Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Authorsday: John Grant
How long have you been writing?
Since the early 1980s. I began my career in the late 1960s in book publishing, becoming an editor/editorial director before eventually being "downsized" from a company that was far from London – i.e., far from where, to an even greater extent than now, UK publishing was all happening. I had a small child, and thus no wish to move back to the big city. The options open to me were (a) writing and (b) freelance editing, both of them pretty precarious occupations, so I decided to try doing both and see which one turned out best. In the event, both strands of my new career took off simultaneously, and I never quite had the nerve to drop one or the other. The result was a couple of decades of gross overwork.
More recently, since I moved here to the States, the freelance-editorial aspect of my life has dropped off considerably – I don't have the bits of paper that US editorial managers like – but I've picked up a lot more ghosting work. Also, until a few years ago I was, even though based here, commissioning the books for the UK fantasy-art imprint Paper Tiger and being a general US stringer for that company.
How did you pick the genre you write in?
I don't know that any longer I write in such a thing as a genre – and certainly I don't write in just a single genre. I used to think of myself as a fantasy/sf writer (at least, when I wasn't writing nonfiction, which represents some two-thirds of my output), but I'm not so sure that's true any longer. Some of my stories definitely do still fall into standard categories, sort of – for example, my story "Memoryville Blues", which Pete Crowther and Nick Gevers recently bought for The Anthology Formerly Known As Postscripts, could easily be thought of as horror or urban fantasy – but a lot of other pieces tend to be a bit more confusing, especially when I'm playing with what people regard as genre tropes. My most recent novel, Leaving Fortusa, seems to have created exactly this confusion: it's kind of a series of linked cameos on dystopian/If This Goes On themes, which are normally thought of as being in the province of sf, but . . . well, as a friend put, I really threw everything in. The result really belongs to no genre at all – in my opinion it's a mainstream novel in the sense that, say, John Barth's novels are mainstream. Some of the reviewers got this. It was quite amusing watching others fail to do so. Then again, my Ed McBain homage The City in These Pages, while in essence a cosmological fantasy taking the form of a police procedural, got a very favorable review in one of the crime/mystery venues. My story "The Life Business", which appeared in the recent Gerard Brennan/Mike Stone-edited anthology Requiems for the Departed, is a psychological thriller, yet at least one of the crime-fiction reviewers has read it as a fantasy. And so on.
A quite different example would be "The Lonely Hunter", a novella that's coming out next year. Although this reads (I hope!) as if it were a fantasy and maybe also as a literary murder mystery, in the event it's really a mainstream story about writing, about imagination, and about wish-fulfillment/self-delusion. I love it to pieces! As it's coming from PS Publishing, who're more normally associated with dark fantasy and the like, it'll be interesting to see what readers make of it.
It's maybe no surprising that these days I'm reading a lot more translated fiction than I used to. Many of the authors working outside the anglophone cultures are far less worried about this whole genre business than we are. Where, for example, would you classify something like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind? At the moment I'm reading The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez; the US publishers have tried to present it as a quirky murder mystery (and, to judge by the review quotes, many of the reviewers have tried to jam it into that mental category too), but that seems to me to miss its point(s).
What was the name of the first novel you wrote? Did you try to publish it?
The first novel I started writing was when I was about seven. It was called The Ghost of Horror Mansion, and I was maybe a dozen handwritten pages into it – representing some 15 whole chapters, you understand – when it all began to seem too much like hard work. My first full novel I wrote in my teens, and sadly the title is now lost to me. I do remember it was all angsty and acned and "clever", and that about 95% of the way through it dawned on me that this was all godawful. I finished it for the sake of being able to say I'd finished it, but I never looked at it again and somewhere along the line it found the landfill of its dreams.
