Jan Siegel’s brand new book, THE DEVIL’S APPRENTICE, is out in October from Ravenstone, and she was kind enough to drop by and answer my questions about the new book, her writing, and much more!
Please welcome Jan to the blog!
You’ve penned novels under the names Jan Siegel, Amanda Hemingway, and Jemma Harvey, and have a brand new book out tomorrow, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I didn’t really want to be a writer, I just was. I wrote stories as soon as I could write and well before I could spell. No literary background, but I had very supportive parents, especially my mother, and a mentor in Edward Blishen, writer and publisher (Oxford University Press), who nearly published me when I was ten. He said he didn’t as it would be bad for me (thank God!), but he helped and criticized me for years, once typed out one of my earlier stories himself, and told my mother, when she wrote to him, that one day I would be in print.
(Sorry if there are any errors in this. I’m looking after kittens, and one of them just jumped on my keyboard and typed a line of hash-tags!)
I was pulled out of the slush pile at Faber when I was 24, and my novella The Alchemist appeared in the Introduction series for new writers.
Will you tell us about your new book, THE DEVIL’S APPRENTICE, and what inspired you to write it?
It was loosely inspired by the TV show of similar name, but there are crossover characters and themes from the Prospero’s Children trilogy and the Sangreal trilogy. The Devil is retiring, and he has a group of wannabe apprentices, all teenagers, trapped in a space/time prism (which looks like an ordinary house), in dimensions of the past, of myth and magic, undergoing horrible experiences to turn them to their dark side. The winner will be demonized to ascend the Devil’s throne in his stead (or hers). The good guys, naturally, are trying to stop it happening…
What did you enjoy most about writing the characters of Pen, Gavin, and Jinx, and why do you think readers will root for them?
It doesn’t work that way. You don’t think about the impact on the reader when you write – you just write. The story carries you along: if you have to stop and think too much (though there’s always a little research) something’s wrong. You don’t invent the characters, you just get to know them. From the feedback I’ve had already, different people identify strongly with different characters. My niece (19) loves Jinx, my friend Sarah is totally into Ghost, and so on. The writer doesn’t calculate – you just do your thing and hope for the best!
The Devil’s Apprentice certainly deals with some creepy situations, but what’s something that you find truly scary?
I used to be scared of spiders, but then I got friendly with an entomologist and met some tarantulas, and now I like big furry ones if not spiky drain spiders. I’ve always tried to face my fears: the fear behind you, half-seen, half-imagined – the one you’re running away from – always looms bigger and darker than the one you confront.
I once had a weird supernatural experience. I was taking the shortcut through the graveyard with a friend early one evening – corny, I know! – a shortcut I’d used often, by daylight and dark, on my own and without a qualm. Suddenly there was a horrible smell – decay, I think – and this feeling of absolute terror reaching out to us. We both wanted to run. Instead we didn’t say anything, we just walked very quickly out of the main gate and stopped, gasping with relief. Years later I heard – from someone who didn’t know about the incident – that at the bottom of the graveyard, where it happened, there was supposed to be ‘something really nasty’, though I never found out what or why.
I’ve had other supernatural experiences but they haven’t been scary. I don’t see why the dead should be frightening – death shouldn’t give you superpowers, let alone chains and a sheet!
What is your writing process like?
Random. I don’t have a schedule. I can work flat out when I’m really into something, for 2 or 3 days sometimes, without eating properly and sleeping at my computer. I’ll cancel my social life (fortunately I have understanding friends) and go on till I finish, producing 10,000 words or more over a really short time.
I’ve just completed something called Odd Essays, a collection of short stories (or episodic novel) based on the Odyssey. It follows the adventures of two Roaming Travel Writers for the Gruff Guide to the Universe, and is set in a teknopunk world which mirrors our own – a distorting mirror, of course. I was so into it, I knocked it out in about three months, though it’s over 100,000 words and I had other projects as well. It’s going to appear immediately as an eBook – a new experiment for me – with Amazon/Kindle, to download at around £1.50. It was the first thing I’ve ever done straight on screen.
It works like a TV series (say, Buffy): individual episodes with their own plots and an overall storyline for the whole season. Strong on comedy/drama, with characters and relationships that develop as you go. Unlike The Devil’s Apprentice, this isn’t YA – there are scenes of fantasy erotica (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!) which just sort of happened… I’m doing it as Jan Siegel; I like the anonymity of a pseudonym.
What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing, and/or your life?
Difficult. I read like I breathe – incessantly! – and there are a lot of writers I admire, but they haven’t usually influenced me much. I read Lord of the Rings when I was 11 and was blown away: this was grownup fiction with all the magic of a children’s story, and I wanted to achieve that. But I’ve never really written in the sub-Tolkien genre. When I read something amazing – a Kipling short story, an episode of George R. R. Martin, an Auden poem, a bit of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, G. K. Chesterton, a top-notch thriller, whatever, it inspires me to try and match that, to write better, always better. I’m never satisfied, or not for long – I suspect that makes me like most creative people. Probably like most people.
Influences on my life have been equally limited. My mother, who was a wonderful person, my father, because of his love for poetry. I’ve made lots of mistakes, done stupid things, perhaps bad things, though I hope nothing major – still, these things stay with me, not as a regret, more as a niggle. Something I shouldn’t have said, something I might have fixed… But regrets are a waste of time: after all, you can never know what would have happened if you’d done it differently. The things in my life which looked like big choices weren’t really, because I always knew what I’d choose to do. It’s like being in a maze: as long as you can feel the thread under your finger, you know you’re on track. I can’t recall ever asking for advice about anything significant but I’ve been amazingly lucky in the support of friends, especially in recent years.
What was one of your favorite books as a young person?
