My Interview with Jonathan Stroud

Last month I had the opportunity to chat via email with my friend and colleague Jonathan Stroud on the occasion of his newest publication: Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase. If you haven't yet picked up a copy, do so immediately. It's brilliant. 

Below is the interview in full. I had so much fun talking with Jonathan. It's not often I get to compare notes with another writer about how the creative writing process works. I hope you enjoy!

Rick Riordan/Jonathan Stroud       Q&A  

Jonathan: Hi Rick. Well, it’s a real joy to have this conversation with you. I saw you give a terrific speech at the US Book Expo earlier this summer, and I really regretted not having a chance to chat with you then. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I find about being a writer is that it’s a pretty hectic business. If we’re not zooming about doing events, we’re back at home, chained to our desks by our cruel editors and scribbling hard. In short, the opportunities to sit down and chew the fat with fellow authors are fairly few and far between. Whenever I do get the chance to hear another writer speak about their craft, I always find it fascinating, so I’m hopping with delight at the prospect of getting some fantastic insights (no pressure) from the author of Percy Jackson.

Rick: Thanks, Jonathan! Great to talk with you. I’m not sure I’ve ever told you this, but back in 2003, while I was writing The Lightning Thief, I walked into my local bookstore and saw The Amulet of Samarkand prominently displayed. I bought it immediately and loved it. I noticed Miramax (Disney-Hyperion) was your American publisher, and I was so impressed that they would publish such great fantasy I ended up choosing them at auction to publish Percy Jackson. I’ve never regretted it!

Jonathan: Okay, so the first thing I’d like to know is pretty simple. Tell me about your working day. I once met a distinguished fantasy author who said that she only ever wrote when the muse took her. She claimed she never just sat down and worked at it. I’ve got to say that I was sceptical: for me the muse is secondary to the importance of just keeping my backside in my chair for a certain number of hours each day. What about you? Are you the kind of guy who likes a settled routine, who starts and finishes his writing at regular hours, and who enjoys a cup of coffee at the same time every morning? Or are you more instinctive, going with the flow when the fires burn hot?

Rick: I wish I were a creature of habit. I really do. It might make my work schedule more predictable. Unfortunately I have yet to discover what a ‘typical’ writing day looks like for me. I try to write every day. That’s about as much as I can tell you. Sometimes that means fifteen minutes. Sometimes it means fifteen hours. That’s not to say I have no system or that I wait for inspiration to strike. My method for creating a book over the course of a year is more or less consistent. In the early stages of a manuscript, I spend a couple of months researching and outlining and just thinking about the scenes I want to create. That’s fairly light work, so I’m not at my desk all day. Once I get into the first draft, I’ll spend four or five hours a day writing, though again that varies widely. I’m much too ADHD to sit at my desk for five hours straight. I’m a ‘hit and run’ writer. I’ll write a few pages, get up and do some chores, take the dog for a walk, and come back later. When I get into the second and third drafts, the work gets real. That’s when I get laser-focused and can spend ten to fifteen hours at a time polishing and tweaking.

Now a question back to you: Have you found that your writing process has evolved over the years? I have yet to find the perfect system, or even a system that makes writing less painful and difficult, but certainly I’ve changed the way I operate drastically since I wrote my first novel. What about you?

Jonathan: I’d like to claim that I’m getting more efficient at writing novels, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way! Like you, I tend to spend the early stages of a project writing notes, doing research, pondering different structures. I think of this as the ‘cappuccino stage’ because it slightly lends itself to that cliché of the writer (probably wearing a black roll-neck sweater or cravat or something) hanging around cafés, scribbling casually in notebooks. For me, this stage tends to merge into a sort of ‘phoney war’ phase, where I write quite a few random scenes, testing the waters, seeing which characters or concepts ignite. Then I start to put the first draft together in earnest. I always feel that it would be better to skip the phoney war bit altogether and just get on with things, but somehow I never seem to quite manage it. But I do think I’m slowly getting better at recognising quickly what does and doesn’t work, and I’m much more ruthless than I used to be at tossing aside ideas that fail. For me everything ultimately revolves around a pretty intensive few months when I’m constructing the first draft. During this phase I’ll aim for (and generally fail to achieve) 25 pages a week: the more momentum I can get, the better the results tend to be.

