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Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger

Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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stroud_jonathan_300x439In The Hollow Boy, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series, Lockwood, Lucy, and George are still attacking the Problem: their alternate-world London is being stalked by ghosts that only young people can see — and defeat. I talked with Jonathan about world-building, series-continuing, and negotiating the needs of fans.

Roger Sutton: I’m curious about — in particular with the Lockwood series, but thinking about Bartimaeus as well — two things. You want Question One first or Question Two first?

Jonathan Stroud: Well…we can make it Question Two, right?

RS: Okay, Question Two is: When you have a world, as you do in the Lockwood & Co. books, that is like ours if not quite ours, how do you decide what the rules of that universe are going to be? Or is that something you work out as you go?

JS: It’s an organic process. I kind of work from the middle outward, I suppose. Both in Bartimaeus and in Lockwood, that middle-beginning comes with the key characters. I’ll start with the idea of a djinni as narrator who’s being controlled by dodgy human magicians. The first scene I wrote is the djinni meeting this kid who’s his master. At that point I knew nothing more about the world, really. I gradually pieced it together around that initial sequence. With Lockwood, I began with a boy and a girl walking up to a door in modern London, and they had swords at their belts, and they were going to deal with a ghost. I had them talking to each other, sort of bantering, but I knew nothing about the logic of the world. Why were children doing that? I had no clue.

RS: So you hadn’t even thought of “the Problem” at that time?

JS: Exactly. I wrote maybe three pages of the first chapter, just these two kids talking. And then I put it down, and I had to pause some while I was sitting there scratching my neck and wondering what reason it would be that they’re there without any adults, and what happens when they go inside. It took quite a long time to actually get them in the door, because I had to set some ground rules straightaway. You don’t get those all in one go. But clearly whatever rules I invent for the first book in a series, I have to make sure they remain fast.

RS: Right, and I think you do a good job of parceling them out. It’s not like we have to digest all the rules at the beginning.

JS: I’ve read books, and I’m sure you have too, where you just get hit between the eyes at the beginning with huge amounts of exposition about how everything hangs together. It’s unnecessary. The real world doesn’t work that way. We’re still discovering subtleties about how the world operates. You’re constantly fleshing it out. There’s no reason why an invented world should be any different.

RS: Have you read Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice? It’s a collection of short stories set in these completely unexplained worlds. And she just-sort-of-maybe drops in a rule about how that world works, and maybe she doesn’t. It’s almost as if they’re tales of straightforward realism set in very odd places.

JS: And you buy it, don’t you? If it’s done well.

RS: It’s very disorienting at the same time.

JS: Yes. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it? In fantasy, there’s nothing worse than feeling that the ground is shifting beneath your feet, where the rules suddenly change halfway through. The author has to play fair. But you’re right, part of the fun is throwing in the odd little detail and letting the ripples of it stretch out in the reader’s mind, even if you don’t necessarily ever refer to it again. It’s there, part of the furniture.

RS: I would think, too — and here is Question One — that the use of magic has to be handled very carefully, so that it doesn’t become a substitute for plot development.

JS: With Bartimaeus, one of the things I discovered — it wasn’t intentional — was that as a djinni he had all of these protean abilities, magical powers, but when he came to Earth he was immediately constrained by the binding that the kid had put upon him. So the whole energy and the frisson of the books is that he can’t do what he wants to do, and it becomes a problem for him and an amusement for us. If it were easy for him, it would quickly become very tiresome for readers.

RS: That’s why Superman needed kryptonite.

JS: Yeah. It’s why I think a lot of these superhero movies and comics ultimately get a bit tiresome. (I’m saying that as a big fan.)

RS: Oh, you’re in trouble now.

JS: There has to be an element of danger. Things get rebooted so often, and the characters get in all sorts of peril, but ultimately they always seem to dust themselves off and hitch up their britches and walk away.

