An interview with James Johnson

Richard 'James Johnson' was born in Derby, England in 1976. Having studied Graphic Design at Bedfordshire University he went on to win a prestigious D&AD first award. Developing a taste for writing early on in life, his passion for storytelling culminated in two books (he'd rather forget) at the age of twelve. In addition to his work as a writer, he's also an accomplished Illustrator and Graphic Designer, which he also lectures on and leads a degree level course in Nottingham. The Enemy's Son is his first novel and James kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in October 2008.

Fantasy Book Review: How difficult is it, as an adult, to write for young-adults? Do you constantly find yourself having to edit your work as it may be unsuitable for the target audience? Do you also need to draw on childhood memories of what you used to enjoy at a similar age?

James Johnson: I've never grown up anyway, so it's easy in terms of what you tap in to. But yeah, you find yourself being less descriptive of certain things, which helps push your writing further. You tend to develop the atmosphere more, the characters and allow the reader to imagine the rest. If you set the characters up and allow them to show certain results through their actions – we see them perhaps do more than what is written on the page. I'm still learning about all this, writing really is a difficult craft and there are many parts to master. I try to write on a number of levels and hope that the book is still enjoyable even if certain readers do not appreciate or even pick up on the references throughout.

Fantasy Book Review: Can you tell us what your three favourite fantasy books of all time are?

James Johnson: These questions are always so difficult as there are always so many to chose from. I would have to say the most recent fantasy book, that has easily become one of my favourites, is Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother. Paver has created a wonderful series here that is so simple and effective – it's an effortlessly paced novel. Clive Barker's Weaveworld in terms of dark fantasy – Barker is one of the most imaginative and visceral writers out there and his work really gets under my skin. It's as though his words possess you – his style of writing is highly disturbing, yet there is still always something very innovative and complex in the worlds and characters he creates. Of course, my third would have to be The Lord of the Rings. This one really does speak for itself.

Fantasy Book Review: What emotions are you hoping to bring out in the readers of your book? What would you like to think they feel before, during and at the end of The Enemy's Son?

James Johnson: I would like to think there is a sense of hope throughout the story. It is a tragedy, so the main emotion will be sadness for our young hero and his father. Hatred towards certain characters is set up very early on in the novel – these are powerful emotions that really help to build on where the story is going and helps to justify that sense of hope. As a writer you just raise the bar for your hero, throw all manner of hurdles in front of him to test and shape his character. So, the reader has no choice but to come along for the ride and feel the dread and excitement that Pirian Horncastle feels.

Fantasy Book Review: Which activity gives you the most pleasure – writing or producing artwork?

James Johnson: Well, you may as well ask me, 'Who do you love more – your mum or your dad?' One however, does tell me off more than the other – helps me see my faults. Isn't that how we grow as individuals? Art and writing are both such different disciplines and equally rewarding in their own right.

Fantasy Book Review: Are you currently working on a sequel to The Enemy's Son?

James Johnson: Yes, Pirian's journey is planned as a trilogy. I have just finished my first short film script which goes in to production soon, developing a couple of comic book series and various shorts of both prose and strips which will be collected in to an Anthology of my writing next year. Erth Chronicles Book II is being written amongst all of this but currently I am taking a break so I can come back to it afresh.

Fantasy Book Review: You currently lecture as well as write. In a recent interview you mentioned the need for discipline, does this apply to how you find the time to write and work a day job?

James Johnson: It's key to keeping things in check, yes. I'm realistic enough that the writing doesn't pay the bills (yet) and that my priority is the lecturing and graphic design work. However, I have to put quality time aside to write my scripts and Erth Chronicles Book II. I'm not one who can switch off too easily, which I'm sure most creatives suffer from. In that sense I fail miserably at disciplining myself.

Fantasy Book Review: Do you have trusted family and friends that you ask to review your work before it is read?

James Johnson: I do, but I find writing groups more constructive for that. I am lucky to have friends who enjoy my work and I know full well that they will say if they feel something isn't working. My close family are not in to horror, Sci-Fi or fantasy at all and therefore rarely read my work. That isn't to say they don't appreciate it – they just don't think the same way I do, therefore I don't feel their feedback would benefit me in anyway. Their support is far more valued – that is what your family is for.

Fantasy Book Review: Which fantasy author(s) do you most admire and what makes them so special?

James Johnson: I admire any writer that manages to create a highly effective story from their own mind – a writer that helps create a unique vision, yet at the same time characters that appear almost familiar. Some authors write elaborate prose that whispers to you in your dreams, while others create something more effortless and simple – these are the page-turners. I have no problem with collaboration, but what I don't admire are those writers whose success is often handed to them on a plate – existing money over talent, ghost writing etc. There are many authors and stories out there that I still have no idea why they have become successful or even had a book in print. It usually comes down to a huge pot of money thrown in to marketing campaigns. To be honest though, we can all be just as inspired by the rubbish out there as the good stuff – it makes any prospective author think, 'Bloody hell…if he can get something published, then why can't I?' Well, it often comes back to the 'D' word I guess – even someone that can't write can be disciplined enough to finish a book. But, what makes your Barkers and Miévilles so special is they don't necessarily conform to what people 'want' to read – therefore their writing develops an individual voice, one of which is beautifully written. If I was half as good as these writers I'd die a happy man.