Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Low Down on High Fantasy - Part One

When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, Paul Barnett has both feet planted firmly on the ground.

And as a lifelong champion of literary quality under the pen name, John Grant, his stance against humdrum and gender-driven books has earned him a place at the top, with over sixty best sellers under his belt, both fiction and non-fiction.

Among the latter are two standard authorities in their fields: Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters and, with John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, for which he received the Hugo, Locus, Eaton, Mythopoeic Society and World Fantasy awards. He has also received a rare British Science Fiction Association Special Award and been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society Award and Bram Stoker Award.

Two-time Hugo winner for his trailblazing Science Fiction/Fantasy work, his novels include Albion and The World. For younger readers he has written the twelve novels in the Legends of Lone Wolf series, tied to the gamebooks by Joe Dever, as well as retellings of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

His most recent books are Enchanted World: The Art of Anne Sudworth, Perceptualistics: Art by Jael and Masters of Animation and his quasi-mythology Dragonhenge. And in a courageous move from giant publishers to a small independent house, John published his new fantasy, The Far-Enough Window through BeWrite Books, his Sci Fi adventure The Hundredfold Problem and re-released Earthdoom! with David Langford – who with twenty-four Hugo Awards, has the largest arsenal of these rocket trophies outside the USA and the second largest in the world.

John has since become Consultant Editor (Sci Fi and Fantasy) with BeWrite Books and has introduced other mainstream authors to the UK-based house in a bid to break the restraints of mainstream houses he believes hold back writers by demanding that they work to an established commercial formula.

John was born in Aberdeen, Scotland but has lived for many years in the New Jersey countryside with his wife, Pamela D. Scoville, owner of the Animation Art Guild. Apart from his own books, he has lost count of those he’s ghosted and edited … certainly well over a thousand.

His rise to fame came when losing his job as senior commissioning books editor at a major UK publisher back in 1980 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

He said: “I was living in Exeter – a long way from London, which was where most of the UK publishing jobs were – and I had no money and a wife and young daughter to support. Because of the young daughter, I didn't anyway much want to move back to London; better, I thought, that she should spend her childhood away from the big city. So my only option was freelance work – either as an editor or as a writer, or, nervously backing both horses.

“At the time I'd published a couple of books under the house name I'd created especially for those, John Grant. It seemed sensible to launch my fledgling writing career using a name that already had a couple of books under its belt. Now, of course, I wish I'd not taken that decision; it causes a fair amount of confusion, and anyway ‘John Grant’ is a lousy name for a writer, because it lacks any ... hmm ... memorability. But I'm stuck with it, especially since winning awards under that name.

“Of course, the original idea was that, once I'd worked out which of the two horses was going to win the race, I'd jump onto it and regard the other as merely an ancillary ride, as it were. But I've never yet quite managed the trick. So I now have a full-time career as Paul Barnett the editor and another full-time career as John Grant the writer. It makes for a busy life, and often a complicated one; and it can make me pretty difficult to work with, too, I guess. Yet I myself still feel that my more important work is what I've done as a writer, and more specifically as a fantasy writer.”

Of his fantasy work, top US reviewer Lou Anders said: “Each story from John Grant is like a single facet of a larger jewel. Just as the surrealist Salvador Dali utilized the repetition of certain images and themes across his body of work, so Grant weaves characters, gods and images through all of his novels and stories – each part of a brilliantly conceived cosmology that rivals in richness the work of famous fantasist Michael Moorcock and HP Lovecraft.”

John broke new ground with his Legends of the Lone Wolf series with its game tie-in. But it wasn’t his first venture into the fantastic.

He said: “I'd actually made a few minor contributions. I'd edited, Aries 1 and I'd written two humorous sf/fantasy-sort-of fiction books, Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis and The Truth About the Flaming Ghoulies, not to mention the parody disaster novel Dave Langford and I had done together, Earthdoom! So I wasn't a complete virgin.

“However, I was a bit startled when I was asked to write this series of novels – initially four of them, in the end twelve – because this type of high, fighting fantasy wasn't the sort of fantasy I'd hitherto been much interested in. Indeed, I'll go further than that: at the time I wasn't much interested in fantasy at all, because too much of what I'd read was the kind of generic crap that still, sadly, constitutes most of what's published in the field. It seemed to me that fantasy, as a literary form, was a dead end; all the good stuff had already been done by people like C.S. Lewis and George Macdonald and Alan Garner and Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake and Diana Wynne Jones.

“In short, I was a bit ignorant, and hadn't realized the possibilities within fantasy. I've since become a complete convert, to the point that I will argue at great length to anyone prepared to listen that fantasy is the single most important form of literature the human species has ever invented and, as such, is one of the most important means of expression available to us.

“The novels started off as mere tie-ins, but I had the advantage of having a publisher who was completely ignorant of fantasy and completely uninterested in learning anything about it. The first half-dozen or so of the novels were marked by constant arguments, and a couple of them were butchered before publication; but thereafter the publisher got bored and more or less left me to do as I pleased. Which was great!

