Welcome to in-conversation. Jonathan is the author of the phenomenally successful Bartimaeus trilogy, a fantasy trilogy that manages to blend heart-stopping adventure, political chicanery and gloriously acerbic wit. The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate. Now when I was doing my research for the talk I hit the web and found that Jonathan passed my three tests for popularity in the modern world.
MP First of all, jonathanstroud.com has been taken by cyber-squatters. You’re aware of this?
JS Has it?
MP If you look up jonathonstroud.com there is someone who's just waiting for you to pay $25 to get that site from them.
JS I think it might be my agent hopefully.
MP The second test is that Jonathan Stroud has a Wikipedia page.
JS Oh yes, I have seen that.
MP: Who uses Wikipedia here…anyone used Wikipedia lately, the vast online collaborative encyclopedia. And why that is important in popularity stakes is that somebody out there thinks you are worth having a biography, a background page on. That is a kind of tribute…
JS That is kind of weird I have to say.
MP The third step is that the Wikipedia page has spawned a discussion page, which means that people are arguing over the minutiae of your books and your life out there. So those are the three keys of the popularity test in the modern world.
JS Shifts uncomfortably…
MP I’ve done a number of these in-conversations with authors over the years and when approached it is always with a sense of trepidation…because what happens if I don’t like their books? I’m going to have to fake all this enthusiasm. I’m able to say tonight, I don’t have to do that. Because like most of the people here tonight who have read Jonathan’s books, it takes about, ooh, a paragraph or so before you are totally involved in the world of Bartimaeus. They are my sort of book. I knew I was in good hands very, very quickly. And I have to admit that I finished Ptolemy’s Gate last night at five past twelve, for the second time. I have read the whole trilogy twice in the past month I enjoyed them so much. I just wanted to get that fawning out of the way early. These are really, really good books. Okay, Jonathan Stroud, your starter for ten: why fantasy?
JS Gosh, that was a very short question. Well, I guess the traditional or tedious answer is I like to write that which I enjoy reading and still do to a certain extent, although I don’t read as much fantasy as I used to. Looking back on it I guess by the time I was ten I read Lord of the Rings, or most of it (I probably skipped parts of the third book, most of the battles and stuff which was a bit boring) and I fell under its spell. So for many years I fell under its spell of Tolkein and Tolkein-ish books of which there are very many in the world…big sort of fat series of novels. I devoured quite a few of these. Later on I began to drift away from that. I began to see there were limitations to this kind of Tolkein-ish worship, but nonetheless this enjoyment of fantasy has always been within me. When I came to writing my first novel in my mid-twenties it was naturally to fantasy that I actually began to gravitate again.
MP So to pick up on that, I always think you can tell a lot about a writer by what they read, and a lot about a writer for young people by what they read. So what were the books you read when you were growing up, apart from Tolkein. What were the favourites?
JS I suspect that it is the kind that is traditionally still on the tables right now. CS Lewis was a favourite, Diana Wynne-Jones, does anybody here read Diana Wynne-Jones? Oh, good, good, good…because I distinctly remember reading the first one of hers when I was probably about nine or so, called The Ogre Downstairs in which, well, she was one of the first to combine fantasy with modern realistic situations. In this case it was a family with two step-siblings warring against each other. And it was really quite realistic in that sense and there was the fantasy element and the humour as well and she was doing this twenty years before JK Rowling picked up a pen. And so she was an influence too. There were lots of adult fantasy writers I read for a while as well. I guess the lasting ones would be Jack Vance, Mervyn Peake. I guess as a teenager you explore some quite different avenues and there are a few that remain quite dear to me.
MP The progression is interesting there. As a teenager you are looking for more challenging works. Certainly Mervyn Peake and Jack Vance fall into that category, but still with the attraction of fantasy there…the otherness, the lure of that other world.
JS Yes, and stylistically they are more interesting too than a lot of the writers, I suspect, and that might be why I stayed with them. And the other strand that I got into and enjoyed was fairy stories and folk tales - myths to a certain extent - and I particularly liked fairy stories. And when I got older, in your mid-teens you stop having any time to do anything creative and you spend your time writing essays and doing school work and this goes on until you are…well for most kids, its forever really. I got to university and I wrote pieces on fairy tales and the way that stories worked traditionally, so there was always that interest in structure as well.
