It was more than a privilege for Literatwo to conduct this first exclusive
„Lockwood & Co.“ – interview with Jonathan Stroud
for his German publisher CBJ. The German transcription is available on the official book page of CBJ and we have started our article series with the special „Literatwo meets Jonathan Stroud„. As promised, we now open our secret book with the complete original edition of this impressive interview
Jonathan, you carry your readers off into a very beautiful/scary ghost-atmosphere in the London of our times. The presence of ghosts has grown to a dangerous dimension all over the country. Ghost-lamps dominate the urban image and a ban on going out is imposed. What inspired you to write about the subject of ghost-hunting in your very unique personal style?
I’ve always loved ghost stories of various kinds – succinct folkloric tales, the classic short stories of the English tradition (especially the work of M R James) and ambiguous studies in psychology (such as the great Turn of the Screw by Henry James). I also grew up watching TV shows with kids investigating creepy stuff (which usually turned out to be fake ghosts created by crooks trying to scare people away from their loot). So it’s a great and familiar tradition. But normally these stories are small-scale: they depend for their effect on everything being intimate and localised. I wondered if it would be possible to keep that small-scale scariness, but combine it with something bigger – a series of adventures taking place across a city, across a country… What if ghosts were a nationwide problem that everyone had to cope with? What would be the implications?
Can you explain your personal attitude towards ghosts? Do you believe in ghost stories and is it imaginable for you, that someone who dies is not willing to leave this earth after his final breath?
I am afraid of ghosts – when it’s a dark night and my imagination runs away with me – but I don’t think I believe in them. (You can see a tiny bit of uncertainty in my answer there!) I’ve never knowingly seen one, although there have been incidents in my family history which seem to confirm psychic connections. One of my great-great uncles walked every day past the same hut at the side of the road. One day he got a horrible feeling as he approached it; he stopped, turned round and took another way home. It later turned out that someone had hung himself in that hut that very morning, and was swinging there in the dark as my uncle approached… That’s the family story, anyway! As to what happens after death, this is the great mystery – and that mystery is at the heart of our love/fear of ghostly things: we’re conflicted. We want something of us to survive death, but we’re frightened about what that might be.
You classify ghosts into different categories and constitute the reasons and motivations for their presence. In the foreground, the search for justice is one of the most important reasons to stay as a ghost. They find no peace because injustice happened to them in the past. Can you tell us one reason that could be responsible for you, not to leave mother earth and stay as a ghost? And how would your ghost put the cat among the pigeons?
Ha, ha! Why would my ghost return? Hmm… Maybe if my publishers stopped selling my books after I was gone, I’d have to come back and stalk their office, glowering at them from behind their desk, or throwing paperclips into their coffees, until they put nice new editions of Lockwood and Bartimaeus into print. Or if a rival author pushed me under a tram, I’d come back and drive them slowly mad by materialising in their mirror while they were doing their teeth each morning. It would be fun.
Even in the most horrible situations your readers are overrun by a very special kind of „Stroud-humour“. Shivering and laughing are constantly going hand in hand in your story. Is this part of your own character, to find reasons to laugh even in the worst situations?
I hope so, at least in my fiction. One of the things I’m trying to do with Lockwood is to fuse the proper traditional scariness of the ghost story with some real humour. Most ghost stories (not all) depend for their effect on seriousness and on a certain morbid obsession with death and the past. I want to keep that, but lighten it too by combining it with other traditions – the zest of the traditional adventure story, the mysteries of detective fiction, the jokes and character-based joy of humorous tales. If you can get the balance right, it should be a wonderful cocktail. That’s my theory, anyway!
In your story „Lockwood & Co“, adults have reached the limits of their capabilities. They are blunted and not sensible enough even to find or to catch ghosts. Only children and youths are the real heroes and able to use all senses for this dangerous profession. Is this your very personal bow to a young and sensitive generation, which is still able to dream and feel?
