Jane Johnson is from Cornwall and has worked in the book industry for over 30 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer. She was responsible for publishing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien during the 1980s and 1990s and worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, spending many months in New Zealand with cast and crew.
In 2005 she was researching in Morocco for The Tenth Gift, the bestselling novel that went on to sell in 26 countries, when a near-fatal climbing incident caused her to rethink her future. She returned home, gave up her office job in London, sold her flat, shipped the contents to Morocco and six months later married a Berber chef, Abdellatif. The couple live in Cornwall and winter in a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, where Abdel runs a restaurant. Jane still works, remotely, as a publishing director for HarperCollins, where she is responsible for publishing George RR Martin, Robin Hobb, Dean Koontz, Jonathan Freedland, Michael Marshall Smith, Mark Lawrence, and SK Tremayne. Her own novels include The Tenth Gift, The Salt Road, The Sultan’s Wife, Pillars of Light and Court of Lions (July 2017). In 2012, Jane was made an honorary cultural ambassador between Morocco and the UK by HRH Princess Lalla Joumala of Morocco (currently Morocco’s ambassador to the US).
During the first Cornish Reading Challenge in 2015, you told us about your family ties to West Penwith. Would you like to tell us more about your family history?
I researched our family history back in 2004 when I was working on the book that would become THE TENTH GIFT. I knew our Cornish family had deep roots here, and so it turned out, with parish records taking us back into the early seventeenth century. There were a couple of different branches – Kittos and Martins – but I wanted to trace the Tregenna family, since that’s a name that has all but died out in Cornwall, though there are Tregunnas and Tregenzas to be found, and we all know how fluid spelling could be in bygone times. I already knew that the Tregenna family originated in the Penwith and Roseland areas; but on my second genealogical foray last year I turned up another arm of the Tregenna family in the area outside Looe, in southeast Cornwall, where I grew up: around Duloe and Pelynt. The earliest of these ancestors turned out to be the rather gorgeously named Valentin Tregenna, born in 1608 – so a contemporary cousin of Catherine Tregenna, the heroine of THE TENTH GIFT, whose parish records logged her birth in 1606 (and no marriage or death records anywhere: hence the surmise that she was one of those taken out of the Mount’s Bay church by the Barbary raiders). I also turned up the fascinating fact that my father (who wasn’t Cornish at all!) owned and ran the bookshop in Falmouth just after the war: and my first event for THE TENTH GIFT just so happened to be at the Falmouth Bookseller. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.
Which book(s) would you recommend?
I read so much for work (I’m a publishing director at HarperCollins, responsible for several authors there) that reading time for pure pleasure is very limited (mainly to the 10 minutes before I go to sleep!). This year I have been immersed in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, a truly phenomenal tour de force of characterization: you grow with the two central characters from early childhood till they are elderly women, through broken hearts, broken marriages, broken bodies, through childbirth and tragedy, careers and political upheaval. While you’re reading these books, you live in them, and the people in them feel like your own family. You find yourself wondering about them during the day; I’ve dreamed of Naples at night. So I’d heartily recommend these books: Naples, like Cornwall, is a poor area of the country where people do whatever they can to get by: I found I could draw lots of small parallels.
Beyond that, can I recommend to anyone who hasn’t read her the magnificent Robin Hobb? Again, characters are the key to her success: this is not fantasy of the sword and sorcery tradition but deeply rooted in the human experience and condition: you laugh and cry with her central characters – both abandoned/cast-off children trying to survive in a cut-throat world. As with the Ferrantes you watch the pair grow from childhood to late middle-age, their loves and losses, bonds and betrayals, disguises and deceptions. The series started with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE and I’ve edited every single word of the 17 books that make up the series, which completes itself with ASSASSIN’S FATE, publishing this May. She’s in the UK for publication – I can’t wait to see her! – like her characters we too have grown older together in the very nearly 30 years we’ve worked together.
What are you currently working on? Anything interesting going on?
I’m in the interesting phase of thinking about two possible book projects, both set in Cornwall: one in Elizabethan times, one rather more recent. It’s been a busy year: I have two novels out in the UK this year after a bit of a dearth (slow researching and writing!). COURT OF LIONS is published in hardback in July. Here’s the description from the publishers:
Kate Fordham, escaping terrible trauma in her life, has fled to the beautiful sunlit city of Granada, ancient capital of the Moors in Spain, where she is scraping a living in a busy bar.
Sometimes at the lowest points in your life, fate will slip you a magical gift. One day in the glorious gardens of the Alhambra, once home to Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Boabdil, Kate finds a scrap of paper hidden in one of the ancient walls. Upon it, in strange symbols, has been inscribed a message, or a poem, from another age. It has lain undiscovered since before the Fall of Granada in 1492, when the city was surrendered to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Born of love, in a time of danger and desperation, the fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate’s life forever.
Worlds collide as two unusual love stories arc towards one another from the fifteenth and twenty-first centuries. COURT OF LIONS brings one of the great hinge-points in human history to vivid life, telling the story of the last Moorish sultan of Granada as he moves towards his cataclysmic destiny.
I’ll be doing a number of events in Cornwall and the rest of the country to promote it, including a launch in Central London and an evening at Waterstones Truro with some Moroccan food, clothes and jewellery, and a talk and reading.
And in the autumn, the University of Central Lancashire are publishing my Siege of Acre novel, PILLARS OF LIGHT, with a beautiful cover by Sancreed artist Noel Betowski: there will be a launch in Penzance.
What’s the best thing about living in Cornwall?
Cornwall is home for me. I lived here till I was 18 (in Fowey, then Looe) and went from school in Liskeard up to university in London, followed by 20 years working in the book industry in the capital, before my Moroccan adventure. Cornwall is where we all come back to, because it nourishes the soul. I can live an outdoor life here – walking the coast path, walking to shops in Newlyn and Penzance, writing outside in all sorts of beautiful hidden places (the subject of my blog) in a way I can’t anywhere else in the world. It’s also the place I feel drawn back to wherever I am in the world and it’s where I find my spiritual ease, as well as practising tai chi and kung fu at local classes, the discipline of which I love. It’s always good for the soul to be told you’re doing it all wrong and be taught with great care and attention how to do it right!
What are you reading right now?
I’m coming up on the very end of the final Ferrante and I can’t bear for it to end. I have a pile of about 15 books beside the bed into which to dive next. Which one I choose – thriller or historical, literary memoir or travel book – will depend on what mood Ferrante leaves me in. I hope it’s not too dark and desperate…