"As a writer you have to let your mind open and you never know what’s going to happen."
Jonathan Stroud : The question was to put my 10 favourite so I tempted to put books I liked when I was younger because I think hugely that books you read as a child have the most power on you. Maybe I read one or 2 of them when I was 20 or 21. I read all of them when I was young and maybe that’s why I liked them. I chose the ones that are not obvious because if I thought “Oh yes The Lord of the Ring or Harry Potter or something", it would be predictable.
They were the ones that influenced me maybe. Those that are contemporary like Pullman or Harry Potter, they cant’ influence me so much.
Actusf : Do you still read fantasy works ?
Jonathan Stroud : I do. I don’t read as much as I used to. When I was younger I read everything : adult books and young adults.
Actusf : The metaphor you use on your biography published on your website (“books littered my bedroom floor like bones in a lion’s cave”), is it very accurate ?
Jonathan Stroud : It was like that. And I think I met lots of children who have the same hunger for reading and they read very fast. They have big books by their bed and they never finished.
I feel guilty because I do not read so much. Usually I’m tired at the end of the day. I write my books and I haven’t the energy to read.
Also as a writer I think I prefer to read books that are no fantasy now because it’s too close. If you’re reading books that are doing similar things or maybe are a little bit similar to what you’re dealing with, then it becomes too crowded. You need your own space around, if you built a word you need space around it.
Actusf : You mentioned books, but which other materials inspire you : movies, music ?
Jonathan Stroud : Not so much music. I mean, I like music but I don’t think it inspires me. I never listen to music when I write because I think the rhythm would be different from the one in my head.
What inspires me ? Places like cities, castles (one of my books was based on a castle I’ve been to).
People I meet I suppose. Dreams…
Actusf : …Rain ?
Jonathan Stroud : (Laughs) Bartimeus has begun in the rain. I was walking alone and I let my head go free my mind and Bartimeus appeared. As a writer you have to let your mind open and you never know what’s going to happen.
Actusf : So did you "receive something" from Paris ?
Jonathan Stroud : Yesterday I walked around Montparnasse and Jardin du Luxembourg, up to Saint Sulpice to Saint Germain... Architecture and the feelings when I sat in the church : you don’t know, maybe in 2 years there will be something that appears in a book.
Actusf : Would you like to get Bartimeus come back in another book ?
Jonathan Stroud : When I finished the trilogy I said "no never again…" I was tired. But now, If I can think of a good story, maybe I could do another Bartimeus story. But I need a story first, I don’t want just to say I won’t write Bartimeus forever.
Actusf : You write daily in your website…
Jonathan Stroud : Guilty again. 4 weeks I’ve done nothing. I went to talk in Vienna ; I went to Glasgow and now in Paris. Everything will be on the website soon. Give me a week or two…It’s a good think to do talk a little bit about writing. While I’ve been quiet, people say "What’s Stroud doing ? Is he in on holidays all this time ?"
Actusf : I imagine you receive lot of mails from your fans.
Jonathan Stroud : A fair bit. I want to reply to all of them. And I will reply to but it takes a long time.
It’s not like J. K. Rowling. I’m sure she has like a stack everyday. I just get a little number of post mostly from America, also from France.
Actusf : From almost all around the world I guess as the trilogy was translated into 35 languages ?
Jonathan Stroud : 37, 38…I can’t remember.
Actusf : What about a screen adaptation ?
Jonathan Stroud : I don’t know if they will or will not make this.
It is sad and it is frustrating. I think it could be a good film. 3 years ago they did a screen trail and we had a director, and a producer, and I was like “oh yes, it’ll soon be a movie and it will be great"… And they all went quiet. Disney and Miramax split and it was like a divorce and the film is the child waiting for custody. I don’t know what and when it will happen but it could be good.
Actusf : Which actor did you cast or did you dream about as Bartimeus ?
Jonathan Stroud : My wife says Johnny Depp. I do no think he’ll do because he’s already done in Pirates of the Caribbean. But he would be good because he’s charismatic and he is also individual and funny and interesting and a bit weird.
The movie people told me 3 years ago, in the book, when he pretends to be a human, he is a kid, but they thought in the film he must be an adult because they need to have a proper famous actor so I said “OK, If we have to do that...”
Actusf : Was there any theatre adaptations ?
Jonathan Stroud : None but there were audios in America and in Britain. They’re both good actually but in the Britain one, the guy who’s playing in the British version is pretty good. He had Bartimeus’ voice really.
