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In Association with
I've Got Hundreds Of Worlds
Jaine Fenn
interview by Duncan Lawie

Jaine Fenn is one of the newer writers on the famous Gollancz list, with two novels published so far - Principles Of Angels (2008), and Consorts Of Heaven (2009). Each is set in the Hidden Empire, but they are distinctly separate tales, both in subject matter and style, although a third novel, 'Guardians Of Paradise', due in 2010 will provide some links. Like many a 'promising new writer', Jaine has been refining her craft for some time, with her first short stories published in 1998.

Duncan Lawie caught up with Jaine Fenn on a sunny Saturday morning in the south of England to find out more over a cup of tea and a chocolate croissant.

DL: Taking something which is an interest and making it your profession as you're doing with your writing now - how does that feel?

JF: At one level, it's fantastic. It's really good to have a mandate to write after spending so long thinking "I'd really like to go and do some writing now, but I have to do the day job." The fact that I'm going to get paid at the end, guaranteed, as opposed to maybe, which is what you get with short stories means I make time for it, which is brilliant. At another level, it means I have to make time for it even if I want to do something else, rather than write. I think this is a dilemma, probably, that all writers have.

And it's which side you fall on that dilemma which shows whether you are a writer in the end.

Yes, I did spend so many years as a writer and writing a bit when I felt like it, fitting it around everything else. When I first left college, I did life modelling, which basically involves just sitting still. You get half an hour of thinking and then you get ten minutes of jotting stuff down. That's probably the point at which I started to write, because I was sitting there bored, and instead I could sit there and go "oh, yes, a plot." These were short stories that I needed to get out of my system.

It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I went on 'One Step Beyond', a week long writer's workshop for SF writers run by Liz Holliday, who's a very good teacher and writer herself. During that week, I discovered what I'd been doing wrong all these years and that if I ever wanted to get anywhere, it was going to take a hell of a lot of work. So, after that, I thought "am I willing to do this? Yes, I am" - but there's a lot in that old truism that if someone can be discouraged from writing they should be, because you've really, really got to want to do it. Depressingly, there are an awful lot of very good writers, some of whom were on that course, who don't have their books out because they haven't had the lucky break.

So how did that come about?

I can't believe there's anyone that doesn't know this story, because I tell it every time I'm at a convention, but I'll tell it to you now and it can be immortalised on the web. I finished Principles Of Angels in 2004 and I didn't have an agent - can't get an agent without a book deal, can't get a book deal without an agent - so I was sending it to all the places that take 'unagented' submissions. I'd been through most of the majors. I didn't want to write the next book, because I knew that this book was good enough. I knew that if it wasn't, nothing I did would be.

I went to Eastercon in 2007 and I was on a panel with Jo Fletcher who is now my editor. I thought "oh my goodness, it's Jo Fletcher of Gollancz! I've got to be so impressive, so erudite; I've got to be just great." Rather unhelpfully, I had a couple of drinks the night before and I didn't get quite as much sleep as I probably should have and, to cut a long story short, I had a grievous hangover the next morning. Ten o'clock is a stupid time for a panel anyway, but I wasn't going to say no to this. So I sat in the green room in a pair of dark glasses thinking "this is so stupid." Everyone else was chatting about the stuff on the panel and I'm thinking "what am I doing here? What an idiot." I sat through most of the panel with the dark glasses on thinking "that's it, Jaine, you've completely blown it there." I left it a couple of weeks after, having just cringed through the whole thing in a hung-over state and I thought "well, I have nothing to lose, I'll email Jo Fletcher - she has met me at least." And a reply came back "how can I forget the woman who ordered alka seltzer as her pre-panel drink? Please send me your novel." Three weeks later she offered me a three book deal.

Which proved that luck is a very important part as well as hard work...

But that is the luck that comes from spending the time, I would think. Have you always been a convention-goer?

Yes. I've been a fan for many years. My first convention was in my teens - 1980-something. Up until my seventeenth year I thought I was the only person, and definitely the only woman in the world who read science fiction. I grew up in rural Buckinghamshire and I discovered this stuff by accident. I never met anyone who read it. I went to the kind of girls' school where you had to hide your copy of The Lord Of The Rings in a Danielle Steel novel - and I did. I got to college and there was a science fiction society and I never looked back. I threw myself in with gusto as I felt I had a lot of catching up to do. I'd been at college for about two months when I went to my first convention and after that went to every one I could afford to go to.

I found the podcast of High Ground online.

That wasn't set in my universe, by the way, some of my short stuff isn't.

You feel a bit more freedom to write those in any setting rather than connecting them?