That whole ‘inspiration versus routine’ thing we discussed earlier is at the heart of my next question too. One thing that I’m really fascinated by, because it gives me continual problems, is how other writers balance plot and improvisation. For me there’s an endless tension between the side of my brain that wants to order things and create lovely neat chapter plans in advance, and the side that wants to freewheel into scenes, just letting my characters chat or bicker, and seeing where that takes me. Many of the things I’m proudest of in my books (silly jokes, rich details) appear unexpectedly as I write, and quite often they alter the whole direction of the story, which irritates the ‘orderly’ side of my brain no end! I end up sort of zigzagging between these opposites, frantically rigging up possible new structures before being carried off again on a slightly variant path. How does it work for you? Do you draw up detailed plans at the outset of each novel and then stick to them, or do you find yourself veering off course?

Rick: I can relate to that dilemma. And you have those fabulous footnotes from Bartimaeus pulling you in different directions, too! I outline each book beforehand, knowing full well that I won’t completely stick to the plan. My outlines are loose, which helps. I usually sketch out a paragraph for each chapter with the basic ingredients: location, characters involved, and which mythological monster or situation they will face. Location is very important to me. As my books tend to be geographic odysseys, I spend a lot of time thinking about where to take my characters and how that locale will affect the action. The details of each chapter, however, develop organically, and with every book, the plot takes turns I didn’t expect. That’s okay with me. In fact it’s one of the joys of writing. When all the elements come together, it’s like alchemy – creating something that somehow is greater than the sum of its parts.

Did you have some of those “Aha!” moments when you were writing Lockwood & Co.? I imagine you must have. It’s such a vibrant world you’ve created. Did any pieces click together even better than you’d hoped, or did anything about Lucy’s world develop in a way you didn’t expect?

Jonathan: You’re so right about the wondrous alchemy of writing. I love those days where you unexpectedly strike gold. It could be just a couple of great lines: that’s all you need to make everything feel worthwhile.

I think the ‘Aha’ moments tend to strike most often when you put two characters together and just let them talk. I bet you’ve had that when you got Percy bantering with Annabeth, say, or when he faces off against one or other of the gods. For me, Lockwood & Co ignited with my two young paranormal investigators just standing on the doorstep of a haunted house, having a conversation. They bicker gently, name-drop ghosts they’ve fought, try to mask their rising tension with a few jokes. Those couple of pages were enough to get me excited: I immediately wanted to find out more. For a long while I didn’t have a clue how this world actually worked, though, and I had to write quite a few scenes to help figure it out. Sometimes (for example a chapter where Lucy has various awful interviews with other paranormal agencies) they didn’t end up featuring in the book itself, but they were essential to make the world more concrete in my mind.

One of the great delights of your universe is the lovely fusion of the modern world with the mythic (I still chuckle at the fact that you get to the Underworld via Los Angeles!). When I was a kid I liked nothing better than reading about entirely invented fantasy lands, preferably brought to life with sprawling Tolkienesque maps. These days, though, and certainly as a writer, I’ve found that I instinctively prefer fantasy that keeps one foot in the real world. Somehow it makes the magical stuff more memorable and meaningful if it’s anchored in the everyday (and vice versa). In many ways Percy J himself – half ordinary kid, half most certainly not – symbolises this division perfectly. In my Bartimaeus books, Nathaniel and Bart are opposites driven together too. Anyway, were you a big fantasy fan, growing up? (I’m guessing so!) And have you also felt the same slight shift in emphasis over the years – the need to keep in touch with ordinary things?

Rick: The rise of ‘urban fantasy’ is a fascinating subject. That’s one of things I love about your work, too. The Bartimaeus books are set in London, and yet that familiar landscape is rendered into something much more fantastical. I’ll never look at Westminster Abbey the same way again. In your new series Lockwood & Co., we’re clearly in modern England, but then again, we’re not. Ghosts run rampant and children with rapiers patrol the haunted streets. I love the juxtaposition of familiar and strange.

