Interview with J.J. Anderson

What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest novel is set in 13th century Al Andalus ( Spain ) and follows the fortunes of a group of young people whose city is about to be invaded. All of them have to make difficult decisions and face up to their fears before they get to freedom and safety. It's an adventure story in the classic sense, the sort of story I read when I was young, and sometimes still read, when I want historical thrills.
This is quite a departure from my previous book, a collection of short stories, 'The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales' is my attempt to capture real-life dramas and dilemmas in an English village. There are lots of excellent thriller, fantasy, sci-fi writers out there, but I wanted to show that the everyday could also be interesting, to 'celebrate the quotidian'. So my twelve stories show contemporary life in an unnamed English village - family life, with all its problems, growing up, leaving home ( and returning ) marriage break-up, trying to do the right thing ( and often failing ).
When did you first start writing?
I have been writing for most of my life. I remember writing a novel when I was at junior school, which, if I recall aright, owed a lot to various Angela Brazil-type school stories and has, fortunately been lost in the mists of time. In my career as a Whitehall civil servant I wrote almost every day, it was one of the basic skills required for the job. My output wasn't fiction of course ( though there were one or two press releases.... ). Aside from my then work I wrote for god-children and friends. I remember a short series of illustrated stories for my god-son Tom, now in his late twenties, with a cast of bee-like south American insects who lived on germs. My most recent book, 'Reconquista', a novel set in ancient Al Andalus comes from an episodic story written for my nephew, Luke, when he was eleven ( he is now twenty two ).
What are you working on next?
My third book 'Convivencia' picks up where 'Reconquista' left off. I didn't intend to write two books about the adventures of these characters but found that, if I wanted to conclude their stories properly I needed more pages. As 'Reconquista' already runs to almost 400, I decided to call a halt at an appropriate moment and write a sequel.
I had already written an out-line for another book, called 'On the Edge of the World' and also set in Andalucia, but at the time of the Age of Discovery, when Colombus had discovered New Spain and Cadiz was a place of opportunity, the equivalent of a gold-rush town, home to people like Pizarro and his cousin Cortes, as they try to mount expeditions. Alec, the younger son of the family at the centre of this novel wants to sail with Colombus, against the wishes of his family. This was also the time of the Inquisition, however, so not a time to be non-conformist in any way. I had great fun researching this period.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I am a publisher too, so, when I'm not writing my own books, I look after other authors who write for The Story Bazaar, my publishing imprint. I also enjoy the cultural life of the capital - theatre, music, exhibitions - I blog about them on the web-site at www.thestorybazaar.com. For relaxation, I garden and like to dine out. But right now ( Spring 2016 ) I'm heavily involved with the organisation of 'Omnibus Edition' the Clapham Literary Festival.
How do you approach cover design?
I ran an on-line competition for the cover of 'The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales'. It was great fun, I got entries from all over the world, of all kinds. Writing the specification was interesting, how to stimulate other creative people, while setting limits for what the final design should look like. In the end I chose Jorge Lanzi's design, which you can see on the cover of my book. Jorge is a Uruguayan designer.
But for 'Reconquista', which is a historical novel I went to a specialist designer. I'm really pleased with the result. Andrew will, I hope, be designing the cover of the next book in the series 'Convivencia'.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in the English midlands, in a semi-rural village not unlike the one in 'The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales', though that village is imaginary and includes aspects of other villages I have known. The countryside, and my relationship with it, was important in my childhood. Neither of my parents were from farming stock, though I had relatives with a fruit farm, so I can recall our visits to their farmhouse and the seasonal aspect of life in a rural society.
I think that place and setting is important in my writing. My next three books are set in Andalucia, where we have a home and, although these are historical novels, many of the places described in them sill exist today. See www.reconquista.online for lots of articles and pieces about the setting for these books, in Jerez de la Frontera.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have different favourite authors, depending upon when I'm asked this question. In contemporary terms, I am a fan of A.S.Byatt and have everything Hilary Mantel has ever written. Patrick White is a constant inspiration and I enjoy E.Annie Proulx's economy with words. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is, in my opinion, an almost perfect book. I also like a good murder mystery. In terms of classic writers, I return again and again to Dickens and poets like Eliot and Yeats. I have a soft spot for 'adventure' novels, like The 39 Steps and Kidnapped, and I hope that 'Reconquista', my latest book, captures the spirit of these classic adventure stories.
What is 'Reconquista' about?
It's about how five young people cope when their world is turned upside down by invasion. It's set in 13th century Al Andalus, as the Christian army from the north takes their city, previously ruled over by Moors from the south. This was a turbulent time in the history of Spain. The Moors had ruled Al Andalus for generations and their communities were largely settled and relatively tolerant. But the Southlands had been ruled by Christian Visigoths before and the northern Kings and Princes wanted to get them back. Ostensibly wars of religion the conflicts were, as I believe all conflicts are, about power and wealth.
All the heroes in the story have to face up to specific threats and make decisions about the sort of people they want to be, before they can reach safety.
What's 'The Village' about?
Life in a semi-rural English village across one calendar year, with a 'Tale' for each month. The stories are about people in the village and the ordinary, but all consuming, events of their every-day lives. The shared human experience - 'births, marriages and deaths', you could say, and everything in between. This is a book for readers interested in people - 'the proper study of mankind is man' - it's about personalities and relationships, especially over time.
What aspects of 'village' life feature particularly in 'The Village'?
Those elements which are most clearly evident in a small, distinct community ( though this could exist within a larger settlement, it doesn't have to be a rural village ). So, there is an increased likelihood that everyone knows everyone else's business, or thinks that they do, even though one villager may not come across another from month to month. And the tendency to gossip ( one story is specifically about gossip and its power ) and to remember everything that has happened in that place going back years, often leading to grudges and feuds. There's more than one feud in the book. one of them is old, the other brand new. On the positive side, there's the real support that a community can give to those who are vulnerable or suffering and the shared enjoyment of the village's traditional entertainments and the 'markers' of the year or of life. I also wanted to examine people's relationship with their village - one character in particular can't wait to get away, but then finds that she is fonder of it than she imagined, others leave in the normal course of life, yet others arrive, seeking sanctuary or respite.
Why is 'The Village' a series of short stories, not a novel? When the stories are inter-linked anyway?
The stories are stand-alone at the beginning of the book, but quickly become inter-linked, with characters appearing and re-appearing. I wanted to structure the book in this way so as to capture the inter-woven quality, the warp and weft, of village life, showing villagers and events from their own and others' point of view. I want the village to become a real place to the reader, with a history, and for it to become almost a protagonist in its own right. I could have depicted the interaction in a novel, I suppose, but not, I think, with the level of granularity which I could achieve in separate, but linked, stories ( unless I was a much better writer, perhaps.....).
Are you going to write just short stories, rather than other forms?
No. 'The Village' was my first book but I have since written a novel for the younger reader. 'Reconquista' is a classic adventure story set in 13th century Al Andalus for twelve year olds and upwards. I originally wrote it for my nephew and god-son, ten years ago, when he was about to visit our home in southern Spain.

