In Conversation with Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Sam Jordison talks to Jon Courtenay Grimwood about Venice, The Fallen Blade and future plans.

This Q and A is kind of a bonus article for this month’s Salon Futura. I originally hadn’t planned to write it at all. I’d been enjoying Grimwood’s latest novel, The Fallen Blade, and that had set me thinking about the various ways Venice is used in literature, and how it inspires writers. From there I decided Jeanette Winterson’s Venice-based novel, The Passion, would be an excellent subject for my series on interesting books that you may not have read because they have been shelved in the part of the store you don’t look at. Since The Fallen Blade had first got me thinking about Venice, I thought it might also be interesting to try to get in touch with Jon Courtenay Grimwood to fill in some background for my article. I sent him a few questions. The trouble was that when the replies came they were so fascinating, so well-written and so detailed that it seemed a terrible shame just to hack them about to support my ideas. They were more than worth printing in full. Cheryl agreed and so here they are — together with a few more general questions JCG kindly agreed to answer once we knew we were going to run this extra piece.

Q. Could you give me an idea of what the book’s about – and of the broad vision for the Assassini series? (Easier asked than done, I know…)

A. If I was putting it into a Douglas Adamsesque 30 second radio sound bite, I’d say, “It’s an alt-historical Bildungsroman about an unread assassin who doesn’t know what he is because no one’s stuck a label on him yet.”

The book riffs off Othello and steals a little from Hamlet, and is based in Renaissance Venice around the story of the first vampire into Europe. It’s also — in flashback — the history of the last Viking settlement in America.

All my books are love stories and about what it means to be human because that’s what interests me. I visualise the process of becoming vampire as being akin to adolescence. You can remember being a child (human) and see forward to becoming an adult (vampire) but right now you’re somewhere in the middle and wondering in which direction to look.

There are three books and I have the arc for them all. Whether there are more depends on the publisher, and also on my still liking Tycho as a character. But if there are, there will be a hundred year jump between books three and four!

Q. I’d also like to know about what started you off with the story more generally? And, related to that, why Venice?

A. It started with an image in my head of an impossibly-beautiful naked corpse chained in darkness to the bulkhead of a ship (I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with that). The dead boy opened his eyes and I knew he wasn’t really dead. I realised the ship was in the Venetian lagoon shortly afterwards. Every novelist has a different way of writing but I need to see the story to write it. And, to a lesser extend, hear the dialogue.

Venice is bi-polar and I’ve always loved that. It’s a cliché to say it’s a city of sex and death, but it really is. All those young lovers, all those old lovers, all those ghosts… The city’s been dying for a thousand years and every time I go there I’m moved by its fight to stay alive.

Q. I really like the fact that you’ve created a kind of Venice of the mind… Would you be able to tell me something about how closely you stuck to the real place and history – and where your imagination took over. It seems to me that there’s some careful research in The Fallen Blade… but I could be wrong!

A. Venice is in the mind. Everyone who goes there arrives with a slightly different expectation and believes they know in advance what they will see. All cities change by season but Venice more than most. The streets of the high summer tourist hell are very different to the waterlogged, rain filled streets of late autumn. The real Venice is one outsiders never see. Even Italians from the mainland probably never see what those born there see. Fewer people live there than ever and fewer still speak Venetian, but that sense of a hermetic truth denied to outsiders is part of its attraction.

That said, I did what I always do when locating a book: bought maps and then started visiting. Setting The Fallen Blade in Venice was obviously different to setting End of the World Blues in Tokyo, because I approached Tokyo clean but carried with me memories of childhood trips to Venice. I think my sense of Venice being dark and dangerous behind the mask comes from those. I remember being struck as a small child by how many of the paintings in the city were of people being tortured.

The back history to the Fallen Blade sees my Venice ruled by the descendants of Marco Polo, who returned fabulously rich from his time in the court of Kublai Khan. The Mongol connection took some basic research. Marco Polo’s family have established trade with China — which the Venetians had — and this has made them even richer. Byzantium is also stronger than it was in 1407. But I’m trying to use real characters where possible. (Allowing for fictional playing, the extensive stealings from Shakespeare, obviously!)

Q. How did you research the wider political situation in the fifteenth century?

A. Most of the background is fudged from memories of Boccaccio’s Decameron, mixed with history picked up on trips to Venice, hours at the Byzantium exhibition at the RCA a couple of years ago, rereading James Chambers book on the Mongols, and my magpie tendency to store useless facts.

So I knew when the Medicis began their dukedom; how long before this Venice had sacked Constantinople; when Tamburlaine began trying to reunite the Mongol empire; when the Turks defeated a Byzantine force that might have stopped their rise.

Making Marco Polo’s descendants hereditary dukes of Venice — the Millioni is his nickname, either applied to his riches or the lies he told — was an easy jump. As was making Venice, already rich from centuries of trade with the east, even richer through his family’s personal links with the khans. Venice was the Singapore of its day, but with an empire attached. It was a mix of races and religions and one of the few places in Europe where Jews were allowed to settle. And it had the fondacios, autonomous trading stations owned by other countries. Coal, iron, tin, amber, wood, corn, oil, silk, glass, porcelain, jewellery… Venice traded them all.

