Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.” Barnesandnoble.com listed it has one of the 20 best paranormal fantasies of the past decade, and Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels described it as, “so funny I laughed out loud.” His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Chizine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as anthologies such as The Book of Cthulhu 2 and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.
Haralambi Markov: Hello, Jonathan. Welcome! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Let’s get right to it. Your sophomore novel – Yesterday’s Hero – is hitting the shelves soon. I’ll pretend I’ve no clue what it’s about. How would you sell it to me in as few words as possible?
Jonathan Wood: A team of misfit secret agents from England attempt to thwart the diabolical plans of a team of time-travelling Russian wizards. Hijinks and a zombie T-Rex ensue. How’s that?
HM: How did Yesterday’s Hero come to be and what makes it different from the No Hero, the first in the Arthur Wallace series?
JW: Yesterday’s Hero came to be pretty much because my publisher asked for another in the series. Which was a fairly pleasant surprise. As such it tracks a stand-alone adventure which hopefully makes it an easy enough onboarding point for new readers. No Hero deals with alien mind-worms and Cthonic monstrosities. In Yesterday’s Hero, my protagonist Arthur Wallace and his friends at MI37 face an entirely new threat. Plus the horror influences are probably less directly obvious, though I still don’t shy away from going to dark places. Other differences come from me pulling through character arcs from the first novel (a lot of the continuity on the series comes from the characters). Arthur is a bit more confident and competent in this outing. He’s saved the world once, so he knows what he’s doing. His friend Clyde went through a LOT in the last book so he’s dealing with some of that. And then other differences are a little more subtle. Structurally I think the book is tighter. And the domestic threats to MI37 are a little more present. Writing No Hero taught me a lot, so I tried to pull on those lessons.
JW: Honestly writing jokes isn’t too much of a problem. I’ve written comedy since I was in my teens. Not always good comedy, but we’re talking around twenty years of practice at this point. Still, I’ve discovered that in my first drafts I have a tendency to overwrite the jokes. I’ll often pile two or three on top of each other. So the tricky part now is to go back and pull the good one out of the three. Otherwise the effect is watered down. Not to say that there aren’t times when I end up staring at the page for ten or fifteen minutes knowing that a joke goes there but having no idea what it is. But that usually only happens two or three times a novel now.
HM: Your writing gives me both chuckles and heartbreak in equal measure. How do you evenly balance the light-heartedness and adventurous fun with the gravity of death, being discredited at your own workplace and the messiness of human relationships?
JW: The humor in the Hero books serves a couple of purposes, and one of them is actually very much to set up the contrast between the light and dark moments in life. If everything was just monotonously bleak in the books then I think those events would lose their power. And vice versa. Plus humor is often used as a coping mechanism, so it creeps into the darker places in that way too. As for the specifics of it…a lot of it is just feel. Watching a lot of comedies and dramedies and getting a sense for how other people have handled those beats. That’s not a terribly helpful answer, but I think it really describes a lot of storytelling. It’s why writers are encouraged to read so much.
HM: Arthur Wallace is often seen asking “What would Kurt Russell do?” especially in outrageous situations that belong in a cult classic movie. Why did you choose Kurt Russell of all actors? Does it have to do with the amount of roles he’s taken in John Carpenter movies?
JW: I’ve admitted this in a few places now, but honestly, prior to the publication of No Hero, I wasn’t that familiar with Kurt Russell’s work. The one movie I’d seen and loved unashamedly was Tango and Cash, one of the silliest police movies ever made. And when I was originally creating the character of Arthur it struck me as funny that that movie might have inspired him to become a cop. I really didn’t mean for Kurt Russell to appear again in the book. But then there was some action scene I was writing, and at that point I was pretty deep in Arthur’s head, and the thought just came to me. Here’s this guy totally out of his element, what’s his reference point? It’s Tango and Cash. That’s what I’d given him. So he asked himself “What would Kurt Russell do?” And I think it worked because Kurt Russell…well, he was never quite A-list. Now I’ve grown more familiar with his work, I tend to prefer his movies to those of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, but Kurt Russell never quite made the same box office impact that those actors did. And a lot of the characters he plays have that same second-stringer kind of vibe to them. And that fit Arthur perfectly. For him to ask, “What would Schwarzenegger do?” would be absurd. He couldn’t do it. But Kurt Russell…well, there’s a chance he can manage that.
HM: Can we talk about the T-Rex for a moment. I don’t even know how to broach the subject because my brain explodes every time I think about the zombie T-Rex. Don’t be shy now; tell us the exact moment you knew you would be writing in a T-Rex. Was it always your intention or did it happen organically over time?
