John Grant


Joining LitPick today for an extra credit interview is John Grant. He is the author of over 70 books, and his newest title, Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History, is now available for review at  

Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?

When I'm writing fiction, especially short stories, I usually have a fairly good idea of the ending before I start writing -- where I'm heading, so to speak. But the actual route I take to get there can change quite a lot as I go along, because new ideas inevitably pop into my mind and go "Me! Me! Me!" until I pay attention to them. Sometimes I even abandon my original intended denouement because a better one (or what I think is a better one!) has occurred to me.

When I'm writing nonfiction, it's a bit different because any book project I'm working on will have been bought on the basis of an outline, and I do have an obligation to ensure that the finished product bears at least some resemblance to that outline! Even so, I generally chop and change things as I go, and the publishers I work with are generally okay with that. For example, at the start of working on my most recent book, Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History, the exact list of which scientists I should cover seemed to change on almost a daily basis. Finally things settled down, but even so I swapped out one scientist for another just a few weeks before completing the book.

Has someone you’ve known ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?

Many years ago I wrote a lighthearted Judge DreddTM novel called The Hundredfold Problem, and a good many of the supporting characters were friends of mine, members of the British science-fiction community of the day. Some were amused, some less so. One of them, the writer Charles Stross, said he'd have bought me a drink by way of thanks except I hadn't killed "his" character off horribly enough, so I had to buy him a drink!

I know there are a few other instances where I've "borrowed" someone for use in fiction, but usually I make my characters up out of whole cloth. Sometimes a character will come out of a dream, but not often.

In one alarming instance, I met the person after creating the character -- or, at least, that's how it seemed! I'd been reading the proofs of a novel of mine all day, and my wife Pam and I decided to pop along to the local diner for dinner rather than bother cooking. Since last we'd been there, they'd hired a new waitress. "That's my character," I hissed to my wife. I think she thought it was just I couldn't take my eyes off a pretty woman, until we got home and I gave her a few relevant pages to read.     

What do you do when you get writers' block?

I never used to get writers' block, so it wasn't a worry. More recently, it's happened from time to time. Luckily, I have a website called Noirish where I write about movies, usually movies that are sort of borderline film noir. (I wrote a massive encyclopedia of film noir a while back, so the point of Noirish is to fill in the occasional gap but more generally to look at movies that could have come close to qualifying for the book but didn't.) So these days if I find I just can't face the prospect of working on my current story or book project, I go watch a movie and then write about it. That usually gets me back into the saddle, so to speak.

If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose?

That's a really difficult one! I think probably in the world of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1949). I really like the characters -- Cassandra and the rest -- and, even though they never have any money (been there, done that), their lives are in many ways beguilingly simple. They knew what quiet was like -- something difficult in our own high tech lives, where the outside world is always barging in on us. (This is said bitterly by someone who has spent much of the weekend rescuing terrified cats from under the bed, etc. Yes, folks, our annual local air show is on, and I can hardly hear myself think...)

What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?

Another difficult one, because I'd probably give you a different answer every day of the year! The one that's most on my mind at the moment, because I was writing an essay about it just a week or two ago, is Michael Radford's 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), based on the 1935 James M. Cain novel, is another champ.

Today, though, I think Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), based on Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel, has to be my all-time favorite. It's one of those movies I can watch again and again without ever tiring of it, and the fact that nothing is really explained at the end only adds to the fascination and intrigue of it all. A private girls' school in Australia in 1900 organizes an outing to a local landmark, Hanging Rock. Three of the girls go exploring up to the top of the rock, and they're never seen again. And that's really just about the whole of the main plot. But it's the atmosphere of the movie that's so incredible. Weir and his cinematographer, Russell Boyd, made everything, particularly the scenes on the rock, almost magical -- dark magic, though, so that the whole time you're on the edge of your seat waiting for something dreadful to appear from around a boulder.

Tomorrow it'll be a different choice, I'm sure.

If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be?

There are quite a few authors I've very much enjoyed having lunch with over the years! Restricting ourselves to authors who're no longer with us, I'd very much like to have lunch one last time with the late Diana Wynne Jones, who was a very dear friend of mine and my daughter. Because of moving to the States from the UK, I hadn't seen Diana in some years when the news came of her final illness and then her death. It was like a light had gone out for me, like something had happened to disrupt the natural order of the world. So I'd love to have lunch with Diana again -- one of those lunches that go on until the evening, full of laughter and banter and scurrilousness, with the waiting staff dropping heavy hints.

