Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta and grew up in Southeast Asia, Norway and Britain. He won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel in 2003, for Felaheen, the third book in his ARABESK trilogy, and again in 2006 for End of the World Blues. His work has been described as post-cyberpunk and “alternate future.” Confounding the labelists, Grimwood has set his current trilogy, THE ACTS OF THE ASSASSINI, in an alternate 15th-century Venice. Book Two, The Outcast Blade, was released today, and Grimwood is working on the final volume. He took time out of his busy writing schedule to answer some questions about the series, and the process of writing, for Fantasy Literature.
[Warning: If you haven’t read Book One, The Fallen Blade, this interview may contain spoilers.]
Marion Deeds: One thing that stands out in your books is your way of describing cities, and it’s obvious you are captivated by Venice. I know from reading your blog that you often visit the cities you’re going to write about. What’s your technique for “learning” a city? What are you looking for?
Jon Courtenay Grimwood: The first thing I do in cities is try to get lost! This is easy in cities like Tokyo, Moscow or Marrakech where I can’t read the street signs but not that hard in any city. Simply walk until you don’t know where you are and then begin to work your way back. Getting lost is very important for me as most of my main characters enter a city early on in a book and don’t know what they’re seeing. That way I can align what they feel and what I feel, and to a certain extent give what I feel about a place to them.
The great thing is you don’t even have to try to get lost in Venice because everyone gets lost except the Venetians, doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been. Because the city is made up of a hundred islands, streets just stop at water or brick walls, and ways that look simple suddenly lead off in wrong directions or don’t go all the way to where you want to be.
Having got lost enough to have a vague feeling of a city I stamp the streets until I know my way around, giving locations to events in the books and taking photographs on my iPhone or making quick sketches. A lot of this is because I do most of my thinking while walking! As to what I’m looking for, it’s whatever makes the city real: the fact the main square in Marrakech is sticky underfoot from the oil left by meat grilled on food stalls, that much of Tokyo smells of noodles and slight sewage, that everyone in Venice walks, miles across the city, and the paving stones are hard enough to hurt your feet. And when the canals overflow there’s a special way of walking on your heels to stop your feet getting wet. Basically I’m looking for the things Google doesn’t give you.
JCG: As a child, Venice felt old and dangerous to me, and beautiful but also strange… There’s been someone living on the islands in the lagoon for 2000 years, probably longer. I wanted a literal spirit of place weird enough to reflect that.
MD: Both of the ACTS OF THE ASSASSINI books feel like they’re as much about 15th century geopolitics as they are about magic. I had to Google several of the characters in The Outcast Blade to discover whether they were real. Which comes first, the idea for the fictional characters (such as the two princes) or the research?
JCG: The books begin with single images in my head and then I work forward and back to pin down where the image came from and what happened afterwards. That comes before research and tells me who the characters in the images are. I knew I needed two princes from warring empires and since Sigismund was Holy Roman Emperor at the time I made one of my princes his bastard, and the other a minor son of the emperor in Byzantium. I try to have enough historical characters for readers to recognize some and wonder if the others are real.
MD: In addition to decadent, glorious Venice, this book takes us out into the Italian countryside, and the North American continent looms large in Tycho’s backstory. I’m curious about what made you choose “Vineland.” Did Sir John Mandeville really write about Vineland?
JCG: I love the idea of the Vikings sailing beyond Iceland to Greenland, and beyond Greenland to Newfoundland or Vineland or whatever we want to call those settlements. And the death of the Viking settlements in Greenland happens at the start of the 15th century, which is when the ASSASSINI books take place, so it seemed fair to make the Vineland settlements fail a little earlier. Tycho comes from a dying world of drinking halls and slaves into a living world of, for him, almost unimaginable richness and a very different kind of cruelty. I made up the connection to Sir John Mandeville’s writings. (But this is a man who made up history as he went along and wrote of races who only had one foot and hopped everywhere so it seemed appropriate!)
MD: Desdaio is one of the most refreshing characters in these books. In a city where almost everyone is devious and sycophantic, she is courageously honest. When you were developing her character, did you see her from the beginning as a foil for some of the more cynical characters — for the whole city, really — or did that evolve as her story, and Atilo’s, progressed?
JCG: [SPOILER: Highlight to read:] I’m tied a little by Desdemona’s character in Othello. [End] She was always meant to be a different sort of brave. She has the courage of someone who believes human nature is naturally good in a city where everybody else seems to have set out to prove her wrong. So, you’re right, she’s an intentional light in the darkness and her kindness tames Tycho where Atilo’s brutality fails. She refuses to back down when she believes she’s right, no matter what personal cost. In another context she’d be a saint or a resistance leader.
MD: As a reader, the sense I get is that the ARABESK cycle, and these books, tend to follow a sort of “feral” man — Ashraf Bey has serious antisocial tendencies; Tycho seems to be, literally, a demon — who makes the journey to become fully human. Both Raf and Tycho struggle with questions of identity. Is that accurate? Is this a theme of yours?
JCG: Yes, definitely! I’m fascinated by what makes us human, which for me is not to do the things we want to do, but do the things we tell ourselves we have to do, or far more impressively, because it’s morality internalised, that we should do. We may want to kill the tax man and mount his head on a spike but we don’t, on the whole. And we don’t steal our neighbour’s car simply because we like it. And we don’t do those [things] because we choose not to do them. And it’s that choice rather than giving in to instinct that makes us human. Tycho is fighting very hard to become human. Nothing in his nature and nothing in his childhood prepares him to be anything other than brutal and dangerous. And that brings us back to Desdaio and Lady Giulietta, because Desdaio’s example and Tycho’s love for Giulietta force him to become someone better — against his very nature. It’s the “against his nature” that’s important. If he’s just another sub-Byronic hero who needs a good bath, a good meal and a good talking to — then, so what. His redemption must hang in the balance and, at the very least, sometimes seem in doubt.
MD: This is horribly trivial but I have to ask. Clearly there has been a concept change about the covers for this series. Would you care to comment on this?
JCG: I’m not sure authors are meant to comment on cover redesigns! But I love the new covers and suspect they were chosen to reflect the fact that most of the reviews for The Fallen Blade came from the more serious magazines and newspapers and the better websites. They also more closely reflect the books.
MD: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!