Grimwood’s Venice: Love and War in the ‘City of Sex and Death’

This week saw Orbit UK’s publication of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s second Assassini book, THE OUTCAST BLADE [UK | US | ANZ], sequel to THE FALLEN BLADE [UK | US | ANZ] which was released last year. The critics loved Book 1:

‘Brings 15th Century Venice to luminous life . . . the writing is elegant, the dialogue razor sharp’ – SciFiNow

‘A novel you can gorge yourself on . . . substance as well as style’ – Salon Futura

‘A twisted, Machiavellian, complicated and ornate book about survival and the terrible lengths people will go to for power. It may dress itself in the trappings of an angel-faced vampire assassin, but readers expecting Brent Weeks will be stunned to find Tim Powers instead. And even that is unfair – political, compelling, dark and urbane, this is a unique and stylish book that belongs wholly to Mr Grimwood.’ – Pornokitsch

Why do readers and reviewers love this series so much? And what makes vampires so appealing – even though the word ‘vampire’ is never mentioned in the Assassini books? What made Jon set his historical trilogy in Venice? For an insight into the workings of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s intricate mind, we thought we’d share with you the interview which appears in the paperback edition of THE FALLEN BLADE, which we think addresses those questions better than we ever could! Read on for the full interview.

In recent years the depiction of the vampire in popular literature has often been more romantic than bloodthirsty. To what extent with Tycho were you deliberately attempting to return to the more savage incarnation found in European folklore?

The early fifteenth century was fairly bloodthirsty so even something non-human would probably need to toughen up to survive the humans! But yes, I wanted Tycho to be distinctly non-sparkly. It seems an insult to offer readers twenty-first-century characters with a cheap historical overlay so I’ve grounded his character in the times in which he finds himself. Plague is commonplace. Starvation is commonplace. Stealing bread will see you hung. Upsetting the wrong people will see you tortured. It’s less than a hundred years after the Black Death killed a third of those alive in Europe. Society is brutal, sexist, cruel and unforgiving. Tycho arrives knowing none of the rules and has a hard time learning them.

But he is a romantic hero in the proper sense. And one reviewer – a philosophy professor, bizarrely – picked up something I’d missed. The two characters who sacrifice most for love – and so live up to what we consider to be human values – are both non-human. That wasn’t conscious on my part. I did, however, want Tycho to feel not just the physical pain of the trials he undertakes but human emotional and spiritual pain as well. So yes, he’s a return to the vampire as monster. And acceptance that the times in which we live can make monsters of us all. The secret is to overcome that monstrousness.

Of course, he’s also the first vampire into Europe, a generation before Dracula, so he’s the basis on which later myths and legends are founded, and some of them inevitably are misunderstandings of what Tycho is and represents.

 Tycho is a complex protagonist, struggling against the dual onslaught of the hormones of puberty and the savage lusts of vampirism, not to mention being a stranger in a strange city. How challenging was it to write his character?

Hugely! Adolescence is the point at which we look in two directions at once: backwards to being a child and forwards to being an adult. God knows that’s hard enough. Throw in not knowing if you’re even human, and if you’re not human, what kind of “not human” you are, and that makes for a tough mix for the young character to live with, and any writer to create.

Also, since Tycho doesn’t even know at the beginning what he is hungering for he can’t feed his addiction to blood. There’s an obvious analogy with early sexuality. He knows he wants something. He hasn’t quite worked out what it is. Just that he wants it very, very badly. I was really tempted to make him able to handle daylight, since it would have made writing him so much easier. So I compromised on a limited supply of alchemist’s ointment, which once gone is gone (making bigger problems for the second and third book).

Being a stranger in Venice is hard on Tycho whose memories of growing up came from a hundred years earlier and half a world away (Bjornvin is in North America), but I know Venice reasonably well so that bit was less hard for me!

 You have explored the significance of memories in your work before and do so again in The Fallen Blade as Tycho gradually remembers his past. What is it about this theme that makes it so appealing?

We are our memories. Our identity turns on where we think we come from, what we think we’ve done and what type of person we think that makes us. Regret is remembering having done one thing and wanting to have done another. It takes courage to regret, and even greater courage to regret and learn from the regret. Tycho’s problem is: what if his memories are lies? What if he remembers incorrectly or simply makes memories up because he has no others? None of us have any proof that what we remember is true. We simply think it’s true because we remember it. I think we’re each probably single moments in time, only really existing in an endless succession of presents. I also think identity is fluid and how we behave is changed by what is happening around us. The big question is: is there something central and unchanging at the core (what people would once have called souls, and some still do)?

Tycho’s in too much of a mess and facing too many odds to give that question real thought, but he knows the question is there. And since he’s not human, he also knows the other question is: what is he? That’s why the memories matter so much to him and he revisits and revisits trying to find a clue.

