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Monday, February 25, 2008

Interview with Jonathan Barnes

Order “The SomnambulistHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s
REVIEW of “The Somnambulist
Read Edward Moon’s Interview
Read An Excerpt HERE

Earlier this year I finally got to read Jonathan Barnes’The Somnambulist” after hearing so much about the debut novel following its UK release in 2007. Despite some issues I had, I thought the book more than lived up to its expectations and was really interested in learning about the creator behind “The Somnambulist”, especially since the author has virtually zero online presence. And thanks to Jonathan’s US editor Diana Gill—and to Mr. Barnes of course!—I was granted that opportunity :) Ironically, when I was putting together questions for the interview, Jonathan was a guest blogger at the EOS Blog and addressed a lot of the topics that I was hoping to cover, including the novel’s unconventional narrative, the story of how the book came to life and the inspiration behind it, the many unresolved loose ends found in “The Somnambulist”, and Mr. Barnes’ work as a book reviewer. While the author may have answered many of the questions I had, I still had plenty more to ask so I hope readers will join us as Jonathan discusses how the American version of his debut is slightly different from the UK version, the title of the book “The Somnambulist” and how it might actually allude to another character, and his sequel “The Domino Men”…

Q: For starters, you graduated with a degree in English Lit from Oxford, you write reviews for the
Times Literary Supplement, and you live in London which is about the extent of your biography ;) So, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, what experience you went through in finding a publisher, first with Gollancz for the UK and then William Morrow for the US, and anything else you’d like to share about yourself?

Jonathan: Apart from a brief phase when I was about four and I decided I’d like to be a farmer, I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories. I wrote a lot at school and at university I wrote and directed four or five plays. The buzz I got from doing that made me determined to find some way to go on telling stories once college came to an end and I was out on my own in the real world. Consequently, I’ve spent the past eight years working in a variety of office jobs whilst writing in the evenings and at weekends.

I sent “The Somnambulist” to all kinds of publishers and agencies and it was pretty comprehensively rejected. In the end, close to giving up, I sent the first few chapters, entirely on spec, to Gollancz where it was rescued from the slush pile by my future editor Simon Spanton. He liked it enough to buy it and everything snowballed from there. Gollancz themselves sent it to William Morrow where it was picked up by the wonderful Diana Gill who’s nurtured it and brought it to American bookshops. So it’s really all down to the kindness of strangers – first Simon, then Diana.

Q: Concerning your profession as a reviewer, you recently posted an interesting bit
HERE on the EOS Blog regarding the growing shift between professional and amateur reviews—a movement you said should be applauded…for the most part. Could you elaborate a bit more about this?

Jonathan: “Profession” is putting it way too strongly! I’ve contributed the odd article (sometimes extremely odd!) to the TLS over the past eight years. It’s a great privilege and I thoroughly enjoy the intellectual discipline which it demands, although I don’t often review contemporary fiction – my most recent pieces have been on mysteries, the unexplained, ghosts and hauntings (spot a theme developing here?). I meant nothing sinister by saying “for the most part”. As I suggested in my blog, the democratization of the critical process is irrefutably a good thing but it does mean that there’s a bewildering wealth of opinion out there. It’s tough to know what to think, that’s all, and harder than ever to get a consensus.

Q: Isn’t that a good thing though? I mean, not everyone experiences a book exactly the same, so shouldn’t reviews reflect a fractured opinion rather than a consensus one?

Jonathan: It's absolutely a good thing. And I don't think you're ever going to get a consensus on a story - a good or an interesting story, at any rate. It's just the sheer volume of opinion on-line which can prove overwhelming.

Q: I can understand that. Now even though “The Somnambulist” just made its debut in the US on February 5, 2008, the novel has been available in the UK since last February. Because you’ve had almost a year now to reflect on the book since it was first published, what are your overall thoughts on how “The Somnambulist” turned out? Would you change anything if you had the chance?

Jonathan: Of course. Absolutely. There are always things that you’d change. Who was it that said that “art is never finished, only abandoned”? (Just looked it up – Leonardo da Vinci, apparently). Anything in particular? Well, I’d certainly try to give poor Inspector Merryweather more of a character. I feel that I let him down a bit by making him such a stock and generic figure without (as I hope I did with some of the other characters) subverting or playing with those clich├ęs at all.

