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A Conversation With Jon Courtenay Grimwood
An interview with Rodger Turner
April 2002

© J. Bauer
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta, and grew up in Malta, England, the Far East and Norway. He has worked as a publisher and a journalist. His novels include neoAddix, Lucifer's Dragon, reMix and redRobe. He lives in Winchester.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Effendi
SF Site Excerpt: Effendi
SF Site Excerpt: Pashazade
SF Site Review: Pashazade
Extract from redRobe
Extract from reMix
Extract from Lucifer's Dragon

Pasha-Movie by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Effendi: The Second Arabesk
Pashazade: The First Arabesk
Lucifer's Dragon

In Pashazade and in Effendi, you have your main character, Ashraf Bey, at odds with his environment. He's not sure who he is and what he's doing. But he chooses to put up a brave front and push ahead. This form is at odds with many worlds-weary, hard-bitten travellers in SF. Why did you choose to portray him like this?
What I wanted for Ashraf Bey was someone who wanted to do what was right, even if he didn't know what that right action was and even if his choice was regarded as wrong by everyone else.

Raf's refusal to marry Zara is regarded by everyone around him as a betrayal (which, in social terms it is) but Raf knows Zara doesn't want to marry him and so refuses to marry her. What Raf doesn't understand, of course, is what damage this will do to Zara and her family.

Zara comes to understand his decision to balk at the arrangement. Why does she become one of his few allies when others have more to gain by aligning themselves with someone who may be the bastard son of a powerful ruler?
Necessity drives Zara into the arms of Raf. Her position within Iskandrian society has always been precarious. After all, her father is an ex-gangster, her mother an unsuccessful social climber and Zara has 'wasted' two years studying in New York, making her morally suspect. Then there are the hints of drug abuse, incipient bulimia and Zara's independence of mind in a society where this is a flaw not a virtue.

She needs Raf for protection. Only, to be honest, Raf's own position is not much better. He has the al-Mansur name (always useful), but no money, his dead aunt had numerous enemies and being the son of the Emir of Tunis (bastard or otherwise) is not unalloyed joy. Depending on who one believes, the Emir is best known for:
his insanity, which Raf might have inherited;
surrounding himself with psychotic teenage guards, all female;
living in the desert as far away from 'civilisation' as possible;
refusing to sign the UN treaty banning genetic engineering.
It is the last of these which has led to Emir Moncef's isolation from the West and forced his country to live under the constant threat of economic sanctions or war. (Think Gadaffi or Castro.) Being seen to be close to his son is not necessarily a good idea. Especially given the rumours about Raf being hit man for the Sublime Porte, ruler of the Ottoman empire.

You introduce us to many unfamiliar rituals and more augmented with an alternate history wherein Germany won WWI and the Middle East is under the thumb of the Ottomans. Why did you choose this venue?
I wanted to look at where we stand now. And to do this properly I had to take a position outside our own timeline and that position had to be possible, even likely. There was a point early on in WWI when the US president came close to brokering a peace between Britain and Germany. Had this happened, neither side would have actually won but Berlin would have come out ahead, having taken slightly less damage.

I have a strong feeling, from reading contemporary newspapers, that no one expected the collapse of the numerous German kingdoms that made up Wilhelm's empire or the complete break up of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires. At least not until very late in the day. In fact, I think that our version of Europe was the unlikely one, driven probably by implications of the break up of Russia.

We live in a world where Capitalism has won (for the foreseeable future). Where, as I read in a paper this morning, 'economic improvements' in the Ukraine are expected to lead to rising unemployment, social unrest and massive increases in poverty that is already dire. For much of the last century Communism provided a counter-weight, with wars being fought by proxy across Africa, South America and the Far East. None of this, I think, was an obvious future to anyone standing at the start of the twentieth century. We now stand at the start of the twenty-first and, in a twist of history bizarre enough to stun thinkers of the Enlightenment, we're back to fighting wars, making alliances and settling foreign policy on the basis of religion.

Fifty years ago most intelligent people would have told you that religion was dead, except at a personal level where it remained a contract between one person and his/her belief. Now religion is the new religion. The world is splitting alone religious lines.

It's sometimes easy to forget there is a world outside of America and western Europe. The reaction of visitors to your city and the residents response to them rings true. How did you decide to have these strangers deal with one another?
All societies are complicated and just as we, in the West, can get easily offended by actions/attitudes we don't understand, so, too, we can easily offend other cultures. Something as simple as eating with the left hand or sitting with the soles of ones shoes pointing at the person opposite could destroy a North African friendship before it has time to start.

Add to which, from an authorial point of view, it's easier to reveal a culture or world to readers if your hero/heroine is having that world revealed to him at the same time. Pashazade and Effendi are mysteries and one of the mysteries that needs to be unravelled in the world in which Raf lives. Besides, I'm bored sick with world-weary hacks stumbling into situations and solving them without needing to learn the local word for bread!