 The Venice depicted in The Fallen Blade is as much a character as any of the human (and inhuman) protagonists. What research did you do to achieve this atmosphere and historical depth?

I made three trips to the city inside eighteen months: the first to get a fresh sense of the place, the second to sketch and photograph locations and the third to fill in the final gaps and write one of the really difficult scenes. I wanted to do that while I was there, so I could see the city and my monsters on an overlay inside my head. That way I got to see the krieghund coming out of the night fog.

The amazing thing about Venice is how little it has changed over the centuries. As always, I bought old maps and they showed that some back canals had been filled in with earth to become Rio Terra, and several islands around San Pietro at the eastern end of the island city had been joined to make a bigger island, but much of Venice is as it would have looked six hundred years ago. That’s hugely helpful when writing fictional history.

It’s a cliché to say Venice is the city of sex and death – but it is. Venice is dying and has been dying for over a thousand years. It’s layered with history, one era on top of another. And it’s made with pillars and windows and statues stolen from other cities the Venetians looted. To write Venice I just had to open my eyes and carry a notebook.

 The map of Venice featured at the start of the book is fascinating. Could you tell us more about its origin?

The map is based on a five-hundred-year-old map of Venice printed in Basle. I bought the original after I signed the contract to write the three Assassini novels and sent it to Orbit, who gave it to a cartographer who used it to draw a new version, with some changes I wanted made, and with a key that showed essential locations in the book. I have both the original and a large copy of the new version out on my desk at home so I can check them whenever I need. I love the map, and I love that the city we visit in real life and Tycho’s city are still so close you could use The Fallen Blade map to guide yourself round Venice today.

 You do a lot of your writing in coffee shops – why is that? Do you find that the background noise is conducive to concentration, or is it the proximity to caffeine that’s more important?

I’m trying to limit my caffeine to a jug of coffee a day! I have two reasons for writing in cafés. Actually, three . . . The first is that writing can be done anywhere (that’s the real joy of it). I used to write on trains, planes and in bars. Now I write in cafés because that’s where I spend most of my time. The second is it’s become a habit. I’m used to going to work by dropping down to a café for breakfast and sitting there writing until lunchtime, then I go for a long walk to think through the next section, and start work again when I get back to the house. Although @GenghisKat usually has something to say about that. The third is probably the most important: I find it much easier to get lost inside myself when surrounded by people and noise. Most of the writers I know get out of the house at some point during the day to work, otherwise there’s always something to distract you!

Obviously enough, I write on my research trips (I wrote in Venice for The Fallen Blade, in North Africa for the Ashraf Bey crime novels, in Tokyo for End of the World Blues). Locking down once a year in a hotel for two or three weeks also helps me get a lot of words written!

 The Fallen Blade marks your first foray into historical fantasy, after having written a number of SF novels. How difficult was this transition and was there anything you particularly enjoyed about writing in a different genre?

Getting proper monsters into the plot was great . . . I knew who and what Tycho was from the very first time he opened his eyes inside my head and I realised I had a new book (and remember – nowhere do I use the word vampire!). The  krieghund, the Emperor Sigismund’s shock troop of what we’d call werewolves, came out of nowhere, almost literally. I hadn’t realised Prince Leopold was a krieghund until I wrote his battle against Tycho on the roof at Ca’ Friedland, then I had to go back and include the krieghund attack on the Assassini that opens The Fallen Blade because I suddenly knew why Lord Atilo’s forces were so weakened. That attack had killed their best men and the man Atilo had intended as his successor.

Magic was also a big attraction. In Tycho’s time people really believed in demons and witches, alchemists and sorcerers . . . So I wanted to make them real. Not to explain them or codify them any more than I’d explain pie sellers or tavern keepers – simply make them real.

 If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before you started writing this book, what would it be? And would it be different from the advice you would give yourself before you started writing your very first book?

Okay, for my first book it would be, ‘Stop trying to run away; they’re always going to catch you.’ I was seven and locked down in an English boarding school and my first novel was about a monkey that escaped from a zoo, stole a NASA spaceship and went to live on the moon (paging Dr Freud . . . .)

The first book I had published I wrote at a table in a flat in a very poor area of North London the summer I was made redundant from a publishers. I wouldn’t give myself any advice because it was only sheer stupidity – and blind luck – that made me write it and send it off to an agent and have a phone call that went, ‘We’ve sold the book and its sequel. You are writing a sequel, aren’t you?’

This book? I don’t know . . . I’m not big on giving advice or taking it, and people need to find their own voices and their own way of working. It took me three published novels before I came close to thinking I’d maybe learnt how to write. And like most writers I know – and I know a hell of a lot – I still doubt it most days. The best advice I could have given myself would probably have been drink less coffee and write faster!

Jon Courtenay Grimwood can be found online at his website and on Twitter.