RS: How does a writer deal with that? I think about this when I watch cop shows on TV, even — that you want to have your characters in the greatest peril, and you want the viewer, or the reader, to feel the terror along with that person, but you know the hero has to survive for the next episode. There was that one show Spooks [MI-5 in the U.S.], though, do you remember it? On BBC?

JS: Yeah.

RS: Spooks knocked off main characters left and right. But you can’t really do that in a book for kids. Or in a book for anybody, really.

JS: No. In Bartimaeus I did do it, ultimately, and unexpectedly. I think there always has to be a sense that you could do it, that you are prepared to do it, and if you don’t, the character is lucky, and the reader feels that luck. That gives you the sense that the peril is genuine, and the relief is genuine too.

RS: I also think you can, as you have in the Lockwood series, leave your characters with genuine scars, both psychic and physical, from encounters that they have with (in this case) the Problem.

JS: That’s right. In the world in which you and I live, a fatal disaster is not so common — heaven knows that’s not always the case — but for us it is more about the psychic scars, the minor battering that you get as you go through life. So you do want your characters to have bruises from the things they experience. That makes them more lovable and identifiable, I think, from the point of view of the reader.

stroud_hollow boyRS: I’m trying to figure out a way to phrase this question without giving away the ending of your book, because we don’t want to do that — but something very dramatically changes in the last sentence of The Hollow Boy

JS: Yes, true.

RS: —and how do you pick up from that in starting the next volume?

JS: Usually with a series — it was the same with Bartimaeus — I will have a vague idea of where I’m going, but it’s only vague, and it can be altered at any given moment. Funny enough, as you rang, I was just working away on the structure of the next book. I’d actually done a very, very early version of that a year ago, when I was thinking about book three. I already had in my mind a possible way of continuing the story. And yet you have to be ready to throw that away if necessary. Now I’m trying to firm it up. Part of the beauty of it, part of the challenge of a writer, is to try to keep that balance: forward planning with improvisation. The two have to coexist. If you have everything mapped out from the beginning, it becomes arid. Similarly, if you fly by the seat of your pants entirely, it’s a bit high-risk. So I’m constantly trying to think ahead, but at the same time, not paint myself into a corner. I need there to be varied options. That links back to the question about what happens to the characters. With the Lockwood books, I genuinely don’t yet know what’s going to happen to my characters at the end. That means there is a potential threat hanging over them like an ominous cloud. I treat it with respect and my reader with respect, but I do keep it open as I go.

RS: What do you think adding a fourth ghostbuster in this volume does to the dynamic among the characters?

JS: I was quite pleased with it as a way of shaking up the existing dynamic. You have a nice triangular relationship between Lockwood, who’s the dashing central character in a way — he’s the titular character — but in another way, the central character is Lucy, the narrator. It’s her emotions we primarily follow. And George, who’s the third guy. [Ed. note: Poor George.] The three of them have a very nice, close, interconnected dynamic. And bringing in a fourth, and indeed female, character, Holly, really destabilizes things from Lucy’s point of view. That’s really been fun. It allowed me to focus more closely on Lucy’s emotional state, foreground it, and make her that much more affecting.

RS: At what point did you know there was going to be a series of books, not just one?

JS: Fairly early on, it had that potential. I remember with Bartimaeus, all those years ago, I wrote about fifty or sixty pages of the first book before I realized that there was too much going on for it to be one book. This time, because I’m a bit older and grayer and more grizzled, I sat there thinking about the problem of the Problem, what the Problem was, and what the book was going to try and do. I figured out almost straightaway my plan would be to have a series of very traditional ghost-hunting narratives, but then surround that with this wider issue of why the ghosts are coming back, and the social implications of it. That was quite interesting, embedding traditional ghost narratives in a wider social context. That is something I couldn’t do in one book. It was going to have to be a series.

RS: I thought it was pretty brilliant to make one of the rules the fact that only children could really deal with these ghosts.

