WRITERS' MINDS Jonathan Stroud

Words & Pictures' roving reporter Sarah Broadley talks to Jonathan Stroud about early work experience, writing trilogies and having a book developed for Netflix.

In 1996 & 1997 you ventured into the world of picture books. The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood and The Viking Saga of Harry Bristlebeard. Up to this point had you always written picture books or did you see yourself writing for older children?

I was very lucky because I did English as a degree at university but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I managed to get some work experience at Walker Books and at that time everyone was doing puzzle books (Where’s Wally etc). There was a whole games department on the top floor and I went around various departments in the company before ending up in the gaming department in an assistant editor’s role. 


I was kind of learning the ropes as an editor, that was really the main thing but part of that process is that they were very much open to me coming up with new ideas for puzzle books. In fact, all my first published books were puzzles and games books. The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood and The Viking Saga of Harry Bristlebeard were all big format ones like Where’s Wally, but they had comic strips and they had lots of different kinds of puzzles. Essentially, I was just writing any project that was offered to me; it was all good and very exciting for me. I’ve always liked games and game books. When I was a kid I made huge numbers of books, the kind where you have the different routes through, the fighting fantasy type with alternate endings. 


The illustrator, Cathy Gale, often used to work in-house at Walker at that time too, and they had a lot of space in their warehouse, where there was a whole floor where illustrators worked – it had a tremendously creative vibe to it. It was a hugely exciting place to learn in actually, and looking back it couldn’t have been a better place for me to start out. Cathy and I were sent away to create a couple of books together and we collaborated quite intensively. I still have some of Cathy’s illustrations from then as we went through multiple versions as I was learning my craft. I had to really focus on not writing millions of words as you had to pare it down for the format we were working in. I would devise the puzzles and then we would figure out what worked and what didn’t. I learned not to be scared of changing anything and that it was fine to have numerous drafts. It was a brilliant apprenticeship.


I absolutely loved it, so my role at Walker was very appropriate for me and doing all these different things helped train me up in what it meant to write a book and to control it, alter it, edit and self-edit. In my spare time I was also itching to write a novel and the puzzle books were stepping stones on the road to doing that. My first novel was called Buried Fire, which I wrote in the mid-90s and it was published in '99. Since then I have gravitated to the older novels that I do these days.

The Bartimaeus trilogy came out in 2003-2005 and in 2010 the prequel was published – did you know there would be a prequel when you wrote the first three? What prompted you to write it?

I came up with the idea for Bartimaeus in 2001. I began working on it and sold the rights in 2002. That was my most important book as I found my voice as a writer. I felt that this was the kind of writer I could be and it was a really exciting time.


As for the prequel, at the beginning I was quite sure it was going to be three books and that would be it. I didn’t want to create an ongoing series that goes off into the future. I wanted it to have a proper beginning, middle and end and all that kind of stuff, which it did. After working on it for four/five years I was really happy to then do something else so I went on to do Heroes of the Valley which again was Viking-inspired but this time, a stand-alone novel. 

However, the character of Bartimaeus was still bubbling away in the background so I doodled a scene I really liked and I thought it could definitely turn into something. I decided on a prequel so that it didn’t prejudice the beginning, middle and end I had already created. Bartimaeus being a know-it-all, was constantly giving me footnotes through the original trilogy as he boasted about speaking with King Solomon, so I thought I’d go back in time and see him in action. It was great fun to do. That’s the fun thing about writing fantasy, I try to embed it into something tangible, something you can find out about.


When I sat down to write Bartimaeus all those years ago, and indeed all the way through to now, I’m always trying to see the worlds I create in a three dimensional way and try to make something that would have given me joy when I was twelve or whatever age, up to adult. I’m sure it’s the same with everyone, essentially you have to write for yourself. To entertain yourself and create something that you think is of value. You’ve got to have a delight in your characters as being a writer is solitary and can be gruelling.

In 2013, Lucy Carlisle joined Anthony Lockwood’s agency – The Screaming Staircase was the first in the series to be published and then it took off from there. Can you tell us about the origins of Lockwood & Co?

Yes! That’s another example. I had done the Bartimaeus book and I would sit at my desk and write the beginnings of whatever came into my head. One day I would write sci-fi, the next day I would try some fantasy or a ghost one. Eventually I came up with what would turn out to be the first three pages of the first Lockwood & Co - a boy and a girl who were going to fight ghosts with rapiers. I instantly liked them and wanted to spend some time with them, I wanted to find out who they were. I didn’t know their names or why they were fighting ghosts. Why were there no adults around? What were they doing! And that little scene was how it all started. I decided I would investigate it.

Lockwood & Co was optioned by Netflix and the series is due for release next year. Written and directed by Joe Cornish – did you have much involvement in the development of the series? The script? 

They’ve been fantastic. Complete Fiction are the producers along with Netflix and Joe, and we’ve been collaborating for years on it. Essentially, I do take a step back because they are the ones that know what they’re doing but I’m kind of useful in that I know the world so I’m there to talk about things and help problem solve. Early on when they had their Writers’ Room and they were starting work on how the series was going to be shaped, I came in and chatted with them and they asked me as many questions as they could think of and since then, they’ve been in touch if they need me to throw a solution in. I do read the scripts and they’re great! I am on the periphery but it’s a very connected periphery. We all work together and I feel like I am part of the family.

Did you get involved in the casting? Did you have anyone in mind?

No. That’s very much not my area. I had to go with the expertise of the guys working on it. I think the choices they’ve made have been absolutely brilliant, the lead actors are terrific and I can’t wait to see them in action. I haven’t seen much of it so I am going to get my popcorn ready!

Scarlett & Browne are now in our lives, bouncing in with reckless abandon. Book two The Notorious Scarlett & Browne came out earlier this year – any plans to expand on the duology?

Going back to what I was saying about Bartimaeus, I feel similar with Scarlett & Browne that this is probably a trilogy. It’s always the case with my novels that I am going on a journey of discovery with my characters. When I start the first book, I don’t understand much about their world at first. I may have figured out some of the key rules of how everything operates but I always think of it as a jigsaw that you’re constructing from the middle. You start to build it outwards and after the first book you’ve got a nice core action and then the second book you can expand that and understand more. This doesn’t just mean geographically, it’s also about understanding your characters emotions and what drives them. Ideally after book three, the puzzle is complete with nothing missing. That’s kind of what I aim for.


If Lucy (Lockwood & Co) and Scarlett (Scarlett & Browne) were ever to meet – how do you think that would go? 

I think there would definitely be a clash. Ultimately, both of them are good people and good natured. Scarlett has layers of cynicism and violence whereas Lucy is much more well-balanced. I think to begin with it would be a little bit prickly but if it came down to it and there was some danger or adventure ahead, they would soon realise the other was extremely competent and thus get mutual respect from that. You wouldn’t put money against them, that’s for sure!

What are you working on now, obviously you’ve touched on book three of Scarlett & Browne but is there anything else you can share?

I know a few authors who work on three projects at once but I find it quite difficult to get my head out of one world. Actually, one of the things I’d like to do, and we touched on it earlier, is a few years ago I wrote a chapter of a new Bartimaeus. I really like it and I’d love to spend a bit of time on that. It’s been ten years since I wrote the last Bartimaeus story, I think it could be time to bring him back in some way. Maybe other projects might come my way but I would like to do that.

When you’re writing, it can be quite a solitary experience. Would you ever consider collaborating with anyone?

Definitely. Looking back, my earlier books were just that with the illustrator, Cathy Gale. My wife does a lot of illustration and we keep on talking about that. We have started work on something and it’s one of those things that is bubbling along. That’s perhaps another one to ‘watch this space’ on.


All books are a collaboration to a certain extent, you’ve got your editors, illustrators, publishers and in my case, my wife reads everything I do at various stages. It’s important to have someone you can trust to tell you when it doesn’t work and to also tell you when it does – we collaborate all the time in one way or another.

*Header image courtesy of Jonathan Stroud.


Jonathan Stroud wrote his first novel Buried Fire while working as an editor at Walker Books. 

He is the author of three internationally bestselling series: the award-winning Bartimaeus sequence, which has been published in 36 languages worldwide, the critically acclaimed Lockwood & Co, which is currently being adapted by Netflix, and the Scarlett and Browne adventures, set to be made into a film by Temple Hill Entertainment and Amazon Prime. His other novels include The Leap, The Last Siege and Heroes of the Valley. Jonathan lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and three children.



Sarah Broadley lives in Edinburgh with her family and two cats. She is a member of SCBWI Scotland. Follow her on Twitter.


Natalie Yates is Writers' Minds editor for Words & Pictures. Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org

Follow her on Instagram

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.