Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus sequence and the new trilogy Lockwood & Co., talks about making friends with his characters and how to hit fear in the face with a sword.
As an established author, can you talk about your writing process? Has it changed over the years?
All of my books are the result of a sort of war between my improvisational side and the side of me that likes order and control. These are two very different impulses, and they pull me backwards and forwards throughout the year or so that it takes to write each novel.
I always start with my improvisational side in the ascendant: I’ll do lots of riffing – throwing myself into the middle of scenes, and scribbling things very much on a whim. That’s how you inject the energy into a piece, I think: you have to be taken by surprise.
But sooner or later, a writer has to rein themselves in and start to see the bigger picture. So I stop writing, and begin messing about with structure, slowly figuring out a chapter plan, and the main themes I’m going to deal with. I create a ‘road map’ of where I’m headed. Now I can picture the book in my head. That doesn’t mean that I don’t deviate from the plan as I go forward. It’s only a guide, after all, and soon the improvising will start again.
I’m always hoping to find a more efficient way of writing a novel, but this basic pattern hasn’t altered much in the 15 years that I’ve been publishing, and I suspect that all writers have to wrestle to some extent with these two opposing impulses…
What’s the scariest part of the novel-writing process for you?
Hmm, interesting question! In some ways you’d think that the worst bit would be at the very start, when you have a completely blank canvas – but actually that’s rather exhilarating, and you can generate a lot of energy just playing with ideas.
It becomes harder a little later on. Now you have a rough idea of what you want, but you haven’t yet written enough to give the manuscript any gravity. New passages have a habit of floating off and not quite gelling with the rest… and this can be very frustrating. I’m precisely at such a point right now with Lockwood III! After a while, though, enough holds together for the story to begin to take shape, and then you can start to build up speed…
Having said all that, in many ways the scariest part is that daily struggle every morning when you first sit at the computer and have to begin writing. You’re always terrified that the words aren’t going to come. Still, my experience is that if you just sit there and keep tapping away, eventually they do.
Speaking of scary – how do you approach writing the more terrifying elements of Lockwood & Co.? Is there a pressure to be scary when you deliver a book about a haunted world?
There’s an internal pressure, for sure. One of my intentions with the series was to pay homage to the great English ghost stories that I’ve always enjoyed: the macabre tales of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and others. Whenever Lockwood and his friends head into some horrid haunted dwelling, I’m channeling those older tales – and, boy, they were scary!
Having said that, I have to temper this with a bit of optimism too. Unlike the old stories, where the protagonists often come to grim ends, I want to empower my young protagonists. So I balance the scary stuff with plenty of comedy, and give them nice big iron swords to even things up when the phantoms come calling. Hopefully the dark and light sides throw each other into greater relief, giving both more power.
What was your initial inspiration for Lockwood & Co.? How did the idea grow from there?
I sat down one morning and began writing a scene in which a boy and a girl, wearing modern clothes but with large rapiers strapped to their belts, walked up to a house in modern London to tackle a ghost hiding within it. I didn’t know who they were, why they were doing this job, why there were no adults helping them, or how they dealt with the ghost once they found it. But I DID like the energy of their dialogue, and their mixture of competence and youth.
Gradually I added other scenes, until I’d watched them go round the haunted house, bringing out their iron chains, salt bombs and magnesium flares, and meeting a ghost girl on the stairs. Now I knew their names and more about them, and I was ready to expand their world. All my books begin like this, slowly growing outwards from a single moment or conversation.
Like the Bartimaeus series, Lockwood & Co. has a very palpable system of the supernatural. What is your process for building these worlds and their rules?
As I write my way into the world I’m creating, I’m constantly on the look-out for clues to its rules. In a weird kind of paradox, fantastical worlds – featuring djinn or ghosts, for instance – must have stronger and more consistent rules than narratives set in the ‘ordinary’ world. If your invented system has loopholes, or makes little sense, your readers will soon notice this, and begin to realize that nothing in it really matters.
To help me, I usually take traditional themes or conventions from myth or folklore (for instance the idea that iron, salt and silver are good against dark forces; or that there are recognizable hierarchies of genies), and mold them into something slightly different. Lockwood and Co. have belts stuffed with salt-bombs and packets of iron filings; Bartimaeus (a middle-ranking djinni) is constantly meeting tough afrits or puny imps, and having to change his behavior accordingly.
As the rules become more robust you can have a lot of fun with them.
Lucy, Lockwood, and George are all complicated characters with painful histories. How do you approach crafting these very human protagonists?
Creating a character is like making a new friend. You start off knowing just a very little about them: how they look, the mood they conjure when you meet them. Often – as with friendship – it’s an instinct: you can tell that you’re going to enjoy spending time in their company, and you want to know more about them. Little by little they open up to you – and, through you, to the reader. You’ll start to get a glimpse of the big events in their past and how these have shaped them.
But if you’re lucky – if the characters are real to you – you don’t get the full story any time soon. I’m working on the third Lockwood book right now, and there are still aspects to all my three heroes that I don’t fully understand. It’s an ongoing process, with the prospect of surprise right to the end.
How do you approach writing villains and/or antagonists?
With the best villains, it’s a mirror image of the process with your heroes: you start with the outward show – the black hat tilted sideways, the stiletto constantly flipped from hand to hand – and move inwards towards something more complex and interesting. Villains too have their story, a past that drives them ever further along the dark paths of their purpose, and often this has surprising parallels to the motives of our heroes.
It’s the author’s job to uncover these secrets, while keeping the black hat and stiletto constantly in view.
Would you rather be a book, or a computer?
A book, please. I’d like to be tactile and tattered, colorful and creative. I’d like to be robust enough to be dropped, light enough to taken on long journeys, and casual enough to be appreciated in the bath without fear of damage. You can crease me any way you fancy and make me yours.
About Jonathan Stroud
Jonathan Stroud grew up as a voracious reader near London. He studied English Literature at York University, worked as a children’s editor, and is now the author of many books for children and young adults – including the bestselling Bartimaeus sequence.
Jonathan’s new trilogy, Lockwood & Co., follows the eerie adventures of a young psychic who hunts ghosts with her enigmatic employer, Anthony Lockwood. Set in an alternate England where dangerous spirits of the dead have erupted across the country, Lucy, Lockwood, and their colleague George battle everything from poltergeists to improprioutous press releases. The second book in the trilogy, The Whispering Skull, was released last week.
Check out JonathanStroud.com for more information on Jonathan and his writing. Keep up with him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter as @JonathanAStroud for all the latest news in his various fictional worlds.