Like you, I grew up with high fantasy. I had Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth taped to my bedroom wall. I would spend hours drawing my own maps of fantasy worlds. But when it came time to write Percy Jackson, I instinctively set it in modern Manhattan. I liked the idea of updating Greek mythology for a modern audience. The old stories are just so . . . well, old. I wanted to find a way to make them seem fresh and relevant for an audience of kids who find anything from before last month to be ancient history. I suppose the idea of fantasy set in the ‘real world’ isn’t new. We have Lucy slipping into the wardrobe during World War II. We’ve got Wendy Darling flying out of her Victorian bedroom to Never Never Land. One of the first modern urban fantasies I read was Little, Big by John Crowley and it blew my mind. Still, I agree that urban fantasy seems to be the new normal. I’m not sure why that is, but I agree it’s probably the appeal of opposites attracting. A Minotaur destroying a Cretan maze? Yawn. A Minotaur destroying the Brooklyn Bridge? Now that’s interesting!

I’m curious, too, about how you chose the setting for Lockwood & Co. Chronologically, it seems a fascinating mix of modern and Victorian, and the haunted Britain you’ve conjured up is a wonderfully creepy place. For you, how did developing this world compare to, say, the world of Heroes of the Valley, or the Bartimaeus books?

Jonathan: For me, figuring out how a new world works is one of the real highlights of the job. It’s so crucial too: I think one of the ironies of writing good fantasy is that it has to abide by its own laws – it must make sense under its own terms. These background rules take time to develop: I was still uncovering new secrets of Bartimaeus’s and Nathaniel’s worlds when writing the third book in that series, and there are plenty of things about Lockwood’s London that I don’t yet fully understand (don’t tell my editors this). With Heroes I was pretty sure from the outset that I wanted something set in a sort-of Viking age, but Lockwood’s exact period was more taxing. Should it be modern or Victorian? In the end I decided it was essentially modern (trainers, jeans, TVs), but set in a world without today’s zippy telecommunications (ie. no cell-phones for getting you out of a tight spot). Oh, and with a raging epidemic of ghosts. That’s enough to get me leaping out of bed in the mornings.

Both of us write extended series of books, and both of us benefit from the fun to be had with developing an extended universe across several titles. I’m wise to those possibilities now, but with The Amulet of Samarkand, I was a good sixty pages or so into the story before I realised that I simply had too many characters, plot threads and perspectives to cram into one book. I had to stop, sit back, and rework the concept into a trilogy before I could continue. What about you? When you were writing Lightning Thief, at what point did you know that it was the start of something so epic?

Rick: Well, as a reader, I’m certainly glad you continued beyond one book! I’ve always preferred reading series, whether detective fiction or fantasy or science fiction. I feel somewhat cheated if I invest my time getting to know the characters and the carefully crafted world in a novel, and then I’m never allowed to visit again. So for me, there was never any doubt Percy Jackson would be a series. That’s simply my default setting. The only question was how many books I would write. Because I like series, I do have to think long and hard about which projects to tackle next, because I won’t be committing to just one novel. I’ll be spending 3-5 years creating a multi-book arc.

And what about Lockwood & Co.? Do you have a definite number of books in mind for Lucy and the gang, or do you let the greater story arc develop organically as you go?

Jonathan: I’m currently thinking at least four books for Lockwood, possibly five. I’ve got the story arc scribbled down on the equivalent of the back of napkin: just a raw sentence or two for each book. The details of each one remain completely open at this stage – they’ll develop organically as I go. I know exactly what you mean about the pleasure of reading a great series, by the way: you can just immerse yourself in what the writer’s created for you. There’s a lovely sense of generosity about the whole experience.

I’m looping back into the mists of time for this question. I’d like to know how it all began for you. When I was a kid I was always scribbling something – comics, stories, games, drawings – and as the long-suffering audiences who’ve come to my events will know, I’ve still got the tattered originals to prove it. Looking back on it, I clearly always had the itch to write, but I didn’t fully appreciate this until my mid-20s, when I got my first books published. With the benefit of hindsight, do you think your path was always mapped out? Have you always been a writer, even when you were officially doing other things?