Yes, definitely (though in reality most adults still retain these same qualities too, only rather muffled and subdued by the grinding responsibilities of life). The wonderful thing about children, which I pay tribute to in these books, is a willingness to embrace everything. All doors are open to them: they are willing to explore and experiment, to face up to new challenges; they have extreme sensitivity to everything around them. They’re also very good at doing this all at once, flipping from one thing to another, which is why I have my heroes fighting ghosts one minute, and swapping jokes the next. I think this links in with the last question, and to my attempt to mix together different kinds of genre. Having a flexible palate of genres echoes the flexibility of my heroes – and also of my readers. Anyway, my characters’ sensitivity to ghosts is a great metaphor for this wonderful receptivity in the young.
The Agency „Lockwood & Co“ consists only of young people. Sensitive, analytical, feeling and seeing – they are a perfect combination of abilities and a very impressive ghost hunter-team. Do you characterize yourself more emotional and sensitive or are you an analyst in your real life?
Ooh, good question. I think the honest answer is that I’m somewhere in the middle. Probably most writers would have to say the same. You have to be pretty good at rational analysis if you’re going to put a novel together; at the same time, you have to have access to your emotions too, and also be sensitive to how other people work, otherwise your books will end up pretty barren.
Are you still able to walk through London or your house without looking out for ghosts or any supernatural phenomenon? What do you think will happen to your readers after finishing the first book of the series?
I do get a little jumpy on a long dark night when the rain’s rattling at the windows…. My hope for my readers is that they get a tiny bit nervous too, but only in a good way. It hasn’t been published yet, but a friend gave the manuscript to her 13-year-old daughter, who then couldn’t get to sleep afterwards. Her quote: “You see, I got carried away reading that Lockwood book, and it’s windy outside and it’s about ghosts and now I need some reassurance.” I confess I was secretly a bit pleased by this. But actually what I want to pass on is a warm combination of excitement, laughter and the creeps. If I manage all three, the job is done.
The cover of „Lockwood & Co – The Screamin Staircase“ is adorned by a padlock. Whom would you like to hand out the key to your new and mysterious world of ghost stories? Is there any ideal-typical Jonathan Stroud-reader whom you are writing for… is it perhaps even the reader of Bartimäus?
When I began writing Bartimaeus I consciously tried to create something which I would have loved to read at the age of 12, and which I would ALSO have loved to have read right then, as I was writing, at the grand old age of 31. The same is true now with Lockwood (except that I’m perhaps a little older…). So I always have a split sensibility – I want it to be accessible and entertaining for both young and old. I don’t think this is too difficult: the basic love of a good story is something that we all share, at any age. The first myths and folktales were told round the campfires to the whole community. This is why fairy tales (and much children’s literature), has a universal currency.
Let`s talk about your world success Bartimäus. These books may be luck or hypothec for your new project. Luck because it may be easier for you to reach a lot of readers with a new story but also hypothec perhaps because the expectations are very high. Is it a problem for you if Lockwood will be compared with Bartimäus?
I’m certainly lucky to have had one series that has achieved such a success, and of course it’s inevitable that this second series is going to be compared with the one that went before… But I’m happy to see what happens. I’ve tried to put many of the Bartimaeus ingredients into the Lockwood recipe – keeping a similar mix of character, jokes and adventure, for example – so I hope that readers who liked Bart will find a few familiar things to enjoy here too.
Is it possible to write ghost-stories in daylight or do you need the darkness of the night to find the right inspirations?
Daytime is fine. I usually think better when the sun’s out. I don’t have much vampire blood in me.
Is there a real house like Combe Carey Hall in the UK? A lot of ghost generations are present in this setting which was very fascinating for us. (And by the way… the name sounds great in German ears).
Glad you like the name! Well, there used to be a very famous building called Borley Rectory in Essex, which got the title of the ‘most haunted house in England’. About eighty years ago many psychic researchers went there to investigate dozens of different ghost sightings. There were strange footsteps, bells ringing, a ghostly nun wandering in the gardens, messages scratched on walls, a phantom coach-and-horses… you name a spooky event, you could find it at Borley. I suspect that the place’s notoriety reflected the rather neurotic interest in psychic phenomena that was at its height in Britain in the first few decades of that century. Anyway, the house was burned down in 1939, but I think there have been reports of hauntings on the site since then. I should go and track down the site one day.
