In the first in a series, Jon Kaneko-James (author of A Dark Neon Dying) sits down with the team at Other Side Books to chat about life, writing and Shakespeare.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself, Jon.
Jon: I live in London and split my time between writing fiction and researching Early Modern History. I’m lucky enough to have a job at Shakespeare’s Globe, where I’m a tour guide, exhibition assistant and staff trainer.
Oddly, I can remember exactly the moment I wanted to be a writer: I was fourteen years old and watching the 1990s X-Men cartoon. I’d always written stories for roleplaying games – I started with Dungeons and Dragons, then other RPGs of the time like Shadow Run, Doctor Who, Star Trek (and so on…). It gave me a good grounding for knowing how to write a story, but I’d never thought it would be possible to publish a story or have others read it.
I sent a (decent, for a fourteen year old) story to TSR’s Dragon Magazine and got a really nice rejection letter (later rejections would upset me immeasurably, this one actually didn’t bother me at all) and wrote a 40,000 word novella mashing my D&D characters with X-Men and bits of the World of Darkness. I carried on through the rest of my teens writing what would now be called fan fiction: 2000AD’s Indigo Prime, Sapphire and Steel, Doctor Who. Anything I saw on TV that fired my imagination, I’d have a go at writing my own story in it. They’re not terrible stories (for the first steps of a young teen), even if I would be sued into non-existence if they ever saw the light of day.
Q: It’s always nice to be encouraged at a young age. Now, reading your writers CV, as someone with a love of classic literature, one thing immediately jumps out here. So, what’s it like working at the Globe Theatre?
I’ve been there a long while now. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by people who let me talk about history for a living, and to be in an environment where everyone has some kind of study going on: comedy, acting, technical theatre, makeup, lighting, music, history, literature.
Ironically, despite always having been into Early Modern history (mostly because of my interest in magical books and witchcraft, both of which have links with popular culture, and therefore the works of Shakespeare), I wasn’t actually that into theatre until I started working at the Globe. I think it was probably the 2008 production of Troilus and Cressida that actually turned me: its’ not a very well-known play, but it’s absolutely superb, with a better exploration of many of the themes from Romeo and Juliette, but (in my opinion) with better writing.
My colleagues are definitely the most valuable thing about being at the Globe, though. From the perspective of a historian, there’s a huge value to being around people studying your topic who know what they’re talking about. As a writer, I’ve never had anything but encouragement from them, and some of them have become my most valuable readers and critics.
Q: Sounds like a great resource. Who are your favourite authors?
In fiction: Dashiell Hammett (for story), Raymond Carver (for quality of prose) and Jim Butcher (for the way he writes action scenes). It’s all very American and first person, now I look at it, but it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads Dark Neon.
Q: Yes, Dark Neon has a strand of Philip K Dick meets the noir crime genre running through it.
In non-fiction: P G Maxwell-Stuart (for his books about witchcraft and the Early Modern Supernatural), Marion Gibson (for her collections of source material) and Phillip Almond (especially for his collection of 16th and 17th century pamphlets on demonic possession).
Q: And for the worst supplementary question in the world, what is your favourite book?
That’s a hard one! There are quite a few that mean different things to me. One of them has to be the Orion Crime Masterworks collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories. They’re fantastic short detective stories with a character whose name you never actually find out. You only barely know what he looks like, except a couple of fairly vague descriptions. Still, though, the prose is clean and the characterisation is superb. Best detective fiction I’ve ever read.
Another favourite is Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. I loved all of the Discworld books until about Jingo, where something just changed, and it wasn’t the same reading them anymore. I don’t know if that was the time where he suffered the onset of dementia, or whether twenty-one books in the same setting is just the point that anyone loses a bit of their edge. Either way, not only because it’s a bit of a Shakespeare skit, Lords and Ladies is one of those books I read again and again.
The final one (yes, I know the question is singular)…
Q: Don’t worry, it’s a bit of a mean question to ask a bibliophile…
It would be A Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close, a history about the very concept of night time. It’s a fantastic book, going into how different the whole concept of night-time (and sleep) were before street lighting. It’s a bit niche, but it remains one of my favourite history books.
Oh, and I’d like to give an honourable mention to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome. It’s a stort story collection, and it’s got the story Hinterland, which is superb, and probably my favourite single piece of writing in any medium.
Q: Since we’re asking the dreaded questions: music tastes?
(Jon Kaneko-James laughs)
Q: Yeah, I know. Me too.
