Steampunk adventures, fighting fantasy, Dr Who, and science fiction… There seems to be no sub-genre Jonathan Green has not dabbled in. Currently penning the popular Pax Britannia series published by Abaddon Books, Jonathan was kind enough to answer a few questions about steampunk, writing, and more.
You’ve written six novels set in the Pax Britannia alternate history world. Your latest is Anno Frankenstein. What can new readers and fans expect from this novel?
Action and adventure all the way. It’s Where Eagles Dare meets Frankenstein meets The Terminator. So there are some great one-liners in there too.
In the world of Pax Britannia it’s 1998 and Queen Victoria is monarch of much of the Earth after enjoying more than sixteen decades on the throne (which is now a steam-powered life support machine). The sun has never set on the British Empire, Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked, there are clockwork robots, dirigibles, dinosaurs in London Zoo and cities on the Moon.
However, Anno Frankenstein takes place towards the end of the Second Great European War in 1943, when the Nazis are preparing to unleash a weapon from the future on the automaton armies of Magna Britannia. Oh, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde make an appearance as well.
You’ve also released a short story collection that features your Pax Britannia hero, Ulysses Quicksilver. How would you introduce this character and his adventures to new readers?
He’s really the bastard offspring of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde. He’s a ladies’ man, a toff, a show-off, an expert swordsman, a damn fine shot, an epicure, a dedicated follower of fashion, a thrill-seeker, a man of the people, a lover, a fighter, a habitual challenger of the authority he so often represents, a man of action, an incisive mind, a mass of contradictions, a playboy…
The name “Ulysses Quicksilver” was plucked out of thin air when I first pitched the Pax Britannia series to Abaddon Books’ editor-in-chief Jon Oliver. I remember thinking at the time that I could always change it later, only I never did. So I suppose, in a way, that name alone says a lot about the tone of the Pax Britannia setting.
In terms of the character himself, I wanted someone who could move easily between all ranks of society all around the world, so he had to be independently wealthy, and because of all the exciting (not to say life-threatening) situations I was going to throw him into, he had to be able to stand up for himself. But most important of all he’s an old school-style hero, and there aren’t too many of them around in genre fiction nowadays.
What are the challenges, difficulties and advantages of writing in an alternate history setting?
It’s very freeing in many ways, because you can keep the bits you like/want/need and junk the bits you don’t. However, such a cavalier approach to history does carry with it the risk of making the world seem even more impossible and unlikely than it already is. So there has to be a logic behind why this world exists at all – and that can be hard to work out.
I know that some reviewers have criticised this aspect of the series, but there is a backstory and history in place, it just hasn’t all come through in the books yet, although more is being revealed all the time.
I first came across your work through your Black Library novels and short stories, set in the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. What was it like writing in these settings, and will you be writing any more fiction in them?
I love writing in the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K.
Only last month I had a brand new Warhammer short story in Hammer & Bolter, BL’s eBook-only fiction magazine. It’s called Sir Dagobert’s Last Battle and is all about a Bretonnian Grail Knight. I’ve also had short stories in the two most recent Space Marine anthologies. First there was The Relic in Legends of the Space Marines, in which I revisited characters from my Black Templars Armageddon novels, and second, But Dust in the Wind – an Imperial Fists story that appeared in Victories of the Space Marines.
I am hoping to do some more stuff for Black Library, but I’m afraid I can’t talk about any of that just yet.
What’s it like writing within the established Warhammer setting? Do you have much freedom to adapt the world as you like, or are you sometimes reigned in?
As long as you stay true to the universe – so no Dark Elf Sorceresses marrying the Emperor Karl Franz, or Orks writing love poetry to Tau ethereals – and write a good story, there’s actually quite a bit of freedom. They’re very cool settings after all, and the Design Studio is always coming up with more cool new stuff. Take the new Storm of Magic expansion, for example, or the new Dark Eldar miniatures.
Ultimately people want to read stories about interesting characters, and there’s always huge scope with what you can do there in terms of applying your own creativity right there.
Where do you draw your inspiration from, generally, and who or what would you say are your biggest influences?
Where do I get my ideas from…? Pretty much anywhere and everywhere. Artwork, and for my Black Library work miniatures are a big inspiration actually. You look at a picture of a Warrior Priest, for example, and you pick up on all the details the artist has put in – the scars, the votive tokens, the beastman head he’s holding in his hands – and it makes you want to know more. How did he get those scars? What powers do those tokens give him? How did he end up with a beastman’s head in his hands? What happened in his life that he chose to become a Warrior Priest in the first place?
My very first book – the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Spellbreaker – was inspired by the cover to another FF publication, Dungeoneer. The final adventure is completely different, of course, but the image of the demon-dragon-thing bursting out of the cover was enough to get the creative ball rolling on that one.
In terms of other sources of inspiration, throw away comments, movies, other books, comics, song lyrics… Like I said, pretty much anything.
