Interview with Justin Somper, author of ‘Allies & Assassins’
Justin Somper wrote the bestselling ‘Vampirates’ series and has been described, during his writing career, as ‘The Next Big Thing’ by the Sunday Times and ‘The Natural Successor to JK Rowling’ by Waterstones.
When he’s not writing, Justin works as a book publicist, working with Anthony Horowitz, Louise Rennison, the Roald Dahl literary estate and the Narnia literary estate amongst others.
He also coaches fellow authors on media, events and online strategy through groundbreaking training company, AuthorProfile (authorprofile.co.uk)
Book Walrus caught up with Justin following the launch of his new series, ‘Allies & Assassins’ – a fantasy whodunit set in the fictional court of Archenfield, which has been described as ‘Game of Thrones for teens’.
Book Walrus loved the book (see our review at http://book-walrus.com/book-reviews-allies-assassins-justin-somper/ ) and was thrilled to have the chance to ask Justin more about it.
Hello, Justin. As an author who’s already famous for one series – the magnificent ‘Vampirates’ – what steps have you taken to establish ‘Allies & Assassins’ as something completely different?
Thanks for calling VAMPIRATES magnificent! I’m not consciously doing anything to establish A&A as something completely different. I’m just writing something new. Everything you do is a step forward, an evolution. The experience of VAMPIRATES showed me that I enjoyed writing a large cast of characters and especially focusing on so-called baddies. So one of the things that appealed to me with A&A was taking on a big cast of characters from the outset and having them circle around each other in a fairly closed society. This was also my first ever attempt at a murder mystery, which I found quite adrenaline-inducing to say the least.
The only firm points of delineation I set myself in A&A Book 1 was 1) not to have any scenes at sea or 2) anyone dying who could then come back from the dead.
It’s probable also that A&A will have a slightly older audience from the beginning, not least as it is published in the UK by Atom, a specialist in YA/NA.The VAMPIRATES books unintentionally “aged up” as I was writing them and I found a level I was comfortable writing at. I hope A&A will appeal to the upper end of my existing readership as well as reaching out to new readers.
The blurb describes ‘Allies and Assassins’ as ‘Game of Thrones for teens’. Did you come up with that phrase? If not, do you think it’s accurate?
It was my publisher at Atom who, being an expert in fantasy fiction, made the “Game of Thrones” connection. I haven’t read George R. R. Martin’s books or watched the TV show and, after my editor made that observation, I have made a concerted effort to avoid them both. It’s frustrating because I hear how great GAME OF THRONES is and I’d like to experience it but, while I’m writing this sequence, I intend to steer clear of it. (When I was writing VAMPIRATES, I avoided as much Vampire fiction and film as I could.)
For me, the main impetus behind A&A was pre-medieval Welsh history but it also has a somewhat Scandinavian feel I think, deriving perhaps from visits to Norway and Sweden and also my enjoyment of ‘Scand’ books and TV shows, including BORGEN and THE KILLING. So I can’t really say whether I think the phrase is accurate. But I will say that one of the reviews I’ve liked most so far said, “Oh how much better the actual book was compared to my expectations! When anything claims to be the new thing, just as this proclaimed to be Game of Thrones for teens, I’m automatically judgemental. What it failed to say though was that this was a brilliantly executed fantasy style whodunit!”
In the acknowledgements of your book, you thank an inspirational librarian who ‘opened the gates to the pre-medieval Welsh courts’ to you. Can you tell us more about how he inspired you and the role he (and his pre-medieval courts) played in shaping the series?
With pleasure. We should name him for starters – Hedd (pronounced Haze) ap Emlyn. We’ve only actually met once, in October 2009, when I was doing VAMPIRATES events in Wrexham for Book Week. We got chatting in between my events and he told me that his daughter was taking part that day in a competition called the Eisteddfod to win ‘The Poet’s Chair’. This term immediately resonated with me. Hedd explained that it harked back to the court structures of pre-Medieval Wales, where the Poet was one of the key officers to the ruler. After I got back to London, Hedd and I began exchanging e-mails about this and he sent me copies of some useful and inspiring background material, including extracts from the book THE LAW by Hywel Dda – a law book, dating back to the early 13th century. There were several elements that appealed to me about this source material – not least the sense of delineated roles and hierarchies. Eventually, Hedd helped me track down a copy for myself. It was my gateway into the world and, in particular, the characters of A&A.
