I think the genuine power in the world has always been held by women, behind the scenes...

SFRevu Feature: An interview with Jude FIsher
Conducted by Iain Emsley
Feature Book: Sorcery Rising by Jude Fisher

Bibliography @ Hougton Mifflen

Jude Fisher is a pen name for Jane Johnson, the publishing director for Voyager, the genre imprint HarperCollins UK. As well as Sorcery Rising (Earthlight, Hb £17.99 / Tpb £10.99), she has written the visual companions to the Lord of the Rings films. She also writes as Gabriel King with M. John Harrison.   

 SFRevu: Is there a difference between writing as Jude Fisher and as part of Gabriel King? Is there a difference between the two Jude Fishers as well?

I hate fantasy in which characters speak in a very forced manner and pepper their sentences with 'methinks' and 'prithee' and such.

Jude Fisher:       Oh yes, a big difference. Mike and I created a sort of joint persona for Gabriel King, who wrote a very different sort of fiction to Sorcery Rising, although ostensibly they might both appear to be forms of fantasy. But the cat-novels have a more contemporary tone and are also probably more lyrical. The Fool’s Gold trilogy is epic fantasy, and has in places more of a high style; though I've keep the dialogue as unstilted as possible: I hate fantasy in which characters speak in a very forced manner and pepper their sentences with 'methinks' and 'prithee' and such. I believe very  strongly that a modern reader should feel they can make a connection with every character in a novel, be listening to their conversations as if eavesdropping and might at any moment join in. And, yes, I do think there is a difference between the two Jude Fishers, too; though it's less pronounced. The Lord of the Rings books maintain a style which mirrors Tolkien's own, and is therefore a little more 'high' in style, less colloquial than the novels: but they certainly inhabit a similar universe.

 SFR:  Norse sagas obviously play a large part of this world. Does this come from your background or is it something which attracts you as a form? What were the influences on you for this novel?

 JF:      The first things I can remember choosing to read for myself, rather than things that were pressed upon me at school, were various world myths and legends – the Norse myths, tales of the Greek gods, Arthurian legends; then Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe and retellings of The Iliad and Odyssey.

At university, I was captivated by Beowulf and those bits of Icelandic sagas that we had to translate: it was like being offered a glimpse of a lost world, somewhere I belonged. Partly, the attraction was the intellectual challenge of the translation itself, the fascination of all those bizarrely half-familiar words; partly it was the sheer clarity and elegance of the stories themselves, so understated and laconic, peopled with powerful heroic archetypes and characters summed up in a few elegant sentences; plenty of violence, a strong moral code (often transgressed!) and not many happy endings -- that appealed to a certain morbid side of my personality in my late teens and early 20s. I had, by then, read and been captivated by the Lord of the Rings, and knew Tolkien had borrowed deeply from Nordic literature. When I started reading the originals, something fell into place for me.

There's nothing more exciting than discovering another world and feeling you've found a place in it...

So then, of course, I went on to study the forms further and took a Masters degree in Scandinavian Studies, specialising in Old Icelandic language and literature. (I still love it with a passion; can still pick up a saga and translate chunks [with vocabulary gaps, now]; and in Iceland last year found that though I couldn't speak the language usefully, I could understand much of what was in modern written form, and a certain amount of what was being said.) There's nothing more exciting than discovering another world and feeling you've found a place in it; Iceland and the Nordic sagas feel like home to me: for all the harsh landscapes, the violence and the short life expectancy, I think I might have coped frighteningly well. There's something about the simplicity of simply surviving, of a pared-down, more codified existence that appeals to me more and more as I get older.

Specific influences? Lord of the Rings, of course: no fantasy writer could ever deny that one, and Tolkien has been something of a guardian angel to me; Njals Saga, Laxdaela Saga; Arthurian mythology; tales of Arctic and Antarctic exploration; The Road to Oxiana; Henry Treece; The Persian Boy; Anglo-Saxon poetry.

SFR:   Has your editorial work brought you a differing perspective to writing? Has it affected your choice of subject matter and the style?

 JF:      Actually, I think it works the other way around: my writing has brought a whole new perspective to the publishing! Writing is a deeply complex and mysterious process: until you've wrestled with a novel, I don't think even the best or most intuitive editor can truly understand it; so having experienced the depressions and the near-magical epiphanies has, I think, made me a much better editor.

 SFR:  You seem to subvert the standard tropes, such as the novice's journey, which effectively happens on two different levels. Virelai begins his true journey towards magic when he is shown the various futures but he also begins the journey towards full awareness of the meaning of magic with his journey with the Rosa Eldi.

...sex. It's one of humankind's major motivators, yet is very rarely explored in this type of fiction...

 JF:      Hmm. Virelai. Yes, he's on a very strange trajectory indeed! I know who and what he is, but he still keeps revealing tantalising glimpses of himself to me. Of all my characters, he's the one I understand least. I suspect he may surprise me yet. There is a lot of subversion of the traditional tropes in this series; not least that these are novels largely about that vital element of life largely missing from fantasy literature: sex. It's one of humankind's major motivators, yet is very rarely explored in this type of fiction. It was on one level a deliberate choice to deal with this sort of subject matter, and to populate the fiction with a lot of strong female characters; and probably a turn against my major influence ­­­– Tolkien ­­­­– although I was never one of those irritating readers who decried the lack of women in the Lord of the Rings: heroic literature is, historically, largely a male form, and I was always perfectly happy to take Odysseus, Skarp-Hedinn or Frodo as my viewpoint character. But I not an ancient Greek poet, or a 13th century Icelandic priest, or an Oxford don surrounded by other male academics: I am a modern woman and as such I cannot but help to write about subjects and the sort of people who interest me; and I suspect that is bound to result in a certain amount of subversion!

SFR: You set an intriguing puzzle in regards to the Rosa Eldi and give her a world of possibilities. It is also clear that she holds a greater power than the men? In many ways the power is actually held by the women, but not overtly?

JF:       Spot on! In truth, I think the genuine power in the world has always been held by women, behind the scenes, in the home, giving birth and raising children, running the household and often the farm while the men were away at war; but, yes, the Rosa Eldi is something else again. She may appear to be the ultimate sex-object, but like Virelai, she has a long, strange path to follow; and yes, there's a lot of power to be undammed in that character yet...

SFR:   Commonly magic is a "get out of jail free" card. However, you show the travellers magic to be ineffectual and largely hokum until the wild magic that affects the fair. Is there a system in the chaos? Is this in reaction to the standard fantasy?

Magic should never
be easy

JF:      Magic should never be easy, and everything in the world – even a fictional world –  is linked: I believe that. We live within a system – a huge, great, chaotic system in which it's often hard to see the patterns and the connections, but a system all the same.

To borrow a quote a friend recently shared with me: "All things are connected like the blood which unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself..." (Chief Seattle). And I have to say, as far as the magic goes: you ain't seen nothing yet. Such fun to come!

SFR: What struck me about Sorcery Rising was its humanness, rather than concentrating upon the action as so many fantasy novels do?

I like the sense that all my characters have an objective existence of their own, that their lives go on without any interference from me

JF:       I'm glad you say that: it's people who matter: action should be generated by character, I believe: and if your cast of characters is sufficiently varied and interesting, the action should follow suit. It's easy for fantasy novelists to create stereotypical characters, especially those in the background or not immediately in the limelight. I like the sense that all my characters have an objective existence of their own, that their lives go on without any interference from me, until I chance upon them and pick them up at different times. They're constantly taking me by surprise: one of my male characters was supposed to sacrifice himself for the sake of the maddening Katla Aransen at the end of Sorcery Rising; but instead of throwing himself into the flames and dying like a good boy, he goes sailing off into the sunset with another woman! Despite my lack of control of him, he's one of my favourite characters: probably because of my lack of control, really: it's the men you can't control who are really interesting!

SFR: What do you think about the current fantasy scene? In the light of the British scene currently having a revival, what would your thoughts on this be?

JF:       Not sure about the latter part of that statement: haven't seen vast evidence of that, myself; though I'm very proud to publish Jan Siegel and soon Stan Nicholls. But there is some wonderful fantasy around: Robin Hobb and George RR Martin are, I think, producing absolutely superb and groundbreaking work.

Editing writers of such calibre is a joy: I read them as a reader before I ever attempt to work on the text as an editor. For me, that's what it's all about: casting such a spell around the reader that you can bypass all their critical faculties and sweep them away into this great big new world you've made; make that world more real to the reader than the one they're sitting in while they're reading it and that's the magic at the heart of the process.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu