An Interview With Jon Courtney Grimwood on THE FALLEN BLADE
Vampire novels are all the rage now. Did this help to inspire you or did you imagine a different kind of vampire from the beginning?
I’ve been reading fantasy my entire life, I’ve always had a thing for historical fiction; particularly the kind where the heroine or hero is running round with a couple of daggers and something very nasty is going on in the background. And I terrified myself for weeks as a small child with an adult vampire novel so I’m surprised I didn’t write this sooner. But it took a while to nail the plot down.
Also, I wasn’t even sure Tycho was a vampire when he swirled his way into my head, dressed entirely in black leather and velvet and carrying his daggers. All I knew was he lived for the dark, feared the moon and had lost his memories. And to be honest I’m still not sure he is a vampire. At least not in the Twilight sense.
What I wanted to do was a vampire ur-myth.
A story that explained how what we call vampires reached Europe, where they came from and what they really are. That’s the back story to Tycho’s personal history. He’s the first vampire in Europe. (The term wasn’t in use in English before the 1700s)
The Fallen Blade takes place around 1407, twenty-five years before Dracula is born and fifty years before he ruled as prince of Walachia.
Obviously Tycho doesn’t know what he is; just as he doesn’t know yet what is powers are, or that he can transfer them to other people. He’s simply him and not at all happy about that. What he really is becomes clear later. Although there are clues in the first book.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
One of those great bar-room what ifs. Most people say they’d rob a bank or empty the nearest jewelers, or hangout unseen in the dressing room of some incredibly hot Hollywood star, or go see what their friends and family really say about them when they’re not around…
But realistically, they’d probably panic.
I’d spend the entire day worried I’d turned into a ghost, or was locked in some weird limbo where no one could see me or hear me and I would never escape. By the time I suddenly became visible again I’d either be totally insane, or getting used to it and getting ready to have some fun. At least that was my reasoning when making Tycho come to terms with his new powers.
If weird powers came with an instruction manual that would be different. Then, I’d probably rob the bank, and become an unseen assassin. Actually, I’d probably do all of the above. I guess most people would.
You grew up in the Far East, Britain, and Scandinavia. Where did the idea to set a vampire novel set in Italy come from? Did you travel there a lot before you came up with the idea or afterwards to do research?
As a child I went to Venice a few times on holiday. (It was about three days drive from where we lived in England and my mother was born restless and liked museums.)
In my memory it’s always hot, the sun blinding as it reflects on the wide expanse of the Grand Canal, the water in the little canals behind the big buildings is stinking and often green. There’s also something creepy about the city. A really disconcerting feeling that I’m in one of the scariest places in the world…
And on a practical level I was certainly in one of the strangest.
Canals instead of streets. No cars; an entire city that walks or takes boats. So layered with history that something has happened on every slab of every square. But it’s more than that When the winter fog fills salt-water lagoon around Venice you can believe it’s the only island in the world. The only city. That it is the world.
As a child – a strange one, admittedly – I decided that the water of the lagoon stopped the ghosts in Venice from escaping. That was why it felt so odd. In Venice ghosts had to outnumber the living by hundreds to one. When I walked through the city I was walking not just through history but ghosts everywhere.
I went back to Venice in my teens, and was shocked by how dark and tortured Venetian art was. At least the pictures in churches and the Ducal palace. For every beautiful, red-headed Titan nude there were three paintings of saints being tortured, murdered, exiled… I began to see where the ghosts came from.
The Fallen Blade is not a ghost story. But that sheer sense of strangeness was in my head when I began thinking about Tycho. And there seemed only one place I could set his story.
Obviously, researching the series is fantastic fun.
So far I’ve made three trips in the last two years. Walking the backstreets, using waterbuses to navigate from one part of Venice to another. A lot of my time is spent sitting in cafes with a notebook, thinking, ‘Ah, so that’s what Lady Giulietta looks like.’ Or, ‘That house there is obviously where Lord Atilo lives.’
All of the locations are real.
I’m now half way through writing the next part of Tycho’s story, The Outcast Blade, so I’ll be going back soon.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m always writing, in my head if I can’t get to my laptop. Sometimes on my iPhone or the nearest scrap of paper. I still have a novel outline I wrote on a restaurant napkin because it was the only thing I could find to write on.
