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: Anti-Hero is the closing book in your first Arthur Wallace trilogy. What is the most important thing you learned from writing the books?
Jonathan Wood: Man, you’re not pulling the punches up front… I guess two things spring to mind, one of them’s selfish, one of them perhaps less so. Starting selfishly, the most fundamental thing I think I’ve learned is to be a better writer. I realize that’s not very specific, but I think it’s just a general feel for scenes, for structure, for dialogue… I’ve just practiced writing more. I’ve come out of this experience a better writer than I went in, and that’s a huge personal achievement.
The other thing… Over the past year, I’ve received two messages from people who, in very tough situations, have found both escape and relief in my novels. Something I wrote helped them through a difficult time in their lives. That’s enormously rewarding and really more than I ever hoped to achieve with what I think of as my rather silly novels. To know that something I’ve created can go out into the world and really do something, is amazing, and really motivates me to want to write more.
HM: This book is a doozy from start to finish, but I couldn’t help but notice that you’re switching lanes and heading straight into zombie apocalypse territory. On scale from Romero to Cthulhu, how weird are your undead going to be? What makes your zombies different?
JW: I think I did a pretty decent job of keeping things weird. We might not be in full-blown tentacle land, but my aesthetic tends to run a little left of norm, so odd things keep coming in whatever I do. In this case I have zombies infested with fungal spores, so hopefully that keeps them a little fresh. Of course with zombies, there are some element that are always going to be constant. The idea of a flesh-hungry relentless mob that will absorb you into their numbers if they get ahold of you is pretty much critical. But for me, what makes zombies really interesting is the “why” behind them. What caused them to come into existence? Exploring the decisions leading up to that point, and the ramifications of those decisions drive a lot of the plot.
As for the decision to go full apocalyptic—in the first two books, Arthur and MI37 had managed to avert disaster at the last minute, so I was wondering what would happen if things actually went to total shit. What if they failed? A lot of the series has been about exploring what sort of hero Arthur is going to choose to be – pushing him into these ugly morally compromised situations. This was a great way to see him making those decisions under extreme pressure.
HM: The central storyline revolves around Clyde, tech guy extraordinaire and Arthur’s best friend, turning evil. How did you approach his character transformation into the big baddie?
JW: It’s funny—each of the books in the series has been written as if it’s going to be the last one. It’s just the way they sold to the publisher. But going into the 3rd volume, I wanted to feel like there was an arc. And Clyde had gone through some pretty heavy shit in the first book, so dealing with the ramifications of that in book 2 lead his character down a pretty dark path. Plus, Arthur, by the nature of the books being an ongoing series, doesn’t have the steepest character arcs—he needs to stay relatively constant for the books to keep their tone. So the idea of following Clyde’s arc to completion seemed a great way to add a through line to the series. I’d love to say I’d had a carefully constructed plan, but it was really something that came organically out of just letting the characters respond to the situations I’d put them through.
HM: What is your approach to making a villain like that compelling?
JW: This is definitely something I’ve worked on as the series has gone by. Book 1, No Hero, deals with a Lovecraftian threat to the world. And pretty much by definition that means you can’t relate to them. They’re just this awful, implacable force. A fire that either forges or destroys the protagonist. And that was great for introducing Arthur and exploring who he is and who he would become. But after that, I wanted villains with a bit more nuance. In book 2, Yesterday’s Hero, I achieved that by adding a secondary villain, a caustic supervisor that tests Arthur’s patience and sanity. In this book, Anti Hero, I was finally able to fuse the two. The hope is that Clyde has an understandable goal as a villain, that he can make a good argument for his actions. I think giving him relatable goals helps make him sympathetic, and that in turn makes him more compelling. And then there’s always just simply messing around with the cool factor—Clyde does some messed up stuff, but some of it is pretty damn cool. Giant trash-squid-golems, anybody?
HM: Connected to this, who is your favorite good-guy-turned-bad and why? Movies and TV shows are permitted. The juicier the betrayal the better, I say.
JW: OK, spoiler warning, but I’m still reeling from Grant’s betrayal in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That was beautifully done. They really spent the time to get you invested in the character. That betrayal hurt. I’m very excited to see where they take things from here.
Potentially my favorite betrayal though is in the movie, Primal Fear. I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t seen that, but the final twist in that film is awesome. Again it shows how investing in character up front can pay dividends in the long term.
HM: For writers, reading is fundamental. So what are you reading right now?
JW: I normally like to keep an audiobook and a physical book on the go at once, and right now is no different. So I’m listening to The Fires of Heaven, book 5 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I’ve been making slow progress on that series for a couple of years now, in amongst other books. It’s an epic fantasy that truly feels epic. Monumental and structurally quite interesting too. In the realm of books I can hold, I’m reading Birdman by Mo Hayder, which is a really, really dark police procedural. I don’t know why I find serial killer stories fascinating, but I do. Just a gut punch of a novel. And then, on top of that Grant Morrison’s Invisibles has snuck in around the edges, because who doesn’t want some profoundly weird, anarcho-magical comic book oddness in around the their lives?
HM: I joked that I was going to ask you this, but yeah, I’m going for broke. Who do you see playing Arthur Wallace?
JW: LOL. OK, so when No Hero first came out my wife had Long and SeriousTM conversations about this, because it’s the sort of thing you have long and serious conversations about as a debut novelist. But we picked Ewan McGregor – I think he could hit the right note between absurd and serious. Now, though time has gone passed and so, when I indulge the fantasy (and, yeah, it’s total fantasy), I think Mr. McGregor might be a little old to pass for 37. Now I’m liking James McAvoy. I’m not sure why I keep picking Scottish actors, as Arthur is a very English guy, but that’s where my brain.