THE LAW lists the key officers reporting to the King and Queen in the Welsh kingdoms or princedoms. They each had about 24 officers, I think, and their roles and rewards are laid out in the book. I found their titles – The Poet, The Falconer, The Captain of the Guard – to be very evocative. I reduced the number of officers to 12 and swapped out a few names, introducing The Beekeeper and The Executioner. Initially, I was tempted to set the story in this specific time and place but as I continued working on it, I thought that a parallel world setting would serve the characters, story and – most importantly – readers better.
Your book focuses on The Council of Twelve who support the Prince in ruling the Princedom. They have some fantastic positions – e.g. Bee Keeper, Falconer and Poet. If you were one of the 12, which office would you hold?
Well, I’m possibly best qualified to be The Poet, given that he is both a wordsmith and ‘spin doctor’. My dad was a medical doctor, latterly specialising in Homeopathy, so I also have a connection to The Physician. And I spend a lot of time in woodland, exercising my two dogs, so The Woodsman wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. But, on the whole, I’d say I’d either like to be The Beekeeper or The Priest!
Do you think countries would be ruled better if their chief advisers were poets and bee keepers?
Good question! Insofar as poets might represent the importance of the Arts and beekeepers would ensure a focus on environmental issues – yes, absolutely. I recently heard a shocking interview on Radio 4 about the “investment potential” of one university degree versus another. Needless to say, engineering degrees were very cost-effective and English degrees at the other end of the scale. I think Arts are essential to the health of a nation, as is a keen awareness of environmental issues.
Do you think countries would be ruled better if teenagers were in power, rather than adults?
It’s obviously tempting to say yes to curry favour with my readers! Seriously, I think it is important for all of us to listen better to teenagers, just as we need to listen to the older sections of our communities. I find that there’s a different energy which emanates both from the young and the old, and a clarity which sometimes eludes those of us in the middle of the age spectrum. One of the things that interests me in A&A is that Prince Jared is thrown into power aged sixteen, having never wanted to end up on the throne. He is surrounded by people who are older and more experienced, from his ambitious cousin Axel to his own mother, who is clearly a skilled politician. But it’s possible that, for all their experience, Jared’s freshness of approach will reap better dividends for the princedom. These divisions come even more to a head in Book 2.
Our feeling as we read ‘Allies & Assassins’ was that the female characters were (refreshingly) smarter than their male counterparts. Would you agree? Was this deliberate?
That’s an interesting observation. If that is true, it wasn’t deliberate, but possibly a by-product of the fact I really enjoy writing about strong, female characters who drive the story forward. In certain ways, some of the key women characters are outsider figures – Asta because she is young and new to court, Silva because she is away from her true home, Elin because she has chosen to put others on the throne rather than claim power herself, Nova because she connects more easily with her falcons than other people… so perhaps it’s that perspective that they gain from being at the fringes that invests them with a greater intelligence than those at the heart of the political machine?
You are a book publicist as well as a writer. Do you think the two jobs go together well?
Yes and no. Having worked in the books “industry” for over twenty years, I know broadly how it works and what to expect, which is helpful. That said, the landscape has changed significantly and continues to do so at great speed. I think getting to know other writers, the way they work and the challenges they face, has probably given me a useful if not unique perspective on things. At the very least, I know that I’m not alone in facing certain challenges. For obvious reasons, I don’t do my own PR (in terms of pitching myself for print or broadcast interviews, writing press releases etc) but like many authors today, I now manage a lot of my own online profile – my websites, Twitter and Facebook. My PR background has been useful in thinking how to approach these networks in a professional, timely and, hopefully, engaging way.
What tips have you learnt from advising other authors that have helped you with your own book launch?
Well, firstly I think to consider what might be special or different about the book (a hard but necessary task for any writer), to be clear about the inspirations behind the new book and to have visual material that helps tell that story. And then to engage energetically with this part of the process, even if it coincides (as it has) with writing the next book. Learning how to balance moments of solitariness and ‘performance’ and to give both your focus is helpful to writers today. As is treating this as a long game. I think all authors should be equipped at the outset of their careers with a copy of Haruki Murakami’s WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING. For most of us, a writing career is a marathon not a sprint.
What are the biggest mistakes you see new writers make?
I still class myself as a fairly “new writer” and I’m sure I’m still making plenty of mistakes! I think that it’s unhelpful, though undoubtedly tempting, to compare oneself to other writers – whether in terms of what they write or the trajectory of their career. As a publicist, the two phrases that make me want to run for the hills are 1) “Can you make me the new J.K. Rowling?” and 2) “Trust me, no-one has EVER written a book like this before”.
Book Walrus loved speaking to Justin Somper and can’t thank him enough for taking the time to give such detailed and fascinating answers to our questions. We look forward to the rest of the Allies & Assassins series and wish Justin and his new series all the success they deserve.