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A Conversation With Sean Wright
An interview with David Hebblethwaite
October 2006

© Sean Wright
Sean Wright
Sean Wright
In October 2005, Sean Wright's critically acclaimed debut SFF work The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor was a short-listed finalist for a British Fantasy Award for Best Novella. In 2005, he was named as one of Hatchard's Authors of the Year, along with Susanna Clarke, V.S. Naipaul, and other bestselling authors of the official Royal bookshop, Piccadilly, London. His books have featured prominently at the world's largest independent bookstore, Foyle's, London, too, as a continuing favourite bestseller. His second sci-fi/fantasy title -- Dark Tales of Time and Space was nominated for the 2006 Lancashire Children's Book of the Year Award in the UK.

Sean Wright Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Jaarfindor Remade
SF Site Review: The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor
SF Site Review: Wicked or What?
SF Site Review: New Wave of Speculative Fiction: The What If Factor

Jaarfindor Remade
Jaarfindor Remade
Wicked or What?
New Wave of Speculative Fiction: The What If Factor

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Since his first book, Jesse Jameson and the Golden Glow, appeared via his Crowswing Books imprint in 2003, Sean Wright has achieved a remarkable level of success as a self-published writer. Crowswing has subsequently published more of Wright's children's books and a number of teenage-adult crossover titles as well as anthologies and works by other authors. I interviewed Sean Wright shortly after the publication of Jaarfindor Remade, his first novel exclusively for adults.

Let's start with the basics. The title of your new novel is Jaarfindor Remade. What is Jaarfindor, and how (and why) has it been remade?

Jaarfindor is an echoworld of our world in many ways. It's been sand-blasted together with my own imaginings. It's a tough, uncompromising, and most often cruel dystopia. And yet, despite the extreme thoughts and actions of many characters, Jaarfindor is a world desperately trying to come to terms with its constant defragmentation of the individual's love for another person, a thing or an ideal. Jaarfindor is a world in deep, deep crisis. Readers who're used to a nice tight linear narrative will need to do some work to get into Jaarfindor Remade. But that's fine, because it asks you to think. As the story unfolds as a somewhat structured montage, an interlocked sequence of linked sections; the structure is similar to the work of high-tone literary writer John Dos Passos, or John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar whose short, quick scenes cobbled together seemingly at random produce a synergy of mood and story. I think Remade's structure is slightly more complex than Brunner's Zanzibar, but I could be corrected on that one. I hope that in many ways it is easier to follow, since each wide-flung piece -- especially in "Part Two: The Final Hours of Anna Eversen" -- connects plot-wise to all the others.

Yet, to me the most important point is how readers interpret Jaarfindor as many different things: an unholy sci-fi/fantasy/horror parable of modern times, a parallel of our 21st century reality with heapfuls of strangeness thrown in, or even a stand-alone world that riffs and jams alongside China Miéville, M. John Harrison, Hal Duncan and Jeff VanderMeer's work. Gabe Chouinard talks about Jaarfindor as "a dreamland made real, rooted in the concrete of the here-and-now but utterly foreign at the same time." It's true. It's an effect I've worked hard to create, along with another Chouinard observation: "This is powerful, mythic stuff. This is reaching into the sky and pulling down fire. Sometimes unharnessed, always bright and hot, often dangerous." I like that idea of the concrete here-and-now meshed with the utterly foreign and in its own weird way it becomes a creator of its own sustainable mythology.

I've aimed the thematic idea of remaking Jaarfindor in a kind of baroque thriller mode that borrows heavily from Grand Guignol -- with dramatic action that examines the macabre and features "over-the-top" set-piece graphic violence. Jaarfindor itself is many things -- a ruined city, burned to the ground by the ravages of war; an ancient world that harbours futuristic technologies such as Regen treatments, genetic enhancements, and public forums that show giant TV coverage of Jaarfindorians' utter domination of a few thousand humans who survived their coming. It has been remade because the assassin-artist, Domino Fortune, leads humanity's fight back and flight to the mythical space beyond Jaarfindor -- a place known simply as Out There.

