June 03, 2008
Describe the Truth, Leave Elegance to the Tailor: An Interview with Stephen Hunt
Stephen Hunt, whose novel The Court of the Air was recently submitted to the Berlin International Film Festival, answered a few questions about his unique story, and describes both his writing intent, and the authors whose works most influenced his own.
Grasping for the Wind: The Court of the Air is receiving a great deal of critical acclaim. Tell us a little about the novel and your very nearly self-created subgenre, “flintlock fantasy”.
Stephen Hunt: The Court of the Air intertwines the life of Oliver Brooks, a young man under house arrest in the rural north of the Kingdom of Jackals (suspected of possessing mutant powers), and a poorhouse girl, Molly Templar, living in the country’s capital – Middlesteel – who has to go on the run after she unexpectedly attracts the unwanted attention of a well-funded crew of assassins. Oliver is framed for murder and they both have to go on the lam, trying to make sense of why their deaths are being so energetically sought.
Oliver is assisted by agents (known as wolftakers) from the mysterious Court of the Air, a floating zeppelin city founded to protect democracy by the kingdom’s version of Cromwell (hence, the title of the novel). The Court have a plan, but it may not be good!
Firstly, The Court of the Air is basically my tribute to Don Lawrence’s fantasy/SF Trigan Empire series, which was one of the comic books I grew up reading (along with 2000AD, but that came a lot later). Don used classical Greek/Roman styling for his work (following, I suspect, the sensibilities of the pulp Flash Gordon/Buck Roger B movies), but people always say write what you know, and my favourite period of history is the Napoleonic/Victorian era, so that’s how my ‘Jackelian’ world came about. I wanted a wide canvas for some page-turning SFF adventures, and the kingdom and its many neighbours seemed the ideal spot.
Secondly, I wanted to encapsulate the feel of British-ness within a fantasy setting – much the same as Tolkien tried to do with his Shire – but make it a truer, less twee reflection of what the Brits have always been about. That curious schizophrenic mélange of disrespect to your rulers, drinking, fighting, liberalism, tolerance, and an unruly sense of fairness that will not suffer being crushed by the foot of any tyrant.
GFTW: In your novel, you make a lot of subtle references to great English classics by Dickens, Defoe and others. Why the nod to their works in a novel of fantasy?
SH: It was revenge, basically. I was writing the first novel in a variety of places, and everywhere I went, Charles Dickens was haunting me. I step out of my favourite coffee shop in London, and there’s an oval blue sign saying that Dickens worked opposite. I bash away at the novel in the London Library (a private members club), and I discover that Dickens wrote most of a Christmas Carol exactly where I was sitting. I figure, you’re going to fuck with my mind like this, Mr Dickens; I’m going to get revenge by borrowing some of your well-out-of-copyright characters. It worked, too! He hasn’t bothered me much recently.
GFTW: Your novel evokes comparisons to other great fantasy/political works like Orwell’s 1984 or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Why did you choose to make the politics of Jackals and the Commonshare such an integral part of the novel?
SH: I was just being true to British history, there. The late 18th/early 19th century was a time of enormous political worries and contrasts. You had great statesmen of the left and right, Wellington, Disraeli, Gladstone, taking turns in power – parliament worrying about the French guillotine being raised in London, and later fretting over anarchism, chartism, socialism and communism. Seeing it was such a vital part of life, I thought it’d make for a truer reflection of the period if I put a little of it in. I did add my own twist to parliament, though, such as points of order being settled by politicians dueling: bashing each other with weighted oak staffs. Who wouldn’t want to see President Bush and Gordon Brown trying to brain each other with pieces of wood to decide whether Iraq gets invaded or not?
GFTW: Your primary characters, Molly and Oliver, have their story move outside of the inner world of Jackelian society, although there is some cause and effect, especially in the conclusion. Was there ever a time you felt like you were writing two books, and that perhaps it would be better to split them up?
SH: Nope. I wanted to interweave two stories, mainly because it makes it much easier to end a chapter on a cliffhanger and leave the reader gasping for twenty pages or so. Can’t claim to have invented that trick though – I learnt it at the foot of EE Doc Smith and William Gibson. To be honest, I have a very overactive imagination gland, and I need to squeeze a lot into a novel to keep me interested. That’s both my weakness and my strength, which, methinks, is why critical reaction to The Court of the Air has been so intense – you either love it to death, or think it sucks like a Dyson. It is the SFF world’s marmite-covered sandwich!
GFTW: Did you find integrating technology and magic difficult to do? Was there ever a time in the story when you had to debate which to use?
SH: I think the novel found its natural balance there, but I had some good spirit guides who have walked the path before to aid me in the form of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock. Thanks, guys. There’s a degree to which I get to play with Clarke’s third law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ and a degree to which the novel’s back-story enables me to get away with it (the physical laws of the universe have evolved in a phase change, so some technology has stopped working, while other things have become possible).
GFTW: What can you tell us about other novels set in the Jackelian World? Rumor has it that you plan to write six books, and even have a deal in place to do so.