My first actual published novel was The Dark Door Opens, which was the first in a series of 12 I wrote as a companion series to Joe Dever's Lone Wolf game books. I'd published a bunch of nonfiction books by then, of course, but at most a handful of stories, so when I was commissioned to write these novels it was a bit of a jump in at the deep end. At the time I never thought that, 25 years later, those books would still be around. As it is, Joe and I are expecting their latest reissue – from DarkQuest – sometime soon. (They were due to start reappearing this past spring, but there've been delays.)
What do you know now that you are published that you didn’t know pre-published that you wish you knew?
How difficult it is to make a living doing this.
How many rejections have you received?
About a billion, I should think – and that's even before you start counting the ones I got in my teens, when I was busily beavering away writing short sf stories that mercifully never saw the light of day. As soon as I finished one – and that was quite often, because 2000 words was in those days a major epic as far as I was concerned – I'd send it off to the magazine New Worlds, whose staff were inordinately kind and encouraging in their rejection letters. I used to keep a collection of those letters, from Mike Moorcock et al., in a hardback binder, which unfortunately I lost over the years: I'm sure it'd have been of interest to some scholar somewhere to see quite how generous these good people were with their time. Anyway, back from New Worlds the stories would eventually come, and so off I'd send them at once to the other Brit spec-fic mag that was running at the time, Science Fantasy (later Impulse and SF Impulse). This meant that to my collection of kindly rejection letters I could now add similar ones from the likes of Keith Roberts!
There were giants in those days, I tell you, and most of them rejected a few stories of mine at some stage or another along the way . . .
What other time period besides your own would you like to experience?
I used to really, really, wish I could visit the wonderful hi-tech future we all thought was coming down the line – flying cars! 3D television! starships! jetpacks! inexhaustible sex robots! What was there not to love? Nowadays, alas, I don't think we have a future.
What is the one thing your heroes would do that you wouldn’t?
My heroes and heroines do all kinds of stuff that I wouldn't. When I'm writing a piece of fiction, one of the first things that happens – sometimes it's the first, even before the story idea occurs to me – is that the focal character pops into my mind. There's then a period when I'm trying to get into that character's head, find out what makes them tick – become that character, in a sense . . . which can be a bit frightening for those around me, depending on the character! (Obviously the setup's not quite that simple, because most stories will have more than one focal character, but this is the gist of it.) I think it's because of this way of progressing that I most often write in the first person.
Later, when I'm writing the story, really it's a case of my following that character to see what s/he does – and often these are things I'd never dream of doing myself. For example, I'm a very convinced pacifist, yet some of my characters can be pretty violent. To stick with the obvious, there are different romantic/sexual attractions too, especially when my focal characters are female or, as in one story, male but gay. I suppose one of the big attractions of writing fiction is to find out what it would be like if you were a completely different person.
Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?
A bit of a mixture, really. As I say, it's usually a matter of my characters taking me along for the ride, so my fiction can go some pretty unexpected places – unexpected to me, at least. That said, I generally have a fairly clear idea of the end of the story before I begin writing, so it's not an entirely unguided process. I think, though, that if it ever became a matter of just following a preconstructed skeleton – a sort of paint-by-numbers exercise – I'd do something else instead. Even when I was writing those old Lone Wolf novels, where necessarily a good deal of plot had been worked out in advance, I was still allowed to introduce fairly centrally a few loose-cannon characters so that I never quite knew how I was going to match up the fiction to the pre-existing plot.
One of the more minor of those characters was a parody S&S barbarian warrior called Thog the Mighty. By a very complicated process, he gave his name to the Thog's Masterclass feature of Dave Langford's newszine Ansible.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm due to deliver by the end of the year a nonfiction book called Denying Science, which Prometheus will publish next fall. It's proving to be an immense labor, for the very good reason that science denialism has been reaching a kind of crescendo in the past few years, with the USA at the forefront. People don't like the fact that science says we've got to change our ways in a hurry or climate change is basically going to put an end to our civilization PDQ, so, rather than take constructive action, they convince themselves there must be something wrong with the science – just like there had to be something wrong with the science that told us smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. It's all very kindergarten. Of course, climate change isn't the only field in which people are busily denying science: we have the anti-vaxers rejecting the science that demonstrates conclusively there's no connection between vaccination and autism; there are the people who'll swear blind AIDS is exclusively a "gay plague" and anyway a manmade virus; there are the creationists and the IDiots, as ever busily denying the science of evolution; and so on and on and on. You even get state governors, for purely political reasons, denying scientific evidence in order not to pardon wrongfully convicted prisoners, as happened – disgustingly – in the Cameron Todd Willingham case a few years back. And then there's . . .
