Jonathan Stroud interviewed by Graham Marks

Jonathan Stroud author of the best-selling ‘Bartimaeus’ has enjoyed drawing and writing stories since he was a young child. At school, he experimented with writing comics, game books, poems and plays. After graduating with a degree in  English literature at York University he worked as an editor for Walker Books, where he developed an interest in children’s books. His first novel, Buried Fire was published in 1999. In his latest series, Lockwood and Co’, a young psychic investigator Lucy Carlisle joins the ghost fighting agency run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and his assistant George Cubbins. There are four books in the series. There are three novels in the series, The Screaming Staircase The Whispering Skull and The Hollow Boy and a novella The Dagger in the Desk.

Graham Marks talked to Jonathan about the fascination with ghosts and his thrilling series:

Hello Jonathan. Maybe you could give me a crash course in the back story to the Lockwood & Co series.

In this series we’re in London, but it’s a different, alternative London. There is a fantasy element that screws things and tilts everything at a weird angle. There’s an epidemic of ghosts which has been getting worse and worse for a couple of generations. 50 years or so. The beauty of the scenario is the adults are unable to see the ghosts…ghosts [which] are dangerous…and this means that the children, the psychic children, of whom there are many, tend to get rather exploited by the adults and are sent out to deal with these ghosts.

The heroes of my story are three kids who form the only independent psychic detective agency in London. Let’s say you have a scenario where they’re off fighting those ghosts, but they’re also having to contend with the adult infrastructure of the society that they’ve been brought up in. I’m having fun with it because I’m able to enjoy dealing with ghosts and spooky things and fulfilling my love of traditional English ghost fiction, but also embedding it in something slightly more interesting, which is this society that they inhabit.

As I was reading I kept on finding myself being pulled this way and that…I knew I wasn’t here, now, in this world, but I keep on finding myself coming across references that made me think of the 40s or 50s. Turn a few pages, then I’d find you referring to the early part of this century, but there are no computers, there’s no microfiche. Is confusion part of the game?

No, no. It was a topic of some discussion with me and my editors when I was first writing it. At one point people would say ‘Well, you should make it historical, make it 19th century or something specific’. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted it to be an alternative present day. I think of it very much as being a nominally present day. But it’s a present day where the potential of technology has been eroded over the last couple of generations by this epidemic. So you’re absolutely right, no computers, none of that sort of high-tech. No mobile phones. In many ways it’s probably closest to the kind of technology that we had when we were kids: the 1970s, where it’s modern, but it’s actually a long way from what we’ve developed since the digital revolution.

This is a question I’ve asked a number of authors: Was there a moment when this idea achieved escape velocity and took off for you?

I suppose, yes. Four of five summers ago I was looking for a new idea, and every morning I would sit down with a blank piece of paper and I would just write whatever caught my fancy that day. Then one day I sat down and I wrote a scene with two kids walking up to the front door of a house in modern London and knocking on the door. They were going to deal with a ghost that was in there and they were wearing modern clothes, but they had swords and they had quite a nice bit of banter between them and I immediately knew I liked them. Often the characters come first, that’s what ignites your interest.

From that tiny scene, slowly everything else begins to build like a snowball. I wrote that bit in a great frenzy of interest, and then I had to stop and think, OK, well why are there two children coming to deal with ghosts? Why were there no adults with them? Immediately questions start being raised and you’ve got to figure out some of the answers before you can progress too far into the story.

Were those two characters Lockwood and Lucy?

Yes. In fact, that was the opening scene of the first book, The Screaming Staircase, just these two guys…because actually it was the same with Bartimaeus, the first scene that I wrote was the first scene of the book. Because often the way that I have access to the story is also the natural entry point for everybody else subsequently.

Yes, I think that’s kind of logical. Stephanie Meyer told me that when she started writing Twilight it was a scene right in the middle of the book. So she wrote from the middle to the end, then went back to the beginning and wrote up to where she’d started. Any number of ways, really, to skin that cat.

