An interview with Jerry Ibbotson
Jerry Ibbotson was born in London in 1969. He worked as a BBC radio journalist for almost ten years before leaving to run his own sound production company in 2000. Chosen was his debut novel, which he began writing in 2005 and published in 2008. Earlier this year he published The Veil and I caught up with him to talk about his books, influences and plans for the future.
When I look at the biographies of authors who have written books I've enjoyed I often find that their previous jobs often include journalism or book editing. Have you found that the ten years you spent as a BBC radio journalist helped you to become comfortable both with words and putting them together into sentences and paragraphs that others find pleasing to read?
I’d prefer to look at it the other way round. I became a journalist because I was interested in words and communicating stories to people. I’d originally wanted to be a magazine writer but found myself on a radio journalism post-grad course in 1990 because all the other courses were full! Working in radio is very different from newspaper or magazine journalism; you have to write English as it is spoken and use shorter sentence and more abbreviation (plus there are lots of other technical skills). But I was at least working with words and ideas and I got to see places and meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise.
So the love of words and writing was always inside me. As a child at junior school I loved to write short stories and as a 16 year old doing O Levels I breezed through my English Language paper, even getting feedback from the examiner on the quality of my writing. Before I sound too big-headed I did go on to fail A level Maths and Physics!
Journalism just got me used to the idea of other people listening to, or reading, my words. That’s a scary thing: holding your own work up to the light of day and having it judged.
Both Chosen and The Veil can be classed as contemporary fantasy where ordinary, everyday life collides with the fantastical. Would you say that this is the sub-genre where you are most comfortable, rather than in the fully blown high/epic/heroic genres where absolutely everything is a product of the imagination?
Up until now, all the fiction material I’ve written has been of the fantasy variety - of one kind or another. I don’t sit down at my laptop and think “I’ve going to write some fantasy now”, I write what’s in my head. The ideas that pop in there have always tended to be a little bit weird!
But over the years, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found other things have wound their way around the core of the stories: love, faith, feelings of failure and longing. Some of the messy ‘stuff’ of life. When I was a teenager I thought that full-blown adulthood would bring about a sense of being ‘sorted’; that the doubts that plagued me as I grew up would have dissolved. Ha. As if…
But these are the things that make writing better. For me, fantasy is just the skeleton of the story. What I need to do is to flesh the tale out with real-life. I personally can’t read fantasy where the fantastic world is all there is. There has to be something in there that reflects normal, human life. It’s the same with science fiction. The best sci-fi (in my humble opinion) is almost a metaphor for other stuff.
This is where urban-fantasy comes into its own. It’s harder to write in some ways because you have to show the reaction that the ordinary characters have to the extraordinary things that they encounter. But if you get round that, then it opens up so many possibilities. In Chosen, Alex Preston has a kind of pre-mid-life crisis when he encounters Theland. This other-place is actually a red-herring (a McGuffin in literary terms). It’s not what Chosen is about at all but it offers a backdrop for the real magic. But the story would be nothing without the real-world. Fish and chips in newspaper. Car accidents. Trains.
In The Veil the relationships between the people in Henchcombe are crucial to the story. I don’t think I could create those relationships in a pure fantasy setting. It’s the nitty gritty of ordinary life that helps build the bigger picture.
Oh and while I’m on the subject, many of the place names in Chosen are taken from real places. Appledore, for example, is in Devon and Middleton in North Yorkshire. So even in a fantasy landscape I can’t escape reality entirely.
What are the different challenges that are faced when writing characters from both "our" world and an imaginary, fantasy world?
Well the most obvious one is how you bring the two together. When I’m writing I often show my material to a friend of mine, Matt Lee. On plenty of occasions he’s come back to me and said, “Hang on, this person wouldn’t react like this. You’ve broken the spell.”
Imagine how you would behave if you were faced with something that utterly changed how you think about the world. That took your way of thinking about the universe and turned it on its head. There’s no way you’d just shrug your shoulders and carry on. So the big challenge with writing urban fantasy is making those reactions real.
With the story I’m working on right now, Featherfall, the characters have already had their “Is this really happening?” moment before we meet them. That’s a bit of a cop-out!
Then of course there are the differences in cultures, references to things that someone from a fantasy world would not understand. And language too. And all the time, you’re aware that you’re walking down a path that others had trodden before you and possibly with far greater success. The need to avoid cliché or inadvertent plagiarism dogs you at every turn.
While reading The Veil I could never nail down its stance on religion. In the end I decided that it promoted personal faith and highlighted the good that many religious figures do in the community whilst being distrustful of organised religion. Is that fair comment? And would you say that there are elements of Christian fantasy in your book and were you concerned that many fantasy readers find this a turn-off, particularly when it is dogmatic in nature?
The biggest factor with The Veil that has made people question whether it’s a “religious” book is probably the main character Martin, my groovy vicar from Henchcombe. He’s based on a couple of real vicars I know who are utterly down to earth and put the basic tenet of being a decent human being above all else. Intelligent, well-read and as happy talking about new scientific advances as what was on telly the night before (normally with a wine glass in one hand). That’s the reality of a lot of clergy, even if you view religion as a load of old cobblers. I just thought it would make a good character.
Oh, and Martin first came to me when I had an idea for a story about a rock-and-roll exorcising priest. I think there’s another tale to be written there, particularly as I’ve recently met a couple of priests who are responsible for “Deliverance,” the official CofE term for exorcism (ninety per cent of the time the ‘spooks’ turn out to be air bubbles in people’s central heating system though which is less exciting).
I’m getting side-tracked. Is The Veil a religious story? I’m not sure myself. The bulk of my friends are either agnostic or atheist and none of them had any issues with it. So if it is, then it’s religious with a very small ‘r’. I really do not consider my writing to be Christian fantasy. That could so easily put people off and be something weak and insipid. I just want to write great tales that entertain and enthral people. End of. I don’t know what my own views on religion are half the time, so I’d hate it if people thought I was trying to push one viewpoint or another.
Chosen has as much of a ‘religious’ element as The Veil but it’s been mentioned a lot less in reviews. With that book (my first) I started writing it as a straightforward fantasy with the ‘bad guy’ being your standard fantasy-evil-force. But then I thought “Hang on, why don’t I stop playing with metaphors for good vs evil and just spell it out?” The book’s still choc full of metaphors but the identities of the protagonists isn’t one of them.
But I wouldn’t want that to put anyone off reading my work. I think what I’m trying to say is that I aim to leave things open to interpretation. There’s a scene in The Veil involving Calvary (the scene of the crucifixion). One of my close friends, an ardent atheist, said he viewed it as the protagonist seeing someone he wanted to see, rather than it actually being Calvary itself. I wouldn’t disagree.
And the real themes of my writing, the stuff that I hope runs through it, are actually love, forgiveness, compassion and courage. The stuff that, when we see it for real, makes us stop in our tracks. That’s another reason why I love mixing the real world with fantasy; it gives you a way to expose not just the dark but the light in its purest forms.
I thought I picked up a sense of the classic James Herbert in The Veil. Was he an influence, and what other authors have you read and thought, "I would like to be able to write like that one day!"?
I did read an awful lot of James Herbert when I was at school. The Fog. The Rats. Survivor. Great British horror, even if it did make my English teacher at Comprehensive roll her eyes.
But I think the books that made me think, “Wow. I want to do that one day,” were probably It by Stephen King and Weaveworld by Clive Barker. The last few paragraphs of Weaveworld took my breath away. Like seeing the end of the first Matrix film and wanting to rewind just to watch it over and over; I reread the end of Clive’s book dozens of times it was so good. Perfect even. Joyous. Oh and The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly is on a par. Sadness and joy mixed together. The power of melancholy.
I recently saw an interview in which an author was asked, "What question would you have like to have been asked today?". I thought this was a wonderful twist on the norm. What would your reply be to such a question?
Hmm… How about, “How real are the characters and stories you come up with, to you?”
And now you have to answer the question you've asked yourself!
I knew you were going to ask that. Very. Right now, as I’m editing my new book Featherfall, I have the characters in my head a lot of the time. One in particular, a semi-mortal Celtic warrior who was meant to be a secondary character, is living inside my tiny brain! Alex Preston was like that for a while too, dwelling in my skull for months. And Martin from The Veil. They’re only finally banished when I start on the next book.
I'm always interested in knowing what books influence an author, from early age through to adulthood. Could you pinpoint 3 books from your childhood, teen years and adulthood that had a marked impact on you?
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. This is about a magical English wood where heroic figures from history and mythology live and breathe. It’s a classic. I’ve read his two sequels but they weren’t a patch on the first. Less urban fantasy and more rural.
The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates. I think it’s out of print now but I read this in 6th Form. I think my form teacher gave it to me to read. It’s about a missionary who comes to Anglo Saxon Britain and meets a shaman-priest. Brilliant stuff and it lit a pilot light in the rickety boiler that passes for my imagination.
Anything written by Robert Westall. This is the guy who wrote The Machine Gunners but he also wrote some of the best short horror / bizarre stories I have ever read. Seek him out. Inspirational.
Oh, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Ignore the abomination of a film from a few years ago and read all the books. She’s amazing.
Yes, I know that’s four. So sue me.
What does the future hold for Jerry Ibbotson, the author?
I’m a self published writer and my writing has to fit it with a proper job. But what I really, truly want is to make a living from my stories. If I could do that, possibly from a ‘proper publishing deal, I’d feel like I’d found my place in the world. To be able to look people in the eye and say, “I’m a writer,” would mean more to me than I could ever say.
I would just like to thank Jerry for agreeing to take part in such an enjoyable interview. You can find his website here - http://www.jerryibbotson.co.uk/ – and also follow him on Twitter here - https://twitter.com/JerryIbbotson