SH: I have been very flattered by HarperCollins’ faith in my pen. It felt like winning the lottery when I originally heard from my agent John Jarrold that The Court of the Air was going to auction and all the big imprints in the UK were fighting each to get their hands on it. After the success of the first novel, HarperCollins have recently extended my 3-book contract to a 6-book one – all set in the Jackelian world. Apparently, The Court of the Air is the best-selling fantasy book Tesco have ever had, which is nice. You can buy my book along with your sausages and milk, which has to be handy.
The Court of the Air is coming to the USA as a hardback via Tor on June 10th 2008.
I can’t tell you when the German, French, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese or Spanish-language versions are coming out, though. I have exchanged various e-mails with the translators from assorted foreign publishers, wanting to know what a hansom cab is and the like, so I suspect they’re still being worked on.
Book two, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is out now in hardback in the UK from HarperCollins. Just launched, in fact. I have even scoffed the lunch with my colleagues at HarperCollins to prove it.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves features the quest for a lost city that reputedly created the perfect pacifist society, and Professor Amelia Harsh (who had a bit role in book one), has to greenmail u-boat privateer Commodore Black into taking his craft into the jungles of Liongeli to find it. The expedition is bankrolled by a reforming industrial lord and guided by a half-insane steamman safari hunter, their u-boat filled with a convict crew and the lord’s female mercenaries. Meanwhile, back in the kingdom, a Scarlet Pimpernel-like hero is trying to spirit aristocrats away from the revolution in the Commonshare and into Jackals, but runs up against more than he bargained for.
My third novel is as yet untitled and just coming out of the copy-edit stage – it features the invasion of the Kingdom of Jackals from the north by a force that everyone believes are just a horde of polar barbarians. They soon learn, to their everlasting regret, that the invaders aren’t big hairy axe-carrying raiders, though.
Book four is a murder mystery set on the island of Jago, a country settled by Jackelian refugees when the last ice age took hold. It was the final redoubt of civilization, technology and learning in a very dark time. Located in the middle of the magma ocean of the Fire Sea, the Jagonese were able to hold out against the cannibalistic Chimecan Empire, but now we move forward to the current day, post-thaw, they’ve been suffering from emigration for centuries as their citizens leave for nicer places than a fire-warmed rock with a good defensive position.
Book five is a war story between the kingdom and their neighbours to the south, Cassarabia. Tensions have been running high through all my novels to date, and this is the book where their differences get sorted out – airship-on-airship, and regimental squares against the slavering altered children of Cassarabia’s slave wombs. Fans of Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, CS Forester and David Weber’s Honor Harrington series should be well satisfied by this baby.
Books six focuses on the dowdy, poorly resourced secret service in the Kingdom of Jackals, who have always suffered in comparison to their cousins in the omnipotent Court of the Air. Sadly, they find themselves holding the line when the brown stuff hits the steam-powered fan. Its sensibility is far more Funeral in Berlin or Callan than the glamour of Bond, and should be great fun, both to write, and fingers crossed, to read too.
GFTW: What has been your favorite reaction from a reader?
SH: Well it’s always extra flattering when SFF authors whose works you’ve enjoyed yourself come up at cons and say they’ve read one of the books and thought it was fantastic. Hopefully they actually have read and enjoyed it, and that’s not just what you’re meant to do and say at a con to fellow writers! Like, kissy, kissy, loved your last role, Sir Ian, Peter Jackson told me he was so happy with your performance.
GFTW: There has been an increased popularity in fantasy novels that have parallels in history or tell alternate history tales, like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. What’s your theory on why readers have been and are drawn to these types of novels?
SH: I think the readers just like fantasy, and the history gives them something familiar to hang their hat on and get into it. This is the reason, I suspect, why so many of these novels have become popular outside of the core SFF audience and struck a chord with joe public in the wider sense.
GFTW: You are a founding member of the popular online magazine SF Crowsnest. What was the genesis of this magazine, and what has been your role in it throughout its history?
SH: It was originally set up in 1990 as a glossy print magazine called ProtoStellar by a half-Welsh half-Arab SFF fan called Shadwell Oman. I was a contributor and writer for it. When Shadwell went back to the UAE I took over the magazine and moved it online. Originally I snuck it onto AppleWorld, the pre-internet BBS, as I was one of Steve Job’s hirelings (and I could). When the internet came along, I moved it to the web in 1994, and the rest – as they say – is history. I suffered from the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time, and the site now has 800,000 readers a month clocking up to 50 million hits a month.
I cite dumb luck for being one of the first sites online with SFF, as if I was smart and realized how the internet was going to explode, I would have set up amazon.com, ebay.com, match.com or any of the thousands of other sites that came along at the same time or later, and I would now be writing my novels on my private beach next to Paul Allen, or bankrolling my own private space fleet like Jeff Bezos.
I still love technology as only a sad-geek-loser can, though: we’ve just re-launched SFcrowsnest as a FaceBook application at http://apps.facebook.com/sfcrowsnest/ … that was a couple of thousand lines of coded sweat and tears, yet me tell you. There’s life in the old dog, yet … even if, in internet dog years, I’m regrettably probably older than Connor Mcleod!
GFTW: Any parting words for readers or potential readers of your novels?
SH: I would leave them with the wisdom of Albert Einstein. ‘If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.’ Oh, and, ‘Buy my bloody book.’ That last one was me, by the way, not Albert.
Watch The Court of the Air Mini-Movie, and prepared to be wowed! For other versions, click HERE.