Friday, 16 March 2012

Turning the tables #6 - Jane Johnson

Instalment #6 in which my editor edits me in public.

Jane Johnson is so packed with interesting stuff you'd think she was making it up! I've even met her - she very kindly dropped in chez Lawrence on one of her trips to welcome me to Voyager as owing to home-commitments I wasn't able to take up the 'tour the publishing house' invite.

This is a semi-official turning of the tables as Voyager did give me the newbie interview/questionnaire on joining


So, what’re your favourite books, who influences you, where do your ideas come fr- Nah, I’m just messing with you...

Morroco eh? My editor lives in Morroco half the year and tweets about goats head-butting each other senseless, wild boars in the garbage, and all manner of exotica. How did you come to be living in one of your novels and is it really as hot as I think it is?

First of all Mark, it’s Morocco. One R two Cs. Honestly, this is why authors need editors! Only joking, sort of. After 27 years of editing my hands itch when I see correctible errors: it’s become something of a mental illness, like shouting at TV newsreaders when they commit grammatical faux pas. Yes, I do, by weird chance, live in a small, dusty village in the foothills of the Anti-Atlas Mountains for half the year. I never planned on that, even though a fortune-teller at a launch party for a fantasy novel 15 years ago told me that my future ‘lay in Africa’. I don’t believe in fortune-telling, though given my married name is now Madame Bakrim, it may offer the possibility of a third career when the other two fall through. The precise circumstances of how I ended up here are gone into in vast detail on my author site ( and I don’t want to bore people here, but basically it involved researching Barbary corsairs and rock-climbing; and very unexpectedly falling in love with a Berber tribesman (after I’d given up on the whole entire idea of men: one of life’s little jokes).

Yes, sheep and goats wander the streets at will, foraging; and we have wild boars that come into the village every night to knock over the bins. There’s a strict hierarchy where the bins are concerned:
1. Wild boar
2. Feral dogs
3. Goats
4. Sheep
5. Feral cats
Though our feral cats are pretty feisty and can often be seen bullying the dogs. And yes, in summer it hits close to 50 degrees here (we’re close to the Sahara). I spent one summer here and it almost (literally) killed me. And that is why we come back to the UK in April or May. When it’s that hot you simply can’t do anything, even think. It’s like being hit on the head repeatedly by a mallet.

And you're a climber? What's the furthest you've ever fallen?

Ha, yes. I nearly gave up publishing to go full-time rock-climbing just before the Morocco adventure happened to me. It’s an addiction, I think a physical addiction that then generates the release of very satisfactory chemicals – endorphins, in fact. I should explain this is technical rock-climbing, not mountaineering – like dancing up vertical rock faces, with or without ropes. I’ve been climbing for over 25 years and have always found it a brilliant antidote to sitting on my arse reading and poring over a screen.
Falling? Less common than you’d think. I did once fall out of a ‘chimney’ – a natural tube of rock – while bouldering opposite the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire and fell about 20 feet onto my aforesaid arse. It was a stupid lapse in concentration, which you can’t afford when climbing without ropes, and taught me a useful lesson (avoid chimneys: hate those things – give me open-face climbing any day). Of course, I’ve fallen onto ropes any number of times, but that’s what ropes are for. The fall in THE SALT ROAD was fictional, though, I do remember when my friend Bruce fell off a monster route at Mother Carey’s Kitchen in Pembroke, taking me by surprise (he was reaching for the top and I’d paid out rope so that he could make the final move): he fell off and his last runner was 30 foot down (I was always telling him off for not putting enough gear in) so he fell to that runner and then the corresponding 30 feet after that, plus the elasticity of the rope, with such force that he lifted me off my feet and we ended up bobbing around facing one another halfway up the cliff. Not good technique. Luckily the gear held, or I wouldn’t be here ‘talking’ to you today.

So the other 6 months of the year in a small village on the Cornish coast? You do know people will hate you, right? What does your other half make of England’s windiest outcrop?

Our bargain with one another when we married was that we would share our lives, so that neither of us was uprooting the other, and the exoticism each of us perceived in the other and their worlds would be maintained. But even so, there’s been plenty to assimilate, on both sides! I’m Cornish, so it’s ‘home’ for me; but even though it’s a fishing village, which would seem to be the opposite to a hot desert village, there’s a remarkable amount the two cultures have in common. They’re both ancient granite landscapes, and granite generates its own energy (sorry, that’ a bit mystical: I’m not very New Age normally) – but it’s true, both Cornwall and Tafraout have a very similar ‘feel’ to them, magical, protected places, harbouring ancient cultures and rich history and weird superstitions all their own. In Cornwall we have piskeys and the knockers; in Tafraout they have the djinns and the black unicorn (who lures bad children from their beds and leads them to the cemetery, then has them drink her milk, which is some sort of narcotic, so they can never leave her). Abdel loves Cornwall: he’s taken up oil painting and has got all the locals speaking French to him.