Short stories, for me, are where I work out ideas. I think that's probably true for a lot of writers. As opposed to a long plot, with different layers, which is what I like to do in the books. Probably about a third of my short stories are set in 'my universe'. A lot of them I use to work out characters, some of which I never bother to submit anywhere. There's a short story that is a prequel to Consorts Of Heaven which I don't think will ever sell. That was working out the character of Damaru because we're never in his viewpoint. He has got a very odd viewpoint, so I wrote something to get his voice. It's not a particularly good story but it was useful for me to do. Sometimes they come out alright. I've got a short story in Death Ray magazine in a few months which is a character who will appear in Guardians Of Paradise. I was part way through writing and I got to her bit and I thought "I need to know more about you," and I wrote this story and thought "actually, this is not a bad story, I'll see if anyone actually wants it."

Also, stuff that's completely unrelated to the universe, that isn't character driven, where I've had an idea and I've just thought 'what if?'. High Ground was an example of that. That was inspired by the summer war, where the two soldiers got taken hostage and Israel went to war over two people who were probably dead. I was trying to explore how I felt about that, and how it would be to be in a situation where you were one of those people.

It worked fairly effectively on that level. The other short story I found online was Angel Dust - about some of the background characters from the first book.

That's a novelette, and they're quite difficult to sell, but I wanted to see it online somewhere. I thought I'd try one of the websites and they were very nice about it. I've got to the stage now where, because I'm lucky enough to be mainly writing novels, I'm happier to just see my stuff out there rather than having the writer's pride which says "I've worked hard, I will not take less than three cents a word." There are writers who can definitely say that, who know they've made it. I haven't. I just want to get my stuff out there now, because I'm concentrating on the novels.

But were the short stories in the first place a way of getting your name known?

They were a way of learning the craft. I believed in Principles Of Angels as being something which would one day be publishable even if I had a lot of learning to do. While I was between iterations of it, I would concentrate on short stories for a while.

I found a dozen different reviews of Consorts Of Heaven online and it was such a kaleidoscope, it was sometimes hard to believe that we'd all read the same book.

I did find that very interesting. Obviously, no writer likes bad reviews, but every single review that I read of Consorts had valid points. I was fascinated to read them, even the bad ones, to see what it was that people didn't like and what they did like and what they picked out. As a writer, the things that reviewers pick up on, you sometimes think "I didn't really... that's a valid point."

I'm going to return to that world because I've left it in a situation where - well, volatile would be one way of describing it!

Was the series intended to be called 'Hidden Empire' or was that a name that came along later?

It came along when I was doing the copy edit revisions from Principles Of Angels. My editor asked in passing whether I had a series name and it came to me instantly. It's one of those things - like some titles come to you when you're writing a story or a novel and it's there instantly.

I'm assuming that the Hidden Empire is more or less based on the 'Sidhe'?

You probably know it's Irish Celtic.

Yes - I found the use of that name quite intrusive in the first book, because it was pushing a certain...

It's deliberate. Right from the start, one thing I did know, even though I didn't know the name of the series, is where they came from and why they are called that. Although that's not going to come out in this series.

So the overtones are all intentional?


Rather being something that came after the name?

I thought long and hard about the name for these beings and I went through several things which were, frankly, much more pretentious. The concepts that are currently still coalescing have been around for a long time. Principles Of Angels was the first book I finished, but it was also my second, third and fourth one. The overall meta-plot of a race that was meant to be gone but is a sort of conspiracy going on in the background, that was always there.

Do you expect to keep writing in the same universe?

All the novels I'm planning are in that universe, but the short stuff won't necessarily be. It won't all be in the same series. There's 7,000 years of future history. I've got a lot of stuff to play with.

This original set of three books, with Guardians Of Paradise next year; the two books so far stand separately. Will the third depend a lot more on having read the first two?

I'm trying to make it not do so, because I don't like feeling that I'm obliged to buy the whole of a series. What I do like in what I read, and obviously we write what we like to read, is getting a story with some completion and then thinking "that's interesting - I want to find out more about that character's background" or "that's interesting. I want to know what happens next" but not getting to the end and thinking "No - tell me!" Because that annoys me, I don't want to do that to other people. I try to make each book discrete, which, obviously, has been quite a challenge with Guardians Of Paradise, because it has some of the surviving characters from the first two books so there's quite a lot of backstory that I need to get in there. I don't want to just trawl it out at the beginning for the reader. If you have read the first two books, you'll think "I know this" and if you haven't, I want to get the right amount of backstory in there, that you can continue. It's been probably the biggest challenge in that book.

There are very different styles between the two books.

Yes, there are. This occurred to me when I was thinking about this interview. Obviously, I probably should have thought about this earlier. I think I was working through things that have influenced me. With Principles Of Angels, there's quite a lot of cyberpunk, because it was the 1980s when I started seriously getting into SF and I started thinking about writing. I loved stuff by William Gibson, and Rudy Rucker, and especially K.W. Jeter, who I think is much under-rated and probably the best of them. I loved that stuff, and I devoured it in that way you do when you're a teenager, quite uncritically, and that was great but it's now a discredited genre. I still love it and it came through, because some of the original ideas that ended up in Principles Of Angels come from that far back. The original short story idea, I think I had in about 1989. It has been through so many metamorphoses since, but I haven't completely lost that.