So far as authors I've never met go, I think I'd opt for Peter Dickinson, who died recently. I didn't like all the books of his that I read, but I never found one that wasn't deeply interesting, that didn't make me think.

You’ve just released a new book. Tell us about it and the inspiration behind it.

I've written a string of books about subjects like dead ends in science, the political (and other) corruption of science, science denial, pseudoscience and so on -- books like Denying Science and Corrupted Science -- and I was giving a lecture at a local library about one of them when a kid in the audience, aged maybe fourteen, said: "What kids like me need is a sort of guide to bullshit." The result was a book called The Young Person's Guide to Bullshit, only the distributors had a fit about that title so the book was published as Debunk It! instead.

When my editor at Zest, Dan Harmon, and I were discussing what could be fun to do as a follow-up, I told him that since I'd just written a book that was in effect for someone else -- that kid in the library -- it'd be fun to do a book for a different kid: the kid that was me when I was about fourteen. Looking nervously toward the exits, Dan asked me what I meant.

I told him that although I became completely engrossed in science history in later life, it wasn't really until I'd been about thirty that I'd come across the topic, through happening to pick up a copy of Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers (1959), about Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Galileo, etc. (Now there's an author I'd like to have lunch with -- Koestler!) As I said to Dan, I really wished that when I'd been in my teens, I'd come across a book that described the history of science through the stories of the scientists themselves -- not just their work and why that work was important, but also about them as people. Not just their triumphs but also their foibles, so to speak.

So Dan issued me a contract, and down to work I settled. I found the book surprisingly difficult to write -- a real challenge getting my head around so many different topics -- but at the same time, tremendous fun. I'm not sure where the title Eureka! came from. When it was finished and we'd gone through all the editing processes and at last I was checking my final proofs, I found myself thinking, "You know, this really is that book I'd have liked to have found when I was fourteen or fifteen."

It's had some really good reviews so far -- with some of the reviewers saying it works every bit as well for older as well as young adult readers -- so I'm hoping there'll be readers who, because of Eureka!, discover the fascination of science history in their teens rather than, as I did, failing to do so until many years later.


Thanks for joining LitPick to share more about the inspiration behind your writing.

New release!: Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History (YA nonfiction from Zest)
Out now:
Tell No Lies (new story collection from Alchemy Press) (UK readers go here)
Out now:
Debunk It! (YA nonfiction from Zest)
Out now:
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir
And don't forget to follow the encyclopedia's annex, Noirish




Prolific writer John Grant joins LitPick for Six Minutes with an Author! John is the author of over 70 books, about twenty-five of which are fiction. This award-winning writer was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in New Jersey.

How did you get started writing?

I must have been about 7 or 8 when I started my first novel, which was called The Ghost of Horror Mansion. From what fragments remain in my memory, it was every bit as dire as the title suggests. I got about fifteen pages into it, the writing getting larger and larger and the chapters -- yes, it had chapters! -- getting shorter and shorter. Then I, er, experienced writer's block.

I wrote half of another novel -- a comedy of more orthodox length -- while I was at school, and the whole of a full-length novel while at university and immediately after. I finished the latter simply so I could tell myself I'd finished a novel; I knew by that stage it was pretty dreadful.

Thereafter, although I wrote a few universally rejected short stories, I put aside my aspirations to be A Writer for quite a long time, concentrating instead on making a career for myself in publishing, as a books editor. Then, many years later, I found myself suddenly out of work and broke, with a wife and small child to support. The obvious course was to become a freelance editor, but by happenstance I started being able to make something of a living as a writer as well. So for the next couple of decades I did both.

Who influenced you?

The first book I did in my new, freelance capacity was a collaboration with the late Colin Wilson called A Directory of Possibilities -- Colin wrote about half of it, I wrote about a quarter, and we commissioned the rest from others. I was overall editor, and it was in this latter capacity that I couldn't help but notice how much more readable and fluent Colin's bits were than my own. I realized that the big difference was that I was trying to be A Writer in all directions while Colin was, in effect, speaking the words onto the page: you could "hear his voice." So I started trying to do the same and found it worked for me, too. And seventy or so books later I'm still doing it!

