Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Antony Johnston

Photo by Chad Michael Ward
Antony Johnston is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling graphic novelist, author, and games writer. He has written more than thirty graphic novels, comic series, and books, and his graphic spy thriller The Coldest City was made into the multi-million-dollar blockbuster Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. He lives in England.

Johnston's new novel is The Exphoria Code.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I spend a lot of time on titles, because they set expectations for new and returning readers alike. The word ‘Exphoria’ had come to me in a flash long before I even conceived the story, just sitting in my notebook for months.

In the book, terrorists attempt to steal the design for a top-secret military drone project, while our hero Brigitte — a hacker working for MI6 — tries to uncover the mole. When it came time to give that military project a name, I remembered that word ‘Exphoria’ and it slotted into place perfectly, like the universe was giving me a nudge.

From there the full title The Exphoria Code grew logically, as it has so many implications. First and foremost, taken as a whole it implies a thriller; without knowing anything about the book, the rhythm and cadence of the full title puts one in the right frame of mind.

Then there are the words. Exphoria is invented, and strikingly unusual, but close enough to a real word that it feels somehow genuine. The classic ‘x’ substitution hints at technology. And making this unusual word a Code invites questions as to what sort of code it could possibly be. Computer code? Coded messages? A code of honour? While one of those is strictly the correct answer, all three elements define the character of the book.

I also knew The Exphoria Code would be the first in a series, which in today’s world must be taken into consideration. As a title format I figured it was flexible enough to use again in future books, without restricting the contents — and I was proven right with the second book, called The Tempus Project.

What's in a name?

Like titles, I spend a lot of time on names. There are practical considerations; I try to avoid multiple characters with the same initial so readers aren’t confused, and I keep them simple to aid memory. But a name also has to feel right for the character.

I’d already written a quarter of the book before Brigitte Sharp received her final name; up until then she’d had several different names, including ‘Gabrielle’ and ‘Sophie’ (which I eventually gave to her mother instead). As she’s Anglo-French, I wanted a name that was unmistakeably French but wouldn’t cause English readers to stumble.

When I noticed Brigitte shortens easily to ‘Bridge’, I knew I had it. The character herself is a bridge; between traditional spycraft and cyber-espionage, between France and England, and between her own traumatic past and a future she must face. Again, it felt like fate.

‘Sharp’ is simple and stark, easy to say and remember, and very English. So the two sides of her heritage are both present, right there in her name. ‘Sharp’ is also in the grand tradition of thriller protagonists named for nouns or verbs, and matches her personality!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I’d guess fifty-fifty. On the one hand, as a teenager I thought I’d be a pure sci-fi writer; probably three-quarters of my reading back then was SFF, and it’s still around half.

But I’ve also loved spy fiction and mysteries since I was a child. So perhaps combining all of these things into a high-tech spy thriller, with a mystery at its core, isn’t so surprising.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find endings much harder. I can write beginnings all day long without breaking a sweat. I’m never more excited about a story than when I start, full of anticipation about the characters and the journey they’re about to go on.

With The Exphoria Code that feeling was heightened; it was the first time I was writing these characters, so I was getting to know them better with every page I wrote.

But sooner or later one has to write the ending, as well, and by contrast they fill me with a kind of dread. I try to mitigate that feeling by outlining thoroughly before I begin writing.

I hate wasting a reader’s time, so I want to make sure the ending is satisfying and exhilarating (hard enough in itself) while also wrapping things up so nobody’s bored by endless epilogues. I take my cue from film and screenplays; once the climax is over, get to ‘The End’ as quickly as you can.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There are minor aspects of me in all my characters, which is only natural. An author’s role is to be sympathetic to all facets of humanity, good and bad. How else can you possibly write a good character, whether hero or villain? But all my characters also draw on other people, or personality types, as well as pure imagination.

Bridge’s taste in music and books is very close to my own, for example. But the rest of her personality and character is nothing like mine.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a magpie. Fantasy role-playing games, music (both listening to it and composing it), film and television, video games, science and technology journalism, even stand-up comedy… I draw inspiration from everywhere.

Wasteland was inspired by goth and heavy metal music. The Fuse drew on TV shows and popular science. The Long Haul came from a combined love of heist movies and westerns.

The Exphoria Code itself is heavily inspired by spy fiction, of course, but also by my love of computers and technology. You could even say it draws on James Bond movies – I love those films, but I tried very hard to make this book not feel like a 007 caper…
Visit Antony Johnston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue