Friday, November 25, 2016

2 YALLFest interview with Jonathan Stroud

My first interview at YALLFest was with Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus series and the Lockwood & Co. series. I'm a big fan of Jonathan's novels, so I was thrilled to have a chance to pick his brain about his writing process. In fact, I'm such a huge fan that (this is embarrassing to admit, but we're all friends here) I actually named a character after him in my short film Saying Goodbye. So I
was super nervous before the big interview, as in knees-knocking, palms-sweating, will-my-voice-even-work nervous. Fortunately, Jonathan is a charming English gentleman, so my nerves immediately disappeared as we chatted about writing, the perfect cuppa, and giving kids the
opportunity to be creative.

Jonathan, thank you for the interview with AYAP! Since many of our readers are participating in National Novel Writing Month this month, I was wondering if you’ve ever participated?

I’ve never actually done it, but about ten years ago I contributed a pep talk for it, which I think they still use (read it here). I think it’s excellent. You need deadlines – deadlines are important.

When NaNo rolls around each year, it reignites the pantser versus plotter debate – where do you stand on this vital matter?

Well, in the outset, I am a pantser. For me, I always start with just jumping in – all my books tend to start with just a scene or a kernel of an idea, and I throw myself in and I just write and I see what happens. I think that’s kind of necessary because you get an energy and excitement. Though often some things don’t work, so plenty of times I’ll try that and it doesn’t have the energy, but when it does, it’s really exciting. And, you know, almost the fact that you haven’t got a plan means that you go down interesting avenues.

Later, I’m very much a plotter, and I will stop and I will create structure, and then I will carry on writing and change the structure. And I think, personally, it’s a bit of a 50-50. I think you need both – you need both sides of your brain working. I’m skeptical of people who say, “Oh, yeah, I just let the muse take me.” I think, no, you do need structure. There are certain books you read and you kind of go, “Hmm, this person’s got pretty good ideas but they haven’t actually got the discipline to make it tight,” which I think is something you do have to have as well.

One of the standard questions we ask authors is: “What's your writing ritual like?” but you helpfully have your Day in the Life on your website (check it out here). It says you print out your pages at the end of each day and read them in the morning – do you do revisions at that point or is it just to get you back in the work?
It sort of works on a number of levels. When I’m thinking creatively, when I’m making notes and sort of quick ideas, I like to use pen and paper because somehow that’s more instantly creative and you can do little drawings, and it’s just much more primal.

But when I’m trying to write, over the years I’ve gotten in the habit of typing it up, straight onto the computer, so immediately when I re-read it there onscreen, it’s like text, you can see it almost in its official state. Similarly, it’s important at the end of the day, I think, to print out your pages, and it’s there in a kind of an official form, so when you then re-read it the next day, you’re somehow reading it like somebody else’s text. And you can really see if it’s not good enough for you or you want to change it or if it doesn’t read properly. For me, that’s important. So I tend to re-read what I did the previous day, and then do a bit of tweaking, minor, minor stuff, and then jump in and try and carry on. This is when I’m in the middle of trying to write the book.

So then after you finish a first draft, what is your revision process like?

Well, I tend to revise very piecemeal. Like as of now, I’m working on the fifth Lockwood book, and I’ve currently got like 120 pages of stuff, and it’s bits and pieces from all over the book – versions, early drafts, things that won’t get into the book – but they are all attempts at finding ways in, opening windows on the book. When I get back from America, I’ll go back to the beginning and work my way through, and some parts I will be revising - I’ll spend a long time on them and work on them, work on them. Other chapters will be very easy, and I’ll sort of do it quite quickly. 

Then I’ll have a draft, and I will re-read, re-work. So by the time I get it to an editor, I’ll have re-revised it several times, some bits more than others. And I will think it’s quite close to what I want, and then the editor, of course, will give me some more ideas. *laughs* But at that point I would expect to go over it one more time incorporating comments and final, final tweaks, and that would be it.

Has there been an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?


The one time when I had a real AHA moment, kind of a feeling of inspiration, was many years ago when I came up with the idea for the Bartimaeus books. I was walking along the road, and as I walked I had a couple of key ideas. The primary one was I wanted to write a book about magic, but I didn’t want to make it about hero wizards, which were very much in vogue. I thought, no, I’ll make the wizards the bad guys and have this demon or djinni as my narrator, my hero. And, yeah, that’s right, the magicians will be politicians and the country is ruled by them. And those two sort of linked ideas, I thought, ‘oh, that’s good,’ and I went home and quickly wrote the idea down. 

When I began to write a few days later, the voice of Bartimaeus just sort of came out and, actually, at that moment, even though it was just one day’s writing, I knew that I’d found a voice that was going to be good. And for me that’s kind of unique. I understand what kind of writer I am, so that was very exciting. My wife came home from work and I sat her down and read her those pages, which I would never do. But I just knew it was something good. It was very special.

