Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Q & A with Jane Johnson

1.    Did you always dream of being a writer?

I never dreamed of being a writer, I just wrote and thought it was what everyone did. I wrote two ‘novels’ and a collection of short stories at the age of 8 (at 30+ pages apiece quite an undertaking). One was a reworking of Bambi, in which his mum didn’t die and they went on to find a magic forest; another was called Thunderbolt: The Adventures of a Dartmoor Pony and the stories were such grisly ghost stories the head teacher at school asked Mum to stop me reading them to classmates because I was giving them nightmares…

2.    How did your writing career develop?

I wrote entirely for my own entertainment till I was 35. Then (oddly) my ex-partner – a literary novelist – suggested we write a novel together, about a runaway cat called Tag. I think it was more a way of keeping in touch than a serious plan, but I ran with it anyway, and we produced 4 novels under the pseudonym of Gabriel King that were extremely successful, and are still in print 20 years later in the US. Disney were interested in developing the books as films, then decided the story was ‘too dark’ – probably my fault! Then I wrote an epic fantasy trilogy, and some children’s books: it wasn’t until I stumbled on a legend about a family member being abducted by Barbary pirates in the 17th century that I moved into writing historical fiction; went to Morocco to research it, met my husband and moved to Morocco, which gave me a whole new culture to explore, and a wealth of glorious subject matter.

3.    Your newest novel is called Court of Lions, what is it about?

Kate Fordham works as a waitress serving tourists in a busy bar in Granada. She seems happy, but she’s on the run from her old life. One day in the Alhambra gardens she finds a scrap of paper pressed into one of the walls. It was written five centuries ago, in a hand few could read, and has lain there, undisturbed by the tides of history until Kate discovers it. This fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate's life forever.

In 1483 two children run riotously through the gorgeous gardens of the Alhambra palace. One is the son of the Sultan of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom in Spain; the other is called Blessings, a slave-companion brought from the Sahara. The novel tells their story as they grow up, grow together, are forced apart by dramatic world events, as Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon seek to drive the Moors out of the peninsula, and establish the Spanish Inquisition.

The novel bridges time, interweaving their stories, bringing one of history's great turning points to life in an epic saga of romance and redemption.

4.    What was your inspiration for the book?

Who was the last sultan who lost the kingdom? We know him only as Boabdil and legends referring to ‘the Moor’s last sigh’ – a man taunted by his mother for losing the kingdom and ‘weeping like a woman for what he could not hold as a man’. But that is the legend, and I wanted to know who he was, this poor young man insulted by both sides in all the history books for his inability to hold back the tides of vengeful Catholicism which would find its apogee in the Spanish Inquisition. I had visited the Alhambra palace in Granada – the seat of the sultans – in my 20s and it had made a huge impression on me: so beautiful, so serene, it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. It is probably the finest example of Islamic architecture in the world, and in the days of the sultans must have been an earthly paradise.

5.    Can you tell us more about the main character(s)?

Kate is in her 30s, a woman who started well in life, but chose her men badly, and in one case catastrophically. She has run away to start a new life in sunny Spain, and spends all her spare time in the Alhambra grounds and palace, having fallen under its spell: its lovely geometric tiles and forests of pillars, fountains and gorgeous carvings soothe her. Indirectly, the palace will cast its magic over her.

Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed – known to his best friend Blessings as Momo, and to history as Boabdil – has been raised in the most beautiful place on earth. But beauty is sometimes just skin-deep: beneath it lies rancour and abuse, as his parents war against one another and score political points off each other as they vie for power. When faced by the prospect of a war that will destroy his people, or a way to protect them, Momo must make a hard choice. And all the while Blessings falls harder and harder in love with his friend, and silence breaks his heart.

6.    Where and when do you write your stories?

I like to write outdoors in notebooks (there’s a blog on the subject on my website ) and then type up as a second draft. I wrote a lot of COURT OF LIONS in the Alhambra grounds or on the balcony of my hotel room, from where I could smell the roses and jasmine of its gardens.

7.    What do you do and enjoy when you’re not writing?

I work 4 days a week as a publisher, and my authors include George RR Martin, Robin Hobb, Dean Koontz, SK Tremayne, Mark Lawrence and Sam Bourne. That keeps me pretty busy! In those few corners of my life when I’m not reading or editing, you’ll find me walking the coast path, or doing tai chi; and I’ve recently taken up a form of kung fu known as ‘hand of the wind’.

8.    If you could switch places with a character from a book, who would it be and why?

I think Odysseus – imagine surviving all those phenomenal adventures and living to tell the tale!

9.    What books have influenced your life most?

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – I loved it as a teenager; and later ended up as the publisher for the books, and spending time with cast and crew in New Zealand when the films were being made: magical times.
The rock-climbing guidebook to Tafraout. If I hadn’t spotted it in the shop at the Westway climbing wall, I’d never have climbed in that remote area and met my gorgeous husband of 12 years.

10.   What are you working on at the moment?

A story set in wartime Cornwall, with an exotic twist…

11.   What do you enjoy most about writing?

When it takes me by surprise and goes off in a direction I had never planned. Then I know the story has taken on a life of its own.

12.    Pick three authors you want to have dinner with and tell us why.

That’s a hard one – I know so many authors that I’d be bound to offend someone if I named any of them. So it’ll have to be authors I don’t know – Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild): I admire her honesty, wit and adventurous spirit hugely; Elena Ferrante - I don’t have any interest in what her true identity is, but I loved those Neapolitan novels, so immersive; Christopher Marlowe – was there ever a man (apart maybe from Byron and Lord Rochester) ever so seductive in his use of language?

13.    Imagine Court of Lions turned into a movie, who would you cast for the main characters?

As the young sultan, maybe the Lebanese actor Mrad Mouawad (Google him: you’ll thank me!); as Blessings – perhaps Lee Thompson Young; as Kate, Emily Blunt.

14.   You have also published other books, can you tell us more about them?

THE TENTH GIFT tells the story of a young woman taken from the Cornish coast by Barbary pirates and sold into the white slave trade in Morocco.
THE SALT ROAD tells the dual-time stories of a young desert nomad woman falling in love with a damaged warrior she has been brought to cure; and a modern woman seeking the answer to the mystery of a strange tribal necklace left to her in a bequest. The tales converge in the Sahara, among the Tuareg. THE SULTAN’S WIFE is based on the embassy sent from the court of Sultan Moulay Ismail to the court of King Charles II, which wowed London society, changed the fashions and was recorded by diarist John Evelyn and portrait painters; and of the forbidden love between a black African slave and a courtesan in the harem.

15.   How do your own experiences influence your writing?

Immensely! But not always in obvious ways. Our experiences make us the writers – and readers – we are.

16.   Coffee or tea?


17.   Paperback or e-reader?

Paper books all the way.

18.    Mountains or the sea?

I live by the sea in Cornwall, in the mountains in Morocco: it’s a good combination.

19.Summer or winter?

My favourite time of the year is autumn. I don’t like being cold, or too hot!

20.    Sweet or salty?

I’ll take both together: salted caramel, peanut butter, cheese and jam toasted sandwiches!

About Jane Johnson

Jane JohnsonJane Johnson is from Cornwall and has worked in the book industry for over 20 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer, and is the author of The Tenth GiftThe Salt Road, The Sultan’s Wife, Pillars of Light and (coming shortly) Court of Lions.
She was responsible for publishing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien during the 1980s and 1990s and worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, spending many months in New Zealand with cast and crew. Under the pseudonym of Jude Fisher she wrote the bestselling Visual Companions to the films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. She has also written several books for children, including The Secret CountryMaskmakerand Goldseekers.
In 2005 she was in Morocco researching the story of a distant family member who was abducted from a Cornish church in 1625 by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa (which formed the basis for Crossed Bones/The Tenth Gift), when a near-fatal climbing incident caused her to rethink her future.
She returned home, gave up her office job in London, sold her flat and shipped the contents to Morocco. In October she married her own ‘Berber pirate’ and now they split their time between Cornwall and a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. She still works, remotely, as Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins.

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