Thursday, 1 July 2010

John Grant

John Grant is author of some seventy books, of which about twenty-five are fiction, including novels like The World, The Hundredfold Problem, The Far-Enough Window and most recently (2008) The Dragons of Manhattan and Leaving Fortusa. His “book-length fiction” Dragonhenge, illustrated by Bob Eggleton, was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 2003; its successor was The Stardragons. His first story collection, Take No Prisoners, appeared in 2004. His anthology New Writings in the Fantastic was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. His novella The City in These Pages, an Ed McBain homage/cosmological fantasy, appeared from PS Publishing early in 2009; another novella, The Lonely Hunter, is to appear from PS later this year.

In nonfiction, he coedited with John Clute The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and wrote in their entirety all three editions of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters; both encyclopedias are standard reference works in their fields. Among his latest nonfictions have been Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and, in Fall 2009, Bogus Science.

As John Grant he has received two Hugo Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and a number of other international literary awards. Under his real name, Paul Barnett, he has written a few books (like the space operas Strider’s Galaxy and Strider’s Universe) and for a number of years ran the world-famous fantasy-artbook imprint Paper Tiger, for this work earning a Chesley Award and a nomination for the World Fantasy Award.

A Scot by birth, he now lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and an alarming number of cats; their back yard features more wildlife than the average zoo, up to and including wild turkey and black bears, both of which are frequent visitors in season. His website is at

Q1. What are you writing at the minute?

I'm working on my next nonfiction book, which is to be published next Spring by Prometheus. Provisionally called Denying Science, it follows along the same stream of thought, as it were, as my earlier books Discarded Science, Corrupted Science (particularly), and Bogus Science. I'm also writing the 500 or so artist/illustrator entries for the new (massive, online) third edition of the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which this time has David Langford as a primary editor alongside the other two. Oh, and I'm writing a chapter about time travel stories for an academic book on science fiction's subgenres. That's in addition to the usual drizzle of short stories and such. It's a busy time.

I should also mention this cute illustrated rhyming book for kids about a velociraptor for which I've done the doggerel (the illustrator's set to be Chris Baker, a.k.a. Fangorn). It's currently being shopped around publishers.

Q2. Can you give us an idea of your typical up-to-the-armpits-in-ideas-and-time writing day?

I'm not sure I can, to be honest. I get up in the morning; go through countless e-newsletters and the like, filing pieces that could come in useful for any of the various nonfiction books I have on the stocks; do necessary e-mail and some chattering with the informal list I belong to, The Spammers; drag myself to the exercise bike for a while; then, if I'm on a deadline or I'm really involved in my current piece of writing, I write for what can seem an obscene number of hours; conversely, if there are no deadline pressures and I'm working on something boring, I do my best not to skive. There's no set pattern, in other words.

Q3. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read. I'm a cricket nut, so follow the sport as best a US resident can on I listen to music. I also watch movies, mainly – when Pam allows it – golden age films noirs and neo-noirs. One of my down-the-line projects is a book on noir cinema – so, you see, I can count my couch potatoing as research!

(I wrote a little book on beer a few years ago. At the outset I had this excellent research plan outlined in my head. Alas, it was vetoed.)

Q4. Any advice for a greenhorn trying to break into the fiction scene?

Don't be tempted to self-publish, even though doing so is cheap and (with the advent of e-books) becoming cheaper. You'll be told tales of how self-published authors have made major breakthroughs; but those successes are the one-in-a-million exceptions – you're looking at a winning-the-lottery-level outside chance. More likely, self-publication will destroy your career before it has even started, because people will assume your book is, like 99 out of every 100 of the other self-published novels on offer all over the internet, complete crap.

Q5. Which crime writers have impressed you this year?

I assume the question means "within the past twelve months or so". It's still a hard one, though.