But I like the short story form - it forces the writer to focus, there can be nothing extraneous - so I am likely to write more. I like reading short stories too.
Where is 'The Village' set? Is it based on a real place or places?
The village is an imaginary place, though it has aspects of a number of villages which I have known ( some of them not rural at all ). So, the Summer Fete, for example has many similarities to the summer fete I remember from growing up in a small village, as does the park in which the fete takes place. My school contemporaries would recognise it. On the other hand, the church and green are rather like those in a Devon village of my acquaintance. It is a amalgam of lots of different places.
Why write an adventure story for younger readers?
I began the book which eventually became 'Reconquista' over ten years ago. My nephew was about to visit our home in Andalucia for the first time, with his family and I wanted to engage him with the history and romance of the place he was visiting. It was a 'serial' - a set of episodes, often ending in a cliff-hanger - which I sent to him over a period of time. Ten years later it looks very different, but, I hope, it's still as exciting.
Published 2016-04-26.
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Books by This Author

Reconquista II
Pre-release—available September 30, 2018. Price: $2.99 USD. Language: English. Categories: Fiction » Historical » United Kingdom
Book II in the popular and acclaimed Al Andalus series. In the ancient town of Jerez, five young people must adapt to new lives. Rebecca, love-lorn, reviled and persecuted, Miguel, new head of house Delgado, Ben, the recent hero of the hour and Atta, desperate to find his father. Together with Nathan, the runaway with dangerous friends, their story unfolds as King and Emir jostle for power.
Reconquista
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 81,880. Language: British English. Published: March 28, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Historical, Fiction » Historical » Medieval
It is October 1264. Outside the city an army awaits the signal to attack. Within, fourteen year old Nathan, his older cousin, Rebecca and their friend, Atta, face an uncertain future. On this fateful day, the city they have always known is about to be torn apart. All of them have a vital decision to make. All have a journey to undertake. Not all of them will make it home.
The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 67,650. Language: English. Published: April 6, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Literary collections » European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
‘The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales’ chronicles life in a modern, semi-rural English village over one calendar year. The twelve, inter-linked stories have a rich cast of characters, as four generations of the Marshall family negotiate the hazards of family life. Babies are born, children grow, matches are made or marriages founder and death, both anticipated and unlooked for, pays a call.