J.V. (Julie) Jones burst out of the slush pile and onto the bestseller lists with her 1995 novel,
The Baker's Boy. The next two installments in The Book of Words trilogy,
A Man Betrayed and Master and Fool, also achieved bestseller status.
In just two short years, Jones had become one of the biggest new names in fantasy, and her newest book,
The Barbed Coil, looks to continue that tradition.
The Barbed Coil is a stand-alone fantasy. With all the epic multi-volume fantasy series in bookstores
today, that's something of a vanishing species.
Well, I'd written a three-book series, and it came to about 14-15,000 pages. At the end of it, I was absolutely strung
out 'cause it was a very difficult job to bring all the plot elements together. I was juggling constantly, and I really
wanted something that was just a one-off story, so I could go "Ha!
Finished it!" It's an interesting lesson, because you have to be much more disciplined with yourself when you're doing a
one-volume work, because you just can't keep introducing plot lines as you wish. In The Book of Words
whenever I introduced an interesting character -- even if he was just a minor character -- I'd say "Oh, he's
interesting. I'm going to do something with him." And before I knew it, I had ten plot lines I had no intention of
starting with. So when it came to do The Barbed Coil I really had to be tough with myself. But I think
one of the things that's interesting, more satisfying than doing a one-off book is that you get a really big
ending. In a trilogy, because you have so many plot lines, you have lots of little separate endings before the
end. It often takes up half the last book to resolve all the various plot lines. But for the one-off book, it
has one big, bad ending, one mother of an ending at the end -- which is where it's supposed to be.
The Barbed Coil is a completely new creation, set apart from the world you developed
for The Book of Words trilogy.
What were you able to do in it that you weren't able to do in the previous ones?
One of the differences is that I took magic much more seriously. Magic in The Book of Words was done on
the fly as I went along. I didn't give it any though beforehand. But for this one, and I went out of my way to a) give
it a definite logic, and b) I wanted it to be really exciting and very primitive and believable. So I think that's
the main thing that's different. I definitely set out to create a real magic system, a complete, whole magic system.
A magic system based on art. How did that come about?
I was dealing with very detailed artwork from a very specific time period in the British Isles -- it's called Insular art,
and it was done in the 7th and 8th century England and Ireland. It's peculiar to the British Isles. It's a very complex,
detailed artwork -- squares of parchment no bigger than the palm of your hand, filled with patterns so minute, so
detailed that you need a magnifying glass to see all the details.
The first time I saw a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels -- which is a prime example of Insular art -- I thought, it's like
looking at a spellbook. There's something really remarkable about it.
It obviously takes a very obsessed man to do this, and because it was done in God's name, it had a spiritual power to
it. For me, that seems like there's almost a magic to it.
So are you a connoisseur of fine art?
I'm really into art. I always have been. Like most people, I think, I was into renaissance art and the post-renaissance
art -- everything following that. Sort of the Western art of the past five centuries. I've never really looked at primitive
art -- I don't even know if you can call it primitive -- but anything pre-renaissance would never interest me much. Then
I was given a book on this by a friend of mine. It contained detailed plates of The Book of Kells, which is the
work of Irish monks and is considered the best example of Insular art to have survived intact. The Book of Durrow
and the Lindisfarne Gospels are the two other surviving examples. Much of the artwork of the time has been
destroyed -- burned, lost at sea, or shredded by treacherous monks. They're the most amazing things.
There was a lot of similar work done in Byzantium.
Yes. That's actually a very good point. They took Byzantium art and they took it to England, and then over centuries
developed their own particular breed of it. They really Westernized it. And the most interesting thing about this, I
think, the most telling thing about this is no matter what page you look at, what illumination you look at, you always
find a deliberate error or omission. You find a bit where the paint hasn't been applied. You find a bit that's obviously
a mistake that doesn't go with the rest of the pattern. And the reason behind this is the monks didn't want to
rival God's perfection. It was an act of humility.
That's an interesting mindset, believing they could actually rival God's perfection.
I think it's probably the most detailed artwork that has ever been produced, the most painstaking. If anything rivals
God's perfection, those do, and I think the monks were aware at the time that what they were doing was
incredible. They were highly valued -- it wasn't an artwork that wasn't appreciated at the time.
It was highly appreciated, and the illuminated manuscripts they did were objects owned by kings and dukes and lords and
bishops, so it wasn't an art for the people.
