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Jonathan StroudJonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud, author of the fantastic Bartimaeus Trilogy, was in Christchurch as the last stop on his tour promoting the final chapter in the series, Ptolemy's Gate, and we were lucky enough to get some time with him before he spoke at the Central Library.

Interview: June 2006

The interview

According to the publisher’s profile you have always wanted to write for younger readers?
Yes, well as a kid I wrote games, stories and comics… in a way I've never grown up so I'm still drawn to younger writing. It has to have a good story, strong narrative and be exciting and with levels of interest to keep their interest… Treasure Island is a good example: its complex, literary and morally ambivalent. To be morally ambivalent was one of my initial spurs… a lot of fantasy is quite didactic: the good guys are attractive and the bad guys are ugly. The book Tough Guy shows how clichéd characters can become… I wanted to avoid that moral absolutism so both Bartimaeus and Nathaniel are quite mixed up morally.
Bartimaeus, right from the first page, is vain, boastful, cowardly, ready to blame others, self-serving, and not above scaring a twelve-year-old boy - but we really like him. Any comment?
Well, I wanted him to be the hero of the series… and the magicians to be the bad guys… usually it's the kid that is the hero. Bartimaeus actually came first and when I started writing him I fell in love with his voice and his energy. He's very physical… it can be quite exhausting so alternating the voices, having some chapters from Bartimaeus and others in third person provides some relief - then when you go back to Bartimaeus you're captured again by that energy. It keeps the readers on their toes.
You make a lot of use of footnotes in your books - where did that come from?
They came straight away with Bartimaeus' voice. He's so superior and has had so many experiences he always has more that he thinks we need to know. It's also a way to add richness without interfering with the text and the flow of the story. You can put in cheeky gags which undercut Bartimaeus' high pretensions. It gives the author another plane to play with - like the fighting fantasy books where you have alternative pathways to take. You can take readers down a wee cul-de-sac with a hint of a story or anecdote.
Did your time in publishing with game books turn you towards fantasy adventure, or did you always want to write in this particular genre?
I was always into adventure stories and a bit of fantasy - never into gritty realism so much. My first book (Buried Fire, 1999) was straight out fantasy, the second (The Leap, 2001) leapt more into adventure with a bit of fantasy and the third (The Last Siege, 2003) was not at all fantasy. The same themes continued but I was moving away from fantasy until the Bartimaeus character gave me no choice but to go back into it.
Nathaniel is almost the exact opposite of a certain boy wizard - he’s highly intelligent, ambitious, socially inept, arrogant, and gets Bartimaeus to do his dirty work for him - was this a coincidence?
Things seem to happen to Harry Potter - he's a still point. I set out to make Nathaniel very different. He was going to be even more unsympathetic than he is but my editors thought that he had to have some good points - so he's idealistic, brave and hard working. We see these in the first book but his character is also shaped by his experiences - the humiliation by Lovelace and having a horrible magician as a mentor - it's not all his fault - he was badly treated. In the end it is his moral journey that we are following and eventually he manages to redeem himself.
Did you have a plan for a trilogy from the beginning, or did the story just take you there?
It was originally going to be one book but then I planned out the full narrative and it had to be bigger… It all happened very quickly at the beginning - I wrote the first four chapters of the first book in two days.
There was less Bartimaeus in the second book, The Golem’s Eye - what was the reaction?
It depends a bit on the age of the reader and how much they are into fantasy. The younger readers and fantasy buffs tend to want more Bartimaeus and prefer the first book whereas older readers and those less into pure fantasy like the second book better because its deeper, darker and more complex. The first book is very much in its own cloistered zone, whereas the second book has a wider view of the world - more politics, power and a bigger world. My favourite is the third book as it does both so is quite well balanced.
Your politicians - are they based on personal observation, or do you just think that power corrupts, and magical power could be said to corrupt absolutely and brings out the worst in a magician?
There is some of my own personal disillusionment with politics in there but it's not based on any specific individual politicians although some similarities may be drawn. I've felt narked by the way that political groups operate on their own level and ignore the wishes of the masses even when they are loudly voiced - popular opinion seems to make no difference to what they do.
Why Prague?
I went to Prague once in my twenties and liked it very much. Also because it is very magical and has a real magical history, for example Emperor Rudolph and the Jewish Golem tradition, so it was a natural centre of magic to play with.
I really liked the way the magic had been thought through - the little explanations when Bartimaeus changes form. How convincing do you think a fantasy world has to be?
Its very important that the magic is believable. It was quite dangerous going into Bartimaeus' world in the third book because I had to sort out the rules of magic. If anything can happen then readers tend to become quite detached - there have to be limitations. The 'real' aspects of the books, the politics and London help - they act as an anchor.
When Bartimaeus arrives it's like he can do anything, but he's also restricted to the pentangle… also while he tries to make out he's all-powerful there are djinni who are more powerful than him against whom he has to use cunning rather than direct power. Bartimaeus is really a middle-level djinni so he's caught in the middle of a hierarchy, as are all the characters. They are all struggling to be true to themselves, and to each other, and all succeed in the end but with costs.
Kitty is the most sympathetic, and most human of the main characters - yet in the end it is the combined strength of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus that wins out - their humanity, if you like, and Nathaniel performs that last selfless act of dismissal - comment
Well Bartimaeus is a djinni so it's unreasonable to expect him to be both the wise-cracking djinni and humanly emotional. However there is that element in his relationship with Ptolemy: his emotional bond with a person long dead and gone gives him a human element. At the end of the series there is some symmetry between Nathaniel and Ptolemy - to Bartimaeus Ptolemy is something of an idealised figure & Nathaniel begins to approach that, but to do so he has to overcome his issues.
Movie options?
Disney own the rights. There is a real trend at the moment of making children's book into movies and this good be a good thing, or a bad thing in terms of how popular it might be. But it does have all the elements to make a good film.
… anime?
I think that it could work quite well as a graphic novel - that would allow for the footnotes to remain too - it's pacy and quite visual. I read a lot of comics and do think very visually so it could work in an animated form but I'd prefer to see it as live action.
More books?
I've been promoting Ptolemy's Gate and the series around the world so I'm going to take a short break but I'm looking forward to getting back to writing and have some ideas.
Is this a comfortable success - presumably you can walk down the street without being hounded by the paparazzi?
One of the things with being a writer is that you don't have the same level of profile and can still have some anonymity. I still get tense when meeting someone really big (famous). You can see it with the kids too - some kids are really chilled when meeting you but others are so wound up that they can hardly speak.