How much of Jaarfindor do you have "mapped out", spatially and temporally; and how do you plan to explore/expand it in the future?
The stories that come from Jaarfindor can't be mapped out as a whole, perfect picture. Why? Because I'm in the process of discovering what lurks in the cities and countryside, in the deserts and oceans, meeting new characters in exciting and challenging situations. I'm an artist, and as such I'm obsessed to explore the weird space of my imagination, writing down what I find there, making numerous pen and ink sketches as aide-memoirs. I constantly surprise and worry myself. Every time I venture there I find myself asking a simple yet for me a profound question: are you certain you witnessed that? Much of what I write isn't easy to quantify or label. I guess I write in a haphazard mosaic-style, and although I see much more of Jaarfindor's strange history unfolding, so much remains blurred, hidden in the fog, glimpsed then gone. Sometimes what I see comes as short stories, as with "The Numberist," and other times novella length fictions, such as Dark Tales of Time and Space or, as with Jaarfindor Remade, novel-length works. Characters like Lia-Va, Mathers, Anna Eversen and Domino Fortune return in different stories as different incarnations. Many of my characters are obsessed with something, or someone, and usually pursue their goals relentlessly at the cost of love, relationships and sometimes life itself. It reflects what I see in many arenas of 21st century living. Sadly. But there are folk living in Jaarfindor who are "good at heart," although have gone awry.

Spatially Jaarfindor is unlimited in my mind. It's organic, recreating itself, redefining itself like all ancient cities or empires. Below ground is a wealth of history. It's there that I want to explore more -- both in the sense of time-line explorations that for want of a better comparison might flit from the Anglo-Saxon period to the Iron Age, or from Victorian Britain to the Russian Revolution. Of course, my books to date are not sequential; neither do they form a story arc in the conventional sense of fantasy tropes. They are a life-long enterprise, an oeuvre that is all-consuming. I continually find myself weaving story elements from, for example, Dark Tales of Time and Space in new short stories, such as "Journey's End" or "Love Under Jaarfindor Spires", and indeed in Jaarfindor Remade itself. Concepts such as root addiction, the surreal after-death journeys to another reality, and the myths that abound regarding the sewer dwelling remnants of humanity -- the shamutants -- continue to find a place in my work.

Getting all arty about the temporal aspects of Jaarfindor, I think where I'm at now in 2006, is a similar place that Monet or Cézanne found themselves over a hundred years ago. I know, I've got a cheek comparing myself to such artistic icons, but hear me out. I'm trying to illustrate how I feel. You see, I'm pulled toward the same subject, but instead of different times of the day or new seasons, my canvas is much larger. Fiction allows us to span aeons, even though we are spatially rooted to the spot. People, customs, political and sociological viewpoints change, but the essence of Jaarfindor does not. So I have become a chronicler of Jaarfindorian history. And it has to be said: an obsessive one at that!

You show a very distinctive approach to fantasy in your books. What do you think fantasy is for, how does it work, and how is this reflected in your writing?
I have a sense of child-like awe and wonder about the world in which we live. Each new day is precious to me. I care deeply about our planet, and its slow destruction sickens me. It's as if the folk who run the financial institutions and governments have become part of that Grand Guignol theatre, hell-bent on a grisly end for the future inhabitants of the human race. And this strength of feeling about our planet has led me to search out like-minded writers. For the past few years I have become hooked on some of the Gollancz Fantasy & SF Masterworks series. I'd like to believe that I've learned a lot about what makes important fiction, and perhaps some of my favourite authors' qualities have permeated my own work. Perhaps I am deluded there. Others will decide, of course. But I am truly thankful for Philip K. Dick, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, & John Brunner. Fiction should challenge the reader, knock them off-guard from preconceived notions of what makes fantasy work, and at the same time pay homage to older and more contemporary works.

What I've attempted to do (in my own naïve and I'm sure pretentious way) is create something that blurs and interweaves the borders of the entire gamut of literary approaches, because if you're writing about a world that encompasses the Many Stories, One Book motif, then the narrative should itself exemplify that multiplicity, that fluidity and that experimentation. It should contain the comic as well as the tragic, action-packed stories and humorous sketches, parables and visions, technology and psychics. The end result is a mix of sci-fi/fantasy/horror elements that embrace the sensibilities of classic authors such as Robert E. Howard and Philip K. Dick, as much as they do modern writers I respect such as Jeff VanderMeer and Hal Duncan.