MP I hope people are taking notes here on the writers Jonathan is referring to because some of them are really worth chasing up. Some of them may be difficult to find but we were having a chat before we came up on stage and Jack Vance is an American science fiction and fantasy author that you don’t hear much about, but stylistically he is unique in lots of ways. His prose is utterly distinctive and his worlds are exotic and colourful and vivid. He is someone well worth searching out if you are looking for someone who does the fantasy business a bit differently but very, very rewarding. And I did want to pick up on Diana Wynne-Jones for a minute because one of the vital texts for any fantasy writer is her Tough Guide to Fantasy Lands.
JS Oh yeah. I only picked that up about two weeks ago and it's really good. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it's almost like a Rough Guide to essentially the clichés of fantasy. And it's like an encyclopedia essentially where she talks about Dark Lords and elves and dwarves and strangers and all the various other kinds of motifs that you get in fantasy books. And it's very funny.
MP And as a writer you read it and wince every so often as you realise the traps she has pointed to. She skewers the writers beautifully. The best example I can remember is how in fantasy works no one ever wears socks. They always wear boots…they take their boots off and they stride off…but they never wear socks. And she wonders about that and she wonders what kind of problems that is going to cause them with fungal infections and the like. She is a lovely writer for her sense of humour and nothing gets past her. In all this business of reminiscing about books you have read, I do like to know of writers and people in general, have you been able to keep a book from your childhood. Have you been able to keep a book that you had as a child that you still keep on your shelf today?
JS Oh yeah, oh yeah, there are far too many. I have the opposite problem. Essentially my mother keeps all the books. It was my mother who got me into writing in the first place. Because when I left university I was wandering around the place looking blank and turning up at her house again and looking like I was never going to leave. And she suggested I got a job in publishing and that children’s fiction or children’s books would be an interesting area to look into. And I thought, okay I’ll give it a go, try it for six months see how it goes. And I got my first job at Walker Books in London who dealt mainly in those days with picture books, although now they’re doing the Anthony Horowitz series. So yes, it is my mother that I have to thank for that. And she kept devoutly in the cellar the boxes and boxes of books that we had and just recently she has been turfing them out. We have vast reams of battered copies of hundreds and hundreds of books, half of whom I never read because I didn’t like the covers, but they have been kept very carefully.
MP They are treasure trove really, not just for nostalgia but because it is where your growth begins as a writer with your own reading. And you can recursively go back and understand more about yourself and learn about your antecedents. I had the opposite problem because I have three younger brothers and when I left home to go to university I came back after six months to find they had sold all of my books…they needed the money, they claimed (after I beat them).
MP We’re talking about fantasy broadly and we will move on to the Bartimaeus trilogy shortly in a bit more detail but I do want to kick around the fantasy ball for a while because there is so much to explore and to look at the way under this broad umbrella of fantasy different people come at it. I’m just fascinated to know from anyone who writes how they go about it, but the key question for me is, do you think there are things you can do in fantasy that you couldn’t do if you were writing non-fantasy. Are you able to do other things?
JS Well you can bring a big horned demon into the room in more of an immediate way without getting questions asked. It’s a very good question - why was it as a child I enjoyed books with magic in them and wasn’t too interested in, I don’t know, books about housing estates and divorce, which were habitually the other kinds of things you got in books in the 1970s. That whole sort of serious realistic fiction didn’t interest me. I think you need escapism. Everyone needs a certain kind of avenue of escape and whether that is through computer games or watching football or through reading books with magic then you gravitate towards what your pleasure is. Escapism is there on the one hand, but if fantasy is going to be more than just a way to pass the time then it has to do something more and it has to give you through the magic, through the use of imagination, through the unreal, it somehow has to reflect you back to yourself and back to people around you. If it is to have any lasting impact, ultimately it must be about real things and about normal things. So in a way you are doing the same thing if you are writing a realistic novel it’s just that you are going about it in a different way, you are wearing fancier clothes - but beneath the clothes there has to be something worth looking at ... it's a rather dubious analogy ...
MP I’m very glad to hear that because I actually think that writing fantasy is more difficult than writing straightforward fiction.
JS Yes, I would agree with that.
MP Because you have got to do all the fantasy things, all the fantasy tropes that make it fantasy, but you have also got to do all the other things that make writing work and work properly.
