Eugene Reynolds: The book is set in Cornwall, and one character (Hester) swears an oath to remain there “so long as I live.” What drew you to that corner of the isle of Britain? Have you sworn a similar oath?
James Treadwell: If I had, I’d be an oathbreaker many times over. I live in London, and love it, and don’t want to live anywhere else. However, my maternal grandparents moved to Cornwall when I was five, and I went there on holiday at least twice a year throughout my childhood. It must have got in the blood. I kept going back even when I grew out of family holidays, and nowadays I go there with my own wife and children, two or three times a year, though my grandparents have long since left. Cornish people tend not to be very happy about holidaying Londoners coming down to their patch and romanticizing it. I tried to leave at least a bit of the unglamorous toughness and dirt and damp in my version of Cornwall. And I’m sneakily rather proud of the fact that my totally non-Cornish surname happens to begin with “Tre” (for those who don’t know, you can’t go more than a couple of miles in Cornwall without finding yourself in Tresillian or Treburyett or Tremeer or Trevarno or Trethewey or Tregenna or…)
ER: The non-human characters (such as the puka, dryad, and orca spirit) seem more humane than some of the humans. How did you approach making them both accessible to the reader yet at the same time keeping them alien and mysterious?
JT: Somehow, the problem doesn’t present itself in this way when you’re actually writing. When a character’s there in your imagination, and you can hear them squawking or singing away, you don’t suddenly lift the pen from the page and ask yourself, “Hang on a sec, am I making this accessible to The Reader?” I suppose I feel that if they’re accessible to me, that’s probably accessible enough. If I feel like I myself have grasped the way those particular characters are both vivid and mysterious, then I just have to hope that I’ve written them down in such a way that the vividness and mystery will be equally available to my readers.
I suspect any writer would tell you that their characters surprise them all the time. We don’t sit at our desks thinking about how we need to arrange them. (Or at least I don’t.) We just watch them and listen to them as carefully and thoroughly as we can, and then write down what they say and do. If it doesn’t look/sound right, we cross it out, close our eyes, and listen harder.
With the puka and the dryad, I found that the clearest impression I had of both characters was their voices—the grammar and vocabulary as well as the tone. That was my way into them. Then I realized that they can’t lie. Perhaps that’s what makes them seem a bit more sympathetic than some of the human characters. When people—especially English people—are talking to each other, there are huge realms of unspoken assumptions and implications and codes underpinning the few things we say aloud. Most of the work of communication goes on below or around the actual spoken words. My non-human characters don’t use language that way. Their words express their natures much more immediately. So perhaps that comes as a relief after all the tight-lipped strangulated Britishness.
ER: Magic is depicted as a more intense experience of the unity of Nature. Why is it limited to only certain people, places, and events?
JT: I think magic is very resistant to the question “why?” Our whole understanding of our (non-magical, rational, materialist) world is built on causes and effects. It’s hard for us to deal with a field in which the question “why?” no longer applies. No wonder my poor protagonist has such a rough ride.
I’m also rather reluctant to associate magic too strongly with “Nature.” That’s one of the reasons I knew it was all right for Holly to sing Christmas carols: she’s not just “nature,” she’s culture as well. If the spirits can talk, they’re not just “nature:” nature doesn’t have language. Perhaps this is just the old academic in me. People who study literature tend to be very touchy about the idea of “nature.” See, even now I can’t type the word without putting scare quotes around it.
ER: Several characters have religious affiliations, and worship is entwined with magic. What are the roles of religion and magic in a secular age? Do you see them as being aligned or opposed?
JT: Religion’s a mode of magical thinking, probably the most widespread and respectable one in the world after superstition/luck. Perhaps that’s why it made sense to me that many of my characters would revert to a religious language when faced with the advent of magic. The book doesn’t have anything to say about actual religious experience, of course. Some of the characters instinctively use that framework; others don’t. That’s up to them. As for my own views on religion versus (or not versus) magic: I’m pretty sure they’re not relevant to the book. Generally speaking, I’m more sympathetic to magical thinking in all its forms (religion, sentimentality, superstition, romance) than most people seem to be, but perhaps that’s not surprising for a writer of fantasies.
ER: Your antagonist, Johannes Faust, is a figure with a rich literary history, which you subvert neatly. What led you to Faust? How does it feel to be sharing him with Christopher Marlowe and Goethe?