For the record, the US version of “The Somnambulist” is slightly different to its UK counterpart. I reworked it slightly - a few nips and tucks, a couple of short additional sections – in an effort to make it smoother.

Q: Were these mainly grammatical changes, or did you play around any with the plotting or characterization? Could you give any specific examples?

Jonathan: It went well beyond grammar. There are a couple of short new scenes – an additional reverie by the old man who sleeps beneath the city, for example – as well as a slight smoothing out of Chapter 4 (Moon's thwarted investigation of the Glendinning case). I never thought that chapter quite came off in the original and it really bugged me for a while. Thankfully I improved it for the American edition and now I can sleep soundly once again.

Q: You actually started work on the manuscript back in 2001. How much has the book evolved since then?

Jonathan: The story has remained pretty much unchanged – believe it or not, I had the whole thing planned out in my mind before I started and I never really deviated from it – although I think the book evolves as it goes on. The early chapters read very much as me feeling my way into writing a novel whilst the ending is much more confident and technically assured. At least, that’s my opinion. A lot of people have told me that the beginning is by far the strongest part of the book and the ending is pitifully weak by comparison – which doesn’t bode especially well for my future career!

Q: LOL. On the
EOS Blog HERE you mentioned that “The Somnambulist” was your homage to the things you’ve always loved including “Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Frankenstein, Charles Dickens, Alan Moore’s From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the London histories of Peter Ackroyd.” What they nearly all have in common is either London or the Victorian era, which I touched upon in my review of “The Somnambulist”. In your opinion, what is it about the Victorian time period, and London in particular, that is so appealing to writers?

Jonathan: Oh, it’s just irresistible, isn’t it? Difficult to say exactly why but for me at least it’s probably down to two things – the modernity of the time, the way in which, with its crumbling empires and voracious cities, it feels so close to the concerns of our own age coupled, paradoxically, with its safety. For all its darkness and squalor, there is an odd security to the era—that lost time before the twentieth century decided to do its worst.

Q: Besides everything that was mentioned in the previous question, who or what else influenced you in writing “The Somnambulist”?

Jonathan: The first series of 24 was shown in England when I was writing the book and I remember wishing that I could capture some of its breathlessness, that show’s reckless, relentless, stampeding kind of narrative.

Q: Arguably, your book’s most distinctive feature is an unconventional narrative that blends a first-person narrator with third-person omniscience. Was it difficult getting the right kind of balance between the two, and what are the keys to writing a narrator that is successfully ‘fallible’ or ‘unreliable’?

Jonathan: I’m pleased that you think it’s distinctive. I love the idea of the unreliable narrator and believe that there’s still plenty of interesting stuff that can be done with it. Certainly, I always thought that is would be fun to write a story from the point of view of a narrator who absolutely despises his protagonist. Although, if I’m being honest, “The Somnambulist” mostly plays the conceit for laughs – perhaps the best kind of fallible narrator is a much more subtle creation. I was thinking about this recently, when reading Neil Gaiman’s brilliant “Keepsakes and Treasures” in his short story collection Fragile Things. Here the narrator is hugely likeable, the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with, and only by queasy increments do you realize that the man’s an irredeemable monster.

Q: Another aspect that’s unique about your book is how diverse it is genre-wise. I mean there are elements of mystery, Dickensian, horror, gothic fiction, penny dreadfuls, et cetera. Personally, I loved that flexibility, but for some readers it might be a turnoff. What are your feelings on books that fit firmly into a single classification as opposed to those that are hard to categorize?

Jonathan: I’m delighted that you loved it. I know some people who were hoping for a straight crime story, say, or for a more overt piece of SF were disappointed. But there’s no reason why stories should have to cleave to any particular template.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the barriers between genres continue to come down over the next few years. One of my favourite books of the 21st century so far is David Mitchell’sCloud Atlas”. It was sold as a literary novel but look at how many genres it contains – thriller, science-fiction, social comedy… Pick and mix fiction – it’s the future!

