Jonathan Stroud is the best-selling author of the Bartimaeus Sequence, as well as several other books for younger readers including; The Leap, The Last Siege and Buried Fire. Having always written adventure stories as a child, Jonathon’s interest in writing for children grew while working as an editor at Walker books. Although his first published fantasy novel appeared in 1999, it wasn’t until 2001 that Jonathan took the leap and decided to write full time. Since then, he has gone on to achieve international renown as a children’s writer.
Here Jonathan talks to Elizabeth Rose Murray for writing.ie about the golden age of children’s literature, electronic revolutions and helping U.S. marines.
On your website, you say that as a child, “books littered my bedroom floor like bones in a lion’s cave”. What books would litter your floor today?
Well, books that currently litter my floor (and believe me, they DO) include Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough, Cold Cereal by Adam Rex, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Edward Gorey’s selection of ghost stories The Haunted Looking Glass, Germania by Simon Winder, The Complete Peter Cook, and Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. There’s usually a mix of children’s and adult, fiction and non-fiction near at hand, depending on what mood I’m in.
In your recommended reads for children and YA, you include Wind in the Willows and Treasure Island – do you think that modern children’s books are losing some of the magic of classic literature? Or do you think that there are some classics in the making right now (and if so – who would you recommend)?
Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of classics being formed right now – I think this has to count as a golden age in terms of the range and variety of wonderful titles being produced for children by so many talented writers. When I first entered publishing in the early 90s, there was an explosion of wonderful picture books going on (Guess How Much I Love You and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt from Walker, for example). Now, post Potter and Pullman, I think novels have taken centre-stage, and I recently much enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: a brilliantly conceived thriller. It’s hard to know what’ll still be successful in 100 years’ time, but writers such as Rowling, Pullman and Diana Wynne Jones will always have a place in the canon, I think.
You say “it’s essential that a writer reminds himself of who he is writing for…” To what extent does public appearance and self promotion play a part in your writing career and how do you manage to successfully balance the two?
Even when I was a kid many children’s writers used to come round to schools on author visits, often organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups in the UK. I can remember Val Biro, John Ryan and Douglas Hill turning up at my junior school and giving great and inspiring talks. I sent one of my books (aged 12) to Douglas Hill, and he wrote back a very nice letter, complementing me on it and suggesting that if I improved my spelling, and generally kept at it, I might one day be published. I never forgot these encounters, and so, setting self-promotion aside, I think it’s vital for children’s writers to visit schools and inspire the next generation.
Having said that, self-promotion IS an essential component for all writers now, and forms an important part of your workload. Obviously, the more time you spend out and about, and the more time you devote to Twitter, Facebook and getting seen in other media, the less time you have to devote to making (good) books. Each writer’s got to figure out the appropriate balance for him or herself, but it’s hard not to err on one side or another. Personally speaking, I think it’s crucial to have a good website, and to keep putting little new bits and pieces on it from time to time. Twitter’s good too for spreading the word, but I’ve got a nice publicist to help me maintain my Facebook page. I try to be ruthless and push that sort of thing to the margins of the working day. I always feel I’m not spending enough time publicising myself, but then again I always feel I’m not spending enough time writing either, so maybe that means the balance is about right…!
I’m a firm believer in a regular routine as far as writing goes. I think it’s the only sound way of forcing yourself to produce stuff even when you’re not on top form (i.e. most days). I’m lucky enough to be able to treat writing as my day-job, but I think even if you have far less time to spare, a regular specific point in the day when you sit down and just write is essential for productivity. I’ll give myself pretty clear cut small-scale aims, so that I feel like I’m achieving things each time. So for example when I’m in the middle of a book, I’ll try to write 5 pages (2000 words) each day. More often than not, I don’t make it, but even 3 or 4 pages isn’t bad going, and I feel good about it. As I complete each page, I’ll get up for a quick 5 minute break – a tiny reward for good behaviour. Obviously, this regime doesn’t always work. There are some days when you’re just not going to be productive in this way. So then you need a second-string activity, such as editing material, making notes, going for a walk to loosen the brain cells, going out to buy pens etc, whatever, so that the day isn’t a total washout, and you’re able to look yourself in the eye when you do your teeth that evening.
You keep your books closely guarded until you feel they’re ready – at what stage do you start revealing your latest project and who do you trust to give you feedback on your manuscript?
Aha, well it’s true that I generally keep my projects well hidden to begin with, on the grounds that new ideas are fragile, ill-formed things that can be easily misconstrued. I suppose the key point is that you yourself, the writer, often don’t quite know what you’ve got when you’re just starting out, and getting someone else to tell you the answer too early is like putting the cart before the horse. You should really do the groundwork yourself.
Having said that, it’s important for everyone to have at least one trusted reader who you can bring into play when the time is right and, for me, that’s my wife Gina. There comes a point with all my projects when I give her the manuscript to have a look at. She’s great because she’ll tell me when something’s good, and also when it’s bad. Quite often I hand things over to her when I’m at a difficult, sticky point, and have lost confidence in where I’m going or what I’m doing. I’m usually pretty nervous while she’s reading and have to make myself scarce, but it’s always good afterwards, even when she’s spotted problems. Talking them through with her invariably makes everything clearer, and I can see my way forward again. She’s usually the only person who gets a look before the second (tidy) draft is done: that’s when I’ll send it to the editors to get their feedback too.
How do you develop your characters? Do you have control over the characters from the start or do they reveal themselves to you as your book progresses?
The one time that a character materialised fully formed was when I created my djinni Bartimaeus. Quite to my surprise and delight, his voice just erupted onto the page from the first line of the first chapter on the first day. By the end of the second page I knew that he was going to throw footnotes in to give the reader extra facts and cheeky jokes; I knew he was sarcastic and witty and grumpy, and all the rest of it. What I didn’t know was anything about his background, or what his story would be. But that could take care of itself, because a good character is the be-all and end-all. If you’ve got that, you’re on to a winner.
Most times, however, it’s a much more slow and uncertain process. I just start off with fragments, little snatches of information about the characters and who they might be. But I don’t really know them, in any real sense, and that only begins to change as I write myself into them. I think it’s very like meeting actual people: you always hope for that little key conversation, a bit of dialogue where suddenly they come alive, and you understand more clearly who they are. Quite often this happens only after a while (or not at all in some cases, and I have to ditch them). Usually I have to then go back and revise earlier scenes in the light of my new knowledge.
What was the thinking behind the lost chapter – an extract from an early draft of the book that has never been seen before – after the UK publication of the paperback edition of The Ring of Solomon was released? And did you get the reaction you were expecting?
It happens with quite a lot of my books that there are quite a lot of unused scenes that build up during the writing – ideas that didn’t work, plot branches that I shelved, characters in different roles from those they ended up in. This was especially true of The Ring of Solomon, which had started life as a conceived collection of short stories. I had (and still have) quite a bit of excess material. When the paperback of Solomon came out, my publicist and I thought it might be nice to release a little extract, rather in the spirit of DVD extras. It’s like getting access to my notebooks, a little insight into the creative process for anyone who might be interested, and to that end we publicised it on Facebook, Twitter and my website (i.e. really for those people who are already fans). It got some nice feedback, and is now accessible permanently on my site, part of the Bartimaeus background info that’s available there. I wouldn’t want to release too much material in this way (some of it might be reused in other projects, and some of it just isn’t any good, which is why it was cut!), but I think the internet gives you the ability to play about with texts a little, if it seems appropriate.
What changes have you seen in the world of publishing and literature during your career? How has the internet and social media affected the way you approach your writing and the publishing world?
I think I’ve been lucky enough to be present during a real flowering of Children’s Lit, which (as I mentioned earlier) has followed on the breakthrough success of JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. Between them they reset the possibilities, both commercially and critically, and the very international nature of this triumph has had a wonderful knock-on effect for all of us working in the field. There’s simply a lot more interest in Children’s Books than there used to be, and no limit to what might be achieved if you’re willing to persevere. That’s why so many good writers are labouring away at Young Adult fiction right now.
The electronic revolution is the other big one, and no one is quite sure yet where it’s taking us. Personally I think it’s a liberating phenomenon, and will lead us towards all sorts of interesting interactive texts: books being read in a different way. I reckon this’ll just be a side show to the main event, though, and most of us will be perfectly able to marry reading electronic books on holiday or while commuting, with the unimprovable enjoyment of sitting at home quietly with a proper, physical book (I believe we’re meant to call them p-books now, but I refuse!) The shrinking of the world via the internet is also thrilling. It’s wonderful that my Indonesian editor can send me a Tweet containing an image of a new edition of one of my books, and that I can send this on instantly to anyone who cares.
What is the most defining moment of your career so far and is there anything you would have done differently?
For me 2002 was when everything changed. That was when I sold the book and film rights to theBartimaeus Trilogy in one heady month of auctions, a time made all the more dream-like by the weird fact that I hadn’t actually written the books. Well, okay, I’d written 100 pages of The Amulet of Samarkand and done a synopsis of the rest, so I suppose I wasn’t completely adrift. But it meant that I had to complete three big, fat novels with an awful lot more attention being directed my way than I’d ever experienced before. Looking back on that time, I wouldn’t change much. I think I was helped by the fact that my old computer was so rubbish that I never went on the internet, so I seldom read reviews or got waylaid by other people’s expectations. It wouldn’t be so easy now! I spent three years working intensively on the series, and am still very proud of the results.
What’s the best bit of feedback you’ve ever received for your books?
One of the most memorable was from an American marine, who I met at an event in the USA. He said that he’d just come back from a tour of Afghanistan, and had had a very rough time there, but that he had found relief from the daily horrors by reading the Bartimaeus books in the evenings. It had given him escape from an experience I can’t easily imagine, and that testimony meant a lot to me.
Any clues on what your next book is going to be?
Hmm… well, unfortunately all my ideas are in the ‘fragile ill-formed’ stage at the moment, so I’m keeping them fairly quiet right now. But I’m trying a different tack to my usual approach, in that I’ve got several different projects on the go at once. They’re different genres, and at least one of them’s a series (I think). There’s probably another Bartimaeus one somewhere down the line too. I’m hoping to be able to do a bit of plate spinning here, keeping all these things developing alongside each other for as long as possible… Tune in over the next few months for the sound of smashing crockery…!