By Alexander James
When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, Paul Barnett has both feet planted firmly on the ground.
And as a lifelong champion of literary quality under the pen name, John Grant, his stance against humdrum and gender-driven books has earned him a place at the top, with over 60 best sellers under his belt, both fiction and non-fiction.
Among the latter are two standard authorities in their fields: Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters and, with John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, for which he received the Hugo, Locus, Eaton, Mythopoeic Society and World Fantasy awards. He has also received a rare British Science Fiction Association Special Award and been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society Award and Bram Stoker Award.
Two-time Hugo winner for his trailblazing science fiction/fantasy work, his novels include Albion and The World. For younger readers he has written the 12 novels in the Legends of Lone Wolf series, tied to the gamebooks by Joe Dever, as well as retellings of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
His most recent books are Enchanted World: The Art of Anne Sudworth, Perceptualistics: Art by Jael and Masters of Animation and his quasi-mythology Dragonhenge. And in a courageous move from giant publishers to a small independent house, John published his new fantasy, Far Enough Window through BeWrite Books; his Sci Fi adventure Hundredfold Problem and re-released Earthdoom with David Langford – who with 24 Hugo Awards, has the largest arsenal of these rocket trophies outside the USA and the second largest in the world.
No-nonsense workaholic John has since become Consultant Editor (Sci Fi and Fantasy) with BeWrite and has introduced other mainstream authors to the UK-based house in a bid to break the restraints of mainstream houses he believes hold back writers by demanding that they work to an established commercial formula.
John was born in Aberdeen, Scotland but has lived for many years in the New Jersey countryside with his wife, Pamela D. Scoville, owner of the Animation Art Guild. Apart from his own books, he has lost count of those he’s ghosted and edited … certainly well over a thousand!
His rise to fame came when losing his job as senior commissioning books editor at a major UK publisher back in 1980 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I was living in Exeter – a long way from London, which was where most of the UK publishing jobs were – and I had no money and a wife and young daughter to support. Because of the young daughter, I didn’t anyway much want to move back to London; better, I thought, that she should spend her childhood away from the big city. So my only option was freelance work – either as an editor or as a writer, or, nervously backing both horses.Of his fantasy work, top US reviewer Lou Anders said:
At the time I’d published a couple of books under the house name I’d created especially for those, John Grant. It seemed sensible to launch my fledgling writing career using a name that already had a couple of books under its belt. Now, of course, I wish I’d not taken that decision; it causes a fair amount of confusion, and anyway ‘John Grant’ is a lousy name for a writer, because it lacks any … hmm … memorability. But I’m stuck with it, especially since winning awards under that name.
Of course, the original idea was that, once I’d worked out which of the two horses was going to win the race, I’d jump onto it and regard the other as merely an ancillary ride, as it were. But I’ve never yet quite managed the trick. So I now have a full-time career as Paul Barnett the editor and another full-time career as John Grant the writer. It makes for a busy life, and often a complicated one; and it can make me pretty difficult to work with, too, I guess. Yet I myself still feel that my more important work is what I’ve done as a writer, and more specifically as a fantasy writer.
Each story from John Grant is like a single facet of a larger jewel. Just as the surrealist Salvador Dali utilized the repetition of certain images and themes across his body of work, so Grant weaves characters, gods and images through all of his novels and stories – each part of a brilliantly conceived cosmology that rivals in richness the work of famous fantasist Michael Moorcock and HP Lovecraft.John broke new ground with his Legends of the Lone Wolf series with its game tie-in. But it wasn’t his first venture into the fantastic.
I’d actually made a few minor contributions. I’d edited, Aries 1 and I’d written two humorous sf/fantasy-sort-of fiction books, Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis and The Truth About the Flaming Ghoulies, not to mention the parody disaster novel Dave Langford and I had done together, Earthdoom. So I wasn’t a complete virgin.John’s Albion and The World crystallize his idea of a ‘polycosmos’ and he rates The World as among his most ambitious and important works of fantasy.
However, I was a bit startled when I was asked to write this series of novels – initially four of them, in the end 12 – because this type of high, fighting fantasy wasn’t the sort of fantasy I’d hitherto been much interested in. Indeed, I’ll go further than that: at the time I wasn’t much interested in fantasy at all, because too much of what I’d read was the kind of generic crap that still, sadly, constitutes most of what’s published in the field. It seemed to me that fantasy, as a literary form, was a dead end; all the good stuff had already been done by people like C.S. Lewis and George Macdonald and Alan Garner and Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake and Diana Wynne Jones.