I work in cafes and bars and on trains, in public parks and occasionally, if lucky, on planes and in airports. I’m writing this in a cafe in West London while waiting for a friend. When not at the keyboard I’m reading, walking or riding my motorbike. The bike’s a Triumph Bonneville that I’ve had made all black and I use it to belt round the winding back roads near my house in Winchester.
There’s a certain purity and sanity that comes from riding a motorbike (at least there is for me). It locks you into a single moment. And you’re really know you’re in that moment when you feel the bike stay still and the world flow around you. I always write better after riding. This the another reason I do it.
I suppose if I’m not writing, reading or riding then I’m probably travelling or cooking, which is something else that works for me. Food tends to play a large part in my books. One of Tycho’s great losses is nothing he eats tastes right to him.
Will the rest of the Assassini trilogy be set in Italy or will we be taken to other exciting locations?
The whole story arc is mostly set in Venice, which is a hundred or so little islands, joined by bridges and divided by canals. When it’s not there it’s in one of the Venetian empire’s colonies like Cyprus, or on the mainland of Italy. (Apart from all of Tycho’s flashbacks to Bjornvin, which are set in North American in the last Viking stronghold, all that remains of the colonies of Vineland.)
It was said that the Venetians were more interested in lovers seen through a window of a palace on the Grand Canal than the murder of a prince five hunred miles away. (Even when they ordered the murder themselves.) Venice owned a huge empire, had one of the biggest and most powerful navies and the greatest shipyard in the world. But as long as the gold kept coming they kept looking inwards at themselves. Not for nothing is it a city of gilt and mirrors.
What film made you cry last?
It’s well know men don’t cry. We choke up with emotion (yeah, right). The first ten or fifteen minutes of Up were devastating. And a really clever lesson in what you can do with any genre/form you like. The scene in Gladiator where the hero’s dying and he sees his dead and child waiting in the distance as he comes towards them is a killer. And I’ve known the video for Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt reduce seriously hard men to tears. (Simply because it’s impossible to watch without sensing the angel of Death hovering just off camera.) But what film made me cry last. A Studio Ghibli anime called Only Yesterday, right at the end, more or less after the credits, when a childhood version of the heroine appears in the train – like a cross between a ghost and a memory – and makes her adult self turn back to that place she’s leaving.
It taps into that sense of, ‘If I only knew back then when what I know now…’ But it’s cleverer than that (it would be, it’s by the guy who directed Grave of the Fireflies) so it’s also taps into a sense of, ‘If only I knew now what I knew then…’
Childhood and old age make for great characters and I try to have a mix so all ages have their part in the book.
Your novel features a unique combination of pirates, assassins, vampires, and Italian dukes. If you could be any one, which would you choose?
Vampire… Because a vampire can happily be any of those or, indeed, all of those over the course of a vampire lifetime but the others can’t necessarily be a vampire! The hook for me isn’t just immortality, or near as damn it, it’s immortality with added powers and not that serious a trade off. I’d happily function only at night if I could see in the dark and move faster than anything else around me!
I wonder sometimes if becoming a vampire isn’t like growing up. You think you’ll never be that age, you’ll never do those things. And then experience creeps up on us in much the same way that I suspect vampireness creeps up on the undead.
At first they think they’ll be just like humans but different; then discover that they’re less and less like humans as years turn into centuries. Obviously, Tycho’s right at the start of this. Well, he thinks he is.
Do you have a favorite character?
I like all the characters in The Fallen Blade – even the wicked ones. But Lady Giulietta, red-haired and stroppy, a pawn in her families power games, the original medieval poor little rich girl who decides to fight back and finds she’s simply made her life worse is right up there for me.
So, obviously enough, is Tycho.
He’s the most fun to write but also hardest because he’s not quite human and I have to keep that otherness in mind. There’s a strangeness to how he sees the world. And I have to remind myself – and the readers – that how he sees the world is not how the rest of us see it, for all he’s got human failing and emotions in the mix.
The other one I really like is Duchess Alexa. I think there’s a lot more going on with her than anyone around her realizes. How old is she? Why goes she always wear a veil? How come she looks so young? This is a woman who likes to watch the world through the eyes of a bat and poison her enemies. Yet is so devoted to her niece, Lady Giulietta, that she’ll do anything for her. That’s Alexa’s weakness, of course. And she has enemies who’d be willing to use that.