JS Well, one of the key things I learnt doing this trilogy was how hard fantasy is to write. It’s very easy to write a piece which involves a wizard and some kind of spell going on and something changing. I mean that’s just a special effect. But if you are going to make it have any kind of resonance you have to create the logic behind the fantasy or behind the magic. How does it work? What are the rules to it, when the magician do it, when can’t he do it? There must be limitations, because if a magician can do anything then by definition he must be a very boring guy. That’s why, in a slightly different genre I always disliked Superman intensely and preferred things like Spiderman because although he also had great powers he also had great limitations, like he would run out of spider-web or he would fall to the ground and you know generally be a bit rubbish. Whereas Superman was so perfect and so American and could do anything. I just had no interest in it. There has always got to be limitations, that’s what it has always got to be about because as humans we are flawed and we cock things up.
MP The best fantasy strangely has a core of reality, that there is all of the magic, all of the make believe, all of the monsters behind the curtain, but there is a core of reality. Without it the reader has nothing to connect to and phutt, they will just pass it off. I think your superhero analogy is really good, and I think that is why Superman suffered when he grew up and the writers into the 1970s and ‘80s realised that with limitless characters there is no challenge there, there is no conflict. Orson Scott Card who wrote Ender’s Game, one of the great science fiction books of the last 20 years, he writes excellent fantasy (again, hard to find) and he put it this way: in magic, there must be a cost. Whenever an act of magic is performed it has to come at some cost, otherwise you get to the resolution of the book and suddenly, with a gesture, everything is made good. And he postulated a system where to cast a spell the magic users would have to lose a part of their body. And then spun a story from there. So if someone walking around was a magician and then had one arm lopped off, he was a really powerful magician and you didn’t cross his path. And that was his magical system. The consistency is what you are talking about there, the question of making the world internally consistent.
JS Absolutely. That reminds me of Ursula le Guin who I expect a lot of you would have read in the Wizard of Earthsea sequence, where it is all about balance and if the magician does some sort of act then it is going to have repercussions elsewhere, and unless he is doing it for the purist of reasons there is going to be some sort of negative consequence to the positive act. And those kinds of books last and will be read in 20-30 years time. Whereas those ones where it is all a bit cosy and a bit easy and it’s all a bit flat…you look behind the magic and there’s nothing there, just a bit of cardboard, and it’s all a bit easy and a bit safe.
MP Ultimately in a fantasy world if you want your characters to be believable they must have the same sorts of problems as we have in the world today - slightly recast and with a slightly different view put on it but there are going to be relationship problems, there are going to be family problems and how much you foreground them, that’s the writer’s craft.
JS It’s about mixing, it's about cookery…you’re putting different flavours into a pot. Ideally you’re putting in quite a few different flavours but you’ve got to be careful. The more flavours you put in, the more chances are you are going to get in to a total mess. If you get it just right it’s like a kind of sweet and sour, you can combine all sorts of interesting flavours together and everyone’s happy.
MP We’re in analogy land…but it’s working for me. In this broad sort of kick-around of fantasy you mentioned Tolkein and I don’t think we can do any real discussion of modern fantasy without poking into the Tolkein basket. His footprint on modern fantasy has been enormous for better and for worse. And we do see the generic fantasy…must be a trilogy because Tolkein did it as a trilogy, and it’s in a default fantasy world because that’s how Tolkein did it. How do you feel about his influence?
JS Well, it’s a bit like talking about fantasy in the age of Harry Potter. You can’t escape the fact and be strident and say you like X, Y and Z when in fact these books changed the way fantasy is written and received by people. I mean, fantasy is a wonderful thing at the moment with Harry Potter and Philip Pullman and some great writing going on…the doors have been opened, more people are buying it and discussing it in the media…we’re having sessions like this and I’m allowed to come to Australia and talk about it. There are all sorts of good things coming from this and Tolkein was the first. Well, he wasn’t the first but he was the first who became a phenomenon. Hugely important to me but I find as an adult when I reread it I don’t respond in the way I did when I was younger. But that’s okay. It was vitally important to me. I suppose I always liked the first of the three books the best because that was the most intimate and that had a set of characters who you cared about and you got to know and they had adventures; there was action and there was loss (Gandalf going down the hole) and that was all very moving. As it got bigger and bigger and bigger…this was the thing that a lot of fantasy writing follows, that each book you move out, you move out, you zoom back and you’ve got huge armies moving and all of creation is under threat. On one level it becomes very awesome and spectacular but I think, personally, I’m not as interested. I find myself quite detached from it and so as a writer I’m kind of responding, I’m moving away form the good versus evil in Tolkein…all the elves are very blonde and very beautiful and have perky ears, and all the bad guys are hideous and are malformed and black. It’s really quite crude in some respects although quite powerful. It’s quite mythological and so if you are going to write something in the post-Tolkein world you really have to make things a little more confused and messed up. With a djinni like Bartimaeus you don’t know immediately whether he is good or bad. Or maybe he’s both and therein lies the interest I think.
