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10 Years: From There to Here


It’s a long way between there and here, and a huge transition between cultures. As we made our slow progress back to England, passing from the Berber heartland to Europeanized Agadir – a long drive over the mountains – Abdel told me about one particular phenomenon that is singlehandedly changing the way Berber women view their own lives. Magnificent Century is a Turkish soap opera that has been showing all over the Arab world for the past 3 years, and it has Berber women in its thrall – resulting in burned dinners, arguments, divorces, and huge societal changes. The women in our traditional, agrarian culture in southwest Morocco – used to rising at 5am to deal with the livestock, make the bread, milk the goat, gather forage, tend the crop, all before the rest of the household stirs – have downed tools, seeing the gorgeous indolence of the women on the TV, and are complaining bitterly about the hardship of their own lives. One old woman in our village, unable to discern fiction from the real world, upon seeing one of the sultan’s courtesans throttled to death for her lies, demanded the telephone number for the Turkish police so that she could report the murder, for: ‘I saw it with my own eyes!’ I expect by the time I return to see handsome black eunuch-slaves, bare chests and scimitars gleaming, to be stationed around the town…


In fact, it’s not just the women here who work hard or endure tough conditions. As we drive past the striking perched village of Ida Ougnidif we see a road gang out widening the precipitous road through the mountains, and pass their camp, where they are housed in little square ‘tents’ of wriggly tin, which must be iceboxes by night, ovens by day. The dust generated by their assaults on the granite hangs balefully overhead, waiting to descend and reclaim its place.


We chug up onto the high plateau, our borrowed 20-year-old Renault stinking unhelpfully of diesel and criminally underpowered for the hills, and as we crest the last rise of the Anti Atlas Mountains we can see the High Atlas blue and hazy in the distance, snow still glazing the tops as a last reminder of the hard winter. Every so often the rear speakers blare into unexpected life, as if a wild boar has suddenly woken in unfamiliar circumstances in the boot. It’s a miracle anyone from our community travels far from home. Between Tafraout and its nearest exit point – the airport at Agadir – lies a challenging 3-hour mountain drive involving such hazards as wandering sheep, goats and feral dogs, men sitting side-saddle on donkeys, women on mule-carts, rockfall, flood-damage, roadworks, and highly decorated lorries adorned with talismans to ward off the Evil Eye and keep the driver safe as he barrels along with little regard for other road users even when the tarmac narrows to pinch points and sheer drops.

It would be easy to be discouraged by the prospect of undertaking this odyssey – and that’s before adding the random bureaucratic hell of acquiring an exit visa in the first place: having to be accepted by your wished country of destination, even for a 2-week visit, of your ‘cultural and social ties’ to that country, of the health and independence of your bank account and body, and the sheer physical stamina to withstand multiple journeys to consulates more than 500 miles away and the rude, blank officiousness of the consular staff and guards. And all this in the teeth of the bigotry, discrimination and irrational fears brought about by the West’s ‘war on terror’ – at once the most distorted piece of political chicanery and the most ridiculously ungrammatical misnomer of modern times.

Yet here we are, Abdel and I, a decade later, bowling northwards to the airport, driven by a cousin in a borrowed car, ready to take up life again in our ‘green country’, after several months here in the ‘red country’. We’ve endured the worst floods the region had seen since Noah’s time (costing the lives of over 50 people), the hardest winter, the worst tourist season as the geographically challenged expect IS to abduct or shoot them even in this peaceable and liberal country, and we’re leaving during the hottest April temperatures for a Britain still beset by winter weather. Farewell Maroc!


As we passed under the Lions Head at the outset of our journey this morning, I gazed up at its shaded right eye and briefly remembered that gut-clenching traverse, with the rock shield my climbing partner and I were perched on hovering over 1000 feet of yawning void; of that strategic retreat via abseil to the gully for that terrifying, freezing night on the mountain, before our joyful return to the warmth and hospitality of Abdel’s restaurant. What a journey it has been, and continues to be. I wouldn’t change a thing.



Moroccan food & cooking – some of Abdel’s recipes!

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If you’d like to add a bit of sunshine and spice into your kitchen why not have a look at my husband’s wonderful new website, on which he blogs about Moroccan cuisine, tells stories about Berber life and culture and gives up some of his favourite recipes? I guarantee you’ll love the food!!Moroccan-Corn-Tart/cmbz/468634C5-4A46-49BF-A0B6-CE9F69

The Talisman: a very short story



“This is to protect you wherever you go in the world,” his mother said to him as she pinned the talisman box on his cloak with a long pin, for this was in a time before he wore it on a string around his neck. And it was also at a time before it was damaged so that it would no longer open. The talisman was square. Its four corners indicated the compass points, and were sharp, to ward off djinns and the Evil Eye – “because you attract their attention with your light eyes,” she explained.