JT: Embarrassed, in a word. I didn’t actually know that my magician character was Faust until I was a fair way into the first version of the book. It came as something of a surprise, but it made sense of lots of aspects of his story. Needless to say, the last thing I want to do is invite comparisons with Marlowe or Goethe…
ER: The Faust sections are written with a reversed chronology. What impression did you hope to make on the reader? Are we being made to feel how it is to know the future but not be able to change it?
JT: That’s an interesting suggestion. I didn’t have any specific effect in mind, except for the idea that the magus’s story, like the other parts of the book, needed to unfold from mystery towards revelation, and that it was therefore important not to know who he was, what he was doing, and why he was doing it when he first appears.
In fact, though, the reverse narrative probably owes itself more than anything else to the fact that I knew where I wanted the book to start: the man leaving the sleet-swept city in the winter night, hurrying aboard ship, fleeing some kind of obligation, taking something with him which he knew he shouldn’t be taking. After that, the only direction his story could go was backwards: what thing? What obligation? Who’s he fleeing?
And if I’m honest I also had in mind a nod to one of the most perfectly structured of all novels, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, whose story proceeds simultaneously backwards and forwards. Not that I’d dare to suggest actual comparisons with Le Guin, any more than I would with Goethe.
ER: Advent is the first part of a trilogy. Did the story naturally suggest a three-part structure when you started writing, or did it grow in the telling?
JT: The idea always was that Advent would be a complete story, and in many ways I think it is indeed finished: it relates a kind of homecoming, and it ends by bringing the protagonist where he belongs. In the course of that journey, though, it became increasingly clear that while his journey may be in some sense concluded, for more or less everyone else the adventure is just beginning. He gets the answers to a lot of questions, but everyone else is left facing those questions for the very first time. So I realized I wanted to write about that as well. I’m beginning to suspect that there is a single story underpinning all three books, which is, roughly, the story of magic in the world. Our world, that is—the one we think of as being empty of magic. Broadly speaking, if Advent is about the, er, advent of magic, then the second book is about what happens as it arrives, and the third book will be set a bit further along in the aftermath. I think they’ll all be fairly different from each other.
ER: You have published academic non-fiction. Was writing fantasy similar?
JT: I think the mechanics of producing a book are the same no matter what kind of book it is, and by “mechanics” I mean the basic fact that you start with a blank sheet and end with X number of words. In that sense, and in that sense only, having two published volumes under my belt before I started Advent was an advantage. There are days, or weeks if you’re unlucky, when it’s not going well, and fortunately for me I already knew what that was like so I didn’t panic. In one sense, writing is just labor. Whatever the subject, you have to keep plugging away. But then there are all the ways in which writing isn’t labor at all, and in those senses writing a novel is nothing at all like writing non-fiction. The most surprising thing for me was the rigor that fiction demands. If you’d have asked me before, I’d have guessed it was the other way round: I’d have assumed that it was scholarly work which required the greater precision and discipline. But it turned out that I felt a much stronger need to try and get every sentence exactly right in Advent than I did in either of my non-fiction books. And, needless to say, I know all too well that I failed to do so.
With academic writing, you’re always, always aware of exactly who you’re writing for, partly because there just aren’t very many of them. You feel them over your shoulder all the time. But when you’re trying to tell a story that you have in your head, your only duty is to the story itself. You’d think that would be more relaxing, liberating even, but alas, it’s not so.
ER: The book has appeal to a wide range of ages. Did you have an “ideal reader” in mind when writing?
JT: Anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a few people have noticed what you’ve noticed, which is that the book has a Young Adult plot but doesn’t really conduct itself in a YA manner. From the point of view of the publishing market that’s a quirk, I suppose. All I can do is be grateful that my publishers have been willing to look at the book for what it is, rather than trying to shoehorn it into marketing categories.
I didn’t write Advent “for” anyone; not for teenagers, not for adults, not for fantasy readers. I didn’t write it “against” anyone either, of course. I’d love to think that kids of my protagonist’s age (he’s 15) would enjoy the book. I’d also like to think that people my age (43) would enjoy it too. But at no stage during the writing of it did I think to myself, “Is this paragraph right for a fifteen year-old? Will forty-three year-olds get this bit? What happens if no one understands the allusions to the Trojan War?” You write what you feel you have to write, and in the end you hope that something of what excites you about the story will communicate itself to your readers, whoever they may be.