Rick: I knew early on that I wanted to write, from about age twelve. I would design my own comic books and sketch ideas for fantasy series. I drew maps, too, although sadly I have no artistic talent whatsoever. Most of my stories were bad knock-offs of Lord of the Rings. I guess today we’d call it ‘fan fiction.’ Back then it was just, ‘I don’t have any original ideas so I’ll just use that guy’s!’ Still, it did teach me a lot about writing. I was also an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons. Laugh if you will, but my years as a dungeon master taught me a lot about crafting a story and keeping the elements of a fantasy novel in check without letting the magical overcome the realistic. Or at least, so I like to hope . . .

Still, I had the urge to be a writer long before I had anything worthwhile to say. I had to forget I wanted to get published and simply practice my craft until the right story came along. Then, when the time was right and the story was right, I found my first novel. It was a reassuringly ‘Zen’ experience.

I’ve noticed that visual art is important for you. It’s one of the trademarks of your presentations, and during the years when I was touring the UK, I would often see mementos of your visits at schools and libraries. As someone who can barely draw stick figures, I’m envious! How did you get interested in visual art as a medium, and have you ever dabbled in the world of graphic novels?

Jonathan: Wow, it’s interesting that you were into comics and role-playing games too as a kid. I’ve met quite a few other authors who were also. It reinforces my feeling that there are no hard and fast boundaries between books and other types of creative expression. As a child you move seamlessly from one medium to another, and it’s maybe only chance that dictates which one you end up doing. I tried D&D too, but could never quite get my head round the rules (or those multi-sided dice!). I ended up spending most of my time trying to create my own games. But I totally agree with you: games-design is great practise for a budding author. It’s got that essential mix of improvisation and structural control.

As for the art, you’re a bit overly generous about my talents! I guess I’ve always liked to sketch and do cartoons, and I think an awful lot of kids (including ones who won’t be massively into reading) enjoy it too. So I like to mix it up, and bring that element into my events wherever possible. Good cover art’s essential for a successful book, after all, so it just gives us another element to discuss. Graphic novels still interest me too. I helped collaborate on a graphic version of Amulet a few years back, and that was a wonderful experience. It was fascinating to see how the story could be successfully transferred to another medium – altered a little, but still remaining true to the essence of the book.

Influences now. I don’t mean literary – I guess that you, like me, will have read countless writers who inspired you in different ways over the years. I’m just wondering if there were any key people in your life who strongly influenced your writing, or the fact that you ended up writing at all. I had a marvellous teacher, Mr Bill Bowen, who got me standing up in front of the school, reading out my stories, when I was about 10: he, I think, gave me the confidence that I could write. There was also the Canadian writer, Douglas Hill, who wrote a terrific sci-fi series, The Last Legionary Quartet, in the late 70s: he visited my school and so entranced me that I actually sent him one of my little books. He wrote back a very kind and encouraging letter, which I’ve never forgotten. Not least, there’s my wife, Gina, who got fed up with me moaning about not having time enough to write, and told me to give up my job to make a go of it, which I’ve been doing ever since. They’re all on my list. Who would be on yours?

Rick: My parents were both teachers, and they both spent a lot of time reading to me. Their influence on my life choices – to teach and write – is hard to overestimate. When I was thirteen, I had a great English teacher Mrs. Pabst who encouraged me to send a story I’d written to a magazine. It was rejected, but that started me on the long path to becoming a writer. I firmly believe that one good teacher can change the course of a life. For me, that teacher was Mrs. Pabst. I became a middle school teacher, and later a writer, largely because of her.

A related question: you mentioned Douglas Hill’s visit to your school and how influential that was. Now that you are the visiting author, you have certainly affected the lives of many young readers and future authors. Does one encounter – either in person or by correspondence – stand out for you?

