Author interview with Jon Steele

Author interview with Jon Steele

In July I read and reviewed both The Watchers and Angel City, and they are two great books. Jon Steele blends the lines between the natural and supernatural in his stories. Added to this is his introduction of historical places, this element makes the stories truly come to life. If you are looking for something new and fresh to read get these books. The Watchers was released last year, Angel City is out September 12th.

Author bio:
Jon Steele was born in the American west and worked as an award winning cameraman/editor for ITN for more than twenty years. He has travelled and worked through seventy-eight countries across six continents. War Junkie, his autobiography of a life behind the camera in some of the worst places on earth, was published in 2002 by Transworld and has become a cult classic of war reportage.

In 2003, while in Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war, he became disillusioned with television news, put his camera on the ground and quit. He hid out in a small village in the south of France, writing and taking long walks in quiet places. He went back alone to Iraq in 2008 and lived for three months with an American combat unit, recording their lives for the breakthrough documentary film, The Baker Boys: Inside the Surge.

He currently lives in Switzerland with his Jordanian-born wife and their two cats, Zeus and Zorro.

Hi Jon, welcome to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.

BP: First off, could you tell us more about who Jon is: what are you hobbies and how did you become an author?
JS: Hobbies?  What are hobbies, I’m a writer.  Unless you count watching my cats, Zorro and Zues; which I find entertaining to no end.  As far as becoming a writer…my first impression of the craft came by way of my grandfather.  He would sit in his writing room, and I was given firm instructions to not disturb him while he was ‘working’.   But I would watch him through the open doorway.  He smoked a meerschaum pipe as he typed away at his Smith Corona, and he could write all through the day.  I didn't understand it; it looked like a lonely thing to do.  Many years later, I discovered it really was a lonely thing to do, but, like my grandfather, there wasn’t a choice in the matter.  He wrote because he had no choice, and he wrote up to the day he died.  Hopefully, I’ll do the same.  Point is: I became a writer because I surrendered to what was bred in the bone. 

BP: The Watchers was your debut novel. What inspired you to write The Angelus Trilogy?
JS: The Watchers is my first novel, but not my first book.  Book one was War Junkie, an autobiography based on one year from my life as a television news cameraman for ITV, a job I did for more than twenty years.  That life, filming in some god awful places, was like being on the frontline of good and evil.  In the Rwandan genocide evil wasn’t metaphysical concept, it was a murderous beast of flesh and blood walking the streets.  When I quit TV news at the beginning of the second Iraq War (because, frankly, evil had kicked the crap out of me and I couldn’t take it anymore), I had a lot of time to think.  And I thought about my own upbringing as a Roman Catholic.  I remember the nuns and priests telling me that once upon a time there was an epic battle between the good angels and the bad angels, and the good guys won.  My life behind the lens told me different…like I said, I had seen ‘the beast’ at all corners of the planet.  I imagined evil was alive and well, and getting fatter on living souls.    The Angelus Trilogy is me drawing from the religions, legends and myths I grew up with; then adapting them to write my own tale of what I believe is the ongoing and forever battle between good and evil.

BP: There are a lot of angelic themed stories out there. What do you think separates your book from the others?
JS: I don’t know if I can answer that one.  Maybe because The Angelus Trilogy was born in the trenches of war; wars I’d lived through while many others died.  Maybe it’s scenes of violence and desperation in my books are drawn from actual slaughter I’ve seen with my own eyes.  Maybe it’s because my good angels are drunks, druggies, bums who will kill at the drop of a hat if so ordered.  Maybe it’s the fact that while I don't believe in the God of the Abrahamic faiths, I do genuinely believe there are creatures from another place, hiding among us; creatures we call ‘angels’.

BP: In writing the second book in the trilogy, Angel City, what was your biggest challenge and did you encounter any specific problems?
JS: Funny you should ask that.  I didn’t realise the depth of the scars from my life as a cameraman till I got fifty thousand words into Angel City.  There’s a scene in the book where Harper becomes trapped in the tunnels and quarries beneath Paris.  These aren’t the catacombs of the Paris Tourism Bureau, these are the real deal.  They run for hundreds of kilometres under Paris and are forbidden to enter.  The tunnels are claustrophobic, dangerous, a place where when the lights go out it isn't just dark, it’s the complete absence of light.  I spent days down there to get the feel of the place so I could write about it.  Problem was, I couldn’t get Harper out of the tunnels, because psychologically, I couldn’t get myself out of my own tunnel.  I realised writing that sequence had exposed me to levels of PTSD I had not experienced in years.  I was hit with two bouts of pneumonia, I had spells of such dizziness that I would fall on my face getting out of bed.  Worst of all, I would sit at my writing desk and stare at the blank pages before me; I could not write.  It was incredibly painful.  And I knew the only way out was to write my way through it, but I was terrified.   My editor from Transworld, Doug Young, came out to see me in Switzerland. (Doug was my editor for War Junkie, so he understood what was happening to me).  We sat by the Lake Geneva and talked.  Doug listened, guiding the conversation as if guiding me out of the tunnels.  I also received huge support from David Rosenthal, my American editor at Blue Rider Press.  Soon, I could see my way through the rest of the story, and I wrote the last one hundred ten thousand words of Angel City in four months.  Readers of the story will remember Gilles Lambert, the cataphile (an illegal guide through forbidden tunnels) who leads Harper deep under Paris.  His terror in realizing the truth of what was happening to him in the tunnels was mine.  That’s why, in the story, I left him down there.

BP: Did you consider any other places for Angel City to take place besides Paris? If so why did you discard them?
JS: Angel City follows Harper from Montségur in the Pyrenees, to Paris, to Lausanne, back to Paris, Toulouse, Montségur again before landing (literally) back at Lausanne Cathedral.  In between all these places, we see Katherine and her son Max at their Swiss Guard protected compound in a remote part of Washington state, near Portland, Oregon.  The Watchers reads at a slower pace and was set entirely in Lausanne, Switzerland except for the prelude set in WWI, and one Harper scene in Montreux, Switzerland.  I had always planned Angel City to read much faster and run all over the map like a road movie.  But I only use the locations I needed.  I don't like the idea of writing about exotic locations for the sake of writing about exotic locations.  The Angelus Trilogy was laid out on a story arc (and location map) from the beginning.  There are no detours.

BP: The Watchers was set in Lausanna, Switzerland, why did you choose this place for the first book?
JS: In 2003, I quit TV news, and after  time, I returned to Lausanne.  One night, a friend told me about le guet (the watcher) de Lausanne; the man who spent his nights in the belfry of the cathedral, carried a lantern around the belfry at the ringing of the hourly bell and called the hour through the night.  My friend told me that during the middle ages every cathedral in Europe had a watcher in the belfry to keep an eye for fires of invaders.  As the world progressed, the watchers all disappeared but for Lausanne.  The le guet de Lausanne was the last watcher in the world.  That same night I went to the cathedral and met Renato Haüsler in the belfry.  He wore a black coat and a black floppy hat, and he had an old lantern in his hands.  He took me to his little room between the bells and we talked for hours…each hour he’d excuse himself to light his lantern and call the hour after Marie Madeleine (the biggest bell in the belfry) rang and shook the little room with her powerful voice.  I remember standing with Renato, watching call ‘C’est, le guet, il a sonne l’heure!’ over Lausanne and thinking there was a great story here, I only needed to imagine it.

BP: The main protagonists in the trilogy aren’t your average perfect angels, why did you choose this approach, to portray them with their own inner demons?
JS: Angels by definition are not creatures of free will.  They are nothing more than the extension of a ‘divine will.’  The Bible says two hundred angels, sent by the divine will to watch over the creation, rebelled so they could create their own race among men (the nephalim)…thereby rejecting the divine will and choosing to bring evil to paradise.  For an angel to be a ‘good angel’ it must submit to the divine will; in other words, a good angel cannot make a choice, it must do as commanded.  Problem for my good angels is, there has been no contact with the divine will for two and a half million years…and all they know about themselves is from the religions, myths and legends of men; they don't even know where they’re from, or who is the being of the divine will.  My good angels do what ever they need to do to survive because they have no choice.  On the face of it, that makes a good angel a rather boring creature, if not something of a fanatic.  By making my angels inhabit the forms of the dead, they are sometimes influenced by traces of human memory left in the deepest recesses of the human brain.  And while Inspector Gobet (the leader of the Lausanne angels) subjects Harper to brutal ‘memory scrubs’ to wipe remnants of remembrance from the brain, in Harper’s case they leak through.  Those leaks create all kinds of issues for a creature like Harper.  The world for a creature without free will is black and white, period.  Being haunted by human memory causes a creature like Harper to feel the moral dilemma that exist amid shades of grey.  Sometimes it’s a terrible thing, sometimes it’s funny as hell.

BP:You show the characters in the books in a very humanly relatable and compelling manner. Do you have a favourite one in the series?
JS: I suppose it would be Marc Rochat as he was the first character I wrote about.  In many ways his clumsiness, his inability to express himself properly are reflections of me as a boy.   Rochat was the focal point of The Watchers, but his presence continues throughout Angel City, as if somehow, he’s still alive.  I can’t say much, but I will tell you (and all Marc’s fans) his presence continues in book three, The Way of Sorrows, beginning with the opening line of Chapter One: “Do you think Marc Rochat had a soul?” 

BP: Which scene or chapter of either The Watchers or Angel City took the longest to write to your liking and why?
JS: It's the same for all three books…chapter one, scene one.

BP: The concluding book in The Angelus Trilogy is out next year. What can we expect from you after you finish it?
JS: No idea.  I’ve got one book close-to-finished set in the Iraq War called Saddamistan: a story of love and war.  There are two stories I’ve sketched out.  One is about cocaine smuggling in the eighties set in Panama, titled Banana Republic; the other is about cigarette smuggling in eastern Europe called Fags.  Both books are thrillers; the Panama Story being more serious and along the lines of Graham Greene’s The Ugly American, while Fags is more along the lines of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.  Come to think of it, I  could call those books The Third World Trilogy.

BP: What do you like most about writing fantasy and science fiction?
JS: Hmmmm.   You know, I think I can only be called a ‘fantasy writer’ by those who don’t believe in angels, or by those who do not believe there is some common, and as yet unknown truth, running through the creation mythology of men.  As far as ‘science fiction,’ that’s only a matter of time, discovery and/or invention.  There was a time when space flight was only science fiction but as I write these words, the Voyager One space craft, launched from planet Earth in 1977, has travelled a distance of 124.94 AU (1.869 x 1010  kilometres) and is now crossing a previously unknown region of the heliosphere (the outer magnetic belt of our solar system) and breaking into interstellar space, becoming the first man-made object to do so.  If I had to put a label on The Angelus Trilogy, I’d make up my own and call it ‘mystical noir.’  But in fact, I don’t care what people call it or what genre they place it in.  I’m just grateful people would take time out of their lives to read my books.  Hell, I’m more than grateful, I'm fucking overwhelmed.

BP: If you would have to recommend any 5 books which would they be and why would you recommend them?
JS: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (revised fourth edition, 2010)  Not for religious reasons, but to see the distillation, blending and outright thievery from the ancient religions, myths and legends, that have come down to us through ages of human history and now define much of our existence.   That the Bible continues to hold so much influence over western civilization, astounds me.

Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953)  It is Chandler’s finest work.  It is American literature disguised as detective fiction.  I love the tension the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, experiences between the cruelty of ‘the job’ and his compassion for the downtrodden, innocent, the just plain unlucky.  I modeled Harper and the whole tone of The Angelus Trilogy after this one book.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1930’s)  An unbelievably funny, wonderful and mystical story of what happens when the devil appears in the Moscow of Stalinist Russia and promptly causes chaos amid the land of state sponsored atheism.  The book was an underground legend until the Soviet government allowed it to be published in 1967.  I lived in Moscow for four years, very near Bulgakov’s flat.  I frequently visited his building to climb the stairwell to his door at the top floor (in the book, this is where the devil took up tesidence.  Every inch of wall space in the stairwell leading to the scarlet red door is covered with paintings by fans of the book…the characters from the story, scenes, lines of dialogue and narrative including my favourite, ‘Books don’t burn.’  To this day there are fresh flowers left at the door of Bulgakov’s flat, and on the anniversary of his birth Russians gather in the courtyard with candles and flowers and readings from the book.

Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy  (1970-1975)  As a matter of habit I read these three books every couple years.  Each time I am amazed with his skill and mastery of language.  And his ability to take the reader to another place is unmatched.  Davies, a Canadian, was one of the greatest writers of twentieth century English.  No one’s education in English literature is complete without reading Robertson Davies.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)  I don’t know how to describe the impact this epic book has on me.  It begins with one character, a newspaper reporter, wondering ‘When did Peru get so fucked up?’  It leads to a long conversation between the newspaper man and a dog catcher (who’s job it is to put strays into a burlap bag and beat them death with a club if they are not claimed in three days) in a bar called The Cathedral.  The story moves the different moments of time.  One character asks a question in the present, and the answer is given by another character from the past.  It is the perfect blend of magical realism and political fiction, two genres that Latin American writers seem to master better than most.  And this book, to me, is the best of them all. 

BP: Thank you very much for your time Jon and good luck with writing up the last book in the series!
JS: Dude, my pleasure.

Angel City is out September 12th by Transworld Publishers.
Read my thoughts on Angel City here and The Watchers here

Find out more about Jon Steele on his website

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