Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A.J. Hartley

A.J. Hartley is the bestselling author of mystery/thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, and young adult novels.

He was born in northern England, but has lived in many places including Japan, and is currently the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he specializes in the performance history, theory and criticism of Renaissance English drama, and works as a director and dramaturg.

Hartley's new novel is Steeplejack.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m currently reading the first book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven cycle, a book that was recommended to me by several friends and which instantly captivated me. It’s a contemporary paranormal YA centering on Blue Sargent whose family are all clairvoyant. Blue’s (somewhat disappointing) talent is that she amplifies the talents of her relatives while not actually being clairvoyant herself. During a seasonal festival in which those about to die manifest spectrally in the local graveyard, Blue is surprised and alarmed to find that not only can she can see and hear one of them—a boy close to her own age—she leaves certain that she is somehow to be responsible for the boy’s death.

It’s a compelling premise for an intriguing and atmospheric novel, but it’s the sentence level writing that really appeals to me. I like my fiction to contain a thread of poetry and Stiefvater’s prose is rich and evocative, without being precious or purple, often presenting unexpected observations and images that make you see or feel the moment more vividly. She has a light touch, so you don’t feel that the author is being intrusive or show offy. Story and character are aided by the writing, not upstaged by it. That’s not easy to pull off and it makes for a sensitively told and evocative story.

I’m a fan of audiobooks, partly because they allow me to “read” while doing other things, but also because I can share the experience with my family. In the hands of a good narrator, a book gets a nicely performative tweak, bringing out things the author has woven into the story, so that I find myself sometimes even more caught up in the book than I would be if I was merely reading it. I don’t tend to reread novels much, but the audio medium lends itself to repeat listening. I’m particularly a fan of Terry Pratchett’s extensive range of Discworld novels as read by Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, and I’ll often return to them while I’m doing busy work. I just finished listening to Lords and Ladies, one of the great series centering on Nannie Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and the other unconventional witches of their community. The books are wise and funny, a glorious hybrid of fantasy and social satire, and they are a study in how good writing can bend genre. Among my favorites are the Sam Vimes novels (particularly Night Watch, The Fifth Elephant, Thud and Snuff) which add mystery/thriller to the comic fantasy mix, and I find that as I return to them (as when I teach a Shakespeare play I have been reading for decades) I discover new themes, ideas, running jokes. Pratchett died last year and I still find myself suddenly struck with sadness that he will produce no more of these terrific novels.

And speaking of Shakespeare, I’m rereading Hamlet, not the usual text (based on the second quarto and Folio of 1623) but the first quarto of 1603, which is quite a different beast: short, action driven, messy and vibrant. I was involved in a production of the play last fall and am currently writing an article on the experience, trying to tap into what makes an apparently inferior text so compelling on stage. I think part of what makes it so exciting is that it is and is not the play people think they know; it contains, for instance, none of the play’s most resonant lines in the ways we are used to them, and even the most famous bit comes out unexpectedly: ‘To be or not to be? Aye that’s the point.’ The result is that the audience is always on its toes as the familiar becomes unfamiliar, pulling us in, making new and urgent what would otherwise be stale and predictable.

Lastly, I’m reading The Rough Guide to Japan, because I’m writing this as I ride the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, and because though I lived here a long time ago, I’m now a tourist, trying to make sense of what I see around me.
Visit A. J. Hartley's website.

The Page 69 Test: Steeplejack.

--Marshal Zeringue