Exclusive: John Jarrold interview
|INTERVIEWS - PRINT|
A legend in science fiction and fantasy publishing talks about the past, present and future of the business ...
Shadowlocked's Marcus Pullen talks exclusively to John Jarrold, ex-publisher and editor, and now agent of some to the most famous and cutting-edge writers in science fiction and fantasy today.
If I reel off a list of science fiction authors - some of the greatest of the 20th and the 21st century (so far) - this man has either met, is friends with, or has edited them. That’s not overstatement. From Michael Moorcock (Behold the Man) to George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), John Jarrold’s name has been connected with them. In fact, he was editor for Moorcock and is good friends with Martin.
So anyone who is anyone in science fiction and fantasy will have - or at least should have - heard the name John Jarrold. And if they are like me, a writer struggling to get their first full length SF novel published, they will know what a critical hawk-eyed, hard nosed perfectionist he is. I have been very privileged to have my work systematically and constructively dismantled by the master editor. He has stripped my ego bare and exposed by ignorance of the craft of writing and the art of what makes a commercially appealing story. If you want to know those out there who know the industry up and down and across its breadth, he is the man.
I took time out from sobbing into my laptop over my broken prose to talk to John and find out a bit about what makes him tick and get a update on the pulse of science fiction & fantasy.
First you were a fantasy and sf fan. What made you cross the line between a reader, then a fan, and then beyond?
I read The Lord Of The Rings. Being the obsessive I am, I enquired about a Tolkien Society, joined, found out about cons [Conventions] and attended my first one over Easter weekend 1973, at the Grand Hotel in Bristol. I felt immediately at home. I gradually got to know authors, publishers and the only specialist SF agent in the UK at the time – Les Flood of the Carnell Agency - and I started to write book reports for him, then for Orbit (which had only just been created) and others. Eventually, that led to my first job in publishing, which was running Orbit, in 1988. So it was a long road. But the fact that a number of authors knew me well through cons didn’t hurt at that point. For instance I’d met Iain Banks at Mexicon 2 in 1986, and in 1988 I became his paperback editor for SF at Orbit, then his main SF editor when we took on Use of Weapons for hardback publication.
Why did you like hanging out at conventions? Have they changed?
I loved talking to like-minded people, having fun and meeting my heroes - the authors. Sci-fi and fantasy is the only area of literature where you can do that regularly as a reader. I met Brian Aldiss and James Blish at my first con and they both became friends. I love that and the fact of it still makes me smile hugely. Since that was 1973, of course they’ve changed. Everything changes and evolves. Quite rightly!
What kind of person do you think makes a great science fiction author? Not just a writer, but a sci-fi or fantasy legend. You’ve met a few, so who would fit the bill?
Repeat after me: there are no absolutes in writing and publishing. Every author is an individual. And I have loved working with many authors, so it would be invidious to choose!
To get an agent these days you need to have a wow factor. You’ve signed some great names this year, who’s exciting you?
Well, over the last year, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief has obviously done remarkably well for a debut SF novel, both in terms of critical response and sales. But there are many others - have a look at the agency schedule for 2011 and early 2012! (I managed to obtain this list for Shadowlocked readers here.)
Do you ever think a story is going to big and are proven right? If this has happened, and more than a couple of times does that mean you have a golden touch or are just lucky?
All you can do is follow a mixture of gut reaction, commercial nous and love of an author’s prose. And there is always luck involved, because you can’t second-guess the public.
Has science fiction today been caught up with technology, or even overtaken in the scope of ideas? Do modern writers understand worries about how familiar readers are with science fiction technology?
Every genre changes and evolves - and again, every author is an individual, so they all deal with it in their own way.
How do you know when a genre is in or out? Can you ever influence this or is it purely sales-led?
You certainly can’t influence it. The public tell you, when they stop buying in a given area. That happened with western novels, and it happens with different areas all the time.
Have you ever put a writer on ice simply because the commercial drive is not there, or ready?
There have certainly been times I’ve said “I love your writing, but I don’t feel this is a commercial idea”. At that point they should try other publishers or agents, because it’s a subjective business and someone else may chime completely with their work. But if I do love their writing, I’ll also say that if they don’t get a deal elsewhere I’d love to talk about other possibilities.
The Internet, Tablets, eReaders, iPads etc, are killing the book industry – is that true?
Nope, it’s all a part of the publishing industry. This is the most exciting time since I came into publishing, and anyone who tells you they know how it is going to pan out is wrong.
Is Fantasy top dog over SF?
Fantasy has outsold SF since the late 70s - Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Stephen Donaldson were the first huge sellers, post-Tolkien. Fantasy probably makes up around 70% of genre sales.
Do you find that your sense of a good story is at the heart of finding a winning book or something else?
I have to love the prose and storytelling, story and characters. And I often know that in the first five pages.
Has there been a single idea that has stuck in your mind as an amazing concept? What was it?
At the time, Larry Niven’s Ringworld. And Gibson’s Cyberdecks. I wanted one! There are others.
Being a fan, a publisher and editor of Science Fiction and now an authors’ agent – you still get a kick out of the whole thing?
Oh yes. I read in many areas, including SFF, for pleasure!
Game of Thrones is now running on HBO and Sky. Opinion is divided on its success (mostly positive) but I worry that American audiences and studio execs won’t have the sticking power to see this to the end. Is that a problem fantasy authors face these days with their readership, or are readers more devoted than TV viewers?
It varies series by series. Some grow in sales over the years, other start high and decline, others stay on a level. There are no absolutes in publishing!
Has fantasy grown more intelligent? If so who would you point to, to prove that? Robert Howard’s Conan and J.R.R. Tolkien are widely separated, but is there a new group of writers coming to the fore that are making fantasy more appealing?
It’s certainly darker than it was and, with the best writers, the characters are far less black and white than they used to be. That makes it more interesting to me.
Who are your literary heroes?
Too many to name! But my favorite novel of all time is Burr by Gore Vidal.
Who would you say is ‘pushing the envelope’ in sf and fantasy?
Hannu, Charlie Stross, Adam Roberts, and I could go on for several lines!
Are there any characters that have stuck in your mind?
Has there ever been a story you wish you had written?
Are there any writers you find are subversive, or who would be trouble makers to make a difference to society? A Michael Moorcock on acid so to speak?
Have readers of SF and fantasy become smarter or dumber, or are they a dwindling aging group of people?
Again, no absolutes – but I certainly don’t think it’s an aging readership.
Is the idea of a culture (small c) shifting/ influencing book gone now? I remember William Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced a completely new genre: Cyberpunk, and that was so exciting. Do you see anything like that emerging now?
You only know about that when it happens!
Games: We chatted about my experience with Red Faction: Armageddon. I know you like games, so have you ever seen a book of a game and thought that it stood up well in its own right as a novel?
Some are fine... No names.
As someone who has seen sf and fantasy develop of a number of years... would you be able to pick out a zeitgeist in 2011-2012? Use of your own authors as examples is fully expected here!
I think one of the most interesting things about the genre is the way it evolves unexpectedly. In the same way that SF is not predictive, any publisher or agent who tries to tell the future of the genre is in for a fall.
Is sf & fantasy in good health, or do we find the galactic empire getting shot up by Katie Price and Top Gear annuals in the supermarkets?
Never worry about the names you mention. A publisher doesn’t buy that instead of SFF. Every project is dealt with separately. And if the public want to read celeb biographies – well, publishing is a commercial business. But SFF has made up around 10% of UK paperback fiction sales for over 20 years. That hasn’t changed much.
If there were say ten rules for a writer developing a successful fantasy or SF novel, what would they be?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Understand it is a commercial genre and write what you love but don’t be wilfully obscure. Story first, story second, story always. Clarity and pace.
It seems writers for some reason like a tipple with their meal and of course editors and publishers need to be wined and dined. So is there a boozy dinner story you can tell us about? Is there one you can’t tell us about but could if we plied you with enough booze and Pâté de Foie Gras?
Lunch with film director Ken Russell to discuss his idea for an SF novel was huge fun. There have been many, many others – including the SF editors’ Christmas lunch, which I've organised every year from 1989 to 2002! And lived to tell the tale.
Are their any authors that you've met in your time who you miss and wish they could still be writing?
Robert Holdstock. There are others, but Rob is the one who always comes to mind first. A great man and a wonderful writer.
So I go back to my laptop and my bookcases, take a deep breath and read read read. And write, write, write...
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