In The Barbed Coil you have a contemporary heroine that is transported to a magical realm, a common fantasy device.
You've said that's what attracted you to it, in fact, but do you think it's possible to do something truly original in fantasy?
I think that's a problem with all fiction -- not exactly a problem, but a fact of all fiction is that everything's been
done before. I can't remember the last time I read a truly unique, remarkable novel. It's always a case of working with
what's been done before and trying to give it you own fresh interpretation or new spin. I think that's the most one can
hope to do as a novelist in the 20th century. Maybe I'm being a bit limiting, maybe I lack imagination, but I can't see
how we can do anything that's truly original these days.
You've built your novels around the traditions of high fantasy: questing, brave heroes, that sort of thing. Is this
a form you set out to write, or did it just come to you naturally?
I made no decision. I had no plan when I started writing.
I'm not very good at planning. When I started writing The Baker's Boy I had no plan, I had no outline, I
had no character details, I had nothing. I invented it all as I went along. I have since learned that's not exactly
the right way to do things, but that's what I did, and it turned out to be a reflection of me and my tastes. There
was a lot of humour in the book, because I tend to be a naturally funny person -- at least I think I am, but I'm probably
the only one who does. There's a lot of food details, because I'm a food fanatic. I wouldn't say it's autobiographical
in any way, but I'd say there's a lot of me and my tastes in that book. And that's also my taste for high fantasy, which
I read and enjoyed for many years previously.
That translated into the book as well.
Do you see yourself branching into other genres?
I've actually done some short stories. I haven't tried to get any of them published because I'm a little shy of
showing my short stories to other people. I write science fiction short stories, I write things about the internet, which
I'm heavily involved in. I know a lot about the internet because I work with it. About virtual reality. One of the
great interests of mine is medicine. I love medicine, I love medical journals. I'm one of the few laymen who read these
weird medical journals, and I'd like to do medical thrillers. But at the moment, I've been contracted to write some more
books, another fantasy trilogy, which I'm happy to write, because it's taking me to new areas.
It's not the same old, same old. I'm very interested in other areas, but it's a case of "Would anyone buy them from me?" I'm
not sure. I haven't tested the waters yet.
If it's not part of your career yet, why do it? Novels are, after all, much more lucrative.
I write short fiction for the same reason I wrote The Baker's Boy, which is purely for my own enjoyment. I
read quite a lot of short stories, and if I see something that I would like done, I have to write it myself. If there
needs to be a short story about fish, I take it upon myself to write one. I never show them to anyone.
Insecurity? From someone who's sold a quarter of a million books all over the world? Why?
Because they're not fantasy. It's also a case of lack of confidence. I'm not sure a science fiction short story or a
virtual reality short story or medical short story would be accepted. And I'm not entirely sure of the markets,
either. I know science fiction and fantasy get lumped together, but where would I send a virtual reality story or a
medical story? So I do it really just to keep my end in it, as we English say.
Four books, four high fantasies. Any concerns about becoming typecast?
I haven't been around for very long yet. I'm still a new name. A lot of readers, I don't think, have heard of me
yet, so I'm not worried at this point, but I definitely think it will be a consideration in the future. I think I've
got it in me to write other novels and other works. I've got interests in other areas, but at this point, I'm not worried about it.
Your current project is set in the same world as The Book of Words trilogy. What did you do to avoid covering the same ground?
It's set in the same world, but it's set in a place that's separated by a huge range of big old
mountains. It's going to be a very new setting, a whole new terrain. It's not high-medieval at all, it's much more
barbaric -- half-Russian, half-Scottish, half-Inuit. I'm very excited about it because I get to explore different
cultures. Plus, I just like anything Scottish -- anything but haggis, really, which is quite disgusting. At Worldcon
in Scotland, every morning at the breakfast bar: Haggis staring at me in the face. It put a whole new slant on each day.
I can still close my eyes and see it now.
When you do a series of books using the same setting, there's always the problem of readers wanting something exactly
like the last book you did, only different. Have you encountered that?
That's actually one of my concerns with this new book. It's a whole new set of characters, it's not a high-medieval
setting with tall castles and knights. There're no knights at all, so I'm a bit worried that readers of
The Book of Words will at first say "Where's Bodger and Grift? Where's all these characters that
we love?" I think the reason why people enjoyed The Book of Words was the characters, so I'm presenting
a whole new range of characters for them, and some of them aren't quite so loveable as the last lot. That's a
concern for me: "Will people accept this?" But I've got to do something different, because I don't want to keep
doing the same old, same old.