LOTR, see above, the Chronicles of Narnia, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, any and all mythology… I loved Gerald Durrell’s animal books because I was keen on animals, especially reptiles. (Like most kids, I wanted my own dragon.) And Malcolm Saville’s adventure stories – I knew him slightly and he was incredibly kind and helpful.
When I was having my appendix out at 13 I read my way through Agatha Christie while in hospital and P. G. Wodehouse in convalescence. I laughed so much, it really hurt my tummy, but I knew it was doing me good.
What’s something that you like to see in a good book?
I like a note of optimism, of hope. It’s easy to write about the gloominess and doominess of life, many writers do it extremely well – their work is on my list of Books to Commit Suicide to: 1984, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, anything by Thos Hardy or Henry James. Being a bit positive is harder, if you’re going to do it convincingly. But I think it’s important. Fiction is about many things: entertainment, taking people out of their lives or offering fresh insight, giving encouragement to aim high and fight for the goals that matter. A book should shine a light, tell people the good guys can win, you too can change the world, even if only in a very small way. Heroes are there to set an example – and if your hero is, for instance, a hobbit, with hairy feet and no superpowers, well, we can all identify with some of that.
As soon as you use words, you connect with ideas. Even the worst fiction has the germ of an idea in there somewhere.
Is there anything in particular that would make you put a book down, unfinished?
Boredom. I’m a skim-reader, I shoot through things very fast, but once in a while I pick up a book so dreary I can’t understand how it got published and can only assume that no one involved in the process actually tried to read it. Naming no names, there are a few books out there which would make good sleeping pills.
I also dislike an excess of gratuitous gore. I don’t mind appropriate gore/horror, but too many entrails really turn me off. Also very long, very dull sex scenes – I just skate over those.
When you’re not writing, how do you most like to spend your free time?
I’m working on a charity project called The Big Poetry Show, filming lots of actors performing Keats, Byron, Kipling, Dorothy Parker, Charles Causley etc. I choose the poems and play at being the director (so far, no one has spotted it’s an act, which inclines me to believe that’s what all directors do). It’s huge fun, though scary, in case I mess up, but there’s no point in worrying about that. In general, when not writing, I – write. It’s a displacement activity. Other writers clean the bath to put off writing – I write to put off cleaning the bath. When in doubt, when upset, when confused – I write. Poetry or whatever. I also like being with my friends, meeting new people, travel (Odd Essays, in which the principal characters zoom all over the galaxy, is my ultimate fantasy) – tv, films, theatre, music, not necessarily in that order.
Sportwise, I like skiing and skating, though I haven’t been able to do any for a few years, and horse-riding (my favourite thing, especially in the wilds, like the African bush). I walk lots, mainly getting from A to B (I like shoes which combine comfort with glamour, see Ruco Line, South Molton St), and exercise regularly to keep myself supple. I had a major operation a couple of weeks ago, so that’s on hold for a bit, but I got straight back to the walking.
(Pause to discourage kitten from biting my computer flex.)
I’m a fairy godmother with ten godchildren and my niece, whom I love beyond measure. I try and spend time with all of them whenever possible. One goddaughter is the owner of the kittens, who’ve just switched from chewing my flex to chewing my fingers.
What’s next for you?
The best-laid plans, it is well known, gang aft agley, and I’m not much of a planner. The Big Poetry Show is turning into a long-term project, I’ve got a screenplay on the go for a successful entrepreneur (successful until this screenplay, anyway!), and a nearly-finished novel set in the same universe as Odd Essays, but a little more serious in tone. It’s called The Feather of Truth, and is the first of two. The Devil’s Apprentice will be the first of four, if all goes well – I’ve had it with trilogies. Been there, done that. This will be the Infernal Quartet, just for a change.
The Poetry Show is very important to me – though that doesn’t matter, what matters is that it works. Nowadays, poetry is badly taught, badly read and has lost out in the public consciousness to pop music. But this is the music of language, and the alchemy of poetry can give you something other than the echo of a tune – a few lines of great verse can hold a meaning and magic that will stay in your mind forever. I’d like everybody to have a favourite poem in the way they have a favourite song.
We’re launching next month with a live show at the Groucho on 6th Oct (National Poetry Day is the 3rd), so I’m desperately hoping to be ready – the op has put me back a little. It’s for the Teenage Cancer Trust and a literacy charity (we haven’t yet decided which); we’re making films to be sold as downloads, to schools and anyone else who’s interested, all profits to the charities – and as we’re doing this virtually free the monies earned should be mostly profit. We’ve got Stephen Fry, Helen McCrory, Damien Lewis, Sean Pertwee, Helen Lederer and lots of other actors on board. All that matters to me, right now, is that it comes off! Beyond that I do not think…
What happens next in life is always unexpected, always exciting. It’s like a book – you know the ending, we all know that, but not exactly how you’ll get there. And even endings are only transitory.
Keep up with Jan: Website
About THE DEVIL’S APPRENTICE:
The Devil is retiring… but who’s taking over? In the house with no front door, a group of teenagers are trapped in assorted dimensions of myth and history, undergoing the trials that will shape them to step into his cloven footwear – or destroy them…
The Devil is retiring… but who’s taking over?
When teenage Pen inherits the job of caretaker for a London building with no doors and only a secret entrance from the caretaker’s lodge – which she must never use – little does she know it will lead her into unbelievable danger.
For Azmordis, also known as Satan, a spirit as old as Time and as powerful as the Dark, Immortality is running out. In the house with no front door, a group of teenagers are trapped in assorted dimensions of myth and history, undergoing the trials that will shape them to step into his cloven footwear – or destroy them.
Assisted by only by an aspiring teenage chef called Gavin and Jinx, a young witch with more face-piercing than fae-power, Pen must try to stop the Devil’s deadly game plan – before it’s too late.