I was engrossed by Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game, which I imagine could be described at least loosely as a crime novel. I read (on occasion reread) and enjoyed various crime novels by some of the usual suspects – Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, Harlan Coben, Robert Barnard, John D. Macdonald, John Dickson Carr. Other crime books, not necessarily good (and in some cases lousy), that stick out in my memory for one reason or another include: Peter Lovesey's Diamond Solitaire, a charming sequel to his equally charming The Last Detective; James Hadley Chase's I'll Bury My Dead, the first Chase novel I've read and probably the last (it was sort of fun and I'm glad I did it, but . . .); Stephen Humphrey Bogart's Play It Again, an attempt at a hardboiled detective novel by Bogie's son (somewhat better than its exploitative title might suggest, but the guy should see someone about the issues he seems to have with Lauren Bacall); Dorothy Bryant's Killing Wonder (regarded as pioneeringly feminist back in 1981, but readable today as a pleasing mystery with a laudable tang of wry social satire); John Searles's Boy Still Missing (grossly overwritten in places – many places – but it still somehow succeeds by the end in being both riveting and moving and real). I know there have been lots of others but, as I say, these are ones that come to mind.

Best of all among the crime books I've read in the past few months, aside perhaps from the Zafon (it's kind of apples and oranges to compare the two), has been Stieg Larrson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A curious thing: One day someone on one of the LinkedIn groups was urging me most strongly to read this book, of which at the time I'd only vaguely heard. That evening Pam and I went into NYC to see an Interstitial Arts presentation at the fantastic Manhattan bookstore Housing Works, all of whose proceeds go to helping the homeless. Pam shot straight off to the loo when we got there, leaving me by a book trolley of recent arrivals. Idly, my eye fell on these, and you've guessed what it was . . . at a mere $6 for the near-mint hardback! I felt that someone up there was trying to tell me something so bought the book on the spot – and am extraordinarily glad I did so.

Q6. What are you reading right now?

In my leisure time, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife – although really it's not leisure reading but towards this essay I'm writing (op cit.) on time travel stories. During working hours I'm reading – as part of the research for Denying Science – James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren, a book that's frightening on two scores: it lays out what's really coming down the pike as our planet's climate changes, and it recounts some pretty vile persecution and intimidation, both officially sanctioned and "freelance", that scientists can face should they insist on reporting the results of their science rather than bending the truth to suit other people's ideological preconceptions.

Q7. Plans for the future?

As noted above, I want to do a major book on film noir. I'm also developing ideas for books on past predictions of the end of the world, on Fundamentalist hate groups, and on the profitless interaction between science and the supernatural – both how scientists who've probed claims of the supernatural have ended up with egg on their faces and how the "supernaturalists" spew pseudoscientific "explanations" for their claims. I'm also slowly beginning to get my ass in gear to put together – and find a publisher for – my second story collection, provisionally called Tell No Lies. Oh, and there are other notions bubbling around.

Q8. With regards to your writing career to date, would you do anything differently?

Too many things for me sensibly to list.

Q9. Do you fancy sharing your worst writing experience?

I don't know if it counts as a "worst writing experience", but this is certainly the most annoying (in an ironic sort of a way) that's happened for quite a while:

A few years ago I had an idea for a fantasy story in which, in the distant past (so far as my far-future protagonists are concerned), a religiously puritanical Galactic Emperor had cracked down on the casino space cruisers then in vogue, having them hurled into black holes. What he didn't realize is that he thereby granted the gamblers, croupiers, their bosses, their environment, etc., a form of immortality, because, while the matter of which they were made up was destroyed, the information that underpinned their existences is still swirling around in a 2D film, as it were, on the black holes' event horizons; further, it has now become a popular – albeit expensive – tourist recreation to send one's avatar, which is similarly an entity derived by stripping the individual down to her/his information, from orbiting spacecraft down onto the event horizon "surface" to intermingle with the gamblers, who're still tugging away on those fruit machine handles, or whatever, aware that something's dreadfully wrong but not sure what it is.

I thought it was a very pretty fantasy image, but clearly I was using a bunch of sciencefictional tropes. It struck me as my duty to give these some superficial level of scientific plausibility, so I invented a new universal law – "The Law of Conservation of Information" – to explain why there was this thing about the casino people's information still existing even if the rest of them were long destroyed. Hm. The expression would read better if I called it "The Law of Conservation of Data", and that became the title of my story.