So JRR Tolkien led you astray at an early age and stranded you on the shores of Unemployment with only a degree in Old Icelandic to ward off the wolves? What did you do?

So true! Yes Tolkien has steered my life: I only took the degree in Old Icelandic because I fell in love with LOTR. I was in fact working at Ladbrokes (a whole other sort of bookmakers) when I bumped into my neighbour, hugely pregnant who said she was leaving her publishing job at George Allen & Unwin. I nearly fell down in the street: GA&U was a hallowed name inscribed on the yellow spine of the copy of LOTR I’d swiped from the school library at the age of 12. I lied my way into a secretarial job there and never looked back (despite being a terrible secretary – I was promoted out of that danger zone within 6 months when they recognized I had other skills).

Not satisfied with being Lord of the Tolkien lists you somehow ended up in New Zealand as a subject matter expert/advisor on the production of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? I demand two anecdotes about Sean Bean, Viggo Mortensen &/or a hobbit.

Hmmm. Not sure which printable anecdotes I have! Peter Jackson invited me to the production because I had commissioned both John Howe and Alan Lee to illustrate Tolkien’s work in the first place (Alan’s illustrated edition of LOTR for the centenary remains my proudest piece of publishing …. apart of course from PRINCE OF THORNS) and those two artists had formed his vision of Middle-earth. So the invitation was by way of a thank you. Then I ended up as a sort of unofficial expert and walking reference book for the film crew and cast; and then wrote the Visual Companions under my pen-name of Jude Fisher.

I did spend several hilarious and thrilling months, on and off, in NZ with the production (and indeed was just there again in Sept/Oct for THE HOBBIT) and so got to know cast and crew extremely well – so well, in fact that Barrie Osborne, the producer, dubbed me the 10th member of the Fellowship. Viggo published some of his photos in Empire magazine last December including some of the fishing trip on the Eglinton River he took me on, when he taught me how to fish for trout (I promptly stuck a fish hook through my finger): we cooked our catch for the rest of the team that night. Nice that many of us are still in regular contact.

Did you try on the ring?

No, but I did try out several of the swords! (More fun than the ring.) Anduril was beautifully weighted. Viggo used to carry it with him wherever he went, to get used to it as a tool of his trade. I remember once he managed to stick a hole in my favourite skirt with it when we were getting out of his car in a carpark in Wellington: it still bears the wound! I also wielded Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, and when I was there in September tried out the magnificent Orcrist, the sword Thorin Oakenshield finds in the Stone Trolls’ cave. It’s heavy!

Is it my turn now?

Would you like the Ring? (capital R) I have a great facsimile, produced by one of the licensed merchandisers, kept in a jewellery box which, when opened, says Precioussssss. Until the battery wears down, which sadly it has. But you can have that and buy a new battery if you like… I’d quite fancy the invisibility; but not the haunting visions of Wraithworld.

You’ve been to the Oscars? How? When? Why? And more importantly, whuh?

And the BAFTAS, and Cannes; and premieres for the movies in London,Paris and Wellington. Yes, it was a mad few years. I still have the glamorous dresses (and the stupid shoes), unworn ever since (this is not my normal life). Less fun than you’d imagine, although when LOTR won all those awards in the final year it was some party! Much more fun has been had going off the beaten track with close friends made on the production.

You’re lord high editor at Harper Collins Voyager? Do you get to wear a special hat? What’s Voyager’s USP thing? I mean is there some genre/vibe driving the acquisitions or is it just a random collection ofwhatever seems great?

Technically, my title is Publishing Director – but there are about 8 of us at HC, where titles are like being in the Brazilian army: it sounds impressive, but does not necessarily mean you wield any power. I launched Voyager in 1995 – bringing together all the sf and fantasy from the Grafton, Panther, Fontana and Unwin lists. The USP is always about quality: books have to be the best of the best. It’s hard to succeed in the genre, since there’s little support from wholesalers like Tesco or Asda, so the authors we do publish have to be very special and generate that magical word-of-mouth recommendation that drives sales in this area*. I have a powerful cadre of authors I’ve worked with, even launched from scratch, with whom I still work closely. They include George RR Martin, Raymond Feist, Robin Hobb, and of course now Mark Lawrence. But I also publish some very successful thriller writers, including Dean Koontz, Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland), and Tom Knox (Sean Thomas), and also found and launched master of ‘tartan noir’ Stuart MacBride. My newest thriller writer, about whom I’m massively excited is Lisa Brackman, a really searing talent.

