With the second novel in Wood’s Arthur Wallace series, Yesterday’s Hero, now available, I thought it would be a great time to learn a little more about the pulpy, supernatural urban fantasy series, its author, and his writing process.
I thought I’d start off this interview with something easy: Who is Jonathan Wood?
The standard answer I give is “an Englishman in New York,” but I actually live on Long Island, so that's a little misleading. I've been in the US for over ten years now, though. I finished university, got married, and now make my living here. And the living I make – I am one of the legion of advertising copywriters who also writes novels. I think we should probably unionize.
Aside from earning money and writing (largely mutually exclusive exercises), I also play video games too much. Right now I’m going through Mass Effect for the third time. And it’s still awesome. So that’s me.
The sequel to No Hero, Yesterday’s Hero, is out now. How would you introduce the series to a new reader? And what’s new in book two?
The series is a bit of a funny thing. It started off with a novel I never intended to publish. No Hero was written as a pacing exercise, which I was having trouble with at the time. To educate myself, I’d been reading a lot of trashy thrillers, and I really wanted to try and capture those story-telling techniques within a fantasy setting. And I was on a big Hellboy/BPRD kick at the time. So I just mashed those ideas together, and No Hero emerged. The standard strap-line now is “the Lovecraftian urban fantasy that dares to ask what would Kurt Russell do”, and that’s actually pretty accurate. It’s as silly and as explosion-filled as that.
On a more concrete level, the first book is about a chap called Arthur Wallace, a rather unassuming police officer who stumbles across an alien invasion plan and is pulled into the sort of secretive government agency who deals with that sort of thing.
In No Hero, Arthur was very much a fish out of water, but now in Book 2 he’s a little more comfortable in his role, a bit more confident in dealing with supernatural threats. So I had to up the ante. The pressure is not just from external threats, but there are some issues rising up within the government agency he works for, MI37. And we get to see the surrounding cast of characters from a few new angles, which is fun.
Where did the inspiration for MI37 and Arthur Wallace’s stories come from? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Over the past year, I’ve been accused of ripping off a lot of stuff. It’s not been unkind at all, mind you. But some reviewers have assumed that certain sources of inspiration are obvious. Torchwood is cited especially frequently. Which is funny, because I’ve never seen the show. Men In Black is mentioned, but I didn’t like that enough to consciously steal from it. There are a few others, but it’s odd because the stuff I did draw on I don’t think has ever been mentioned.
Hellboy and BPRD especially, as mentioned, were big influences on No Hero. Also, there’s a scene in a Peruvian temple that is very specifically an homage to Indiana Jones, which I love unabashedly.
Yesterday’s Hero is influenced less-directly by any one piece. The whole series pulls on my love of pulp and also of cheesy action movies. For example, the bad guys this time around are communist Russians, which is totally absurd in this day and age, but half the fun was in making them work as antagonists.
And more generally still, I am willing to take inspiration from pretty much anything I come across. There are so many storytelling mediums these days – poetry, short stories, novels, movies, comics, videogames.
Art, too, can be very inspiring. I love a lot of low-brow stuff, and there are some amazing illustrators out there, Sam Weber and Joao Ruas in particularly.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve been reading fantasy stuff ever since I was little. At the age of seven or so I was terrified for an entire year by the Ladybird adaptation of Dracula. I remember hunting down their kiddy version of Frankenstein and The Mummy as well. It was around that time, too, that my mum read me The Hobbit, and I loved every minute of that. I was already well gone when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons at the age of about nine or ten. I think I’m just a natural born geek.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
This is... well, it’s a tricky question. No Hero came out through a traditional publisher. I am self-publishing Yesterday’s Hero. So my experience with the publishing industry has been... mixed.
Honestly, having experienced both sides now, I like traditional publishing far more. There’s a much larger support network to help you out. Doing the whole one-man-show thing is a LOT of work, and with real life the way it is, free time is not something I have in excess. That said, it would be wrong to discount all the work my publisher did on Yesterday’s Hero before we went our separate ways. The editor, Ross Lockhart, especially deserves a shout out. And the book is out, so I’m happy.
As for my working, and writing practices – I try to put in about two hours a day. That’s the amount I spend on the train commuting, headphones on, head buried in my netbook, typing like a madman.
I get super nerdy about process, so I’ll try to keep this readable. I tend to start with images, trying to create a visual library for the tone of the piece. I have a Tumblr blog for this. At the start of a project, I’ll go through it and pull out images that fit the nebulous idea in my head. Then I go through that, grabbing images at random, and then using them as inspiration to generate fragments of scenes. A few hundred words. I get a lot of ideas that way. For anyone who has already read No Hero, the exploding paper book, the Twins, the student on Cowley street, the Peruvian monks and their masks, all came from that exercise, as well as a bunch of other things. And not only do those scene fragments help me generate ideas, they also let me work out the voice of the novel. I experiment a lot at that phase.