JW: It actually came out of a conversation with a friend, the excellent writer, Paul Jessup. I think I was telling him I wasn’t sure how to end No Hero, and he said, just joking, “you should have a zombie T-Rex.” And it was the perfect throwaway line to close things on. But then when my publisher asked for a sequel, it was a no-brainer to just pick things up right there. I mean, given the opportunity, why would I not write that scene?
HM: Although Arthur is the star, both No Hero and Yesterday’s Hero have large support casts. In my experience, more characters equal more plot problems. How do you run your menagerie? Do you let everything come at its own pace or do you have charts?
JW: I have actually sworn to never again have a cast quite as large as Yesterday’s Hero. That said, the plotting of the scenes wasn’t really the problem. I am a huge narrative structure nerd, so I did indeed have charts to help me manage everything. Each character or relationship had a seven-point plot from beginning to end. And I made sure that, before I started writing my first draft, I knew exactly which plot point fell when, and what connected them all together. Most of my problems actually came at the scene level. When there are six, seven, or even more characters all on stage at the same time trying to make sure that everyone gets a line and some limelight, without the reader getting confused about who is who or where people are takes a fair amount of effort. I try to bear in mind some advice about cartooning by Matt Groenig I once read. He said each character should be identifiable from their silhouette, without any additional detail. (Seriously check out the Simpsons and Futurama…) But I’ve found that the writing equivalent of that can go a long way in keeping everyone distinct in large cast scenes. I try to make sure characters have enough obvious ticks to keep the identifiable quickly without them becoming stereotypes.
JW: Actually, I should clear up the medic thing. I am on twitter as thexmedic, but it’s actually an old joke from university. I was one of two Jon’s in my group of friends. I studied medicine, the other John studied law. So eventually I became Jon the medic, and he became John the lawyer. Then I flunked out, so I became Jon the ex-medic. The name’s just lingered well past its sell-by date. (I eventually graduated from another university as a psych major, but due to a dearth of Jons, the name Jon the psychologist never stuck). Still, to answer your question more directly: a lot of storytelling, for me, is putting myself in a characters head and working out which way they’ll jump when plot happens at them. And the way they jump is definitely influenced by the way I’ve jumped in the past. And I’m in my thirties. I’m married and have kids. I’ve been in the workforce for ten years. I have lived and loved. So that all plays in. But if you’re looking for one-to-one experiences, I’m afraid nothing directly maps onto any of the events of the Hero books. Well except for that one time I fought a zombie T-Rex…
HM: Writers are always told to kill their darlings. Considering the levels of (good) insanity in Yesterday’s Hero, was there a scene that was too over-the-top that needed to be chopped?
JW: I can’t think of any scene in Yesterday’s Hero that needed to be cut in its entirety. Some lines and gags die along the way, but you learn to live with it. That said, in the third book, Anti-Hero, I did actually cut a bit from the opening action scene just so that the action had places to escalate to later in the book. Apparently dropping a satellite out of orbit on the characters in the second chapter on was a little over the top…
HM: Yes, the third novel in the series is titled Anti-Hero. Do you have a contingency plan when you run out of wordplay options for the word ‘hero’?
JW: I hate titles. I have always hated titles. Just coming up with No Hero took several days and a list of over a hundred alternatives. So now I’ve got half the words in the title sorted out, I’m not going to deviate. That said, given the difficulties I’ve had in the past, I do have a list of five or six possible Hero titles to use should the need arise.
HM: We’ve had tentacle aliens. We have had a zombie T-Rex and Russian cyborg magicians. What will Arthur have to deal with next in Anti-Hero? Give us the skinny.
JW: As I mentioned back up at the front, the adventures in the series are each stand-alones, but I try to pull character arcs through the books. Anti-Hero has a lot to do with this slow arc that I’ve had Clyde–one of the supporting cast—on since No Hero. A lot of things get paid off in that book. A lot of things coming home to roost. Plus I get to send the team to New York, where I live. And there are mecha. And fungus zombies. And murderous snowmen. And a three-story tall Rottweiler. Seriously, I have so much fun writing these books.
HM: Thank you for letting me put you through the wringer. Let’s end the interview on a light question. What are you reading right now?
JW: I typically have a bunch of books on the go, and right now is no different. I’m listening to the audiobook of Dan Brown’s Inferno, which I have to say I’m really enjoying. He gets a lot of grief, and to be fair, he’s not the world’s greatest author by a long shot, but he sure does write and entertaining thriller. And then I’m reading Unwrapped Sky by Rujnik Davidson, which I totally recommend to anyone who’s ever read and enjoyed China Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer. A great weird novel from him. And then I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy of The Ninth Wind by Moses Siregar, a terrific Indy writer who I think is going to blow up big when this comes out. A top tier epic fantasy from him, and hopefully it will be out soon.