It seems that your fiction has a constant thread of identity, both public and private, in it -- who we are in the context of society and how we can prevent others from usurping it. It reminded me often of Philip K. Dick's work, particularly Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Do you see this as a bigger threat to people as time passes?
Identity seems to me to be fluid and I've long believed that people remake themselves according to circumstance or necessity. A bad marriage ending, redundancy, the birth of a child, being mugged, falling in love, finding oneself starving or in the middle of a battle. All of these change not just how we behave but who we actually are.

Time has the same effect. I'm no more the person I was ten years ago than I'll be the same person as now ten years hence. And how we behave often depends on to whom we're talking. This is most true in adolescence, when the world is a bit brighter and life's wounds are slightly more raw. A teenager can be a drunker brawler with his mates, a spoiled child with his parents, a sensitive lover with his girlfriend and a kind and respectful young man with his grandmother. (Or all of those could be reversed.)

As a child I watched adults behave one way to children and quite another to adults, and within that division, behave differently to different children and ditto to different adults. And after a while of wondering with was the real person I realised they all were. We're multiple selves.

Because of this, quite apart from being whoever society, genetic disposition and experience make us, we're whoever we make ourselves. This is the theme of most of my novels. Who we make ourselves, how we protect that self from the compromises that life demands. I'm not sure I really understand it. All I know is that most people of my parents generation knew instinctively who they were. Many people of my own don't.

Would the previous generation be comfortable because their sense of self was more truly defined by where they lived and the people who lived nearby and that their degree of contact with those living distantly was cordial but not frequent? In other words, there was a greater homogeneity in neighbourhoods and not much exposure to others except through relatives and newspapers.
Yes, I think flexibility within identity is tied to choice. Without divorce, people stayed married, without transport, people worked near where they lived, without today's media, information arrived slowly and in small pieces. It could be days before people knew who'd won a battle in their own country, weeks before news reach the shores of some event that had happened overseas. People's lives were more limited. Not automatically poorer or less rewarding, but definitely more limited in choice and opportunity.

Change, if it came, was often forced by events outside. Plagues, conscription, wars. That said, in a world with fewer people and slowing exchange of information, many did escape themselves, travelling overseas as emigrants to become someone else.

TV changed that for our generation and the Internet is instigating even more. Nowadays, it seems easy for someone to peel away our public identity by falsification of records and corrupting their controls. How do we hold on to an identity that seems so easy to manipulate?
Identity has become internalised, especially in Europe. I was in New York recently and felt, very strongly, that the city was the most American it had been in all the years I'd been going. And that's a point other friends have made. We're used to thinking of New York as a disparate, multi-faceted European city stuck on the edge of America, but for the moment it's something else, albeit maybe only briefly. So it seems that tragedy/war/disaster can pull together identity.

As for our own identities, we've always defined ourselves in relation to other things, by our countries, class, political or religious beliefs, but these are mostly fragmenting and it is this fluidity that allows the manufacture of facts and history. We've lost long-term memory to the point that a politician can stand up and say, 'Five this years ago this happened,' and no one stands up to say, 'Well, actually, no it didn't. You made that up.'

Some might argue that Pashazade, Effendi and your other books are basically mystery/thriller novels wrapped in a SF framework. What is it about SF that made you choose this approach?
I certainly hope they're mysteries/thrillers! I worked very hard with Pashazade and Effendi to make them stand up as crime novels because what I hate is someone borrowing tropes from one genre and then using them badly or in a perfunctory way in another. We see it occasionally in SF and we see it, even more, in the mainstream where literary novels steal ideas from SF and then mangle them horribly.

What I'm writing are mystery novels set in an alternative universe in what happens to be the future. As far as my characters are concerned theirs is the only possible world and the time they live is now, nothing else. Murders happen, crimes get committed, someone has to solve them or pick up the pieces.

I've read elsewhere that you a voracious reader. What are some of the books that you have read recently that have made you stop and say geez, this is wonderful?
China Miéville's The Scar, which uses the world first found in Perdido Street Station and then takes the narrative in a totally different direction (out to sea). Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life, which was, for me, a real return to form and had the added advantage of taking every cyberpunk cliché ever created and disposing of them all in the first five pages. I was also impressed with Bold as Love, a take on the Arthurian legend by Gwyneth Jones that posits a future where punk seems not to have happened and government is by rock concert. Although it unravels a little in the middle, the beginning is as near a perfect piece of writing as I've read in the last year.

But, to be honest, I'm in the middle of finishing Felaheen, the third Ashraf Bey novel, and so I'm mostly re-reading comfort books, my favourite being Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, about Satan disguised as a black cat wandering Moscow, intercut with interludes between Christ and Pontius Pilate with a migraine. It's a phenomenal, dazzling work of repressed fury and one that, as a teenager, taught me fantastic fiction can be political, hard edged and say far more than many serious novels.

Can you give us a glimpse into what you plan to do in Felaheen?
Raf goes in search of his father and the back history is the story of Raf's mother and why she tracked down the Emir in the first place. It obviously touches on who Raf actually is and deals with his relationships with both Hani and Zara. Other than that I can't really say, I'm five weeks away from finishing and don't want to jinx it!

Copyright © 2002 by Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."

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