Jonathan Stroud Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud

An interview with Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus Trilogy for older children discusses his life and his books.

Please tell us about background

I was born in Bedford, England, on 27th October 1970. When I was six my family moved to St Albans, near London, which is where I grew up. From very early on I enjoyed scribbling stories and drawing, and for a long time the two sides were equally balanced: pictures interested me as much as words. Between the ages of seven and nine I was quite often ill, and spent long periods in hospital and at home in bed. During this time I escaped from boredom and frustration by reading furiously: books littered my bedroom floor like bones in a lion's cave. I tended to enjoy stories of magical adventure more than ones about real life – I think this was because they provided a more complete escape – and around this time I fell in love with fantasy.

Throughout my school years I experimented with different kinds of writing, often illustrated. (See Early Stuff for some examples.) I tried comics, gamebooks, board games, and later poems and plays. Without being entirely aware of it, I was searching for the kind of writing that suited me best. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more interested in other people's writing: finally I went to York University, to read English Literature.

Like many English graduates, I left university without a clue what to do. But I got an editorial job at Walker Books, in London, and began to learn about children's books. For several years I worked as an editor: helping authors with their ideas and their texts, consulting with designers and artists about the visual side, helping to create books of many kinds. I worked on encyclopaedias, history books, game books and even a children's Bible. This taught me a lot of things about structure, pace and style; meanwhile, in my free time, I was busy writing also. I did several puzzle books for Walker, and began working on a novel too. When Buried Fire was published in 1999, I knew that I had found what I truly wanted to do, but it took until 2001 before I finally took the plunge, gave up being an editor and tried to write full time.

The same year I married Gina, and we have a daughter called Isabelle. Most days I cycle out to my study (see My Working Day), and shut myself away from the world while I write. But I also enjoy doing as many events and author visits as possible: it's essential that a writer reminds himself of who he is writing for…

When did you start writing?

Around the age of seven I began writing rip-roaring adventures inspired by the works of Enid Blyton. These featured bands of children, robbers, stolen loot, ruined castles, secret passageways and hidden doors that swung open if you tripped on a tree root. All the other children in my class wrote stories that ran maybe a couple of pages; mine went on indefinitely until the teacher ran out of paper. I'd discovered that the pleasure of reading something exciting could be extended into the thrill of writing it too.

How old were you when you published your first book?

When my book of word puzzles came out, I was 23. My first novel appeared when I was 28.

How long does it take to write a book?

My first published book, which was a collection of word puzzles, took me a month to create. I shut myself away and worked every day until it was done. A longish novel, such as The Amulet of Samarkand, takes a year or so. Usually there's a couple of months when you're developing the idea and doing a bit of stop-start writing, then you've got maybe 4-5 months of solid writing, until the first draft is done. After that there are perhaps 2-3 months of rewriting, editing and copyediting. And then you have to wait for another few months for the thing to be printed and published! But a lot depends on the length and complexity of the individual book.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Ideas come from everywhere and can hit you at any time. I once got a very good one in the bath. The idea of Bartimaeus came while walking gloomily home in the rain. Ideas can be big or small – crashing insights or half-baked intuitions. I think they come from almost anything: people you meet, places you go, things you read, conversations overheard, dreams, newspapers, today's television, childhood memories. The thing to do is write them down when you get them, or they'll quickly drift away.

How do I become a published writer?

There's no hard and fast rule about how to get published, and most writers experience rejections and disappointments before they succeed. I think the key things are:

  • Practise: Write as much and as often as possible.
  • Experiment: Try as many different kinds of writing as you can.
  • Read: As above – as much and as widely as you can.
  • Persevere:
    (i.) Don't be disheartened by ideas and projects that don't work out. I've got zillions of half-finished things in boxes, assembled over many years. Individually they may not have been any good, but together they pushed me in the right direction.
    (ii.) When you're confident you've got something worth showing, send your material to several publishers at once, so you don't waste time if it's rejected. But check to make sure these publishers actually do the kind of book you're proposing! Don't worry if you get rejections, but listen to any advice.

What's your favorite book that you've written?

I'm pretty proud of all of them, but I guess it has to be Ptolemy's Gate, because this was the most challenging. I had to bring the Bartimaeus Trilogy to a satisfying conclusion and tie up every thread, and I'm happy with the way it worked out.

Who's your favorite character from your own books?

It has to be Bartimaeus, because he's the most fun to write. I like doing his jokes and footnotes, and I love the energy of his voice. It was when I first heard him speak, on the first page of The Amulet of Samarkand, that I knew the book would be exciting – and this was before I knew anything else about it!

Do you base your characters on people you know?

Not really. I suppose all writers must create their characters from bits and pieces of people that they've met or seen, but I don't deliberately set out to reproduce a living person. Having said that, the early character of Nathaniel in The Amulet of Samarkand is a bit similar to the way I was when I was in my early teens – proud, uptight, idealistic, hard-working, over-serious. I hope there's a bit more of Bart in me these days.

Who's your favourite author?

I don't have a single favourite; it depends on my mood. I love Robert Louis Stevenson, who did Treasure Island, because he writes literary books that are also great adventure stories. Other favourites, who are all very different, are Dashiell Hammett, Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse.

What's your next book going to be?

I can't tell you yet. It's too early. When a book is just being started, it's weak and feeble and needs to be protected. So I keep it very close to me, while it gathers strength. With luck one day it'll be sturdy enough to send out into the wider world!

Reproduced from with permission of the author.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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