There are any number of ways in…I suppose I’ve had success with the thing that excites me, that gives me the desire to write on, being quite close to the thing that I think would make m
y readers want to read on. The beginning of
The Screaming Staircase name-drops lots of different sort of ghosts and it immediately conjurers up the world, and the characters ignite on the page. That was the essential thing for me.

So you had this idea, you had these two characters and you had a scenario – which has been incredibly well drawn…it’s not sketched, it’s not a ‘can-you-see-what-it-is-yet?’ thing, it’s more like an Edward Gorey drawing. How much work did you have to do on the background before you could actually really start working the story?

It tends to be created as I go. Like I said, that very opening scene did have a bit of instantaneous description and detail, which conjured up the illusion of a three-dimensional world. That was sufficient for me to be quite tempted to keep on writing. I think what happens with me is that I develop the world as I write. So for example in Book 3, when I was writing The Hollow Boy, I was still learning things about how the world operated that I didn’t know in the previous books. In fact, for future volumes there are still things that need to be resolved in my mind. I think I know how certain things work, but I haven’t actually committed to it, and I don’t intend to commit to it until I get to that point. I think it’s important to keep quite a lot of things open.

It is a sort of conjuring trick, in the sense that you need to make it seem really very three-dimensional, otherwise no one’s going to give a monkey’s. As a writer, you’ve got to give yourself room to manoeuvere, otherwise you quickly go ‘Doh! I shouldn’t have done that, because they didn’t have computers!’. I did that in Bartimaeus…there’s a reference to computers in the first book, just a tiny reference. Subsequently I thought, ‘Oh, of course they don’t have computers, that’s absolute nonsense!’. So I just quietly forgot about that [laughs].

Have you ever worked yourself into any literary cul-de-sacs, during the writing process and then had to work your way back out to be able to carry on with the story?

Yes, and I find that’s the constant danger, actually, with this particular route. I like writing plans and structure, and having a little chapter plan which shows the direction I’m going. But I also like to improvise, and here are a couple of books - Here is the Valley, which I did as a standalone, and one called The Ring of Solomon, which became a kind of prequel to the Bartimaeus series - which both took me a long time because I went down all sorts of routes that actually ended up being cul-de-sacs, and I had to do laborious retreats, and then figure out a different path.

I’m conscious, because with this series I’ve got to write one a year, that I have to deliberately keep the momentum going to force me to be a bit more decisive. Because, as you know, you’ve got infinite directions, and all these directions have exciting possibilities, so you have to at some point go ‘No, I’m going to take this route, and I’m going to commit to it.’ It’s part of the discipline, isn’t it, part of ‘being a writer’.

This Britain you’ve constructed is a simpler Britain, in many ways. Is it the kind of place you’d liked to have lived in, with or without ghosts? Maybe a childhood that you’d like to have had yourself? In many ways, it’s a total wish fulfilment for early teens, isn’t it? It’s a place where their true genius, that they just know nobody else recognises, shines through - and they don’t have to pick up after themselves, and they don’t even have to wash. George is always going on about how smelly he must be.

I think the wish fulfilment part, yes. I very consciously thought that the idea of these kids living in their own house with, lashings of…I was going to say ginger beer but it’s not quite that…with lots of tea, and lots of big buns and doughnuts, I think it links into a very traditional wish fulfilment that you see when you read The Beano. The fact that these three guys don’t answer to anybody, and they can stay out all night, for them, everything’s been flipped. It’s the adults who are staying at home, cowering after dark, and it’s the kids who go out and stay out as long as they like.

So there is that, and the camaraderie of it, and the girls and the boys together; in many ways, it’s very wholesome, but what makes it kind of interesting is that beyond their little
house, their 32 Portland Row, beyond that it’s a hellish world, really. The adults are basically in charge, but they are forcing the kids to go out and risk their lives on a daily basis and the kids haven’t actually got any say in it. So you get quite a lot of references to sick- looking kids going out and fighting ghosts with nothing more than a sharp stick. There’s a dystopian thing going on gently in the background, I guess.

Did you introduce Holly just to ginger the whole thing up a bit maybe, because it was getting a bit too easy for them in their house?

The danger was that it was getting a bit cozy for Lucy, our narrator, Lockwood, who has certain mysteries and secrets about him and is so dashing and debonair, and old George, who is dependably in the sidelines making caustic comments and snarky remarks and being more of an Everyman sort of figure. I think that worked quite nicely, but I did feel, quite early on, that I had to make sure it didn’t get a bit too easy. Bringing in another girl who’s going to really get on Lucy’s wick, I thought was quite a good way of shaking it up. Poor Lucy, I do feel sorry for her.

One thing I want to know one thing is, does The Problem, the ghost problem, only affect the UK?

I’ve been asked this before. I think it’s predominantly the UK. I imagine The Problem, like an epidemic, starting from a particular point and spreading outwards over time. Because it’s been going for some considerable time, it’s pretty much spread across the UK, maybe progressing into Europe and [elsewhere]. I think you can probably argue that there are ghosts all around the world, but it’s the UK where they’ve become this sort of infestation. It’s not like a zombie movie, where the whole world is overrun by the undead. It’s quite UK-centric, I guess.

The other question that I wanted to ask was, what happens to the kids when they grow up? Is there a cut-off point where their talent stops working?

Yeah. It’s a bit like getting glasses. Some people get short-sighted quite early, [some don’t]; some people might survive well into early adulthood before their psychic ability goes. It depends on how strong your own ability is in the first place. If, like Lockwood, you’ve got pretty good sight, you can probably expect to get through your teens without it completely disappearing. But I imagine in your 20s, it very quickly drops off. All those kids, who have been agents and survived, then tend to go off and join the bureaucracy of these big agencies that dominate the economy of London and the UK.

There is something of a young Sherlock about Lockwood. Whether there was a sort of homage in the name connection there, I don’t know, but that sort of makes George Lockwood’s Watson. I wonder what that makes Lucy?

It’s not a full-functional homage, it’s definitely tangential. When I was writing the first book, at one point I had a description of all the books littering the house, and I imagined that they belonged to Lockwood’s parents who are dead and gone and no one knows why. I think I [mentioned] that he probably had Sherlock Holmes on his shelf, and that this is the kind of thing that he reads and he almost sees himself as Sherlock. I can imagine him wanting to be that kind of figure. I suppose he’s slightly more human than Holmes, his powers are not so super-exaggerated. His psychic ability is good, but he’s basically just a kid, albeit a very charismatic one.

I think we get our influences from all kinds of places…there’s an element of that kind of swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-ness to Lockwood as well.

Definitely. That’s where the wish fulfilment thing that you were mentioning earlier comes in. I suppose the kind of games I would play, when I was younger, I would watch Errol Flynn and I would then go off and spend the rest of the weekend jumping from the banisters and swinging on the curtains. That’s kind of what you want to be, and Lockwood, I think, does very much. There’s that kind of man-of-action thing, but with a certain cerebral quality which is attractive to me, I guess.

He’s a clever boy, Lockwood, and George is the kind of nerd character. But George is an action nerd, isn’t he…

He is. I didn’t want any of them to be complete stereotype clichés. Lucy has a certain sort of sensitivity, at the same time she’s also hard and tough. I didn’t want any of them to be pinned down too easily. When I wrote Holly in, I was toying with the idea of how much of a pain is she going to be? Is she going to be really quite aggressively nasty? In the end I reigned it back, but even so poor old Lucy gets driven to drink by her. It was too easy to make her into a baddy. In the end, she’s flawed like all the rest of them.

The one thing that really surprised me, and I don’t know why I should be surprised, but the book was really spooky. I was reading often at night and you managed to make it very scary.

Oh, good! I’m pleased about that, that’s great. I’m pleased because one of the things that drove me on to do this was that for years I’ve been wanting to write ghost stories. As a kid I loved, and still do, classic English ghost stories with the atmosphere and the nastiness that’s just out of sight and it’s all about suspense and atmosphere. Brilliant!

