Science fiction and fantasy writer, John Grant (aka realthog), prolific author and winner of many writing awards (including two Hugos, a World Fantasy and a Locus), recently added this year's Meager Puddle of Limelight Award for Best Book Title to his already full trophy cabinet. John kindly agreed to answer some searching questions about himself and his work.
Which came first, the title, The Dragons of Manhattan, or the story idea?
The title. It just popped into my head, and I thought: What a knockout! Over the next couple of days I worked out not so much the story to go with it as a premise upon which I could build a story. Some weeks later I told my wife, Pam, about it and she told me to bloody well get writing . . . which I did for a day or so, only for a tsunami of other work to arrive and drown it. A year or two later, though, when the editor of the international journalism site BlueEar (sadly now closed) said he'd like to commission a serial novel from me, I leapt at the opportunity to complete Dragons. I had to produce, come hell or high water, a new "episode" three times a week, even if the episodes were sometimes very short. That's why the book has such a nifty structure.
Tell us a little about the The Dragons of Manhattan.
It's a political satire, as you'd expect given its genesis, with a lot of other stuff – including plenty of different types of fantasy – mixed in. The basic premise is that our supposed Glorious Leaders have secretly sold us out to members of an ancient race of shapeshifting dragons, for whom our survival is a distinctly unimportant matter. The way our modern Republican Party and the corporations behave, I now often wonder if the novel was prescient rather than satirical. Even so, I think it has some very funny scenes – which was a large part of the intent.
As a reader, does a good title make a difference to you?
It's not the be-all and end-all, of course, and I'd very rarely buy a book on the basis of its title alone, but a good title does make a difference to whether or not I pick a book up. (I also think it makes a big difference in the chances of an editor looking favorably – or at all – at a project.) A couple of the Puddle runnersup have me panting to see the finished books: Queen of Nowhere and The Lady of Seeking in the City of Waiting. And E.F. Watkins's Hex, Death and Rock'n'Roll is another obvious goody.
What’s your preferred genre/wordcount?
These days most of the fictions I write seem to fall somewhere between 7500 and 22,500 words, although I have some ideas at the moment for new novels, whenever I might get the time. Of course, I'll maybe now make a liar out of myself by producing a string of standard-length under-5000-word pieces! The right length for a story is the length it turns out to be, I guess.
What’s your current WIP?
I'm currently working on a major nonfiction book, called Denying Science, that'll be published by Prometheus next fall.
Are you a pantser or an outliner?
A bit of both, really. I obviously know the premise of my story, and I usually know where it's going to get to by the end, but the exact route to reach that destination is generally worked out for me by my characters: I'm just sort of along for the ride.
What are your long-term goals as a writer?
Oh, I dunno: to sell a bunch of movie rights, have my fiction taught in every college literature class in the land – the usual.
Tell us about your very first sale.
I sold some nonfiction books before ever I made a fiction sale. My first solo nonfiction was a book called A Directory of Discarded Ideas. My friend Colin Wilson, with whom I'd done some other work, recommended I send my outline to one of his publishers, Robin Campbell of Ashgrove Press, and Robin – bless him – bought it like a shot.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you've ever had?
Don't celebrate until the check's in and the bank's cleared it.
What’s the worst?
I could end up hurting the feelings of far too many people if I gave you an honest answer to this one – any of the first twenty or so honest answers that occurred to me. So I'd best just keep my lip buttoned. For once.
What was the last story/novel you pitched/submitted?
"Memoryville Blues", a sort of urban fantasy piece that I sent to Pete Crowther and Nick Gevers for The Anthology Formerly Known As Postscripts Magazine. To my delight, they bought it – every sale made to PS Publishing is a cause for special celebration. The idea behind the story was to write an urban fantasy in which the urbs itself was the primary supernatural component.
I liked the idea of this place, Memoryville, enough that I'm setting another story in a different variant of it.
What was the last story/novel you read?
The Oxford Murders, by the Argentinian writer Guillermo Martinez. I find I'm reading far more translated fiction than ever I used to, I think because non-anglophone writers have a much more cavalier attitude toward genre differentiations than we tend to. My own fiction likewise tends to sprawl across different genres, or to belong to no genre at all. The Oxford Murders has the approximate form of a detective story, but really its concerns are elsewhere: they lie in all the flashbacks and cod-philosophical digressions.
Do you belong to a writing/critique group? Why?/Why not?
No. I've been to the UK's Milford Writers' Conference a few times, and I was an enthusiastic participant in the Bl*t meetings that Mary Gentle and others spun off from it, but since moving to this country I haven't found anything similar. To be honest, I haven't gone looking: although Bl*t was great, some – not all – of the other writing groups I've briefly tried over the years have been embarrassingly dire. I do, though, take very seriously what Pam has to say about whatever I write, so I suppose she's my critiquing group.
Where can readers find your work?
All over the place. Of course, a lot of my older books are out of print, but they're still around in the online stores. My recent series of books on fringe science – Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and Bogus Science can be found in just about any Barnes & Noble; in convention dealer rooms, Larry Smith and Sally Koebee have been keeping them permanently in stock. And so on.
Where on the web can you be found?
What do you know now, that you wish you'd known when you first started writing?
How difficult it is to make a living in this business. To tell you the truth, it's a lot more difficult now than it has been for decades. I'm not sure where the publishing industry is going to find itself after all the various evolutionary spasms it's currently going through.
Is there’s anything I didn’t ask you, that you want to answer anyway?
Why, yes, thank you: A pint of Newcastle Brown, if you please.
John Grant is author of some seventy books, of which about twenty-five are fiction, including novels like The World, The Hundredfold Problem, The Far-Enough Window and most recently (2008) The Dragons of Manhattan and Leaving Fortusa. His “book-length fiction” Dragonhenge, illustrated by Bob Eggleton, was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 2003; its successor was The Stardragons. His first story collection, Take No Prisoners, appeared in 2004. His anthology New Writings in the Fantastic was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. His novella The City in These Pages appeared in early 2009 from PS Publishing; PS will publish another of his novellas, The Lonely Hunter, in 2010/11.
In nonfiction, he coedited with John Clute The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and wrote in their entirety all three editions of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters; both encyclopedias are standard reference works in their fields. Among his latest nonfictions have been Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and, in Fall 2009, Bogus Science. He is currently working on Denying Science (to be published by Prometheus in 2011), on a book about film noir, on the artist/illustrator entries for the massive online third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and on “a cute illustrated rhyming book for kids about a velociraptor”.
As John Grant he has received two Hugo Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and various other international literary awards. Under his real name, Paul Barnett, he has written a few books (like the space operas Strider’s Galaxy and Strider’s Universe) and for a number of years ran the world-famous fantasy-artbook imprint Paper Tiger, for this work earning a Chesley Award and a nomination for the World Fantasy Award. His website is at www.johngrantpaulbarnett.com.