In what I laughingly describe as my spare time, I've just finished doing an extended essay on time-travel literature for a scholarly book on sf subgenres that Keith Brooke's putting together for publication next fall by Palgrave-Macmillan, The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction: Strange Divisions and Alien Territories, and I've been asked to do all the art entries for the massive new online third edition of the Clute/Nicholls (now Clute/Nicholls/Langford) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for whose second edition I was dogsbody editor 'way back when. I'm making notes for a book on failed predictions of the end of the world and a big encyclopedia of film noir; trying to finish a short story; and spurring my agent on to sell a "for children of all ages" bedtime book called The Velociraptor who Came for Christmas, fabulously illustrated by Chris Baker.
You've won two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, a Locus Award and a bunch of others. Any recent developments on the awards front?
Under my real name, Paul Barnett, I ran the fantasy-artbook imprint Paper Tiger for a while, and for this work I was lucky enough to earn a Chesley Award and a nomination for the World Fantasy Award. I suppose I should add that just recently the title of my 2008 novel The Dragons of Manhattan won the Meager Puddle of Limelight Award – an annual piece of fun organized by writer Jon Gibbs.
Actually, I say The Dragons of Manhattan came out in 2008, but that's really just the year of its book publication. I originally wrote the novel as an online serial for the (alas, now deceased) international journalism site BlueEar. I had to produce a new piece of text, short or long, for them three times a week until the book was done, and so devising a structure for the novel that could accommodate those times when I was up to my eyes in other things proved something of a challenge. Then, once the book was finished, it was bought as a three-part serial – novella-sized parts – for the fiction magazine Argosy, which sadly folded after just one episode. And then finally came the printed book.
But I digress . . .
John Grant is author of some 60 books, including novels like The World, The Far-Enough Window and most recently The Dragons of Manhattan and Leaving Fortusa. His Dragonhenge, illustrated by Bob Eggleton, was shortlisted for a Hugo in 2003. His first collection, Take No Prisoners, appeared in 2004. His anthology New Writings in the Fantastic was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. In nonfiction, he has coedited with John Clute The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and written all three editions of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters. Among recent nonfictions are Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and Bogus Science. His website is at www.johngrantpaulbarnett.com.
Book Blurb: since Dragons has just won Jon's award ...
The supposed leaders of a nation remarkably like today's America hope the populace never discovers who’s really in charge – ancient shapeshifting dragons that regard our species' survival as an item somewhere near the bottom of the agenda.
Sacked editor Norris Gonfalcon and femme fatale Jasmine Frimhalt investigate the apocalyptic schemes of the most powerful of all the dragons, Buster Maltravis, pillar of Wall Street. Aided by a depressive arms fetishist with fundamentalist convictions, an investigative journalist with Attitude, a self-styled “panhandler’s panhandler” and a pair of implausible virgins (as bait), Norris and Jasmine head for an inevitable showdown upon whose outcome depends . . . something.
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Many thanks for doing me so proud.
Great interview, John. Your work sounds fascinating and it's nice to see another author who has been writing books since childhood.
Chris, I think you do a great job on your blog and passed on a blog award to you. I needed to think of blogs to pass the award on to and yours immediately came to mind. The link is at http://bit.ly/baJhiY. If you want to pass it on, you can write up a post sometime listing 8-15 deserving blogs and download the jpeg from my blog post.
Best wishes to both of you.
Thanks Stacy. I will try to get to that this weekend.
Thanks John for joining me.
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