I also found, as a reader of ghost stories that after a while I used to get a bit worn down by the intensity and the negativity, the morbidity of it. That’s what ghost stories are, obviously. But often there’s only a certain number of ghost stories that you can read before you need to go and read something a bit more uplifting. What I wanted to do was to fuse those genuinely scary, walking into a dark house, meeting something nasty, wring-your-withers moments with a more upbeat adventure narrative, which is a bit more wholesome and you can recharge your batteries in between the dark scenes. So you’ve got lots of death, but actually it doesn’t weigh down your spirits - and that’s the other thing, I’m giving my protagonists swords and weapons to go out and tackle the ghosts with. It’s not an imbalance, it’s quite an even match between the dark and the light, which is kind of nice.

Death and iced buns.

[laughs] Yes. That should be the catch-line on the back of the book. Ah, thank you. Death and iced buns. G Marks.

Please, feel free.

 I think one of the scariest pieces was in the house with the creepy landlord and landlady, who trapped them behind the iron door. Those rooms full of the ghosts of poor, dead men, and then up in the loft where it all goes nearly pear-shaped. Really, really good.

Often, that’s the case I think. It’s the incidental moment where the narrative isn’t focused on any particular ghost, but you just get that flash. And the fact that these kids are dealing with this kind of thing on a daily basis and actually don’t regard it as being particularly out of the ordinary. There are lots of different ways into [this genre] that makes it quite interesting to write; you can really wallow in it being scary, but at the same time you also treat it quite breezily. You move on very rapidly, which stops the reader getting bogged down in it. I think the danger with a lot of horror fiction, or a lot of supernatural stuff, is that in the end, it gets a bit 'samey'. You’ve got to keep your readers moving along to the next part of the action so it never gets tiresome.

It’s that danger-is-their-business thing. It’s their job, isn’t it?

Yeah…they get a bit knackered, a bit hungry and they get a bit grumpy with each other and that’s actually the fun bit to write. That makes the scary stuff, if you can make it scary, all the more unsettling. Because you can just throw in something that’s genuinely quite dark, and then have another joke about donuts. The two bits work.

There’s lots of incidental detail in the book, and I hadn’t the time to go and research and see if you were making everything up, because there are place names that are real and there are place names that I don’t quite recognize, as well as historical stories I haven’t heard of. Is the King’s prison story real, or did you make that up?

Oh, that’s a made up that one. Yeah.

Sounds like it should be true!

Yes…it was the same with the Bartimaeus series, really. I’d nick things from all over the place. All sorts of folklore and legends and historical stuff I’d read and half-remembered, and mixing it up. The combination of ‘true’ legends with ones you just invented that morning gives it, hopefully, more of a sense of being three-dimensional. Which is why I end up setting it in London every time because then you can talk about a place, or a particular station on the District Line, and it immediately, to me anyway, conjurers something quite ordinary. Then you can infuse that with a bit of fantasy, which seems a bit more real as a result.

Have you messed the geography as well, or is the geography pretty much real?

It’s pretty good. I’ve got trouble, actually, with The Hollow Boy, because on the final edit someone in America pointed out that my geography of The Strand…where there’s a kind of carnival thing going on. I knew exactly where I thought it was going to be…there’s a church at the end of Fleet Street, in the Aldwych area. I thought, right, that’s where this mausoleum is that I’ve invented - instead of a church it’s a mausoleum - and that’s how I wrote it. In my head I thought the church was in one place, but it was in a completely different place, and what I’d written didn’t make any sense. I had to do some frantic re-jigging to make it geographically correct.

To answer your question, I think it’s good to stick to correct geography as much as possible. Obviously you’re inserting other buildings into those locations, but If you turn left out of Regent’s Street, you’re going to hit Piccadilly. That’s the kind of thing you want to stick to.

As you mentioned earlier on, we see everything through Lucy’s eyes. It’s her voice that’s telling the story, and I did find the language of the book of a certain time, stylistically - I mean I haven’t heard the word ‘mincing’ in I don’t know how long - where did her voice come from?

