I am very excited to be talking to Ian Johnson today about his excellent novel The Witcher Keys, published in 2012 by Book Guild. I stumbled upon The Witcher Keys by accident shortly after its publication, and by the end of the first paragraph I was hooked. Anyone who enjoys a fantastic adventure with mythical beings aplenty will love The Witcher Keys. Ian beautifully merges the ‘real’ world with the world of elves, goblins and such – but I’ll leave him to tell you more in his own words.
Alison – Hello Ian, and welcome to An Author’s View. Thank you for taking the time to chat to us today. Let’s start with a bit of information about you.
Ian – I am a construction manager, looking after 180 old properties on an ancient 15,000 acre country estate. I live in a haunted manor house near the Yorkshire moors with three daughters and a mad cocker spaniel. Sixty this year…bloody hell! No-one believes me though, which is good news.
Alison – No, I don’t believe it either! A haunted manor house; I’m jealous. I’ve got a thing about ghosts, and like to think the house in which I live has one of its very own – but it could simply be the product of my overactive imagination. I live on a crossroad, and I’m led to believe executions used to take place at crossroads so the spirits wouldn’t be able to find their way back into the village. Our ghost is very benign, though; not what I’d expect from the spirit of a hardened criminal. Anyway, I digress. As I’m sure you know by now, Ian, I am a huge fan of The Witcher Keys. Is the book a one off, or do you plan to write more?
Ian – The Witcher Keys is my debut novel, and I’m not planning another until I see if this one flies. I do have some ideas though, and may even move out of fantasy and into another genre, writing straight at adults. The Witcher Keys was written with young adults in mind but has crossed over fully into the adult market. Any reader over 11 is fine, up to 99.
Alison – I find it a bit odd that The Witcher Keys seems to be aimed at the teen market as it appeals to all ages, as the Amazon reviews prove. I suppose it makes sense as the lead (human) characters are teens themselves. I’m sure readers are intrigued to know more about the story, so please would you sum it up for us?
Ian – The Witcher Keys is a contemporary fantasy adventure story set on the North York Moors in mid-winter, both above and below ground, and inspired by real events. A couple of teenage friends are drawn into the ‘unseen’ world of elves, goblins, spriggans etc as they attempt to save the life of a baby, drugged into a coma by evil spriggans. There are other story lines as well, involving hidden emeralds, four secret keys, six enchanted swords, and the book is riddled with magic, of course. It concludes on Christmas Eve.
Alison – The fact that such a magical book is based on real events is thrilling. Do you have a website or social networking pages where we can find out more?
Ian – The website is www.thewitcherkeys.co.uk. This links you to the facebook and twitter pages – not my thing, really, but I post stuff on facebook quite often. There is also a great interactive map on the website taking you to all the real locations in the story. A kind friend keeps the website up to speed, although he likes a bottle of whiskey now and again (needs it, probably).
Alison – (Laughs) Don’t we all, especially when dealing with technology. Shortly after a computer whizz had designed a website for me earlier in the year, I decided it would be a good idea to trash my homepage, thus deleting all his hard work. It took a few beers to smooth over that little mistake! I’m sure there are things that have amused or intrigued you since The Witcher Keys was published.
Ian – The best book-related anecdote came along as I came off air at BBC radio Humberside. A lady rang into the station saying how good it was to hear someone talking about real goblins and elves. The previous week her daughter, who lives in Farndale (where The Witcher Keys is set), cut down a very old pear tree in her garden and was awoken that same night by three sad little faces and twinkling lights at her bedroom window – which is an upstairs window. Amazing.
Alison – Poor things. Homeless hobgoblins? I follow news of your marketing campaign on facebook, and you really seem to have a flair for book signing events. This must take a lot of hard work on your part.
Ian – The first signing was tricky – for Waterstones in York, who wanted to read the book first. After that (22 hardbacks signed and the bestselling line that day in the store) the rest became easier, with the book’s reputation gaining weight all the time. My 14th signing is coming up soon, at W H Smith. All my recent W H Smith events have resulted in immediate requests for a repeat event. Just to prove how hard it is though, Smiths still haven’t agreed to stock my book nationally.
Alison – I think it’s marvellous that you’ve gained recognition from W H Smith as well as Waterstones. Do you enjoy your signing events?
Ian – Signings are hard work. I never ever sit down, which is why I’ll sign 60 books sometimes. Often, a book signing by a quiet, sitting-down author will not produce any sales at all. You meet a wide range of human spirits, from lovely to revoltingly rude, which is interesting but depressing at times. Generally I enjoy them, and it’s great when an excited 14 year old wants their photo taken with the author, or you meet a real white witch, which has happened a few times to me.
Alison – Has anything funny or significant happened during your book signings? Meeting a white witch must have been amazing.
