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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Interview with Jonathan French (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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Order The Grey Bastards over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Grey Bastards

Today we have the distinct pleasure of Jonathan French visiting Fantasy Book Critic. March 19th marks the paperback release of Jonathan's SPFBO winning title and breakout hit The Grey Bastards. Jonathan was very kind to answer in detail about the creation of the Lot Lands series, his worldbuilding ideas and what lies in the future for the Bastards.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Jonathan. Thank you for joining us, could you talk about your journey to becoming a published author as well as your SPFBO win.

JF: Thanks for having me. And sure! I began writing with a mind to being published in 2008, finishing my first book, The Exiled Heir, in 2009. But, as with most first manuscripts, I didn’t get very far with agents and publishers. I had been looking into self-publishing as an option and, after serious encouragement from a good friend as well as massive support from my family, I pulled the trigger in 2012. The Exiled Heir did better than what you might expect, bolstered by my appearances at book fairs and pop-culture conventions. Basically, I commissioned some great artwork to decorate my selling table and went to any venue that would have me, participating on panels and selling the book, writing the sequel along the way. I released The Errantry Of Bantam Flyn in 2014 and continued to do appearances, but that was a beast of a novel (210k words) and I felt I needed a break from the world. Plus, while the two Autumn’s Fall Saga books had their devoted fans and were well-reviewed, sales weren’t stellar. I felt I needed something that was a quicker read; a stand-alone novel that would have an easy pitch.

Over the years I found many readers that approached my table at conventions didn’t want to commit to an unfinished fantasy series (shame on them!), so I thought it might be helpful to the ole profit margin to have a “one-and-done” book set in a separate world from the others. That book was The Grey Bastards, which I self-pubbed in October of 2015. Some months later, I was lurking on the Grimdark Readers & Writers Facebook Group when I noticed a link to Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition. I entered The Grey Bastards with no hope of it making the Top 10, but with this mad theory that if the book did get that far it would win. I still marvel at the fact that wasn’t just an empty boast to my wife in a moment of forced optimism. During the final weeks of the SPFBO I was contacted by an editor at Crown Publishing (Penguin/Random House) who had read the book and wanted to see if I would be interested in traditional publishing. He contacted some agents on my behalf and I eventually signed with Cameron McClure at Donald Maass Literary Agency. She guided me expertly (and patiently!) through the formal pitch to Crown and the Bastards’ transition into “big NY publishing” that followed.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Lot Land series occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

JF: So, I mentioned some of the real-world reasons above, but as far as the actual fiction, it started as an idea for a D&D game. I’ve been a tabletop roleplaying game enthusiast since I was about 7 (back when you didn’t have to qualify the hobby with the word “tabletop” because video games hadn’t taken over the nomenclature yet.) I’m such a game nerd that I have a favorite miniature sculptor! And that’s kinda how the Bastards started. I was painting up some orc and half-orc models sculpted by Tre Manor and got inspired to run a game where the players were all part of a mounted mercenary company of half-orcs tasked with fighting off full-blood orcs in a thankless badlands setting. When I told my wife about the idea her response was: “Forget the game. Write the fucking book.” So I knocked out a first chapter and had such fun with it that…well, hence The Grey Bastards. It has certainly evolved as an idea.

As a writer, I’m not much of a plotter, so there is a great deal of change that occurs organically as I draft a novel. It’s tricky to talk about the changes without spoiling too much for those that haven’t read it, but I find my books always have a fair amount of “scope creep”, meaning the idea starts off fairly small/intimate and scales toward more, I guess, “epic” as it moves forward. Originally, the entire plot of The Grey Bastards centered around a power struggle between Jackal and Fetching over the possession of Starling. The Claymaster was just this shadowy crime-lord figure called the Paymaster and the Bastards were mercenaries instead of a gang. But there weren’t ever multiple drafts of the book. It all developed in process and became a living thing, evolving as I typed. After 5 years, it’s a bit murky to me what changed since it’s all part of the same simmering soup. As said previously, I never intended to start another series. But the response to the book during the SPFBO made me realize that I needed to do another one. The contest brought it a much bigger audience and it was clear they wanted more. I was already working on the sequel when Crown called. Thankfully, they were interested in a second one!