Abdullah had been born light-eyed. It was a rare thing in their village, but not unknown, for a baby to have light eyes even if the father didn’t, but they usually darkened with time. Abdullah’s did not. This fact made his mother fear for her reputation, but worse: she feared her baby was possessed. As he grew she feared more: he was a strange boy, given to collecting odd objects – pebbles and feathers, stray cats and sun-bleached bones. And he made stories about them, weaving words until truth blurred and was lost. She prayed for him and ranted at him, but the words slipped off him like water from a cat’s back (and this more than anything persuaded her he was true born, for he was just like his father, who had always been a storytelling rogue).

When he was seven, almost a man by the ways of their people, she cut his topknot off. “Now the angels cannot catch you by your hair as you fall, so you must wear this all the time,” she told him as she pinned the talisman box that had been his grandfather’s (also Abdullah) to his burnoose. Inside the box – for it had a hidden spring catch – she stuffed little morsels of paper: verses from the Quran, a scrap of the skin of a long-dead mountain lion for strength and dignity, the broken quill of a porcupine to keep djinns at bay; and a line of poetry from her desert ancestors – where love is, stay. Then, though her heart broke to do it, she sent him over the mountains to his father in the city. “He is a storyteller in the central square,” she told him. “You will have no trouble finding him, for he has a pet chicken that sits on his head as he tells his tales. He calls it Baksheesh because it brings him money.”

The family was too poor to afford a horse but Abdullah’s aunt lent him their ancient mule. Like the boy it had light eyes, which is a strange thing in a mule and not much prized. It was said to see things other beasts could not, so tended to spook at odd moments. It shied when a gecko scurried across their path and the boy almost fell off. After that he held on tighter. When a mountain hare jumped in front of them and the mule bucked, he laughed. “You won’t get rid of me that easily!”

They made good progress, so good that soon Abdullah could not even make out the conical hill on which his village lay if he looked back over his shoulder. But he would not cry. He would NOT. Blinking hard, he turned his face to the winding track, now pitching down at a fearsome angle. The mule picked its way steadily enough until suddenly it stopped, bristling and twitching. It snorted and rolled its light eyes. In the falling gloom, Abdullah saw a dark shape crouched across their path. Everything about it was dark. Except for its eyes, which were as light as the rising moon. A djinn, a giant djinn – perhaps the king of all the djinns, Abdullah thought. He clutched his talisman but felt no fear. And then the djinn gathered itself and roared like the sound of a mountain avalanche, the crashing of a thousand stones. The mule leapt sideways off the path as if pushed by the force of the noise itself, and Abdullah found himself airborne, then falling. He flew through the air until an argan tree caught his burnoose and almost ripped it from him with its spiky fingers. It slowed his descent, but then came the rocks. Abdullah steeled himself for the impact. He would never see his mother again. Nor reach his father, telling tales in the square with a chicken named Baksheesh sitting on his head.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, his flight stopped. Abdullah opened first one light eye, then the other. Nothing hurt. He flexed fingers and toes. Nothing broken. The rock was right in front of him, pressing against him – had he not been seven he would have said like a lover. He looked down. The amulet his mother had given him – his grandfather’s old talisman box stuffed with scraps of prayers, beasts and poetry – was wedged in a crevice in the rock, taking all his weight. His cloak was like a papoose and he a baby in its embrace. Carefully, in the dark, he found hand and footholds, extricated the magical box and climbed down to solid ground and slept pressed between two boulders listening to a quiet growling in the night air, with the amulet held tight in his hand. Where love is, stay…

Day dawned as day always does. The first thing he saw was his talisman box, its southern corner bent out of shape and the intricate engraved silver on it scraped away. It would never open again. The second thing he saw was the old mule, or what was left of it: a crumpled, bloody, much-chewed heap. The third thing he saw was not a djinn but an enormous black Barbary lion, a breed long thought extinct, sleeping with its head on its mule-bloodied paws.

Abdullah crept past it with his heart in his mouth and the talisman in his hand.

The lion did not wake up and he did not look back, not once, until he came to the city’s central square and found a man telling stories with a chicken on his head.




 copyright Jane Johnson 2014, all rights reserved

And with my publishing hat on…

It’s been an intensely busy summer for me as a publisher, but one in which there have been some very memorable times and some notable successes.  It’s not left much time for writing, so I am hugely behind schedule with my current projects, but hoping to steal some time away to write soon.


It was very gratifying to see Joe Abercrombie’s wonderful novel HALF A KING hit the Sunday Times bestseller list and stay there for a month, all the while garnering great reviews, my favourite of which was one from the Sun: ‘Another great tale from a master. His medieval, post-apocalyptic land is full of such brilliant banter it would find a laugh at a funeral. It is macabre, menacing and Machiavelli himself would have enjoyed the way half-handed “hero” Yarvi triumphs.’ We launched the book at David Headley’s wonderful first editions shop in Cecil Court, Goldsboro Books, and while it may look as if I’m addressing an audience of three, there was a good crowd gathered.


A few weeks later George RR Martin arrived to headline the Edinburgh Book Festival to sell-out audiences and despite arriving from the US just a day before managed to stay up till 3am and still beat me down to breakfast. I do find it grimly amusing that fans agonise over his health and worry he won’t finish A Song of Ice & Fire: he has immense stamina.


