Jasper Kent is a British horro/thriller writer that arrived on the speculative scene last year after the release of his first book, Twelve. Since then he's written another, as sequel to first, Thirteen Years Later, published by Bantam last March. These two novels(reviews: here and here respectively) constitute the first entries in a brilliant historical fantasy series set in 19th century Russia.
I recently contacted Mr.Kent in the hope of having him answer a few questions here on the blog. As you can judge from yourself, to my great delight, he accepted. So, I have for you below the full interview with Mr.Kent. Enjoy...
LEC Book Reviews: Tell us a bit about yourself; where you come from and how you got here…
Jasper Kent: I pretty much grew up expecting to be a scientist. I read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, but by the end of three years I’d decided that research wasn’t going to be for me, so I opted for the surprisingly unrelated career of software development. Most of the time, my main artistic outlet has been music, both performing and composing, but without huge popular success. When I was in my mid-thirties I was making enough money from software to take some time off and work on my list of things to do before I die. At the top of the list was to write a novel, so I wrote Twelve.
LBR: As well as a full time job, you engage in a variety of hobbies, novel-writing among them. How do you manage all this?
JK: I have to be fairly strict with myself at times. Software isn’t a full-time job any more, but consists of relatively short contracts which I tend to be able to fit in with other things. But it does mean that that sort of work has to take top priority when it comes up. When I’m actually writing (rather than researching) then that’s quite intense and pretty much excludes everything else. But I do have to force myself to say ‘no’ to a lot of things that I’d like to do, particularly on the music front.
LBR: What drew you to setting your novels in Russia? Did you consider any other places?
JK: My initial idea was for Napoleonic vampires. I thought briefly of Spain and the Peninsular War, but the Russian winter appealed almost immediately and ever since it’s been Russia all the way. After I’ve finished The Danilov Quintet I don’t have any huge desire to stick with writing about Russia, simply for reasons of variety, but on the other hand, I’ve picked up a huge amount of knowledge about the country along the way, so I’m sure I’ll be back there again in fictional terms.
LBR: I imagine that quite a bit of research was involved in writing both books. To what lengths did you have to go to collect the information you need and achieve the level of historical authenticity you were going for?
JK: The vast majority of research comes from reading – some on the internet, but mostly from books. It’s important to read a good mixture of history and reliable fiction (i.e. either contemporaneous or well-researched fiction). History books are good for the big picture and some small details, but fiction is essential to give a feel for era and place.
Actually visiting locations is useful, but one has to be careful not to be fooled into thinking that Russia now is a good model for Russia in the past. Only those things which are unchanging – geology and buildings – can be trusted, and even with that, things change. Red Square today, for example, is utterly unlike what it was 200 years ago.
LBR: The Danilov Quintet is meant to span one of the most event-filled centuries in Russian history. Which part of the story is for you most important to tell: how the supernatural elements fit into the history or the story of the Danilovs?
JK: In a sense, it’s that history of Russia that is the most important – both in that I can’t change it and that it’s a bigger story than anything I could come up with. One of the main points of Twelve was to show that the horrors of war are worse than anything you can worry about from vampires. The five periods chosen for the five books each marks a key point in Russia’s journey to revolution. But having said that, it’s always going to be the personal story that involves readers, so it has to be the Danilovs that that both the historical and the supernatural hang from.
LBR: Aleksei has an interesting dynamic with his families. Why did you choose to work this duality into the plot, especially in Thirteen Years Later?
JK: I think Thirteen Years Later necessarily expanded on what I’d laid down in Twelve. My intent had always been to make Aleksei an anti-hero, or at least a realistically flawed human being. My monsters are, to some extent, deliberately one-dimensional and so it would be very dull if their enemy was any kind of superhero. In Twelve, Aleksei’s split loyalties between Marfa and Domnikiia occurred to me as an expression of Russia’s choices between east and west, as further exemplified historically and in Aleksei’s mind by the two cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Aleksei’s division is made even clearer in Thirteen Years Later and ultimately forms the family structure for the whole quintet.
LBR: I mentioned in my reviews that you have a way of making various elements fall into place in an unexpected, yet perfect manner. How difficult was it to plan these things in advance?
JK: I suppose the first thing to say is that I believe it very important that as little as possible comes as an unheard-of surprise, so I put quite a lot of effort into this. Within a single novel, I have very detailed plans of what is going to happen before I start writing prose. Thus it’s very easy to go back and presage something when it occurs to me, and even once I’ve embarked upon writing, it’s easy enough to go back.
Across books it’s harder. I’d done much of the plotting on Thirteen Years Later before the final edit on Twelve so I was able to retrofit a few things – though actually surprising little. Without wanting to reveal too much, the origin of Kyesha was the main example of this. That’s not been quite so easy to do with books two and three, because of the timing of writing. There are some things that I put into Thirteen Years Later with an idea to how I’d use them later, and others that I think will be interesting later but I have no idea how. At other times, I may pick things out of a previous book that were just there to be interesting at the time and I realize later I can use (like, say, Aleksei’s letter to Maks’ mother). By the time I get to book 5, I’ll be scouring Twelve for some little detail that I can twist and make it look like I planned it all along.
LBR: There are three books left to be published in the Danilov Quintet. What else can you tell us about them?
JK: Book 3 is full plotted now, and I’m actually planning to start writing on Monday (eek – that’s tomorrow!) It covers the period 1854-1856, including the Crimean War and the death of Nicholas I. The three main characters are Tamara, Dmitry and a gentleman called Vasiliy Innokyentievich Molchanov, whom we might know better by a different name.
Beyond that I know who lives and who dies, and the rough periods and locations of the other books. Book 4 is set in 1881 in St Petersburg, around the assassination of Alexander II. Book 5 is set in the First World War and the Russian revolution.
LBR: Do you have any other ongoing projects or ideas for other books?
JK: I wrote a play last year – a ghost story called Beside the Kitchen Table – which I’m currently trying to tout, and I’m working on a few short stories. In terms of novels, I have a long ideas list, but I’m not thinking too hard, since I know I won’t get a chance to write anything else until the quintet is done.
LBR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Jasper Kent's Website: http://www.jasperkent.com