Jonathan L. Howard
Jonathan L Howard is a game designer, scriptwriter, and a veteran of the computer games industry since the early 1990s, with titles such as the ‘Broken Sword’ series to his credit.
After publishing two short stories featuring Johannes Cabal (Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day and Exeunt Demon King) in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was published in 2009 as his first novel. This was followed by Johannes Cabal the Detective in 2010 and Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute in 2011.
He lives with his wife and daughter near Bristol.
Are you a bookgeek?
I’m certainly a bibliophile. I have loved books my whole life and, though I finally succumbed and bought a Kindle, it still can’t beat the sheer pleasure of holding a physical book. I’m still hoping for an e-paper book that can do colour illustrations and that contains, say, four hundred pages so that you can riffle through it. The physicality of a real book with the convenience of an e-book. Oh, and the casing changes to the cover of whatever book you’ve selected. That all seems foreseeable, given current technologies. Sorry, I was daydreaming out loud there. What was the question again? Am I a bookgeek? I suppose so.
Oh, and a non-volatile section of memory specifically for sensing and storing written dedications so you can still get your book signed. That would be excellent. And a gadget that makes it smell like a book.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
Just to keep writing. Try to do at least a little every day. I have to admit I don’t always manage it, but I do try. Mind you, even on the days when I’m not writing actual prose, I’m writing notes and suchlike, so perhaps I do manage to stick by it all the same.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
That is a lengthy list. There are those who have influenced me directly and those whose work I’ve enjoyed so much that their effects aren’t as obvious, but which are still certainly there.
I’m a great fan of Victorian and Edwardian writers of fantasy and science fiction, which neatly includes Conan Doyle, and authors such as William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and Vernon Lee (the city of Parila in Johannes Cabal the Detective was strongly influenced in its “feel” by Lee’s Italianate tales of the supernatural). Then as the C20th rolls on to the present day, you have Arthur Machen, Edith Wharton, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Ed McBain, Ramsey Campbell, John Sladek, Stanislaw Lem, and Boris Akunin. McBain and Akunin are detective writers rather than horror or SFF, but their imaginations are as extraordinary as anyone’s.
Told you it was a lengthy list, and this is only a fragment of what I’d like to have said. I keep wanting to add names. George R.R. Martin, who’s generally great, but whose Tuf Voyaging is a particular personal favourite. Richard Kadrey, whose Sandman Slim novels are a lot of brutal, necronoir fun, “necronoir” being an exciting new subgenre name that I just made up and will be trademarking. G.K. Chesterton because… well, hell, do I really need to tell you why everybody should read Chesterton?
I have to stop before this answer turns into a massive reading list.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I think you have to write predominantly for yourself. You may have half a weather eye on who might end up reading it, but that’s a very secondary influence. That was the case for me on a single as yet unpublished novel, which I wrote with my daughter in mind. That was only fair, mind, as she came up with the original idea that gelled a lot of other ideas together in my head and started a plot rolling. I was writing a story that I was enjoying telling, and throwing in the occasional element that I knew would appeal to her. It turned out very well in my opinion and I’m pleased with it. With any luck it will find a publisher, and we shall see if my faith in it is justified.
Where do you write, and why?
I write at home in the spare bedroom. It’s little more than a box room, really, and I have to sit on the bed as I type. It’s probably terrible for my posture.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
I shall resist the urge to say Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone simply because that would mean that I am terribly rich. Hard question, though. I think the one I still find myself thinking about quite frequently despite having read it five years ago is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. As is probably evident from the style in which I write the Cabal books, I am very fond of Victorian and Edwardian writing, both in terms of vocabulary and the discursive way late Victorian and Edwardian novels approach their subjects. Strange & Norrell is set around the Napoleonic period, but the richness of language is similar. I love Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin novels, and that same richness is there, moderated through a modern sensibility to leaven it somewhat.
Johannes Cabal is one of those characters who is far, far more complicated than any mere character description. What was it like building such a character? Does he ever surprise you?
Cabal is a coral of a character, an agglomeration of sources literary and cinematic combined with some of my own ideas for characters. I cannot honestly say I sat down and constructed him. He was lurking around in my head, becoming more Cabal for a long time. When I finally came to write the first chapter of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, I had no idea if he was going to live on the page. Then he started giving Satan lip, which I hadn’t been expecting. My first thought for that scene was that he would be confident but cautious. When he started chiding Satan on lifestyle choices, I knew he was going to be okay.
Do you draw any of your experience with writing for games into your novels?
A little, yes. When I finally got to work on an adventure game, an ambition of mine, my very first script was massively overwritten. Even edited down, I still think it could have done with a bit more trimming. It taught me to try and keep dialogue rattling along. In reality, conversation is a rambling mass of confusion, full of asides and non sequiturs. You can’t really afford that in a game nor, largely, in a novel, although a novel gives you a little more wiggle space.
What aspects of the “job” of writing have taken you by surprise? Is there any area where you spend more time than the rest?
One thing I’m not very keen on is that the world of publishing can be a bit… sedate at times. It can take a long time to get the simplest thing sorted out. Perhaps I’m sensitive to that because I’ve spent so long in games where, if there’s a problem, it’s like there’s blood in the water. People froth all over it until it’s fixed. Admittedly, the mad rush to fix a problem can sometimes result in a worse hash than you started with, but at least you know things are happening. In publishing, there isn’t that same sense of urgency.