Speaking of Bartimaeus, I'm a huge fan. How did you come up with doing footnotes for him, which is such an amazing part of his voice?


Well, thank you. On the first day, when I sat down to write the opening chapter – and this is a case in point when I had no idea what the story was, I just knew it was going to be spoken by the djinni and there was going to be this kid and that’s all I knew – and I sat down and his voice just came out, and I think on the second page the first footnote appeared. And it just seemed right because he’s such a know-all, and he’s been around for thousands of years, he thinks he’s far superior to anybody who might be reading the book. And I did it and thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be great, it’s a real aspect of his personality.’ It wasn’t sort of artificial, because footnotes, I love footnotes, but sometimes you feel like they’re kind of detached from the text. But, this, the whole point was it was part of his character to do this, and it was infinitely playful, which was wonderful. So it was a good day’s work.

You mentioned above that you’re working on the fifth Lockwood novel, so I guess that answers my ‘what are you working on now’ question.


Yes, this should be the fifth and final one of the Lockwood series. It’s been great - I’ve really enjoyed it. Again, it’s deadline things. Specifically setting out to write one book every year, which I find quite tricky because I’m not the world’s fastest writer because I’m revising and fiddling around, but I can just about do it. So this will be the fifth, and I’ll try to wrap things up in a kind of good and tight way.

Do you have ideas on the horizon for what you’re going to do next?


Nooo? No. I am thinking about it. It will be something different. Having done ghosty, paranormal adventures for a while, I’ll definitely do something that’s quite different. Beyond that, I mean I’ve got lots of files, I’m sure you have ideas, you scribble them down, you put them in there. So there’s lots of different types of ways I could go, but part of the fun, I think, is not— it’s the plotting versus pantsing when you’re trying to start a new series. It’s quite important - you need to kind of riff and go with your instinct at the time.

Tea is a big part of your characters’ lives and from your website, I know it’s a big part of your writing process, so tell us how to make the ideal cup of tea.

Well, I mean, there are so many different ways. It depends on if you are Japanese or you Americans make tea in different ways to the way I make tea, and even that’s a generational thing. When I was a kid, I’d go around to my grandparents, and you’d brew the tea loose and it would be in the teapot and it would all be kind of stewing in there and then you’d have a strainer and it was all very sort of polite. 

I’m afraid I’m terribly degraded and we just have teabags, which we chuck into a mug and let it stew. The question of how long it stews for? I’m not a fan of very weak tea. I’m not a fan of perfumey tea. It’s very personal. A good honest breakfast tea, kind of quite strong. My recommendation for a proper bit of tea is to have it after a good walk. If you’ve been out and about and you’re kind of tired and thirsty – a cup of tea – that’s when it’s really the perfect drink. My perfect tea would be hot, not sweet – no sugar. A little bit of milk. Ahh, yes.

I love what you said on your website about author visits in that “it’s essential that a writer reminds himself of who he's writing for” – so what does a typical author visit look like for you?

Traditionally, it’s about an hour presentation. It does depend on where you’re doing it. If you’re doing it in a school and you’ve got an hour, then that’s great because you can get a PowerPoint thing going. I like to show visual things because in a typical audience of kids, some of them will be great readers who love all my books, others will not have a clue who I am and be kind of looking at their watch. 

So I’ll show covers, different international covers. I’ll show different sorts of ghosts. I’ve got a kind of kit, my ghost hunting kit, that people can get dressed up in. I do a lot of drawings. I talk about how I got going on the idea, and I’ll do lots of silly cartoons. So I try to make it very visual, very interactive. 

Again, in that hour, it’s like recreating the flying by your pants, improvisational thing. Because it’s about different parts of your brain. It’s not all just about sitting there and thinking of structure. It’s kind of making drawings and jumping around. And it’s in those moments, you’re kind of loose and you make connections and that’s when the energy really starts to flow.

That leads perfectly into your Freedom To Think campaign, so would you tell us more about it?

It comes from me thinking a little bit about how I create - the things that work for me and the things that don’t work for me - and looking back on my childhood and how I began as well. My parents unearthed all sorts of little books and things I’d done as a kid. And when I was looking at them, I thought, okay, there’s a strong connection between these things I did when I was five and what I’m doing now. And at the time, you’re not aware of it, but actually it’s pretty obvious. So even when I was very small, there was a certain route that I was trying to take, and it involved me spending a lot of the time on my own, kind of riffing and messing about just like we were discussing. And I’m sure it was the same with you and many others. People who have this kind of urge tend to find the time to do your thing, and it involves reading and looking around and daydreaming. 

And I’m aware that my kids, and I think it’s the same in America, more and more, it’s about you getting cracked with homework, you’ve got your clubs, structured time, music lessons. All of which is good because you’re exploring what you’re good at or what you may be good at, but you still need that time to riff and to be on your own and, if necessary, do nothing. Be bored. Because out of that boredom comes, “Well, look, I’m bored, what do I want to do? What is it that turns me on?” And not just watching TV, but I’m going to go out in the garden and I’m going to invent some kind of magical world behind the shed or something. It doesn’t matter. And it’s not just about writing, it’s about scientists and industrialists and entrepreneurs. Everyone. I think we all need those moments. 

