I think the real fun thing about this interview is that John writes for children he knows in the same way that Tolkien did. Stories written for specific children tend to resonate with others, and the same can be said about the Worlds of Yifan books.
Prince Yifan and Princess Yifan are YA books set in Asia. Why does Asia provide the perfect setting for what you wanted to accomplish?
The books started with Princess Yifan, because my step-daughter, Yifan, was at that time very much into princess stories. I’ve written short stories for friends over the years and now I felt I had the stamina to write a children’s length novel. So I did.
And because Yifan was born in China, and has an investment in Chinese culture, parts of the first book – and then half of the second – had to be in an Asian setting. China is fascinating. But like many non-Western cultures they are looking to the West for their ‘new’ culture. This is, I believe, a mistake. But so much of Chinese culture was destroyed and reviled during the so-called Cultural Revolution that there is a void to fill. Thankfully, it is becoming more popular in China to look back to their rich history. I draw from this history – the very early Qin dynasty and the last Qing dynasty – to provide the background for both books. There’s a Korean dimension in book two, because Yifan’s father is half-Korean, and she likes Korean culture.
Taiwan came into it because I needed a long sea voyage!
You are a fan of Philip K. Dick. Why do you think his fiction translates so well to the big screen (Bladerunner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly)?
It’s strange that Dick’s fiction should translate so well to the screen, since it is often fragmented and confusing. But there are people out there who can see through the jarring, flicker-book prose to the deeper realities of his work, and they are the ones who can see his visions up there on the screen.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to see a proper film (not an animation) of A Scanner Darkly. I have it in my head, along with the score – mostly the Rolling Stones and Elton John, with the final scene in the drug-field being Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.
Dick was a visionary and visual writer – although he didn’t describe flitters or surroundings or faces or clothing, his works bring images constantly to mind. That can make it difficult for fans to appreciate the films, because we all have our own images. But I have to say, most of the films so far have to my mind been at the acceptable end of the spectrum.
But I would like a film that encompasses the total strangeness of Dick’s mind. Something like Valis, or Ubik. Then we would truly see him on the big screen.
As an adult you still read children’s or YA books from time to time. Admittedly, so do I. What is it about these books that remains appealing? Name a book that you read in childhood that has shaped your life.
There are so many. I started by reading Enid Blyton, and went on to Nesbitt and R M Ballantyne, R L Stephenson, Captain W E Johns – sometimes I wonder if I preferred reading writers with two initials!
I was probably too young to appreciate Valley of the Dolls at 11. But I enjoyed The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robbins, and horror stories (M R James, another double initial author).
Anyway – Martin Rattler, by R M Ballantyne, has stayed with me for many years. And the narrative form is my preferred form for writing. There’s a vogue for eschewing adverbs, which I ignore; and another for demoting semi-colons; and another for ‘show, don’t tell’. Ballantyne was lucky enough to live at a time when none of those rules applied. I thank him, although my readers might not!
In your Smashwords interview, you list some authors you’ve recently read and recommended:
Authors recently read and recommended – Charlaine Harris (Lily Bard series), Charles Stross, Lee Child, the late Ian M Banks / Ian Banks, Sir Terry Pratchett, Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Neil Gaiman and E Nesbit.
Merge two works by any two of these authors and make a quick synopsis. Pitch it to us.
Five Children and IT, by E Nesbitt and Charles Stross
Bob Howard, erstwhile System Security Officer at The Laundry, could not have been more surprised when a simple summoning (requested on the correct forms, in triplicate) brought up not a third-level Presence, but a collection of children in various states of snottiness. Including a baby.
Getting them out of a secure office they should not have been in in the first place was less of a problem than finding them somewhere to stay, but Bob’s partner took it all in her stride. And while Bob started a surreptitious hunt for Psammeads in the Laundry’s eccentric databases, the children began turning Dulwich into a hotspot for Edwardian high jinks…
What’s coming next? What are you working on?
I am not a professional writer. I’m going to have to work well into my seventies to support my rather younger family, and I can see that I can’t rely on royalties! But I have started the Yifan stories, and I don’t want to stop.
First is book three, in which the Dutch Captain is revealed and the physics of inter-Universe travel is discovered. There are dark themes here, and it’s not recommended for those under 13 (although that would never have stopped me, at 10 or 11).
Then a novel-length version of my adult short story Glassman.
Next would be a novel in the Worlds of Yifan series which follows Shen Teal, the Prince in Prince Yifan, in an adventure in his World – you know he’s engaged to an eleven-year-old murderess, no small thanks to Yifan. I like that World, and there is certainly more there for a fourteen-year-old boy to encounter.
I have some shorts from years ago that I might collect and put on Smashwords – The Knights of the Golden Drain. Please don’t hold your breaths! There’s a wizard – Anadin, the Pandemic of Zubes. But usually I don’t ‘do’ magic. Partly because I don’t believe in it, and partly because I have no ideas for a convincing magical system. if I find one, I might include it in later books. So watch this space…