Q: In yet another of your
posts on the EOS Blog, you addressed the matter of ‘loose ends’, which was actually an issue I had with your book. Thankfully, it sounds like a lot of the questions I had will be answered in your sequel “The Domino Men”, while those that aren’t like the Clapham debacle have a reasonable explanation for them. One thing still bothers me though and that was the Somnambulist himself who was more of a supporting character. Why name the book after him, and will we get to learn anymore about the Somnambulist in future volumes?

Jonathan: I don’t think I’m ever going to reveal what happened in Clapham! And I think I’m done with the Somnambulist – for the time being, at least.

As for the title… There are at least three good reasons. Firstly, I don’t think it’s necessary to name the book after the protagonist. Take Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the title character’s murdered at the start of Act Three. Secondly, and more prosaically, I liked the Somnambulist as a character and thought that his name would make for a memorable title. And thirdly, the title might not refer exclusively to the character you mention. There is at least one other person in the novel to whom one might justifiably apply the description of “somnambulist”…

Having said all that, the book is about to be published in Germany where it’s been renamed Das Albtraumreich des Edward Moon (The Nightmare Realm of Edward Moon) so I suspect that a lot of people agree with you!

Q: That’s an interesting point you make about the title alluding to someone else. Considering the meaning of ‘somnambulist’, I have a couple of speculations ;) Going back to your sequel—which will actually be available to readers in the UK starting February 21, 2008—what can readers expect in “The Domino Men” and how is it related to “The Somnambulist”?

Jonathan:The Domino Men” is not a direct sequel to “The Somnambulist” but it takes place in the same world, a little over one hundred years later. There are a few familiar faces, some unlikely survivors from the first book (if you wondered what the Directorate were really up to, for example, you’ll find out here) but it’s largely quite a different kind of story. Diana’s described it as a spy thriller colliding with H. P. Lovecraft. Whereas “The Somnambulist” deals from the outset with peculiar characters who operate in an even weirder world, “The Domino Men” concerns the gradual invasion of an apparently normal universe by all manner of scary strangeness.

And, as with the first book, the US edition will be slightly different to the UK one – meaning that completists are very welcome to buy both!

Q: Could you elaborate some on the differences between the two versions?

Jonathan: I'm in the middle of the edit right now, so it's still a bit early to say. I'm really enjoying the opportunity to revisit and rework it and have been inspired to create a couple of new scenes.

Q: For some authors it’s easier writing their second novel, while for others it’s more difficult. How was it for you, and did you learn anything when writing “The Somnambulist” that helped you prepare for “The Domino Men”?

Jonathan:The Domino Men” seemed to flow a good deal more fluently than “The Somnambulist” although I had to write it in a much shorter space of time. The most helpful thing I learnt from writing the first book was the simple, unavoidable discipline of having to put words onto the page every day.

Q: So what are you currently working on and do you have any other projects that you could talk about?

Jonathan: Plenty of ideas for the future but nothing concrete at the moment…

Q: At the very least, can you tell us if there will be any further stories set in the same universe as “The Somnambulist” and “The Domino Men”?

Jonathan: I've not got anything planned which is explicitly not set in that universe (which is fairly close to our own, in any case). Whether individual characters and settings will recur is entirely dependent on whether I come up with good stories for any of them. I guess that my aim would be to write standalone books which nonetheless take place, very loosely, in a shared universe.

Q: Moving on, there’s a lot of cross-pollination today between different mediums such as literature and movies, comic books and videogames, TV and animation, etc. And personally, I think your book is destined for the big screen so has there been any interest or anything optioned for adaptation, and if so, can you give us some details?

Jonathan: Nothing optioned so far. Mind you, as you pointed out earlier, if there’s anything at all distinctive about the book it’s the narrative voice, which might be rather surplus to requirements were it ever to find itself on screen. But who knows?

Q: Well I’m sure Hollywood could figure out a way to make the ‘distinctive voice’ work, but what would be your dream adaptation?

Jonathan: Dream adaptation? A proper version of “A Study in Scarlet”, the first Sherlock Holmes story, with Holmes and Watson portrayed by actors who actually resemble the characters in the book – namely, energetic young men in their twenties. Find unknowns to play them and add a ridiculously expensive prologue with Dr. Watson getting shot at the battle of Maiwand. Need a screenwriter? I’m your man.