Your main narrating perspective tells the story out of the sight of the 15 years old girl-agent Lucy. Was it special challenge for you to choose a female point of view for your story?
I did find it something of a challenge, but I quite liked it for that reason. I’ve tried writing from a girl’s perspective before: half of Die Spur ins Schattenland [The Leap] is narrated by a girl called Charlie, and great chunks of the Bartimaeus books followed (though they weren’t narrated by) my female heroes Kitty and Asmira. For Lockwood, I thought that a first person narration might be important, so that the ghost scenes could gain extra power and immediacy, and I also wanted to avoid a male persona that might veer us too close to the voice of Bartimaeus. So I picked on Lucy. Having her as my intermediary allows us to view Lockwood himself from close quarters, but helps retain his air of mystery, which will carry over into future books in the series. Meanwhile, her own psychic sensitivity (she listens to ghosts) is slightly at odds with those of Lockwood and George, and may take the team in interesting directions.
Are you determined to write series? And what`s the reason to present the Lockwood & Co books in a construction in which every book self-contained? How many books may we expect in the future?
I’m not wedded to writing series. My first three novels were stand-alones, and Heroes of the Valley, which I think is one of my best books, was always planned as a single, self-contained tale. But there are certain advantages to developing series. It allows you to slowly develop a complex, consistent world, and gradually uncover the personalities of your characters as they explore it. In a way, too, the explorations of the heroes mimic my own writerly explorations as I figure out the implications of the world myself. Having said that, I do want each book to have its own coherent structure, and to work on its own terms. With the Bartimaeus series, I tried to give each novel its own distinct flavour (The Golem’s Eye is quite gothic and political, for instance; The Ring of Solomon is perhaps lighter and more playful), and I’d like to give the books in the Lockwood series their own identities too. I’m not sure how many titles there will be yet: I have plans for several more, but I’m trying to keep it open-ended, so that I can respond to all the new ideas that crop up as I write.
The world of ghosts is wide open now. What can we expect from the future “Lockwood”–stories? Do you think, we will meet ghosts of famous persons and the agency expands with some new characters?
There will be plenty of new characters, that’s for sure. I deliberately kept „The Screaming Staircase“ fairly tight and small-scale, because I wanted to focus on the three main characters and the way they operated together. The second book, which I’m writing now, promises to work on a wider canvas, with lots more locations around London, and plenty of new characters from all across the city’s stratified society. There’ll be night-watch kids and black marketers, and powerful agents and businessmen, and many new categories of ghost thrown in. It should keep me busy for a few months! Oh, and I like the idea of famous people turning up in ghost form… We’ll see. The great thing about breaking apart the barrier to the afterlife is that many strange things become possible that wouldn’t work in an ordinary tale. As long as I keep the rules clear in my head (strong rules being the fundamental necessity in all fantasy), I should be able to have a lot of fun…
The wise tablecloth… more than a normal blanket on a table in your story. It is a kind of mind mapping method because the agents use it as a diary and they communicate with short notices when they don´t want to talk to each other. Have you hidden a secret method of dispute settlement in Lockwood & Co?
Ha ha, yes! And I haven’t explored the real possibilities of that tablecloth yet. The idea was suggested to me by my eight-year-old daughter, and I at once thought it had all kinds of interesting implications. It could be used for humorous reasons (George writes rude notes and pictures on it), but also for some serious figuring out, or for urgent communications. You’re right that it could be a short-cut leading to the inner lives of our heroes, and I’m quite sure it’ll have some very important plot role in a future adventure. This is the kind of little detail that comes to fruition steadily, book by book.
No Literatwo interview without our very special last question: Which question would you like to answer in an interview? The only problem: no one asks you the question!
Where have you been happiest?
And now finally our last and very surprising question: Where have you been happiest? 😉
1. Summit of Crinkle Crags, Lake District, England
2. Walking above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
3. On any outbound journey, with my family at my side.
Thanks a lot, Jonathan for all these interesting answers. We wish you all the luck of your life with your new series „Lockwood & Co„.