Interview : Oliver Johnson

Réalisée par :Mail
Date :Septembre 2007
Allan : Can you present yourself to our visitors?
Oliver : I am a commissioning editor at the publisher Random House in the UK. My job involves assessing submissions, recommending them for publication and seeing them through the production process. Though I used to run a fantasy and science fiction list, these days I specialise in acquiring crime and thrillers: the most successful author I have been associated with is John Grisham. I also edit some non-fiction. My latest editing job has been the Autobiography of legendary guitarist Eric Clapton.

Allan : I saw that you are author but that you work to for an editor and so, a question comes me to mind: do you choice your work because you always want to write to be published and so it was the best way to know errors not to do or is it your work that made you thinking : “why not me ?” ?
Oliver : It’s true, I always had an ambition to write fiction. I also loved buying books and at university spent a lot of time in bookshops. After I graduated, I started a Doctorate in Metaphysical Poetry and needed part time work to subsidise my grant. I chose to work in bookshops and over time my temporary job became a permanent one. After a while I became restless and decided that I might as well try my luck in publishing and was lucky enough to get my first job at Transworld who had already commissioned a series of books form me. So I was an author before I was an editor! I have now been an editor for 25 years. Editing other author’s book is instructive to a certain degree. You will always learn from the technique of great writers. The psychology of some of the writers I have known is also inspirational: for example the way James Ellroy ’attacks’ the composition of his books, his fabulous economy, tautness and drive. However, great writing and also bad writing can both have negative effects on aspiring writers and it is better if you find your own voice rather than follow anyone else’s. The worst mistake is the thought: ’I can do better’. Writing is a difficult skill and has to be mastered with patience.

Allan : I notice to that you have written books of which you are the hero (I don’t know the name the collection was called in English sorry) and like a lot of boys I think, I have passed very long time on some of them… I have always wanted to know the way the author built the story… Can you explain this to me?
Oliver : The English name for this type of book is Choose Your Own Adventure. The most successful of these were the Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I wrote three different series and have been lucky to have been in print in France with Gallimard Jeunesse for several years. My own method of composition was to think of a general plot scenario, a quest of some sort, and from there draw up a tree of possible plot developments, branching outwards. The branches of the diagram would take the reader on different possible paths of the story. One might lead your hero to victory but many others could lead to failure. Plotting a novel of course only involves one branch of story line.

Allan : If I want to make an interview with you, it is about the Lightbringer Trilogy which will be published in France in five books… Can you describe our visitors what is the Lightbringer Trilogy?
Oliver : The trilogy of books describes a world like our Earth (whether it be in the far future or the far past) where the sun appears to be dying. This disaster drives the human race in two opposed directions in their search for salvation, one to worship the God of the Sun, Reh, praying for his return, the other to embrace Iss, God of the Grave, of the Undead, the endless Life in Death. Thalassa, the heroine of the book is a vehicle for the rebirth of the sun. She travels to the far north, to the lost city of Iskiard, hoping there to find the key to reversing the domination of the world by the Undead. There is plenty of vampire lore, epic battles, mythic creatures, love and treachery along the way.

Allan : When we read the first volume (The Forging of the Shadows published in the two part in France), we immediately think at the environment of the books of which you are the hero : the beginning of the story show a world dominated by the “Dark Side” – represented here by the vampire – whereas it is more frequent to see at the beginning a world that can fall in the bad side… Why do you have made this choice? Is your precedent books “responsible” of this fact? (it is more frequent in the books of which you are the hero that the hero is in a bad situation at the beginning of the story).
Oliver : To me, the story arc of all heroic fantasy is about the restoration of ’Good’ over ’Bad’. This goes back into the group unconscious of myth. So all my books progress from darkness to light. All myth involves this transformation.

Allan : In the Lightbringer Trilogy, you create totally a mythology: do you base id on known mythologies or do you create it totally ?
Oliver : The idea of the Dying Sun is a familiar one in myth, but Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series of novels was a definite influence on my visualisation of what such a world would be like. The theological subdivision of Life/Death, Sun/Darkness etc is partly borrowed from Egyptian Mythology. Another influence was Professor MAR Barker, the inventor of the role-playing game and three novels, The Empire of the Petal Throne, whose world-building vision was greater in my opinion even than Tolkein’s. The idea of vampirism as a type of blood disease/virus is familiar from Dracula literature from Bram Stoker onwards. Perhaps there is a bit of Wagnerian myth here too, of how humans can redeem the mistakes of the gods through the power of love.

Allan : The story is nothing less that the battle between the light and the dark… Don’t you think that it is finally always the same battle but with different characters?
Oliver : As previously mentioned, I think it is the story of all myth and all fantastic literature as well. But there is also the sub plot mentioned above: the story of how humanity can overcome predestination/ fate through suffering and love.

Allan : I find that the character of Urthred is the more complex: even if he is a priest of the light, I have the feeling he can fall on the bad side (I have for the moment read the 3 fist volume of the 5 French books).. Am I right?
Oliver : Urthred is scarred mentally and physically and I meant to portray him as someone who (like all the major characters) has to fight hard against being sucked into the darkness. To surrender meekly to evil is the easiest thing, to fight against it is much harder. Originally I intended Urthred to be an even darker character, almost psychopathic but I realised if I did that that I would need more than 3 books to redeem him in the eyes of the reader. So as he stands, he is a loner, tempted to violence but also capable of redemption, of being human, though he is barely human himself.

Allan : After this trilogy, do you want to go on with this world you have created or do you want to do something else?
Oliver : I think the Lightbringer world is self-enclosed and that the story ends where it ends. Since I finished it, I have umpired a role-playing game set in the world. This scenario may be published as a supplement to the new edition of the role-playing series by myself and Dave Morris, Dragon Warriors. My next writing will take me to newly created worlds.

Allan : As an editor, witch glance do you have on the fantasy books that seems to have lot of success actually ? Do you thing this success will continue?
Oliver : I haven’t read much fantasy lately but looking through the bestseller lists there seems to have been very few breakthrough novelists in the adult fantasy world. Of course the children’s market has seen a huge explosion with Rowling and Pullman. I can’t see the children’s market diminishing. It is possible that horror as a genre will make a comeback. I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and look out for a fantastic debut in 2009: The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Allan : If you have a thing to say to the people that want to write, what was it ?
Oliver : Live in your world and listen to your characters. As Somerset Maughan said: ’character is plot’.

Allan : What will be your last word ?
Oliver : I would like to thank the French people for their interest in my work: not only the Lightbringer Trilogy but the Choose Your Own books as well. Though I was born in Paris, my family left when I was only 2 years old, but I still feel a real affinity with the country!

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