Molly Holborn talks to Jodie Bond, author of the sensational new fantasy novel, The Vagabond King, about her inspirations, ambitions, and what it takes to create a new world.
Molly Holborn: Your debut novel is called The Vagabond King, why did you choose this title in particular?
The book follows the story of Threon Greenbrooke, a royal who is exiled from his kingdom when it is invaded by raiders. He is forced to bring himself up on the streets of a foreign land where the locals, who know of his plight, affectionately call him the Vagabond King. I wanted the title to reflect the main character and the transformation he undergoes from a vagrant to a leader fighting to restore justice.
When writing The Vagabond King what came first, the plot or the characters?
Setting and characters come first when I write. I knew I wanted to write about a place where the natural landscape had been decimated by human greed; this inspired the island of Thelonia, where those in power have torn the land apart in order to mine a mineral that can prolong life.
After that I sketched out a few characters: an exiled royal, a faithless witch, a rebel soldier, a woman cursed by a god… the story starts to craft itself when you flesh out more details for each character and work out where the conflicts lie. That’s when my post-it notes come in: I’ll cover the walls of my house with streams of plot that I can pick up and move around.
Of course, it rarely goes as planned. My characters seem to have a way of making their own mind up about how their destiny unfolds.
I had just turned 29 and had this sudden fear that I would hit 30 without ever doing the thing I had always promised myself I would: to be a writer. Of course, I might pen the odd story or poem, but I had never applied myself enough to finish a novel.
The week after my birthday I began plotting and vowed to have a draft finished before the turn of my third decade. Giving myself a deadline was the catalyst I needed to put in the hours and get the whole story down, chipping in with an hour or two of writing after work each evening. Seven months later, I had finished a first draft. It took about twice as long to tweak it to a point where I was happy with it.
It’s great that you schedule a couple of hours every evening to write. What would your advice be to writers who reach a block in their writing? Did you experience it writing The Vagabond King?
We all experience bouts of writer’s block. Everyone has different ways of dealing with it. Some swear by gong for walks, enjoying a long bath, listening to music and then coming back to the writing… I’m a stubborn soul and my method is to fight through it at the keyboard, perhaps skipping a chapter and moving on to work on a scene that I’ve been looking forward to writing. Making a cup of tea sometimes helps. Or a glass of port.
When the muse is with us words flow freely but when they’re reluctant to hit the page it can feel like she has abandoned us. We have to learn to tame the muse: when we sit to write, command her to sit too. I heard another writer once say, ‘you have to make the muse your bitch’. It’s so true. If you wait too long for her, you’ll never get anything done…
What was your method of world building?
Some fantasy writers are experts in creating new worlds, right down to the details of local customs and botanicals. I wanted to keep The Vagabond King lighter on such details with a greater focus on the characters and what their plights.
Four fictitious countries feature in the novel, each with their own landscape and culture. The only one that was clear in my mind when I started writing was Thelonia. I was keen to write about a landscape that had been decimated by excessive mining. Thelonia is a bleak, grey country, scarred by a greedy industry that suppresses the poor and powerless. It was an interesting place to start and I enjoyed creating other landscapes that contrasted with this oppressive island.
Within the book there are themes of slavery, famine, war and sacrifice. Did you undertake any research to help you write about these themes? If so, what kind of research?
Never look at a writer’s search history. Dear God, there’s some dark stuff in there.
The wonderful thing about writing fantasy is that you can make it all up, but I did find a lot of satisfaction in undertaking research that inspired some of the events in the novel. One of the more fun parts was going to a sword fighting lesson – and I’m not talking about fencing, those broadswords can really hurt!
As for Google’s poor opinion of me… you’ll find a search history that goes down rabbit holes of torture, weaponry and war tactics. Google maps proved invaluable in helping me calculate how long it would take characters to travel the distances required in the story.
What is your favourite book within the fantasy genre?
I never like to pick a favourite. There are too many to choose from.
I was a big Tolkien geek as a teenager, but I’ve had so many other writers influence me sine. Neil Gaiman is fantastic and American Gods will always be one of my favourite books. Ursula K Le Guin is a whole treasure trove of fantastic stories. I love grimdark fantasy too and have a special place in my heart for writers like Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Jay Kristoff and Anna Stephens.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I get this question a lot and I’m still not sure what the answer is. Other writers are high up on the list, as are friends who can spin a good yarn over a pint.
I keep note of things that interest me and often dip into my hordes of articles, images, quotes and notated thoughts to come up with story ideas. If you had a quick look through my most recent notes, you’d find snippets of poetry, paraphrased myths, a string of words that might make a good first line, questions raised by friends that I’d like to explore further in writing… it really can be anything.
Part of the inspiration for The Vagabond King came from wanting to write my own mythology. I love the old Greek and Norse stories and wanted to explore the idea of creating my own religion where gods walk the earth and don’t always have humanity’s best interests at heart.
Does a particular character hold a special place in your heart?
They all do. My characters have all lived in my head for a long time and I have a soft spot for all of them, even the more sinister ones.
I feel for the character Lleu as I’ve thrown a lot of personal conflict at him throughout the story. He’s an immortal soldier who sees the evil of the society he’s fighting to protect and must turn on his own friends and family to do what’s right. It’s a painful process for him… and I’m a cruel writer who enjoys inflicting torment on the characters she creates.
Was there a lot of prepping before you started to write The Vagabond King?
Ah hindsight! I wish I had done more prepping before I started writing. It would have made the redrafting much easier. But sometimes you just want to get stuck in and start writing.
What do you hope your readers will take away from reading your novel?
I hope it will make people think. It covers themes of human greed, loss of natural habitat and societal inequality. Writing about these topics helped me to explore them, but it certainly doesn’t give any answers to how these problems should be tackled. It exposes the flaws of human nature and how we can all be corrupted.
I hope it shines a light on some issues we face in the modern world through the veneer of escapism. But most of all, I hope readers enjoy being placed in a new world and enjoy the story that unfolds there.
Your novel concludes in a way that can allow it to stand alone or as part of a series, did this happen naturally or intentionally? What are your plans for The Vagabond King in the future?
I wanted to give The Vagabond King a good conclusion. The first part of the plot to come to me was the end scene; I find it so much easier to write when I know where I’m heading. Honestly, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy until the wonderful team at Parthian Books suggested I write two more. Of course, I’ve always had vague ideas about how the story could continue – with fantasy it’s very rare to have a standalone book – so it ends in a way that there are still threads of story that can be picked up.
By the end of the novel all of the protagonists have faced challenges that leave them quite changed. In book two, they are different people facing a new world and new struggles. I’m looking forward to exploring how they cope.
The Vagabond King is out now with Parthian.