In short, I was a bit ignorant, and hadn’t realized the possibilities within fantasy. I’ve since become a complete convert, to the point that I will argue at great length to anyone prepared to listen that fantasy is the single most important form of literature the human species has ever invented and, as such, is one of the most important means of expression available to us.
The novels started off as mere tie-ins, but I had the advantage of having a publisher who was completely ignorant of fantasy and completely uninterested in learning anything about it. The first half-dozen or so of the novels were marked by constant arguments, and a couple of them were butchered before publication; but thereafter the publisher got bored and more or less left me to do as I pleased. Which was great!
What I was able to do was, with only a couple of exceptions, make each of the novels different from each other in tone, atmosphere, “feel”, construction, style, you name it, so that I could get away from that awful tie-in drabness you so often see and produce novels that were actually, you know, novels. I always remind people that, if they properly want to understand what I’m up to as a fantasist, they should read The Birthplace, which was #7 in the series, plus a couple of the others, notably The Rotting Land (#12).
There’s a nice postscript to the story. I’ve recently been in touch with an Italian publisher who wants to reissue the whole series in four three-novels-apiece volumes, with me ‘reconstituting’ the texts the way they ought originally to have been published – and at the same time allowing me, in the earlier novels, to quietly amend some of my more egregious deficiencies as a quasi-youthful writer. It’s going to be a vast amount of work, of course; but once I have the ‘real’ texts set in order for them I’ll be able to hawk the books around publishers in the English-language market as well.
The stuff I was up to in the Lone Wolf books had convinced me that there was a lot that could be done with High Fantasy, something I’d not have credited before. Also, though by this time I was being allowed quite a lot of creative freedom in the Lone Wolf books, there were some things – including ridiculously trivial things, like using the word ‘shit’ – that I wasn’t allowed to do before. So Albion represented for me something of an unfurling of the wings, an exploring of the freedoms I’d discovered existed within fantasy that weren’t being explored by most of the other kids in the playpark.In many of his stories, John – now in his mid-50s – mixes hard science with fantasy.
Even at the time I thought that first flight wasn’t a frightfully successful one, but the critics disagreed and, far more importantly, so did my publisher, who was I think appalled when I turned in the manuscript of The World to her. (The book ended up being published in the middle of December, doom time for any book, so that by the time the generally astonishingly good reviews started coming in the book was halfway to the remainder tables.) It was supposed to be a nice, cozy bit of formulaic High Fantasy, and yet here was me bringing in stuff from quantum mechanics, telling bits of the story in a vaguely Damon Runyonesque style, switching between one reality and another, smashing universes together, and so on and so on and so on.
The structure of the book mimicked that of a black hole, with the first part as the accretion disk, the second as the plummet from the event horizon to the singularity, and the third the emergence into the fresh ‘elsewhere’; I tried to get some of that into the various writing styles I used, too. There was lots of other stuff in there as well. I’m still amazed by my ambitions in writing that book, and even more amazed that – in my entirely objective judgment, you understand – I pulled it all off. Much of the time I was writing the book it was as if I were simply sitting in front of the screen letting my fingers dart around the keyboard, as surprised as anyone else by the way the story unfolded.
There seems to have grown up this notion that the boundaries of fantasy should for some unknown reason be strictly limited – you know, wizards, dragons, unicorns, elves, berserkers, virgin princesses, pigboys-who-shall-be-king. All that sort of stuff is within the remit of fantasy, as are Native American spirits in modern cities and so on, but outer space isn’t. It’s as if you were to tell someone: yes, it’s all right for you to use your imagination, but not too much – rather like the Soviets repressed so much fantasy literature because they thought it was dangerous. That was the biggest compliment ever paid to fantasy, of course, because fantasy should be dangerous, and (in the broadest sense of the term) subversive and threatening to the status quo of the reader’s mind.It was John’s fierce defense of open-minded fantasy literature that led him to test the waters with a smaller independent publisher offering more scope with its less commercial focus. And that’s how his beautifully illustrated The Far Enough Window: A Fairy Tale For Grownups of All Ages, saw the light of day.
In the West, of course, we have very much the same sort of censorship of fantasy in place, only because it’s a commercially motivated one (and in commercial terms misguided, in my opinion) we don’t call it ‘censorship’ but instead say it’s ‘market forces’, or some such.
My very strong feeling is that fantasy should be allowed to do anything it damn well pleases, should explore every possible venue, should be as unconstrained as it wants to be. The fantasy writer’s playground should be one with infinitely distant boundaries.
