Monday, 13 June 2011

Writers talk about writing: John Grant

(Once you've finished reading what John's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

John Grant is the author of some sixty books, both fiction and nonfiction, and has received two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and various other awards. He lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and (embarrassingly) seven cats, one of which vomits a lot. You can read more about John at his website, or on his blog.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

My most recently finished book is a hefty nonfiction work called Denying Science, which is coming out from Prometheus this autumn. Basically, it aims to demolish the pretensions of those who refuse to accept the findings of science, from antivaxers through Creationists to climate-change deniers and beyond.

Also due for release this year, this time from PS Publishing, is a slipstream novella called The Lonely Hunter. I've used the form of a murder mystery to tell a story that's about loss, and loneliness, and even about writing. And Infinity Plus Ebooks is bringing out a fat collection of my book reviews to be called Warm Words and Otherwise.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

There are, um, quite a lot of them [Not kidding! Ed.]. I should mention that my books Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and Bogus Science, which have done quite well in the bookstores, are to have an ebook incarnation with Jeff VanderMeer's new publishing venture Cheeky Frawg Books.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

I'm just contracting with the Hal Leonard company to write a massive encyclopedia of film noir, so what I'm working on now could best be described as clearing the decks of everything else in preparation for this venture.

Although you are perhaps best known for your sf and fantasy writing, you've also written crime stories, and fiction which sits somewhere between the three. Do you find it harder to find a place for work that doesn't sit neatly in a genre, and do you think the world of fiction would be a better place if more of it pushed at those boundaries?

I do think it'd be good if readers and writers could stop thinking so much in genre terms, yes, although at the same time I recognize the usefulness of genre labelling: it's handy in the bookstore to be able to find all the f/sf together, or all the crime stories, or whatever. But these days a lot of books that would fit easily into those genres -- like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's fantasy The Angel's Game or Donna Tartt's ripping thriller The Little Friend, to name just the first two that came to mind -- are being published as mainstream novels, and I think that's healthy. And, on a slightly different tack, personally I like books and stories that don't seem to fit comfortably into any of the standard categories.

I grinned at your question about finding it harder to place work that sprawls across several genres or none. Some editors are far more amenable than others to this. (Readers rarely grumble, at least on this score.) The folk at PS -- Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers -- are especially open, I think, to mongrels of this kind. They published, for example, my novella The City in These Pages, which is both a cosmological fantasy and an Ed McBain homage. With a bit of metafiction thrown in. Sorta thing. With some editors, though, there's this chasm between what a story's actually about and what they assume it should be about on the basis of the first couple of pages.

You have a built a cosmology of characters that emerge throughout many of your stories: the polycosmos. What did you want to achieve with this, and are you still developing your conception of it?

I'm not really doing much with the polycosmos at the moment -- which doesn't mean that I've abandoned it, just that my focus is currently elsewhere. I'm interested in the idea of Story as an entity independent of the embellishments (i.e., the actual details) that must be added in order to turn a pure Story into a work of fiction. We have legends and archetypes that keep resurfacing in fiction, often, I think, without the readers and writers quite recognizing this is what's happening. So my notion was to create some legends and archetypes of my own and see how they panned out when I tried to reinterpret them in different situations.

One such, slightly off to the side of the polycosmos, was a "legend" I called Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi; I first explored it in a novella of that name (just reissued in e-format by Infinity Plus Ebooks, now I think of it), and since then it's resurfaced in completely different contexts in quite a few of my other fictions.

Your four books Discarded Science, Corrupted Science, Bogus Science and now Denying Science have charted some of the fraudulent, foolish and poisonous excesses of the pseudoscientists, anti-scientists and frauds, and it's clearly a subject you are passionate about. Do you explore any of the same notions through your fiction?

Yes and no. In the two parodies Dave Langford and I wrote quite a few years ago, Earthdoom and Guts, we had a lot of fun dreaming up idiotic conspiracy theories and cod pseudoscience. At the same time, though, I think the place for these ideas is in fantasy/sf. You can write some very good sf based on wild bits of "sciencey" speculation -- and, yes, every now and then one of those bits of speculation might come good. But the real point is that pseudoscientific notions that are recognized as fiction are safe. It's when people begin believing them to be real that things get dangerous. Kids are dying of measles because some people prefer to believe a loony hypothesis about there being a link between vaccination and autism. If that hypothesis had been explored in an sf story no one (well, okay, there are always a few) would have believed it for a moment, and everyone could have had fun exploring its ramifications.

You're a writer of fiction, and a writer and editor of non-fiction. I'm sure you value the diversity of your work, but do you ever find that one eats into time you wish you had for the other? Does it get difficult to ignore the siren-call of a fantastic new fiction idea when you have deadlines looming on non-fiction work?



  1. Good lord, this series is going to cost me some money if it keeps highlighting so many interesting sounding authors - both your fiction and non-fiction sound exactly my kind of thing...

  2. Thanks James - better start putting your furniture up on ebay then...lots more good stuff to come!

    Don't think you'll be buying anything by the next author up though...