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Benedict Jacka Interview

It’s already been established that Fantasy-Faction is a fan of Benedict Jacka. Paul’s review was a sterling one and my personal review was pretty flattering too. It’s no wonder, really, that we’re all such big Alex Verus fans here at the Faction, despite its very recent release, because Verus is something very special, and something pretty different to hit the urban fantasy scene.

Benedict JackaPaul and Marc had the pleasure of meeting Benedict at a recent event, but for the rest of us, here’s a bit of insight into the man behind the book, and just why Fated is so special and irresistible.

So, who is Benedict Jacka and what’s he all about; as a writer, and a general, all-round chap?

Yikes, I feel like I’m in a job interview! Um…Well, I write a lot, but you probably know that already. As a kid I used to spend every minute of my free time either reading fantasy or playing games, and nowadays I split my time between that and real-world stuff like martial arts and law. I love animals (especially dogs and cats) and I travel on skates whenever it’s not raining.

Fated—the first in the Alex Verus Trilogy—released recently. It’s an urban fantasy set in our very own London, and urban fantasy giant Jim Butcher has praised it and even said Harry Dresden would like Verus. Some great praise, right there! But what’s Fated all about, and what makes it different from other similar urban fantasy titles?

In the setting of Fated the world looks just like ours, at least on the surface. Magic exists but most people don’t know about it, and the magical world is ruled by mages – humans who can use a particular type of magic. Creatures like vampires, werewolves, and so on used to be common, but mages have mostly exterminated them (because that’s what humans tend to do to species that are a threat). In their absence the two big power blocs are the Light Council and the Dark mages. (Light and Dark don’t necessarily correspond to good and evil, but they didn’t get those names by accident either.)

Alex Verus is an ex-Dark mage – a diviner. His magic lets him predict the future in terms of probabilities, which makes him very good at gaining information and very bad at anything that needs brute force. In Fated he suddenly becomes very highly sought after by a lot of mages who need a diviner to open a newly-discovered relic and aren’t too particular on how they get his co-operation. Things get complicated from there.

Fated (UK cover)Is Fated set in London entirely because you know it well, or is there something about London that makes it well-suited for an urban fantasy yarn—specifically Verus’ story?

London’s a mysterious city. All cities have got some depth to them, but London especially: you can live for years in a London borough and never get to know all of it. No matter how much time you spend there, there are always little hidden pockets that keep surprising you. I’ve grown up in London and still I find new things each time I go exploring.

Following on from that, Ben Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy series (comprising Rivers of London, Moon over Soho, and Whispers Under Ground) is also set in London, and has been described as “essential reading” for anyone who’s ever seen anything strange on the streets of London—do you think there’s the same of sense of urban myth at the heart of Alex Verus’ story, or is it more like Butcher’s work in that it offers an absolute alternative to the real world? Or does Fated fall somewhere in the middle?

In terms of the main character Fated is much closer to Butcher’s work – Ben Aaronovitch’s protagonist Peter Grant is a copper first and a magician’s apprentice second, but Alex Verus is a mage from start to finish and he couldn’t give it up anymore than he could stop breathing. The magic in Fated is more of the invisible kind. It exists alongside the inhabitants of London, but unless you know exactly what to look for you’ll never see it.

Were you worried, prior to release and people being able to read for themselves, that Verus would be seen as the British version of Harry Dresden, or were you confident that they are different enough, and living different enough lives that he manages to stand on his own, apart from the Dresden stereotype?

The reason I was never too worried was because I knew where I was getting most of the material for Alex Verus from . . . and it’s not Harry Dresden! That said, with the Jim Butcher quote on the cover it’s natural for readers to compare Fated to the Dresden Files, so I don’t mind it (especially since it’s usually meant as a compliment).

What were the main inspirations for the Alex Verus Trilogy and do you think these are visible throughout your work, or more of an unseen foundation upon which the story rests?

The series is based on a world that I developed in multiple separate books that I wrote years and years ago. None of them ever got published, but I never quite gave up and with each extra book I’d develop the world some more and tweak and improve the ideas. Most of the background doesn’t get spelt out in the books and probably never will be – I’ve started publishing it on my website in a weekly series called the Encyclopaedia Arcana instead.

That sounds like a great idea: it lets readers know more, and allows you to show more—perfect. How important do you think this sort of practise is for authors in the modern publishing market, and how much should readers expect from author websites? Are we in a time where a bio and a contact email is just the tip of the iceberg when so much more is possible on the author’s part?

Well, there’s always a ton of things an author can do, but they have to manage their time like any other self-employed professional. I started writing the articles on my site because a) it was fun b) it was useful for expanding the setting of my world and c) it’s the kind of thing I enjoy reading on other authors’ websites. But it’s just an experiment – I’m really only trying it out to see if it works!

What made you start writing in the first place? And what made you stick at it?

I honestly don’t know. I wrote stories when I was a kid, but so do a lot of children. Then one day in my last year of school I started writing a story, which just got longer and longer and longer and it kind of snowballed from there. I never had any ambition to be a writer, I just did it.

