I have had some truly devastatingly bad luck recently - my interview questions to the charming Jasper Kent, author of Twelve, got eaten by the spam filter at work. Then my laptop here at home died with a copy of Jasper's interview questions on it...thankfully I asked him to send the questions to my work email address too, which I could then pick up on my blackberry and forward to myself to post here. Phew - what a mission! But here it is - I hope you enjoy 'em.
What was the first thing you did when you were told that your novel’s been accepted by a publishing house?
I was actually presenting a training course in Vienna, so I just went back in and continued explaining the finer points of the C# programming language. That evening I went out for a meal, all on my own. I can’t remember what I had – something terribly Germanic, I suspect, but I’m sure the wine would have been French.
What is the most difficult thing about waiting to be published?
I suppose the thing that hurts most is leaving one book and trying something different. As it turns out, my first book written, Twelve, is the first to be published, but now I have an affection for my other novels and don’t want to leave them behind.
What motivated you in the dark days whilst writing – when you were doubting yourself and your talent?
That really doesn’t sound like me. I certainly wouldn’t equate doubting my talent as a writer with doubting myself. Perhaps that’s a function of the age at which I started and the fact that I’ve been quite successful in other careers already. Also, writing hasn’t been an overriding, lifelong ambition for me, just one of the many things that I thought I ought to have a go at sometime.
Is Twelve something you’ve worked on for a while before actually sitting down and writing those opening lines?
My approach to writing means that I have everything very much nailed down before I start on any of the text. I usually have a scene by scene synopsis to follow. I think there were about four or five months of research before I started writing. Lots of things do come along as I write, but they don’t typically affect the plot itself. Having said that, the idea for what happens in chapter thirty (trying to avoid giving anything away) came to me after I’d already written a couple of chapters. Surprisingly, it had very little effect on the rest of the story.
What is your process like for coming up with your characters?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I certainly don’t create reams of documents and diagrams planning them like I do with the plot. There are certain aspects of personality that are forced upon characters by events, but other than that, it mostly comes quite naturally as I’m writing.
Your use of superstition and Russian folklore is ever present yet restrained – how difficult did you find writing Twelve and keeping a tight reign on the supernatural element in the novel?
I certainly wanted to tread a line between the natural and the supernatural, and to come to conclusion that the real villain is war itself. Thankfully, there is such a wealth of historical background for the period that it was never a difficult balance to achieve. What’s been more tricky is deciding on the balance for the sequel, Thirteen Years Later, which inevitably has to strike the balance differently, and yet which I’ve written before Twelve has even been published.
Did you have to do a lot of research on the voordalak and on everyone’s favourite bad boy Vlad?
I think every author is pretty much free to reinvent vampires as he or she sees them. The only rule is that they have to be consistent within the world one creates. I’ve absorbed plenty of vampire lore from books and movies over the years, but it all gets regurgitated in a form that fits the stories I want to tell.
The vast majority of my research went into getting Russia and 1812 right, which I think is rather more rewarding, even though inevitably I will have made mistakes. Essentially, I think I’m prepared to laugh off any complaints along the lines of ‘but vampires don’t do that.’ Being told that ‘Napoleon didn’t do that,’ would have a little more substance. I still think I’ll be able to live with it.
You create a wonderfully tense atmosphere in Twelve – teasing out the pieces of the story and placing the clues. Did you ever find yourself wanting to rush ahead and do the “big reveal” as soon as you could? And how did you manage to prevent yourself from doing that?
Once again, I think that doing a lot of planning helps. I produce spreadsheets to show when characters, events and clues are introduced, so I’m ultimately able to actually see how things are balancing out. The hardest part was to delay the revelation that the Oprichniki are vampires, because the reader knows perfectly well what they are even though the narrator, Aleksei, doesn’t. But every dilemma like that has to be dealt with, and hopefully that produces something interesting in the text.
Why choose this period in Russia/France’s history?
The simple answer is that that was the idea of that came into my head. It’s not as if I decided to write an historic vampire novel and then produced a shortlist of periods and locations in which to set it. Once the idea of Napoleon came to me, then my first instinct was to go for Spain as a location. But this was quickly replaced – within minutes – by Russia.
