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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed author Jon Richter about his love of dark fiction, what inspires him to write, and the creative process that went into his new book; The Warden.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

My name is Jon Richter, and I’m a dark fiction writer.  I have seven books published: five traditionally-published thrillers spanning the crime, cyberpunk and techno-thriller genres, as well as two self-published short horror collections, so I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a genre-hopper!  I also co-host the Dark Natter podcast where I and pal Liam discuss our favourite dark fiction works.

When did you first WANT to write a book?

Jon Richter, author of The Warden, interview on The Table Read
Jon Richter

It’s one of my earliest memories!  I was a precocious reader as a child, and as soon as I learned about the incredible worlds and stories lurking within the pages of school library books, I immediately wanted to create my own!  I received very good feedback about my writing throughout my school days, so that probably reinforced it too; but the road to becoming an author ended up being a much longer one than I’d imagined…

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When did you take a step to start writing?

I was a bit daft in my teenage years, and also did a bit of acting, so after finishing my GCSEs and landing a few episodes in a TV soap I think I thought I was some sort of big shot… until I quit college and bummed around until all the acting money had dried up, and quickly realised I’d better get a job! 

Then I blinked, and I was thirty years old, a qualified accountant, and had been working in finance for over a decade.  So when I quit a job in 2013 to take a mini-break, I decided to force myself to take up writing once again.  I was worried I’d have completely lost the knack, but I was pleasantly surprised by my first few short stories, and decided to try a longer one…

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

My first book (Deadly Burial, published by HarperCollins) was actually written in about three months.  It’s very short at under 60,000 words, but that’s still pretty quick going – I just remember being really energised by the unique premise (a murder mystery featuring a dead professional wrestler set on a mysterious island overrun by wild rabbits!) and working on it pretty much every day.  I didn’t actually take the plunge and submit to a publisher for a long time after finishing it, and was delighted when it was accepted. 

As I learned, the publishing process takes around an extra year to get copy edits, proofreading, cover design and arguing over the title out of the way (I lost that argument sadly – I still think Whatever Happened To Vic Valiant? is a better name!) so the book only ended up being released in 2017.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

My most recent novel, The Warden, released earlier in 2021, took about 12 months from idea to release.  Bloodhound Books move quickly and have a very slick editing process, so once they accepted the book (a relief, as it’s a little outside their usual crime thriller genre, being a near-future techno-thriller set entirely inside a smart apartment building where an agoraphobic detective must work with the building’s advanced AI to solve a murder) in 2020 the process began immediately.  I’m really grateful to the Bloodhound team for all of their help and input – however comfortable a writer is with their craft, there are always great recommendations and insights that others can bring.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Warden?

The novel was my response to the COVID pandemic, which at the time of writing was just taking hold.  The book is set in a near-future where a permanent state of lockdown is in place with the virus constantly mutating, defying any attempts to create a vaccine or other solution.  I imagined a world where everyone became completely used to living indoors, relying on state-of-the-art AIs and delivery robots to attend to their needs, communicating with each other only through built-in television screens and social media networks.

Jon Richter, author of The Warden, interview on The Table Read

To be honest, I naively imagine that the pandemic would be ‘done and dusted’ before the end of 2020, and we’d all be looking back by now at the bizarre year we all lived through… instead the virus is still a huge factor in everyday life, particularly in many countries outside the UK, so the timing of my book’s release may have been a little close for comfort. 

But I think I’ve tackled the subject sensitively and with enough of a speculative fiction element – this is really a book about AI and isolation, not COVID – that it hopefully won’t offend people, and the reviews have been almost entirely positive.

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What were your biggest challenges with writing The Warden?

In The Warden I wanted to mash two separate ideas together.  One was a sort of locked-room murder mystery involving the denizens of an inescapable apartment building, the other a story about ruthless corporate oneupmanship and backstabbing (probably inspired by my days working for big companies at a fairly senior level), detailing the inception of my favourite character in the book, James, the AI that runs ‘the Tower’ and ensures its residents are kept safe and comfortable. 

I found flipping between the two plot threads challenging, but I didn’t want to write one story in its entirety and then the other because I wanted to ensure the book had a compelling flow and pace.  It was quite frustrating at times to be on the verge of a crucial scene involving, say, Eugene (the main protagonist and retired detective investigating the crime) only to have to switch perspectives to Felicity (the scheming executive responsible for James’s development), to then become fully focused on that story, only to have to switch back again!  But I think this approach helped both components stay fresh and exciting, and hopefully this comes through in the finished novel.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

My previous two novels had featured damaged and flawed protagonists, particularly Auxiliary’s alcoholic misogynist Carl Dremmler, so I felt ready to write about a nice person again.  However, I still felt it was important for Eugene to have some demons of his own, some personal fears and trauma to overcome, and agoraphobia brought about by an incident in his past seemed to fit the story perfectly.  His situation also reflected my own feelings at the time, which was that I was perversely quite enjoying the lockdown and the lack of pressure to go outside and be busy and sociable, and finding the prospect of returning to normality quite stressful… although I suspect I’m not alone in this!