What new places did this book take you?
I enjoy doing research on new places, and it was delightful for me doing the research on Russians and Scottish
and especially the Inuit Indians. I discovered the most remarkable facts. I'm like a walking fact-o-phile of the
Inuits. It's a remarkable, remarkable culture. They're a very sexy people. I have to tell you -- those long, dark
winters, there's nothing for them to do.
And the depression that comes with long, dark winters has been well-documented. So what do you do during all these dark months?
Well, the Inuits have sex a lot. One of the problems with the Inuits is that they practiced infanticide, at least for
females, because they were considered quite worthless. What this did was make females in very high demand, obviously,
so there was a lot of kidnapping of females, and there's a lot of female sharing.
It's not unusual to have one female married to two hunters, and she's in a great position. There's a lot of wife-swapping
that goes on, and it has gone on traditionally for many years, and it still goes on to this day. It adds variety to
those long winter nights. It's funny that the wife-swapping generally only goes on in winter. So it's delightful
reading about this culture which is very open-minded about sex. They think nothing of it. It's just part of the culture.
One thing that sets your work apart from other fantasies is your villains. You have very distinctive
villains -- not the standard megalomaniac world-conqueror.
I love the bad guys. I was always one of those people, from a very early age, whenever I watched a film, whenever
I read a book, I always wanted the villain to win. That's always been in me. I can think of some films I've watched
where everyone hissed at the villain, and I'd be going "Oh, please let the villain win.
Just once!" Hollywood and America has this thing where a villain must be thwarted. In England, I think there's less of
that "Good must conquer evil." But in America, it's very much the way of things. Being English, I can see that
sometimes we English people like the villains to win; that's why Tavalisk is hanging on at the end. I think it's
very viable. He's such a slippery little character that he was going to get away with it. And I liked the thought
of him going out there and being evil for the rest of his life. So I really enjoy the villains. Plus, the villains
get the best lines to say. Who wants to hear the good people speak? That's dull. They just say good things. Give
me the villains any day.
You live in California now, but you literally grew up working in a Liverpool pub. Not exactly legal, but it must've
given you a unique insight on the human condition.
I did, yes, from a very early age. It's very enlightening, working in a Liverpool pub. You learn a whole lot of
slang words for everything, but if you use them your mum gives you a big slap around the ears. I think it opens
your eyes to the world, very early on. Plus, I think where it helped with my writing is that I have a lot of
snappy lines in my books, and that's because it's the art of the comeback. If you're a barmaid in Liverpool, you
get these wisecracking guys coming in saying things to you every day, and you've got to have a comeback for them,
otherwise you're not going to get a very good tip, or they're going to hound you into the ground. So you have to
have a wisecracking mouth, and my sister and I both had tongues like lasers when we were teenagers. We used to
earn a lot of tips for it, because it's one of those things that's appreciated, the ability to put someone
down. If you could put someone down with few words, that's high form in Liverpool.
We probably can't trace this back to your Liverpool days, but you're very into computers. You have a
website, JVJ.com, that's very interactive, almost like a game in places.
I think the most important thing when I set out to do a website was I wanted it to be fun. I'd seen a lot of
websites, and they were all "This is what I've done, this is what I wrote, this is a picture of me. Me, me, me." I
don't think they mean to do that in an egotistical way; it just shows a lack of imagination. I wanted to do something
for people, and there's a lot of original material on the site that's done just for people who come online. I'm
trying to give something back to the people who've bought my books. Here they can come to my website and get some
stuff for free and they get a chance to play games and there's a lot of stuff to read and to do there. Of course,
I'm just naturally a bit nutty. I do all this programming late at night, and what seems like a good idea after
midnight usually isn't in bright daylight. It's a hobby now.
It's my only hobby -- I haven't got time for anything else.
So do you surf the web a lot?
Yes. I really shouldn't tell you this, but yes, I surf a lot. I don't actually get much information from it -- I do
no research on the web. I find it absolutely useless for research, because you spend your whole day going to red herring
sites. I don't like research on the web. I don't do any. I just do it purely for fun.
