FOREIGN DEVILS: An Interview with John Hornor Jacobs

Bram Stoker nominee and all-around good guy, John Hornor Jacobs is the textbook definition of a prolific writer. His seventh book, FOREIGN DEVILS, is the sequel to 2014’s THE INCORRUPTIBLES, both from Gollancz. While the sequel's eBook is available now, physical copies are only available in the UK until the US release on May 3, 2016. John shares my same area code, but he insisted on answering my questions via midnight séance.

-The Interview-

SG - When we last saw Fisk and Shoe, they’d gotten out of a few scrapes only to land in the middle of impending war. What can we expect for our two heroes?

JHJ - Foreign Devils finds Fisk and Shoe on the hunt for Beleth under the orders of the Emperor Tamberlaine and his governor, Cornelius. Beleth has other ideas and some new allegiances, though his first allegiance is, as always, solely to himself. In addition to narration, Shoestring becomes more of the focus of Foreign Devils, and we learn more about the dvergar and their unrest at the Ruman occupation of what they feel is their land. Also, we learn more about the vaettir, and how they’re not all as the people of the Hardscrabble think them to be.

SG - THE INCORRUPTIBLES was strictly from Shoestring’s point of view, but in FOREIGN DEVILS, we also follow Livia Cornelius via epistolary chapters. What inspired you to use this story-telling technique?

JHJ - I wrote The Incorruptibles and Foreign Devils concurrently while I was writing the last two books in my young adult series - The Shibboleth and The Conformity. All of these books are in first person, past and present tense. When you’re writing a teen, or a rough-and-tumble western character, you have to live in their head, find their voice, and over the course of several books, that can sometimes be tiring. Also, neither of those characters are well educated, though they both have panache with language, so writing from the point of view of a highly-educated noblewoman offered new challenges and pleasures.

Another more important reason is that the story took me in different directions, revealing more of this world I’d spent so much time crafting. I was somewhat locked into a first-person narration and didn’t feel that I could have Shoe tell Livia’s story convincingly. I had played with that some in The Incorruptibles, but it ended up being a lot of supposition on Shoe’s part, revealing more about him than it did about, in this case, Livia and Fisk. Epistolary letters to her husband made sense, though it offered some difficulties. Epistolary narration is a conceit, sometimes a good one, sometimes not so good. I think I pulled it off fairly well, but as a writer you’re never content with your work.

SG - The Ruman Empire in this series, of course, can be compared to Rome, the Hardscrabble Territories like the American West. Kithai, featured in FOREIGN DEVILS resembles a Chinese city. What modern setting did you use as an example to follow?

JHJ - Rume, while obviously derived from Rome, takes culture from its namesake but it’s really more like colonial England, on whose empire the sun never set. I did base Kithai on China, the China of the 19th century. The city of Jiang was very loosely based on Shanghai, though not in organization or geography. It was a stylized interpretation of that culture and I tried to remain respectful of the roots of its creation, and the people that culture came from, while not being slavish to facts. One of the things I love about writing fantasy is I can take inspiration from anywhere, but I can bend and change things to suit my story because fantasy is wondrously mutable while real world history is not. Still, readers can find fault, and racism, anywhere, even if you’re writing about a culture or race that has never existed. So, we respect our inspirations, we respect our craft, we respect readers sensibilities and triggers, and we try to respect ourselves, if that makes any sense.

SG - Can we expect more from Livia, Shoestring, and the rest?

JHJ - Yes! Livia and Shoe and Fisk, and Carnelia – especially Carnelia, who is, by far, my favorite character I’ve ever written. There are special things in store for Carnelia. The whole gang is back, doing stuff, saying things, shooting guns, chasing people, getting chased. People die, people live. There are new creatures, new histories. New devils.

SG - Like many professional writers, you work a day job and raise a family. How do you balance it all?

JHJ - Well, I haven’t been doing a very good job of balancing day work and writing. Recently – oh, about a year and a half ago - I became a partner at an advertising agency and that has monopolized all my time. We landed some big clients, the most notable being Twitter, and I’ve been working sixty to seventy hours a week for months on end. Consequently, I’m very behind on the last book in The Incorruptibles series. But things have slowed down some and we’ve brought in folks to help me – I’m the senior art director and I have to do a lot of animation, which I love but it’s time consuming – so my workload has decreased some. I feel lucky that both in my day job and this literary vocation, I get paid to be creative, which is all I really ever wanted since I was a kid.

I wrote around ten thousand words last weekend, five thousand on the novel this week, and vomited up a thirty-five hundred word short-story. The words had been building up.

However, I drop it all to spend time with my kids. They’re both in their teens now and they need my attention and whatever guidance I can give them or they will accept. I think a lot of parenting is just being aware and present and not checked out, like my parents were. They were focused on their lives and we knew, my sister and I, that we were not the center of their world. I became a miscreant latch-key kid, smoking and drinking and terrorizing the neighborhood and I’m not about to let my kids go the way I did. And that means I have to be present for them, every day. That’s what I focus on, that’s what’s important. I’ll have world, enough, and time to write in five years when they’re both off to college.

SG - Favorite moment in FOREIGN DEVILS you can talk about?

JHJ - I had a great time exploring the “technology” of Hellfire, especially in regards to transportation. I found I really enjoyed creating ships and trains and naming them and figuring out the daemons they carried within them to turn the screws or drive the wheels.  The Valdrossos, The Malphas, The Gemina – I don’t know, they just made me happy. As far as favorite moments in Foreign Devils? It would either be the widespread and titanic destruction I wreak as author (and that’s all I’ll say about that) or when we finally meet the Autumn Lords of Kithai. The Autumn Lords were a lot of fun to write.

But, as I said before, any time I spend with Carnelia, seeing what she’ll do or say, is time well spent.

SG - Favorite Fantasy or Horror archetype?

JHJ - I love possession stories, and tales of devilish things. Save one, all my books have dealt with the loss of identity at a spiritual or etheric possession, either by the infernal, or the telepathic. I don’t know why that fascinates me so much – probably the echoes of seeing The Exorcist at an age far too young to see it.

I also seem to fixate upon mangled or severed hands. All of my books have them. I don’t know why, except maybe because I got in a bar-fight back in the nineties and busted my hand. Maybe.


From the cover: 

The world is on the brink of war.

Fisk and Shoe - mercenaries, very much not wanting to get caught in the middle of a political whirlwind - must deliver a very important message, and find a very dangerous man. They have caught the eye of the powerful men of the world, and now the stakes are higher than they like.

And the Emperor has decreed that Livia Cornelius, pregnant with Fisk's child, must travel to the far lands of the Autumn Lords on a diplomatic mission. It will mean crossing half the world, and facing new dangers. And in the end, she will uncover the shocking truth at the heart of the Autumn Lords' Empire.

A truth which will make the petty politics of war and peace unimportant, and will change the world.

Order FOREIGN DEVILS now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Google.