MP I think that leads us neatly into the Bartimaeus trilogy, which I think everyone is here to talk about.
JS A cunning connection.
MP As an opener, I have this belief, totally unfounded perhaps that stories have their genesis in one of three places. That they spring from location, or from character or they spring from an event...that the writer has this great idea or an episode and the story grows out of there. Could you say that the trilogy grew out of one of those places any more than another?
JS Yes, that’s an interesting theory. I suppose that of those three it would the third because for me. I have written other books before the Bartimaeus trilogy and with those it was a much more slow, incremental process. I wrote a little a bit. I looked at it again. Something else turned up out of that and I gradually maneuvered myself towards a story. With this series there was a particular event. A particular moment, when I was walking along and I was thinking about fantasy (rather in the same way as we are discussing it now) and pondering how as a writer one could respond to everything that was going on and have something fresh to say. And I did suddenly have the couple of ideas that would turn the normal, some of the clichés, on their heads. So, instead of having the magicians who are the heros, the good guys, Harry Potter types, I would invert it so that the magicians, the humans were the villains and that we would have a demon or djinni as the hero. And that was the initial thing. And I thought I would have it in some kind of fantasy land. I’ll have it in modern London and I will make it as realistic as possible - except that there is magic. And yes the magicians will have the power and yes, they’re a bit corrupt. I’ll make them politicians. It’s kind of logical, a kind of strange logic that I followed. Within the space of hundred metres, two hundred metres walking down the road these various ideas had all sort of sprung into my head. I went home and wrote a few notes down, about four or five pages of notes very hurriedly. And a couple of weeks later with these notes, no other real idea of the story - just this idea of the demon narrator being subjugated by the magicians - I sat down and I wrote the first few chapters of the book. And it came out pretty much as it exists today in the book. I wrote the first four chapters in a couple of days. I’ve never had it before or since, the story just coming out of me and was highly excited. When my wife got home from work in the evening I would grab her and (say) 'have a look at this' …and I never show anybody what I've been writing and in this one case I had an energy and an excitement and that came from Bartimaeus’ voice.
MP It happens like that sometimes doesn’t it, like when the seed crystal drops into the solution and it all goes zoom.
JS Yes, though quite rare and by far and away the most extreme case that I have ever had.
MP And it came from an idea, a concept, ‘let’s invert something’. And I think that is happening a lot now in modern fantasy where you sit down to write a new fantasy work and you are conscious of the milieu, of what other people are doing, and you do want to do something fresh. You want to chart something, and inversion is a terrific starting point.
JS Yes, and you need some sort of hook, some spark. In order to excite and enthrall a reader, you have enthrall and excite yourself otherwise you’re not going to spend six months sitting in a darkened room on your own tapping away at your computer when you could be out having fun doing something else. And you have to have some little flame that burns and draws you on, like some little will-of-the-wisp pulling you on down the path.
MP With fantasy there is the danger of doing more of the same: more dragons, more elves. And there is a place for that I suppose but as a writer you want the challenge, the challenge of the new, while remaining in the genre label somewhat. Now the Bartimaeus trilogy is interestingly a very political novel with the magicians, the non-magicians disenfranchised. So there is a class struggle going on here between the aristocratic magicians and the commoners. It’s British socialism? Is this a reaction to Thatcher’s ‘80s? What’s going on here?
JS Well, it yes it probably is actually. Yes, I think that somebody did note that all British books, certainly all British children’s books, you can look at in terms of the class system and it’s definitely true. You look at Harry Potter which very carefully and very cleverly keys into a very venerable tradition in children’s fiction about the boarding school where you, the reader, are with the hero and ensconced in this very cosy little world and all sorts of things going on and the rest of the world is not party to it. That’s quite a common way of dealing with it…it’s actually quite attractive. I realized slowly as I was writing these books that there was actually quite a bit of mileage to be had out of all the conflict between the spells and the imps and the much more astringent, sour, cynical kind of political world that I was creating. And yeah, definitely to a certain extent its reflecting on the disillusionment that a lot of people feel in the UK and also in a lot of other western democracies with politicians. There is a kind of disenfranchisement of feeling that you get. That wasn’t the purpose of the book to begin with, but it was a very fruitful layer to have within the book as it was going on.
MP It is a terrific feature. I was struck by it immensely as I was going on. Politics as a theme is not a common one in literature for young people and to see it at the forefront of a fantasy novel. The power struggles, the negotiations, the moral compromises people have to go through…it was really refreshing to see it there and especially with the subversive spin there. The book is about revolution in more ways than one. There is a passing of power from the old ways to the new ways but also the sense that this is a cyclic thing. It’s very refreshing.
JS It is very cyclical. It’s also about personal choices, moral choices and in the first book its pretty cosy still, we are with Bartimaeus and Nathaniel. And its kind of a game…they are very nicely matched. They are opposites but they are essentially well balanced. No one of them is more in control than the other one. When you get to the second book in the series, The Golem’s Eye, and we bring in Kitty who is a commoner and has no power whatsoever, that’s where it all really shifts because you suddenly see magic and power and Nathaniel and all the rest of them, you see them from the point of view of someone who is below them and who has no power and for whom it is all scary and it is nasty and demons are not nice things. It is not fun any more, not in the same way. So Bartimaeus’ jokes are still there but you have Kitty meeting quite scary creatures and that just shifts the whole balance and a new perspective is brought to bear. And I found that a very fruitful way of avoiding ‘sequel-itis’ where you end doing the same sort of thing in the second book that you did in the first.
MP Fantasy as I mentioned earlier is very much one of those literatures of location where the location gives rise to the society, the people who are growing there and also to the magical dilemmas that people face. Now much of the trilogy is based in London. Are you a Londoner?
JS Er, I have lived in London but I’m close to it, kind of about 20 miles out. I’m slightly detached from it but I’ve grown up with it.
MP But it’s very recognisably London with its landmarks, street names, the whole works there and that’s your effort—to nail down a realistic location to off-set the magical goings-on.
JS Yes that’s right. Again it’s a way of controlling fantasy. There are different ways of doing that are partly its to do with the rules, make sure that your magic actually works; that what you see in book three is the same as what you say in book one…But yes, location is also absolutely key and if you have some imps running around in Whitehall and Trafalgar Square that somehow makes it far more believable, certainly for me as someone who knows them well. And I guess because they are quite familiar places internationally it is fruitful sort of place to put them. Much more interesting say than if you had all the imps in a fairyland with castles and mountains and forests. That would be just much further removed.
MP It is that remove that Tolkein enjoyed in his secondary world…there is no connection with our world whatsoever. Now, before Tolkein the traditional way for a fantasy novel was that somebody would begin in our world and move into a fantasy world. The obvious one is through the wardrobe in the Narnia books. Now I think it can work the other way too that you can have the fantasy stories set in our world with the eruption of ‘the other’. It’s a dislocative fantasy with the familiar, the landmarks and the imps and the foliots running around to keep you the reader off balance. It’s a lovely technique.
JS Yes, it’s useful. It’s a stylistic kind of thing that keeps me on my toes and again the whole structure of the series is interesting. I soon realized that I coldn’t have the whole series in Bartimaeus’ voice because although he is quite charismatic and an attractive guy to be with, if he was talking at you for page upon page upon page you quickly get a bit peeved. A bit like being trapped by an over-excitable guest at a party, you would want to slip away eventually. And it was quite important to bring in Nathaniel’s side of things where it is done in the third person and its much more kind of cool, a bit detached. And so the reader and me the writer, we’re always constantly moving from one to the other and you never quite get settled. You are never with one of them long enough to feel you know precisely how it is going to go.
