1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
As a child in Baghdad in the early 1950’s, I was drawn to the small diaries sold at the upscale department store, Orosdi-Backs, on Rashid Street. The diary had a little pencil that sat in the hold along the spine. I scribbled in the tiny books, and felt some level of satisfaction. Later, in 10th grade, I read a short story by Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” about a young man who desired a normal life, and as a boy and teen was attracted to normal, popular peers. But he never really fit in, and his sensitivities were also trampled by the oblivious crowd. He became a writer, an artist, and I immediately identified with him. I was also transfixed by Hermann Hesse’s novel Der Steppenwolf, also about an outsider. In 11th grade I started writing poetry, and in college much better poetry and short stories. Finally, as a freshman at Berkeley, I discovered Tolkien, and devoured Lord of the Rings. Fantasy and SF became my reading passion, and ultimately, the landscapes for the stories I wanted to tell.
2. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Believable and compelling characters facing mounting challenges are vital, otherwise readers will lose interest. The depiction of setting is also critical, particularly in SF/F. The detailed world building of LOTR and the Earthsea trilogy, along with Dune, early favorites of mine, formed the foundations of the epic nature of the stories. Clean, crisp prose that supports the action of the characters also matters. I dislike overwritten scenes. I agree with Elmore Leonard: “I don’t want the reader to be aware of me as the writer.”
3. Describe your writing space.
I have a small foldout desk which supports my laptop. On the shelf above the desk sit my collection of dragons, including a spectacular specimen of an alebrije, a piece of Mexican folk art. Stretching to either side are my book shelves, overflowing with books, nick-nacks, scattered notes, and, for good measure, a couple of ornamental daggers. I occasionally plug in my head phones to listen to ambient noise of waves breaking on shingle or sand. Music I find too distracting.
4. What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
The first draft is the most painful for me. Watching myself set down the crappy words and sentences that are parodies of what I have in my head is excruciating. I am constantly reminded of William Gibson’s advice: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”
5. How do you do research for your books?
It depends on the story. For my fan fiction novel set in Middle Earth, I combed through Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth volumes to make sure I was within canon for the stub I was expanding on. For my own invented world, I studied different forms of government, economies, religions, cultures, mythologies. World building is intense, and I like to have a solid basis for my inventions. For the story published in Reign of Queens, I drew on my own memories of traveling through Wales, memories I also drew on for my story published in the forthcoming History with Dragons anthology. I also collect books on arcane topics such as the Tarot, witchcraft, shamanism, etc. I was struck by a piece of advice from a talk Connie Willis gave, when asked a similar question. She said it only takes a few telling details to place the reader in a particular time and place, and refrain from filling in the entire setting.
6. How do you handle literary criticism?
I welcome feedback. I have several beta readers whose comments have been invaluable. I also hired an editor to savage my prose. Humbling, but necessary. The give and take in writer’s workshops has also been important for my growth as a writer. I have learned as much giving feedback as getting it. It can be painful at times, but without it, I wouldn’t grow my craft.
7. How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I have completed three novels and several short stories. Two of the novels were inspired by works I love: LOTR and The Seven Samurai. Three of my short stories reflect my various childhood heroes: Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Peter Pan. I have a special fondness for my fan fiction set in Middle Earth, where I set out to tell the story of a character mentioned in passing by Tom Bombadil. I wondered about her for years before gathering my courage and writing her tale.
8. Who is your favorite character?
Oddly enough, I only have one character who so clearly channeled himself through me that I felt I was basically dictating his story. He is Gyrax, a clumsy jewel thief, who is released from hanging to do a special job in my novel Seven at Bay. For some reason, his Han Solo type wise-guy persona must represent some shadow self in my subconscious.
9. How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written? Can you tell us about one?
I have several stories and one novel that exist in notes and bits of scenes. The one that is easiest to describe is a prequel to my current WIP, and describes the exodus of a people who leave their idyllic home city rather than succumb to the predations of an avaricious despot who covets their valley. Some 50,000 folk travel over a thousand miles to the north, seeking a land where they can prosper in peace, led by a young priestess who has a vision of their new home.
10. Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
My pen name, John Greville, comes from a nineteenth century house I lived in during my two years in London. The address was 2 Greville Place. It was a marvelous Gormenghastian dwelling, with nooks and hidies, perfect for my teenage day dreams.
11. Where can readers learn more about you?