Looking at the broader picture, I’ve always had an interest in Napoleon. He was clearly the most important historical figure of the nineteenth century, and arguably of the last five hundred years. Also, compared to many similar figures, he remains morally extremely ambiguous.
Of course, little of this got into Twelve. What particularly interested me was how much Napoleon influenced nineteenth century European literature. Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment and War and Peace all, in their own way, discuss the legacy of Napoleon. Of these, Crime and Punishment is the one that most drove me in writing Twelve, even though it was written and set half a century later.
Do you plot out your novel rigidly or do you allow your characters the freedom to get themselves into trouble?
There’s very little freedom for them to do anything, but they are allowed huge latitude in what they can say and think. If I have to start writing the plot on the fly, then I know I’ve been sloppy in the planning. That said, thinking and speaking is just as important as plot, so there’s plenty that develops as I write. And there’s always room for digression. For example, in Thirteen Years Later I had a scene for which my synopsis merely said, ‘They arrive at Bakhchisaray. The uneventful journey there is briefly summarised.’ That panned out to 1,962 words.
What authors/tv shows/films/music inspire you?
David Tennant has said in interviews that watching Dr Who as a child is what inspired him to be an actor. For me, it was the inspiration to be a scientist. (I think that probably shows that David Tennant had a better grasp of what was really going on than I did.) Whilst the career as a scientist, of sorts, did go pretty well, I think those early and later memories of Dr Who have lingered and affected my writing. Another TV show that I think still has an effect on me is Secret Army; I don’t think that anything else quite captured the necessary brutality of war. And of course The Simpsons should be a continual reference for any writer. There are few philosophical issues that it has not explored in one or more episodes by now.
Inspiring authors are mostly dead; Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Greene, Wodehouse and Fowles are names that jump to mind.
I don’t think there has ever been a decent film version of Dracula, and that fact may have influenced the subject matter that I write about. I certainly spent a lot of late nights in my childhood watching Hammer films, and others of that style, which vary in quality from the ridiculous to the sublime. Hitchcock has a lot to tell anyone about storytelling, as do Powell and Pressburger.
Music is a big element in my life, but I’ve never noticed any link between it and my novels.
Do you have a selection of go-to reference books on your shelf that you refer to when you write / helped you when you first started out?
I have my general reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias on a shelf behind my desk, but history and fiction are downstairs, so as I’m writing I go and fetch them and they start to pile up around my desk. I have a purge and take them back down every month or so. I’d guess there were twenty or so that I used for Thirteen Years Later.
I know many authors listen to soundtracks/put together playlists for their writing day. Do you do something similar or do you prefer the quiet tapping of your keys?
I generally have to concentrate on music if it’s playing, so I don’t have it on either for writing or reading. I put together playlists for long-distance running; I like to romp through the finish line accompanied by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Hypothetically speaking, should the film rights for Twelve be picked up by Hollywood, who would you choose to play Aleksei?
Aleksei is probably the character about whom I have the least idea of physical appearance, I suppose because I was always writing from behind his eyes. One name that comes to mind is Johnny Depp, but only because he’d be excellent for almost any role in any movie. Andy Garcia is another thought. If I could choose any actor in history, then maybe Oliver Reed, when the right age, would be a good choice.
I know for sure who I want to play Zmyeevich, but I think he vowed to hang up the fangs sometime in the early seventies.
Tell us a random fact about you that is not on your author bio.
In 1982, I was aboard the first Royal Navy vessel out of Portsmouth on the day that the Falklands taskforce sailed. I was a naval cadet and we were on a field trip on a fleet tender. We sailed to Weymouth. There had been plans to get as far as the Channel Islands, but the sea looked a bit rough.
Are you allowed to hint about the storyline in the sequel to Twelve, Thirteen Years Later?
I’ll give you two words: Fyodor Kuzmich.
Do you know if you will be touring the UK upon release of Twelve?
No plans as yet, but I’ll keep you posted.