Friday 28 October 2016

Jonathan Stroud, Free Thinker

Jonathan Stroud is one of the UK's foremost writers of fantasy and supernatural fiction, for younger adults. Actually, that last bit is redundant. He is one of the leading voices in fantasy and supernatural fiction. Full stop. Since his debut novel in 1999, Buried Fire, he has created two well-loved and successful books series: the epic Bartimaeus Sequence of four books (so far) - following the millennia-spanning escapades of an ancient, wise-cracking djinni, and the Lockwood & Co. series - about a ghost- and ghoul-hunting hero in a  parallel paranormal version of Britain. What sets his stories aside is an easy, yet solid and well-paced style, along with consistently intriguing content born of a sophisticated imagination. There is always adventure, plenty of action, and genuine 'laugh-out-loud' moments of humour. 

Jonathan Stroud
With Halloween upon us, Jonathan Stroud talks to Remy Dean about writing and other forms of magic, as well as parenting and allowing children the Freedom to Think... 

REMY: I have been a creative arts lecturer to young adults in the 14 – 19 age range, for 16 years, and a father for 11 years... I have witnessed education veering away from any emphasis on creativity it may have once had. Creative subjects have become much more criteria-based to enable educationalists with dominant left-hemispheres to test and quantify creatives with highly functioning right-hemispheres.

With the introduction of tests for our children from 6 upwards - we now test and grade our children more than any other country. SATs for 11-year-olds are getting tougher and the level and density of A-Level content has increased dramatically. It seems to me that education is not only geared to emphasise non-creative subjects and actively suppress creative ones - the recent axing of Art History is a case-in-point, but also to create low self-esteem through early and repeated failure - and so discourage the pursuit of further and higher education, without mentioning the fees, loans, and so on…

Can you tell us a little bit about the ‘Freedom to Think’ initiative and how it fits into, compliments or challenges this contemporary model of education?

JONATHAN: My recent experience of education is from the outside, watching my two oldest children - currently 12 and 9 - as they seek to balance the demands of school with their own creative impulses. Already, they’re having to wrestle with homework, exams and tests, and I can see how these threaten to overwhelm their energies - at times you can see their creative verve wilting… though it always reasserts itself. As a parent I’m torn between wanting them to do well academically, and being determined to keep their creative fire alive.

My own career as an author has its roots in the writing, drawing. imagining that I did throughout my schooldays. I managed to sustain my creativity alongside all the academic work, but I think the pressures on children have increased markedly since. Freedom to Think is a response to this: it doesn’t in itself seek to overturn contemporary trends in education, but it does aim to promote the idea of a regular ‘breathing space’ for children, a time when they can drift, let their minds wander and (if they wish) follow their own creative paths. It’s in such moments that you are most likely to discover what really excites you, and thus who you really are.

Jonathan Stroud talking about 'Freedom to Think' at the Oxford Literary Festival,
earlier this year - click image for more info and another interview with Jonathan
Whist on the subject of parenting… how has being a father changed you - as a man and as a writer? How do you find the time, for one thing?

Ha ha! Time is certainly the most precious commodity for all writers, and having a newish small baby doesn’t exactly help… but that’s more than counterbalanced by the sudden opening up of new perspectives – on the world in general, and on you and your role in it. When you become a father you suddenly understand your own parents more clearly; you have a sudden revelation about your own mortality, and, to balance that, how parenthood is the nearest you’ll ever get to ensuring your own immortality. Profound stuff, if you can stomach the 5 a.m. awakenings…

Evidently, all those present enjoyed the panel you hosted at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this year, where you encouraged your guests to talk about their approach to writing, though you did not discuss your own… I realise you have already been generous with such info on your website - particularly the origins of Bartimaeus. Do you have any writing rituals or regimen and have they changed with success?

I think being a successful writer - as with many jobs generally - relies on establishing a regular, predictable work pattern, in which you know what is required of you and you more or less force yourself to do it. Since going freelance 14 years ago, I’ve attempted to write a certain number of pages per day when I’m in the throes of a book. I usually fail, but the attempt galvanises me, and ensures a steady output. My own environment is incredibly tedious – study, silence, cups of tea, the minimum of distraction. All the excitement happens on the page.

What would you say were the main considerations when writing for a Young Adult audience and do they differ from other forms of mainstream fiction?

In principle writing Young Adult fiction should be no different from fiction generally, except that you perhaps have a slightly higher bar to attain, young readers being rather more critical and choosy than adult ones! I always seek to write something that the 12-year-old me would have loved, and which also pleases my jaded middle-aged self. If you can manage that dual perspective, you’re on to a winner.

What age is your typical reader, and what were you reading at that age?

I want my readers to range from 8 to 88, or more… so I aim for clarity of story-telling and for variety of content. When I was 12, I was in the throes of reading masses of whopping fantasy series. A couple of years on, I realised that most of them were sub-Tolkien and not really any good, so - despite writing it - I don’t read that much fantasy these days.