My biggest influences? Terry Pratchett, Tim Powers and Ellis Peters. “Ellis Peters?” I hear you cry. Yes, Ellis Peters – creator of the medieval sleuthing monk Brother Cadfael. I read a number of her books as a teenager, when I was first coming to realise that people could actually write for a living, and discovered that she had her first book published when she was 22. The gauntlet had been thrown. Spellbreaker was published when I was 21.
It has to be said that another big influence is Dan Abnett. I love his terse use of words, the way he’s able to conjure up such powerful images in a single line. I also aspire to his work ethic, the hours he puts in and the variety of projects he works on. I’m getting there with that second part – slowly. The first… Well my excuse is I have two small children.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practice?
Getting to spend all day making stuff up and then getting paid for it, and other people reading it and (hopefully) enjoying it too is great. It’s always been my dream.
I’ve been very fortunate, of course – I think I was in the right place at the right time, so to speak, when I first pitched Spellbreaker – but I’ve also worked very hard to get to where I am now, and continually to do so on a daily basis – most of the time. I’m a great believer in the old adage, you make your own luck.
In terms of working practices… Once I’ve got the kids off to school I sit at my computer, with one eye on the clock, until I have to pick them up again. Some days the writing comes easily, other days it’s hard, but I try to write something every day. Failing that I’ll be researching and developing ideas for possible future projects. I’ll often do the latter in the evening, sometimes online, or with a book on my lap in front of the TV.
I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a writer. I was surrounded by books as a child. My mother was a teacher and my father was a voracious reader. After swimming club on a Friday we always went to the library, as religiously as we attended church as a family on a Sunday.
I remember stapling tiny bits of paper together to make little books, aged about 6, and a few years later created a cartoon character called Tornado. I wrote and drew his adventures which I turned into comics for my friends to enjoy. Somewhere there’s probably still a file full of the things. I wrote about 60 of them, if I rightly recall.
In terms of my first proper forays into writing… It was Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out when I was 11 years old and I was the perfect demographic for the book – middle class, literate, and an only child. I loved the idea that I could be the hero of the book I was reading and influence the story. Not long after that I started writing my own FF gamebooks. Some ended up as much as 200 paragraphs long. Others didn’t make it past 30.
By the time I was in the sixth form at school, I was writing short stories but never lost my love of FF. So it was that, aged 18, I wrote to Puffin and received their writers’ guidelines for the series, along with the warning that ‘your chances of actually being published are very slim’.
Two years, two completely different ideas and three re-writes later, I got the commission to write Spellbreaker. It’s not the best book I’ve ever written, but even now there are parts of it I’m proud of, and without having written it I wouldn’t be where I am today. It will always have a special place in my heart. Right next to Marmite and Marzipan Ritter Sport.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
The genre continues to go from strength to strength, and is part of the mainstream now. The big summer blockbuster movies are without fail all fantasy or SF in nature. And of course steampunk is on the rise too.
I like to think that Pax Britannia is helping bring steampunk to the masses. Other than that, I wouldn’t dare to presume.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’m currently writing part one of the eighth Ulysses Quicksilver Pax Britannia novel Time’s Arrow. I’ve just finished a Doctor Who book that’s out next year, called Terrible Lizards.
I’m also working on the afore-mentioned new project for Black Library, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything else about that at the moment, other than it’s 40K. I have a pitch in with a publisher for a new, original novel, and I’m continuing to plot Ulysses Quicksilver’s on-going adventures. Oh, and I’m going to be writing a spin-off Spring-Heeled Jack Pax Britannia novella too.
My next ‘publication’ will be Temple of the Spider God – a brand new gamebook that I’ve written for Tin Man Games’ series of iPod apps. It’s Tin Man Games’ seventh Gamebook Adventure and includes a host of new features – such as vehicle combat and fighting alongside other characters – a new look interface, and full colour illustrations throughout. Anybody pining for another new Fighting Fantasy release should definitely pick it up. I, for one, can’t wait.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
On the fiction front I’m currently reading Nemesis, a Horus Heresy novel by m’colleague James Swallow. In terms of non-fiction I’ve recently finished Witchfinder General, a biography of Matthew Hopkins, by Craig Cabell.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings. I once directed Colin Firth – yes, the Colin Firth – but only in a school assembly. I was a member of Warwick University’s Radio Station the same time as Stephen Merchant. Will that do?
What are you most looking forward to in 2011?
Hmmm… Getting to write my new secret project. Temple of the Spider God being unleashed upon the world. The publication of Salvation’s Reach by Dan Abnett. (Did I mention I was a fan of his?) Turning 40. (Possibly not the last one.) And having one of my novels optioned and turned into a movie…
Hey, a man can dream, can’t he? After all, if it wasn’t for my dreams I wouldn’t be talking to you today and looking forward to the publication of my 35th book.
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You can find out more about Jonathan’s upcoming projects and publications at www.JonathanGreenAuthor.com.
For those new to Jonathan’s writing, the first three Ulysses Quicksilver novels have now been collected into a handy omnibus: