novel is all about.
Tell me more about the choice to go with BeWrite
to publish this book? You serve as a Consultant Editor for them, do
The Consultant Editor bit came later. As I said, I was mightily impressed
by their operation from the outset, and this appraisal of them actually
grew as they began publishing The Far-Enough Window -- even though
the whole enterprise is very much run on a shoestring at the moment.
Neil asked me at some point why the big boys hadn't been fighting to
get hold of the novel, and I pointed out that this was not the only
example I knew of a fine piece of fantasy that the big boys wouldn't
touch with a barge-pole; I came across others from time to time during
the natural course of my life, and it was a bit frustrating to me that
I couldn't do anything to help them get into print, as they so richly
deserved to be. Out of that conversation emerged the notion that I should
have this occasional relationship with BeWrite which we dignified by
the title Consultant Editor.
By odd coincidence, just a few days later a writer called Chris Thompson,
to whose self-published story collection Games Dead People Play
I'd given a deservedly highly
favorable review in Infinity Plus, contacted me out of the
blue to say he'd written a novel which he was pretty certain nobody
would like: as I'd been the only reviewer who'd seemed to understand
what he was up to in Games Dead People Play, would I like to
read his novel and see what I thought. Well, I took a look, and I discovered
it was this utterly superb noir fantasy -- a truly lovely piece of work.
So that was the first book I took on for BeWrite. Look out for C.S.
Thompson's A Season of Strange Dreams in a couple of months'
time. I'm proud to have been associated with it.
Back on Far-Enough, I wondered if Qinmeartha
and company would be involved, and wasn't surprised to learn that Qinmeartha
does make a very brief appearance. I wondered whether you'd fit this
book into your particularly continuity or not. Is Joanna really another
form of the Girl-Child LoChi?
Well, she's another manifestation, in a different bit of the polycosmos,
of the Joanna who features in Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi,
so there's every chance that ... However, that's only a part of the
truth. There's much more of it in the as-yet-unwritten novel The
The Hundredfold Problem
is about to see print again. This one has an interesting history doesn't
I'm not sure "interesting" is the right word! Way back when, the UK
publisher Virgin bought the novelization rights in Judge Dredd, expecting
that the upcoming movie would be a smash hit. Of course, the movie was
a lead balloon. Another UK publisher, Boxtree, had bought the book rights
in the movie, and issued just about every tie-in you could think of
-- I don't know if they did 101 Judge Dredd Knitting and Macramé
Tips, but I'd not be surprised. It was much like the saturation
of the market by Dorling Kindersley of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
books a few years later. Of course, when the movie bombed all these
Boxtree books flooded the remainder tables, and in so doing they crushed
the humble little Virgin series, which would probably have continued
doing perfectly healthily if there'd never been a movie.
Virgin had commissioned me to write one in the series. Unable to keep
my eyes open for more than a paragraph at a time while trying to read
the Judge Dredd Manual they'd sent me, and always having had difficulty
reading comic books (I don't know why), I hit on the stratagem of having
a plot that would take Dredd right out of his usual environs and away
from his usual associates, so I set virtually the whole tale inside
a Dyson sphere that had been, billennia before, set around our sun's
hypothetical red dwarf companion star. Then, well, I just had fun writing
a romp that also, er, dabbled quite a lot in theological philosophy
and other light-hearted hijinks. I think -- as of course I would --
that a lot of the jokes are very funny, and indeed the book as a whole.
Oh, yes, and you see another aspect of the Girl-Child LoChi as well
Anyway, with the demise of the series, I got the rights back in the
book. Most of the series' authors -- including my pal Stephen Marley,
who wrote a couple of really good pieces for it -- were kind of stuck,
because of course they didn't hold the copyright in the Judge Dredd
elements of their books. I'd always been very fond of The Hundredfold
Problem, though, and I didn't like to see it lost forever. It was
comparatively simple for me to remove the specifically Judge Dredd references,
and -- bingo! -- I had a novel that was all my own.
I didn't actually think of getting it published until Sean Wallace
of Cosmos -- for some reason I don't recall -- expressed interest. So
I flogged it to him, but then problems with Wildside caused publication
to be interminably delayed. After a couple of years, Sean kindly let
me have the rights back and again Neil Marr at BeWrite happily seized
You have another upcoming book--Dragonhenge,
your collaboration with artist Bob Eggleton. Where did this project
start? Is he illustrating your book or are you scripting his illustrations?
The book is due out around now. It is in fact a genuine collaboration,
so the question about him illustrating or me scripting doesn't apply.
The title was Bob's; we worked up some of the early ideas together;
then I went away and thought for a while. I decided what I wanted to
do with the text was create -- re-create -- the oral mythology of the
long-ago dragon civilization, to create myths of origin, etc., that
the dragons themselves might plausibly have derived themselves. To get
this right, I had to use an oral-type narrative style, deploying scads
of exaggeration and repetition and cadence much as human balladeers
and troubadors did, and also a heightened richness of metaphor -- but
metaphor that might have meant a lot to dragons rather than necessarily
to us humans. In other words, I had to try to make myself think like
a dragon storyteller rather than a human writer.
Once I'd got that settled in my mind, Bob and I started working together
simultaneously on the book, swapping artwork and prose and, most importantly,
ideas both visual and abstract backwards and forwards between us practically
daily -- as I say, it was very much a joint creation. It was extremely
exciting, because it wasn't a way I'd ever worked before. And I'm looking
forward to doing it again: advance sales and rights sales of the book
have been so healthy that we're already being signed up to do the sequel.
