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Saturday, 13 April 2013

King of the Road


David Howe talks to Jane Johnson and M John Harrison, the writers behind Gabriel King.

Many writers use a pseudonym on their work. Usually this is because they are well known in a different field and wish to ‘start afresh’ with a new name and a new subject, others because they are too prolific and their publishers don’t want to flood the bookshops.

‘Gabriel King’ is in fact two writers. One of them is Jane Johnson, editorial director of the Voyager list at HarperCollins publishers, and the other is acclaimed literary author M John Harrison. Having tracked the two halves of King down, I first asked why they started writing together, and where the name ‘Gabriel King’ came from. Jane, a striking and forthright brunette, is first off the starting blocks: ‘Mike and I had lived together for the best part of 10 years,’ she explained, ‘and had always talked of writing a book together; but whenever we argued – even if it was about the washing-up – it always ended with a fight about fiction: what it was and how it should work. Mike – a literary writer – would argue for buried narrative and ultimate subtlety; and I – a publisher of “popular” fiction – would argue for getting your story and ideas across to as wide a readership as possible; and for entertainment, too. But three months after we split up, we started on a book: as much to keep in touch with each other as to write this much-promised novel; and then found that our respective skills were tremendously complementary: Mike’s crafting skills and subtlety marrying effectively with my understanding of narrative structures and storyline.’

Mike smiles. He’s quieter than Jane, and his writing has a resonance which stays with everyone who has read it. He decides to tackle the question about the name. ‘We began writing as Gabriel King in 1996. To arrive at the name, we wrote about a hundred christian names and surnames on bits of paper and combined them at random. Then we cheated, and picked something that looked right for the bookshelves.’ Jane laughs, ‘Gabriel King … a name created out of 300 postcards cast randomly on the floor! We wanted something a little “fey”, a little ambiguous; but also something with some resonance, and that would work well on a cover. Gabriel came from Gabriel Oak, from my favourite Thomas Hardy.’

The books so far created by the pair revolve around the common theme of cats, however the books are written for the most part from a feline perspective. The first was The Wild Road (1997) followed by The Golden Cat (1998) and now the third, The Knot Garden (2000), is available in trade paperback. ‘I like cats,’ says Mike in defence of their theme, ‘and I enjoy sentimental fiction.’

‘I agree,’ interjects Jane. ‘As a species, cats are fascinating. Their history entwines around human history in a complex, mysterious and sometimes gruesome fashion (ancient worship, witchcraft, persecution … even today they are boiling and liquidising cats for sale for as a treatment for impotence in Korea). Cats are also the only species that decided of their own free will (and anyone who has ever shared house-space with a cat knows it’s impossible for us to exert much will over them!) to share our lives and trade their skills (dispatch of vermin) for hearth and food. They are unusual in being able, in many homes, to come and go at will, many of them wandering for miles, having lives of their own for much of the day that remain entirely secret from us. I love that in cats: they are unknowable, ineffable, bizarre: no wonder our ancestors worshipped them!’

‘It's not really possible to do anything but anthropomorphise when you try to write from an animal's point of view,’ continues Mike. ‘We can't be in an animal's sensorium. We can't know how they think.’ Jane shakes her head. ‘We don’t regard our characterisation of the cats as overly anthropomorphic; indeed most reviewers and other writers (Richard Adams, William Horwood, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb) have commented on the convincing feline world we project. It’s a hard discipline, limiting your characters and their worldview to the way a cat might experience its life, but has produced some interesting epiphanies in the writing.’

Mike agrees, ‘Tarka the Otter isn't a raw, unsentimentalised look into the world of mustelid behaviour: it's a thinly-disguised tour of Henry Williamson's philosophy, his preferred way of understanding the world. As philosophy, I prefer the spaghetti scene in Lady & the Tramp. You can never write reality. You can only be in it. It's convenient for writers to forget that, especially when they are trying to be “unsentimental”. I'd rather be clear that I'm making it all up, on behalf of a reader.’

The skill of the fantasy writer, however, is to create that ‘made up’ world such that the reader wholly believes in it, and the Gabriel King novels contain many alluring concepts. The Knot Garden introduces the idea that the dreams of humanity affect the lives of cats … ‘In our first novel,’ explains Jane, ‘we created the concept of a series of secret highways (wild roads) used by cats and other primal creatures to channel the energies of the world, and to travel out of the sight of human beings. A sort of network of leylines crossed with animal highways (which we know exist: cats have their own territories that lie in a grid over what we might regard as our own; badgers travel their own routes from point A to point B; migratory animals and birds follow age-old routes and so on.) Our theory in The Knot Garden is that down these highways all wild things travel, and that includes the wildest, most primal part of humankind: our dreams; generated by that self over which we have little or no control. Nightmares contain powerful negativities – fear, hatred, anger – which can be damaging to the wild roads. Cats therefore appoint local dreamcatchers to catch and dispatch the dangerous dreams, before they join together and become even stronger, to the point at which such nightmares may influence the way people behave when awake.’

‘The idea that animals can "pick up our feelings" is a traditional one,’ adds Mike, ‘though I think our take on it, which was Jane's invention, is quite original. The use we tried to make of it was as the scaffold for a fairly overt plea for Animal Rights. For me, this is based entirely on sentiment. I don't have any "arguments" to support these feelings, I have simply made the choice to own up to them. As a boy, I shot animals; as a teenager I worked in a fox-hunting stable. As a result of those activities I can't now bear to cause unnecessary pain, or have it caused – either by hunting for pleasure, or by animal-testing supposedly carried out on my behalf. (I'm not talking medicine here: every new cleaning product you use around the house has to be tested. I can manage with the old ones, I think, thanks.)’

Jane is in agreement here. ‘There’s no point in writing a book if you haven’t got something to say or sell! In our case it’s raising questions about hierarchies, morals and responsibility, and why on earth we seem to think that just because we are able to, we have the right, as a species, to damage and destroy others and their habitats as wantonly and randomly as we do in the pursuit of greed and other unworthy goals. The villain in the first two books is in pursuit of power and knowledge; in The Knot Garden and its sequel, Nonesuch our villainess is in search of the cure for old age, loss of beauty, loss of sexual power and so forth. Humans have misused animals in such pursuits for centuries; and yes, we do have a big axe to grind especially in terms of the use of animals in experiments, specifically for cosmetics; but generally, we both believe that animals are used as a cheap and immoral scientific resource, are often treated brutally and to little useful effect.’

There is obviously a lot of passion here on the subject, and this spills over into the writing. I wondered how writing as half of a team had affected their other work in the field, and vice versa. Mike glances at Jane before asserting: ‘Being half of Gabriel King has been fun. I particularly enjoyed writing the Animal X scenes in The Golden Cat, and writing Anna, the main human interest in The Knot Garden. But as you can see from the more recent stories collected in my own book Travel Arrangements, there isn't any crossover between the two sides of my personality. Gabriel King is a lighter, sunnier-natured sort of person than M John Harrison. He's not afraid of his own emotions or his own decency. He was also, until recently, rather better paid.’

Jane smiles at that, and adds, ‘When you start out writing it can be easy to be so self-critical that you can’t complete a sentence: but when you work with text on a daily basis, as I have for many years as an editor, and gain the understanding that writing’s a flexible, fluid medium that doesn’t shatter or evaporate into nothing for being pulled apart, put back together and having bits bolted on or removed, it’s remarkably liberating. Not that I’m making any great claims for myself as a brilliant writer: just one who understands that writing is a skill to be learned, not necessarily an innate gift.’

The combined gifts of Jane and Mike will be on show once more in Nonesuch which sees publication in the autumn of 2001. As for the future: ‘Both of us have individual projects to pursue at the moment, so Gabriel King will probably take a little rest after the next book,’ says Mike. ‘We have further ideas, and they don't necessarily feature cats.’

‘We’re currently brainstorming ideas for other collaborative novels,’ confirms Jane, who is herself very busy with several other projects under yet another pseudonym. ‘As Jude Fisher, I currently have six projects under contract: three to tie in with Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings, which entailed spending four blissful weeks in New Zealand with the production; and a big fantasy extravaganza for John Jarrold at Simon & Schuster – the Fool’s Gold series – using my Viking studies as a cultural background (I just came back from a fantastic research visit to Iceland). This is a trilogy that will combine magic and mercenaries; gods and gold; ships and swords and sex; lots of sex! Oh, and there’s a cat in it, too. Actually, it’s a monster project, but I’m so enjoying it: I love reading good, expansive, heroic fantasy set in massive created worlds that are populated with strong characters; it’s immense fun to be making one of my own to play in!’

The Knot Garden by Gabriel King is published in trade paperback at £10.00 by Century.

David J Howe