Moreover, I see fantasy not as a means of comfort and escape, but as a necessary reflection of the world in which we live. I hope I hold up a clear reflection of some of humanity's extreme behaviour, hold up a mirror to the dark depths folk sometimes plunge. In seeing those reflections, perhaps an awareness to ask questions of ourselves may occur. That of course sounds rather evangelical, but I think meaningful, intelligent fiction, as I've already said, should shake us, make us think, challenge us. We live in violent, oppressive times. My books reflect this, but there is hope in the sense that the thoughts and actions of people matter. We may feel powerless and anonymous, but we have a voice, a right to speak and be listened to. Many of my characters speak with verve, and find their own ways to solve the problems facing them. Some don't. That echoes life. Sometimes my characters are anti-heroes in the guise of hero, other times the paradox works like a switch. This suits my aims from a political and anti-religious standpoint.

The on-going political and religious climate of the War on Terror formulates the questions that I have to form in my fictions. I just have to. What's happening in our world concerns me. I guess I'm at that time in my life when I feel a need to vocalise my feelings on the state of play in our society. Drinking at a bar with Bob Geldof in 1976, and being spat on by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols a couple of weeks before, has had a lasting effect on me. What else is there to write about that really matters on a level that affects us all, except investigating the ethical predicaments of interventionism and isolationism? But I'd also like to think that I take another step in this questioning approach -- what lies beyond this world and therefore Jaarfindor when we die? I explore imaginative possibilities, unusual alternatives that may or may not be actuality. Who knows?

You've written three books for a teenage-adult crossover audience, yet there is some strong stuff in there, particularly in The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor, that may be considered unsuitable for teenagers. How do you reconcile this, and what prompted the move to writing for a purely adult audience?
I think it's important not to talk down to or under-estimate your readers. I hope Twisted Root doesn't do that. There's a suitable for 15+ notice in the book, so I guess that reconciles that one if folk are concerned about reading it.

Writing purely for an adult audience allows me to explore less-restricted ideas, and allows me to hopefully write books that continue to rock and challenge the reader. The idea of an iconic beheaded doctor interacting in such a powerful and manipulative way with Jaarfindorian society goes intellectually into adult territory. There are some rather gory, shocking scenes in Jaarfindor Remade, and the main protagonist, Domino Fortune, by virtue of being an artist-assassin is highly unpredictable in that regard. He's a shaken bottle of soda mixed with acid ready to explode at any moment. Descriptively I've extended the horror, too, as well as layering the sub-plots in a sunken Philip K. Dick manner so that the reader is never totally confident in whom to side with. Plus the layers of mind-manipulation, or character spin, become clearer as the novel progresses. You need to pay close attention to the subtleties, and folk who've reported back after a second reading tell me -- right, now I get it, I didn't spot that connection first time around! The allusions to myths, to ancient civilizations. Couldn't you simplify it? My answer is a straight "no." Jaarfindor Remade is not an easy read. You have to work at it.

Moving on now to your work as a publisher, how did Crowswing Books come about?
I thought I had something worthwhile to say, to contribute to the speculative fiction field. I got fed up throwing boomerang manuscripts at agents and publishers. I said to myself: "Actually I need to do this, get these books out there, just to quell the burning passion to be read by a wider audience than a few close friends and family." It's worked out rather well. I've been very lucky.

What have you found to be the main challenges of being your own publisher, and how have you tackled them?
Every aspect's a challenge to begin with. I realized how much I didn't know about publishing. So I spent a year doing some market research, and thought: this is worth a shot. You have to have tick lists, and a step-by-step approach to everything involved in getting the book from a MS to a finished product on book shelves.

I guess I believed in myself, and subsequently the other books we've put out there. Books are more than product -- they are labours of love, where the author puts in countless hours of work, re-writes, edits, and so on, and then hands that creation over to other folk who may or may not improve the text, the look and feel, the end product. That's if they get that far -- to publication. For those who labour year on year and get no further than the rejection letter, the smash in the face every time that envelope is opened, then those folk need to know this, from me at least, as MD at the tiny but thriving Crowswing Books.

I'll state again -- the book is not JUST a product. It's more -- to me at least -- so much more, when you put in your cash, your heart, your sweat, your tears, your soul into just getting it out there.

It's what the book says to the reader that's of the largest importance. What they get from it. And what the process of writing/creating the book at a text and artistic level that counts most, surely?

I'm a realist in terms of marketing, book production values, unit cost, discount, promo, the need for reviews and interviews and so on and so on... yet, twisting off that business head, and putting on the one that feels soooo good, the artist/designer/writer one makes all the practical stuff worthwhile.

A book is surely more than a product? It's a gem, a rare thing, a thing of beauty and imagination and intellect, of words shaped in an endless variety of orders? Isn't it? Someone out there tell me that they are as passionate about writing and producing books as I feel right now?

Words are beautiful, and the truly great books are precious creations; not products, but a mind full of ideas and stories written to be shared with the world. Surely? The creation -- that actual act of writing a story -- is a beautiful thing. Let us not forget that, folks, in this ever-expanding world of commercialism, products, and brands.

As a self-published author, how have your books been received by readers, booksellers and libraries? How do you overcome the problems of being your own publisher?
Much the same as any other published author. It takes time to build a fan-base, and along with those who like what you write obviously comes the folk who have tried your work and don't like it. Fair enough.

Focusing on the positive reactions for a moment, I've been fortunate in many ways with readers and booksellers. Almost 19,000 copies of my books have been sold in just over 3 years. For a small press, these are outstanding sales figures, and ones which I am very proud of. For example, Twisted Root just happened to be in the right place at the right time in terms of garnering a "buzz," with national UK newspapers, The Guardian and The Observer running articles that mentioned the book and its collectability. That collectability idea came from Book and Magazine Collector, which had published an article comparing the collectability of my work to Philip Pullman, Lemony Snicket, and J.K. Rowling. And so, I think a lot more adults bought the book than teenagers, although I've no way of knowing. What I do know is that Waterstones took the book for its 2004/2005 Xmas promotion, and Twisted Root sold 2200 copies in ten weeks. I got a lot of positive e-mails from folk all over the place who said they'd enjoyed the book. Twisted Root still continues to garner good reviews some two years on, and my hope is that its impact will continue as more and more readers discover it.

I sometimes wonder when major publishers such as Tor, Orion, or Del Ray will come and take a serious look at those achievements and turn the efforts of one person into sales figures that leap from tens of thousands into hundreds of thousands. In an ideal world, I'd love the opportunity to work with Peter Lavery at MacMillan, or Jim Minz at Del Ray or Ellen Datlow -- three editing legends.

Crowswing has moved on from just being your publisher, to encompassing collections by authors such as Andrew Hook, David A. Sutton and Allen Ashley, as well as your New Wave series of anthologies. What is the mission statement of Crowswing Books?
I'm not sure we have a mission statement. We have built up a reputation of putting out quality books, both in terms of look and content. We are publishing talented writers, not just collections but novellas and novels. And I'd like to think that these are writers of impact and importance. Time will tell, of course.

Finally, what's next for you as an author and Crowswing Books as a publisher?
I'm working on a multitude of projects, as usual, spinning those plates as editor, author and publisher! There'll be more Jaarfindor projects, of course. After reaching the British Fantasy Award short-list for Best Short Story with "The Numberist," I've been working hard on old and new shorts. A collection of my short stories will be out before the New Year ends, entitled Love Under Jaarfindor Spires.

As for Crowswing the publisher, we've Gary Fry's The Impelled & Other Head Trips out at the end of September 2006, which includes a great introduction from Ramsey Campbell. It's Gary's debut collection, which is very exciting, to be at the beginning of something as important as Mr Fry's insightful prose. We've Eric Shapiro's novella -- Days Of Allison -- out in November 2006, complete with an introduction from Kealan Patrick Burke. And there's more to come in 2007. I guess the best source of information on what's next is at www.crowswingbooks.co.uk.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.


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