And libraries are really important. I go into some schools, and they have these amazing libraries and the great librarians, and you can see it’s a sacred place where the kids will just come and work and play and look at stuff. And other schools you go in, and there’s kind of a resource center with a few books around the corner, lots of computers and sometimes it’s like in a corridor, and you think, this is eroding the library as a sacred space, where symbolically you can do these kind of free moments. 

So that’s what this campaign is all about. I’m just slowly starting to experiment ways of talking about it. In the UK, I try and get festivals and things involved. I’ll get other authors. And not just other authors, illustrators, it could be anybody, businessmen, pretty much anybody you like, politicians, it doesn’t matter, you just come and sit round and we talk about how did we find out who we were. Because that’s what it’s about actually – what sort of person are you, what is it that gives you free expression for yourself?

It seems like a lot of it will be about parents and schools giving children space, but what can writers in the kidlit community do to help facilitate this?

I think we’re all in a way doing it anyway because we’re promoting reading, which is one aspect of it. Reading is about sitting quietly and opening doors and looking in different directions, so we’re already doing it. 

I think as parents and teachers, it’s about saying, "is there physically a time and a place within a day where my kid is allowed to kind of just do their stuff?" With my children, with the amount of stuff they’re expected to do, actually there’s very little free time. And some of the teachers almost articulate it as a positive. “We don’t want your kids to be idle. We’re going to maximize their time.” And ultimately it’s wrong. You do need these free spaces, even if some kids will do nothing in them. And even then I think it’s important. You need those moments to just lie … to daydream. It’s like physical training. If you’re an athlete, you need to train, but you can’t train every day because you need a couple of days for your muscles to rest and strengthen. And then you go back and do another set. If you’re training, training, training then actually you’re going to offset a lot of the advantages, so I think it’s the same with everything. You need those moments of just lying, assimilating, contemplating.

For more information about the Freedom To Think campaign, including ideas to encourage kids and other ways to get involved, go here.

Thank you, Jonathan, for taking the time to chat with me!

As we wait for the last Lockwood & Co. book, make sure you've read his latest, THE CREEPING SHADOW.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Creeping Shadow
by Jonathan Stroud

Disney-Hyperion
Released 9/13/2016


After leaving Lockwood & Co. at the end of The Hollow Boy, Lucy is a freelance operative, hiring herself out to agencies that value her ever-improving skills. One day she is pleasantly surprised by a visit from Lockwood, who tells her he needs a good Listener for a tough assignment. Penelope Fittes, the leader of the giant Fittes Agency wants them--and only them--to locate and remove the Source for the legendary Brixton Cannibal. They succeed in their very dangerous task, but tensions remain high between Lucy and the other agents. Even the skull in the jar talks to her like a jilted lover. What will it take to reunite the team? Black marketeers, an informant ghost, a Spirit Cape that transports the wearer, and mysteries involving Steve Rotwell and Penelope Fittes just may do the trick. But, in a shocking cliffhanger ending, the team learns that someone has been manipulating them all along. . .


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Stroud (www.jonathanstroud.com) grew up in St Albans where he enjoyed reading books, drawing pictures, and writing stories. Between the ages seven and nine he was often ill, so he spent most of his days in the hospital or in his bed at home. To escape boredom he would occupy himself with books and stories. After he completed his studies of English literature at the University of York, he worked in London as an editor for the Walker Books store. He worked with different types of books there and this soon led to the writing of his own books. 

Stroud is the author of the New York Times best-selling Bartimaeus Trilogy, as well as the Lockwood & Co. series, Heroes of the Valley, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Buried Fire. He lives in England with his family.


Which Jonathan Stroud books have you read? Do you print your pages so you can read them like they are somebody else's text? How do you make your ideal cup of tea? Do you think we all need more Freedom To Think? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!

Happy reading,

Jocelyn

2 comments:

  1. Very comprehensive interview, Jocelyn. Glad to hear that a famous writer as Stroud uses a combination of pansting and plotting. Enjoyed hearing his process. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. IMO Stroud is the most talented writer in YA today. His characterization is brilliant, his settings intriguing, and his plots never disappointing. I am sad to hear that book 5 will be the last Lockwood, but I suppose all good things...
    On another note, as a teacher I do wish there was more unstructured time allowed by the school districts for creative play, but there is so much required that time is already compressed to bursting. I refuse to give homework (aside from reading which hopefully doesn't feel like homework) but in-class creative free time would be (as Covey says) taking the time to sharpen the saw. Some companies see the benefits of it and have built in side-project time for their employees, so perhaps as perspectives change we will see less testing and more creation opportunities.

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