Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Low Down on High Fantasy - Part Two

Read Part One here

It was John’s fierce defense of open-minded fantasy literature that led him to test the waters with a smaller independent publisher offering more scope with its less commercial focus. And that’s how his beautifully illustrated The Far-Enough Window: A Fairy Tale For Grownups of All Ages, saw the light of day.

He said: “When I was a kid I used to be devoted to reading in bed (anywhere else as well, but Bed Woz Best), and what I loved above all were the fantasies by people like George Macdonald and Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll and H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and C.S. Lewis and ... you can fill in the rest of the long list for yourself. Thing is, I suddenly realized a while back that as an adult I still liked those books – I still thought, leaving aside my sheer pleasure while reading them, that they were excellent fantasies. Furthermore, I gained enormous, almost ecstatic pleasure just from remembering that glow I felt as a kid tucked up in bed reading one of them. I put all this together among my slowly jostling brain cells and let it fester for a while.

“What I wanted to do was write a shortish novel that would encapsulate all these feelings for me: it would take the form of a children's fairy tale like Macdonald's At the Back of the North Wind (one of my all-time favorite novels) or The Princess and the Goblin, but would be for grown-ups – ‘for grown-ups of all ages’, as we put it on the cover – and have a definitely late-20th-century riff to it.

“Then along came a time when I actually had a couple of weeks to myself – a publisher had let me down badly on a signed contract – and I thought, ‘Well, here's the chance to write that novel.’ Trouble was, I knew the ‘feel’ of the book but I hadn't yet got a plot for it. I went to bed that night and, before I went to sleep, just set my mind free to wander where it wanted to. By the following morning the character Joanna had entered my mind, and from there on she took care of the plot for me. But I had only those two weeks before the next slodge of work was due to come in, so essentially I had to enter a sort of trance state for a fortnight to write the book.

“I gave it to my agent and told him it wasn't a genre fantasy and should be offered to mainstream editors ... so he offered it to all the genre-fantasy editors, who naturally turned it down flat – a couple of them, friends of mine, mentioned that they'd been puzzled it had been sent to them. I wasn't sure if I was puzzled or furious, because the agent had done exactly what I'd told him not to. As far as he was concerned, he'd offered it to half a dozen editors who all hadn't liked it, so obviously it was a lousy book.

“Once I'd moved to the States I asked my new agent to take it on, but he just said it was a lousy book and he'd never be able to sell it. Then, for various reasons too complicated to discuss here, I came across this new small press called BeWrite Books. Pity about the name, but I was mightily impressed by what they were doing – unlike so many small presses, they seemed really professional about what they were doing and planning, and the books they'd so far published looked good. I asked their editorial supremo, Neil Marr, if he'd be open to a submission; he said yes, and less than a week later he came back to me saying he adored the book and very, very much wanted to publish it. Sure enough, Neil's a mainstream editor ...

“Right from the start I'd wanted my old friend Ron Tiner to illustrate it – all the best of those children's fantasies had had nice black-and-white illustrations in them, and thus so should this one, to help sustain the effect I was after. Ron had been a sounding-board when I was initially thinking the novel over and he knew precisely what I was after with it – he had exactly the same emotions as I had about those childhood times of being in bed with a good book. Luckily Ron was free to do the illustrations, and he's done a stunning job – they're truly lovely.”

One reviewer pointed out: “There seems to be just a hint of sublimated sexuality in The Far-Enough Window. I admit that is something that can be said of quite a few of the traditional children's fantasies, but Alice in Wonderland never had anything like Ron Tiner's illustrations of Joanna lying butt-naked on the grass.”

John explained: “Only the one illustration! And it's perfectly innocent, at that. This is, after all, a novel for ‘grown-ups of all ages’. That said, I did tease Ron something rotten about always making sure he got tits into the picture somehow ... I'm not in the slightest worried about any kids who read the book being traumatized by the picture; it's always struck me that certain sections of society throw up their arms in horror at the very idea that a child might see a naked body, when any child can see a naked body by the simple means of going and looking in a mirror.

“I didn't feel any constraints at all. I knew what I wanted the book to do, and I knew what I wanted from it myself; I just sort of sat back and wrote it, guv. The whole process was utterly natural. I guess if I'd been thinking, ‘Wow, I'm doing something a bit different here’ I might have become a bit self-conscious and felt restricted in some way by the form of the novel, but as I've said I don't think any longer about fantasy in those terms: as far as I was concerned, I was simply having the time of my life writing a new fantasy novel, which was something I hadn't done in a while.”