On the very cool side, we have the fans. Not just readers, but people who are very taken by the books and carry the stories in their imaginations after reading “THE END.” I was hoping that people would enjoy my novels, but I never in a thousand years would have anticipated art, poems, fanfic, even cosplay inspired by them. The Cabal fans make me very happy.
It felt as though “Necromancer” had a Bradbury flavour, “Detective” a Doyle one, and “Fear Institute” brought in some Lovecraft, is Cabal going to make his mark in any other familiar worlds?
Possibly. I’ve never made any secret of my influences, and the ones you mention were very consciously chosen as things that I enjoyed and engaged me, so I fancied writing something along those lines. The idea I have for Cabal #4 is very action and adventure orientated, but I have no idea exactly how that will turn out. I suspect something with elements of Captain W.E. Johns and Ian Fleming. Then again, it may surprise me and end up something else entirely.
The settings and adventures in the Cabal novels are often…fanciful, or at least not-on-the-earth-with-which-we-are-familiar, do they spring solely from imagination? What sort of research or preparation do you do for your novels?
My original intention was that they existed in a dreamy sort of half-realised world, where different influences came together to make interesting new shapes. In terms of technology, it ranges from about the 1870s to the 1950s, with some oddities thrown in. When I first started playing around with the ideas that would become Johannes Cabal the Detective, the technology was real world. The “Princess Hortense” was a perfectly mundane dirigible based on a Zeppelin design, and the light aircraft it could carry were biplanes. The trouble with that was a Zeppelin couldn’t do half the things I wanted it to, so I dusted off an idea I’d had years before and the “Princess Hortense” became a heavier-than-air aeroship instead. Since I’d made that change, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and use another alternative technology idea I’d had from a long while back. So the biplanes became entomopters, aircraft that fly like insects. I got the idea for them when I read the explanation as to how bumble bees fly, when they break aerodynamic theory. It turns out that they break fixed-wing theory, because their flight bears more similarities to rotary-winged aircraft like helicopters. That resulted in a “What if..?” as to what if a clutch assembly that allowed insect-style flight had been developed by some mad genius? Of course, a rotating disc of blades makes far more sense. Only a lunatic would build an aircraft that flies like a dragonfly. Luckily, what I say goes in my world, so that’s the way it went.
I don’t tend to do a great deal of research. I have a sticky mind and it accrues trivia and details over time, so most of the stuff I need is already in my head. The entomopter specifications in Detective were researched; I wanted it to be about equivalent to a 1930’s aircraft, so I looked some up and based its engine on an amalgam of several. For The Fear Institute, I dug out a couple of maps of the Dreamlands I had around, and based mine on them before wilfully moving some bits around, and adding some others. I also reread Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which was no chore.
How far out do you plan your novels?
I like to keep the planning synopsis relatively brief, but that actually makes it briefer than publishers like. Brief is good, because a lot of ideas occur to me while writing and I hate the idea of having written a large and highly detailed synopsis that abruptly becomes obsolete because I just thought of something better for Chapter 2 that has a knock-on effect rippling throughout the rest of the story. That’s wasted effort. Thus, I prefer the plan to work in broad sweeps with a few specifics here and there. Another disadvantage of the detailed synopsis is that it can be mistaken as gospel. There are marketing descriptions of The Fear Institute that mention tree men and giant ticks, neither of which actually ended up in the book. They were in the synopsis, but then I had a better idea and they were cut. Thus, I have to have a pretty good idea of how the book is going to progress, but I really don’t like it to be more than a chapter by chapter description of major plot points.
How difficult has it been to leave Cabal and move on to “Katya’s War”? Have you approached the new series any differently?
No problem at all. The thing is, I wrote Katya’s World, the first novel of The Russalka Chronicles several years ago, long before Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was published. I hawked it around in a very desultory way then (it was before I had an agent), but a visit to any bookshop demonstrated why it was a hopeless sell; there was very, very little Young Adult SF and those tended to be more science fantasy or space opera.
Katya’s World was inspired by my love for SF inspired in my youth by writers like Heinlein, Del Rey, and Hugh Walters. Heinlein and Walters in particular pushed the science in their writing and that excited me, just seeing that all that amazing technology was actually understandable. Unhappily, science is considered far less cool these days. People want the products of science, but don’t have the faintest idea how most of it works, nor are they interested in finding out. Given the state of the market was very fantasy led, no publisher seemed very keen to pick up a SF novel that actually has a few crunchy bits of science in it. So, I put it to one side and, apart from the occasional reread and polish, there it sat. I never gave up hoping that the situation might change, though. When Angry Robot launched Strange Chemistry, their new YA imprint, I cannot tell you how happy I was to see that they were specifically interested in publishing some hard-ish SF.
I’ve never had a problem shifting between genres and even styles. It just comes naturally. For example, most recently I’ve been writing some Katya’s War, the sequel to Katya’s World, and then moved temporarily onto writing a pitch example for something entirely new, very different in style from either Katya or Cabal. Different stories put your mind into a different mode.
Finally, the Cabal novels are (and I’m sure the Katya novels will be) amazingly good fun, how have you handled what must be overwhelming applause and universal acclaim?
Oh, I wish. The Cabal books have done reasonably well, but never more than a decent showing in the midlist thus far. Still, they’ve been kindly reviewed by and large and, as mentioned earlier, the Cabal fans make me very happy. So, thus far I’ve handled things reasonably well, I think. Of course, the acid test would come with being enormously successful and having vast sums of money heaped upon me. If anybody wishes to place me under such a harsh ordeal, well, I’m sure I’ll struggle through somehow. Anybody?
Additional questions by Jennie Blake.