Actusf : How do you work ? Do you make plans ?
Jonathan Stroud : For Bartimeus, I started with no plans. I knew that my story would be about a genie and in a world where the magician can be politician. I began to write and I said “great, I love this character". I did 50 or 60 pages and I realised I needed a bigger story, so I would stop and make a plot. When I began I wanted it to be short, short and quick and light because I think many fantasies are too long, too heavy and too serious… But of course I couldn’t keep it short. I was pleased that the third one was shorter than book 2. Since it’s not getting longer each time.
Actusf : Looking for balance… Even in your writing. Does the quest of balance play a major part in Bartimeus trilogy ?
Jonathan Stroud : The whole trilogy is about trying to gain a balance between different people and different groups. In the beginning there is no balance, Bartimeus is slaved, politicians have the power and ordinary people have no power. It’s a way to find equilibrium. That’s a part of the message I suppose.
Actusf : You let the reader choose among the different points of view about the plot, you don’t use any omniscient narrator.
Jonathan Stroud : With Bartimeus and a bit with my others novels actually, I follow different characters in different chapters.
Bartimeus is charismatic, funny, he’s energetic. But if the whole book was him you’d get tired…More jokes…more jokes…"please quiet"…It was good to say no, we have some chapters about Nathaniel who’s cool, almost cold. The story is much serious. No jokes or few. So the reader is changing always. They have to work a little bit. And it kept me interested also.
Actusf : You use footnotes in a very cunning way…
Jonathan Stroud : For me it was a revelation. I began writing the beginning of Amulet with Bartimeus appearing to this boy. Straight away, when his voice came, I saw this genie… He feels, he knows everything ; he thinks he’s cleverer than the reader, he would put notes in. I think I’ve seen that done before by people a little bit but this is the first time it becomes a character, a part of Bartimeus character, a trademark and I think it’s really useful.
When I was a boy, I used to write adventure stories in which the reader can go different paths and I used to love writing different paths. I think footnotes are a little like that, they give you alternatives so you can read on or you can jump down and get a little bit of story.
Actusf : Did you do lots of research about magic ?
Jonathan Stroud : A little, but mostly it‘s stuff that I read when I was a kid. I went to Prague when I was younger. And I thought that’s a great city and very magical. I read about Jewish folklore, golem. I stole that to put in. So it’s a stuff I’m interested in I suppose.
Actusf : How did you choose the name your hero inherits when he becomes a magician ?
Jonathan Stroud : "Mandrake" is a magical plant. I was thinking of the cliché, with this name he should be a little sinister and magical. In book 2, people call him Mandrake, he becomes more like the cliché of a magician as he gets older.
Actusf : Let’s talk about The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood and The Viking Saga of Harri Bristlebeard.
Jonathan Stroud : My first books as an editor were puzzle books. I worked for Walker Books. They did Where’s Wally ? (Where’s Waldo for the US version) and that was a typical book of the time. I wrote 2 books : The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood. The other was also about Vikings. And both of them are half between Where’s Wally ? and Asterix. It has comic strips and lots of puzzle.
I worked with Cathy for about a year on the pirate one. I wrote the script and gave it to her, she would do comic strips and pictures and I would re-write it. And when I showed the drawings she did, I heard "too many words", "the picture in the middle is not big enough"…I think we did the whole book seven times ; each time publishers say "no no go away". It was a big project.
Actusf : Would you like to work again with illustrators ?
Jonathan Stroud : Yes, my wife is a designer and an illustrator and one day I want to do a book with her.
Actusf : Talking projects, what about your new book ?
Jonathan Stroud : I feel I’m near the end… 2 chapters to do, 2 chapters and half to finish it. And then I’ll send it to my editor. It’s a fantasy but in this one the magical stuff is very hidden in the background, almost not there at all, you may think it’s not there.
Actusf : If you met a djin by chance...What would you ask to him (or… To her ?)
Jonathan Stroud : Bartimeus is male. I tried him being a woman sometimes but I found it hard because his voice is male… So he can’t pretend to be a woman.
I think I’d ask for more time. I’d like the genie to give me a little loop of time that I could either write or sleep as long as I want and when I come back it’d be the same time. I would ask having the time bended.
Actusf : And either you read him or you listen to him, you have the feeling that Jonathan Stroud can bend the time.
During the Montreuil Children’s Book Festival,
Special thanks to Albin Michel’s team who helped doing this interview.