This time we're going to be putting the fantasy into sciencefictional
venues, with really vast distances and enormous timescales, so it'll
be a very different book. I still haven't worked out in my head what
the "feel" of the text is going to be ... although Bob's champing at
the bit to get started! But, for me, unless I get the "feel" of any
bit of fiction established in my head there's really no point in beginning;
once I have that "feel", the rest usually takes care of itself ... more
I've glanced at excerpts from the book -- it's a
dragons' take on the polycosmos, isn't it?
Well, rather, it's a mythology born from a bit of the polycosmos I'd
not ever been near before -- a bit that happens to be largely populated
by dragons! Yes, the myths and legends share archetypes with some of
the human myths and legends I've created in other portions of the polycosmos,
so you could say they're really the same "people", but the tales themselves
are entirely new.
We've touched on your views on what fantasy is capable
of. And I've heard you say elsewhere that you consider science fiction
is a subset of fantasy. In closing, can you elaborate on your ideas
about the current state and direction of the genre?
I think that, finally, published fantasy may be recovering the ground
it has so catastrophically lost in the past few decades to generic fantasy
-- a bizarre branch of the romantic novel whose published exemplars
very often bear very little relation to genuine fantasy at all. When
Tolkien created the otherworld of Middle-Earth or Lewis the otherworld
of Narnia -- and, of course, Macdonald before them in his tales for
grown-ups like Phantastes and Lilith -- that was exciting,
that was imaginative, that was fantasy, because they were genuinely
exercising their imaginations to reify lands that had never existed.
The vast bulk of their imitators -- in reality, Tolkien's imitators,
because I reckon many of them haven't read the other authors -- aren't
doing that. Instead, they're setting otherwise pretty mundane tales
in a shared quasi-medieval otherworld that has become so familiar to
us it might as well be Poughkeepsie or Bermondsey. If I came along to
you and said that I'd written a novel that was fantasy because I'd set
it in Poughkeepsie you'd look at me like I was a lunatic -- well, even
more of a lunatic than usual, anyway! -- but that's in effect what a
good many writers of generic "fantasy" are doing.
Please don't take this to mean that all writers of High Fantasy
are just regurgitators or new incarnations of Barbara Cartland. There
are some very fine fantasists who work with High Fantasy; if I had to
put my hand on my heart to name the best of them, I'd probably say Terry
Pratchett, because Terry's Discworld books are -- most of them -- superb
pieces of genuine fantasy, and would remain so even if you stripped
all the jokes out of them. Myself, I prefer them with the jokes,
especially since humor and fantasy are fine bedfellows -- just look
at how outright funny some parts of Peake's Gormenghast books
are -- but that's just me.
Anyway, to get back to the point about the current success real fantasy
is having in making its comeback against the floods of generic fantasy:
I think it's coming about in large part because of the small presses.
As you know, one of my many part-time jobs is as US Reviews Editor of
Infinity Plus, and this has meant that over the past couple of
years I've been reading a heck of a lot of books that almost certainly
wouldn't ordinarily have come my way. This includes rafts of small press
publications, and even a few self-publications, because IP has
the policy of giving all books a level playing-field, regardless of
the fame or obscurity of the author and the size and prominence of the
publisher. What has really impressed me is that perhaps eighty per cent
of the true fantasies I'm reading are coming from the small, even microscopic
presses. Vera Nazarian's recent book Dreams
of the Compass Rose, published by Wildside, is a fine example
of what I mean: it's a High Fantasy, sort of, but because of its construction,
its use of language and above all its fabulous strangeness it's
hard to imagine it having been published by one of the big boys. Naturally,
some of the small press books are real stinkers (especially since few
of the small presses seem ever to edit or proofread, leaving these tasks
to the author), but exactly the same is true of a good proportion of
the fantasy output of the big conglomerates, too. What so many of these
obscure presses are doing is allowing their authors to ... well, "dare
to dare" is probably the best way of describing it. The result is some
truly exhilarating fantasy. And it seems to be what the readers actually
want, because these books sell in healthy numbers despite the fact that
they're given no publicity and -- shamefully -- no support at all by
the established book trade, notably the book stores and most especially
of all the literary editors of the broadsheet newspapers.
I think this resurgence of true fantasy is beginning, slowly at the
moment but still very hopefully, to percolate upwards. I've been enormously
cheered by the success of China Mieville; when I first started reading
his novel The Scar -- I've not yet got to Perdido Street Station
-- I was leaping around the room with delight, because here at last
from a major publisher was a supremely intelligent piece of High
Fantasy. Del Rey, who publish Mieville in the USA, may well be groundbreakers
here, because I was mightily impressed by the intelligence of another
High Fantasy they published last Fall, Alice Borchardt's The Dragon
Queen. A pity Del Rey publishes so much other stuff, really
Anyway, that's where I see the current state of the fantasy genre right
now -- in transition, with all the early signs that the patient is not
dead but can be expected, although there's a long way to go as yet,
eventually to make a full recovery.
I hope so. As I said near the start of our conversation, I believe
firmly in the importance of fantasy as one of the most central expressions
of our humanness -- possibly the most important. It would be
really good to see that significance properly recognized once more.
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