I flew down from Edinburgh in time to attend Robin Hobb’s signing at the Forbidden Planet (300 books signed) and her publication dinner. It’s extraordinary to note that this is our 27th year working together, ever since I published her as Megan Lindholm with THE REINDEER PEOPLE. The new book is a return to her most beloved characters, Fitz and the Fool, as has been evident in the outpourings of love from hordes of fans at her tour events and the wonderful sales of FOOL’S ASSASSIN, so beautifully packaged with artwork from the brilliant Jackie Morris.


It is so pleasing to see it sailing away on the hardback bestseller list and receiving such plaudits from the critics. Jane Shilling in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘Groping for comparisons, you find yourself in the company of the great compendious literary novelists. As the best writers do, Hobb shows us ourselves in her characters. Their longings and failings are our own, and we find our view of the world indelibly changed by their experiences. That is the ambition of high art. The novelists in any genre are rare who achieve it with Hobb’s combination of accessibility and moral authority.’  

The next day at Waterstones on Kensington High Street we saw another sell-out crowd arrive for the Grim Gathering, a unique event celebrating Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, a rare outing for Mark Lawrence (whose marvellous PRINCE OF FOOLS I published in June) and Myke Cole.


The next day (what a ridiculous week!) we celebrated 19 years of the Voyager list, with a wonderful party at the top of the Gherkin, a spectacular setting, and I was surprised when the speeches turned into a celebration of my 30th year in publishing, and suddenly there was Jackie Morris, come to see me given her beautiful painting of Robin Hobb’s wolf, Nighteyes, as my gift from HarperCollins. More of which later…


Ten thousand fans converged upon the ExCel Centre in London’s Royal Docks for this year’s WorldCon, for which Robin Hobb was the author Guest of Honour (and worked very hard for that privilege). Five immensely busy days for the Voyager team and our authors – including Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, Robin Hobb, Emmi Itaranta, George RR Martin and Peter Newman. I interviewed Robin Hobb on stage.

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And immediately after that was over came the biggest event of the year: those fantasy titans onstage at the Freemasons’ Hall, with me interviewing George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in front of a live audience of 1300. But first, time to take the chance to pose on a throne, because you don’t often get the chance, do you?



Preparing for the event was especially nerve-wracking since George had told me earlier in the week how bored he was getting with the same old questions in interviews (since fame hit him, he is fielding interviews about GAME OF THRONES day in, day out) so I had to try extra hard to come at things from a different angle. In the end, since I am the UK publisher for both authors, and also write, I decided to go for a fairly intimate interview that went to the heart of their inspiration and practice, for the art and mysteries of writing, and in the end I think it turned into a very illuminating discussion.

The event was sponsored by Blinkbox (Tesco) and they also enabled a global audience to watch the event across the internet by livestream. There’s a link to the whole event here:

It was deemed a triumph (not my word), and for me an immense relief: all had gone as well as could ever have been imagined. There now remained a final special day: a trip to walk with wolves at the UK Wolf Conservancy Trust with Jackie Morris and Robin Hobb (and the painting of Nighteyes in the boot of my car). Megan (Robin Hobb) and I seen below with Jackie’s magic dragon-van (which also contained a Tibetan singing bowl and a gigantic tiger).

10562702_10152335490046314_5484962906807933731_o - Version 2   10547211_10152335486086314_829363371065418790_oJackie has been illustrating the Hobb book covers ever since a weird bit of serendipity. I had been sent by a friend a Christmas card during my first December in Tafraout (2005) with Jackie’s artwork on it and at once had said to Abdel: this artist would be perfect to do the new Hobb covers. After a lot of detective work I tracked Jackie Morris down. IMG_0870

But when I asked her if she illustrated book covers she was adamant. “No,” she said. “Never.” There was a short pause. “Unless it was for Robin Hobb!” “It is.” Thousands of miles apart, we both stared into our telephone receivers disbelievingly: what an absurd coincidence. And the rest, as they say, is history. Her artwork (and life) is magical: check it out here

Now her beautiful gilded Nighteyes adorns my kitchen wall: what better view to inspire dreams while you’re washing up?


Books, ships and gallivanting…



SW Canada pb



The beautiful Anchor edition has just been delivered into my hands, hot off the press! So Canada will have a paperback of THE SULTAN’S WIFE imminently.

This comes at the end of a busy couple of weeks, starting with a packed week in London launching Joe Abercrombie’s brilliant fantasy novel HALF A KING (seen here with our regular interloper, Gemma, who likes to make herself comfortable on my reading seat). It’s deservedly gone straight into the bestseller chart. It’s a terrific read and I feel privileged to have published it.




I zipped back home just in time for our biennial Sea Salts and Sail festival, at which Abdel and I always run a book and jewellery stall. The old boats came into harbour and looked beautiful. I sold lots of books – always lovely to meet fans old and new – and Abdel and local artist Tom Rickman cooked the crew supper of Sicilian fish stew and Moroccan couscous with raisins and chickpeas: truly delicious.