JS: It was the first rule that I had to figure out. Why were these kids there? Where were the grownups? There had to be some pretty basic reason. It’s not just the old Scooby-Doo type thing where you’re a bunch of kids having an adventure. There are real ghosts. They’re really dangerous. And the adults can’t see them. That immediately has implications for how the society functions. The adults are vulnerable, but also still control things. They try and remain safe, but send kids into the houses to deal with the phantoms and potentially get killed. The adults stay at home at night, and the kids go out after dark. It’s fun to play with that.

RS: Will we see in the fourth volume — I don’t want to say a resolution to the Problem, but will we get a bigger picture of it?

JS: We will. As I’m speaking now, I’m thinking that I may do five books, and the fifth one will be the one that has the ultimate resolution. But, yes, having focused quite closely on the emotional dynamics of my heroes in book three, I think book four will open out again a little bit more and give a few tentative answers.

RS: Do you have any demands from fans as to how certain things happen or don’t happen?

JS: Well, yes, actually. There’s definitely a large number of people who are quite keen, particularly, on there being an emotional resolution to the Lockwood and Lucy relationship. That’s of interest to a fair number of readers.

RS: Are you seeing fanfiction about the two of them?

JS: I know it exists, but I don’t read it. When I do a naughty Google search, I’ll find all sorts of excerpts about Lockwood and Lucy. There’s a lot of fan art kicking around, and quite often that’s fairly…well, Lockwood and Lucy in loving clinches. So I’m under no illusions about what people would like. I guess to a certain extent one has to detach oneself a little bit from that and try and follow the way you want to go.

RS: And it is kind of a nice problem to have. It wouldn’t happen if people weren’t so wrapped up in the story.

JS: No, it’s the best. It suggests that your characters are living, breathing creations outside the little bits of paper in your messy old study. I remember, back with Bartimaeus, that somebody sent me a letter with an alternative ending to the series. There’s quite an apocalyptic finish to the third Bartimaeus book, and a girl wrote me a lovely alternative ending where everything was resolved in a much more upbeat way. It really moved me. It was wrong from an aesthetic point of view—I didn’t think that as a story ending it was correct. But from the point of view of wish-fulfillment and wanting the best for my characters, it actually made me feel very moved.

RS: In the Talks with Roger interview I did with Lisa Graff, we talked about J. K. Rowling’s periodic announcements about this or that character after the books have been published. You know, like when she told us that Dumbledore was gay. How much ownership do you feel over these characters?

JS: The only character of mine who could almost exist independently of me is Bartimaeus. A djinni that’s been around for thousands of years — it almost feels natural that I can assert him as being present in a couple of different epochs. People ask me if I’m going to write another Bartimaeus book, and I think yeah, sure, I could. He’s out there somewhere having adventures, and I no doubt could tap into it. He does have that sort of life for me. Beyond that, you give it your best shot in the book. You have a certain number of pages; you put down what you can, and then you leave it to other people to extend it. I think it would be wrong to keep adding footnotes and explanations to something that should be a finished text.

RS: That people can take and do with what they will.

JS: Fanfiction, which is great and lovely. That’s what we all do. Every time you read a book, you see things in your own unique way. The way you read Harry Potter will be subtly different from the way that I read it, and we’ll get different things from it. There’s no right and wrong answer, and if we want to go off and have fantasies about Dumbledore or anyone else, that’s certainly correct.

RS: What about George and Lockwood, nudge-nudge-wink-wink?

JS: Well, yes. Old George, you see, he’s a bit unnoticed. Lockwood’s sort of swishing around with his long coat, and Lucy’s looking after him with her big eyes, and old George is there on the sidelines. Absolutely. What’s his take on it? I think a lot of people would probably identify with George. I think, in a way, I identify with George.

RS: Me too.

JS: Most people probably have a little bit of a soft spot for him.

RS: All right, I’ve got tons of material here, Jonathan, and I can let you go.

JS: Okay, that sounds brilliant. I look forward to the headline on top saying “Stroud Denigrates Superheroes.” Oh, dear.


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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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