Once that’s done, then I start to plan everything out. I’m a big fan of seven point plot, and I work out those seven points for the main plot and then for each subplot or character. And THEN I arrange them all chronologically. And THEN, finally, I write my outline. I need a paragraph per scene or I’m doomed. My first drafts always stick to the plan pretty slavishly. I’ll only start deviating once I’ve got a first draft and can see what does or doesn’t work.
So, yeah, that’s my process. A little convoluted, but it seems to be working so far.
As for research practices... Yeah, I don’t think I have those. I do use Google Earth to make sure my geography is good, because Arthur goes places I don’t. Aside from that... I write fantasy dammit! I can just make stuff up and say wizards did it.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I honestly do not remember when I started wanting to be a writer. It’s one of those things that has just always been. I started writing stories when I was a little kid. And I was always working on novels as a teenager. Terrible, terrible ones, it should be noted. I got more serious about writing when I was 16. Some friends and I decided we were going to become sitcom writers. That all culminated when I was 20 and a producer actually took interest in us. And then, being the useless students we were, we sort of pissed away the whole opportunity. Emigration followed pretty hard on the heels of that. And the whole script- and screenwriting thing nose dived.
I got back into novel writing about ten years ago, and it took nine for me to get a novel published. No Hero was the fourth novel I wrote in America. The first one... I suppose I am fond of it because my wife liked it a lot. But it is desperately flawed. One day I may revisit that. The second novel is more of an unmitigated disaster. The third one I loved a lot, but I really wasn’t up to the task of writing it. It was very ambitious. Again, it’s something I’d love to revisit one day.
There are also some short stories thrown in there. That was how I first got published. Those early acceptances were very exciting. I had an early hit with a story in Weird Tales that still stands out as a highlight.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m still as big a fan of the genre today as I was when I was a kid. Which is to say, I love it. I think I’ve become a little pickier about what I read, but there’s still more than enough stuff out there to keep me happy.
Back in the early noughties with the whole New Weird thing, a lot of traditional genre boundaries got broken down, and it’s nice to see that that has continued as a theme.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind it if there was a little more old-school Sword and Sorcery stuff coming out, but, like I say, I’m never struggling to find something to read.
As for where I fit in, I think No Hero and Yesterday’s Hero sit fairly neatly in the urban fantasy subgenre. Generalizing massively, I see contemporary urban fantasy falling into two main camps, loosely associated with two of the early writers. One camp builds on the work of Laura K. Hamilton – supernatural beasties are our friends and lovers, etc. The other builds more on Jim Butcher’s work – more plot/action driven work, with added emphasis on shooting the monsters in the face. Obviously, in reality there’s a lot of overlap between the two, but I’m definitely more in the Jim Butcher school.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
Right now I’m working on an entirely new project, something rather different. A secondary world fantasy, which pulls more on my love of New Weird and of Clive Barker. And there’s a dash of epic fantasy thrown in just for good measure. It’s called Godbreaker, and there are unlikely heroes fighting deities, and cities rising in rebellion, and as many mentions of “viscera” as I think I can get in and still keep a straight face. I’m about half way through the first draft at the moment, and I’m having a lot of fun with it.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I usually have a few things on the go at once, and now is no different. I’m reading The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S Kemp, which is really just pure, unadulterated fun. Unapologetic Sword and Sorcery. And there’s a really nice seam of humor running through the whole book. It’s great. [It really is.]
I’m also a serious Audible addict, and I’m listening to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It’s a really cool piece, very pulpy but written by someone with some serious literary chops. He makes words dance and dazzle.
And finally, my wife and I have finally succumbed to the Hunger Games. We’re on book three right now, and are plowing through it at a rate of knots. Great character work, and tense as a tightrope. Love it.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
1) I have dissected a human body. (For science!)
2) I once won $100 on MTV's Boiling Points.
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
Well, I am hoping there might be some positive responses to Yesterday’s Hero. Some people were incredibly nice about No Hero and that was really rewarding. Writing a novel is, by necessity, a rather solitary endeavor. And then you kick it out of the nest and wait to see if it will fly. And then, when you discover this thing you labored on for so long has moved someone, has entertained them... that’s fantastic. So really, if Yesterday’s Hero can do that, that will probably be a highlight of 2012 for me.