This is just too good to be true, folks, an interview with John Christopher, actually Sam Youd, the author of so many books that I loved as a kid and still do: The Tripod Trilogy, The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy, The Lotus Caves, Empty World and more.
Interview with Sam Youd / John Christopher, November, 2007
It seems like the great theme of your work is freedom, which unfortunately is rarely in the proper amount. Sometimes there’s too little, like in the moon Bubble or a Wild Jack city, and sometimes there’s too much, like in The Ragged Edge where anarchy brings terrible suffering. If that‘s right, can you tell me why?
As with the overwhelming majority of writers I don’t have a moral programme to enforce, and I feel it should fall to someone else to analyse any preoccupations that crop up. But I also feel that the main one is not freedom but responsibility. The apple tempting my characters (in The Lotus Caves especially) is not from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil but its sinister twin, the Tree of Ignorance. See also The Guardians: wouldn’t it be nice to accept the good life and not worry? Or would it?
Of course, the other great theme is the civilization-destroying catastrophe. Can you remember the first time you were exposed to this idea? Why has it fascinated you so much?
I can’t recall any particular exposure though I did find those ancient ruined cities of Mars in the early days of SF compelling. In writing I think I’ve been more attracted by the thought of what happens after the catastrophe. The Sword trilogy exemplifies this, and also goes back to my answer to the preceding question: do we want development with all its complications, or primitive simplicities? (Simplicities for the sake of argument).
When I list my favorite authors, it seems that a common factor among most of them, including yourself, is service in WWII. Do you have any idea what it was about that experience that led to so much great writing? (Oddly, those I’m thinking of have all straddled or blurred the lines between childrens books and adult literature.)
I was in the Army (Royal Signals) for nearly five years, over three of those overseas in the Mediterranean sector. I wrote a couple of non-Christopher novels with that background (out of close on seventy) but don’t think I was much affected by the experience as far as writing went.
You mentioned [in a previous e-mail] that “Dom and Va” drew a lot of criticism. I did find it disturbing, but I also think it was probably accurate. Once again, there was a lot of freedom then and no rules. What do you think about that now, looking back on it?
Dom and Va was originally written in an English-as-a-foreign-language and much shorter version, entitled In the Beginning. It stemmed from a theory, advanced by Robert Ardrey in The Territorial Imperative, that our human evolution has been from a race of killer apes who wiped out a race of less belligerent but more civilized anthropoids. My suggestion was that the two could probably still interbreed and that what may have happened was absorption rather than annihilation.
The story told of a boy from the killer apes (Dom/Adam) who first rescued then mated with a girl (Va/Eve) from the more cultured apes, and suggested that between them they founded our mixed and chaotic humanity. The book was fiercely attacked by feminists and never got into paperback. Years later a fellow writer who regarded herself as a champion of women’s rights told me she could not understand why: after all, I had given Va all the best lines and she wound up in control of the relationship and their joint future. I pointed out that I had also had her acknowledge, when she and her baby were threatened by killer apes, the usefulness of a strong right arm in helping to defend them both. My fellow writer, herself married and a mother, said that was obvious and plainly valid. But not, I pointed out, to those particular feminists, who did not value the sustaining bond between the sexes but rather anathematized it.
Your books do lean a little toward male characters. Who’s your favorite female character?
I think my adult novels have enough female characters, and quite strong ones. (See The Ragged Edge/A Wrinkle in the Skin, and the three books written as Hilary Ford).In the early stages of writing children’s books, an experienced lady editor said that while girls read boys’ books the converse was not true, and I may have been influenced by that.
I suppose my own favourite character was April in The Ragged Edge but I have a soft spot for the heroine of A Bride for Bedivere who introduces herself: “I cried the day my father died — from joy.”
What do you think about the Boys Life and BBC adaptations of your work?
I’m not really a cartoon person so can’t comment on Boys Life. The BBC version started well, but then went so far away from what I’d written that I lost interest.
The best adaptation was a German version of The Guardians (Die Waechter) in six parts by Bavaria (who made Das Boot). I’m probably influenced by the fact that they stayed very close to my story line. One of the production team apologized to me over a passage in which the hero watches a squirrel cross what he’d thought was an electrified fence and realizes he can too. “We had to make that a cat, Mr Christopher — we are short of trained squirrels in Germany”. Who said the Germans have no sense of humour?
You also had the experience of “No Blade of Grass” being turned into a movie. So, knowing how movie-making works, how do you feel about plans for a Tripods movie?
I never actually got round to viewing the No Blade of Grass movie, switching off at the first commercial break when it was shown on television.
The situation with the Tripods is currently fluid, but there are exciting hopes of the project being taken over by a new team with better ideas. Writers of screenplays command huge fees: nothing wrong with that except that it encourages — maybe requires — them to produce an input to justify the money. One script for the Tripods apparently had the White Mountains topped not with snow but beryllium dust, sprayed out from the factories in which human slaves were building Tripods …..
On a similar subject … do you have a favorite book cover?
None in particular, but I do recall a particularly striking one for an edition of The Death of Grass — a simple photograph of an ear of corn dripping blood.
I thought I had read a lot of your books, until I found the bibliography on Wikipedia. I have a long way to go, especially with books written under your other pseudonyms. Where should I start? What book or books do you really want people to read most?
My personal favourites are the books of the Sword trilogy, but I have a special affection for The Gull’s Kiss by Peter Graaf. It only appeared in England, only sold about 600 copies, and did not make paperback, so it’s just about unobtainable.