Q. The book is politically cynical. In fact, cynical doesn’t even begin to describe some of the politics. Obviously that’s a good fit with Venice, but I couldn’t help wondering when I was reading it if you were ever thinking of our own contemporary glorious leaders… In fact it seemed to me that there are all sorts of collisions. There’s fantasy and history, magic and human frailty, Venice and our contemporary society. Am I right to see reflections of different realities all over the novel? And if so, were you very conscious of them when you were writing… Were they something you wanted to promote? Or did they just flow naturally out of the story?

A. The Venice of early Renaissance history has to be the most cynical city in the world! A state so wonderfully two faced it could transport crusaders for a price, while sending warning messages ahead to those about to be attacked. (Thus ensuring Venice banked the money from transporting Christian armies while not damaging its trade with the Moslem East.)

What I wanted to do was write a fantasy that could be read on any level. It’s a straight alt-historical novel. It’s a vampire story. A Renaissance romp. For those who bother with such things there are Shakespearian borrowings.

Then there’s the fact the Venetian oligarchy has frightening echoes of those ruling our post-Soviet world (although that should probably be the other way round). And the wars fought for all the wrong reasons and the misuse of patriotism, the cost of being human… These aren’t meant to intrude, but they’re there if you want to recognise them.

Q. I’m also really interested in the challenge of making sympathetic characters out of people who often choose (and/or are forced) to do incredibly brutal things. I even developed a soft spot for Duchess Alexa… Which was quite confusing since judged by her actions she’s really quite nasty. Any secrets you can divulge?

A. When I wrote neoAddix in the early 1990s I had a long transatlantic call from an American agent — very generous behaviour — warning me not to make my 800-year-old psychopathic villain a doting grandfather because fiction didn’t work like that. I’m still not sure I entirely agree. No one wants to write a book full of unsympathetic characters — and pretty much everyone who publishes fiction has been hammered by a reviewer who hates one particular character’s behaviour — equally, writing white hats and black hats is boring. So I try to give my heroes flaws and my villains virtues. It’s a cliché, but no one’s the villain in their own life.

I adore Alexa and she’s a monster. She murders, she betrays, she plays both sides against the middle. Her sole weakness is her love for Lady Giulietta, her niece. Even then she wants to control Giulietta’s behaviour. The key to writing Alexa was understanding she’s a Mongol princess in a strange city, in a strange culture, doing her best to keep her son alive, and Venice out of the hands of foreign enemies; despite the fact the city she’s trying to protect mostly despises her. Apply that logic to my other characters and some are instinctively good and some bad, but all should be understandable.

Q. I’m similarly fascinated by your vision of Venice — which is so dark, dangerous and unhygienic. It’s very different to the place people go on their holidays now. But also seems more true, in a way. Did you visit Venice when you were writing the book? And were you always seeing the darker layers of history – and I guess your own imagination — behind the bright tourist façade?

A. So far I’ve made four trips to the city tied into writing the book. The first was to get the feel of the place and the second to nail down locations. The rest to fill in gaps. I also bought an original 1640 map, based on an earlier map, which gave me the city’s old shape.

There are definitely a number of Venices layered over each other and the murano glass and glitter only hides so much of its darker core. It’s hard not realise the city is constructed from stolen property. The palace and basilica alone are a mass of looted statues, pillars stolen from synagogues and mosques and churches, pillaged artworks. The evidence of the saying Venetians first, Christians second is obvious. This dark heart makes it perfect for fiction. And the hundreds of novels set in the city just prove how hard the lure is to resist.

As a child I decided the water around the city trapped the ghosts and stopped them leaving and that was why the place felt so strange. A bit of me still half believes it.

Q. What’s next? Are you writing anything at the moment?

A. I’m about to finish the third and final draft of The Outcast Blade, which is the second book in the series. I have Thrones & Powers, a huge crime novel set in Heaven, Hell and Mexico City, burning a hole in my bottom drawer, I have a couple of other fairly fantastical ideas that want to get out. The three Assassini books definitely come first. My entire brain, conscious — and I suspect unconscious — is riding shotgun on the shoulders of a vampire deep in 15th century Venice.

About the Interviewee

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta and christened in the upturned bell of a ship. He grew up in the Far East, Britain and Scandinavia. Apart from novels he writes for magazines and newspapers.

Felaheen, the third of his novels featuring Asraf Bey, a half-Berber detective, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. So did his last book, End of the World Blues, about a British sniper on the run from Iraq and running an Irish bar in Tokyo. The Fallen Blade, the first of three novels set in an alternate 15th-century Venice is published in US in Jan 11 & UK and Aus in Feb 11. He is now finishing the second book in the sequence.

He is married to the journalist and novelist Sam Baker, currently editor-in-chief of Red magazine. They divide their time between London and Winchester…