Well, I suppose, again, that very first morning when I wrote the first scene, it was in her voice. I didn’t know what her name was, but this female narrator was talking to me; I don’t know what kind of girl really talks like that. I suppose all my characters tend to have a certain kind of tone, [and] a lot of them do harp back to times past, where people probably did speak in a slightly more structured way. There aren’t very many scenes with masses of slang and interruptions. I’m always very envious when writers who replicate exactly how people actually speak. I’m aware I give my characters a certain kind of language, which hopefully works correctly within their own world. My guys are older than their years. They are 15-16 or something, but they are very much people who are earning a living and are having to be fully grown up in many respects, so I don’t feel the language is incorrect.

No, no, but it certainly adds to the flavour of the book.

I’m sure there’s someone who have reviewed it and said they didn’t sound like teenagers. Technically, probably not. But they probably are correct for teenagers in this particular alternative world.

Their job is killing ghosts!

[laughs] Exactly!

Your heroes, in the Lockwood books, have plenty of time and space within which to have their imaginations stretched. Possibly too much, sometimes. Was that what made you think that the same wasn’t true for your kids, and why you started the Freedom To Think campaign?

That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but you are absolutely right. I think part of the reason why I like the idea of the kids in my story being psychic and able to see the ghosts and hear them is because I think in general it’s a truism that children are more sensitive and aware of stuff going on around them than adults. Adults tend get into a certain kind of mode – your life has taken it’s course, you plow on, you plod along doing your job and everything, and your sensitivity starts to shut down. Whereas kids are far more open to what’s around them, in every respect.

In my book, it happens to be ghosts. That’s one facet of it. But I think on a wider level it’s true: Kids are more sensitive. You’re absolutely right that I do feel like there’s a sense in which a lot of the kids that I’ve observed have remarkably little space and time, it seems, to just let those powers extend and to explore the world around them. People are shutting doors or imposing barriers around them – [on the surface] in a very positive way, for the good of the kid, but often the effect is not so positive.

Do you think that’s partly due to this epidemic of helicopter parenting.

[Laughs] I think it’s a middle class thing, predominately, the fact that you want your kid to have the best possible experience of upbringing, and you want to expose them to lots of good things. You want them to do very well academically; you want them to be a great player of the piano or the flute; you want them to be great sportsman, and you want them to act. Kids are out there, every evening, doing stuff, going to clubs and things.

All in all, it’s fantastic, but where do these kids get the chance to do what I did when I was a kid, and have periods when you’re sort of sitting there, left to your own devices. I’m sure, same with you, you’d think, Okay, I’m a bit bored, I’m going to get a pen and paper and, in my case, start doodling or writing. Other people would go off and get their Meccano and start making some sort of model. It’s not, purely, a literary thing. It’s any kind of creativity. You need to have that free time, don’t you? Freedom to just let your mind drift, and if nothing comes of it then that’s still good. It’s the fact that you had that period to wander and kick stones around the garden and look at the clouds and daydream; that’s all good. It’s all actually quite constructive.

So, you’re a writer. That’s what you do. You’re an observer and you’ve observed this phenomenon, which you didn’t like. What made you make it into a thing?

I suppose it’s because, as a writer, you’re fairly isolated in your own little world. You spend 95% of your time on your own doing your thing, and then you go out and you expect the world to welcome you with open arms and then you do a hornpipe of joy. I think that this [campaign] is a way in which I don’t just spring forth once a year with my new book, but actually have a different kind of engagement, with other things that have some meaning for me.

And this was one area which I do feel quite strongly about, because for me as an individual, I’m aware that I benefited from a certain freedom within my childhood. Observing my kids having to try and carve out that freedom for themselves [I thought] I have a voice, which I could just gently bring to bear, to maybe see whether other people felt the same. I think they do, because you see that there are other groups and organisations that in different ways are talking the same kind of language.

Did you then just get up and go out to look for backing and support? And where did you get it?

To be honest, the predominant support I got was from my wife, Gina. As with all these things, it starts small, it starts at home. We were having these conversations about our kids, really, and noticing my daughter, for example. Her particular thing is she likes to draw and she likes to write as well. She would come home from school and she would stand somewhere and just be scribbling and drawing; we’d notice that, as the term went on, she was under more pressure, those moments of frenzied creativity would get compressed, and we’d be nerve-wrackingly chewing our fingers. It would get to the holidays and the creativity would reappear and we’d wipe our brows.