Artist and jewellery-maker Hannah Willow came to visit with her husband, green-fingered forester, Phil to stay in Abdel’s netloft, Hopway Cottage (which he is now letting out in conjunction with our friend Helen – check out – if you fancy a holiday in picturesque Mousehole) and we talked books and art and silver-working and changing your life. We had only ever ‘met’ online, via Facebook, before so it was a real treat to become proper friends in person. Here’s one of Hannah’s lovely paintings. I am wearing one of her amazing bracelets, complete with Cornish turquoise and a bead of topaz and a tiny silver hare, right now, along with my Berber bangles.



Hot on the heels of the festival came a talk to a readers’ group in Madron, from which I came away loaded with plaudits and flattery, honeycakes (for Abdel) and beautiful yellow roses. And immediately after this was the annual Penzance Literary Festival and two very successful and thoroughly enjoyable events with historical novelist Robyn Young, and talking exotic places and people in literature with fine contemporary novelists Kate Lord Brown and Sara MacDonald and non-fiction writer Tim Hannigan. And then Abdel cooked us all up a veritable Moroccan feast, at which we were joined by the novelist hailed as ‘the thinking man’s John le Carre’, Edward Wilson. What an excellent evening!




Next month will be even busier, with the publication of the new Fitz and the Fool novel by Robin Hobb, a return to her much-beloved characters who made the first appearance in ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE way back in 1995, the very year in which I launched the Voyager list. It really is the most wonderful series, perhaps my favourite of all time (a tight race between this and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire) and I am very proud to have been Robin Hobb’s publisher all that time – a rare thing in modern publishing, where editors move houses all the time. In fact this is my 30th year in publishing: and every time I tell myself that I cannot believe it. I barely feel 30 years old in my head: though the mirror tells a different story…


Penzance Literary Festival



Tickets for events at the Penzance Literary Festival have just gone on sale. I’ll be in conversation with historical novelist Robyn Young at 4pm  on 18 July and at 5.30pm on Saturday 19 July talking with historical novelists Essie Fox and Wendy Wallace about the English and the Exotic in fiction; other guests at the festival include Kate Lord Brown, Patrick Gale and Liz Fenwick. It’s always lively and informal – do come if you can!

Palace slaves and monsters


I was sitting in a restaurant in the coastal town of Agadir on the southern Moroccan coast with my husband. We were on our way back to England from several months in the Berber village in which we live for part of each year and were relaxing over a very good Italian meal. I glanced over his shoulder as a group of people came in, and suddenly became aware of a portrait on the wall behind them. The room was dimly lit, but I could make out an imposing African man in a dark red turban, the look in his eye sullen, yet proud. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I realized it was a nicely framed print of Delacroix’s famous portrait of a Moroccan court slave – known colloquially as ‘The Turk in a Turban’ (the original is in the Louvre). It was familiar to me, yet at the same time I was struck by how powerful and fresh the treatment of the subject seemed.

“When King Hasan II died in 1999,” my husband said suddenly, “his bier was carried out of the palace in Rabat by six of his most cherished slaves. They looked just like that. So proud to be doing their final duty by their king.”
“Slaves? In 1999?” I was too amazed to be outraged.
Abdellatif explained that slavery was abolished in Morocco only in the 1960s and that his mother remembered having slaves in the household. A man cost a bucket of salt; a woman a dish of salt. The royal family’s house-slaves would have been made free men in the sixties, but spent their entire lives within the palace walls. Bearing the coffin out of the palace would have been the first time they had set foot into the outside world.
“Of course,” he went on, “in earlier times they would have been eunuchs, like the chap in the painting.” All male attendants in the inner court would have been castrated in order to guarantee the validity of succession: no entire man could have been allowed near the sultan’s precious harem.

I looked at Delacroix’s handsome ‘Turk’ (a lazy historical term referring to any North African or Middle Eastern Muslim) in a different light. How could he maintain such dignity and pride and defiance in the face of such physical and social insult? And so the central character of my third Moroccan novel, THE SULTAN’S WIFE, Nus-Nus – the Arabic word for a half-and- half coffee – was born. A man taken captive in the jungles of West Africa during internecine tribal feuding, sold as a slave and castrated as a gift to the all-powerful sultan, who had come to the throne by ruthless and bloody means, and held the reins of power in the same manner for all his long life.

Moulay Ismail was the Sultan of Morocco from 1672 to 1727, a remarkably long time to rule over his subjects, whom he charmingly referred to as a ‘basketful of rats’. His glittering empire stretched from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of North Africa all the way through the desert to Timbuktu. One clue to his success lies in the name by which he was often known by: ‘Safaq Adimaa’ or ‘The Bloodthirsty’. He earned this soubriquet by his utter ruthlessness towards his enemies and rebels, a taste for inventive torture, and his habit when bored of testing the sharpness of the sword he carried everywhere on the neck of the nearest slave.


Another derives from his policy of exerting authority via display; by generating awe in the populace through the pomp and grandeur that surrounded him. In this, as in the extent and application of his power, he was the last sultan who can genuinely be said to have been on a par with his European counterparts.

In his fifty-five years as absolute monarch he humbled the wild mountain tribes of the Rif and Atlas, recaptured the coastal towns of Tangiers and Mamora, Asilah and Larache from foreign powers, maintained Moroccan sovereignty by defending it against the Ottoman Turks; rebuilt mosques, shrines, bridges, kasbahs and of course the extraordinary palace complex at Meknes, the remains of which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1703, a visiting ambassador asked one of Ismail’s sons how many brothers and sisters he had. After three days, he was presented with a list of 525 boys and 342 girls. In 1721 he was reputed to have ‘700 Sons able to mount Horse’. (The last of Ismail’s sons is said to have been born to him eighteen months after the sultan’s death: which is quite a feat.) His wives and harem members are even harder to keep track of, since even in official records most are noted only by a single Arabic name, often bestowed upon them only on their conversion to Islam, whether by choice or duress. Amongst them all there is only one constant: Lalla Zidana, bought as a slave from his brother for the sum of 60 ducats. By all accounts in her later years she was a huge and monstrous presence, vastly fat, strangely dressed and dreaded by all as ‘the witch Zidana’. Despite this – or maybe because of this – she maintained a thirty-year ascendancy over Ismail’s affections and exercised absolute power over his harem. In the novel, Nus-Nus has to navigate a safe passage between these two extremely dangerous presences, the Scylla and Charybdis of the Meknes court.

Meknes has been called a second Versailles. Moulay Ismail and Louis X1V shared a fervour for building as well as for power, and both were passionately involved in the construction of their respective palaces. Versailles may not have been built with slave labour, but Louis was heedless of the lives and safety of his workmen. In the bitter winter of 1685 there were almost forty thousand men working on the site, despite the terrible cold and the ravages of disease and many of them died. Of course, the fate of the thousands of slaves at Meknes was even more terrible. But where Versailles was symmetrical, ordered, elegant, the palace complex at Meknes, with its fifty connected palaces, mosques, courtyards, barracks and parks, was vast and rambling in its ever-shifting design, as walls and pavilions were constructed then demolished at the arbitrary whim of its creator. His successors continued with his building programme, but in 1755 the shocks of the huge Lisbon earthquake, which is believed to have reached a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, severely damaged the site, reducing to rubble in minutes what had taken many decades and thousands of lives to create. Of Ismail’s madly ambitious project only his extraordinary mausoleum, parts of the Dar Kbira, the vast granary, some of the outer walls, and the city gates remain. Despite this, the ruins are well worth visiting to gain a sense of the sheer scale of the sultan’s megalomania.

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During the latter years of the seventeenth century Morocco found itself at war with England over the strategic port of Tangiers, which had fallen into English hands when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza: it came as part of her dowry. Sultan Moulay Ismail was determined to have the foreign presence removed from Moroccan soil; but years of siege and bombardment, of guerrilla warfare and vicious raids had had little effect. At last the sultan decided to send an embassy to London to negotiate a treaty.

The Moroccan embassy of 1682 arrived in London in January under the command of Mohammed ben Hadou Ottur, sometimes known as ‘the Tinker’. The almost-seven-month visit is well documented in the records of the day, and is particularly colourfully described in the diary of John Evelyn who describes ben Hadou as ‘an handsome Person, well featur’d, of a wise looke, subtill, and extreamely civile’. Evelyn and the court were impressed by the modesty and intelligence of his retinue, who found themselves feted by the smartest society, becoming the hit of the season, invited to all the best houses. In the course of their visit they would encounter the most brilliant creative minds of the age: the Royal Society’s Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and alchemist Elias Ashmole; Samuel Pepys, John Dryden and a young Henry Purcell.

Delacroix’s ‘Turk in a Turban’ was not my only visual inspiration for the novel: three other paintings found their way into the text. The first of these is a portrait of Charles II’s mistress Louise de Kéroualle by Pierre Mignard, a portrait that would have been in progress while the Moroccan embassy was in town: such fun to incorporate it into the novel, as Nus-Nus recognizes her little ‘blackamoor’ slave as a boy from his own tribe.


Louise – the Duchess of Portsmouth – hosted a grand dinner for the Moroccan embassy at her glorious apartments at Whitehall where there was a ‘greate banquet of sweetemeates and musiq, but at which both the Ambassʳ and his retinue behaved themselves with extraordinary moderation and modesty, tho’ plac’d about a long table, a lady between two Moores, and amongst these were the King’s natural children, viz. Lady Lichfield and Sussex, the Dutchess of Portsmouth, Nelly, & concubines, and cattell of that sort, as splendid as jewells and excesse of bravery could make them. The Moores neither admiring nor seeming to regard any thing, furniture or the like, with any earnestnesse, and but decently tasting of the banquet.’ Wine was served, but the Moors confined themselves to milk and water; throughout the meal they conducted themselves with the most ‘courtly negligence in pace, countenance, and whole behaviour’, returning witty replies to the questions which were put to them. The King himself looked in just as the ambassador was leaving.