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who is the antagonist of The Warden: it could be Felicity, the callous and self-centred businesswoman whose only goal in developing a revolutionary AI is to further her career, or it could be James, the AI itself, who forms his own opinion on his role in humanity’s ongoing battle against the virus.

I am proud of both characters, and believe I have made them compelling and three-dimensional, particularly James; in writing about an AI that appears to be sentient, I wanted to avoid the obvious traps of making him either too evil (I’m a sinister computer and I want to kill all humans for no apparent reason) or too human (I behave exactly like a human would, rather than a machine whose intelligence works in a completely different way), and I believe I have succeeded to some extent.

I am fascinated by the development of AI, and do not believe that the cartoonish perception of it as an inherently bad thing are helpful or accurate (I roll my eyes at the half-joking cries of ‘the Terminators are coming to kill us all’ every time Boston Dynamics release a new YouTube video…) but I also believe that caution and restraint is important as we teeter on the precipice of creating a new type of intelligence, one that we can’t necessarily understand or predict, one that will outstrip us with astonishing speed.  Our machines will either pave our way to the stars, perhaps even to eternal life – or they will destroy humanity before we’ve even figured out why it happened.

Jon Richter, author of The Warden, interview on The Table Read
Books by Jon Richter

What is the inciting incident of your book?

The first few chapters introduce London in 2024, where Eugene and the other residents of the Tower live a pampered life with James providing food, exercise, companionship and whatever else they require… except for a way outside.  We learn that some residents, including Eugene, have even gone as far as bricking up their doors and windows to ensure their safety.  But Eugene’s sanitised life is turned upside down when the building’s manager is brutally murdered, arriving in pieces in the delivery elevator… and James seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to involve the police.

Eugene, a retired detective, realises that he is duty-bound to investigate… but this involves leaving the comfort and confines of his apartment, something he hasn’t been strong enough to do for years.

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What is the main conflict of your book?

Alongside the murder mystery story, we learn about James’s creation by the Innovation Corporation, and realise that the AI may have its own agenda.  The uneasy relationship between the James and Eugene, and also with one of the other residents, who may have been driven to homicide by such a long period of isolation, fuels the novel’s fast pace and action set-pieces, as well as several heart-stopping reveals…

Did you plot your book in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

My style is a bit of a combination of the two: I like to know roughly what I’m going to write and usually have the ending and a few key scenes in mind, but then have a tendency to completely reinvent the story multiple times while writing it!  This can sometimes end up with me ‘writing myself into a corner’, particularly when you introduced a new character to serve a purpose but then need to find a way to ‘resolve’ their story… perhaps this is why so many writers are notorious for ruthlessly massacring their cast??

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did your book need?

The publishers of The Warden and my other novels provide editing input, which is always extremely welcome and hugely helpful, although not always a smooth ride when you disagree about changes to certain elements of the plot!  It usually pays to trust them though, as they are experts as well as readers and fans, and often their constructive feedback mirrors things you already knew, deep down…

In the case of my self-published short fiction collections I enlisted the help of a few ‘beta readers’ and my brother’s proofreading services, and am happy that the finished products are highly polished.  It was a LOT of fun having complete creative control of these projects, including the design of the covers, which I outsourced to a brilliant artist called Rosewolf Design – she did a terrific job to make sense of some pretty weird briefs!

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

It’s really trite, but it’s the best advice out there: just get writing!  Books can have lots of flaws, but the worst flaw of all is if they don’t exist… so there’s really no substitute for just parking yourself in front of your computer and getting the words down.  I used to procrastinate by planning, or finding household chores to do, or waiting for ‘the right mood’ because I was too tired after work or whatever… these excuses are all to some extent valid, but that’s not the point.  The point is that if you want to have written a book, you have to write a book – there is literally no other way!

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

Haha, you might regret asking – I’m bursting at the seams with ideas at the moment!  I’ve got a fantasy novel written but as yet unpublished, a third short story collection taking shape, and I’m currently working on a crime thriller where the narrative hops to a different character’s perspective in every single chapter, giving it a larger cast than I’ve ever worked with before!  I’m also tinkering with an idea that might become a future techno-thriller, about a digital simulation where everyone lives happily in a sort of homogenous, sanitised Minecraft reality… until the obligatory murder shakes things up!

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Jon Richter, author of The Warden, Dark Natter Podcast, interview on The Table Read

My books make me feel proud, and good about myself, every single day.  Whenever I’m feeling low there’s usually a positive review to cheer me up, or at the very least I can take a look at them on my bookshelf and think ‘wow – I made those!’  For me, writing a book is absolutely worth the effort, so even though it can be incredibly difficult, low paid, and probably not as successful as you hoped, I’d still recommend it to everybody!

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

Thank you so much for the chance to be featured on your site!  If anyone is interested in finding out more about my weird and (hopefully) wonderful books, you can search for Jon Richter on Amazon, or visit www.jon-richter.com

I’m also on Twitter @RichterWrites, Instagram @jonrichterwrites, and can also be found talking rubbish on Facebook too! 

As mentioned earlier I also co-host a fortnightly dark fiction podcast called Dark Natter, which you can find on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcast fix.  So there’s more than enough of me out there if anyone’s intrigued by the above ramblings!

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