What I've been getting up to so far
WARNING - LOTS OF SPOILERS TO BOTH DS1 and DS2!!!
These are a few notes I have jotted down about the creation of the Dragonslayer world, and what sort of things went through my head as I was writing them.
The Last Dragonslayer was begun in 1997 following my return from shooting The Mask of Zorro in Mexico. The shoot had been quite lucrative, so we could not only afford to buy a Toyota Previa to replace our ageing Peugeot, but also go on holiday in Florida - and for me, some time to not work, probably the best state of affairs imaginable for someone who is attempting to get a writing career working.
I had, at this time, written five unpublished books - The Big Over Easy, The Fourth Bear, The Eyre Affair and It was a Dark and Stormy Night. The publication of Eyre Affair was still four years away, and I would write Dragonslayer and Long Division before this came to pass. I was still very much a hobby-writer.
Dragonslayer was a departure for me. I had up until this time been writing books which used previously known characters (Nursery Rhyme and those from popular classics) so the idea of branching out into my own people and situations was quite clearly in my mind.
The notion of subverting genres was also still very much in my mind, as I had greatly enjoyed playing with the tired crime genre in Big Over Easy. I thought I should do the same for the Magic Fantasy genre, and make a world that while recognisable as such, had a few unique touches that would separate it from the rest - and explore cliched fantasy tropes that everyone else had being staying away from.
For a start, Jennifer Strange can't do magic. She is an agent for those that can. Magic is something that can make you odd and difficult to live with - in the same way that stereotypical mad scientists can't really tie their own shoelaces. It was, I had hoped, a fresh approach.
In Jennifer's world, magic is an arcane science, very real but somehow maligned - that some evil wizard tried to gain power years ago, and this led to a long and deep-seated suspicion that lasts to this very day, and affects all that magic is and can be.
It was this sense of 'Genre-poking' that set the tone for pretty much all the aspects of the settings, from the magicians actually having what amount to stage names. 'The Mighty Shandar' is actually one of Danny Rose's acts from the Woody Allen film of the same name, and 'The Great Zambini' is someone clearly more at home sawing ladies in half than conjuring up the weather. The title of the House of Enchantment that Jennifer works on is the same - Kazam.
The idea of the unUnited Kingdoms was created so I could inject all sorts of geopolitical pressures and possibilities, and also as a nod toward the fact that unification, for most of us is very much past history. Up until quite recently, most countries were made up of dozens of duchies and principalities. Echoes of the system are still about - Monaco, Andorra and Luxembourg all managed to retain a partial independence, and remain in a very Dragonslayerish way today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are for the most part run as personal fiefdoms. So we now have a UK without unification, and a whole series of bizarre nations that do their own thing but also manage to trade and go to war with equal enthusiasm. It also gives a sense of internal menace with the all-powerful (sometimes), and the notion that in a small kingdom, contact with Royals is a very real possibility.
The blending of the medieval and the modern is something that I have found hugely charming ever since reading the delightful and groundbreaking Trigan Empire by Butterworth and Lawrence within the pages of Look and Learn a now defunct magazine for inquiring boys and girls that I read voraciously in the seventies. The Trigan Empire was an odd mixture of high tech and the Roman Empire, and the notion of Jennifer driving around in a Volkswagen while King Snodd lives in a castle and beheads people seemed the right sort of mix.
(Actually, King Snodd doesn't behead people. It's dreadfully out of fashion, and Queen Mimosa doesn't approve.)
Jennifer was to be about sixteen, very headstrong and a foundling (Orphans have no parents; foundlings are left somewhere. Their parents are unknown. It's not as rare as you might think. Many modern nations offer 'baby hatch' facilities where mothers can leave their unwanted babies in a warm and safe environment where they will be found and cared for.)
The reason I use the 'orphan' notion is because it is one of the many tropes of the fantasy genre. A child without parents do crop up a lot in Fantasy. Foundlings in Jennifer's world are actually a step down from orphans, and since I like to use the rule of 'logical idea progression', I decided to make the unUnited Kingdoms run on an 'Orphan-based economy'. Foundlings and orphans are sold to work in the hotel and fast food industries. Kazam, the House of Enchantment that Jenny enters, has done precisely this. She cannot leave before her eighteen birthday and has seemingly has little or no rights - which puts her at the bottom end of society and gives her little to lose, something that tends to guide her more impetuous side.
The power of magic is waning, we learn, and once great wizards are forced to do what they can to survive - mostly house improvements and mundane stuff like that. I like the notion of a sense of 'faded grandeur' about the mystical arts. It is no coincidence that we are living through similar times, when industries that were once all powerful are having their influence diminished by the digital revolution and the internet. The press, music industry, shopping, publishing, to name a few.
Dragons, too, were obviously keen to the plot and Jennifer was clearly going to be the last Dragonslayer. The one and only dragon looks upon the human race with a jaundiced eye and from the viewpoint of someone who has observed humans for so long that their pattern of behaviour can be seen for what it is - a bit pointless and generally in circles. There is one exchange between Maltcassion and Jennifer I am particularly fond of:
"You may help yourself to some gold or jewels by way of payment, Miss Strange."
"I require no payment, Sir."
"Really? I thought all mankind gravitated towards things that were shiny? I'm not saying its necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to species development, it could be limiting."
It is this sense of weary wisdom that I like about him. He knows so much, and can see and understand so much - yet he seemingly does little with all this wisdom, and instead calmly awaits his end.
Jennifer works, I think because she, much like Thursday Next before her, understands the right thing to do and unquestionably heads towards that goal with scant regard for anything else - personal safety, the ostracism of the wizards - even potentially upsetting Tiger Prawns and passing up the chance of her own freedom. It is this sense of right and wrong and how one should act uncompromisingly towards an inner moral compass is certainly what drives her.