Ian – Not really funny, but significant when I signed for a white witch called Rosalie from Lincoln who knew all about elementals (gnomes, goblins etc) having nearly lost her life during a run-in with them. She has become a close friend and is a huge fan of the book, which she says has changed her life a great deal, spiritually. Wow!
Alison – Wow indeed. As I said, I’m impressed by the success of your marketing campaign. Did you have marketing experience beforehand, or did you learn on your feet?
Ian – I picked it up as I went. Common sense and determination are pre-requisite, though.
Alison – Since reading The Witcher Keys, I often wonder what strange creatures may be lurking in the hedgerows. Please tell us more about spriggans, goblins, dark elves etc so we can be prepared for the unexpected.
Ian – That would take me hours, but the appendix in the book tells you everything you need to know about all of these creatures, as you may remember!
Alison – (Laughs) Just testing! The Witcher Keys is a very handsome book, and the cover art is perfect. Was it difficult to decide on a design?
Ian – The designer at Book Guild found the design in a library of three million pictures, all of which had no copyright attached to them. It seemed just right, after we added a key-hole and did some other tinkering to get it perfect.
Alison – Did you send the manuscript off to a number of publishers before deciding on Book Guild? Did you receive any constructive feedback, even if it was a rejection?
Ian – Book Guild was the first publisher I ever sent it to. The MD there described it as a ‘classic’ and that the only reason it hadn’t been picked up previously was that no-one knew who the hell Ian Johnson was. I’d spent 2 years trying to find a literary agent to take it on, but all 30 of them refused, (J K Rowling had 24 rejections, I seem to remember). One of them, Ampersand, was extremely encouraging, though, and even edited the first half for me free of charge. It was great to send them a copy of the final result a couple of years later, with many thanks!
Alison – I sometimes wonder whether agents and the ‘big’ publishers take on any new authors. Perhaps there’s some sort of writers’ inner circle we mere mortals know nothing about. At least you found one agent who was encouraging and helpful; constant rejections can get a little trying. Given that it is so hard to get recognition in the literary world, what made you decide to write in the first place?
Ian – I decided late in 2003, after the events described on my website involving real goblins. I thought there had to be a good story there, if only I could write it!
Alison – What would be your advice to a budding author?
Ian – Don’t even start unless you have a vivid imagination and huge levels of determination. The latter is almost more important though, to keep you going through the low times, like writers block, severe editing as directed by experts (called killing the babies) and trying to get published when it’s all finished. Worth trying for, if you’re up for it.
Alison – Vivid imagination – ‘check’ as the Americans would say. It’s getting my imagination to shut up I have problems with, especially in the early hours of the morning. I agree on the determination, though. It’s not easy to keep your head up after a flurry of rejections, but there are always options. I find blogging and social networking invaluable, and there’s plenty of help at hand via search engines. Going back to the subject of writing, do you feel your writing has been influenced by a particular author?
Ian – J R R Tolkien. It must show a tiny bit in my work, as some reviewers mention the similarities. Hopefully, my work is slightly easier-going!
Alison – It is! I’ve always found Tolkien a little difficult to read; too many songs, and sons of So-and-so who in turn is son of someone else. I love the Tolkien influence though, as my beautiful collection of Harry Potter books – and my treasured hardback copy of The Witcher Keys – will testify. Are you reading anything at the moment?
Ian – Yes: ‘Destination of the Species’ by Michael Meacher (MP). Awe-inspiring, and makes me realise how insignificant we are in the big picture (universe, big bang, evolution etc). The book does require high levels of concentration here and there!
Alison – That sounds – interesting! I’m sure it’s an excellent book, but my personal taste is for stories that absorb me. We touched on imagination earlier, but a lot of authors regard careful planning to be almost as important when writing. Are you a planner, or do you prefer to see where your imagination takes you?
Ian – I see where my imagination takes me – infinitely more exciting than having a plan at the start.
Alison – I agree. It didn’t take me long to give up on my plans while writing Dory’s. Characters who were supposed to be peripheral became essential to the tale; baddies switched sides and helped out the good guys; one couple had been harbouring feelings for each other all through the story, and I’d never even noticed! It’s a style of writing that involves a lot of self-editing, but I wouldn’t succeed any other way. However, with The Witcher Keys being based on real events, I’m guessing you did have to do some research?
Ian – I looked at all the local folklore I could find, then learned everything I could about elves, goblins, spriggans and all the rest of them, so I could try to gauge how they might be in real life. I was determined to try and describe how it would be if two teenagers came face to face with real, 5 foot tall elves. Hopefully I did a fair job of it in The Witcher Keys.
Alison – I can vouch for the fact you did an excellent job. It’s been a pleasure talking to you today, and I wish you every success with your ongoing marketing campaign. The Witcher Keys deserves to be a bestseller, and should any film directors be reading I believe it would work very well visually – hint hint!
To purchase The Witcher Keys on Amazon: