Interview: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com Intervew ISBN/ITEM#: INTJCGrimwood
Date: September 2007 /
Jon Courtenay Grimwood has delighted us with his tales of an alternate Earth where the Ottoman empire never fell, and now with an excellent standalone novel, End of the World Blues which begins and ends in Japan, where coincidentally Jon took time out from enjoying Nippon 2007 to answer a few questions about his characters, writing, and what comes next.
SFRevu: Can I tell you how annoying it is to have all the questions I might ask already posted in a Q&A on your site? By the way, Tony Blair isn't PM anymore. Ha.
Jon: Ah yes, the reason I hate interviews! Like everyone else I'm worried about repeating myself. As for my website, what with Facebook and MySpace and a couple of forums it's a wonder it gets updated at all. You're right, of course, Blair isn't PM anymore... But his political ghost is still dragging its rusting chains through our rotting streets on a daily basis.
SFRevu: I know this is coming a bit late as we're only just getting to read it in the US, End of the World Blues is terrific. Ok, I'm not sure Neku's future timeline segues did anything useful besides planting a foot into SF territory, but I liked the diversion. Still I'd like to know why you didn't just write the story without the SF bit?
Jon: It's Neku's book! Her future time line is crucial. Either it's true, in which case Neku's really is a time traveller... Or it's made up by Neku, in which case those parts of the book are extracts of an SF novel written by one of the characters... Or it's Neku's way of dealing with the slaughter of her entire family. I have my answer, but it's up to the readers to supply their own. Also, crucially for me, the Neku sections were the bits that came into my head first.
SFRevu: Your main characters (Raf, Kit) seem to find themselves on the road to redemption, or at least struggling to reconnect with life. Is that a journey you've made? Would it involve the time you "... spent two years dead for tax reasons at Cassell" you mention on your web bio? I don't suppose you can tell us what that means?
Jon: Sorry, the two years dead for tax reasons was a glib throw away about working at a company I hated for people for whom I had no respect (it was a pretty bleak part of my life). Essentially, I'd been editor for a successful paperback imprint that was brought and strangled with paperwork by people who believed administration could replace talent. The imprint was shut, the company was folded into another, that company was sold. I haven't worked full time in an office since. As for redemption. Yeah, I got a break I didn't deserve sometime back and turned it into a life I like. It's not really something I talk about.
SFRevu: Surfing around to find out something useful to ask you I jumped over to Sam Baker's page. Incidentally, your page says you're married, and hers says she lives with her partner...which is oddly resonant of Kit's relationship with Yoshi, though I assume it's just a matter of webrot (I did mention that Tony Blair isn't PM anymore...right?)
Jon: Okay, Sam's not big on labels. So we've been partners since we started, married or not... As it is, we got married in New York in the early 90s. She lives in London and I live in Winchester. She runs a fashion magazine and I write books, and relax by belting round back roads on my motorcycle. We're both workaholics and see each other at weekends. It works for us.
SFRevu: Oh yeah, the question. Looking at Sam's picture on the web I had the feeling I was looking at Mary, Kit's missing girl. Anything to that?
Jon: You're right... Of course, the Irish look is pretty distinctive anyway. What with the pale skin and flaming red hair. But when I wrote the description of Pirate Mary's picture on the board at the club in Tokyo I had Sam's face in mind. It's always struck me she'd make a really good pirate. It's hard to keep bits of your own and your friends and lovers lives out of novels. I think everything gets used in the end, sometimes more disguised than others.
SFRevu: Is that it? Things got pretty well wrapped up at the end, so I assume we won't be seeing more of Kit, Neku, No Neck and their friends in the rest of a trilogy? I wouldn't mind if we did, mind you.
Jon: Kit gets what he wants. Neku finds a home. No Neck gets Micki and his own bar in Tokyo. Mary finds resolution (vile word). There's no where else for them to go. With Raf, in the Ashraf Bey mysteries, there's always somewhere else. He's got Hani to look after, a complex relationship with Zara, and a city like El Iskandryia is always going to have more crimes to solve. I loved writing End of the World Blues and it's one of my favourite books, but I can't see how I can reprise the characters!
SFRevu: Is it hard to sell standalone stories? Having done the whole gamut of publishing yourself, is the editorial function more or less pro forma? Who was your editor for this book, and what sort of relationship did you have with them?
Jon: No, publishers seem happy enough with standalones. What they tend to do these days is brand the author, so you're getting a X or a Y or, in my case, a JCG novel, rather than a novel set in a particular world or featuring particular characters. Some of my friends send in first drafts and then work with the editor (on a good day), or do what they're told (on a bad day). Because I've been a copy editor and a commissioning editor and a publisher, I tend to edit my own work ruthlessly. There have been books of mine where nothing more than a coma has been changed between delivery and the final book. (And there are critics who would say that's a really bad thing). As for the writer/editor relationship, it's more complicated than it was because now the same book can have two English language editors - in New York or San Francisco, and London - plus a French, Japanese, Polish and Spanish editor, etc. All of them will have ideas.
I'm pretty lucky in that I tend to get on with my editors. Although, these days, a writer's relationship with his/her agent is probably just as important.
SFRevu: So there's no point asking who your favourite SF authors were when you were growing up? When you had your first mind blowing SF experience...or would that go back to the bit about a "large cigar smoking cat in Moscow?"
Jon: For me everything goes back to a large cigar smoking cat in Moscow. I was skulking through my mid teens, feeling as pissed off with existence as only a fifteen year old can feel, and then an aunt (chain smoking, argumentative, highly intelligent) tossed a copy of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita at me and told me to read it. And suddenly everything made sense... In as much as it didn't make any sense at all, and highly intelligent and talented grown ups seemed to think that was fine. Even my first encounter with drugs was less of a revelation.
Obviously, I read all the obvious SF authors and think Asimov's foundation gave me my interest in history! Two books that really hit home were a YA from Alexei Panshin called Rites of Passage (at least I assumed it was a YA when I read it), and Michael Coney's Hello Summer Goodbye. But the first SF novel to blow me away in the way Bulgakov had blown me away was Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer... Which was when I knew, whatever else I did, I wanted to be a writer.
SFRevu: Actually, I did want to ask about a favorite author, since I'd finished William Gibson's Spook Country recently and ran across a line in your 2006 Sci-Fi Weekly interview where you said, that his work "gets more elegant and layered with each novel." Really? I see this as exactly the difference between your works. Yours keeps getting better, while his is marking time.
Jon: I adore Gibson's work but haven't yet read Spook Country as I'm in Japan and my copy is in the UK. The Sprawl novels for me were a defining experience. I remember being slightly shocked by Virtual Light, because it wasn't what I was expecting. But it still gripped, and his later work – for me – got more complex and less plot driven and more about what fills the gaps between plots. He still writes a sentence that can stop me in my tracks and whole paragraphs that just make me want to pack up and go home.
(Yes, we certainly agree that WG is the master of the world stopping sentence, but we want more from a book. - Ern)
SFRevu: Kipling got his global exposure as a war correspondent, Fleming got his taste of the world working for the Foreign Office, but you seem to have been shuttle cocked around quite a bit as a child and then took off on your own as soon as the British school system allowed and experienced the world on your own. Is there a lot of wanderlust in the British genome?
Jon: We're a tiny island off the coast of a not very big continent. We've got more CCTV cameras in London that there are in the whole of the US, and it can get a bit claustrophobic sometimes. London's wonderful, but it's not the UK any more than New York is really the US. And every few years I get a craving to change countries, because my entire childhood was spent packing possessions into boxes and flying somewhere else. Not great for global warming, I know. Writing novels lets me use what I see and go places that aren't always safe and putting that into the books as well.
SFRevu: British writers have a real knack for making places come alive that American's don't quite seem to have. Is it just because we're contemptuous of any culture not our own, or is there more to it? Did Britain have to get over itself before it could be part of the world? Has it?
Jon: America is half a dozen cultures in itself. It's something we don't always understand in the UK. I'm not sure American novelists are worse than British ones at capturing places. I think it's down to individual writers. If you go somewhere and take your preconceptions with you, then you won't see anything. To be a writer you have to stand back. Cities are made of smells and traffic and changes of climate. The fog coming down in San Francisco, the afternoon thunderstorm in Singapore, you need to capture this if you're writing is going to convince readers and carry them to the places you've been. Almost everything to do with capturing a place is simply stopping and looking. We're really bad at that.
SFRevu: End Of The World Blues starts out in Japan and moves on to England, and while the two places have different skins, they feel as though they're stretched over similar bones. Is that something you feel, or am I reaching here?
Jon: No, you're not reaching. Both are small islands off the coast of bigger continents. Both come weighted with history. Both are monarchies. Both have a strong and defined class structure. Both operate on a complex set of rules that an incomer is not expected to understand (and is so excused). Both were once significant world powers in their area... I can drag this list out for ages!
SFRevu: This year's Worldcon happens to be in Japan...and it wouldn't surprise me if you were writing from there actually. Are you? If so...how's the con?
Jon: I'm writing this at the Worldcon in Yokohama. With a detour to have lunch with my Japanese publisher in Tokyo. All cons are con shaped. Which mostly means I don't have a clue what is going on but enjoy myself anyway. I think combining the Japanese annual con with a Worldcon is a brave move and I'm impressed. Also hung-over and jet lagged.
SFRevu: Are you doing fiction full time, or are you still doing some journalism?
Jon: I write occasional reviews for the Telegraph, a national newspaper in the UK. Until Christmas I had a monthly column in the Guardian but it had lasted for five years and we grew bored with each other. Very occasionally I'll write for a magazine. Mostly I just do books. And the days of interviewing rock stars and hunting down case studies or hard news stories are definitely over!
SFRevu: More or less lastly, I understand you're working on the next three Raf books, which I'm looking forward to, Is there a publication date yet on the first? Also, I'm also curious about the "magic realist crime novels set in Mexico, Heaven and Hell", which you talked about in your Infinity Plus interview. How are they coming, and when might we hope to see them?
Jon: I'm not working on the Raf books. I was going to but then hit a contracts glitch and decided to pass (the publisher wanted world rights, all languages... My agent thought it was a rubbish idea.) Instead I've just finished the first volume of Thrones and Powers, which is set mostly in Mexico, but also features 15th century France, Heaven, Hell, Japan again, and London on the night of the Great Fire of 1666. It's a love story involving Gilles de Rays, the original Bluebeard, and Joan d'Arc...
There's a crime, a seriously large crime, and Gilles gets landed with investigating it. The book is longer than anything I've written before and it's taken me longer. In fact, it's been pretty all consuming.
As for Raf, I have the first book fully mapped out and I'm desperate to write the damn thing. It begins with a murder on a Zeppelin on the way to New York. Hani's now sixteen, Murad is heir to the Ottoman throne and Zara is still sulking because Raf is too proud to take her money. In fact, there are nine books in all and I've only written the first three. Gollancz are bringing them out in a combined volume, and we'll see how that does.
(Murder on the Ottoman Zeppelin Express! Here's hoping the rights issues get resolved so we can pick up with Raf and friends once more. - Ern)_