How did you research the Bartimaeus books? Your description of Prague and Golden Lane sound like you visited the locations.

I did visit Prague for a couple of days way back when I was inter-railing around Europe at the start of the 1990s. I loved the city, and was fascinated by many of its locations, including the Jewish Cemetery, the castle and the old alchemists’ quarter in Golden Lane. When I came to write Bartimaeus 10 years or more later, it was easy to seize upon it as a good location. Most of my research comes of general reading of myth, legend and folklore down the years.

…and your knowledge of Qabalistic Ritual seemed fairly well-informed – I recall an account written by Aleister Crowley about his attempt to summon Choronzon, I think, and the entity - from his subconscious - the Other Place, wherever - was bantering in order to put him off, telling crude jokes and trying to throw sand over the lines of his magic circle to break out...

Do you have any belief in, or experience of, High Magick or aspects of the supernatural?

I’m remarkably, and probably fortunately, wholly unacquainted with the supernatural in any immediate sense, but having read Dr Faustus, the Arabian Nights and sundry folktales in which wizards have perilous dealings with devils, demons and other dubious types, it was good fun to mix a lot of this material into the Bartimaeus stories. The trick for me was to do it mainly from the djinni’s perspective, which undercuts the potential pomposity of the magicians and their ritualistic traditions.

Do you see links between magic and creativity?

I believe that Crowley was a - bad? - poet. The Romantic literary tradition was all about invoking and corralling the power of nature, and I guess many self-styled magicians were trying to do the same. People like Yeats certainly tried both methods. Earlier, Renaissance magicians such as Dr John Dee sought to invoke power through magical ritual, but also through the more rigorous methods of mathematics and science. On a prosaic, personal level, there is something magic about producing a bit of writing that didn’t exist before: but that ‘magic’ has its roots in long hours and hard work!

When I was reading the Bartimaeus books out loud, I found it helped to channel ‘Hacker’ - from CBBC - to get his mode of address… Do you ‘cast’ your books and did you expect Bartimaeus to have a Wigan accent?

Ha-ha! For me, Bart more or less had my voice, so he was a bit more home-counties! But you’re absolutely right that the voice was the core of him – he changed his shape repeatedly, so the way he talked was the one consistent thing. I don’t tend to ‘cast’ my books as I write them – to see a character as a particular actor risks skewing them out of true.

Pages from the graphic adaptation of the first novel in
the Bartimaeus Sequence : The Amulet of Samarkand
- click image for a look at how the comic was made -
I also enjoyed the Graphic Novel adaptation of The Amulet of Samarkand – are there any other graphic adaptations on the way? And what of films?

I’m glad you liked it! I think the adaptor [Andrew Donkin] and artist [Lee Sullivan with colours by Nicholas Chaplis] did a terrific job with it. There are no immediate plans for another graphic novel, though we’d all love to do one. It depends a bit on whether we get the Bartimaeus movie, which is still out there, being discussed, but hasn’t yet quite come off. I’m crossing my fingers that it’ll happen one day…

The ‘Freedom to Think’ event was focussed on early creative experiences and I think you may have answered this question during it: What was the first book you can remember reading that really absorbed you and carried you away to another place?

It’s hard to say what the very first one was. Put it this way - in my mum’s loft I discovered a version of Robin Hood and the Silver Arrow - which was a cool Ladybird book - that I’d written and drawn when I was about 5 on old pieces of wallpaper, so that story must be a contender!

Do you have a favourite book, or one you have returned to more than once?

It’s difficult to pick one out. One of my all-time faves is Treasure Island, which I regard as the fountainhead from which all YA fiction springs. It certainly has everything I’d aspire to: great story, exciting narrative, fantastic characters, beautifully written. What’s not to love?

Who have been your favourite authors and what have you learnt from them?

Italo Calvino, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, extolled certain literary virtues, among them Lightness, Swiftness, Exactitude. Folk tales and fairy tales have these qualities, as Calvino well knew, and I think the writers I most admire all have them to some extent, as well as humour. My favourite fantasy writer, who survived my disillusionment, mid-teens, is Jack Vance, and I thoroughly recommend his Lyonesse and Dying Earth novels for some light, but magical, entertainment. In my ghost-story writing mode - I’ve been writing about ghosts for my Lockwood & Co. series for the last few years - I venerate the great M R James, the master of the English supernatural tale.

The Creeping Shadow is the fourth book in the
Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud
Well, as it is Samhain, can you tell us anything about your latest spooky book?

The latest Lockwood book is The Creeping Shadow, and features lots of spooky adventure, daring heroism and good jokes. A must for all the family!

Thank you, Jonathan Stroud!

Thank you! It was a pleasure.

-  Jonathan Stroud was talking to Remy Dean 

if you enjoyed this interview, you can... 

For more Jonathan Stroud news and  info, 
check out his Official Website 

Click the Recruitment ad. below for an excellent Lockwood & Co. Case Book  (PDF)
filled with activities and resources, courtesy of World Book Day

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