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for the Lot Land Series?

JF: The stories I write tend to be fantasy with re-worked history and mythology elements. But everything for all my books starts with character. I think that comes from creating so many characters for RPGs and from a love of comic books. The heroes are what matter to me, so I come up with them first and build the world to suit. I love fleshed out ensembles, so I attempt that as much as possible. As for the Lot Lands, the elevator pitch is: "Pig-riding half-orcs using foul language while killing shit!"

Q] Many reviewers have commented on the Sons Of Anarchy vibe that the readers get while reading The Grey Bastards. Are you a SOA fan or was this just a coincidence?

JF: It’s not a coincidence! I had watched a few seasons of SOA when I started writing the book and it was a key ingredient of the soup. The idea of biker gangs viewed through a fantasy lens was the springboard of the entire thing. More than that, it was dissecting SOA’s own inspirations. That show was very much a modern Western, celebrating outlaws, rebellious freedom, living by the gun and all that. As a Westerns enthusiast, I saw a chance to do something similar but in the fantasy genre which I loved so much. The show Justified also informed the Bastards, as well as Spartacus, Black Sails, and the Mariachi Trilogy of films. Not to mention anything done by Sergio Leone!

Q] The Grey Bastards has a singular POV approach. I’m curious as to why you chose to go this route? Will there be any addition of POVs in the future volumes?

JF: My books in the Autumn’s Fall Saga have multiple POVs, so I wanted to do something different. The Grey Bastards was conceived to be a faster, grittier, action-oriented read and I felt a single POV would lend itself well to that. Keep it in lean fighting shape, as it were! Plus, I thought I could complete the book faster if I only had to tackle one POV. The future books won’t have additional POVs, but they will be told through a different POV. So, still one character taking us through, just not Jackal. Those who have read The Grey Bastards probably have a good idea who that is for Book 2.

Q] Talking about dysfunction, all the characters don’t behave normal by any stretch of the imagination. However they have their own rules and bonds. What were your historical and genre influences for the hoofs and their sub-culture?

JF: Historically, the book is heavily based on Reconquista-era Spain. The light cavalry known as jinete that spawned from that broad period was crucial to fighting in that landscape, so much of the hoofs’ armament and tactics stem from there. Spaghetti Westerns and that genre’s brand of sunbaked heroism were a massive influence, for sure. From fiction, The Named Men from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books, though Arthur and his knights also creeped in a bit. Super Hero teams, as well, were an influence: Shadowpact, Seven Soldiers of Victory, The Outsiders, X-Force. The Bastards and the other hoofs are bands of maligned outcasts, a minority of third-class citizens forced to survive through violence and tribalism. Once I had that in my head, they basically wrote themselves.

Q] Tell us a little bit about the research you undertook before attempting to write this series. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

JF: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to use an analog of Medieval Spain as the setting. So I did some reading on the Reconquista, mostly using Osprey Publishing’s excellent catalogue of military history books. S.S. Wyatt’s translation of Daily Life in Portugal In The Late Middle Ages by A.H. de Oliveira Marques was also an invaluable resource. Figuring out the riding hogs was probably where I spent the most time in research. And the most fascinating! There were a lot more breeds of swine, both existent and extinct, than I realized. Reading up on the natural evolution and controlled breeding of various wild boars and feral hogs to help inform and create my fictional Great Bearded Deer-Hogs (aka “barbarians”) proved to be quite fun!

Q] One solid feature of your debut was the amount of worldbuilding present. What is it about worldbuilding that you love, and what according to you is the key(s) to successfully crafting such a believable, yet fantastical world showcased within The Grey Bastards?

