Award-winning scriptwriter James Devo, born and raised in South London, brings to us the imaginative world of The Wonder. It was a pleasure to have interviewed James, and I am sure you’ll be curious to know more of The Wonder after you read the interview.
1. Would you like to tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a grumpy old Londoner who has travelled extensively but always ends up back home, much to the annoyance of my wife and children. And the tortoises. Particularly the tortoises. They’re trying to turn the rest of the house against me. Luckily the cats are on my side as I’m the one that clears out their litter tray.
Speaking of doing the stinky jobs, I’ve worked in the television industry for over two decades, usually doing the jobs nobody else wanted to do. I started thinking I would meet people who would appreciate my writing and encourage me to become the next Lawrence Kasdan, Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin. Instead I met people who encouraged me to drink and preferred schadenfreude to wunderkind.
Despite my friends, I wrote a few short films that stumbled across some awards, then I sold a sitcom pilot to an American network, wrote a few full length scripts, one of which managed to get Nick Frost attached, but after much energy and little result, I decided to concentrate on a novel. An indie publisher read it and liked it and hence, The Wonder 1: Blood Red and the Wonder 2: Deep Blue.
2. Have you always wanted to be a writer? And how did you go from wanting to actually being one?
It would be wonderful if I could keep myself happy, sustain my integrity and self-respect in my working life, but I’ve never been able to. I’m not a job title junkie. I’ve only ever really been able to feel good about myself when I’m involved in some artistic endeavour or other. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I used to hand out short stories at school when I was ten years old. I’d hand out a romantic snippet to my “girlfriend” and a horror pastiche to my best friend. As I grew older, I thought a writer needed a certain lifestyle. Unfortunately I didn’t want the lifestyle of Enid Blyton, I wanted Hunter S Thomson and Hemingway. I was in a punk band, I was petulant and wore tight pants. I stopped writing for a while and became somebody not worth knowing. Having not become a mixture of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground (yeah I know, a real shock, eh?), I grew out of my tight pants, went back to education and started writing about the “commercialisation of rebellion” and “the death of youth culture”.
Once I got that out of my system, I started travelling and writing, and I settled into myself.
I read endlessly on how to write. And I wrote. I think the point where I became a “writer”, as opposed to someone who wrote, was when I realised what a first draft is. A first draft is like wandering through a unknown city getting from one point to another with a crumpled map you picked up at the airport. The trick is to find the route that still takes in the sites, gets you from A to B but doesn’t waste anybody’s time…
3. How did you come up with the idea of The Wonder?
I have no idea how electricity works. Or how dinosaurs become oil. Forget how my car engine works, the windscreen wipers are a mystery to me. It might as well be magic. To anyone from just 150 years ago, it would appear to be magic.
And I thought, if magic really did exist, would it really be people in robes faffing about with cauldrons?
No, there’d be factories and people wanting to make money out of it. For every Tesla or Einstein, there’s 1000 grubby little businessmen or military suppliers desperate to sell something created out of somebody else’s imagination and hard work.
It was an idea that had been clattering about my head for a while, and then I had the opportunity to pitch a Dr Who script – ”somebody finds Arthur’s Sword in the Stone and accidentally unleashes magic everywhere, but really it’s ALIENS!” sort of thing – and realised turning an “idea” about “something” into a story about people was difficult. Finding the balance between “speculative” and “fiction” is hard work.
As I worked up the pitch, I realised it would be easier to talk about an industrial revolution based on magic around the time of… the industrial revolution. And setting it in around the 1800s opened up the Imperial history of Great Britain as it used innovation and industry to… …do what Imperial powers do.
I figured this may be better as a novel than a 42 page script.
I was reading a lot of books about the Indian Uprisings (as you do), I’d recently travelled around South America, where whole
cultures and their histories had been obliterated by invading forces, and so it started to turn into the story of the Wonder –
A small forgotten corner of an advanced colonial Empire fights for freedom while discovering its own history. With magic.
4. Could you explain the main difference between Grimdark Fantasy and other common sub-genres of Fantasy?
I think everybody uses “Grimdark” as and when they see fit, but to me it primarily means “realism”. (It just sounds better than the dichotomy that is “Realistic Fantasy”).
I have an issue with traditional fantasy. More than one issue-
1.I get tired of the traditional Dark Ages setting.
2.I loathe the idea of a Chosen One.
3.I find it hard to imagine a King leading his people into battle, especially following World War 1.
4. Although there are heroic acts, most people are rather self-serving, and what drives them is not being a hero. It might be wanting to be seen as a hero. Or being recognised as someone who would not stand by when something bad was happening. And even those amazing, selfless, honourable people who can truly be described as Heroes are still plagued with self-doubt, or a form of PTSD. I mean everyone has problems. Just look at Peter Parker.
5. “Good” guys don’t always win. And they don’t always learn stuff in a character arc that makes them better people.
