Benedict Jacka “…The biggest difference is that I’m a lot pickier now. Back when I wrote the first few Alex Verus books, I tended to write off the top of my head and make things up on the spot. I still do that sometimes, but nowadays I’m a lot more likely to go back and edit it quite heavily before sending it to my publisher…..”
When you talk about great urban fantasy, you have a lot of choices as a reader. It could even be said that we live in a golden age of options. However, many series start well but don’t have the longevity to last eight or even 15 books, unlike the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. Jacka’s series has always been one I turned to when I was looking for a fun pick-me-up of a read with a dark edge. As the series plowed on, the titular character got darker and morally divided due to the political machinations of magic users.
On December 7th, Jacka released the final Alex Verus book with Risen and has ended the decade-long series with a bang. It was quite the page-turner and an excellent farewell to the Verus world. Jacka was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions about his writing, the Alex Verus series, and what we have as readers to look forward to in the future from his future storytelling.
[BWG] You have a huge new release with book 12 of Alex Verus. I could not put it down and read it in one day. Could you tell us a bit about the Alex Verus series in general and where we are at the start of Risen?
Books 10/11/12 are the “endgame trilogy” of the Alex Verus series. By the beginning of Risen, all of Alex’s big decisions have been made and the battle lines have been drawn. Risen is all about playing out the consequences of the choices he made back in book #10.
[BWG] You have a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University in Philosophy. What made you choose philosophy as a degree tract? Did it have any impact on how you created Alex’s character?
I always had a particular interest in ethics. I don’t know if it had much impact on Alex’s character, but it definitely had a big impact on his story—much of the series is about the intersection of power and morality, and the conflicts between them. The mechanics of Alex’s divination also draw on the philosophical arguments involving free will and determinism that I used to write essays about.
[BWG] You write as someone who appreciates stories from a reader’s perspective. Are you a big reader, and if so, what stories inspired you as a writer?
I’m a very big reader—I spent pretty much my entire childhood reading! I’m not sure which books inspired me in particular, but my favourites growing up were Lord of the Rings and Watership Down.
[BWG] It is coming up on ten years since you released Fated, book 1 of Alex Verus. Has your approach to the writing and editing process changed since the first release?
The biggest difference is that I’m a lot pickier now. Back when I wrote the first few Alex Verus books, I tended to write off the top of my head and make things up on the spot. I still do that sometimes, but nowadays I’m a lot more likely to go back and edit it quite heavily before sending it to my publisher.
[BWG] One of the best qualities of the Alex Verus series is the creation of deep familial relationships; it is the epitome of a found family. These relationships prove to be just as crucial in keeping Alex alive as his raw power as a mage. Was it always going to be Variam, Luna, and Anne? Were there any characters that could have been a part of Alex’s inner circle, but it didn’t work as the series progressed?
Luna was (almost) always going to be part of Alex’s inner circle, but that’s not at all true for Variam and Anne—they were experimental characters that I brought in for Book #3 and ended up keeping around because I liked them. Other candidates for Alex’s inner circle were Sonder and Caldera—back when I introduced them in books #1 and #4 respectively, I thought there was a good chance they’d be sticking around with Alex for the long haul. Obviously things didn’t quite work out that way.
[BWG] Aside from Alex, which character did you find most challenging to write?
I always found Alex pretty easy. In books #1 and #2 the one I had most trouble with was Luna, but around the beginning of book #3 something clicked and from then I really enjoyed writing her scenes. From that point on, the one who was most difficult was probably Anne.
[BWG] I read an AMA on R/Fantasy where someone asked you about Arachne’s personality. You stated that “I’m honestly not sure where Arachne’s personality came from. Fated was a very experimental novel in a lot of ways, and some of the things in there were ones I just threw up completely off the top of my head. Arachne was one of those!” Did Starbreeze and Hermes have similar beginnings?
Hard to remember at this point, but I think so, yes. Starbreeze was a completely random out-of-nowhere creation. Hermes came about because I like foxes, and I like blink dogs (a fairly obscure monster from Dungeons & Dragons) and thought it would be fun to merge the two together.
[BWG] You write highly choreographed fight scenes, and it is evident to any reader the love and care you put into them. What is your process like for their creation? Do you hold everything in your head, or do you have to sketch everything out?
I hold it all in my head. I spend a lot of time on martial arts and strategy games, so I find that kind of thing pretty intuitive.
[BWG] Marked felt like we entered the end game. Either Alex would be strong enough to fight the end boss, or he was going to die. Was there an “a-ha” scene where you felt like this was the beginning of the end?
The big turning point for me was in book #10, Fallen, where Alex goes back into the same bubble realm that he first visited in Fated, and he’s about to pick up with fateweaver. It’s a short scene and not very flashy, but it’s the last time in the series that you see the “old” Alex.
[BWG] Are there any plot points that you put into the first books that, at the time, were one-off details but that you were able to build upon as the series progressed? And conversely, are there any ideas that you were going to build upon but ended up leaving them as is.
Ones that were originally one-offs but which became important later—the fateweaver from Fated and the monkey’s paw from Cursed are the big ones. I don’t know if there were any plot points that got abandoned, but there were definitely quite a few characters that ended up mostly sidelined because I realized I didn’t enjoy writing them very much, although a lot of them still ended up coming back anyway ( such as Meredith).
[BWG] Was the setting for Alex Verus always London/Camden area?
No, most of the events of Fated were originally set in a fantasy world. My first editor from Orbit UK read an early draft and convinced me that the story would work better as an urban fantasy instead.
[BWG] What was your favorite scene to write of the series?
Probably either Alex’s fight against Onyx and his gang in Fallen, or Alex’s final negotiation with the Council at the end of Forged. I’d been building up to them both for a long time.
[BWG] Alex’s nature becomes increasingly evident in Risen. Instead of characters being black or white, good or evil, it is very apparent that people are shades of gray. Was it great to let go a bit and let Alex dive into his nature’s darker and more ruthless parts?
I did find it satisfying to have Alex cut loose a bit. I’d spent a long time laying the groundwork for it so that it felt earned!
[GdM] Are there any plans for releasing a graphic novel adaptation of the series?
Not at the moment. I’m not sure how well the series would work as a graphic adaptation—so many of the scenes either depend on movement or thought/narration.
[BWG] You have worked with Gildart Jackson repeatedly for the audio adaptions of the series. Did you have any input into whom was selected to voice Alex’s character? Jackson seems like the perfect embodiment of Alex.
The audio adaption was actually done completely by the audio company—I had pretty much no input at all!
[BWG] You have talked about being excited to work on something new. Do you have any ideas on the horizon you can talk about? Are you taking a break for a bit before starting on the next project?
I took a brief break at the start of the year, and wrote an Alex Verus novella called Favours, but since then I’ve spent most of my time working on the first book in what’s going to be a new urban fantasy series—I’d actually hoped to have it finished by now, but after getting some feedback from my UK editor I decided to rewrite some elements of it first (it’s a lot easier to fix structural problems if you catch them early). The book’s about 80% done at the moment, and my current plan is to finish the rewrite in December, then hopefully get the last 20% done in January. Publishers take a long time to put things out, thought, so it isn’t likely to be released before early 2022. Hopefully my readers will enjoy Risen enough that when the new series finally comes out, they’ll want to read that too!