JF: I write the stories I want to read, so I’m forced to create the worlds I want to experience. I love history, but don’t feel I’m enough of a scholar to write compelling historical fiction, plus as a huge fantasy nerd, I crave the creatures and magic! As a boy, I was deeply enamored with Masters of the Universe, Jim Henson films, Conan comic books, but I was absorbing all of that mostly ignorant of their respective inspirations. They were just these fantasy worlds that captured my imagination. It was pure. Later on, as an adolescent I discovered the Old World of Warhammer through the wargames set in that mythos (now, sadly, all but abandoned by Games Workshop). I started to understand that what, for me anyway, was so compelling about Warhammer was the blending of fantasy traditions with real world history. And very specific history! The landsknechts of the Holy Roman Empire, melded with the cuirassiers of the English Civil War, both marching alongside war machines that could have sprung from one of Da Vinci’s drawings. All of this mated with fantasy elements drawn from Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Leiber, Peake. And those were just the obvious sources!

Despite all that, Warhammer was still its own beast and made me realize how fantasy could be such a gateway into history. I doubt I would care about Renaissance Europe without those games and that’s to say nothing of feudal France, ancient Egypt, pre-Tsarist Russia, and all the other specific periods that form the pastiche of the Warhammer Old World. And, of course, they weren’t the only ones running that playbook. For literature, Guy Gavriel Kay is arguably the master of such quasi-historical fantasy. Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and A Song for Arbonne are huge influences for me. So that’s where my sense of world building springs from; a strong foundation of the realistic that serves the fantastical. But I think the trick is to somehow make it your own and that takes putting aside a great deal of worry, purging the word “derivative” from your thinking, finding courage and confidence that what you’re presenting has its own identity, then getting to work.

Q] The gang heraldry, culture and nomenclature had a very strong biker feel to it. I absolutely dug that aspect and especially those snippets which gave us a look into the world’s history. I couldn’t get enough and will the sequel expand upon that? Especially will we get a look at the other hoofs?

JF: Oh, yes! There’s much more for us to learn about Hispartha, Dhar’gest, the Lots, Strava, the Tines, both their respective pasts and the prospects of their perilous futures. And many new details and tidbits about the broader world will be revealed as the Bastards continue their journey to survive. The other hoofs will play a much bigger role in the sequel. In fact (mild SPOILER in 3…2…1…), we will meet the chiefs of every other half-orc hoof in Book 2.

Q] With this book focusing on the half-orcs, you detail the gruesome process of the creation of half & thrice blooded orcs. Does it stand to reason that there might be half-elves or other such race hybrids?

JF: Most certainly! Stay tuned…

Q] I loved how elves and centaurs were basically the scariest beings in your world. What was your thought process in making them as such?

JF: Well, thank you! That was fun to do. I wanted to bring everything to a very earthy level. Centaurs and elves made good vehicles for cultures that contain an inherent and potent savagery. I love me some noble and enlightened elves as much as the next fantasy reader, but everything in the Bastards’ world demanded a certain dangerous sex appeal. I like to joke that the Lot Lands are Middle Earth after a drunken night of bad decisions. Everyone wakes up next to a stranger (or three!) and has a few fresh tattoos. I thought the best way to fit elves into that backdrop was to take their traditionally insular culture and amp up that up to a very hostile tribalism. I think leaning into their connection to nature and giving them an adept wildness elevated their menace factor. As for the centaurs, I didn’t do much but bring them back to what I felt were their roots; liminal beings that are at war with their own nature, physically and culturally straddling the line between civilization and barbarism. Of course, the mystery of the Betrayer Moon and its violent effect upon them aided in their frightening aspect.

