Kate Griffin is the author of the always-fabulously subtitled urban fantasy series about Matthew Swift, the Midnight Mayor of London and one of the only urban sorcers left alive. If you keep up with my reviews then you know I consider it one of the best UF series around, and one of the few that cuts to the heart of what I think UF should be: the magic of cities.
Kate was kind enough to answer all my questions about her series, and you can read the Q&A below. If you want some background on the books before diving in, you can check out my reviews of A Madness of Angels, Or, The Resurrection of Matthew Swift, The Midnight Mayor, Or, The Inauguration of Matthew Swift, and The Neon Court, Or, The Betrayal of Matthew Swift.
And now, the questions!
Elena Nola: So you’re three books deep in the Matthew Swift series, but I would like to go back to the beginning and ask what gave you the idea or convinced you that you needed to write about his story and his world?
Kate Griffin: To be honest, there were a lot of random things that sort of came together in that sly, subtle way that makes it incredibly hard to remember exactly how it all happened. Odd bits and bobs just suddenly seemed to coalesce…. I was living near Liverpool Street at the time, and walking to university through the very heart of London, the ‘Golden Mile’ with all its skyscrapers and old bits of medieval church niggled in, and old-fashioned street plan and hi-tech shops, which I suspect combined to form quite a bit influence in my mind. I was also living near Brick Lane, which is as entirely different from the Golden Mile as can be imagined, and yet is no more than quarter of a mile from the richest district in the country. Brick Lane is a Bangladeshi street market, essentially, home of the finest curry in North London, but it’s also a reminder of the East End, everything cramped and cheap and slightly grubby and very alive and exciting. Without realising it, I suspect all these things started to collide.
I remember taking a bus late at night as well… can’t remember why or where… but there’s that slightly zonked-out state of mind you get in the middle of the night, when you’re tired and alone on the top deck of a bus, and I have this definite memory of looking out of the window at Euston Station, which is a hideous station, and whose bus stop is lit entirely in this incredibly saturated pink light. I guess I was in the right state of mind to notice random things – yellow pages on top of the bus shelter, messages left in condensation in the windows of cars, broken telephone wires and odd bits of graffiti – because I found myself thinking about why all these things were here, in a way I never had before. I won’t claim that A Madness of Angels immediately happened as a result, but I think that was where it all started to come together. The blue electric angels were originally conceived as the villains of the piece, the great big threat that had to be stopped… but I couldn’t quite see how that worked, and the moment where I decided to combine Swift and the angels into one was a sit-up-straight, where’s-my-pen encounter.
How much of the world was in place when you started? And did you have any later story arcs in mind when you were working on the first one? Basically, how much planning did you do?
Um… for the first one, there was a certain degree of playing it by ear. I knew the story, who had done what to whom, and how it had to end. I had a structure, and I had the main characters, and I was fairly confident that they’d find their own way to where they needed to go. When I write anything, so long as the characters involved have suitable motivation to reach their destination, the details of how they get there tend to be ironed out along the way regardless of my intentions. I do plan… and am often surprised at how quickly the plan goes out of the window. However, I didn’t know what was going to happen for the rest of the series until well into Book 1. Annoyingly, I suspect I’m one of these writers who needs 80,000 words to warm up to any theme.
On the plus side, once The Midnight Mayor happened, it was obvious to me that Swift was going to be an incredibly interesting character to do stuff with, and the world itself was potentially far more diverse and wide than I’d initially realised – as a result, I’ve had a much stronger idea of where the series as a whole might be going since Book 2 onwards, and hopefully this will be reflected a tad more in the next three novels…
Have you had any kind of consensus reaction to the series…certain elements that most people seem to like or dislike, or a certain aspect of the series that seems to be what draws most people in?
The reactions I’ve seen have been mostly positive, although I must admit I tend not to go looking for opinions on the subject, as I figure bad news will depress me and good news will only be bad for my ego. As a result, what reactions I do get tend to be people who feel passionate enough to write to me or post on my blog, which may well skew the balance of information I receive!
There’s no such thing as the perfect book for every reader – no one will ever appreciate exactly the same things the same way as the next. Thus, some people love the use of London in the book, and love its descriptions, others regard it as over-blown and slow, and both points of view are entirely valid and thus, ironically, something which can’t really be acted on, since you can’t please everyone all the time. A lot of people seem to like the character of Swift, particularly now he’s starting to settle down and take responsibility for himself, and others, a little bit more – however, whether that’s a testimony to the way he’s written or a reflection on the fact that Chunky Heroism doesn’t have anything on Sensible Cowardice, I really couldn’t say. I’ve always written heroes who, when faced with darkness and disaster will ask, ‘can’t I just ignore it?’ first, and deal with it second, as I regard this as the most natural human reaction; to a certain degree, the character of Swift is just an extension of this logic! The blue electric angels add a certain twist to this, of course… one which was perhaps initially confusing!