The ambassador had his portrait painted twice while he was in London, both by anonymous artists. One of these handsome portraits can be found in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London, as can the Mignard portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth.


I’ve visited the paintings many times now: their subjects have taken on a life on their own in my imagination, so vividly did they inhabit the novel. It’s curious to note that the portraits of Ben Hadou show him with the typical dark eyes of the other Moroccans, although he was reputed to have an English mother and to have had grey eyes – which Ismail inveighed against on occasion, damning him for his foreignness. Perhaps the artists took a liberty to make him appear more exotic? But of them all, Nus-Nus, inspired by Delacroix’s masterpiece, remains my favourite: he represents the contradictions of the age, on the cusp between the ancient world and the Enlightenment, between continents and cultures, between traditional gender roles and identities. He will always be my favourite character.



This post first appeared on the Printsasia site in shortened form: 

The Sultan’s Wife in the USA

The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnso

I am delighted to say that THE SULTAN’S WIFE is at last available as an ebook in the US. I love Gere Donovan’s description of the novel:

Sidi Kabour was the greatest poison expert in all of Morocco, a tidy old man operating from an obscure stall in the back of the Henna Souq. He was also dead, and the blood was all over Nus-Nus.

Nus-Nus, the eunuch. Nus-Nus, the food taster, scribe and keeper of the royal couching book. Nus-Nus, the innocent, framed in some twisted palace intrigue between the Empress and the Grand Vizier.

Alys Swann was a blonde, blue-eyed English rose whose pale complexion made her particularly valuable to the Barbary corsairs who’d taken her ship. She wasn’t dead, but she might wish she were—Sultan Moulay Ismail was known to have a taste for the exotic, and compared to the hundreds of other women in the royal harem, Alys Swann would be exotic indeed: an alabaster pawn in great strategic game of the seraglio.

Thrown together, Alys and Nus-Nus form an unlikely alliance. Two powerless prisoners in a world of brutal, 17th century intrigue, each finding strength in the other to endure that which must be endured in the hope of a better tomorrow. “And that, at the final count, is all any of us can ask.”

Rich in detail with compelling characters and an ambitious scope, The Sultan’s Wife is a remarkable tale of adventure, romance, history, and friendship.

Berber recipes: Peace pancakes


We had idernan – Berber pancakes – for breakfast today, nothing to do with St Valentine’s Day. Abdel says that back in the time before Islam came to Morocco (in the 8th century) local tribes were at constant war, decimating the male population. They wanted to end the conflict but neither side could lose face. At last a travelling wise man negotiated a truce. The agreement was that on a certain day each year the tribes would make breakfast for one another, turn and turn about; and idernan – like very thin crumpets, served hot with butter and honey – were the result. The tradition has been kept in this region all this time, for 1300 years or more. Which puts most of our fake-antique ‘traditions’ into context!

250g fine semolina durum wheat
250g flour
45 cl of warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
8g fresh yeast or 1 tsp dried
1 tsp sugar

In a bowl, combine the semolina, flour, salt and baking powder. Then add the warm water and yeast, diluted in a little warm water, and sugar. Leave the batter to rise for an hour. Just before cooking, stir it gently.

Pour a small ladle of batter onto a hot frying pan. Cook only on one side, without turning. When you take it out, look on the other side and you’ll find there are many tiny holes. An alternative name is ‘the pancake with 1000 holes’.

Serve hot with either a mixture of honey and melted butter or with argan oil or jam.

30 Years A Slave … To Books

Reproduced here is a terrific interview carried out by that extraordinarily talented artist and writer, Jackie Morris. If you don’t know her work you should do yourself a favour and visit her website at — or better still, buy some of her art – as prints or notebooks, or on a book cover or between the pages of her lovely books, if you can’t stretch to a painting. The picture on the wall beside me is one of hers:


The conversation began when I visited Cornwall and stayed with Jane in Mousehole. Or maybe it began when Jo Fletcher sent Jane a Christmas card some years ago. I wanted to know things about editing, wanted to understand more about how publishing works. The conversation was interesting, so I thought I would find a way to share it.

But first, let me introduce you to Jane Johnson. We met when she commissioned me to do cover art on the books of Robin Hobb. But that is another story. Our paths had crossed before though I hadn’t realised it, because the editor’s name is seldom on the books they edit and it is rare for them to gain any credit for the work they do outside a small circle of people. If they do their work well it passes unnoticed. But I wanted to know more, and so I asked Jane a few questions.

How did you first get in to the world of publishing?

Jane: I had taken 3 degrees – in English literature, Old Icelandic and teaching – and found myself over-qualified for just about anything, so was working in Ladbrokes, until a chance meeting with a neighbour landed me an interview at George Allen & Unwin Publishers, who published JRR Tolkien, my favourite author since I was 11. I lied about my typing and shorthand abilities and got the job: within 6 months was running the Tolkien list. An incredible bit of serendipity and strategic risk-taking!

What would you say is the ‘job description’ for an editor?