Q: I actually meant with your own novels, but being a Sherlock Holmes fan myself, I would love to see a great adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet” too, so that works :) One last question in this area. Have you ever thought about writing in a different medium like comic books, movie scripts, television or videogames, and if so, what would you like to tackle and why?

Jonathan: Ideally, of course, I’d like to explore every medium! Although I think I need to get a lot better at writing prose before I consider attempting anything else. My absolute dream job would be to write an episode of Doctor Who – my favourite programme since childhood and now back better than ever.

Q: Well hopefully someone who is intimately involved with the Doctor Who show will be reading this!

Nowadays the internet is a very important tool for authors and publishers in promoting their books, but unless I’m mistaken, you don’t have a website or blog. Why is that and will that change in the future?

Jonathan: A combination of indolence and technophobia on my part, I’m afraid. But it’s a good point! Hopefully, yes, this will change in the future.

Q: Between the two covers for “The Somnambulist”, I really like the US version better. What do you think about the covers and your thoughts on the subject as a whole, especially how important they are in selling a book, how speculative fiction covers are considered generic, the difference between international & stateside covers, et cetera?

Jonathan: Interesting. Actually, I love both covers equally. The UK cover conveys the quirkiness and eccentricity of the book whilst the US equivalent dramatizes its moodiness and melodrama. I don’t think I’m remotely qualified to comment on the business of book covers except to say that it’s clearly a very important marketing tool (sometimes the only one that books receive) and to acknowledge that, so far, I’ve been inordinately lucky on that front.

Q: I didn’t get a chance to ask you to participate in my 2007 Review/2008 Preview
HERE, so I thought I would take the opportunity now. Basically, it’s a three part question, but since we already covered one area we’ll just stick with the following: What were your favorite books that you read in 2007, and what titles are you most looking forward to in 2008?

Jonathan: There were lots to enjoy in 2007: some great ghost stories – “The Man in the Picture” by Susan Hill, “Twentieth-Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill; some wonderful comedies – “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” by Paul Torday, “Welcome to the Working Week” by Paul Vlitos; and Alan Moore being characteristically challenging and cerebral in “The Black Dossier”.

As for 2008, I rarely miss a book by Stephen King so I’m really looking forward to “Duma Key”. Also the latest thriller from Michael Marshall after his spectacular The Intruders and the follow-ups to two of my favourite debuts from last year – “Every Day is Like Sunday” by Paul Vlitos and “The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce” by Paul Torday.

Q: Very nice list :) I’m really looking forward to the next Michael Marshall novel myself! In closing, what other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Jonathan: Swimming, walking, going to the theatre and the cinema, riding
on empty buses and feeding the swans by the river.


Anonymous said...

Great interview!!
I loved The Somnambulist (the irony is that a review trashing it thoroughly attracted my attention and I ordered the UK edition last year sometime) and I am very excited that The Domino Men is in the mail from the UK here to NYC suburbs, being one the books I am really looking forward to in the first half of the year. I will read it on arrival and post my thoughts on sffworld as usual.


Harry Markov said...

Ah, wonderful interview. Definitely long and I don't really read interview, but gritted my teethe knowing it's worth it and read it. Yeah for me.

I always thought that the future belonged to the hybrids until new genres are formed like 'paranormal romance' for instance.

What's interesting about the Victorian Era for me is the classy atmosphere. The lavished luxury just captivates me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert!

Another interesting interview.
This one doesn't come out in Canada until next week, according to the Chapters website up here. When it does I will be sure to snag one.


Robert said...

Thanks everyone! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview :) Liviu, let me know what you think of "The Domino Men". I was hoping to get a review copy from the publisher, but no luck yet. So I haven't decided if I should order a copy or wait for the book's US release.

Reanimated, I hope you enjoy "The Somnambulist!

Daydream, I've always preferred long interviews, so thanks for sticking with it :)

Harry Markov said...

No problem. It was worth it! Definitely worth it!

Anonymous said...

I'm reading the book right now and I LOVE it.
I think a movie adapation would be quite amazing actually. I can totally see Tim Burton directing it, he does do such amazing things!

Robert said...

Tim Burton would make an excellent choice for director and I wouldn't be surprised to see the book get optioned shortly...

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