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An Interview with Jane Johnson
conducted by Adam Volk

© Jane Johnson
Jane Johnson
Jane Johnson
Jane Johnson is perhaps one of the most influential and well known individuals working in the field of fantasy literature today. As an editor, she launched Voyager -- the highly successful Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of HarperCollins -- which remains a leading publisher in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. In addition, Jane has earned a well deserved reputation as a best-selling author under her pseudonyms Jude Fisher and Gabriel King. As Jude Fisher, she penned the popular Fools Gold Trilogy (comprised of Sorcery Rising, Wild Magic and The Rose of the World) and as Gabriel King co-authored four critically acclaimed works with M. John Harrison (consisting of The Wild Road, The Golden Cat, The Knot Garden and Nonesuch). More recently, Jane has authored the official Visual Companions to Peter Jackson's Academy Award winning The Lord of the Rings movies and has written a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Secret Country which has gained positive reviews in both the United Kingdom and North America.

In her diverse career Jane has published and encouraged some of the most prolific writers in the industry including: Clive Barker, Stephen King, David Eddings, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin and Arthur C. Clarke.

Jude Fisher's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Rose of the World
SF Site Review: Wild Magic
SF Site Review: Sorcery Rising
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road
Extract from Wild Magic

The Rose of the World
Wild Magic
Sorcery Rising
The Wild Road
The Golden Cat
As HarperCollins Voyager celebrates its 10th Anniversary as one of the world's leading Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishers, Jane Johnson remains one of the guiding forces behind the imprint. Her career has helped shape the face of modern fantasy and SF with the development of talents like Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin, as well as her work updating The Lord of the Rings for a modern audience.

You're one of those rare individuals who have made a successful career working as both an editor and a writer. Which do you prefer and is there ever any conflict between the two?

They really are very different jobs, so it's hard to compare: one is all about teamwork, talking, persuasion and compromise (that'll be publishing for those who are still guessing); the other is most of the time solitary, selfish and a bit mad. I think the combination is a good one, at least for staying sane, since there's not much room for creativity in the publishing industry now and writing gives me an outlet for that energy which I need. As for conflict, well, time, obviously: sometimes you want to be doing one while you're involved in the other, but generally I think being a writer has proved to be very complementary to being a publisher, and has helped me understand my authors, their problems and their highs, a lot better.

You helped launch Voyager in 1995 and today it is one of the most profitable Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints in the world. What kind of changes have you seen Voyager experience over the past decade, and where do you see the imprint going?

The problem with publishing in the genre at the moment, and it is a problem, in the UK at least, is that as publishers we are not driving the market, we are unable to shape our destinies and those of our authors. Over the past few years we have found ourselves at the mercy of a book trade which has focused exclusively on high initial turnover and short-term profits (the genre has traditionally worked as a long lived backlist, word-of-mouth area: so that hits us hard); a book trade moreover, in which the power resides in the hands of a very few (who therefore have no time to read, and when they are reading it's rarely fantasy or SF). It's incredibly hard to launch successful new writers in this field at the moment, and that's deeply frustrating. So much of what we are doing at the moment is concentrating on our deep well of fine talent and doing our best to maximize sales for the authors we have. But every so often a truly extraordinary book will come along and we will get behind it with every ounce of effort and expenditure we can muster: Naomi Novik's Temeraire is our future shining star. Authors like her can change the entire shape of the genre, and the list -- as we have found with Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin.

Your work as a writer on the Fool's Gold Trilogy has earned a lot of acclaim as a fast-paced fantasy narrative. What inspired you to write the trilogy? And can we expect a return to the world of Elda?

Thanks, that's nice to hear. I did love writing it: it consumed me, and the characters inhabited my head for 5 years and more. I feel a bit bereft without them. I can't remember now what triggered the series: it was more of an accumulation of factors -- dreams, random ideas, a fascination with eras of history and the clash of cultures; and a novel I started when I was 22 suddenly coming back to haunt me -- Katla Aransen was the central character in that first abortive attempt to create a fantasy narrative, but I was just too young to write her and her world then. I want to revisit Elda at some point, yes, but I need to leave the characters to create their own stories for a while before I can go back and find out what's been going on in my absence.

Can you tell us a little more about the work you've done over the years with The Lord of the Rings, and do you ever feel daunted by the fact that you are dealing with a treasured piece of fantasy literature?

I worked on the Tolkien list for 11 years, during which time we celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Hobbit and the centenary of Tolkien's birth; the latter requiring a central book to focus all our marketing plans upon, a way of reminding everyone that The Lord of the Rings wasn't just a fusty old classic, gathering dust quietly down with the tail end of the alphabet in the book shops. So I came up with the idea of illustrating the book, using a young British watercolour artist by the name of Alan Lee, since I was a huge fan of his work and felt his sensitive, delicate style and muted colour palette would compliment Tolkien's work rather beautifully. It was truly daunting trying to argue this to the Estate, who were initially adamant that such would be a travesty bordering on vandalism. But persuasion and Alan's gorgeous sketches won them over in the end: but who could have foreseen not only the phenomenal success of the project (we sold hundreds of thousands of copies of what was supposed to be an ephemeral one-off) but would also go on to form the basis of 'the look' of Middle-Earth in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy? (along with the work of the other artist I had commissioned to produce book jackets and calendars: the extraordinary John Howe). Or that that would lead to the massive, massive resurgence in sales we saw for the list around the time of the films; or my own involvement with the films and tie-in books? The world works in very mysterious ways sometimes.

