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 interview.
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 "Mouse" 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 this sort?
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 to meet?
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 you not?
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 Spider.
The Hundredfold Problem is about to see print again. This one has an interesting history doesn't it?
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 it.
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 or less.
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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