Jane: The job of an editor is twofold, and that binary function can in itself create tensions. You are employed by a publishing company to find good work that will reach and please a significant audience and therefore be commercial and generate revenue and profit to that business. But at the same time you are there to deliver a service to the author, and so also to the readers. In that aspect, the editor’s job is to enable the writer to tell their story as simply and effectively to their readership, without letting their own ego, prejudices or corporate strictures to get in the way of that magical, crucial process. In addition, you represent the author and their work in-house, acting as a locus point for all information about the writer and their books, negotiate the contracts with the agent; are the conduit of information back to the writer and agent, and also the driver of enthusiasm, support and success for the books in the publishing house. It’s impossible to occupy that position effectively without some degree of friction, there are so many warring and sometimes incompatible forces at work. You end up requiring a very wide-ranging skillset — receptive reader, economist, negotiator, communicator, psychologist, therapist, generator of ideas, warrior, nit-picker, information store. Some of these skills are in themselves incompatible: there’s really no such thing as a perfect editor!


By this time my head had caught up with Jane’s reference to Tolkien. At college Alan Lee had been a real hero of mine and when my son was 10, maybe 11 I bought him the Lord of the Rings illustrated by Lee. I asked Jane, was she responsible for these books?

Jane: I commissioned both Alan Lee (illustrated LOTR) and John Howe (calendars and then book covers). I commissioned Alan back in 1987/8 to produce 25 watercolours to illustrate the centenary edition of LOTR (to celebrate the 100th year of the author’s birth) We devised a plan which had to take into account the technical requirements of printing the book (where ‘signatures’ fell where the art paper would be) and Alan’s wish to be oblique in the subjects: to illustrate scenes that were less known, and at a slightly different angle. It ended up as the most beautiful book, and was a great success, selling over 100,000 copies in a high-priced hardback in the first year. In many ways Alan’s illustrated LOTR remains my proudest publishing achievement: we succeeded in both aesthetic and economic terms, and Alan really did magically manage to capture my vision of Middle-earth. And as Peter Jackson said when he invited me to New Zealand in 2000, I’d ‘given’ him the look of Middle-earth by bringing both artists to the work. (That was the first of a dozen trips to the NZ production: the producer dubbed me ‘the 10th member of the Fellowship’ by the end, and I felt I was!) I also commissioned John Howe’s classic Gandalf striding through the rain cover for the single volume edition of LOTR, which remains for me the most iconic image of the wizard; and in the calendars many of the best Middle-earth monster paintings that certainly had a big influence on the creation of the Balrog, orcs, Uruk-hai etc. I also then commissioned Alan to illustrate THE HOBBIT, also a beautiful edition.
( Certainly for me the most beautiful thing about the Peter Jackson films was seeing these books of Alan’s and John Howe’s vision on the big screen.)

How long have you been an editor at Harper Collins?

Jane: I started in publishing in 1984: George Allen & Unwin (by then Unwin Hyman) were taken over by HC in 1991, so this is my 30th year as an editor! Voyager as a list was launched by me in 1995: 20 years old next year, which is hard to believe. My tagline for the list was ‘For travellers of the imagination’ and that holds as true today as it did back then. Emma Coode is now running the list in HarperCollins: she and I have worked together for 15 years. We’re like a two-headed beast. On different continents (I work remotely now and am rarely in the offices).


Can you remember holding the first of the Game of Thrones books in your hands? What did you think then?

I remember reading the manuscript when it came in to my boss (Malcolm Edwards) and he asked me to read it. I read the scene in which Bran climbs up the tower and inadvertently sees the king’s wife and her brother having sex, and the brother then pushing the child to his death (as we thought then) and thinking, Crikey, this is something different – sex, in fantasy, and not only sex, but kinky sex! And going straight to the publisher to recommend we buy it. I remember it was the Fiction Department’s Christmas lunch when we were involved in the auction, and we were all goading him to increase the offer. It kept going up and up, because everyone was bidding for it. We won the auction for what was at the time an unspeakable amount of money. My boss’s face was white when he realised how much three books (our initial purchase) added up to. When Malcolm moved to Orion I took over his authors so have been looking after George for more than a decade now and was the commissioner for the remaining 4 books. I’m not head editor for George: I read and give my input to his US editor, Anne Groell. I’m his UK publisher. And also his resident climbing expert! He asked me for advice when writing the scene in which Jon Snow and the wildings scaled the Wall.

I am Robin Hobb’s head editor, also Raymond Feist’s, Mark Lawrence’s and now Joe Abercrombie’s. I was Stuart MacBride’s worldwide editor (he’s currently #1 in hardback) having persuaded him to turn a science fiction crime novel into a present day one: he’s still working with those characters. I am Jonathan Freedland (BBC/Guardian)’s editor and also the UK publisher of Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind and Tom Knox.


And the first Robin Hobb you read? Which one? What did it feel like? Was it manuscript?

Jane: I first bought her work when she was writing as Megan Lindholm, back in 1987 and published several books by her under that name. They sold respectably for a small independent house, but nowhere near enough to sustain a place on a corporate publisher’s list. But I was at HarperCollins when her first Fitz and the Fool manuscript was submitted and I remember reading it with goosebumps all over me. I knew it was a bestseller at once. So then her agent and I devised the Robin Hobb pseudonym for her and I came up with a strategy for making ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE a bestseller from a standing start, which I’m proud to say we achieved.

