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Author Interview: July 2006

July 2006 contributing writer Brian Farrey interviewed Jonathan Stroud, author of the bestselling The Bartimaeus Trilogy. Stroud discusses some of the technical aspects of creating a series and his aim to appeal to several different age groups.

He also touches upon the challenges of writing fantasy in a post-Harry Potter world, mentions some of his recent enjoyable reads, and shares details about future projects. The Bartimaeus Trilogy is very tightly written and wonderfully imagined. How much of the series did you plot out in advance and how much of it evolved as you wrote?

Jonathan Stroud: I suppose it was about 50/50. At the beginning, all I had was Bartimaeus's voice --- no plot, no synopsis --- and the exhilaration of his narrative carried me about 50 pages into the story before I began to slow down. Then I started creating a structure, quickly realising that I had too much for one book; over the course of a month I made chapter plans for all three parts of the trilogy. I knew roughly what would happen in each book, but of course, as I progressed it evolved continuously and organically, and the task was to occasionally rework the synopses to reflect that. But it was a massive help to have an end in view, a definite direction that I was traveling in --- that minimised the stress!

TRC: Often, the decision to market a book to young adults is that of the publisher, not the author. Your writing is always smart and intricate. What audience do you feel you're writing to?

JS: From the beginning, I wanted to have the broadest possible audience --- both adults and young readers. I guessed that the novels would be vaguely '12+', in other words, appealing to any fluent reader, however young. I didn't compromise with vocabulary or with complexity; I was trying to create books that I would have loved as a youth and that I'd still enjoy today as a grizzled thirtysomething! The thing that surprises me most now is how many 8 or 9 year olds love the trilogy --- in the post-Harry Potter era, young readers aren't afraid of anything.

TRC: What do you feel has been your proudest achievement as a writer?

JS: Hmmm... One thing I'm proud of is finding a new way to deal with magic and magicians, which are one of the traditional mainstays of fantasy. When I began THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND, there was a sense that Harry Potter's shadow was hard to escape from --- but by turning the focus on the perspective of Bartimaeus, a djinni with a chip on his shoulder, we get a fresh angle on familiar things. I think his voice is unique, and I'm also pleased with the mix of fantasy and politics, which gives an original flavour to the series.

TRC: How has your background as an editor informed the way you approach writing? Do you find writing easier or do your editorial instincts kick in and make it difficult?

JS: My editorial experience has been hugely helpful in that I'm quite good at smoothing out problems at a fairly early stage. When I'm actually writing, I try to go at a brisk pace, building up momentum and not stopping and revising too often; but once I've had a break and I go back to read the text with my editorial cap on, it's possible to spot mistakes and slack passages and put them right swiftly.

TRC: Is there a difference in how the audiences perceive your books depending on the country they live in? Do British readers react to the books differently from Americans?

JS: I've not spotted many differences, to be honest. When I went to Italy to promote the series, a lot of journalists' questions were about the political message of the book rather than the story itself; but this wasn't an audience response, of course. In my experience, the questions that I get tend to be the same whether the reader comes from the UK, US, Japan or Europe. I think this has something to do with the international nature of fantasy, which crosses boundaries of taste and culture in a way that other genres simply don't do.

TRC: What have you read recently that has excited you?

JS: While I was writing the trilogy, I didn't read much children's fiction and certainly no fantasy --- it helped to be quite blinkered about what I was up to. But I'm catching up for lost time now, and I recently loved Garth Nix's SABRIEL, which was brilliant and exciting. I'm also thoroughly enjoying THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding. Another fine dark fantasy is Joseph Delaney's THE SPOOK'S APPRENTICE.

TRC: Without giving away too much, can you tell us how fans have reacted to the conclusion of PTOLEMY'S GATE? Was this something you planned from the beginning?

JS: I had this ending lined up from very early on, when I was working on the three synopses while getting to grips with THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND. I felt that this would probably be the best conclusion, but I didn't know if I could bring it off, and had an alternative ending lined up in case I chickened out. Two years or more later, when I actually got to the last chapters of PTOLEMY, everything seemed to click, and I was very happy with the way it finished. I've had a mixture of responses, with some outrage, but the majority definitely seem to think it was an appropriate end.

TRC: Do you have any plans to return to the world you created in this trilogy? What else can we expect from you in the future?

JS: I'm busily working on the beginnings of a new book, which will be very different from the trilogy. But Bartimaeus is a good character, and I think he's bound to reappear at some point, but only if I can think of a worthwhile story. I'm also developing a website this summer, which should have some more info about the world of Bart, Nat and Kitty. That'll be and will be up and running in a few months' time...