M. John Harrison & Jane Johnson (aka Gabriel King)

Interview by Elizabeth Counihan

(c)1998 Elizabeth Counihan

From Odyssey #3 (March 1998)

"GABRIEL KING" interviewed by Elizabeth Counihan

When the new fantasy novel "The Wild Road" was launched at the beginning of November, it was an open secret that its author Gabriel King was as much a figment of the imagination as the book's feline protagonists. The story is in fact the work of two people who are already individually famous for other forms of literary endeavour. Jane Johnson is editor in charge of the sf and fantasy list at Harper Collins and her ex-partner M. John Harrison is well known as the author of such serious literary novels as "Climbers" as well as his earlier ventures into science fiction and fantasy with "The Centauri Device" and the Viriconium series.

It was easy enough to picture wiry, tough-looking M. John Harrison battling the elements on a cliff face or elegant Jane Johnson presiding over a literary luncheon, but writing a fantasy about cats?

"It's not surprising to anyone who knows us. We can talk about them for hours..." says Johnson.

"I was a cat freak from way back really," says Harrison. "Then when we both got into cats we thought of making it a whole subject..."

"It started off as a much more traditional fantasy. The cats played only a peripheral part, but it was that bit of the story that caught our imaginations." (JJ)

"So we said, let's drop the rest of the fantasy and just do the cats...We had several ideas while we were still together, but never actually started to write until after we split." (MJH)

"It was almost a way of keeping in touch." (JJ)

"It took about eighteen months from absolute beginning to end" (MJH)

Why did they choose the pseudonym Gabriel King?

"I know from publishing experience that a name you can fit on a single line - that's really good. And a name that's vaguely androgynous, with slightly hierarchical and ethereal resonances...Gabriel King fits all those criteria," says Jane Johnson with a conspiratorial smile.

"And then we found that the owner of the original Norwegian Forest Cat was called Gabriel. That was pretty strange" she adds.(A Norwegian Forest Cat is important enough in "The Wild Road" to have his portrait inside the book's back cover.)

Had either author collaborated before?

"I did a graphic novel with Ian Miller and I've collaborated on short stories and with rock climbers on books about rock climbing." says Harrison.

"I've never written anything before, apart from a novella when I was ten..." (JJ)

How did the collaboration work on this novel?

"It's a multi-strand narrative so it's very easy to have one person in charge of one strand. One person might take one character and do that character's view-point in that strand and then we would swap over, to make sure the style is fairly consistent. There's a lot of narrative tinkering afterwards to get the bits to fit properly." (MJH)

"What underpins the whole thing is that we have huge discussions to start with. We know what happens at the end and various points along the way, but what happens in between is a peculiar process, and characters go off in a completely different direction and behave very oddly indeed... wake you up in the middle of the night." (JJ)

The idea that all cats are wild creatures comes across quite strongly, whose concept was that?

"Cats have a dual nature and I think that's what cat lovers love about cats. You don't own a cat, it chooses to live with you. When they go away from you, you don't know what they are doing. My cat Iggy would behave like Tag given half the chance" (JJ) (Tag is the book's hero, a beautiful Burmilla with the heart of a lion and the grooming of a floor mop.)

In the story, the cats who lack imposing pedigrees are almost all street-wise feral moggies.

"I'm besotted by feral cats. Sure, the conditions they have to live in are often poor, but the idea of a feral cat colony excites me. Suddenly you see that they are wild animals, that they can exist without us. The tension between domesticity and wildness is one of the themes of the book." (MJH)

Why did you have to make the baddie Sir Isaac Newton, for goodness sake?

Jane Johnson laughs.

"There are two very important things about Sir Isaac Newton. One is that he was a sorcerer of the day. Just as the cutting edge of modern physics blurs into poetry and magic, so it did then. We used material from his journals in the book. And he actually did like cats. Not a lot of people know that he invented the cat flap."

"I think we have to admit there is a new-age stance to the book. And I think Newton, in his scientific persona, represents the opposite. He's enlightenment whereas the wild roads are pre-enlightenment." (MJH)

Nevertheless, some of the most memorable scenes in the novel involve humans more than cats. One such episode involves a kind old sailor who is rescued from death by a ghostly cat.

"He was Jane's idea." says Harrison.

Another concerns a solitary old woman who constantly and lovingly portrays the features of her faithless lover. Who thought of her?

Harrison owns up. "In the original version this happened to Tag (our hero) rather than Ragnar (The Norwegian Forest Cat, who is also King of the cats) I needed a way-station for him on his journey and I just started to write and that's what came out - the idea that the cat's appearance in her life was woven into a story that was not told. The temptation was to close that, or to bring her back later in the book, but we decided not to. The other thing we were interested in - Tag says it at the end - Humans are all bad. Cats don't actually like human beings. But it's not just a polar opposition because that polar opposition is what's wrong with the world. If human beings have a fault which has led them to treat cats badly it's the human tendency to think in polar opposites. So we wanted the book to represent that."

"So much of it is about the relationship between cats and humans, so it was really important to show ordinary humans who loved cats and looked after cats. We wanted more humans actually but there was a certain amount of pressure from our publishers to leave the humans out." (JJ)

Is there to be a trilogy?

"No, just the two" (MJH)

What is the sequel called?

"The Golden Cat" (both)


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