An interview with Jasper Kent

Jasper Kent was born in Worcestershire in 1968. Twelve, a horror / thriller / fantasy set in Russia amongst Napoleon's invasion of 1812, was published in 2008 to great acclaim. Jasper kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in July of 2009.

Fantasy Book Review: Twelve was set in Russia during Napoleon's invasion of 1812. Where will the reader find themselves when Thirteen Years Later begins?

Jasper Kent: Russia. The action takes place in Petersburg, Moscow and on the Black Sea coast, around the Crimea and the Sea of Azov.

Do the voordalak (a creature of legend; tales of which have terrified Russian children for generations) really come from folklore or are they a product of your imagination?

The voordalak is a genuine creature of Russian legend and a variety of vampire, but beyond that I didn't make much attempt to stick to Russia's or any other country's folklore. To be honest, in the original draft the word 'voordalak' wasn't used, only 'vampire'. My editor made the suggestion that using a Russian word for vampire would give the text a little more flavour. The Russian words for vampire are 'vampir', 'oopir' and 'voordalak', of which 'voordalak' seemed the most exotic sounding.

In an interview in April you mentioned that Thirteen Years Later will swing a little more towards horror. Are you concerned that any major changes in style may result in losing some of your existing fan base?

It's always going to be a problem in any sequel or series that faithful readers are not going to get what they expected. But it's equally a problem that they will be bored by getting more of the same. Clearly Thirteen Years Later was going to have to tilt one way or the other, but direction wasn't a deliberate choice, simply a function of the historical background. There was no war for Russia in 1825, so that meant that I had to put the action in in an area that was more under my control. In the next novel my instinct will be to push the tiller the other way, but I'll have to see where the story takes me.

Has life changed in any major way for you since the publication of Twelve?

Not really. I'm still doing about the same mix of writing and other work. Whilst I can see a clear path now down to at least the third novel in the series, in terms of actual publication we've only got the trade paperback of the first novel out. Thus in terms of money, notoriety and confidence of success, it's still very early days.

You studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and you also have twenty years experience working as a software engineer. These do not instantly appear to be life experiences that would be a great help when writing a novel. Would that be fair comment or did you develop skills at university and at work that have been invaluable to you as an author?

I think any experience can be useful for a writer. As long as your work involves interacting with people, then, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find character traits to write about. A university education in any subject teaches how to research, question and discover things for yourself, and those skills are essential for an author. More specifically, developing software gives you a lot of experience of managing large projects, which writing a 170,000 word novel is. I can imagine writers who are very good at writing short works who would be daunted by the organizational questions of producing a larger work. I tend to go for a very structured approach – lots of diagrams, timelines and spreadsheets. On the other hand, I may be overdoing it completely.

You have recently concluded a deal with Transworld for the third volume of the Danilov Quintet. How confident can you be that all five books will make their way into print? Do the second and third books have to perform to a certain level, particularly in regards to sales?

Personally I'm pretty confident to see all five out there, and the people I speak to seem quite confident too. If I'd been the publisher, I wouldn't have given me a contract for all the remaining novels at this stage, with the first one not yet out in mass market paperback. And it doesn't make much difference to me – either way I have to write the next one next. Presumably contracts for the last two books will depend on sales, but no one has mentioned any figures.

You set up a blogging website in February ( Respected fantasy author Robin Hobb recently embarked on a rant warning authors that they should spend their time writing, not blogging. Do you think that Robin's Hobb's concerns over blogging have substance?

Before I read the detail of Robin's rant, I was inclined to agree, but her specific objection seems to be that blogging takes up time that should be spent writing. The problem is that the same argument could be applied to anything that takes time away from writing. My personal favourite is watching reruns of Quincy on ITV3, and blogging must be a better way to spend my time than that. When I'm actually writing a novel, I avoid everything that could distract me, but at most that's for two months in a year. The rest of the time, I'm happy to do other things. Having said that, you'll notice that I've only managed eleven posts on my blog so far – too much Quincy.

The cover jacket for Twelve, illustrated by Anne Kragelund, was absolutely stunning. How happy were you when you were shown the final design? Did it match your own vision?

Credit for the cover should go to both Anne (who did the design) and to Paul Young (who did the artwork). I can't say that I really had any thoughts when I was writing as to what the cover would look like. I'm pretty sure I would have had strong words to say about anything I didn't like, and that didn't happen. I was very happy with how it turned out, but, more importantly, I'm extremely pleased with the response that the cover has got. I don't think there is a sillier platitude than the suggestion that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. What else are covers for? Currently I'm eagerly awaiting my first look at the cover for Thirteen Years Later – I hope the text lives up to it.

Fantasy Book Review focuses, in the main, on the fantasy genre. It's all about finding the very best that the genre has to offer. Are there any fantasy books that you have read during your lifetime that you would heavily recommend?

Well, starting right back at the beginning, there Gulliver's Travels. Moving on to the nineteenth century, I'd recommend Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, anything by Poe and, of course, Dracula. More recently I'd go for Terry Pratchett (particularly The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents), Jasper Fforde (we Jaspers must stick together) and His Dark Materials.

What does the remainder of 2009 hold for Jasper Kent?

In the New Year I'm starting work on book three of The Danilov Quintet, but in the meantime I'm hoping to get a proper job. C# programming, anyone?