Alas, like I said, I’m probably not the person to ask on this one… I tend to just write what I enjoy and otherwise keep my head down…
How much “urban fantasy” do you read? (I have to confess – your series is pretty much the only UF series I like, for various reasons, but mostly I think because it’s the only one I’ve seen about the magic OF the city rather than magic AND a city, if it makes sense to put it that way. I don’t know if there’s a question to go with that comment…but feel free to comment anyway…)
To be honest, I haven’t read that much recently. It’s not because there’s not great stuff out there – there is – it’s just finding it on my local library shelf can sometimes be a bit of a weeding exercise. There are some true greats of urban fantasy – Neverwhere being the classic example that everyone correctly invokes – although I hadn’t actually read Neverwhere until I was well into The Midnight Mayor, whoops. I’ve read some of the Dresden Files and found them kinda fun; a lot of people have recommended Ben Abramovich to me, and Kraken by China Mieville is still on my shelf ready to go. I have a lot of time for Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, although arguably the premise of those spans a number of genres with a cry of ‘deal with it, suckers’ which is something I’ve always approved of. But I must admit, there are still certain things I struggle with when browsing the fantasy shelves… vampires, in particular. The day someone writes a reasonably relaxed, content with his lot vampire in a moth-eaten cardigan, I will be greatly relieved; how much tight leather can there be in this world? (I say this – I am currently writing a vampire member of Magicals Anonymous. His name is Kevin, and he has issues with oral hygiene.)
Saying all this, I would put a slight caveat on my own views forward which is this: I remain to this day slightly unclear about what urban fantasy is. The Dresden Files, for example, are modern Chandler-esque detective novels, but the magic in them is very old-school. The Felix Castor books, on the other hand, are set in the urban environment but the city itself isn’t really the point of interest. One of the greatest things about fantasy is it can span so many genres at once – horror, crime, thriller, romance – it’s all of these things – and in this context I’m not at all sure what ‘urban fantasy’ means or even if I want to give it a firm definition.
On a similar yet different note, I’d also put a question mark over graphic novels in this context. Do they fall into the realms of urban fantasy? I query in particular series like Ex Machina, which is one of the most interesting graphic novels I’ve read for a long while and which, if it was in book form (which would be disastrous, incidentally) would be so many things at once you’d hardly know where to begin. I merely raise this question… I’m no graphic novel nut, but every now and then you stumble on gems which would arguably fit the category…
I don’t know if I answered your question there. Um… I’m going to move on now…
How do you find all the various parts of London’s urban landscape that you bring in? I have this picture in my mind of you just riding around on a bus for a Saturday, taking notes and just letting the city speak to you, but perhaps that’s just projection…
I tend to walk a lot. I’ve lived in London my whole life, and as a kid I used to do this epic commute across the city from Hackney to Hammersmith – I’d leave the house at 7 a.m. and arrive at school at 8.20 a.m., and it was hideous. But one of the perks of this was I had a travelcard for seven years, and to ease the monotony of my commute I would try and take as many different routes as I could through the transport system, different buses and different stops, just to see where I could go and what I could do. I go travelcard crazy now whenever I do have one – the freedom to go anywhere by any means often results in me taking the most convoluted journeys possible, just to see what I can see.
But mostly, I walk. I went to university in London too, which, by grace of not having classes at 8.30 a.m., gave me a greater freedom to just wander wherever I wanted to and explore. Also, as I made more friends also studying in London, I started visiting them in a wider range of places. I went out a guy from South London for four years, which helped me explore that side of the river far more than I ever previously had and even now, when I’m on a job, if there is an option on walking overground one tube stop further than I need to, I’ll do it, just for the hell of it.
Has writing a series like this changed the way you view your city? I know every time I finish one of your books I spend a couple days looking at my own city (New Orleans) differently, like wondering if the graffiti is really a spell. I think you really have done a wonderful job of creating a modern magic that parallels what the traditional folklore of fae and magic forests used to be…a way to inject magic into the environment around you. Was that something you were consciously trying to do?