So when I take my fantasy into the kinds of territories more commonly associated with science fiction, I don’t feel I’m ‘mixing’ anything – all I’m doing is going into a rather unpopulated part of fantasy’s natural playground. There was a fantasy story of mine called "The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid In from the Probability Sea" that was published in Interzone. Before offering it to Interzone I had offered it to a couple of fantasy-anthology editors over here and been told very firmly that it wasn’t fantasy, it was science fiction – just because it was set in large part in between our Galaxy and the Andromeda spiral. It didn’t have a mermaid in it (well, sort of didn’t …), despite the title, but it was a full-blooded fantasy nevertheless. In fact, I discovered some time after the award had gone to someone else that the story had been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award, so clearly someone recognized what I was up to.
Similarly, a short fantasy novel of mine called Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi (soon to be published as half of a ‘double’ book, the other half being Colin Wilson’s The Tomb of the Old Ones) was widely bounced by fantasy editors on the grounds that it was ‘obviously horror’ just because I’d drawn on the werewolf archetype for a small part of the story – not even werewolves, just the idea of them!
So I guess you could say that I’m one of those rare members of the Fantasy Liberation Front! Fortunately I’m not the only one, but it gets pretty lonely nevertheless …
When I was a kid I used to be devoted to reading in bed (anywhere else as well, but Bed Woz Best), and what I loved above all were the fantasies by people like George Macdonald and Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll and H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and C.S. Lewis and … you can fill in the rest of the long list for yourself. Thing is, I suddenly realized a while back that as an adult I still liked those books – I still thought, leaving aside my sheer pleasure while reading them, that they were excellent fantasies. Furthermore, I gained enormous, almost ecstatic pleasure just from remembering that glow I felt as a kid tucked up in bed reading one of them. I put all this together among my slowly jostling brain cells and let it fester for a while.One reviewer pointed out:
What I wanted to do was write a shortish novel that would encapsulate all these feelings for me: it would take the form of a children’s fairy tale like Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (one of my all-time favorite novels) or The Princess and the Goblin, but would be for grown-ups – ‘for grown-ups of all ages’, as we put it on the cover – and have a definitely late-20th-century riff to it.
Then along came a time when I actually had a couple of weeks to myself – a publisher had let me down badly on a signed contract – and I thought, ‘Well, here’s the chance to write that novel.’ Trouble was, I knew the ‘feel’ of the book but I hadn’t yet got a plot for it. I went to bed that night and, before I went to sleep, just set my mind free to wander where it wanted to. By the following morning the character Joanna had entered my mind, and from there on she took care of the plot for me. But I had only those two weeks before the next slodge of work was due to come in, so essentially I had to enter a sort of trance state for a fortnight to write the book.
I gave it to my agent and told him it wasn’t a genre fantasy and should be offered to mainstream editors … so he offered it to all the genre-fantasy editors, who naturally turned it down flat – a couple of them, friends of mine, mentioned that they’d been puzzled it had been sent to them. I wasn’t sure if I was puzzled or furious, because the agent had done exactly what I’d told him not to. As far as he was concerned, he’d offered it to half a dozen editors who all hadn’t liked it, so obviously it was a lousy book.
Once I’d moved to the States I asked my new agent to take it on, but he just said it was a lousy book and he’d never be able to sell it. Then, for various reasons too complicated to discuss here, I came across this new small press called BeWrite Books. Pity about the name, but I was mightily impressed by what they were doing – unlike so many small presses, they seemed really professional about what they were doing and planning, and the books they’d so far published looked good. I asked their editorial supremo, Neil Marr, if he’d be open to a submission; he said yes, and less than a week later he came back to me saying he adored the book and very, very much wanted to publish it. Sure enough, Neil’s a mainstream editor …
Right from the start I’d wanted my ol’ buddy Ron Tiner to illustrate it – all the best of those children’s fantasies had had nice black-and-white illustrations in them, and thus so should this one, to help sustain the effect I was after. Ron had been a sounding-board when I was initially thinking the novel over and he knew precisely what I was after with it – he had exactly the same emotions as I had about those childhood times of being in bed with a good book. Luckily Ron was free to do the illustrations, and he’s done a stunning job – they’re truly lovely.
There seems to be just a hint of sublimated sexuality in The Far Enough Window. I admit that is something that can be said of quite a few of the traditional children’s fantasies, but Alice in Wonderland never had anything like Ron Tiner’s illustrations of Joanna lying butt-naked on the grass.John explained:
Only the one illustration! And it’s perfectly innocent, at that. This is, after all, a novel for ‘grown-ups of all ages’. That said, I did tease Ron something rotten about always making sure he got tits into the picture somehow … I’m not in the slightest worried about any kids who read the book being traumatized by the picture; it’s always struck me that certain sections of society throw up their arms in horror at the very idea that a child might see a naked body, when any child can see a naked body by the simple means of going and looking in a mirror.After the success of The Far Enough Window, BeWrite Books brought back to life two of John’s earlier SF/Fantasies – The Hundredfold Problem and the disaster novel to end all disaster novels, the spoof, Earthdoom, with fellow science fiction author David Langford.
I didn’t feel any constraints at all. I knew what I wanted the book to do, and I knew what I wanted from it myself; I just sort of sat back and wrote it, guv. The whole process was utterly natural. I guess if I’d been thinking, ‘Wow, I’m doing something a bit different here’ I might have become a bit self-conscious and felt restricted in some way by the form of the novel, but as I’ve said I don’t think any longer about fantasy in those terms: as far as I was concerned, I was simply having the time of my life writing a new fantasy novel, which was something I hadn’t done in a while.
John Grant’s The Hundredfold Problem started life as a commissioned novel and part of the famous Judge Dredd series. It had an interesting history before being published by BeWrite Books – with stunningly sexy exclusive cover art by well known European artist, Audrė.
Way back when, the UK publisher Virgin bought the novelization rights in Judge Dredd, they expected the upcoming movie to be a smash hit. Of course, the movie was a lead balloon. Another UK publisher, Boxtree, had bought the book rights in the movie, and issued just about every tie-in you could think of – I don’t know if they did 101 Judge Dredd Knitting and Macramé Tips, but I’d not be surprised. It was much like the saturation of the market by Dorling Kindersley of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace books a few years later.John soon became consultant SF/Fantasy editor with the blossoming new publisher … Consultant Editor with a mission.
Of course, when the movie bombed all these Boxtree books flooded the remainder tables, and in so doing they crushed the humble little Virgin series, which would probably have continued doing perfectly healthily if there’d never been a movie.
Virgin had commissioned me to write one in the series. Unable to keep my eyes open for more than a paragraph at a time while trying to read the Judge Dredd Manual they’d sent me, and always having had difficulty reading comic books (I don’t know why), I hit on the stratagem of having a plot that would take Dredd right out of his usual environs and away from his usual associates, so I set virtually the whole tale inside a Dyson sphere that had been, billennia before, set around our sun’s hypothetical red dwarf companion star. Then, well, I just had fun writing a romp that also, er, dabbled quite a lot in theological philosophy and other light-hearted hijinks. I think – as of course I would – that a lot of the jokes are very funny, and indeed the book as a whole. Oh, yes, and you see another aspect of the Girl-Child LoChi as well …
Anyway, with the demise of the series, I got the rights back in the book. Most of the series’ authors – including my pal Stephen Marley, who wrote a couple of really good pieces for it – were kind of stuck, because of course they didn’t hold the copyright in the Judge Dredd elements of their books. I’d always been very fond of The Hundredfold Problem, though, and I didn’t like to see it lost forever. It was comparatively simple for me to remove the specifically Judge Dredd references, and – bingo! – I had a novel that was all my own.
I didn’t actually think of getting it published until Sean Wallace of Cosmos – for some reason I don’t recall – expressed interest. So I flogged it to him, but then problems with Wildside caused publication to be interminably delayed. After a couple of years, Sean kindly let me have the rights back and again Neil Marr at BeWrite happily seized it.
The Consultant Editor bit came later. As I said, I was mightily impressed by the BeWrite Books operation from the outset, and this appraisal of them actually grew as they began publishing The Far-Enough Window – even though the whole enterprise is very much run on a shoestring at the moment. Neil asked me at some point why the big boys hadn’t been fighting to get hold of the novel.Since then John has brought other authors to the BeWrite Books stable with cross-genre books bigger, commercially driven houses fight shy of.
I pointed out that this was not the only example I knew of a fine piece of fantasy that the big boys wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole; I came across others from time to time during the natural course of my life, and it was frustrating to me that I couldn’t do anything to help them get into print, as they so richly deserved to be. Out of that conversation emerged the notion that I should have this occasional relationship with BeWrite Books which we dignified by the title Consultant Editor.
By odd coincidence, just a few days later a writer called Chris Thompson, to whose self-published story collection Games Dead People Play I’d given a deservedly highly favorable review in Infinity Plus, contacted me out of the blue to say he’d written a novel which he was pretty certain nobody would like: as I’d been the only reviewer who’d seemed to understand what he was up to in Games Dead People Play, would I like to read his novel and see what I thought. Well, I took a look, and I discovered it was this utterly superb noir fantasy – a truly lovely piece of work. So that was the first book I took on for BeWrite. C.S. Thompson’s A Season of Strange Dreams. I’m proud to have been associated with it.