The trouble was that the story proved infernally difficult to write – partly because of working out the ramifications of the "Law", partly because I was trying to make my far-future humans as different from us, culturally and otherwise, as I could. I managed a few thousand words, then put the thing to one side to be gone back to again later when my brain was feeling a bit stronger. That hasn't happened yet.

And now almost certainly won't.

A few weeks ago, we were watching a Horizon documentary about how, after long years of wrangling with a US physicist called Leonard Susskind, Stephen Hawking had felt compelled to modify his original contention that even information itself is lost to the universe at black holes. I discovered that, according to Susskind and his allies and indeed most physicists, there actually is a law of conservation of information. Well, stap me – my idea's been retroactively stolen. It got worse. Apparently Susskind's latest notion of what's going on, the holographic principle (in fact originally derived by a Dutch physicist called Gerardus 't Hooft), maintains that all the information from the 3D items which fall into the black hole survives in 2D form at the event horizon. (More accurately, the 2D information forms a hologram of the 3D items . . . leading to the further notion that we and the universe we know are not 3D at all, but merely a holographic representation of the true, two-dimensional, information-composed universe. But that's another story.)

So all of the elegant flights of fantasy I'd constructed in order to build my story were not original at all – well, they were original to me, it was just that other folk had got to some bits of them first. Perhaps I'd come across these ideas in my reading and forgotten about them? In the case of the law of conservation of information, this is very possible; but it seems the popular accounts of the holographic principle, as it relates to what I've been talking about, didn't start emerging until about 2008 – which is long after I was working on my story.

My, did I swear a lot when I discovered all this.

Q10. Anything you want to say that I haven’t asked you about?

One of the things I find when chattering with people who don't know my fiction (which, let's face it, is just about everybody) is their frequent desire for me to pigeonhole myself in one genre or another. "Oh, you're a science fiction writer!" they cry, and I have to explain that, no, although I do sometimes write SF I wouldn't call myself an SF writer, more of a fantasist making use of SF tropes and venues and styles. "Ah, a fantasy writer, then!" Well, yes and no, depending on what you mean by "fantasy": if you mean high fantasy with fighting barbarians and usurped princesses and pigboys an' stuff, well, um, while I've written quite a lot of this I think it must be nearly twenty years since the last time. If by "fantasy" you mean the stuff that swallows up and smears itself across all kinds of other genres, very notably including crime (most especially noir), then I guess that could be me, in a sort of slipstreamish fashion. Really, though, I like it best when people think of each new fiction by me as just a piece of fiction, and don't expect it necessarily to be anything like the last piece of mine they read.

Despite what I've just said, I guess that in some ways – while the plot and voice of "The Life Business" are original to the piece – subtextually it has something in common with much of my other fiction in the sense that the story it's telling turns out not to be the one you've been thinking it was. I'm interested in the way our minds and memories construct past realities that relate to, but may not particularly well match, what objectively did happen. It's been a recurring theme of mine. "The Life Business" has something to say towards it.

Golly, but I hate talking about my fiction like this. I always end up sounding like a pompous twerp.

Thank you, John Grant!


Anonymous said...

Er, it should be "Larsson", not "Larrson" -- sorry 'bout that.

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know, Gerard, that Tell No Lies, mentioned in the interview, has very recently come out from Alchemy Press. The long delay isn't their fault but mine: I got sucked into the writing of my film noir encyclopedia and did virtually nothing else for a couple of years.

The collection doesn't include "The Life Business", which might seem odd because I'm very proud of that story. I've earmarked it for a different collection, provisionally called Strange Detections. Of course, since I went ten years between publication of my first collection (Take No Prisoners) and my second, keeping stories back for the third may not be the brightest of ideas!

Gerard Brennan said...

Hi John!

Apologies, your comment got caught in a spam filter for a few days there. Hopefully that won't happen again.

Congrats on yet ANOTHER publication, sir. Very impressive. I hope it sell like crazy.

Best of luck with the third collection too. It'll happen when it's meant to.