Emma Coode is now heading up the Voyager list and doing a fabulous job of it: you need someone fighting its corner in all the meetings, and that’s something I can’t do any more.

*PRINCE OF THORNS is a perfect example of that magical word-of-mouth sensation, for me. As soon as I started reading I got a prickle down my spine which told me I had something really special in my hands: it came to me very late in the submission process – on the day the US publishers had set as the closing date for offers. So I was expecting to take a quick look and turn it down; but I couldn’t stop reading, was by turns mesmerized and horrified by the events, by Jorg’s casual attitude to violence and apparent immorality; and by the economy, precision and poetry of the language. It was simply the best written manuscript I’d come upon in ages and I knew I HAD to have it. I remember sitting on my sofa in our apartment in Morocco, totally gripped till the last word. Usually acquisitions at HC take weeks, but I bullied and cajoled my way to an offer within 2 hours, which is without doubt a record. We closed the deal the same day.

Most heated fight you’ve ever got into as editor vs author? Were phones slammed down? CAPS employed in emails? Or does that just never happen?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a heated argument with an author (you may find this hard to believe!). I’ve always felt I was on the same side as the author against sometimes thick-headed corporate thinking. Of course, I’ve had fallings out with agents (that’s normal) and I did once have a furious exchange with an American publisher over their cancelling of a fine author’s contract, which I felt was unfair. (They had called for massive cuts to a manuscript we had not just accepted but adored: he had been ‘overpaid’ by the previous editor and my strong feeling was that they were trying to find a way out of their contractual obligations.) Janny Wurts once told me, however, that whenever she got one of my editorial letters she would go into the bathroom, lock the door and scream for 10 minutes…

You write. You know, in all that spare time you must have between the film stars and the goats and the high profile job. You write so much you need three names to put it out under! Best sellers even! The Tenth Gift really took off! So which book (excluding your latest) are you most proud of?

The one I’m writing now: Third Crusade, from both sides, Christian and Muslim, called with deliberate irony, THE GLORY. It’s a massive challenge, and it’s far from over. But maybe that’s not a fair answer since no one can see what nonsense I’m talking if it’s not yet published. So I’ll say THE SALT ROAD, my strange dual-time historical adventure set in the Sahara. I started from a basis of zero knowledge about the culture of the desert nomads, the fascinating Tuareg, despite the fact my husband’s family trace their ancestry back to the Sahara, and had to do an amazing amount of research, mainly in French, since little of use is written about them in English, in order to be able to write a single truthful sentence. Abdel and I also trekked with a nomad family and their camels and goats for 3 weeks so that I could get a proper sense of the mindset and the hardships. It’s an odd book, and because of the exotic subject matter reads more like fantasy than history in many ways. But the two genres are very closely related, I say, and so does George RR Martin: so we must be right!

If I weren’t going to buy your latest book based on the fact I loved The Salt Road, how would you sell it to me? (I hate that question, feel free to dodge).

No author should ever dodge the opportunity to ‘sell’ their work (I’ll speak to you later about that!). THE SULTAN’S WIFE is the new one (publishing in May, from Viking Penguin) and that was huge fun to write. After the wide open spaces of the desert I wanted to do something with a much more claustrophobic, enclosed setting, so chose the court of the 17th century Moroccan sultan (known for reasons that will become horribly clear as ‘the Bloody Sultan’) Moulay Ismail, renowned for testing the edge of his blade on the neck of the nearest slave, having a harem of 1500 women (mainly captured by his corsairs from all over the world) and breeding a New Model Army from captured women and black slaves taken from the Sub-Sahara. It takes place between 1677-82, when England was at war with Morocco over Tangiers, and included the famous embassy from the Moroccan court to Charles II’s Restoration court in London, immortalized in John Evelyn’s Diary. The central character is Nus-Nus, a black slave who’s worked his way up to an important court position, but finds himself increasingly endangered by feuds between the sultan and the sultan’s monstrous Chief Wife, Lalla Zidana, whose main occupation appears to have been poisoning any potential rivals for the sultan’s affections, or their offspring, thus maintaining her own sons in pole position (which she managed with remarkable adeptness). It’s a romp, but at the same time it’s all historically accurate, and shines a light into a corner of history few know about, which I enjoy immensely.


  1. Jane has been one of my heroes for a long time ( don't tell her that though). I didn't realise that she had commissioned Alan Lee to illustrate those huge books. I love his pictures and the way that Peter translated them into film! Great interview, thanks. And I am looking forward to reading Prince of Thorns.

  2. Wow, spending half of the year in Morocco, and a climber to boot. (Climbing seems to be a thing amongst the F/SF community).

    I'm not that interested in historical fiction, but the Sultan's Wife does sound intriguing.

    The story of the purchase of Prince of Thorns, too, was illuminating.