Jonathan's talk at the Library

What makes a Wizard?

You’ve all read Tolkien and Harrry Potter - you know all the stereotypes of fantasy that can be found in every second quest trilogy - dwarves, wizards, goblins, magic swords, missing heirs, megalomaniac evil sorcerers bent on world domination… oh, and the occasional ring or magic talisman.

So what would you do if you were wanting to write a fantasy with a difference?  Obviously you want to think about your hero - what does he (or she) look like? What magical powers will he (or she) possess? What’s going to happen to him (or her) in the end?  And what will your evil sorcerer look like?

Author Jonathan Stroud was struggling with these questions one day while walking home in the pouring rain, carrying large shopping bags in both hands. But he was also thinking about a much bigger question - what would happen if you turned the stereotyped fantasy world on its head? And so Jonathan began building his fantasy world, working on the simple idea of creating the exact opposite to what is normally expected. 

The Centre for the Child in the Central Library provided the setting for a meeting between fantasy author Jonathan Stroud and about sixty of his Christchurch fans. Best known for his popular Bartimaeus trilogy, Jonathan told the Centre for the Child audience just how the first book of the trilogy, The amulet of Samarkand, developed.

Which is how we heard all about the rain and the shopping bags.

At this point in the story Jonathan asked the audience to name the wizardly characteristics usually found in a Tolkienesque fantasy. The list that came out included all the usual suspects - old, wise, good, has long white straggly hair and a long white bushy beard, wears a pointy hat, wears long robes, usually with stars all over them, wears pointy shoes, also with stars all over them, and carries a wand or a staff. (And Jonathan illustrated our stereotype by drawing on a whiteboard as we went along.)

A list of opposite characteristics (young, foolish, evil etc) was put together next, and the result was a young man in a pinstripe business suit, complete with briefcase and cell-phone.  Strangely like an aspiring politician, in fact. 

Then we were asked to consider what such a magician would use as his source of power - and everyone who had read the book knew that the answer was a demon or djinn, which had to be controlled, but which could literally break out at any moment.
Jonathan went on to talk about the character of Bartimaeus and of the other main protagonists, Nathaniel, apprentice wizard, but quite unlike HP, and Kitty, a non-magical commoner (More drawing on the whiteboard).

To those people not familiar with the world of the Amulet, it can now be revealed that the magicians there have consolidated their position in a seriously bureaucratic way.  All politicians are magicians, with natures corrupted not only by politics, but by their power as well. The commoners of the world are those without magic, or influence, but with a desire for revenge. And the djinni are just out for what they can get, preferably as quickly as possible, and at the expense of their fellow demons.

Rounding off this fascinating insight into the evolution of his books, Jonathan invited comment from the audience on the different covers which have been produced for his books in places such as the U.S., Israel, Italy and Japan. He concluded with a question and answer session with the avid fans in the audience offering some interesting and well-informed points for discussion.

No doubt a few of the audience may have left wondering whether they too could come up with an idea for a fantasy trilogy which would net them a £2 million advance from a publisher.

Jonathan's drawing of Bartimaeus, Nathaniel and Kitty from the whiteboard.

Jonathan's drawings

The Reviews

Alex from Burnside High has reviewed these three books for us in the Reviews 4 U by U section:

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathon StroudThe Amulet of Samarkand

Wahoo! This was one really good fantasy-fiction book - and the first of a trilogy!

Set in modern times on Earth with all the technology, everything seems normal - except for the severe lack of democracy, as wizards run a caste system giving them complete control of the major countries - namely Britain and Czechoslovakia. This isn't a conventional fantasy story, which can be seen in the way wizard works: The only special 'power' they have is to summon and control demons. It is the demons that have the magical powers, and a demon's abilities are based on its class and rank: The weakest demon is an imp, followed by foliots, djinnis, scary afrits, and downright terrifying marids (who require many magicians to be properly controlled). Of course if a demon is not properly summoned or bound it gets out, normally kills its summoner, and causes havoc.

Nathaniel is a child in the midst of his training to become a magician when he secretly summons a many millennia old djinni called Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from one Simon Lovelace. Bartimaeus is a forth level
djinni who really brings the book to life. Through his actions the young summoner and his demon enter a world of deceit, murder, and rebellion.

This book is a fantastic, and very funny. To keep the suspense up the author, Jonathan Stroud, varies the style of delivery every few chapters between a third person account of what Nathaniel does, to a first person narration straight from the mouth of Bartimaeus. During Bartimaeus' chapters the story is enhanced with the use of very funny footnotes (appearing as side comments that Bartimaeus deems appropriate to add). This technique is strikingly innovative and used really well - apart from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series I've never encountered such well-done footnotes.

A tale of intrigue, hilarity, and magic makes the Amulet of Samarkand a refreshingly brilliant work of fantasy fiction. Mr Stroud is a skilled writer who has started a great trilogy with very high standards. Keep an eye out for books two and three!

September 2004

The Golem’s Eye by Jonathon StroudThe Golem’s Eye

Fresh from the printers comes 'The Golem's Eye', Book Two of the Bartimaeus Trilogy. By just receiving it, the book seems impressive - it's wrapped in a parchment with ancient runes written all over, and on the blurb it warns you that what is in your hands is a mystic spell - A very classy touch.

The story picks up two years and eight months from where the 'Amulet of Samarkand' finished. John Mandrake, real name Nathaniel (shhh! It's a secret!), is the youngest ever English minister and works as the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs (in other words: National Security). Since the first book Nath…John has become a real wizard - That is to say arrogant, self-centred, and snobbish. His current assignment is to find and punish the "Resistance", a non-magical group of rebels fighting against the oppression of the wizards' caste system.

Problems rocket sky-high as a wealthy street is demolished by an unidentifiable foe. The Resistance is blamed and it's up to John to tidy up the case. Left with no other option, John breaks a vow (which he claims to have never made) made at the end of book 1 and summons that loveable character of great wit: You guessed it! Bartimaeus! Thus another adventure kicks off full of humour, excitement and demons.

To make this book better than the first, Jonathan Stroud has introduced a new character: Kitty, a talented member of the Resistance. During Kitty's chapters the Resistance's side of the story is given, histories are revealed, and a new spin is put on the wizards. Cleverly, Mr Stroud has played around with the reader's feelings. In the first book, Nathaniel has full support from the readers, however, in 'The Golem's Eye' Nathaniel loses his sympathy when his true nature and attitudes are revealed, and Kitty becomes the supported character. As usual Bartimaeus stays his humorous self - I mean how much can a 5000-year-old djinni change in two years and eight months?

'The Golem's Eye' is a brilliant sequel to the 'Amulet of Samarkand' and maintains the high standards of writing quality and the intrigue and excitement. As a great read this series is a must for anybody who believes demons are just nasty, evil, malicious creature from hell - they're quite misunderstood - well slightly misjudged at least. Here's hoping book three isn't too far away!

September 2004

Ptolemy’s GatePtolemy’s Gate

To put it plainly Ptolemy’s Gate is a brilliant book that finishes the fantastic Bartimaeus Trilogy.

Starting with The Amulet of Samarkand, we are introduced to a world similar to our own, but with the difference that the nobles of this parallel universe can summon demons to provide magic and power. England is this world’s super-power but is having a few problems with its American colonies and northern Europe. If you have yet to read “The Amulet of Samarkand” or the second book “The Golem’s Eye” GO AND READ THEM NOW!

Three years on, the author continues the humorous tale of woe between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus (and don’t forget Kitty) as they strive to protect the government against rebels and insurgents (or rather that’s Nathaniel’s job - Bartimaeus just wants a day or two off). But don’t expect this to be the main focus for long as this series is noted for its fast pace and hairpin turns… In this book Nathaniel and Bartimaeus must face their ultimate challenge in the form of some of the real world and the Other Place’s most powerful characters, while Kitty searches for a way for demons and humans to live in harmony. The ending is fantastic and finishes the series in such a way that it leaves you wanting more, yet also feeling that it is completely and carefully over (at least for now - there is possibly room for another series set in this world but further on in time…).

This novel sees a clever use of humour and the return of the infamous footnote - first well implemented by Terry Pratchett (the Discworld Series - another brilliant expanding set of books) but used just as well by Jonathan Stroud. Packed full of twists and turns and a wonderfully innovative take on magic and demons, you will find it hard to put it down. With the entertaining conclusion to the Bartimaeus Trilogy now completed, Jonathan Stroud has established himself as one of this world’s best fantasy writers and leaves us hoping for more from his creative genius.

October 2005