Any particular favourite sites you frequent?
Yeah, I enjoy the newsgroups. I read lots of newsgroups.
All the SF newsgroups I enjoy. I lurk around there -- I'm a bit shy of leaving messages, because I'm frightened of
criticism. If people are discussing my book, I don't like to go in there and give them a definitive answer because
once you produce a work, it's out there. You shouldn't be telling readers what it's about; they should make their
own minds up. So I lurk. I do a lot of lurking, really. I'm a very lurky sort of person.
You've taken interaction with your readers to another level on your homepage. You had a section where you asked
your readers to choose the name of your next series. That's got to be a first of some sort.
I talked to my editor about it, and I told her that The Dark Spire series is winning in the
poll. She really likes The Dark Spire, so it looks like those people have actually chosen the
title. [ed. note -- the book was published as A Cavern of Black Ice: Book One of the Sword of Shadows]
Because it had 180 votes as opposed to 90 votes for the next nearest one. So I've actually done
something. I think this is what the web is for. It's for interaction, and it's for people to have a say
in things. It wasn't a gimmick on my part.
I was discussing it with a friend, and no one had a consensus on it, so I thought I'll let people vote because it's
such an easy thing to do. I've had about 500 people vote for a title, which is really good.
One of the most popular sections of your website is a direct offshoot of
The Book of Words: Bodger and Grift. Did you ever have any clue that these two characters would
become so enormously popular?
I get a lot of people asking for Bodger and Grift tee-shirts. They get more e-mail than I do, without a
doubt. I'm actually doing service to American women. People write to Grift because he's a know-it-all,
saying "I'm having problems with my girlfriend, what should I do?" And I write back as Grift and I say
"Well lad, you need to buy her a gift." See, the women of America should thank me for that, because if
they're getting gifts, it could just be me.
There's more of that bawdiness and the Liverpool pub coming though.
Yeah, definitely. They're hugely popular, and the most popular thing they do is medieval pick-up lines. When
I did this, I didn't think anyone would respond. I was really sure that medieval pick-up lines was just some
peculiarity that only I was interested in. Well, I think it's on a lot of university sites now, because I get
a lot of university students who frankly should be working when they're not, and they send me the most
ridiculously stupid, bad pick-up lines of all time. They're so stupid, they're brilliant, actually. And
I get about 50 of them a week, and I don't know what to do with them all. I haven't time to put them all
on the website, but they're hugely popular.
And people say they're using them, but I can't believe anyone actually would.
Obviously, growing up in Liverpool influenced you and your writing greatly, but were there any individuals
that had an impact on you?
I wouldn't say I had any role models or any particular encouragement to be a writer. The only influence I had
was that I was an avid reader from a very early age. I read everything.
I literally read everything I could. I read romance novels because that's what my sister read, so that was in the
house. I read Dickens, because that was on my mum's bedside table, and I think Dickens influenced me greatly
as a writer. I'm not saying I'm anywhere near as good as him, I'm just saying his character names and his
characterizations are elements I admire -- and I try to copy his example of always having minor characters
interesting, so they're not just on-screen, off-screen, and then you don't even think about them. I like to
have someone more interesting to do the job.
You're now published in Britain, North America, Russia, Germany, Holland... You're just sweeping Europe. Are
you building much of an international fan base?
I was talking to my editor about this last night. Warner's foreign sales exports books to every corner of the
world where people might want to read English books. My books go to Australia, they go to Guam, the Philippines,
Malaysia, Italy and I know this for a fact, because I kept getting letters from people in the Philippines and
Malaysia and Guam. I know they're reading the American edition, because my website address is in the American
edition and not the English edition. It's remarkable that people are reading my book in the most amazing places.
It must be a heady experience to see your words translated into French or Cyrillic.
It's amazing. It really is amazing for someone who was never encouraged to write. In England, you're not
brought up with the "American Dream." No one tells you that you can do anything when you're in England. I
never got any encouragement, not much career advice in England, or anything. Then I came out here, and maybe
it was some of the American media and the American attitudes found me, where it's always "You can do anything
you set your mind to." I never heard that in England growing up, so I never wrote in England. It took
living for a few years out here before I thought I could actually be a writer.
(This interview first appeared in the April 1999 issue of Interzone.)
Copyright © 1999 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in
journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several
in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction
articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia.
His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html