Some Thoughts with... J.L. Worrad

11 Jun 2023

The Author/s

J.L. Worrad

J.L. Worrad

James Luke Worrad lives in Leicester, England, and has for almost all his life. He has a degree in classical studies from Lampeter University, Wales. He has found this invaluable to his growth as a science fiction and fantasy writer in that he soon discovered how varied and peculiar human cultures can be. In 2011 James attended Clarion, an SF workshop held at the University of California, San Diego. He's had short stories published by Daily Science Fiction, Flurb, Newcon Press and Obverse Books. He also writes screen plays for short films, one of which- Flawless- won the Seven/Five Film Festival Award and was selected for both the Cannes and NYC Independent film festivals. (It was also screened at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider). He runs the Fantasy & Science Fiction Salon group on Facebook. He also works a nightshift at a small hotel, an occupation that never leaves him short of material.

The Interview

1.- How did you start writing?
I tried to avoid it for years. I wrote stories as a kid but I never liked the idea of so much isolation. So I pursued hobbies like being in bands and such, anything that entailed being creative as part of a group, but I knew writing would get me one day. I quite like isolation now.

2.- If I’m not wrong, both of your fantasy works, Pennyblade and The Keep Within are set in the same world. Could you tell us more about the inspiration behind its creation?
Yes, they are, though they’re separated by about four hundred years. As for the world’s creation, I did it for an RPG campaign and not a book. I’m told that’s quite common. My notes for the campaign got out of hand and I soon realized I was planning a fantasy novel. At the time I considered myself a science fiction author. Now I’m an accidental fantasy novelist. 

3.- There’s a detail of the world that I would like to spotlight, as it is a queernormative one. Was it from its inception?
No, not really. I set out to write a fantasy satire about class but I never set out with the answers (otherwise I would write an essay). I just start off with an instinct, a mood, and writing the novel is about discovering what I actually think. The queer element seemed to grow out of the class thing. 
My protagonist, Harry Larksdale, is a bastard brother of the king yet he runs a theater down in the streets of the city so he exists in two worlds. He’s a liminal character slipping between both. It made an emotional sense to me that he should be bisexual, and that there are no barriers to his affection. There’s always been this connection to me, between social class and sexuality, that I can’t quite articulate in words. I guess it’s because I’ve always existed in a borderland within the English class system, the infamous borderland between England’s lower middle class and its upper working class, often switching between the two, and my sexuality tends to see-saw as well. I exist between several worlds!

4.- Why did you choose to write in the grimdark subgenre?
Freedom. I think that’s the kick for all grimdark’s practitioners. It’s wrong to think we’re in it for the gore and brutality alone. We’re in it because light burns more brightly against a dark background. Grimdark allows us to show the full range of the human condition, good, bad, and a whole lot in-between. 

5.- Let’s talk more about The Keep Within. How it was different to write it from writing Pennyblade? Did the process change much?
Pennyblade was all one person’s narrative, all her viewpoint, so it’s very much like an acting performance and exploring that. The Keep Within’s writing was much more like a game of chess, chess with at least four players and probably more. It’s a courtly intrigue with all the characters trying to outdo and outthink one another, of them trying to guess each’s others next move. Now that’s an absolute headache to write but, my, what a fun headache all the same! 

6.- The figure of Red Marie certainly intrigues me. Is there any historical/mythological source you used for inspiration? 
Yes! In my home city, there’s a folk tale witch called Black Annis who has iron claws and blue skin. If a child is naughty she might steal them away and hang their skin on an ancient tree. No one is even too sure how old the Black Annis myth is. Living in Annis’ shadow all my life, so to speak, it was inevitable I’d end up borrowing her and retooling her for some tale or other. 

7.- Could you recommend some books to people who enjoyed The Keep Within?
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that classic of the genre was a massive influence. It’s about common swordsmen who duel for aristocratic paymasters so the theme of class divide is front and center like it is with TKW. It’s also even more gay. Every fantasy fan should read it. 

8.- Outside of writing, I see you have an interesting career in filmography. Could you tell us more about it?
One of my oldest friends, Keith Allott, is a filmmaker and he asked if I would help him write short films. One sci-fi short, Flawless, won a couple of awards and I even got to visit the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland for a cinema festival there. Writing for film is a rewarding experience. It’s far more collaborative than novels, you feel part of a family working to bring a child into the world. But it’s very time-intensive, with lots of meetings and rewrites. In the last few years, I haven’t had a chance to do it, what with my novels, but I’d like to go back one day.

9.- What can we expect from J.L. Worrad in the future?
If possible, more from the Pennyblade characters or just the world of PB and The Keep Within generally. I’d like to know what its Victorian and 20th-century era-equivalents are like. In the meantime, I’ve started a novel set in a different world, a lush tropical place with rivers far wider than anything on earth and where the dreams of sleeping gods pour out across the land and threaten humanity. There might be spinosaurus too. Still undecided about that part.