The Quarkbeast was always there, right from the get-go. He/she/it goes against the grain as to what a animal companion should be. Tintin had snowy as his constant companion, but in the mythical world of Jennifer where creatures can be invented by magicians, the Quarkbeast seemed a more illogical choice, and as such works very well. I find the idea of a creature too hideous to even look at very appealing, and the two of them would cut an amazing duo, wandering down the road together. She looking quite innocent and unassuming, and the beast causing grown men to faint. I am delighted to report that the Quarkbeast remains a firm favourite with readers, which perhaps explained why I brought him back for book two.
In many senses the book started to write itself once I knew where it was going, and the notion of Greed as a far more powerful emotion than love does have a great deal to commend it. This idea, along with the crowds of eager citizens ready and waiting to grab a parcel of land also slotted in quite well, allowing me to not only set up a reasonable scenario, but to pay it off, too.
I completed the first draft in a record 28 days, which stood in at 50,000 words. It is closer to 70,000 words today, as much detail was added to make it either more fun, explain a bit more of what was going on, or slowing down the pace which had become somewhat frenetic.
So why publish in 2010 a book you wrote in 1997?
Good question. When I had initially approached Tif (who would become my agent) in 2000 I had been promoting Dragonslayer so it was an obvious choice. Tif (bless her) liked it, but thought it could be seen as a spinoff Harry Potter book, which wouldn't do anything for my credibility as an author wanting to make a splash, so she asked what else I had. I gave her The Eyre Affair, and she managed to find a publisher for that within the month.
Fast forwards to January 2010, and Tif was leaving her agency to spend more time with her children, and as a parting shot she told my new agents to 'get Jasper to show you Dragonslayer'. I did, and they liked it and had sold it to my lovely lovely publishers. It meant two books a year for three years, but how hard can that be? Quite hard, to be honest. Especially with a new baby.
The second in the series was written in 88 days during the first half of 2011. There was no specific plan, but there were a heap of unused ideas from book one that I had not used and wanted to expand upon. I wanted to feature Industrial Magic, Kazam's competitor, and now known as 'iMagic'. There was always going to be a Wizard's Dual, as once again, it is a trope that has been used time and time again, and I wanted to do something a bit different with it - something dull like building a bridge with teamwork. Not, one would have thought, the most exciting prospect. Another trope I explore is the notion of being turned into a newt what it means to be turned to stone, and how this might be something of a problem. In a good example of reverse-explanation, we find out where the stoning enchantment came from, and why it is so useful - to suspend animation, and allow sorcerers to live greatly elongated lives. We sleep for twenty-six years of our life. It would be good to have all that time added on to our lives at the end. And sleeping and being stone aren't so very different, so long as you get the decalcification spell working properly.
Exploring new ideas allowed me to play with the notion of the Magicoelectrical Technologies issue, and that when the magic started vanishing, all the technology based on magic was also shut down - the mobile phone network, for one. Most modern technology these days seems like magic, so I guess that is the gag, although thinking about it there are other things which could be magic, too - like bicycles staying up and compasses pointing to the North.
This got me to thinking that with the power of magic starting to rise once again, that whoever controlled magic could become very powerful indeed, and to this end I could get the king involved, eager to make some cash. Luckily for me, I had built a strong sense of arcane protocol within the series. The king cannot simply decree stuff; there are set ways in which to do something - hence the challenge to Kazam by iMagic, and Jenny having to accept it.
All this adds a sense of creeping impossibility for Jennifer as the book progresses. The sorcerers that we have at the beginning are soon disposed of in one way or another until it looks as though Blix will almost certainly win. And since we know he can't, there must be a way around Jennifer's predicament.
I didn't feature the dragons as it didn't feel right. They're too powerful, to be honest, and if Jennifer had a problem she could take it to them and they would do something about it, but its more interesting with Jenny dealing with things on her own.
I like Once Magnificent Boo a lot. Someone who could have been all-powerful and right in the centre of the magic industry rather than being on the sidelines as she is now. The mystery of why she was once magnificent is not revealed until the end, which is just as well, because I was working on another of my 'writing challenges' for the ending of the book. Namely:
How many plausible reverses could use at the end and still get away with it?
Five, as it turned out. Here they are:
As the contest begins, Blix and Co are obviously going to win. What's more, Jennifer turned down a deal to get everyone at Kazam into safe and comfortable retirement. She has not only lost - but failed everyone at Kazam. Blix has the upper hand.
The first reverse begins with Queen Mimosa telling her husband that this is no contest at all and she persuades him to free two sorcerers which he does. Jenny gets the Daisy-chain working, and success is assured as the iMagic team fail utterly and Blix legs it. Jenny has the upper hand.
The real plot to assassinate the royal family is uncovered. It looks as though they will all be killed in an uncontrolled wizidrical detonation, caused by Quarkbeasts recombining following a separation. Blix has the upper hand.
The daring Quarkbeast capture takes place, and Blix is foiled. Jenny has the upper hand.
They all go to lunch, the adventure seemingly over. Blix enters disguised as Samantha, we have the throw-away father line (annoyed my editors who groaned audibly until moving on a few lines) and although Blix is attempting to get the upper hand, he fails - and is then suddenly infused with four Gigashandars of crackle. The now all-powerful Blix most definitely has the upper hand.
We then reveal the truth about Once Magnificent Boo, and there is the final reversal. Jenny once more has the upper hand.
It was great fun to engineer, but as you can see, needed careful planning! I'm sure there is a lot more I could say, but I've rambled long enough.
I hope you like the book, and if you do, tell your friends...
Jasper Fforde November 2011