Ultimately, the half-orcs in the Lots do not really know much about the elves and centaurs, so they’ve filled in those gaps with superstition, distrust, bigotry, and supposition. Since we experience the story through Jackal, I think his ignorance conveys that sense of threat. Sadly, it’s that same old dance: we often fear and hate what we don’t understand.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

JF: Other than the inspirations mentioned above, I would add Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. That series is a major inspiration for the Autumn’s Fall Saga. L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, as well. Robert E. Howard is the writer that made me hit the keyboard with serious effort. I had enjoyed his character of Conan since I was kid through various comic books and novels, but when Del Rey released Howard’s complete Conan stories purged of the “work” of other writers, I devoured them and a switch flipped in my brain. Creative writing went from a fun hobby I dabbled in to something I knew I could do as a career.

Other authors that I love are Terry Pratchett, Tanith Lee, Tad Williams, George R. R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey, and Caleb Carr. Most of those are still quite “current” but far as newer voices go, I am (like many) in awe of Josiah Bancroft; the Books of Babel are a gift not just to fantasy, but to the written word. Very different but no less brilliant is Jesse Bullington; I’ve recommended The Enterprise of Death probably more than any other book. Darktown by Thomas Mullen recently had me enthralled. If I need to laugh I will pick up Aaron Cross and Jim Hodgson without delay. Humor is damn hard, but those two have it down.

Q] The Grey Bastards is the first volume in a series. Could you give us a progress report or offer any details about the sequel, and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

JF: Certainly. The progress report is: after spending 25 months (all of 2017 and 2018) writing the sequel, I am relieved to say that The True Bastards will hit shelves in October. Apologies to all of those looking for it in June, but I wanted to deliver a worthy sequel and I think (hope) the readers will agree the wait was worth it. As for details, let’s see…in this case the line between teasing Book 2 and spoiling Book 1 is so narrow, but here goes:

"The True Bastards is all about the burden of leadership. It’s been nearly two years since the events of The Grey Bastards and the hoof is solidly under the rule of their new chief, but life in the Lots is harder than ever. Famine has struck the hoof, Hispartha’s prejudice against half-orcs has only increased, and the other mongrel chiefs are pressuring the Bastards to disband."

"Are these hardships simply a harsh reality of life in the badlands or Crafty’s vengeance at work? And what about the deadly creature now prowling the Bastards’ lot? Nothing like it has ever been seen before and the only salvation for the hoof may lie with the Tines. Does their new chief dare risk trespassing on elf lands to save them? Or do they stand firm, friendless, and fulfill their creed to die on the hog?"

As far as the future of the series, my plan is to do two more in this initial series. So four Lot Lands books. However, as of now books 3 and 4 are not under contract. Now, I’m not saying pre-sales for Book 2 need to be strong for those to happen, but I’m not NOT saying it either ;) After Bastards is done, I’ll take a break and get back to Autumn’s Fall, but I do have ideas for other books in the Bastards’ world so it’s likely I’ll do those down the road if there’s enough interest.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

JF: I’d like to thank anyone that took the time to read this interview. If you picked up a copy of The Grey Bastards (whether you became a fan or not), you have my greatest appreciation. For those that enjoyed their ride through the Lots, more is on the way! I’d also like to give a grateful tip of the hat to my readers in the UK. You lot have taken to the Bastards with such enthusiasm and I love you for it! And for the stalwart few Autumn’s Fall fans anywhere in the world, please continue to be patient. I know it’s been too long, but I haven’t abandoned Airlann. To all the writers: keep striving, keep scribbling. It will pay off if you continue to give it some gumption. Live in the saddle!

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Jonathan French himself.


Nick Tab said...

Awesome interview! I absolutely loved The Grey Bastards and cannot wait to read book 2. Jonathan is one of my very favorite authors and I can't say enough great things about him and his writing. "Live in the saddle, die on the hog!"

Swiff said...

Awesome interview, Mihir! The Grey Bastards was one of the early self-published books I took a chance on, and it opened the floodgates for me.

Side note: I do hope that French adds a "The Story So Far..." to the beginning of True Bastards.


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