MP That variety of voices is one of the attractions and one of the keys to the entire trilogy. And structurally I think you have avoided…the standard thing about a trilogy is, ‘is it one long story in three or three books stuck together to make one?’ And the Bartimaeus trilogy has avoided that by having their own distinct structures individually. As well as Mandrake, Nathaniel growing up throughout, there is the introduction of Kitty’s voice, the receding of Bartimaeus and having Mandrake (Nathaniel) coming more to the fore, speaking. And I think that was beautifully handled and keeps the freshness of each book going along. Now there is a question I needed to ask about location. What is it about Prague? Prague features mostly in The Golem’s Eye.
JS Yes, that’s right.
MP Now our Australian fantasy author Isobel Carmody spends half her year in Prague…
JS Oh, really?
MP …yes, and she speaks very highly of it as a place of inspiration for a fantasy writer, particularly one of a gloomy cast of mind, she says. Tell us about Prague.
JS Well, that’s really interesting. Yeah it is a really magical place and it worked its spell on me when I was 20. There was a really cool thing you could do…I don’t think you can do it now…you could buy an inter-rail card in Europe and it cost about £150 and that meant that you could take any train anywhere in Europe for a month so there were countless backpackers who would set off from London or anywhere and go off on some sort of a tour. And my tour took me around down into Greece and as far east as Istanbul and back through he eastern bloc, and I stopped for three days in Prague with a friend of mine and we wondered around Prague. And alongside Greece which is where I was for a week and I was bowled over by the antiquities and Delphi and these kinds of things, alongside Greece, Prague was the place that I remembered most clearly, it had the most impact on me. And it is a very magical spot. When I went there it was only a couple of years after it had come on over into the West after the Communist period. So ther weren't too many McDonald’s around then, there weren’t too many Coke signs. It was quite sort of medievally, there was an amazing Jewish ghetto area, with tumbledown houses and amazing graveyards with stone upon stone upon stone. Because they only had a very small area so they buried generation after generation on top of each other. These graveyards were very high, like dark knobbly masses that you come at, very, very dark. Big castles on the hill with the beautiful river and the Charles Bridge with the statues on it. So tremendously powerful. I have never been back. I was there for three days and ten years down the line, longer, I found myself thinking about it. In fact there is a book called Magic Prague someone gave me (which is) by a Czech guy all about the history of Prague. As it so happens there is a great history of magic there, in the Middle Ages one of the emperors, Rudolph was a bit of a nutter and was into alchemy and trying to find the philosopher’s stone and he summoned magicians from all over Europe including John Dee, he was one of the famous ones from the Elizabethan period. And they all came over, and there are spies and it’s all kind of Renaissance stuff. But it was also kind of dark and weird and murky and experiments and stuff. And I began to read about this and of course there is the golem of Prague, so there are all sorts of traditions of magic existing and associated with the city. But to go back to your question, when I was writing the first back and I began to think about the history of my alternative London, I thought, okay, London’s now the top dog but before them there would have been some other empire that would have risen and fallen, and what was that empire? I thought it would have been Prague. For a long time Prague would have been the top banana in Europe. And so I researched it a bit and in the second book we go to Prague and I have a lot of fun because Nathaniel who is growing up and getting to be a young and modern ultra-smart young magician gets totally pissed off by Prague because its remarkably gloomy and dour and there are gravestones and mould and dankness and he wants to be all sort of neat and doesn’t like getting his coat messy. There is a lot of fun to be had with that transition.
MP It is a gorgeous moment when - he fancies himself as a young James Bond, on that trip, with a new identity, and the secrets, and the mission he’s going on – and then he baulks at the bath in the room, when Bartimaeus tells him perhaps better not to have a bath, because it looks a bit hungry. And I think you can hear in the voice how a location can be so evocative as to insert itself into the story.
JS Yeah, it sort of erupted into it. It wasn’t something I had thought about originally. Then we went back to London again, and I was sort of sad to have to go back to London. But then in the third book, I bring in, in a vague way, Alexandria, which is from the past, in Bartimaeus’ past with one of his earlier masters, and that’s different again, it’s less about the place and more about the personalities.
MP And of course, in that cyclic nature of the rise and fall of the magician’s empires, London will fall and the American colonies will be next. They’re obviously on the rise.
JS Yes, I enjoyed that in my 21st century, the Americans are actually the rebels, or the terrorists that are causing trouble to the evil world empire.
MP There are lovely little moments like that. And it’s an unashamedly British series. There doesn’t seem to be any concessions made to a Pan Atlantic or European world view. The characters play cricket, there are the London scenes, the language that Bartimaeus uses, the pub scenes. And you wrote that because… well, it’s your home.
