Jonathan Stroud burst on the YA scene back in 2003 with The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in his bestselling Bartimaeus Trilogy. Disney-Hyperion will publish Heroes of the Valley, Stroud’s first novel since the Bartimaeus books. In it, Stroud trades djinni and other mystical creatures for a Norse-influenced medieval land in which a teenage boy dreams of glory even as he begins to question the lofty tales about the valley’s venerated heroes. Bookshelf spoke to Stroud from his home in England.
Heroism, and especially the mythologizing of past heroes, are central to your new book. Why did you want to explore these themes?
In part it’s because I’ve always liked stories about myths and heroes. We grow up being told about great figures in our society, and as you get older you have to question the stories you’ve been told and decide if these great figures are indeed as great as you’ve been told. It’s a theme that’s kind of relevant to today’s society.
You also seem to be looking at the idea that so-called “heroic acts” are not always cut-and-dried cases of good versus evil. It’s sort of like, OK, you killed the two-headed monster, but what about his wife and kids?
That’s right, though I’m not being overly skeptical because sometimes things are in fact heroic and necessary, and have an amazing resonance. Part of the book is the delight in storytelling. The characters in the book tend to be slightly skeptical, and go out and do things themselves and see what happens.
Thinking about heroes from classic myths—say Perseus beheading Medusa or Theseus killing the Minotaur—there really is a lot of brutality there that doesn’t always register with readers. Why do you think that is?
I think sometimes these things are prettified for children. That’s another thing I’m interested in. [Halli, the protagonist] hears these great tales of derring-do, but when he actually encounters violence in the book, it’s completely unpleasant and upsetting. It’s the difference between the fantasy violence you see in myth and real violence.
So you were interested in looking at the consequences of heroic acts?
Yes. In the stories it’s all fairly clear-cut. Interestingly enough, the examples you used are obviously Greek myths. With this book, there’s more of a Norse influence. Those stories tend to be more downbeat and realistic in the way that they approach fighting and things. I read a bit of the Icelandic sagas. They’re fascinating in that they are completely ordinary. The farmer will go off into the hills and fight a troll, and then go back and do ordinary things. It’s an odd mix of fantasy and reality.
Did you go back to certain Norse myths and stories when researching and writing the book?
It’s mainly the sagas, but I’ve read a lot of the myths and legends. It was interesting doing something slightly detached from that. It’s a made-up valley and made-up characters, but all of the characters’ names are real names found in the sagas. In a stroke, it gave [the book] a sense of veracity and of being true. But I tried to not be overly influenced by [the sagas]. After the Bartimaeus trilogy, which was very big and sprawling, this is really about a small location, and one particular character and his journey.
Interestingly, while there is that Norse influence, there are no deities or gods in the book, though there are these great figures from the past that everyone looks up to.
I’m aware, even with the Bartimaeus trilogy, of a lack of a religious angle. I tend to veer away from that. I’m more focused on the practical level of how people operate. This book is about a society and Halli’s growing up with his family. He has responsibilities to his family even though he gets irritated by them. In a way, I wanted to make it as ordinary as possible. It’s really about real people and the connections between them.
Would you say this book is aimed at a younger audience than the Bartimaeus books?
I believe it’s to readers to decide. In some ways it’s younger, in that perhaps it’s a simpler story and narrative than Bartimaeus, which had different narrators and footnotes and such. That said, a lot of the ideas in it are fairly sophisticated. When Halli has a fight and his uncle is killed, it might be darker than anything in Bartimaeus.
Another thing that struck me is how sort of logical and well-spoken the characters are—even Halli, who is an otherwise ungainly and unlikely hero. In one scene you have him shoving his brother into a manure pile, and then he gives an eloquent defense of his actions to his parents. Were there certain characteristics you wanted this society to have?
In the sagas, I was struck by the fact you have a lot of understatement, and there is a lot of humor. If a bloke gets attacked by six enemies and has his arm hanging off, there are no histrionics. It’s like, to be a man you have to be quite level and calm.
Halli has this ideal of, yeah, I’m going to be this guy who never gets rattled. By the end he has to take on much more responsibility for looking after the people in this village, and all that verbal stuff is kind of pushed out to the side of things.
You have a background in children’s publishing yourself, correct? How does that factor into your writing?
I worked as an editor at a couple of children’s publishing houses in London. One was Walker and another was Kingfisher. It was very useful for learning that side of the industry.
I’m sure all of us who are writers have this experience, but you’ll be in the middle of writing, and come back and look at it—I sort of put my editor’s hat on. I suspect I’m slightly more hard on myself than I would be if I hadn’t had that editorial career. It helps sometimes to have that slight detachment. There’s a bit of self-editing going on.
The first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, was optioned for film several years ago. Have things somewhat come to a halt, following the death of Anthony Minghella [whose Mirage Productions was to produce the film] earlier this year?
Things have been a bit slow, but I believe are picking up a little bit again. I was speaking to someone last week, and apparently the book is out again with various directors.
I understand you’ll be coming to the U.S. to tour for Heroes of the Valley. Do you make it over here often?
With pretty much every book. I came to BEA in Los Angeles earlier this year, [for] the last of the Bartimaeus books. I’m very much looking forward to seeing some of my old chums again.
Do you do events with children in the U.K. frequently?
Very much so. I’ll be touring in the U.K. and I’m going to Germany as well. But even when there’s not a new book, I try to do a fair number of events with schools and stores. As an author, you need to keep talking to your audience to remind yourself what they like and what they don’t like. You spend most of your life locked in a room, and you need to be social occasionally.
And are there other books about Halli in the works?
I think it’s freestanding. That was one of the attractions of it. Having spent years on the Bartimaeus trilogy, I was keen to try something different and a bit more self-contained that treats fantasy in a different way. Bartimaeus was different because the main character was a genie. With this, the magic is kind of on the periphery. You don’t know if it is there, really.