|An Exotic Sprinkling of Murder|
An Interview with Jon Courtenay Grimwood
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
'He certainly talks to himself and cooks a lot of North African dishes,'
says Jamie Courtenay Grimwood, introducing his dad.
'And I guess he lives parts of his books every day,'
'since the books come from his head and the contents of his head are always there, even if they're not
outwardly visible. And he asks me things too, like, "If I hit a person here, what happens...?" That was a good one!'
'Jamie's into martial arts,' says his dad, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, novelist, free-lance journalist and single parent. 'Jamie got his black belt when he was 17 years old -- he's 19 now -- so he's better at that kind of stuff than me. Occasionally, when my hero's stuck in a really bad position and I want to know if a single blow that can get him out, I poddle upstairs to the attic and say to Jamie, "OK, so he's armed with this, he's here, he's standing like that, what does he do?" And Jamie says, "Well, it's obvious really, he..."' and Grimwood mimes a series of blows to an imaginary assailant, punctuated by sound effect impacts, then continues, '...and I poddle back downstairs and just write: he goes...' and Grimwood repeats the sequence of blows in the air, laughing. 'It all works out very well really!'
Having that kind of expertise available is useful when you're writing books about a genetically-enhanced detective, running around solving violent murders in a heat-baked, exotically spiced, North African city called El Iskandryia. Over the three titles -- Pashazade, Effendi and Felaheen -- in his Arabesk series, Grimwood has created a detailed, atmospheric world for his detective, Ashraf Bey. And that takes a lot of background effort.
'I love research,' Grimwood admits. 'It's the perfect excuse to shoot off and do things. I went to Tunis and the medina for the Ashraf Bey books but I based El Iskandryia on many different places. The broad plan was based on Alexandria, but I nicked bits of Palermo, Valetta and Tangiers too. And then there was Marrakech. You'll notice that food turns up in the books a lot. I went to Marrakech to learn about North African cookery because I always cook the meals that occur in the books before I write about them. So I know how they are prepared, how they are cooked and how they taste before they get into the book.
'Cooking is effectively one definition of a culture. The culture is infused in the cooking and the cooking expresses the culture. In North Africa, huge amounts of time are given over to preparing ornate formal meals, and the length of time taken reflects a level of respect for the guest. So, if you take four hours wrapping something fantastically carefully, in very thin sheets of pastry, and it's stuffed inside something else, then it's a mark of respect to whoever is eating it. Which basically says an awful lot, mostly not good, about the West -- in terms of serving pizza and frying hamburgers.'
Given that he invests so much time in the background of his story it's no surprise to find that Grimwood also puts a lot of thought into the plot and characters. 'All the books are very carefully structured and I write them all three times,' he explains. 'The first draft is about what happens -- there's a girl sitting on a bench, say, and she's crying. The second draft is why it happens -- so you know what's caused her to cry. And by the third draft, which is when most of the dialogue and detail goes in properly, you know that she's sitting on a bench crying, you know why she's crying, and what she's thinking while she's crying. I just don't have the ability to write it all down in one go.
'In the last a couple of months of a book, I'm fairly un-stoppable, not to mention unbearable. I work seven days a week. And by the very end, I even dream in typing -- which is so irritating! Everything that's said is accompanied in my head by key strokes. So "he came in the room" becomes H-e-space-c-a-m-e-space- and so on! It's a real relief when that third draft is finally complete!'
(This interview first appeared on Sci Fi Channel Europe.)
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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