JS Yes, I think fundamentally that’s right. You have to write about what you know, and that’s what all writers have to do, even fantasy writers. I know a bit about fantasy tradition and myths and legends and stuff, and I also know about London and being British, for better or for worse. They are the cards I was dealt. And in a way, because so many fantasy books have been British, it’s almost an international currency anyway. Whether you’re in Melbourne or New York, it’s quite easy to slip into the world view, this peculiarly British tea-drinking, fantasy-reading culture we’ve got.
MP It’s a tradition, and we’re comfortable with it. There’s a gorgeous moment early on, in The Amulet Of Samarkand, that sent me scurrying to my encyclopedias of fantasy. It’s a technique called the Pistol Effect. This comes from a Kurasawa samurai film from the early sixties called Yojimbo, where, for the first third of the film, it’s a film about samurai. The swords, and the fighting, and the riding, and the castles. And then the hero is confronted by a minor villain in a courtyard, and he pulls out his sword, and the minor villain pulls out a revolver. And suddenly, the last hour of the film, you have to mentally recast it. Because you realise you’re not in medieval Japan anymore, you’re in a reasonably modern Japan. In The Amulet of Samarkand, that moment occurs quite early on. For the first couple of pages, it could be in fantasyland, until, on page 3: “The ice on the lightbulbs cracked like caramelized sugar”. So, there’s the setup and then there’s the double-take. From that moment on, the readers says, “we’re not in generic fantasyland anymore, we’re in a modern world”.
JS That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that line before. I thought you were going to say a line a bit later, and the end of the Bartimaeus spiel, where there’s the big setup and the smoke and the special effects, and you think it’s going to be this horror, and he says “it was his first time, I wanted to scare him.” And you have a shift in tone. It’s not quite the same, but it’s a similar thing. You go from a tonal thing of this sinister demonic figure appearing, and suddenly, it’s the demon speaking, and he has a sarky chip on his shoulder, and away you go, you accelerate into Bartimaeus’ pacey narrative.
MP And that’s where we bump headlong into the Bartimaeus voice. Now, to my ear, Bartimaeus is utterly distinctive, we can hear him in every line. And to my ear, he’s a combination of Blackadder and Kenneth Williams, he’s got that lovely snide voice to him, he just slips in and undercuts any pomposity or fancy of Nathanial’s, and he’s certainly is not one for pretension. It’s a gorgeous voice.
JS I like your Kenneth Williams, I hadn’t thought about that. I loved him as a kid. Do you get the Carry On films here? I’m sorry. But they were great, I loved them as a kid. The other genre which I enjoyed when young, and indeed still to this very day, I’m carrying one with me now, is the private eye, or detective genre. And I loved Sherlock Holmes and things, which links into the gas-lit street and fog and things that you get in The Golem’s Eye. And also Raymond Chandler, particularly, which is very appealing to a teenager, because of the romantic, idealistic figure, but also because of its very good series of one-liners. Someone said, ‘that has to be an influence’, and I hadn’t thought about it, but Bartimaeus is this outsider, with these great one-liners. It’s quite nice when someone says something like Kenneth Williams, and you think ‘what?’ but then you think… yeah, maybe so. And you learn something about what you’re doing.
MP The Raymond Chandler one, as soon as you said it, I thought, ‘ah’. There’s definitely a Philip Marlowe voice going on here. And also the use of the wisecrack to cover up the true feeling that Bartimaeus (especially as the trilogy goes on) will use the almost automatic wisecrack to try to hide what he’s really feeling. Especially about Kitty.
JS Yes. That’s a true effect. Interestingly, I reread some Raymond Chandler recently, and didn’t like it as much, because of a certain sentimentality, that, as a jaded adult, I’ve gotten a bit tired of. It still has some good one liners, and there is still the charismatic figure, but there’s a certain flabbiness about it that I hadn’t remembered. In fact now I respond more to Dashiell Hammett, who is the original hardboiled detective writer, and he has no sentimentality whatsoever, not a trace. The prose has been squeezed so all the sentiment has dripped out of it so you’re left with something very hard and very pure. You wouldn’t want to spend all your life reading it by any means, but occasionally it’s really good and refreshing to read something so hard and cold. And though I wouldn’t say I wanted my book to be like that, as I was going through the series I did want to avoid sentimentality as best I could. I was aware, especially in the third book, that there was a potential for a lot of sentiment, because you have affection and attraction between the main figures. That has to be treated quite carefully.