After the success of The Far-Enough Window, BeWrite Books brought back to life two of John’s earlier SF/Fantasies – The Hundredfold Problem and the disaster novel to end all disaster novels, the spoof, Earthdoom!, with fellow science fiction author David Langford.

John Grant’s The Hundredfold Problem started life as a commissioned novel and part of the famous Judge Dredd series. It had an interesting history before being published by BeWrite Books – with stunningly sexy exclusive cover art by well known European artist, audrė.

He explained: “Way back when, the UK publisher Virgin bought the novelization rights in Judge Dredd, they expected the upcoming movie to be a smash hit. Of course, the movie was a lead balloon. Another UK publisher, Boxtree, had bought the book rights in the movie, and issued just about every tie-in you could think of – I don't know if they did 101 Judge Dredd Knitting and Macramé Tips, but I'd not be surprised. It was much like the saturation of the market by Dorling Kindersley of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace books a few years later.

“Of course, when the movie bombed all these Boxtree books flooded the remainder tables, and in so doing they crushed the humble little Virgin series, which would probably have continued doing perfectly healthily if there'd never been a movie.

“Virgin had commissioned me to write one in the series. Unable to keep my eyes open for more than a paragraph at a time while trying to read the Judge Dredd Manual they'd sent me, and always having had difficulty reading comic books (I don't know why), I hit on the stratagem of having a plot that would take Dredd right out of his usual environs and away from his usual associates, so I set virtually the whole tale inside a Dyson sphere that had been, billennia before, set around our sun's hypothetical red dwarf companion star. Then, well, I just had fun writing a romp that also, er, dabbled quite a lot in theological philosophy and other light-hearted hijinks. I think – as of course I would – that a lot of the jokes are very funny, and indeed the book as a whole. Oh, yes, and you see another aspect of the Girl-Child LoChi as well ...

“Anyway, with the demise of the series, I got the rights back in the book. Most of the series' authors – including my pal Stephen Marley, who wrote a couple of really good pieces for it – were kind of stuck, because of course they didn't hold the copyright in the Judge Dredd elements of their books. I'd always been very fond of The Hundredfold Problem, though, and I didn't like to see it lost forever. It was comparatively simple for me to remove the specifically Judge Dredd references, and – bingo! – I had a novel that was all my own.

“I didn't actually think of getting it published until Sean Wallace of Cosmos – for some reason I don't recall – expressed interest. So I flogged it to him, but then problems with Wildside caused publication to be interminably delayed. After a couple of years, Sean kindly let me have the rights back and again Neil Marr at BeWrite happily seized it.”

John soon became consultant SF/Fantasy editor with the blossoming new publisher … Consultant Editor with a mission.

He said: “The Consultant Editor bit came later. As I said, I was mightily impressed by the BeWrite Books operation from the outset, and this appraisal of them actually grew as they began publishing The Far-Enough Window. Neil asked me at some point why the big boys hadn't been fighting to get hold of the novel.

“I pointed out that this was not the only example I knew of a fine piece of fantasy that the big boys wouldn't touch with a barge-pole; I came across others from time to time during the natural course of my life, and it was frustrating to me that I couldn't do anything to help them get into print, as they so richly deserved to be. Out of that conversation emerged the notion that I should have this occasional relationship with BeWrite Books which we dignified by the title Consultant Editor.

“By odd coincidence, just a few days later a writer called Chris Thompson, to whose self-published story collection Games Dead People Play I'd given a deservedly
highly favorable review in Infinity Plus, contacted me out of the blue to say he'd written a novel which he was pretty certain nobody would like: as I'd been the only reviewer who'd seemed to understand what he was up to in Games Dead People Play, would I like to read his novel and see what I thought. Well, I took a look, and I discovered it was this utterly superb noir fantasy – a truly lovely piece of work. So that was the first book I took on for BeWrite. C.S. Thompson's A Season of Strange Dreams. I'm proud to have been associated with it.”

Since then John has brought other authors to the BeWrite Books stable with cross-genre books bigger, commercially driven houses fight shy of.

With his wild hair and bushy beard, John himself could be mistaken for a character from the pages of his own books. But any perceived similarity is unintentional to the 16-hours-a-day wordsmith who refuses to be typecast.

Carefully avoided reference to Harry Potter, he said: “I think that, finally, published fantasy may be recovering the ground it has so catastrophically lost in the past few decades to generic fantasy – a bizarre branch of the romantic novel whose published exemplars very often bear very little relation to genuine fantasy at all.

“When Tolkien created the otherworld of Middle-Earth or Lewis the otherworld of Narnia – and, of course, Macdonald before them in his tales for grown-ups like Phantastes and Lilith – that was exciting, that was imaginative, that was fantasy, because they were genuinely exercising their imaginations to reify lands that had never existed. The vast bulk of their imitators – in reality, Tolkien's imitators, because I reckon many of them haven't read the other authors – aren't doing that. Instead, they're setting otherwise pretty mundane tales in a shared quasi-medieval otherworld that has become so familiar to us it might as well be Poughkeepsie or Bermondsey.

“If I came along to you and said that I'd written a novel that was fantasy because I'd set it in Poughkeepsie you'd look at me like I was a lunatic – well, even more of a lunatic than usual, anyway! – but that's in effect what a good many writers of generic ‘fantasy’ are doing.

“Please don't take this to mean that all writers of High Fantasy are just regurgitators or new incarnations of Barbara Cartland. There are some very fine fantasists who work with High Fantasy; if I had to put my hand on my heart to name the best of them, I'd probably say Terry Pratchett, because Terry's Discworld books are – most of them – superb pieces of genuine fantasy, and would remain so even if you stripped all the jokes out of them. Myself, I prefer them with the jokes, especially since humor and fantasy are fine bedfellows – just look at how outright funny some parts of Peake's Gormenghast books are – but that's just me.

“Anyway, to get back to the point about the current success real fantasy is having in making its comeback against the floods of generic fantasy: I think it's coming about in large part because of the small presses. One of my many part-time jobs is as US Reviews Editor of Infinity Plus, and this has meant that over the past couple of years I've been reading a heck of a lot of books that almost certainly wouldn't ordinarily have come my way. This includes rafts of small press publications, and even a few self-publications, because IP has the policy of giving all books a level playing-field, regardless of the fame or obscurity of the author and the size and prominence of the publisher.

“What has really impressed me is that perhaps eighty per cent of the true fantasies I'm reading are coming from the small, even microscopic presses. Vera Nazarian's recent book
Dreams of the Compass Rose, published by Wildside, is a fine example of what I mean: it's a High Fantasy, sort of, but because of its construction, its use of language and above all its fabulous strangeness it's hard to imagine it having been published by one of the big boys.

“Naturally, some of the small press books are real stinkers (especially since few of the small presses seem ever to edit or proofread, leaving these tasks to the author), but exactly the same is true of a good proportion of the fantasy output of the big conglomerates, too. What so many of these obscure presses are doing is allowing their authors to ... well, ‘dare to dare’ is probably the best way of describing it. The result is some truly exhilarating fantasy. And it seems to be what the readers actually want, because these books sell in healthy numbers despite the fact that they're given no publicity and – shamefully – no support at all by the established book trade, notably the book stores and most especially of all the literary editors of the broadsheet newspapers.

“I think this resurgence of true fantasy is beginning, slowly at the moment but still very hopefully, to percolate upwards. I've been enormously cheered by the success of China Mieville; when I first started reading his novel The Scar – I've not yet got to Perdido Street Station – I was leaping around the room with delight, because here at last from a major publisher was a supremely intelligent piece of High Fantasy. Del Rey, who publish Mieville in the USA, may well be groundbreakers here, because I was mightily impressed by the intelligence of another High Fantasy they published last Fall, Alice Borchardt's The Dragon Queen. A pity Del Rey publishes so much other stuff, really ...

“Anyway, that's where I see the current state of the fantasy genre right now – in transition, with all the early signs that the patient is not dead but can be expected, although there's a long way to go as yet, eventually to make a full recovery.

“I hope so. I believe firmly in the importance of fantasy as one of the most central expressions of our humanness – possibly the most important. It would be really good to see that significance properly recognized once more.”

(With thanks for additional material from Lou Anders)

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from The Far-Enough Window, Earthdoom!, The Hundredfold Problem

Click here for John Grant's biography

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