I started reading fantasy, and then I got into science fiction when I was about 13 or 14 and immediately thought "fantasy was great, but this is better." Obviously, it came through psychologically with Consorts Of Heaven. It trickled up from my subconscious that I obviously needed to put a fantasy quest in and get that out of my system.

I read Consorts of Heaven shortly after I'd read Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics Of Fantasy, which, in part, discusses portal fantasies, where someone from a world like ours falls in and has to have everything explained to them. I thought it was interesting that you had a character doing that explaining, but it was actually from her perspective rather than the perspective of the arrival.

I enjoyed doing that. It's a bit of a trope to have an amnesiac turn up, who people can realise is from 'outside', but I did enjoy the two worlds colliding quite a lot. I had a lot of fun with that.

I enjoyed the second book a lot more than the first one.

People seem divided on it, which is fair enough because they are different books. Some critics think that it's great that I'm trying to combine the two genres. I've got a whole 7,000 year future history; I've got hundreds of worlds. There are going to be ones that smell like fantasy. Maybe it wasn't to everyone's taste because they weren't expecting it. Guardians is definitely SF. It's much more like the space opera where I think the majority of my stuff is going to go, but I had to go through these two books to do that. I will revisit things. I don't want to limit myself, which sounds funny for someone who writes in a future history, but I don't want to limit myself stylistically.

It was actually the complete disjunction at the beginning which made me think "oh, this is interesting," rather than simply "oh, this is a sequel".

In about chapter four, I did put something in which, if people are paying attention, they will realise the relationship between the two books, but it doesn't matter if they don't because it will become explicit later.

Finding one word that sparks the thought "I've seen this before"?

Yes, which was why I did it. I was trying to get exactly the right level of information. There was much negotiation with my editor as to how much I should put in. I wanted to credit the readers with the intelligence to pick up on it, but not to penalise them if they didn't.

That was one of the things that helped give the book shape because you knew...

There was going to be a link at some point, yes.

Also it turned it from some kind of fantasy into a planetary romance.

Which is a phrase I like very much. I think planetary romance is possibly what I write.

It seems to be a bit of a lost term.

It does. It's not trendy. Hell, I'm anachronistic. I admit to liking cyberpunk and writing planetary romance. Is there any hope for me?

You could start the genre of 'New Planetary Romance'.

A friend of mine, Kari Sperring, says we've got a new movement, which is the 'New Mired' - as in there's lots of mud. There's a fair amount of mud in Consorts, and in her book, which came out earlier this year. Living With Ghosts is set in a river city and there's a lot of mud in it. We want to bring the mud back. We're British, it rains here, we should play to our strengths.

Is that about trying to draw fantasy back into the day to day processes of reality? Much classic fantasy seems to have armour that never rusts - not because it's magical but because...

I think that's what put me off fantasy, much as The Lord Of The Rings still has a place in my heart and always will do. What put me off and was the idealistic world of fantasy. It ain't really like that, whereas you can believe the future could be like science fiction is. I found SF bizarrely more credible. I know a lot of writers now, like Joe Abercrombie, are bringing the grunge into fantasy, and I'm trying to find time to read them. When I have read the more grungy fantasy I have thought that, maybe, I should revisit my fantasy roots.

Do you have more books in the pipeline? You mentioned on your website something that's quite near future, but in the same future.

Epiphany Night is the book I refer to on my website. I did that in 2006. I found it very difficult to motivate myself to write, so when I came across National Novel Writing Month I thought I'd do it. I had this vague idea about a near-future novel and I thought it would work in this particular context. Places inspire me. Consorts Of Heaven is set largely in North Wales. I love North Wales. I know it's not fashionable to like Wales! But I'd been somewhere and I thought "wow, this would be a good setting" - and it all came together. I wrote it in a month, which also helped prove to myself that I could, if I had a reason to write, do that. I got about three quarters of the way through, and there is a lot I would change, but because it's the first book in the sequence I'd quite like to revisit it. It's not space opera or planetary romance; it is near future intrigue with weird elements, so it's quite different. It's not necessarily the sort of think I should be doing when I'm trying to get my name out there for writing far future SF.

Do you feel that you need to have a fairly precise definition of what people are going to pick up when they pick up one of your books?

I don't, but publishers do, which is fair enough because they're in the business. I have pitched the next three books in the Hidden Empire series, so I know what they are, but whether I write them next or whether I write Epiphany Night next...

Despite having two books in print and another on the way, Jaine still seems rather amazed that her dream is turning into a career, and certainly bemused that someone is already asking her about her fourth novel. Nevertheless, with the paperback of Principles Of Angels headed for another print run, I'm confident we'll be seeing a lot more from Jaine Fenn.

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Jaine Fenn - photo by James Cooke

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