Interview with Jonathan Green

W

e are happy to present to you an extremely interesting new interview with one of the most successful and active authors of gamebooks - Jonathan Green. The interview is taken by Peter Agapov and the bulgarian "Gamebooks" magazine team, huge thanks to them, as well as to the author!

Also, you can check out his new Kickstarter campaign - 'TWAS - The Krampus Night Before Christmas, live now.

Jonathan, thank you for accepting my invitation for this interview!

1. How and why did you fall in love with the gamebooks?

I stumbled across The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it was first published in August 1982. I was 10 years old at the time. I had been dragged into town for a session of back-to-school shopping with my mum, and my reward at the end of the day was to visit a bookshop. And there on a table, with a cover and title unlike any other book I had ever seen, was the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook.

Fighting Fantasy was a craze that lots of boys at my school got into over the next couple of years, but when they started to lose interest, after book 10 or so, I didn’t, and stuck with it. I loved being in control of what happened in the story, I loved becoming a hero who could go toe-to-toe with a dragon and win, and I loved the illustrations of hideous monsters!

Although I wasn’t allowed to buy every book in the series, I read and enjoyed many, and started to write my own. Most of these were never finished, but over the years they became longer and more complex until, upon leaving school, I wrote to Puffin Books asking how to go about submitting a manuscript for consideration.

Two years, two ideas, and three re-writes later, I was commissioned to write my first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Spellbreaker.

 

2. Do you believe that gamebooks have a future and how do you see them surviving in a world of video games dominance?

I certainly hope they have a future, seeing that I am now writing my own series of ACE Gamebooks. You could argue that they definitely do have a future because many video games are actually an evolution of the original print gamebooks.

I think if gamebooks adapt to the new formats and embrace new forms of technology – from apps and Alexa, to AR and who-knows-what – then they will have a future. But I also believe there is still a market for print gamebooks – the tricky bit is getting them in front of enough people. When I have given talks in schools and introduced them to children, there isn’t a single one who hasn’t enjoyed them and been enthused by the possibilities they offer.

I think print gamebooks have also enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, riding the wave of nostalgia that has seized many adults of a certain age, who now have children the same age they were when they first encountered and fell in love with the format.

And just as people are rediscovering the joy of vinyl over digital recordings, quality will always out. And gamebooks still don’t require any external power source, and many are full of fantastic pieces of art. There’s a lot there still to love.

 

3. I’ve read in other interviews that you write your books for the already established fans of the genre as well as for the potential new fans of gamebooks. What do you specifically do to appeal to both groups of people?

I never dumb my writing down. When I was at secondary school, the Young Adult genre did not exist. You read children’s books and then you moved on to reading books for adults, and many, such as The Hobbit, could be enjoyed by both.

In terms of appealing to an adult audience, I try to make sure that my writing is atmospheric and that I do something different with the rules or design of the gamebook, riffing off familiar elements from their gamebook-reading past but often giving them a fresh twist.

In terms of appealing to younger readers, I make sure the adventures and situations are as grim and gritty as they were in those early Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. And while there might be plenty of blood and gore, there is nothing of a sexual nature in the adventures and no swearing, so in terms of content they are more akin to something like the Harry Potter books; plenty of drama and jeopardy, but nothing that you wouldn’t want the average 10 year-old reading about before they are ready.

 

4. How much do you know about the success of the genre in Eastern Europe and more particular in Bulgaria back in the nineties and now?

Not very much, to be honest. I know that Bulgarian gamebooks had a small but fanatical following. And I believe that many gamebooks were published back in the 1990s, but that publisher interest has waned since then. I also know that some gamebooks – including my own Knights of Doom, in Hungary – were published fraudulently, without deals for licensing rights having been signed. But beyond that you would be educating me about the history of gamebooks in Eastern Europe.

What I do know for sure is that my own ACE Gamebooks are now being published in the Czech Republic. A Czech language edition of Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland is already available, with a translation of The Wicked Wizard of Oz coming next year.

 

5. Why was your book Bloodbones not printed in the nineties and why did it have to wait until 2006 to be published?

The book had been written and illustrated in 1995-6 but at the time Puffin Books were considering how to revitalise the series. Part of the problem, as the publisher perceived it, was that the audience had grown up with the gamebooks, which had become more and more sophisticated. They were wondering how to make the books appeal to younger readers again, and decided that the best way to do this was to make the adventures shorter!

But before they could really put their plan into action, as I understand it, the money men stepped in and called it a day. Even though each new Fighting Fantasy gamebook released still sold more copies than your average children’s book, they weren’t enjoying the kind of sales they had in their heyday, during the mid to late ‘80s, and so their sales graphs showed a slump in sales, and so Puffin decided to pull the plug. (It didn’t help that they received next to no publicity or promotion.)

When Wizard Books started reprinting the adventures in the early Noughties, Steve Jackson himself got in touch, saying that it would be nice if the ‘lost’ Fighting Fantasy gamebook could see the light of day at last, and so a deal was struck.

I re-wrote the adventure, to turn a 300-section gamebook back into a 400-section gamebook, new interior and cover artists were engaged (Tony Hough and Martin McKenna), and Bloodbones was finally published, 10 years after it had first been commissioned and written.

 

6. Some time ago, you experimented with one of your books for Pax Britannia. You released Time’s Arrow piece by piece and the readers had to vote online on how they preferred the adventure to continue. How happy are you with the results from that experiment?

Very happy. The tricky thing was that the book had to read as if it had been written as one complete novel, with appropriate foreshadowing and character development. Fortunately, the readers chose the options I would have gone with myself, when they voted after the release of each part, which probably helped the book appear to have been written as a whole in one go, rather than in three parts over several months.

The only things I wasn’t so happy about, were how few people read the original eBook releases and voted, and how poorly Time’s Arrow sold when it was released in print. There weren’t to be anymore Ulysses Quicksilver Pax Britannia novels published after that.

 

7. Why do you focus your energy on raising funds through Kickstarter? Do you believe that crowdfunding is the best way to get your books to the readers?

To put it bluntly, because I need the money. I need the money to pay for quality art – and a gamebook wouldn’t be a gamebook for me without all the illustrations – and I need the money to pay for my time. It is my job after all, and I need the income, even if it isn’t very much.

Working with a small publisher like Snowbooks gives me a lot of creative freedom, including things like cover design and choice of artist, but it also means there is very little in terms of a budget. Kickstarting a project helps get a quality product out into the marketplace, which will hopefully then go on to achieve some modicum of success, while also providing fans with some unique rewards, including things like reading the adventure long before anyone else and having their likenesses used in illustrations.

The great thing is that gamebooks are a niche product, and gamebook readers are a niche crowd. But through crowdfunding you can market a book directly to that niche, making it viable and then hopefully giving it the chance to have a life beyond the original Kickstarter.

 

8. Why do you prefer to base your recent books on established stories and characters instead of creating your own settings?

It’s great fun being able to play in somebody else’s sandbox, whilst also putting your own spin on things. Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland was written because it was the 150th anniversary of the book’s original publication, and I wanted to see what it would be like to turn it into a gamebook.

After it was released people asked if I was going to write a sequel, but I had already used elements of Through the Looking-Glass in the gamebook and so I started to consider which other books would be suitable candidates for gamebook conversion. I made quite a long list, so there are plenty of stories that I would still like to tell in this way. Currently I am working on Beowulf Beastslayer.

Working within a restricted set of parameters means that some of the groundwork has been done for you – in terms of plot, setting and characters – which allows you to unleash your creativity in other ways, and which can be incredibly rewarding.

For example, I am not a fan of the 1939 movie version The Wizard of Oz, so it was fun to give the tale a darker twist, considering what might have happened after the end of Baum’s original story, and to bring in elements of steampunk and dieselpunk, whilst also giving the world of Oz an Art Deco aesthetic.

I am not a big fan of Peter Pan and Wendy either, so part of the challenge in adapting that was to make it the sort of book I would want to read. For NEVERLAND – Here Be Monsters! I imagined that Neverland and Skull Island from King Kong were actually the same place, and combined elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World with Barrie’s story. 

 

9. How is writing a gamebook different for you than writing a traditional book?

I find it easier, but that’s not to say it’s easy. You have less work to do in terms of character development – although just because the reader is usually the hero you don’t need to do away with it altogether – and the great thing is that rather than having to decide “Should this happen or should that happen?” you can have both things happen.

Friends of mine who write traditional long form fiction always ask me how you can possibly write a gamebook. But once you break it all down, as you would a detailed chapter outline for a novel, it becomes a much more manageable task.

At the end of the day, I draw a lot more flowcharts for a gamebook than I would for a novel. A lot more.

 

10. How did the idea to write the history of Fighting Fantasy came up and what kind of research did you have to do for it?

About three years before Fighting Fantasy’s 30th anniversary, I started pitching ideas to Wizard Books regarding how that particular milestone could be celebrated. I suggested a new Sorcery!-style epic, set during the historical War of the Wizards, but that was rejected. I suggested an origin story for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in which the reader would play as Zagor the Warlock himself, but that was also rejected. I then suggested a coffee table-style history of Fighting Fantasy, but was told it would be too expensive to produce.

I ended up writing a brief history of Fighting Fantasy for an SFX Magazine fantasy special, thinking I knew a lot about the subject, but the more research I did the more I realised there was to know, and there was no way I could include it all in the article. And so I decided I would write the complete history, minus the illustrations, and self-publish it as an eBook. But then a writer/editor friend of mine asked if I had heard of Kickstarter. The rest, as they say, is history.

I ended up doing a great deal of research, partly because I would interview one person who would then suggest I interview another person, and so it would continue. The book ended up being nine months late, but it also ended up being three times as long as originally intended. And there is now a second volume, bringing the published history of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks to 160,000 words. So far.

 

11. Do you believe that a Gamebook author could ever make enough money to support a family or do you think that writing gamebooks couldn’t be more than a hobby?

I’m not sure if it is possible in the current climate. In the 1980s, absolutely. But although I know several full-time authors who write gamebooks, it is importantly not the only thing they write.

I myself write gamebooks, short stories, non-fiction books and novels, as well as the occasional magazine article and comic strip. And I also have a part-time job as a school librarian.

 

12. Under what circumstances do you believe that 1 + 1 > 2?

If you mean in terms of writing collaborations, always. I co-wrote two Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks with Marc Gascoigne and when we had our planning and brainstorming meetings, we would each bring our own ideas, but when they were combined, or fed off each other, sending us off on all sorts of tangents, rather than ending up with twice as many ideas, it was closer to four times as many!

 

13. What are your plans for the future? Are you going to keep writing gamebooks or do you prefer to shift your energy elsewhere?

I like to keep busy with lots of different projects. At the moment I am writing one gamebook, while plotting two more, and I also have a short story to write for an anthology, revisions to do on another short story, and pitches to write for more projects, including a novella.

But gamebooks were my first love, and the first books I had published, and so as long as people keep wanting to read them, I will keep writing them.

( 02 January 2019 )

Jonathan, thank you for accepting my invitation for this interview!

1. How and why did you fall in love with the gamebooks?

I stumbled across The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it was first published in August 1982. I was 10 years old at the time. I had been dragged into town for a session of back-to-school shopping with my mum, and my reward at the end of the day was to visit a bookshop. And there on a table, with a cover and title unlike any other book I had ever seen, was the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook.

Fighting Fantasy was a craze that lots of boys at my school got into over the next couple of years, but when they started to lose interest, after book 10 or so, I didn’t, and stuck with it. I loved being in control of what happened in the story, I loved becoming a hero who could go toe-to-toe with a dragon and win, and I loved the illustrations of hideous monsters!

Although I wasn’t allowed to buy every book in the series, I read and enjoyed many, and started to write my own. Most of these were never finished, but over the years they became longer and more complex until, upon leaving school, I wrote to Puffin Books asking how to go about submitting a manuscript for consideration.

Two years, two ideas, and three re-writes later, I was commissioned to write my first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Spellbreaker.

 

2. Do you believe that gamebooks have a future and how do you see them surviving in a world of video games dominance?

I certainly hope they have a future, seeing that I am now writing my own series of ACE Gamebooks. You could argue that they definitely do have a future because many video games are actually an evolution of the original print gamebooks.

I think if gamebooks adapt to the new formats and embrace new forms of technology – from apps and Alexa, to AR and who-knows-what – then they will have a future. But I also believe there is still a market for print gamebooks – the tricky bit is getting them in front of enough people. When I have given talks in schools and introduced them to children, there isn’t a single one who hasn’t enjoyed them and been enthused by the possibilities they offer.

I think print gamebooks have also enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, riding the wave of nostalgia that has seized many adults of a certain age, who now have children the same age they were when they first encountered and fell in love with the format.

And just as people are rediscovering the joy of vinyl over digital recordings, quality will always out. And gamebooks still don’t require any external power source, and many are full of fantastic pieces of art. There’s a lot there still to love.

 

3. I’ve read in other interviews that you write your books for the already established fans of the genre as well as for the potential new fans of gamebooks. What do you specifically do to appeal to both groups of people?

I never dumb my writing down. When I was at secondary school, the Young Adult genre did not exist. You read children’s books and then you moved on to reading books for adults, and many, such as The Hobbit, could be enjoyed by both.

In terms of appealing to an adult audience, I try to make sure that my writing is atmospheric and that I do something different with the rules or design of the gamebook, riffing off familiar elements from their gamebook-reading past but often giving them a fresh twist.

In terms of appealing to younger readers, I make sure the adventures and situations are as grim and gritty as they were in those early Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. And while there might be plenty of blood and gore, there is nothing of a sexual nature in the adventures and no swearing, so in terms of content they are more akin to something like the Harry Potter books; plenty of drama and jeopardy, but nothing that you wouldn’t want the average 10 year-old reading about before they are ready.

 

4. How much do you know about the success of the genre in Eastern Europe and more particular in Bulgaria back in the nineties and now?

Not very much, to be honest. I know that Bulgarian gamebooks had a small but fanatical following. And I believe that many gamebooks were published back in the 1990s, but that publisher interest has waned since then. I also know that some gamebooks – including my own Knights of Doom, in Hungary – were published fraudulently, without deals for licensing rights having been signed. But beyond that you would be educating me about the history of gamebooks in Eastern Europe.

What I do know for sure is that my own ACE Gamebooks are now being published in the Czech Republic. A Czech language edition of Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland is already available, with a translation of The Wicked Wizard of Oz coming next year.

 

5. Why was your book Bloodbones not printed in the nineties and why did it have to wait until 2006 to be published?

The book had been written and illustrated in 1995-6 but at the time Puffin Books were considering how to revitalise the series. Part of the problem, as the publisher perceived it, was that the audience had grown up with the gamebooks, which had become more and more sophisticated. They were wondering how to make the books appeal to younger readers again, and decided that the best way to do this was to make the adventures shorter!

But before they could really put their plan into action, as I understand it, the money men stepped in and called it a day. Even though each new Fighting Fantasy gamebook released still sold more copies than your average children’s book, they weren’t enjoying the kind of sales they had in their heyday, during the mid to late ‘80s, and so their sales graphs showed a slump in sales, and so Puffin decided to pull the plug. (It didn’t help that they received next to no publicity or promotion.)

When Wizard Books started reprinting the adventures in the early Noughties, Steve Jackson himself got in touch, saying that it would be nice if the ‘lost’ Fighting Fantasy gamebook could see the light of day at last, and so a deal was struck.

I re-wrote the adventure, to turn a 300-section gamebook back into a 400-section gamebook, new interior and cover artists were engaged (Tony Hough and Martin McKenna), and Bloodbones was finally published, 10 years after it had first been commissioned and written.

 

6. Some time ago, you experimented with one of your books for Pax Britannia. You released Time’s Arrow piece by piece and the readers had to vote online on how they preferred the adventure to continue. How happy are you with the results from that experiment?

Very happy. The tricky thing was that the book had to read as if it had been written as one complete novel, with appropriate foreshadowing and character development. Fortunately, the readers chose the options I would have gone with myself, when they voted after the release of each part, which probably helped the book appear to have been written as a whole in one go, rather than in three parts over several months.

The only things I wasn’t so happy about, were how few people read the original eBook releases and voted, and how poorly Time’s Arrow sold when it was released in print. There weren’t to be anymore Ulysses Quicksilver Pax Britannia novels published after that.

 

7. Why do you focus your energy on raising funds through Kickstarter? Do you believe that crowdfunding is the best way to get your books to the readers?

To put it bluntly, because I need the money. I need the money to pay for quality art – and a gamebook wouldn’t be a gamebook for me without all the illustrations – and I need the money to pay for my time. It is my job after all, and I need the income, even if it isn’t very much.

Working with a small publisher like Snowbooks gives me a lot of creative freedom, including things like cover design and choice of artist, but it also means there is very little in terms of a budget. Kickstarting a project helps get a quality product out into the marketplace, which will hopefully then go on to achieve some modicum of success, while also providing fans with some unique rewards, including things like reading the adventure long before anyone else and having their likenesses used in illustrations.

The great thing is that gamebooks are a niche product, and gamebook readers are a niche crowd. But through crowdfunding you can market a book directly to that niche, making it viable and then hopefully giving it the chance to have a life beyond the original Kickstarter.

 

8. Why do you prefer to base your recent books on established stories and characters instead of creating your own settings?

It’s great fun being able to play in somebody else’s sandbox, whilst also putting your own spin on things. Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland was written because it was the 150th anniversary of the book’s original publication, and I wanted to see what it would be like to turn it into a gamebook.

After it was released people asked if I was going to write a sequel, but I had already used elements of Through the Looking-Glass in the gamebook and so I started to consider which other books would be suitable candidates for gamebook conversion. I made quite a long list, so there are plenty of stories that I would still like to tell in this way. Currently I am working on Beowulf Beastslayer.

Working within a restricted set of parameters means that some of the groundwork has been done for you – in terms of plot, setting and characters – which allows you to unleash your creativity in other ways, and which can be incredibly rewarding.

For example, I am not a fan of the 1939 movie version The Wizard of Oz, so it was fun to give the tale a darker twist, considering what might have happened after the end of Baum’s original story, and to bring in elements of steampunk and dieselpunk, whilst also giving the world of Oz an Art Deco aesthetic.

I am not a big fan of Peter Pan and Wendy either, so part of the challenge in adapting that was to make it the sort of book I would want to read. For NEVERLAND – Here Be Monsters! I imagined that Neverland and Skull Island from King Kong were actually the same place, and combined elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World with Barrie’s story.

 

9. How is writing a gamebook different for you than writing a traditional book?

I find it easier, but that’s not to say it’s easy. You have less work to do in terms of character development – although just because the reader is usually the hero you don’t need to do away with it altogether – and the great thing is that rather than having to decide “Should this happen or should that happen?” you can have both things happen.

Friends of mine who write traditional long form fiction always ask me how you can possibly write a gamebook. But once you break it all down, as you would a detailed chapter outline for a novel, it becomes a much more manageable task.

At the end of the day, I draw a lot more flowcharts for a gamebook than I would for a novel. A lot more.

 

10. How did the idea to write the history of Fighting Fantasy came up and what kind of research did you have to do for it?

About three years before Fighting Fantasy’s 30th anniversary, I started pitching ideas to Wizard Books regarding how that particular milestone could be celebrated. I suggested a new Sorcery!-style epic, set during the historical War of the Wizards, but that was rejected. I suggested an origin story for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in which the reader would play as Zagor the Warlock himself, but that was also rejected. I then suggested a coffee table-style history of Fighting Fantasy, but was told it would be too expensive to produce.

I ended up writing a brief history of Fighting Fantasy for an SFX Magazine fantasy special, thinking I knew a lot about the subject, but the more research I did the more I realised there was to know, and there was no way I could include it all in the article. And so I decided I would write the complete history, minus the illustrations, and self-publish it as an eBook. But then a writer/editor friend of mine asked if I had heard of Kickstarter. The rest, as they say, is history.

I ended up doing a great deal of research, partly because I would interview one person who would then suggest I interview another person, and so it would continue. The book ended up being nine months late, but it also ended up being three times as long as originally intended. And there is now a second volume, bringing the published history of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks to 160,000 words. So far.

 

11. Do you believe that a Gamebook author could ever make enough money to support a family or do you think that writing gamebooks couldn’t be more than a hobby?

I’m not sure if it is possible in the current climate. In the 1980s, absolutely. But although I know several full-time authors who write gamebooks, it is importantly not the only thing they write.

I myself write gamebooks, short stories, non-fiction books and novels, as well as the occasional magazine article and comic strip. And I also have a part-time job as a school librarian.

 

12. Under what circumstances do you believe that 1 + 1 > 2?

If you mean in terms of writing collaborations, always. I co-wrote two Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks with Marc Gascoigne and when we had our planning and brainstorming meetings, we would each bring our own ideas, but when they were combined, or fed off each other, sending us off on all sorts of tangents, rather than ending up with twice as many ideas, it was closer to four times as many!

 

13. What are your plans for the future? Are you going to keep writing gamebooks or do you prefer to shift your energy elsewhere?

I like to keep busy with lots of different projects. At the moment I am writing one gamebook, while plotting two more, and I also have a short story to write for an anthology, revisions to do on another short story, and pitches to write for more projects, including a novella.

But gamebooks were my first love, and the first books I had published, and so as long as people keep wanting to read them, I will keep writing them.

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