I do get giddily excited about random things on the street now… I mean, I was always interested in odd bits and bobs in the city, always wondered what the story was, but now when I walk down the street and I see something bewildering, a light goes on behind my eyes and a cry goes up of, ‘fantastic! I can use this!’ The quirks of the city are now things on which I like to spin stories… yellow pages left on top of bus shelters, shoes thrown over the top of telephone lines, graffiti, single left hand gloves stuck on the spike of a railing… in the old days these were just odd things to be noted and ignored, whereas now they’re the beginnings of adventures! I think the strongest case I ever had of seeing something in the city which made me realise how much my view had changed, was walking through Smithfields a few years ago. There was a poster stuck on a telephone box, showing this pale white bald face staring out from a back background with an expression I can only describe as madness on its features, and the caption, ‘give me back my hat’. Nine months later, The Midnight Mayor was finished, and these two events remain firmly causally connected.
I do try to update ‘traditional’ magic to a more modern style. If nothing else, I think it’s because of sheer practicality. If you’re a hedge witch down on her luck and it’s a choice between pure unicorn horn at a million pounds a gram, or pigeon foot at 5p a limb, which are you going to chose for your incantation? Magic should have consequences, and should have a price, and it therefore makes sense that urban migration and market forces should have had their effect on the world of magic in turn.
Were there any figures from fairy tales or fables that you intentionally tried to reinvent in a modern urban scenario, or were you just going for that feeling? Some of the characters…the Beggar King in particular comes to mind…really feel to me like they might be older “folk spirits” that changed with the times, but I don’t know folklore/minor fairy tales well enough to actually recognize any figures.
Some, yes. I mean, urban magic should be about the modern, but there are certain myths which have made it through most of human history, and certain images that seem to crop up across all cultures and societies. Beggar Kings are a very old idea indeed, along with Pirate Kings and Thief Kings – monarchs in rags, I think, is the most popular cultural conception – and certain ideas, such as the power of certain symbols, have a mathematical logic to them that time doesn’t change. (The power of blood, for example, is a fairly strong exemplar.) In other cases, I like taking the idea of traditional folklore ideas – such as the faerie court – and evolving it to its logical, modern conclusion – in my case, the Neon Court. So yes, there’s a lot of folklore in there, it’s just driving a Wolkswagen.
Do you have a particular favorite spell or monster you’ve created?
I think my favourite spell is the travelcard spell. It’s used by Swift to deny a pursing attacker entrance to the London Underground in A Madness of Angels, and essentially – indeed, exactly – it’s the terms and conditions of carriage used by Transport for London. I really liked this, because it clicks with what I think modern magic should be. There’s still a lot of urban fantasy where the spells involve chalk, pentograms, rabbit blood, crystals and intoning in long-dead languages; whereas I think modern magic should be, by definition, modern. It should take its power from the world around it, including the words – prophecies should be rapped, curses should be sent by sms, and words of power should come from real words in the real world which have, in their own way, a real power. The use is all…
My favourite monster is, I think, the saturate. It crops up in Midnight Mayor and is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever written. I think its sheer grossness appeals to the ten-year-old inside me. And on that, I will say no more…
The saturate is one of my favourites, too! I actually think I talked about it in my review of Mayor.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about what your actual writing process is like–do you outline, do you have to edit things out or add things in when you revise, etc., etc.?
I do plan, far more than I used to, in fact. It’s never a blow-by-blow account, nor do I outline objectives like ‘in this chapter, x must happen’ but I always know where I’m going, and who’s done what, and what the likely consequences will be. Big set pieces I tend to have in mind, remembering generally that the more emotion has been invested in whatever spectacular event is about to happen, the more exciting it will be. (Whenever I talk about writing showdowns, I always cite two case examples… The Fantastic Four and Sherlock. I have no idea if you’ve seen either, but if you haven’t, I can heartily recommend Sherlock. Anyway, the moral is something like this… Fantastic Four has more special effects, fireworks and things going ‘boom’ than you’ve ever seen, and yet you really couldn’t give a damn about it really. Sherlock, on the other hand, has a twenty-minute long showdown at the end of its first episode, where two people merely sit and talk about two pills on a table, and it’s utterly riveting. Point being… ain’t about how much you blow up, but whether you care that it’s on fire. Anyway, massive diversion there….)
Once I start writing, I tend not to look back until it’d done. I’m very headlong in… well… most things. Possibly a fault, that, but oh well. There is editing after… I also naively hope I’m getting better at editing too! I used to despise editing, but actually in recent months I’ve kinda warmed to it as a chance to Get It Right Damnit. That said, one day, not here, ask me about the Great Kindle Editing Fiasco 2011…
What’s next for Matthew? I know the 4th book is out next spring…can you tell us anything about it yet? Will book 4 be the end of the line for Matthew or does the character/world still have more to show us?
The fourth book is indeed out in March 2012, I think – and it’s definitely not the end. The Minority Council is a story of mobsters, ASBOs, social workers, good intentions going wrong, bad intentions for the right reasons and above all else, fairy dust. And I think that’s the most I can safely say about it…
There’s a fifth and sixth book also commissioned in the series. For the first time, though, they aren’t narrated by Swift – although he appears a lot in them both – but focus on the first ever heroine I’ve ever written, Sharon Li, a shaman. It’s the same world, with many of the same characters, including Swift, but Sharon’s unlikely role as head of an organisation called Magicals Anonymous – the self-help group for people with mystic problems – leads to all sorts of adventures that Swift probably wouldn’t have. I’m hoping there’ll be more Swift books too, as the more I get into the world, the more I realise its possibilities!
Wow, you’re this many books into your writing career, and Sharon will be your first female protagonist? That’s…unusual (even if it shouldn’t be). Was there a reason your heroes were all males till now, or did it just happen that way? Is there any reason you’re worried about writing from a female point of view, either in terms of how you the author approach the character or how you think your readers will?
When I first started writing, back in the dark ages, I did write female protagonists… until I realised that my women weren’t characters at all, they were diagrammatic illustrations of some sort of feminist figure with a very large sword, a no-nonsense attitude, and an infallibility that actually made them incredibly dull. There’s always a danger, I think, when writing anyone too close to yourself, that you end up creating either a fantasy of how you think you should be, or a character who is more of a political statement than a fully fledged individual. By writing men, I found it much easier to write someone whose voice I could sympathise with, and occasionally even share, but who was different enough from what I am that I had no compulsions about giving them flaws, beating them with sticks and giving them a ‘you want what?’ attitude towards impending catastrophes. A friend pointed out once that what I tend to do is write a rather weedy hero surrounded by large numbers of frighteningly on it women. Somehow, seeing all these rather frighteningly feisty female characters from the point of view of a male protagonist, makes it much easier to write all parties concerned as rounded characters. I’ve also been worried by how many heroines, in fantasy in particular, seem to fall into a cliché of being Strong Yet Vulnerable, Plucky Yet Needy, Righteous Yet Afraid etc., before at last finding a man who is Loyal And Strong to stand by her as she makes the Dangerous Decisions while very much being a Woman In a Man’s World, and how few of them ever seem to manifest much in the way of irony or humour as a result. While this is infinitely better than the old princess-stuck-in-tower business, I still never really felt satisfied that I’d met, or could produce, a heroine who I particularly liked.
In recent years the idea of writing a heroine has grown on me, I suspect partially because characters like Penny and Oda have been playing ever increasing parts in the books. In fact, to a degree I suspect even Tess, the child-thief from the Extraordinary Adventures, helped a lot with this, in the sense that I initially thought I wouldn’t enjoy writing her and, by the end of the series, absolutely loved it when she waltzed onto the page. They weren’t, any of them, the primary narrator, but they brought so much sparkle into things whenever they turned up that I suspect I began, unconsciously, to warm to the idea…
All of which brings us to the advent of Sharon, my first ever heroine! I guess I should add that I have made efforts to keep her reasonably distant from me, in terms of her origin and language, as I’m still rather wary of writing someone who’s just a fantasy version of what I want myself to be. But she isn’t one of the Tough And Brave heroine clichés I’ve been trying to avoid – her story is very much one of bumbling confusion and accidental measures, all of which evolve into something entirely different. She doesn’t leap up with a cry of ‘hurrah, evil, let me slay it!’ nor does she react to danger with ‘for truth and light!’ but rather is exactly what I think any protagonist should be… human, rounded and scared of sharp things coming towards her at very high speed. It’s almost daft, really, that it’s taken me this long to work out that this was all I really needed from a heroine… just like any damn hero!
What’s next for you? I know you also write as Catherine Webb–any big news for that identity?
Hum… it’s an interesting one, in the sense that I am writing lots of other stuff, including plays and screenplays (both highly speculative, I hasten to add!), and naturally when I write my name beneath them I write it as who I really am – Catherine Webb. But the whole Kate Griffin persona was largely created to distinguish my younger works from the adult stuff, and the plays and the screenplays remain vaguely adult so…
… I honestly don’t know. If the question was simply ‘are you writing stuff that isn’t all Swift’ the answer would be yes. However, whether this stuff is going to be under my name, or a completely new identity, preferably one with an amazing beard and a history of Antarctic exploration, I have no idea.
Big thanks to Kate for the lovely insight into her world. If you haven’t yet checked out this series, I can’t recommend it enough for everyone who lives in and loves a modern city.
You can find out more aboute Kate and her novels at her website: http://www.kategriffin.net/