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John Jarrold Interview

Posted on 11 May 2004. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to John Jarrold, science fiction editor, whose background includes lengthy stints at publishing houses Orbit (Time Warner UK), Legend at Random House. Authors he's edited include Ian M Banks, Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock.

Tell us something about your background.

Between 1988 and 2002 I ran three SF and Fantasy imprints: Orbit at Macdonald Futura (now Time Warner UK); Legend at Random House UK; and Earthlight at Simon & Schuster UK. . Authors I have published and edited include Iain M Banks, Greg Bear, David Brin, Ray Bradbury, Terry Brooks, Maggie Furey, David Gemmell, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Harry Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ian McDonald, Ken MacLeod, Ian R MacLeod, Michael Moorcock and Tad Williams. I’ve also worked on thrillers and mysteries, with authors including Lorenzo Carcaterra, Stel Pavlou, John Sandford and Tim Willocks. During that period, I published the first three of Robert Jordan’s amazingly successful WHEEL OF TIME series and USE OF WEAPONS by Iain Banks, first novels by authors who are now well known and commissioned THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION at Orbit, and worked on any number of books I’m hugely proud to have been involved with. But authors are more important than individual titles. I became a freelance editor in August 2002. I’ve worked on fiction and non-fiction projects for most of the major publishers in London since then, and I’m also acting as a book doctor for authors (published and unpublished) and literary agents. Anyone is welcome to check out my website (see below) for details.

How did you first start editing?

I worked in public libraries from 1972 and having written reports on manuscripts for publishers and agents since the mid-70s, I was offered a job with Orbit at the end of 1987 by the late Richard Evans, the Publishing Director of Macdonald Futura, which was then owned by Robert Maxwell. I knew Richard and many other publishers and authors, having attended science fiction conventions since 1973 – and before you ask, no, we don’t all wear funny costumes and Mr Spock ears.

Who are your favourite writers and why?

I have very catholic tastes in my reading. Gore Vidal’s Burr is probably my favourite historical novel. I love the sheer intelligence and wit he displays. Shakespeare and Dickens have always been favourites, because I was lucky enough to have a very good English teacher at school. I always wanted to play Falstaff. In terms of SF and Fantasy, apart from the authors mentioned above, who I’ve been fortunate enough to publish, I love Lucius Shepard, Ursula Le Guin, George R R Martin, Alfred Bester…and J R R Tolkien. I read Lord Of The Rings three times a year when I was a teenager. Now it’s about once every three years! In non-fiction, anything to do with cinema; Lyn Macdonald’s books on World War One are outstanding; Orlando Figes’ Natasha's Dance is probably the best non-fiction book I’ve read in the past five years; and Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake is superb. In poetry, Byron, Keats and Shelley. Is that enough?!

Can you tell us what specific demands writing SF places on an author/editor?

The fact that you can use any period – past or future – in an SF novel means that the author has to be very disciplined. We know how the world works in the present-day, since we deal with it, 24/7. But if you are creating a future world you need to have the social and scientific (and many other) changes in your head. That doesn’t mean they will all find their way into the book, but you, as the author, have to be at home in that world. Fantasy has its own problems – you can’t simply use magic with no come-back, for instance; and the creation of entire fantasy worlds can take authors an immense time. When I published Robert Jordan, he told me he had spent two years working out the world of the Wheel of Time series before he started writing the first volume. However, as in any form of fiction, characters come first. You can create the most perfect, fascinating world you like, but if the characters in your novel don’t move the reader, they will not read on. On one level, as an editor you are doing the same as any fiction editor – saying ‘There’s too much of that, I need to know more about her, this is BORING!’ and so forth. In short, being a second pair of eyes and helping the author to see the wood for the trees. As an SF/ Fantasy editor, you also have to know the tropes of the genre and be aware when an author is not being creative, but simply falling back on the well-worn furniture – whether it be a dystopian Earth, big spaceships, or grey-bearded wizards It’s possible to use all those ideas originally, but it’s equally possible to use them as a crutch. Then you kick the author, because part of the editor’s job is to make sure the author veers to the former, not the latter. Very, very occasionally, you have to say, ‘Actually, that’s exactly like…’ and name another genre title. SF is a literature of ideas, and, again, they must be used in an original manner. So there is the balance between the straightforward editorial work and being an encyclopedia of the genre!

What excites you about a piece of writing-

Style, characterisation, good dialogue. I remember reading the script of Ken MacLeod’s first SF novel, The Star Fraction, which I acquired for Random House. It’s a book I can honestly say I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish. The first page grabbed me, and I continued to be fascinated throughout. That’s the sort of reaction any editor wants, both personally and because they know they will have to enthuse all their colleagues – sales, marketing, editorial and the rest – in order to take on a debut novel. If the editor doesn’t feel that total enthusiasm, they have a much harder job on their hands… and in fact, in that case they shouldn’t be making an offer for the author.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 21:43 on 11 May 2004  Report this post
Some interesting points here. Good to see he mentions the use of the old 'crutch' characters which abound in the SF/Fantasy genre. As a reader of fantasy and horror, I'm constantly amazed at the amount of plagiarism that goes on.

The advice to re-read and sit on things for a while is also great. Everyone wants to believe what they've written is gold dust, but as someone who's completed a novel, I can still see how further editing and rewrites will help me.

Overall, a good interview. Going to check the website out now.

James Bennett.

Becca at 20:15 on 13 May 2004  Report this post
I like this. I like the energy in John's comments.

Sam Rix at 22:58 on 13 May 2004  Report this post
Welcome aboard John,
looking forward to reading more of your comments to aid us all in improving.

Love and luck to you and yours
Sam Rix

Wez at 17:18 on 14 May 2004  Report this post
Some excellant comments in there from someone who knows the business inside out. The putting aside of a manuscript for a month or so before revisiting it prior to sending out is invaluable advice. Writers are too close to the work to be objective straight after finishing a piece and need to distance themselves before rereading with a fresh mind. Writing a short story is a good way of getting the original work out of your head. Either that or an article, or even reading a book. Something far removed from the original work, in any case. Advice I wish I had followed. (sighs)

jj1471 at 19:43 on 14 May 2004  Report this post
Thanks to you all for the comments! I'm getting involved in the forums now, and I hope to make some constructive comments on the site fiction in the next two weeks - have to keep the bank manager happy first with some professional editing!


Nik Perring at 12:36 on 16 May 2004  Report this post
Welcome aboard Skipper. Look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
Cheers, Nik.

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