“What I was able to do was, with only a couple of exceptions, make each of the novels different from each other in tone, atmosphere, "feel", construction, style, you name it, so that I could get away from that awful tie-in drabness you so often see and produce novels that were actually, you know, novels. I always remind people that, if they properly want to understand what I'm up to as a fantasist, they should read The Birthplace, which was #7 in the series, plus a couple of the others, notably The Rotting Land (#12).

“There's a nice postscript to the story. I've recently been in touch with an Italian publisher who wants to reissue the whole series in four three-novels-apiece volumes, with me ‘reconstituting’ the texts the way they ought originally to have been published – and at the same time allowing me, in the earlier novels, to quietly amend some of my more egregious deficiencies as a quasi-youthful writer. It's going to be a vast amount of work, of course; but once I have the ‘real’ texts set in order for them I'll be able to hawk the books around publishers in the English-language market as well.”

John’s Albion and The World crystallize his idea of a ‘polycosmos’ and he rates The World as among his most ambitious and important works of fantasy.

He said: “The stuff I was up to in the Lone Wolf books had convinced me that there was a lot that could be done with High Fantasy, something I'd not have credited before. Also, though by this time I was being allowed quite a lot of creative freedom in the Lone Wolf books, there were some things – including ridiculously trivial things, like using the word ‘shit’ – that I wasn't allowed to do before. So Albion represented for me something of an unfurling of the wings, an exploring of the freedoms I'd discovered existed within fantasy that weren't being explored by most of the other kids in the playpark.

“Even at the time I thought that first flight wasn't a frightfully successful one, but the critics disagreed and, far more importantly, so did my publisher, who was I think appalled when I turned in the manuscript of The World to her. (The book ended up being published in the middle of December, doom time for any book, so that by the time the generally astonishingly good reviews started coming in the book was halfway to the remainder tables.) It was supposed to be a nice, cozy bit of formulaic High Fantasy, and yet here was me bringing in stuff from quantum mechanics, telling bits of the story in a vaguely Damon Runyonesque style, switching between one reality and another, smashing universes together, and so on and so on and so on.

“The structure of the book mimicked that of a black hole, with the first part as the accretion disk, the second as the plummet from the event horizon to the singularity, and the third the emergence into the fresh ‘elsewhere’; I tried to get some of that into the various writing styles I used, too. There was lots of other stuff in there as well. I'm still amazed by my ambitions in writing that book, and even more amazed that – in my entirely objective judgment, you understand – I pulled it all off. Much of the time I was writing the book it was as if I were simply sitting in front of the screen letting my fingers dart around the keyboard, as surprised as anyone else by the way the story unfolded.”

In many of his stories, John – now in his mid fifties – mixes hard science with fantasy. He said: “There seems to have grown up this notion that the boundaries of fantasy should for some unknown reason be strictly limited – you know, wizards, dragons, unicorns, elves, berserkers, virgin princesses, pigboys-who-shall-be-king. All that sort of stuff is within the remit of fantasy, as are Native American spirits in modern cities and so on, but outer space isn't. It's as if you were to tell someone: yes, it's all right for you to use your imagination, but not too much – rather like the Soviets repressed so much fantasy literature because they thought it was dangerous. That was the biggest compliment ever paid to fantasy, of course, because fantasy should be dangerous, and (in the broadest sense of the term) subversive and threatening to the status quo of the reader's mind.

“In the West, of course, we have very much the same sort of censorship of fantasy in place, only because it's a commercially motivated one (and in commercial terms misguided, in my opinion) we don't call it ‘censorship’ but instead say it's ‘market forces’, or some such.

“My very strong feeling is that fantasy should be allowed to do anything it damn well pleases, should explore every possible venue, should be as unconstrained as it wants to be. The fantasy writer's playground should be one with infinitely distant boundaries.

“So when I take my fantasy into the kinds of territories more commonly associated with science fiction, I don't feel I'm ‘mixing’ anything – all I'm doing is going into a rather unpopulated part of fantasy's natural playground. There was a fantasy story of mine called The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid In from the Probability Sea that was published in Interzone. Before offering it to Interzone I had offered it to a couple of fantasy-anthology editors over here and been told very firmly that it wasn't fantasy, it was science fiction – just because it was set in large part in between our Galaxy and the Andromeda spiral. It didn't have a mermaid in it (well, sort of didn't ...), despite the title, but it was a full-blooded fantasy nevertheless. In fact, I discovered some time after the award had gone to someone else that the story had been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award, so clearly someone recognized what I was up to.

“Similarly, a short fantasy novel of mine called Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi (soon to be published as half of a ‘double’ book, the other half being Colin Wilson's The Tomb of the Old Ones) was widely bounced by fantasy editors on the grounds that it was ‘obviously horror’ just because I'd drawn on the werewolf archetype for a small part of the story – not even werewolves, just the idea of them!

“So I guess you could say that I'm one of those rare members of the Fantasy Liberation Front! Fortunately I'm not the only one, but it gets pretty lonely nevertheless ...”

Read Part Two here

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