Jonathan: Curiously enough, one of the most memorable for me was an encounter with an adult reader. At an event in the USA, I met a soldier on leave from service in Afghanistan. He described a little of his experiences, and the (to me unimaginable) things he’d seen. He then said that reading my Bartimaeus books had given him a nightly respite, a few precious moments of escape. As he left, he told me he had another tour of duty starting a few days later. All my encounters with my readers affect me deeply, but meeting that guy left me particularly humbled and overwhelmed.

A careers question now! Before becoming a full-time writer I was an editor of children’s books. I never actually edited fiction – I was doing puzzle-books and non-fiction, mainly – but it taught me a bit about plonking words on paper. Best of all, it’s made me more relaxed about the whole editing process – the fact that lots of revisions and rewrites may be needed before the problems of a book are solved. So my old job has stood me in good stead. What about you? What aspects of being a teacher do you think have been most important in shaping your other career?

Rick: I never considered my teaching career as on-the-job training for writing, but in retrospect it was just that. Everything I know about the middle grade sensibility came from my fifteen years in the classroom. I learned how to keep things interesting, how to enliven dry subjects, how to use humor and sarcasm and modern references to appeal to my students. When I wrote The Lightning Thief, I imagined myself reading it to my own students after lunch, when their attention span was shortest. I wanted my book to be able to survive in the trenches of middle school, and to reach even those kids (especially those kids) who were not normally big readers.

And you? If you had been a student in my classroom, what would you’ve have been like? Were you the studious kid in the front row, or the daydreamer in the back, or something else entirely?

Jonathan: I’d have been sitting somewhere near the front, pretty studious, no real trouble, although you might have got annoyed at the amount of time I spent doing weird doodles in my rough book, or putting on silly voices with my desk-mate, Sam. I only once got a detention. Our maths teacher couldn’t keep control, and there was generally bedlam in his lessons. One day I was innocently getting on with my work, when someone chucked a large and soggy piece of bun – splat! – onto my maths book. I picked it up and furiously hurled it away over my shoulder… What can I say? It hit the teacher. When he asked who did it, dozens of fingers pointed right at me. Off to detention I had to go.

Okay, last question! I know that the Percy stories started out as tales that you told your son, Haley. When you gave your Book Expo talk, you spoke hilariously about many of the great letters you’d received from kids, and also the advice and encouragement your pupils gave you when you were starting out on Lightning Thief. So it sounds as if your audience was right there, all around you (it must have been thrilling, both for them and for you). But were you also writing for yourself, or for the child you’d been? Who are you writing for now? 

Rick: When I was a teacher, I used to say that I had to make the class fun for myself or there was no way the kids would enjoy it. The same is true of writing. I have to believe in the story I’m telling. I have to chuckle once in a while at my own stupid jokes. I have to have fun with the characters and the incredible situations. Yes, absolutely I’m trying to write books that I would’ve enjoyed as a child. Back in the 70s, I had a hunger for better entertainment. The cartoons were mostly rubbish. The fantasy novels were mostly bad imitations of Tolkien. The movies weren’t that great (until Star Wars came along) and the video games . . . well, Pong will only take you so far. That hunger led me to create my own entertainment. I’m trying to write books that I wish I had in the 1970s but could never find.

Happily, we seem to be in the middle of a Renaissance of children’s literature. Is that your impression? Do you try to keep up with other YA/middle grade fiction, and if so, have you found any true gems recently?

Jonathan: You’re right, there’s SO much great stuff out there. It seems to me that there’s a wealth of good choices for everybody now, no matter what kind of books you enjoy. I try to keep up with my reading, but if the pile by my bed’s anything to go by, I usually seem to be a year or two behind. What have I really loved recently? Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which is a wonderful mix of comic characterisation, social observation and keen historical sense. Come to think of it, Gary D Schmidt’s terrific Okay for Now had the same virtues, so maybe it’s an American thing… Anyway, both books left me smiling enviously.

Phew! That’s it! Being an interviewer is an exhausting business! I had a lot of fun asking the questions, Rick, and I hope you enjoyed them too.

Rick: Thanks, Jonathan. Keep up the ghostly goodness with Lockwood & Co. This reader is anxious for more!