Voyager is primarily known in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Do you feel there is a difference between writers from these three countries and the dominant North America industry?

Actually, I don't perceive the US as being dominant in the field, at least in terms of publishing: often we are outselling the American publishers book for book. There are a lot of fine American writers in the genre, it's true: but none of them would have seen the success they have without the existence of Tolkien. And there's a terrific emergence of fine talent from Australia and New Zealand at the moment: we've been selling fantasy there in huge quantities for years, so that enthusiasm was bound to spark some fine writers at some point.

The Young Adult market has changed a lot thanks to Harry Potter. Today we are seeing some incredible works that challenge young readers (and adults) from authors such as Garth Nix, Nancy Farmer and Philip Pullman. How does your own new young adult novel The Secret Country fit into this changing genre?

I don't know, to be honest! Children's/YA fiction is a mystery to me -- I wrote The Secret Country as a sort of secret, selfish project when I should have been working on something else, and never designed it for a market or a readership, but for the 9-year-old in me who's still alive and kicking. I started it before the first Potter novel came out: but when all the hoohah around that occurred I got disheartened and put it away for 5 years, only to resurrect it at the insistence of my agent who was fed up with not having anything to sell from me!

You definitely seem to have a lot on the go these days what with the 10th Anniversary of Voyager. Are there any other projects we can expect to see in the near future?

Well, I've just finished The Shadow World, the second of the Eidolon Chronicles; and now I'm working on a historical novel set in the 17th century involving a fascinating bit of family history: an ancestress of ours was stolen out of a Cornish church by Barbary pirates and sold into the North African slave trade. Extraordinary, but true. It does mean lots of trips to Morocco, though: that's a plus!

Fantasy and Science Fiction are unique in that they are both genres that seem to inspire readers to become writers. What is Voyager looking for these days in terms of genre, style and story?

Impossible to say really. It's very hard to publish SF to levels that work for such a big company as HarperCollins (high overheads) without the support of the trade. Big fantasy is easier, but it's hard to find new spins on the old themes. Looking for a unique narrative voice, really: that's hard to define, but you recognize it when you see it.

An editor is often an overlooked component in producing the books we love. As one of Science Fiction and Fantasy's most well-known editors what do you feel the role of an editor should be?

God, how nice to be appreciated! We are generally invisible in the process. Nurturing talent, is what we're for; making the books as good as they can possibly be; and then championing the author through the pitfalls of modern publishing, fighting for decent jackets, marketing spend, sales support, etc. And don't forget after care: actually talking to your authors, even when they don't have a book coming for a while, is a crucial aspect of the job: there is such a tendency nowadays to forget authors exist when they're out of sight, but being a writer has taught me that communication with one's editor really is extremely important.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming an editor?

Read, read, read. Form opinions. Compare books; think. Go into bookshops; talk to authors. Being an editor now is not just about text work, but about publishing vision: and the author depends on you for that aspect of the job, because 9 times out of 10 you'll be the only person in the entire process who's actually read the whole thing, and I'm afraid that includes the bookshop buyers. Someone's got to know what makes it tick!

It seems like the days of the massive 10 volume fantasy epics are over and we are seeing more and more single volume stand alone fantasy novels. Do you think this is a developing trend or will the multi-volume fantasy epic remain intact?

No, I don't -- in my view trilogies are still the most effective way to sell fantasies, and generally it's hard (as I know from experience) to shoehorn a big story into anything less and make it feel worthwhile or epic. Word of mouth recommendation is how the genre works best: that doesn't happen so well when you only get a single shot. Lots of wreckage on the seabed...

Fantasy and Science Fiction have always been regarded by most of pop-culture and academia as being nothing more than mindless, adolescent escapism. Of course fans know this isn't even remotely true. Do you think SF and Fantasy will ever rid itself of the stereotypical notion of being nothing more than stories about rocket ships and dragons?

What's wrong with escapism? All reading is escapist in nature -- by definition: when you're reading, you're not experiencing the world at first hand; and I think we all need a bit of respite in this pressurized world. I've said it hundreds of times: fantasy fiction derives directly from the original roots of all fiction -- mythology and legend, the first stories humans told each other while keeping the dark at bay around their campfires. The uninitiated (or the ignorant) tend not to look past the trappings (traditional old dust jackets never helped our cause on that front) to see the moral power and deep eternal truths that underlie the best work in this field.

Copyright © 2005 by Adam Volk

Adam Volk may or may not be a zombie cyborg. He is also an editor with EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing (www.edgewebsite.com), a freelance writer, a comic book creator and a regular reviewer for the Silver Bullet Comic Books website (www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com.).


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