While you have been away (reading at the beach I’m sure!) we have been beavering away, on the lookout for great new reads. Top of the pile is a new book by the brilliant Jonathan Stroud, he of the Bartimaeus trilogy.
We recently spoke to Jonathan about his new book Heroes of The Valley and asked him what it’s about.
Tell us a bit about Heroes of the Valley. HotV has a very different feel to the Bartimaeus trilogy. What do you see as the differences, and were they conscious decision on your part to do something different, or were you just sick of wizards in London?
Well, the Bart books are fantasy with a capital F: right from the start you get zillions of imps, djinn and afrits running about, magicians casting spells in pentacles and magical mayhem of one sort or another. So when I finished Ptolemy’s Gate I was keen to try a different sort of fantasy, where the whole supernatural side wasn’t central, but on the margins instead. And that gives HotV its own tone and tension: we have ordinary human characters in an essentially non-magical world, while on the fringes (literally as well as figuratively) we’ve got the stories of the Trows, these legendary monsters who may or may not lurk underground, and the tales of the Heroes, who may or may not have done great deeds. Part of the problem for Halli and Aud, the two main characters – and it’s a problem for the audience as well – is: does the fantastical actually exist? It was fun to play with audience expectations in this way!
Did you ever want to serve Halli a Bartimaeus smackdown? Do you miss footnotes?
I think Halli certainly deserves a bit of a Bart-style thumping early on, though hopefully he becomes a more admirable fellow as the book goes on! Having said that, part of the interest for me was that I couldn’t resort to the wild scraps and chases that go on when Bart’s around. Halli himself daydreams about having epic fights and doing outrageously unlikely heroic deeds, but when he actually encounters violence for the first time, it is NOT funny or over-the-top, but nasty and murderous and short. He has to adjust to reality, just as I had to adjust as a writer to a story where I couldn’t have my hero turn into a gargoyle and run away.
I do quite miss footnotes now, having not written any for three years, but it was good to do without them when I began HotV: I wanted to avoid becoming stale!
HotV is a fresh take on a traditional story, harking back to Norse Viking stories, and the more recent hero-quests of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Can you tell us a bit about your influences?
Right from the start my main influences were Norse Sagas – specifically the Icelandic Sagas written in the medieval period. They’re well worth reading – a wonderful mix of the mundane and the fantastic. Basically they’re about real-life farmers in Iceland, who do ordinary things, such as arguing with their neighbours, arranging marriages and gathering to settle legal disputes. But every now and then a bloke will go up into the hills on his way somewhere and have an encounter with a troll, or wrestle with a ghost. Then he’ll dust himself down and carry on with the ordinary stuff. It was this mixture of domestic and supernatural that I wanted to play around with. Another motivation was that the Sagas have already influenced modern fantasy massively via Tolkien etc, so it gave me the opportunity to subvert a few of the traditional fantasy clichés along the way!
Did you have to do much research?
I read a lot of the Sagas and a bit about Iceland’s history, but that was pretty much it. I decided early on that my story would be set in an unknown, fictional land, so I could do with it as I wanted. I stole all the names from the Sagas, to give it a coherent feel, but everything else is more or less made up. I think too much research makes books heavy and cumbersome…
Both HotV and the Bartimaeus series are very anti-authoritarian. Is this something you do on purpose or is it instinctive?
I suppose my books are rather subversive in this way, though in reality I’m tediously law-abiding! Partly I guess this is a function of the fact that stories about rebels are inherently more interesting than ones about people who fit in – but it’s the friction between the individual and their society that really interests me. Neither Halli nor Bart is an out-and-out good guy: both have chips on their shoulders, both behave badly, both have far too much energy and are generally v. annoying for those around them. But they also have great potential to harness that energy to something good that will benefit society: the question is, will they find that out and will they want to?
HotV in particular seems to focus around the idea that we shouldn’t be living our lives in a certain way just because some ancient story tells us to (I feel like Richard Dawkins would approve). What part do you think storytelling plays in shaping who we are and what we do?
Yes, one of the main things explored in HotV is the power of storytelling, and how sometimes that power is used to keep societies together, and make individuals conform. I think this is pretty relevant to all of us, wherever we are, and whenever we live, and it’s worth writing about, even when it’s buried deep in a Norse-ish fantasy. But more importantly than that, it’s just fun to write good stories, and I really enjoyed putting together the web of legendary hero tales that Halli grows up believing. I guess I’m trying to have my cake and eat it: I like the whole heroic legend thing, and get a sneaky pleasure in undercutting it too!
Tell us there’s going to be a movie of the Bartimaeus trilogy. Please.
Well, it’s been very quiet for a long time, but in fact only last week I heard that there’s some movement on the Amulet movie at last. At the moment the screenplay is out with some directors, so they’re looking for someone to helm the project. That must be good news!
What’s next? Are we going to see more of Halli and Aud?
I always thought HotV would be a stand-alone title, so I think that’s the end of Halli and Aud’s adventures. I’m now working on a couple of new ideas which are a bit secret at the moment. I’ll certainly keep you posted, though, via my website, which is www.jonathanstroud.com and also at www.heroesofthevalley.co.uk .
Thanks very much for the questions – I loved answering them!