MP That’s where Bartimaeus’ character has been set up so beautifully, because he does use his humour, those sardonic wit to cover up his feelings abut Ptolemy and the death scene. He’s still making wisecracks all the way up to the very end, so that when he does have a moment of real sincerity, it’s all the more meaningful, because it hasn’t been overdone earlier. Full marks, young Stroud. Well done. I think it’s really lucky he has such a distinctive voice, because his physical form shifts around so much.
JS That’s right, and I realised quite early on that I think of Bartimaeus as a voice, if that’s possible. Rather than as any kind of physical form. I realised that when the Miramax Disney people, who were hoping to make a movie out of it, asked me who I saw playing Bartimaeus. They wanted Bartimaeus to be played by an adult, so when he takes on the form of Ptolemy as a 12 year old, in the film it would be Ptolemy as an adult. So they could get a famous person playing it. Once I got my head around that idea, which I can see makes commercial sense, I found it really hard, and I’m still quite puzzled, who would I choose? My wife wants Johnny Depp, but that’s not for reasons that are at all appropriate.
MP That’s going to be a tricky one. Bartimaeus is also the source of the back story, in the best possible way, in his offhand comments. Because he’s so sardonic, he can mention Solomon, without explaining or offering any indication of who Solomon was, and that casts the story, makes it recede beautifully into the distant past. Who else does he mention in his offhand sort of way? Didn’t he build the walls of Jericho?
JS They try to pin that one on him, but he rejects it because the walls of course fell down. It’s the beauty of Bartimaeus, anything that came into my head could be potentially thrown in. You get this sense of deep time from just the smallest amount of effort on my part, really. These little footnotes that throw you back to Aztec times or the Middle East. That’s always been a very magical area and time to me. Because I know so little about it, and you take it for granted. It goes back so far and it’s so complicated. These cities and empires that came and went and crumbled into dust. It’s marvellous to have this passport that gives you little fleeting glimpses, only fleeting because it would destroy the narrative if you went into any great detail.
MP And of course he wouldn’t. He’d been there and done that, got the t-shirt.
JS Also, he’s probably making half of it up. You do get the sense that he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator.
MS No no! Everything he says is true. It provides the setup for the last book, Ptolemy’s Gate, where suddenly we’re not just getting the references to that time, we’re actually there with Ptolemy. And there’s the narrative shift, where we read that stuff and start to understand a lot of what’s gone on before.
JS That was one of the last problems I had to wrestle with when writing the series. Very early on I wrote a chapter plan of all three books. Of course it altered, but by and large I was following the plan. I ploughed into PG, but ground to a halt three quarters of the way through, realising that the last 60 pages were wrong. They weren’t working, and I wasn’t sure why. And I had to take a step back. I was getting a bit sweaty at this point, because I had about a month to finish the book and it was all getting a bit difficult, and I realised that the problem lay with the whole thing. At that point I hadn’t showed anything about Ptolemy or Alexandria. And it was going to be important, about Bartimaeus’s character and why he is like he is. And I had this sudden realisation that I had to go back and create a series of vignettes where you see Bartimaeus and Ptolemy, and it gives you an insight. Once I’d written those, everything fell back into place and the balance was redressed, and I could talk about them in the present and have quite dramatic things going on in London in the present day, because it was balanced by what was going on back in Alexandria, thousands of years ago.
MP The background becomes foreground, and becomes more immediate and poignant when we come to Ptolemy’s death. Now, that Ptolemy is not the same as the astronomer Ptolemy?
JS No it isn’t. In the first day of writing The Amulet, I put in a line saying Bartimaeus appeared and took on the appearance of a boy he once loved, but that his ashes had floated down the Nile many years ago. And I had no idea what that meant. I just liked the feeling he had some kind of almost romantic connection. I didn’t know who this guy was, and then I thought yeah, he’s called Ptolemy. And for a while I thought it was the great astronomer, but when I went back and started researching it, I realised it didn’t seem right. I realised there was Ptolemy the great general, who was the second in command to Alexander the Great who took over Egypt, and his family ruled Egypt for two or three hundred years. And I thought, okay, that’s my way in. He’s going to be the Ptolemy of my story.