That’s really interesting, especially for aspiring writers who write because they just “have to” or “do”. Do you think it’s a compulsion for some people to write, and the process of publication is a by-product of this?

I think that’s a good way of putting it. I’d still be writing books and stories even if I’d never gotten published (although I’d probably have spent less time on them). Let’s face it, for the vast majority of authors writing is not exactly the most lucrative of careers on a per-hour basis. There has to be some other reason we do it!

Your first publication was a children’s non-fantasy called To Be a Ninja (later reprinted as Ninja: The Beginning): what spurred the change from children’s literature, to general urban fantasy?

*laughs* Because my children’s novels always got rejected! Seriously, I’d love to give some high-minded reason, but the truth is that after what felt like my 10,000th rejection for what felt like my 67th children’s novel I just got so frustrated that I decided to do something different. So I wrote Fated, and it got accepted, and then I wrote Cursed and Taken, and somewhere in the middle of that I realised I was actually enjoying it more than the last few children’s books I’d written.

You sound like you have a definite perspective to offer regarding rejection. Fantasy-Faction is home to a lot of aspiring authors who have gone through the same, or eventually will: is there any advice you’ve been given along the path to publication that helped more than anything else? Conversely, what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given that you immediately ignored?

Fun question! I think the best piece of advice I ever got was quite a cryptic one: “a writer is someone who writes.” Doesn’t sound like much, but there’s something important there – you are it because you do it, not because of publication or reception or money or quality.

Worst bit of advice…It’s hard to remember, because if it’s that bad I forget it as soon as possible! Thinking over it though, nearly all the bad writing advice I’ve gotten comes down to placing something else over the story. If the story is boring, it doesn’t matter how original or well-written or insightful the rest of the book is. But as long as a reader wants to know what happens next, then it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the book is like – they’ll keep reading.

How different (or not) is your creative process now you’re writing general fantasy and not children’s books?

I find it easier – there are less restrictions on what I can do. I always tended to write fairly violent books with characters getting killed off, and children’s publishers would sometimes get a bit uneasy about that. I always thought that was a bit strange. I mean, I loved violent stories when I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one…

What made you start writing urban fantasy in the first place? Why that subgenre, and not epic fantasy or even low or historical fantasy? What about the notion of urban fantasy draws you in and makes you want to write about it?

Urban fantasy just seems to ‘fit’ me in a way that epic and historical fantasy don’t. I think it’s something to do with the setting – I don’t want to get away from London, I want to stay in it.

Do you read around in the genre, or do you read outside it? Or both? What books did you read that you feel shaped you as a writer or helped you find your voice, whether wanting to aspire to them, or reject them and do something different?

I read inside and outside, though I probably read more SF/F than non-SF/F. Influencing books…Night Lamp by Jack Vance, Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Lord of the Rings by guess who, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and a lot of different comics. Probably the single writer I’ve learnt the most from is Agatha Christie – she doesn’t get talked about much but if you read the books, her skill with plots is amazing. She’s the best selling-novelist in history and didn’t get that way by accident!

Talking about Agatha Christie’s skill with plot…what’s more important to you: plot or character? Does it depend on the story, or are there instances where one becomes more important than the other? Are they ever entirely equal in weighting?

Hard to say because the two are so interlinked – when things are going well the characters help drive the plot and suggest new directions it can go, while the plot brings out new aspects of the characters. Plot’s probably more important, but if I find that I’m having to choose one over the other then that probably means I’m doing something wrong.

Fated (UK cover)Cursed and Taken are due out in June and September (2012), since they’re likely projects that are (more or less) wrapped up, what’s next on the horizon? More urban fantasy?

Next project on the list is Alex Verus #4! I’m mostly done with the planning stage and I should be starting to write it within the next few weeks. The plan for the Alex Verus books was that it would be an episodic series, where each book was a part of a larger arc but was its own self-contained story as well.

Do you ever look back on a completed project think “oh, I could have done that…” or “what if I’d done that instead?” Either way, how does it feel to have a completed trilogy to look back on? Anything you wish you could change with hindsight?

It feels pretty good, but I’ve still got a long way to go and it doesn’t feel as though I can rest on my laurels. It always seems like there’s something else I should be doing. I’m not very good at stopping and celebrating – by the time things roll around I’m always trying to plan something else!

As for things to change – lots of little things, mostly. Whenever I read my books I always do it on computer, so I can fix mistakes as I spot them (commas, phrasing, sentence structure, word choice, that kind of thing). I’m a terrible perfectionist when it comes to my writing, and for a long time after publication I avoided picking up a copy of Fated because I knew I’d see dozens of things that I’d want to correct!

Fated is published by Orbit and is available right now from anywhere with good sense and taste.

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  1. […] Taking a break from the reviews, here are a pair of interviews that have gone up in the past week:  one from Candace at Candace’s Book Blog and another from Leo Cristea at Fantasy Faction. […]

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