So the initial thing was in conversation with my wife, and my publicist also then took a hand and said ‘Well, it’s your way of spreading the word’. To begin with we have a website, where we were calling on the public to exchange and share ideas about the ways in which their kids just basically do stuff and mess about. We realized, after a while, that as well as having this forum for people to exchange ideas, you also need to go and do interviews and talk about it. I’m not sure I know yet the best method for bringing this to a wider public. True to the spirit of Freedom To Think, I think we’re kind of making it up as we go along, and we’re testing the waters and trying to find out precisely how best to get this campaign going and which is the most productive way to take it.

You launched in late August?

Yes, we have the website, that’s one area, but I think that there are other avenues. To a large extent, it’s probably in conversation. Me talking to you, us sharing experiences that we’ve had - and not just a couple of hairy writers, it’s all sorts of people in different spheres. It can be quite constructive to see what other people who have had success in their particular fields do. I suspect that everyone would agree there are certain areas where we need to bring back this centrepiece of childhood again.

I do think that it’s interesting that you’ve made very clear, right from the start, that this not just about writing. This is not just about books, this is not just a literary thing, this is everything. What’s the response been like?

I think the response has been very encouraging, given that we’re only in the very early phase and we’re still finding our voice. Pretty much everywhere I go or whenever I talk about it, it chimes with people. It’s not just literary types, it’s on the science side, it’s people who love dance…it’s about self-expression, about finding out who you are, what your own particular way of interacting with the world is. And it might be getting a pen and scribbling on a bit of paper, or it might be getting out and kicking a ball around or beating up your brother, who knows, you might end up being a wrestler or something. It’s all part of that process. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive.

Is it an open-ended project, or do you have an end or an end point in mind?

To me, it feels like it’s developing largely like one of my novels develops. Which is, there may well be an end point ultimately, but I don’t quite know what it is yet I feel like, ideally, it will get to a point where there is a forum or a conversation that’s almost self-perpetuating. It won’t just be me standing on a soap box and talking about it, although I will continue to do so. There’ll be other people who are talking the same language, and I think to a certain extent that’s already out there. Other people, organisations and groups have objectives that are not dissimilar. I’d like to get Freedom To Think to ignite, and have a sustained conversation about ideas and themes and changing people’s mode of behaviour a little bit, then I’ll be well pleased. 

Which kind of brings me to an end point of my own. Is Lockwood & Co an open-ended project in itself, or do you have an end-point in mind for that, too?

Well, with the Bartimaeus sequence, I was very, very specific that I wanted it to be three books; three books and no more. It was going be a lovely little, neat arc, and that was going to be it. And I held to that. And then about three years later I wrote the prequel and that completely messed up that whole thing. So I’m a bit more wary now of being adamant. I think there’s a five-book-arc thing going, and I feel like I know what books four and five would consist of. That would probably be the natural course for the series, but who knows, if it was made into a movie or something, and suddenly everyone was wearing Lockwood T-shirts, and marching down Portland High Street, I would be only too happy to write a sixth book, I suspect!

Are you going to answer all of the unanswered questions, or are you going to leave certain things…dangling?

I think you’ve got an obligation to answer questions, haven’t you?

You can tease your readers as much as you like.

I’m very happy to tease my readers, up to a point. I’ve already got into trouble for the nature of my cliffhangers that I throw in cruelly at the end of the books. I think that’s good, I do feel like that’s a fair deal. But nothing gets me more irritated than watching a movie or a TV series where they have all kinds of brilliant and cool mysteries and weird stuff, and you think, well, how on earth are they going to solve that? Then at the end of it they brush over it and you feel short-changed if there is no genuine solution. My intent will be to have a proper resolution where you get the bulk of the answers.

Thank you Jonathan Stroud for talking to Just Imagine

Copyright Just Imagine 2015
All rights reserved.
This article may be printed and used for educational purposes. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any other format without permission.
← Previous Post Next Post →