A Conversation with Jonathan French, Author of THE GREY BASTARDS
Q: You started out as a self-published author. How did you make the leap from the self-publishing sphere to the world of traditional publishing?
A: I was a self-published author for five years before traditional publishing called (literally). After writing two previous books in a separate fantasy series, I self-published The Grey Bastards in the fall of 2015 and entered it into a contest hosted by Mark Lawrence called the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, or SPFBO for short. The Grey Bastards was one of nearly 300 submitted books and was fortunate enough to become a top ten finalist. From there it just went into full gallop. I got an email in early 2017 with the subject: “Hi from an editor.” I actually thought it was another feeler email from the cottage industry of freelancers that has sprung up to support independent writers. Then I saw the sender: Penguin Random House. I ran upstairs, thrust the email at my wife and said, “Tell me this is legit!” After a bit of Googling, she said, “This is legit.”
Q: What was the transition like?
A: I found myself on the phone with the editor who sent the email and a few days after that on the phone with the agents he had contacted on my behalf. Cheesy as it sounds, I went from writing fantasy to living a fairy tale. The SPFBO put me in the path of a great editor, and he put me in the path of the remarkable Cameron McClure at Donald Maass, and everything started falling into place for The Grey Bastards to be acquired by Crown. The transition was exciting and nerve-wracking. With every phone call I kept worrying I was going to torpedo this chance or that the whole thing was too good to be true and the other shoe was going to drop any second. It never did.
Q: How does your book reimagine classic fantasy tropes? And what was your reason for playing with the classics in this way?
A: The simplest way to describe it is: The Grey Bastards takes the classic Tolkien races and gets them laid. I wanted to add some grime to the stuff I’ve always loved. Semi-historical TV shows like Black Sails and Spartacus had this dirty, rock-star-type sex appeal that I really liked. I wanted to apply that same veneer to old-school fantasy. Elves and orcs were alive and well in gaming (both tabletop and video games), but had fallen out of favor in literature to the point of being avoided. I thought that if I could tap into a similar energy it would reinvigorate those tropes.
Q: You’re an avid fan of tabletop games. What kind of influence have these games had on your writing and your thinking about both storytelling and genre? What do you think other gamers will enjoy about The Grey Bastards?
A: At their best, roleplaying games are a perfect platform for collaborative storytelling. As a player your whole job is to create a compelling character that is interesting in their own right, but also interacts with the other characters in a meaningful way. As a game master, your job is to focus on creating the world for your players to inhabit, a place where their characters can roam and not only experience the story you’ve crafted but also affect that story. You can railroad your players into the actions you prefer, but that tends to take away their sense of agency and ruins the fun. I found it best to embrace the chaos and take a lesson from improvisational theater: Always say yes and keep the story moving forward. This habit is a great help when the characters in a book start getting unruly. I definitely think my fellow gamers will dig The Grey Bastards. I set out to write the story I wanted to read, and at its core the book is a fantasy adventure suitable for the tabletop. Just about every gamer I’ve talked to has lit up at the concept of the main characters all being half-orcs in a gang that ride giant boars.
Q: Let’s face it—this book is bawdy. You depict half-orcs . . . well . . . getting it on. They have foul mouths and fouler tempers. This kind of behavior isn’t normal for high fantasy, but maybe your book isn’t high fantasy. Can you walk us through your choices regarding character and tone?
A: I tend to describe it as high fantasy with sword-and-sorcery sensibilities and spaghetti western undertones. Robert E. Howard is my primary inspiration as a writer, so that pulpy tone is always whispering at me. But I grew up on high fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, so those elements are what I like to work with in terms of creatures and races. I think that’s why Bastards both defies high fantasy and embraces it. It’s a pulp house with high fantasy wallpaper. The profanity is the fallout from Catholic school, I’m afraid. I have always used irreverence as a way to cope and the Bastards have a great deal to endure, so it was a good fit for them. As for the bawdy aspect, since the female and male half-orcs in the book are essentially soldiers, I wanted to present a traditional soldier’s attitude toward sex: think about it often and take it when you can get it because tomorrow you might be dead.
Q: What’s the nerdiest thing you’ve never done?
A: Amazingly, I have never LARPed (Live-Action Role-Played). Other than that, I’ve pretty much checked every nerd box.
Q: The Grey Bastards is arguably about “the bad guys,” or at least the types of creatures that usually play the bad guys in books and movies. Why did you choose to focus on them?
A: There was always something compelling to me about perceived villains turning to the good side by necessity. You see this in comic books quite a bit. Lex Luthor and Magneto are great, but they’re even better when circumstances force them to ally with Superman and the X-Men. Dungeons & Dragons gave us the notion that half-orcs could be heroes by making them a race for players to use when creating their characters, so The Grey Bastards just continues that tradition and turns it up to 11. Honestly, it’s less about the bad guys and more about the unwanted children of the bad guys. They’re caught between humans and orcs, both culturally and geographically, so their very existence is at war with itself. The orcs view them as weak and have no use for them. The humans view them as little more than animals and shun them. That leaves them with little choice but to be the hard-as-nails bunch they are. Like pirates, they’re rebellious underdogs, and it’s hard for me not to root for those types of characters.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the world-building in the book?
A: The inspiration for the world was Reconquista-era Spain, so I read up on that period, especially in regards to fortifications, weapons/armor, and mounted combat. S. S. Wyatt’s translation of Daily Life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages by A. H. de Oliveira Marques was invaluable for the cultural details. I also had to do a fair amount of internet research about different species of swine to make the riding hogs feel convincing.
Q: You were born in Tennessee, and you moved around from the United Kingdom to North Carolina to Illinois, finally settling in Georgia. Did this shape how you think about place in your work?
A: Between the states, not so much, but living in the UK as a boy and traveling around Europe certainly cemented an awareness of other cultures and dispelled the notion that any one place is inherently superior to another.
Q: Is there a specific audience you’re trying to reach with The Grey Bastards?
A: The short answer is anyone who enjoys a raucous, fast-paced adventure with plenty of action, profanity, plot twists, profanity, sex, ripped protagonists, profanity, and giant pigs! For the longer answer, I think back to the days when I was a self-published writer and attended many conventions. After two years’ experience selling my books in vendor halls, I began to become infuriated by my gender’s lack of interest in books, especially among teens and twenty-somethings. Not just my books, but novels in general—women of all ages were buying and browsing, but men just didn’t seem excited about fiction. The disparity was obvious and disheartening. So I wanted to write the kind of awesome sword-and-sorcery fantasy that my young self would’ve dreamed of—something that would help usher those reluctant male readers into the world of fantasy books, and fiction in general, the way the likes of Conan did for me back in the day. Only time will tell if I succeeded.