I've also worked extensively with the science-fiction critic John Clute on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and on a couple of slapstick novels with David Langford. Both of them have definitely influenced me.

Further influences have been pretty diverse. I've been a fan since I first read it, many years ago, of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and that (and his other books) definitely got me interested in the history of science and in the debunkery of false and pseudoscience. That fascination has resulted in a number of books from me, most recently of course Debunk It. In terms of my fiction, there are obvious influences in some of my books: the novel The Far-Enough Window is in effect an homage to the Victorian fairytale writer George MacDonald, while the novella The City in These Pages (not, ahem, recommended for younger readers) is an homage to Ed McBain.

There are other authors who I think have influenced me more generally: Christopher Priest, Margery Allingham, Sheri S. Tepper . . . My strong interests in animation and film noir have played their part as well. To be honest, I'm not sure how evident some of these influences might be to readers, but I can certainly feel them while I'm writing.

Do you have a favorite book?

All of my books are favorites while I'm writing them -- well, almost all. After I've finished them and the white heat of enthusiasm has cooled a little, then, yes, there are definitely some that I like a whole lot better than others. (That said, no matter how much I like a book, during the period between my sending it to the publisher and publication date, I usually manage to convince myself that it's dreadful and everyone'll hate it!)

So far as nonfiction's concerned, my current favorites are probably Discarded Science, the massive Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir (longer than the Old Testament, folks!) and of course Debunk It. In fiction I'd opt for The Far-Enough Window, The Dragons of Manhattan and The World, all novels, and a novella called The Lonely Hunter.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?

The best answer I've ever come across to the related question --"How do I become a writer?" -- was that offered by Nora Roberts. From memory, it was: "Apply ass to seat. Write." While it might seem just a cute retort, I actually think it's very good advice.

I remember attending a talk years ago by Alec Waugh (Evelyn's brother) and he gave a response similar to Roberts's, albeit a bit less snappy. He told the audience that the best way to become a writer was to get a stack of paper and a typewriter (you can tell how long ago this was!) and to start filling the blank pages with typing. After a while, he said, out of sheer boredom you'll start trying to type something that's interesting, and after maybe a longer while you'll likely start to realize that you've become quite good at this writing thing.

What both those writers were really saying is that it's no use just wistfully loitering around and yearning to become a writer: you've got to actually do it. Even if you never become a professionally published writer -- an author -- you've still achieved a long mile more than the people who never even got started.

As for becoming an author? Well, the first and most important thing to do is to recognize that very few authors can actually make a full-time income out of their writing. Plan to earn your living in some other way.

The second -- and far more difficult -- thing to do is to harden yourself to rejection. However much you may love the little darlings you send off to editors, chances are a lot of them are going to come thundering straight back to you. Moreover, while often the reasons for the rejection will be rational ("We're a knitting magazine. We don't publish science fiction."), sometimes they'll be idiotic. You're not the best person to judge which is which, because you know your story's a masterpiece. You have to learn to shrug your shoulders, think something like Well, it's their loss, and send the story off to a different editor.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I always write in my study, sitting at my desk. I've tried taking a laptop with me when we've gone on a vacation or a business trip, but it's always been a complete waste of time: either I never get round to doing any writing or I do and it's garbage.

Incidentally, I'm perhaps the last dinosaur still to be working in WordPerfect 5.1, an old DOS word processor that I find amazingly quick and versatile. Of course, this means that, whenever I finish something. I have to convert it into RTF or Word before sending it to the publisher, but I still reckon I save myself a lot of time, especially on longer projects, like books. I think I would still be working on A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir had I been stuck with using MS Word.

Natch, Microsoft is making it more and more difficult to carry on using WordPerfect 5.1.

What else would you like to tell us?

Well, obviously that all of my books are best bought at full price, direct from their publishers, and in multiples -- you never know when you might want to give those extra copies to friends and relatives!

John, thank you for spending six minutes with LitPick. You’ve provided a lot of good advice including to purchase multiple copies of your books so you always have one on hand!


The publishers of my last few books have been:

A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir:

Limelight Editions,

Tell No Lies:

Alchemy Press,

Debunk It!:

Zest Books,


John Grant