Apparently grimdark is more violent too, but I’d argue it portays violence as something realistically terrifying with CONSEQUENCES…
But elves, dragons, steam-driven robot things, swords and big guns. That’s all just fine.
5. What is a character in your book that you feel particularly attached to?
I’ve written oodles of doodles regarding one type of character for many years. The reluctant hero. Han Solo. Or Chris from the Magnificent Seven. All of Bogart’s greatest roles. And then I came up with the hero who cannot sheathe his sword. The man whose blade is attached to his hand, a part of him.
But then I thought instead of the sword being an extension of the man, that the man is an extension of the sword. He’s become a weapon himself. He is just the flesh and bone handle of the sword.
And that man became Hilt.
I met a man once who fell up the escalator on the tube – er, the London Underground -and scarred his face really badly. He was a lovely chap. He said since his accident, people thought he’d got the scars in a fight. He finds himself being challenged to a punch up in rougher pubs and bars all the time. It reached a point he was scared to go out.
He really helped colouring in Hilt. A man who always looks like he’s ready for a fight, which slowly turned him into the violent man people expected him to be. He had no choice but to become a psychopath. He’s a man who has lost all but the slightest glimmer of his humanity. His affliction defines him and when he finally has an opportunity to use his skill with a blade for an honourable cause, he’s not sure it’s worth it. Or that he is worth it.
I like Hilt.
6. What was the reaction of the first person who read your draft? Or if, like me, you wouldn’t dare to allow anyone to look at your first draft, then your book?
You have to show people! Even just the first three pages! Send it to me. You never know, something that happened to me could happen to you –
The first person I sent it to, we’ll call him Spike, said this, “After reading the first page of this I am utterly intrigued as to what this book is and who wrote it?” which was heartening, considering he’d worked with me on scripts for years.
I replied, “I wrote it, you xxxx.”
And I got this back (I’ve cut and pasted it, with the respective editing) –
“Well that’s why I thought you sent it to me but it was so accomplished I thought it couldn’t be and didnt want to look silly!
Mate, this is special. I haven’t finished it yet but (and in my mind this is the utmost compliment) it is reminiscent of vintage Vonnegut. High praise indeed.
Oh you, you …..
I’m there, you got me in that first page and never let me go. This is also is a film that one day needs to be made.
Yeah, I like Spike. He’s a good bloke. I doubt if I’d not got that mail I’d have written something I’m still writing today, with Book 3… Every writer needs at least one Spike.
Following on from that, and due to the Victorian setting, I tried writing The Wonder on a chapter by chapter basis. Every chapter has a cliff hanger so as I sent it out to friends who sent it to other friends, it was a great impetus on getting it finished, because they kept asking for more.
Send it to your friends! Or me. Honestly. I’ll read it. What’s a writer without a reader?
7. Were there any particular authors that inspired or influenced you?
Iain M Banks. Vonnegut. Hemingway. Julian Rathbone – you have to check Julian Rathbone. He’s criminally underrated – start with Joseph, which has a Machiavellian dwarf as a lead, and see the first great Machiavellian dwarf in literature. Amin Maalouf – he’s from Beirut and writes in French but even the worst translations are magical. He writes about a non-western history that feels like fantasy.
And all the normal people, King, Gaiman, Alan Moore, Michael Chabon..
8. And a book that had an impact on you?
The first book that made me cry was Under The Frog by Tibor Fischer. Somebody dies, and it’s quick and sudden and pointless and it changes the hero forever. I remember reading the words and my mouth literally dropping open. How could this happen in a book that started out so very funny? I reread the lines. I wanted to skip ahead to see if he was joking. I had to put the book down and walk it off. It blew me away. I’ve aspired to writing a moment like that ever since.
9. When it comes to your writing career: Do you feel the most difficult part is done, or the biggest challenge is yet to come?
Not enough people read me. Stuff the money. People who don’t write say, “Ooh, you’re going to be famous.” I’ve got no interest in that. Most strangers are weird (to be fair, most of my friends are weirder). I want people to read the books and feel my characters and world and dream about them. I want to talk about my characters to people who consider them as real as I do. So, no, the writing part is a gift – I’m not saying I’m gifted – I mean, when you write something and you KNOW it’s good, or when somebody says, “that bit put a tear in my eye”, or somebody says, “did something like that really happen?”, it’s a gift. Like Christmas morning.
The biggest challenge is getting people who would love your book to realise the bloody thing exists!
10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Never ever stop. And find the right medium for the right story. Some stories are movies. Some tales are books. Some epics are short stories. And some yarns are best left in the pub.
11. How would you want to be remembered?
Taller. And as a friend to all tortoises.
Extra info –
Get in touch. I love engaging with readers and writers.
You can find The Wonder: Blood Red and The Wonder: Deep Blue here –
and at all good ebook stores; out in paperback September 2016
The Wonder: Verdigris out Q1 2017, unless the tortoises get me first.