Jonathan Stroud Interview
Posted by Michelle on January 19, 2009
Jonathan Stroud’s latest book, Heroes of the Valley, was published at the beginning of this year, and I was lucky enough to be able to review it just prior to it’s launch. Following on, Jonathan has been kind enough to answer a few questions…
Q. You’re probably best know for your Bartimaeus Trilogy, but you’ve had other books published prior to that – could you tell us a little about them?
A. My first book, published way back in 1994, was a book of word puzzles (see below); this was followed by several gamebooks – books that combined stories with puzzles of various kinds. Two of them: The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood and The Viking Saga of Harri Bristlebeard are still in print. They’re for 7-10 year olds. Meanwhile I was working on a novel about a nasty dragon – this became Buried Fire, which was followed by two other novels, The Leap and The Last Siege. These pre-Bart novels are all fairly different – BF is a straight fantasy, The Leap is a psychological fantasy and The Last Siege isn’t a fantasy at all, but a modern-day thriller.
Q. Did you enjoy writing when you were younger, and how old were you when your first book was published?
A. I always loved writing, and I’ve got various tattered stories and booklets I put together when I was 8 or so. For a long while, though, I didn’t write conventional stories – I made comics instead, or devised boardgames. But it’s all part of the same creative itch! My first book – Justin Credible’s Word Play World came out when I was 23, I think, though it’s hard to remember all that time ago!
Q. Returning to the Bartimaeus Trilogy, can you tell how some of the initial ideas came about?
A. The idea came very suddenly: walking along one day I was pondering the challenge of writing about magic and magicians in the post-Harry Potter age. And it struck me that most of these wizards in children’s books fall into the Dumbledore/Gandalf pattern – i.e. genial old coves with big beards fighting evil. I wondered if I could turn it around and make the human wizards the bad guys. For my hero I’d have a demon (again reversing the tradition). During the same walk I also decided it would be set in modern London and that the magicians would all be politicians. A few days later I sat down with this idea and wrote the first 2 chapters of Amulet: Bart just appeared fully formed and I knew that it would be good, though I hadn’t a clue what the actual story was yet!
Q. Was it always meant to be a trilogy, or did that idea develop as you started writing?
A. To begin with it was going to be a single novel, but pretty quickly I developed three strands of narrative – following Bart in the present, together with Nat and Kitty’s back stories. Kitty was going to be a major figure in the first book then. Before long these three intertwining threads were getting too tangled and the book too complicated, so I stopped writing and worked out an overall 3-book structure, bringing Kitty in properly in Book 2 and working towards the eventual ending. Then I went back to Amulet, restructured what I’d done and kept on typing!
Q. I understand that there is to be a film based on The Amulet of Samarkand. Can you tell us how that is progressing?
A. Several years ago we had a screenplay and a director and producer and all was looking very good. Then it all went a bit quiet, but I’ve heard recently that the script Vis out to several new prospective directors, so it looks as if things are moving again – fingers crossed!
Q. How do you feel about seeing your ideas on the big screen, and who would you like to see play the role of Nathaniel?
A. I’m delighted at the prospect of a movie version of Amulet. Inevitably it would be different from the book: it’s impossible to include all the subtleties of a 500 page book in a 2 hour film – but that’s no different from the way that traditional folk and fairy tales have been told and retold by countless different narrators over the years. It’ll be a distinct version, that’s all. As long as the key relationships between my characters are true to the book, I’ll be content. As for Nat, I don’t have an opinion – it would have to be a young actor that no one’s ever heard of, preferably fairly slender, dark and nervously charismatic.
Q. Your latest book is still fantasy, but it has a very different feel to it. Can you tell us a little more about Heroes of the Valley?
A. Heroes is inspired by Icelandic Sagas, which are remarkable medieval accounts of life on the island. They’re mainly about farmers bickering and inter-marrying, but every now and then there’ll be a sudden appearance of a ghost or giant: the supernatural lurks on the edges of ordinary life. I wanted to do a story that had the same sort of tone: the fantasy is on the margins, in stories told by the characters, constantly threatening to become real. The central character, Halli Sveinsson, wants to be like the great heroes of old, but is unfortunately rather short, stocky and a bit rubbish at fighting. He gets a chance to go on a quest, but things don’t go according to plan and he needs to team up with a clever, independent-minded girl called Aud, in order to survive. It’s got lots of jokes, action and other good things!
Q. Your books are marketed as children’s books, but they also appeal to adults. Do you set out to write for a specific age group, or do you hope that it will appeal to all?
A. Ever since Bartimaeus I’ve had the hope (and expectation) that my books would have a wide audience. Essentially I try to write something that I would like if I found it myself on a bookstore shelf. I know that I’d have liked Bart (and Halli) when I was a boy – and I’d like them now. So that makes me think that other people, old and young, would enjoy them.
Q. I’m sure your fans would like to know if you’re working on something new. Can you give us any sort of peek into what we can expect from you next?
A. Well, it’s too early to say, really! I’ve recently written a short story which is a sort of sci-fi fantasy about a detective hunting dragons in a big city: it’ll be published (I hope) in an anthology before long. Maybe that will turn into something longer one day… I don’t know!
Q. Finally, do you get much chance to read for your own pleasure.. and if so, who are some of your favourite authors and books?
A. I don’t read nearly enough when I’m writing, because I find it hard to vault into some one else’s created world when I’m struggling to build my own. But recently I’d enjoyed books by the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, Neil Gaiman’s new fantasy The Graveyard Book, and some very peculiar but great 1950s books about a schoolboy called Nigel Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. This last series is well worth checking out: it’s very very funny, very anarchic, satirical and verbally deft. It’s also very English.
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