Welcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!
Today we’re joined by author Justin Somper, the author of the Vampirates and Allies & Assassins children’s novel series. The first book in the series is out on May 27th from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and has been styled as “Game of Thrones for teens.”
Join us to discover how crime fiction, margaritas, and children’s fiction can shape a Game of Thrones-esque world!
If you could choose your own personal theme music/song to play every time you enter a room, what would you pick?
Either “Come Blow Your Horn,” a lesser-known Frank Sinatra song that is a good statement of intent and always puts me in a great mood. Or something vaguely unsettling by Lana Del Rey, like “Gods and Monsters.”
Do you have a favorite underrated/unknown/under-read author?
I’m not sure if Tim Winton qualifies for this as he is one of Australia’s most successful writers, but there are still too many people who DON’T know what a genius he is so I’m choosing him on that basis. About twenty years ago, I randomly stumbled across his masterful book Cloudstreet in a bookshop and it has haunted me ever since. When I’m asked my favourite book, it’s either The Great Gatsby or Cloudstreet. It’s the tale of two Western Australian families fleeing from catastrophe to make a new home in a shared house in Perth. It follows the entwined lives of the Lambs and the Pickles over the next twenty years. There’s a visceral quality to Winton’s writing here and in his other novels and stories. Coincidentally, my partner hails from Western Australia and Winton’s writing has the ability to instantly conjure the places and people there. He’s also one of the only authors I have written a fan letter to and he sent me a postcard in return, which I keep it as a treasured bookmark in my copy of the book.
Do you have a favorite word/phrase/etymology?
A current favourite word is “susurrus” which was, in effect, a gift to me from another author, Dianne Hofmeyr. I met Dianne when we were both giving talks at a trainee teachers’ conference. She used the word “susurrus” in a reading from her book and I asked her about it because I’d never heard it before. She explained that it meant rustling or whispering, like the sound of leaves shaken by autumn winds. I used it in the first Allies & Assassins book to describe the sound of low skirts swishing on the flagstones of the palace. I think I’ve succeeded in sneaking it into Book 2 too. So thanks, Dianne!
If you had to choose one band or artist to provide the official soundtrack to your (new/last/latest) book, who would it be?
Possibly Lana Del Rey, for the reasons above! But perhaps even more so, the sublime Camille O’Sullivan. In another happy “random stumbling” moment, I personally discovered Camille at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago and found her voice and performance style completely captivating. Her version of “Whatever Lola Wants” helped inspire one of my favourite characters in my earlier book sequence Vampirates. And if there’s one song I’d recommend listening to before you read Allies & Assassins, it’s Camille’s dazzling rendition of “The Ship Song” by Nick Cave. For me, this song calls to mind the secret romance in the book between Prince Anders and… oops, nearly plot spoiled there. I love the lines, “Come sail your ships around me and burn your bridges down/We make a little history, baby, every time you come around.” Who doesn’t want to have a relationship like that?
Would you rather discover the fountain of youth or proof of life on Mars?
Definitely the fountain of youth. Both to apply directly to myself but also because I’d make a fortune and could then devote more of my time to writing, traveling, cycling, reading and daydreaming. Sorry, selfish and shallow on many levels, I know.
Choose your preferred fictional vacation spot: Narnia or Middle-earth (or some other fictional realm)…
I’ll take Narnia over Middle-earth. Firstly, like everyone else who as a child actually tried to climb through my wardrobe, it’s such a magical notion of how easy it might be to enter another world. Secondly, it’s the snow. I’m a sucker for thickly falling snow—though probably more in fiction and film than reality. There’s a fair amount of snowfall in the closing scenes of Allies & Assassins 2: A Conspiracy of Princes. I’m not sure if that’s an homage as such to Narnia but it’s a small point of connection, which pleases me.
What’s the most embarrassing guilty pleasure you’ll admit to? (music, movies, pop culture, food, drink, etc…all fair game!)
I have no problem admitting to any number of guilty pleasures. Apart from anything else, I think they nurture the kid inside us (see answer 5 above). Music = David Soul, Food = Nando’s, Drink = Frozen margaritas. Put those together and you have the beginnings of a perfect date night with me.
Heroes vs. Villains—which are more fun to write?
Of course, the kneejerk answer is villains because they get to say, do—and most probably wear—things that I wouldn’t dare to. And there is no shortage of villains in Allies & Assassins. That was one of the ideas behind the sequence—how many convincingly villainous characters could I work into one story? Hence the “Trust No One” tagline. But I have to confess that sometimes it’s really nice hanging out with the nicer, more heroic characters. There’s one chapter in Allies & Assassins 2 where I was so inside the head of a villainous character, that I felt her heaviness on me for days after I’d finished writing that scene.
What’s your favorite fairy tale, or fairy tale retelling?
It would definitely be an original rather than a retelling. I savour the brutality of the originals—for instance, in Cinderella where the stepsisters actually slice flesh off their feet to try to get their feet into their slippers. I have a battered, old copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales and his version of “The Little Mermaid” is similarly brutal. “It will seem to you as though you were walking on the sharp edges of swords, and your blood will flow. Can you endure all this suffering?” Brilliant!
Which language, real or fictional, would you like the ability to speak fluently? Who would you talk to?
One of the Scandinavian languages. I’m thoroughly obsessed by Scandinavia. It was an inevitable consequence of all that Scandi crime fiction and TV dramas—The Killing, The Bridge, and my personal favourite Borgen. These have definitely influenced the landscape—geographical and emotional—of Allies & Assassins. And I’ve also had very enjoyable visits to Norway and Sweden in recent years. I think it might have to be Norwegian as I have family there and it would be great to converse in their native language, but Swedish would be handy if I ever fulfilled a lifetime’s dream and met one or more members of ABBA. Then again, I’m possibly more obsessed with Denmark above all Scandinavian territories and I think Danish actually sounds the most foreign—which is another key part of the appeal here. How nice to say, “oh yeah, I’m actually pretty fluent in Danish.”