Robert VS Redick and John Jarrold interview

Having just scooped a deal for three fantasy novels, new US writer Robert VS Redick and his agent, industry veteran John Jarrold, face the SFX questionmongers

Forthcoming fantasy novel The Red Wolf Conspiracy, set aboard a 600-year-old ship, sees the debut of US author Robert VS Redick - the start of a three book deal secured with Gollancz through agent John Jarrold (who you may recall from his various SFX contributions). When not penning new fantasy tales, Redick works as the editor for the Spanish and French websites of Oxfam America and as an instructor in the International Development and Social Change program at Clark University. We quizzed them both about the deal, and about what we can expect from the series.

SFX: Where did the original inspiration for The Red Wolf Conspiracy come from?
ROBERT REDICK: "In my case stories move from dream to notion to notes to manuscript by circuitous routes. The earliest glimmer came in Argentina. Some years ago I had the immense good fortune to spend time on the Patagonian coast, in the company of park rangers of the province of Chubut. I walked for whole days along the cliffs over the South Atlantic, looking down at all these tortured rocks and waves, and at some point I imagined a gargantuan ship careening out of the fog, bearing hundreds of people towards a catastrophic wreck. After that I began having shipwreck dreams. Years later I was invited to walk around on the tall ship Libertad, a training vessel for the Argentinian navy, and that first vision came back to me. And quite independently I began imagining a boy whose lifelong dream of sailing comes to pass only when he’s pressed into the service of the very Empire that burned his city to the ground. I was writing another book all this time, and so these notions and many others went into a sort of slow cooker for a decade. What emerged was the essence of Red Wolf."

SFX: And what do you think readers will enjoy most about the Red Wolf series?
ROBERT: "Warm blood, perhaps: that is to say, living characters who inspire you and fail you, who push and pull and drag your hopes around. Ibsen tells us that 'to live is to battle with trolls in the vaults of heart and mind.' It seems to me that fantasy novels too often lavish all their attention on trolls that dwell elsewhere, and frighten us less. Of course lava-spitting demons and fell voices on the wind are delightful in themselves - and quite hard to bring to life on the page. But for myself I only care about such wonders if I’m half in love with the characters who meet them."

JOHN JARROLD: "Certainly the setting and the characters. But above all, Robert’s writing is involving from the first page. It’s a great accomplishment to draw the reader in – as both I and Simon Spanton at Gollancz (who acquired World Rights in the trilogy) were drawn in – immediately."

SFX: Tell us a little bit about the plot of the first novel and the characters in it?
ROBERT: "The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a story of war-mongerers, human and otherwise, and the brave but outnumbered few who resist them. For most of it we’re aboard the Chathrand, a gargantuan sailing ship over half a millennium old. A handful of people aboard her learn to their horror that their mission is not one of peace (as the world believes) but quite the opposite: to plunge the rival empire into a civil war, leaving it crippled and ripe for the conquest. Their own emperor has tied up the fortunes of his kingdom entirely with this grand crime, and so our heroes face an awful choice. Do they sink the ship, with themselves and 700 others aboard? Do they try to expose the plot, and risk assassination by the emperor’s spies? Do they attempt a mutiny?"

"The first person we get to know is Pazel Pathkendle, a quick-witted (if unlucky) ship’s boy, orphaned when his country is annexed to the empire he now serves. Pazel’s in trouble from the start. He’s hated and tormented because of his race. And he lives with a magical gift - or curse, depending on your point of view. When it’s working properly this spell allows him to speak any language on earth. When it backfires, it plunges him into a hell of deafening noise."

"Early on Pazel befriends Thasha, a hotheaded and fearless girl whose father, a retired Admiral, led the attack on Pazel’s country. Thasha’s family is deeply involved in this secret war-plot, and as she and Pazel begin to uncover the truth about the latter, they find that one of its first results will be Thasha’s execution. There are so many others involved—sorcerers in hiding, eight-inch-tall stowaways, rats developing human intelligence and human psychoses, a mad king, a captain who talks to ghosts. All of these play their part in the fate of the giant ship, and indeed the world. In the end what we’re looking at is a contest between prejudice and fear on the one hand, and courage and brotherhood on the other."

SFX: How did the association between you two come about? When did you start working together?
ROBERT: "Late last year I was between agents, and beginning a very broad search. Most agents work in the midst of a perpetual firehose spray of requests for representation. Thus no matter how good your work is, you have to be prepared to thrive on rejection slips for months or years. For the first time in my writing life, however, the wait was short. John was among the first agents I contacted, and within a few weeks he’d read my book and signed me up. And as I’ll never miss an opportunity to say, he’s been just outstanding. What more could a writer dream of than going from contact to contract in less than three months?"

JOHN: "I receive around 30 submissions to the agency a week. I always look at the first page, and 99.9 times out of 100, I add the material to the agency reading and come to it chronologically. The hundredth time, an alarm bell goes off because the first page is so special - that’s what it did here. I read the early chapters, asked to see the complete novel and the rest, I’m delighted to say, followed in a way one can usually only dream of, with a pre-emptive offer from Gollancz within seven days of my submitting the trilogy to all the major genre publishers on both sides of the Atlantic!"

SFX: What do you both think is the key to beginning a good fantasy novel series like this?
ROBERT: "Not taking any shortcuts. You can’t fudge your way into the hearts of readers. If you can forget that this is an industry, forget that you face a choice between (let’s say) eviction from your flat and landing a publishing deal, forget what you promised to get done by five o’clock today - well then, you might wander back into that territory of delight that made you an avid reader in the first place. For me this is frightfully difficult. Every day I fear I’ll lose my way."

JOHN: "I think the author must live in their world, to some degree. As with George RR Martin, Robert’s novel has a sense of a real world, of real people within that world. It isn’t ours, but it’s fully realized and fascinating."

SFX: We're running a writing competition at the moment - any tips for newbie writers on where to begin?
ROBERT: "Jonathan Porritt has a nice phrase about balancing an optimism of the will with a pessimism of the intellect. I’d begin by trying to forget the odds of winning that competition and concentrating on the joy of the work. I also believe in linguistic ablutions. Too much alcohol leaves us unfit to drive; too much bad, boilerplate, mercantile language leaves us unfit to write. And excesses of even the best stimuli can swamp the delicate mechanisms inside us. Time and quiet and calm: those resources are just so precious, and often so scarce."

JOHN: "Think, then write, put it away for a while, look at it again objectively and rewrite. Work on it hard. Don’t think your first effort is good enough. It isn’t."

SFX: When will we see Robert's book on the shelves, and how long until the second instalment?
JOHN: "Gollancz are planning to release The Red Wolf Conspiracy around February 2008. Robert is due to deliver the sequel in June 2008, so look for it on the shelves about twelve months after that!"

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