My music taste has been described (very politely, by the host of a podcast who was interviewing me) as ‘really interesting’. In fact, I pretty much met my wife, Kero, because of my terrible taste in music: I was doing a guest set at a club night my friend was running, and my terrible musical taste drove everyone off the dance floor except this one mad little Japanese girl…
In terms of what songs and bands I actually like, I’m a big fan of ‘proper’ metal (Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Saxon), The Doors, 80s Goth stuff, New Wave and Prog Metal.
The thing that makes people scratch their heads is that I really like a slightly obscure genre called Electro-Swing. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin – a mixture of electronic music with 30s to 50s music (not only swing) and a heavy use of sampling.
Probably the oddest song I like is by a mad German called Taco. He did an electronica video called Puttin’ on the Ritz which got me started on the whole Electro Swing thing. For the love of God, don’t watch the video, though. Just don’t.
Q: So, back to A Dark Neon Dying, what gave you the idea of mixing fairies with Sci-Fi?
I’ve always had an interest in the proper, historical image that Europeans had about Fairies. Neither the Victorian ‘fairy at the bottom of the garden’ nor the fantasy literature ‘elf’ have ever been wholly accurate. Fairies have always been a whisper away: immensely powerful but impossible to touch, vulnerable to iron (actually, I’ve never found a source for that, but I still use it in fiction), like us but not like us.
I made magic a part of the world of Dark Neon – the way I tried to explain it to a reviewer was that it’s almost more like the far future of a Steampunk world than actual science fiction – but I also thought about the fairy realm in a world of virtual reality, or where neural interface technology could blend imagination with the real world.
It struck me as the sort of world where things like the fairies, whose realm is always depicted as existing closely adjacent to ours, could move through into a more substantial sort of existence.
Q: Where did the Idea for A Dark Neon Dying come from?
It was a few things. I wrote at it during the first time in my life when I sat down and couldn’t immediately come up with a story. It probably coincided with one of the first big bouts of depression that I suffered, but it was very scary at the time. For the rest of my life, I’d been able to just sit down and come up with complete stories: characters, plots, worlds. One day it all dried up, so after a suitable time of feeling sorry for myself, I just sat down and forced myself to write anything that came into my mind.
What I wrote was a short story (or at least, a short story length piece of prose) about a dark city full of criminals called performance artist, and a man called Czech Julie. Afterwards I wrote a short novella (no more than 21,000 words) featuring a character called Marie Ducoult.
The minced up cod-Frenchness of the book came from something that happened when I first started dating Kero: I’d read the books of William Gibson, and the Shadowrun Game (and a few D&D supplements) and I thought I knew something about Japan. Of course, the version of Japanese culture presented in these things is absolutely put through the blender, and it set me thinking to how would it come across if I wrote a book doing a similar thing with a culture that British people were more familiar with. I initially thought about Spain, or perhaps Germany. Eventually (largely because I’d recently seen Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge) I settled on France.
Q: What’s the most important thing you have learned about the art of writing?
That’s really hard… I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the things I learned about writing while working on this book (which, as I wrote earlier, I finished the first draft of about thirteen to fourteen years ago). There was so much, but I think the biggest thing was structure. I knew how to make RPG modules, but I didn’t know there was much more to a novel than just a three act structure.
Writing as an act of communication: every idea has to be held up for the audience. The bits where characters have ‘funny’ and seemingly unrelated conversations at the start of a book; all the seemingly obvious things that book characters say: it’s all part of communicating critical ideas to the reader. It sounds funny, probably, but doing that elegantly (or so I hope) was something I had to learn, and it was painful process.
I’d also like to plug a really important book here: I have no connection with the author, but Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering (and the companion book, Story Physics) were a huge part of getting this book to print. Story Engineering was the difference between my struggling through agonising draft after draft of a book, and getting back three individual points.
If anyone reading this wants to be a writer – go and buy it.
Q: And finally, what’s next for Jon Kaneko-James?
I’ve been fortunate enough to get my first history title, about the Supernatural in Early Modern Theatre, signed with Beul Aithris books, which should be out at the end of this year. I’ll be writing about fairies in that as well, plus witches and the more educated (often male) magicians you see using magical books.
I’m also writing a series of novellas. The idea is to deliver a series of prose stories like a tv show: one a week for six episodes, with a ‘boxed set’ available afterwards (I’ll try and twist some arms to get a print edition made too).
The setting itself will be urban fantasy – in fact, it’s the same setting as the story Unreal Esate (which will be in the series) that I wrote for the now defunct short story website, The 40p.
I’m also hoping to get a sequel to Dark Neon, set in the Europa city of New London, but that will be something I think about in 2018!
Q: The ending did seem primed for a sequel.
Couldn’t possibly comment.
Q: Jon Kaneko-James, thank you.
You can buy A Dark Neon Dying by Jon Kaneko-James, exclusively from Other Side Books.