With his wild hair and bushy beard, John himself could be mistaken for a character from the pages of his own books. But any perceived similarity is unintentional to the 16-hours-a-day wordsmith who refuses to be typecast.
Carefully avoided reference to Harry Potter, he said:
I think that, finally, published fantasy may be recovering the ground it has so catastrophically lost in the past few decades to generic fantasy – a bizarre branch of the romantic novel whose published exemplars very often bear very little relation to genuine fantasy at all.
When Tolkien created the otherworld of Middle-Earth or Lewis the otherworld of Narnia – and, of course, Macdonald before them in his tales for grown-ups like Phantastes and Lilith – that was exciting, that was imaginative, that was fantasy, because they were genuinely exercising their imaginations to reify lands that had never existed. The vast bulk of their imitators – in reality, Tolkien’s imitators, because I reckon many of them haven’t read the other authors – aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re setting otherwise pretty mundane tales in a shared quasi-medieval otherworld that has become so familiar to us it might as well be Poughkeepsie or Bermondsey.
If I came along to you and said that I’d written a novel that was fantasy because I’d set it in Poughkeepsie you’d look at me like I was a lunatic – well, even more of a lunatic than usual, anyway! – but that’s in effect what a good many writers of generic ‘fantasy’ are doing.
Please don’t take this to mean that all writers of High Fantasy are just regurgitators or new incarnations of Barbara Cartland. There are some very fine fantasists who work with High Fantasy; if I had to put my hand on my heart to name the best of them, I’d probably say Terry Pratchett, because Terry’s Discworld books are – most of them – superb pieces of genuine fantasy, and would remain so even if you stripped all the jokes out of them. Myself, I prefer them with the jokes, especially since humor and fantasy are fine bedfellows – just look at how outright funny some parts of Peake’s Gormenghast books are – but that’s just me.
Anyway, to get back to the point about the current success real fantasy is having in making its comeback against the floods of generic fantasy: I think it’s coming about in large part because of the small presses. One of my many part-time jobs is as US Reviews Editor of Infinity Plus, and this has meant that over the past couple of years I’ve been reading a heck of a lot of books that almost certainly wouldn’t ordinarily have come my way. This includes rafts of small press publications, and even a few self-publications, because IP has the policy of giving all books a level playing-field, regardless of the fame or obscurity of the author and the size and prominence of the publisher.
What has really impressed me is that perhaps eighty per cent of the true fantasies I’m reading are coming from the small, even microscopic presses. Vera Nazarian’s recent book Dreams of the Compass Rose, published by Wildside, is a fine example of what I mean: it’s a High Fantasy, sort of, but because of its construction, its use of language and above all its fabulous strangeness it’s hard to imagine it having been published by one of the big boys.
Naturally, some of the small press books are real stinkers (especially since few of the small presses seem ever to edit or proofread, leaving these tasks to the author), but exactly the same is true of a good proportion of the fantasy output of the big conglomerates, too. What so many of these obscure presses are doing is allowing their authors to … well, ‘dare to dare’ is probably the best way of describing it. The result is some truly exhilarating fantasy. And it seems to be what the readers actually want, because these books sell in healthy numbers despite the fact that they’re given no publicity and – shamefully – no support at all by the established book trade, notably the book stores and most especially of all the literary editors of the broadsheet newspapers.
I think this resurgence of true fantasy is beginning, slowly at the moment but still very hopefully, to percolate upwards. I’ve been enormously cheered by the success of China Mieville; when I first started reading his novel The Scar – I’ve not yet got to Perdido Street Station – I was leaping around the room with delight, because here at last from a major publisher was a supremely intelligent piece of High Fantasy. Del Rey, who publish Mieville in the USA, may well be groundbreakers here, because I was mightily impressed by the intelligence of another High Fantasy they published last Fall, Alice Borchardt’s The Dragon Queen. A pity Del Rey publishes so much other stuff, really …
Anyway, that’s where I see the current state of the fantasy genre right now – in transition, with all the early signs that the patient is not dead but can be expected, although there’s a long way to go as yet, eventually to make a full recovery.
I hope so. I believe firmly in the importance of fantasy as one of the most central expressions of our humanness – possibly the most important. It would be really good to see that significance properly recognized once more.
(With thanks for additional material from Lou Anders)
Possibly related books:
[Interview] L. Lee Lowe, Conversations with Writers, November 3, 2008