When three weeks ago the idea came up to interview a series of editors and ask them about some of their authors and their work relationships, I wholeheartedly volunteered to write a short introduction about Jane Johnson for this article. Little did I realise how I had just made a decision to walk into one of life’s perfect traps, for the more I read about her, the more I was drawn into this tale we may call her life, though in all honesty, it could pass as a fascinating piece of fiction, a story to be told huddled around the fireplace on a long winter’s night.
In vain I tried consulting the fantasy literature with my dilemma, where everyone seemed to know how to summon the genie from the lamp, but no one was able to tell me how to fit it in in the first place. Since this is a story of a little girl who was writing novels by the age of nine, had her schoolmates buying ghost stories from her until they were too afraid to cross the churchyard on their way to school and grew up to be a successful writer and an editor to some of the finest authors in today’s fantasy literature.
I once wrote ‘We do not see books as they are. We see books as we are. But every now and then a book comes along that changes everything.’ For me this book was Prince of Thorns that amongst many things has led me to this interview. For Jane it was The Lord of the Rings that amongst many things led her taking a degree in Old Icelandic, publishing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien during the 1980s and 1990s, commissioning John Howe and Alan Lee to illustrate them, spending months in New Zealand during the production of both of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, dubbed as the 10th member of the Fellowship by producer Barrie Osborne, writing Visual Companions under her pen-name of Jude Fisher; fishing with Aragorn, and watching and advising a number of incredible people as they brought to life the world she fell in love with as a child.
As if this was not enough to make you stop and wonder what you’ve been doing with your own life so far, she also decided about ten years ago to research an ancestress who was kidnapped from a Cornish church by Barbary pirates and sold into the North African white slave trade in the 17th century. This became an adventure that almost claimed her life, while spending a freezing night hanging between life and death near the top of a mountain, and a search for inspiration for the cruel pirate captain of her novel, The Tenth Gift, which she found in Abdellatif, a local Berber tribesman, whom she married within the year.
The Tenth Gift was shortly followed by The Salt Road (2010) and The Sultan’s Wife (2012), all of them historical novels with Morocco at their heart, and she has also written Sorcery Rising, Wild Magic and Rose Of The World under her pen-name Jude Fisher. Her novels have been translated and sold into more than 20 territories worldwide. As a publisher she works with some of the world’s bestselling authors, such as George RR Martin, Sam Bourne, Raymond E Feist, Robin Hobb, Tom Knox, Dean Koontz, Mark Lawrence, Stuart MacBride, and Joe Abercrombie.
I read a comment from Robin Hobb recently, which said: ‘Jane’s like the sun; we just get pulled in to orbit around her’ and I’m by no means surprised to find that even such authors as these would be drawn to a woman whose love for books drove her to become an inspiration for us all.
We have asked Jane to answer us a few questions about Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin and Mark Lawrence.
Do you still remember the first time you met them? What was your first impression?
Jane: I was quite worried about meeting George for the first time – I mean, my only contact with him up to that point had been through his work. And anyone who could kill beloved characters off so mercilessly was likely to be a bit of a monster, right?
Wrong. George turned out to be the most affable, charming, funny writer I had encountered in years with an infectious and very surprising giggle and a very naughty sense of humour. He’s a bear of a man and, well, you just want to hug him, despite all the gallons of blood shed in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. But there is also, beneath that affability, a steely character made up of equal parts of stubbornness, principle, and powerful intelligence. He’s a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and as a publisher he keeps you on your toes.
Robin Hobb (aka Megan Lindholm) is on the face of it George’s polar opposite: a small, modest woman who never pushes herself forward but exudes a quiet confidence. She was very polite and reserved, very accommodating. We had worked together for years before I began to understand the real person behind the persona of the perfect writer. It’s not for me to give away her secrets, but put it this way: she’s a lot more like George than you’d imagine. Toughness of character, a steely intelligence, determination, a wicked sense of humour, and a great deal of human warmth. All this you might intuit from reading the books: also that she is very secretive – she’s kept us all guessing about the nature of one of her central characters for 20 years!
Mark Lawrence is not an easy man to get to know, partly because his circumstances make it difficult for him to travel (he cares for his disabled daughter Celyn, and works as a scientist, as well as writing, so that’s a round-the-clock schedule that makes travel well nigh impossible. First impressions came through the writing – of someone fearsomely intelligent, with an acute sense of humour and a streak of torrid viciousness that left me wondering whether I actually wanted to meet him! In person, though, Mark is good company: quiet and smart and fascinating to talk to, very gentle, very easygoing. He’s curious about the workings of things – especially the book trade, and often brings to the conversation a scientist’s logic that shows up our industry as the haphazard, serendipitous, Heath Robinsonian thing it really is. You can’t bamboozle Mark, and I would never try. As an editor I’ve learned that honesty is always the best policy, especially when allied with passion for the work.
If you could organise your next meeting with them anywhere in the world where would you take them?Jane: George, I would take to the world’s best curry house. He’s a man who dearly loves a curry, the hotter the better. Megan, I would take to a wolf sanctuary so that we could walk and talk. You know she raised a wolfcub in the wilds of Alaska as a child? I think she’d like that. Mark, I would have to spirit away by time machine so as not to disrupt his schedule. Where would I take him? To Reyjavik, where I would get plenty of brennivin down him, and then we could wander around the museum and look at Viking axes 😀
What did you like most about their last book?
Jane: With George, that’s pretty much an impossible question to answer: the books are so immense, and do not stand alone. I love just about every character, wicked or good, that he creates: he invests them all with so much life. But of course we all adore Tyrion and his gorgeous witticisms and the warmth and depth of his humanity: despite being the smallest person in Westeros – or indeed now that he’s travelled so far afield, anywhere else in this vast world – he is without doubt the largest of soul and the marker by whom we judge all the other characters.
I just finished editing Megan’s new Robin Hobb novel, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which we publish in August, and it was sheer thrilling, joyous, tear-jerking delight to return to my favourite characters in her world: that pair who share the most elusive, oblique, and touching love- affair-that-is-never-quite-a-love-affair-and-yet-much more in any form of fiction I have read. Readers have such an intense treat in store.
Mark, having treated us to the ultimate anti-hero-who-is-actually-a-hero in Jorg Ancrath in the three BROKEN EMPIRE novels, is now treating us to his polar opposite: Prince Jalan Kendeth in his new trilogy, THE RED QUEEN’S WAR. Jal is what I like to call the ‘Fantasy Flashman’ – that is Harry Flashman, made famous by that wonderful writer, George MacDonald Fraser. Jal is a coward, a womanizer, a gambler, a liar and a strutting peacock of a waster: but he is also cursed with battle-frenzy, a dark angel and a hilarious turn of phrase. Readers are going to love him.