That feeling – the editor’s hunch – is a rare thing. I got it when I read the first paragraph of Mark Lawrence’s PRINCE OF THORNS (soon to be followed by KING and EMPEROR OF THORNS) – I knew I had to buy it by the end of the first page. We were late to the auction on that one, and acquisitions usually move at a glacial pace at big publishing houses, who never take any decision except by committee, after scads of paperwork have been completed and circulated, but I made such a nuisance of myself with that one that I bought it within a day of receiving the manuscript. Then again when Joe Abercrombie’s agent sent me what he called a YA project called HALF A KING. Again, the writing was so good I could hardly read it fast enough, and we’d convened the entire publishing team and created a pitch document within 24 hours. Sometimes, you just know.


Sales, can we talk about sales? Would you know things like what was the print run for first George RR Martin book compared to what it is now? And co-eds for first books? Compared to now?

Jane: We printed, I seem to remember, only around 1500 copies for the trade of the first hardback of A GAME OF THRONES. We sold over 300,000 copies of the hardback of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS in 2012… In 2012/13 George sold somewhere in the region of 9 million copies worldwide.

As an author it sometimes feels that the writer is on the outside of the publishing process. George RR’s position seems very strong now, with everyone watching and waiting and almost bullying at times for what comes next. But was it always like that? The series has taken a while to build. Has the publisher always had faith that they had a real game changer on their list, or has it been a battle at times to convince them?
Jane: It was a slow build and we were out of pocket in a pretty massive way for many years. It took two or three goes to get the book up and running. It came out first of all with some very striking covers by Jim Burns on them, but they were too genre-oriented to reach out to the widest possible readership so I did recommission the covers about 10 years ago and that style is being used worldwide now. Sometimes you have to be very dogged and determined: it doesn’t always make you friends in-house. With fantasy, it is always a battle: it always amazes me how few publishing people read in this time-honoured area, even though it often bankrolls the entire business (Tolkien, Martin, Twilight, Harry Potter etc). They always have the erroneous and ridiculously snobbish idea that it’s read only by teenage boys who never leave their basements and will therefore somehow miraculously find its market without being supported by advertising or promotions. I’ve had to fight for marketing budgets for all my key authors over the years. Don’t have to do that for GRRM any more…


Between the receiving of finished text and publication date how much editing happens would you say?

Jane: It depends entirely on the author and the book. Sometimes there’s hardly anything to do but a bit of tidying around the edges; sometimes a book may require 5 or 6 structural edits before it’s working properly.

The Sultan's Wife by Jane Johnso

And can I also ask you about your writing? Have you always written?

Jane: Ever since I can remember. I was always writing stories at junior school. I wrote a 60pp novel called THUNDERBOLT THE DARTMOOR PONY when I was 9. The first long piece of fiction I can remember writing before that was a revision of the ending of Bambi, so that Bambi’s mother didn’t die. I also told ghost stories to kids at school: they paid me 6d between them for a new story. I got into trouble because kids were being late to school since they’d no longer walk through the churchyard because I’d told them so many tales about the undead, or the mistakenly buried, fighting their way out of graves… But I stopped writing when I started publishing: I was overawed by other people’s talent for a time before regaining my own confidence. It was writing THE TENTH GIFT that really gave me the confidence to call myself a novelist. I had never tried to write a historical novel or about our real and recognizable world before and it was a huge challenge: but researching the Barbary corsairs and finding out more about them and their numerous raids on my native Cornish coast was so utterly fascinating it was soon clear it would be impossible to write a dull book with such thrilling subject matter at the heart of it. It started as a novel about my abducted family member (Catherine Tregenna in 1625) and then became a heartfelt love story and what I hope is a sympathetic and informed examination of the interface between Christianity and Islam: for when I set out to research the novel in Morocco, I got so immersed in the place and its people that by the end of the year I came away with a Berber husband. Which is simply the best payback for writing I could ever have dreamed (though even my imagination would never have come up with anything so outlandish!). We’ve just celebrated 9 years together, and I’ve written three historical novels with Morocco at their heart: THE TENTH GIFT, THE SALT ROAD (amongst the Tuaregs of the Sahara) and THE SULTAN’S WIFE (set in the 17th century Moroccan and English courts).

Sorcery Rising, UK hardback

You write under many different names. Why?

Jane: My first published novels (4 books as Gabriel King) were written with my ex, literary novelist M John Harrison. We’d recently broken up and I think the shared project was way of keeping in contact. So we had to come up with a pseudonym that would encompass us both. Jude Fisher as a name came about because of my work with Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies: I had to write the companion works under a pen-name because it would have been awkward for the estate if I’d been involved under my own name, even though by then I had stepped away from being Tolkien Publisher. And I was too well know in the fantasy field – I didn’t want my fellow editors judging the submission of my work because of who I was but on its own merits. My historical novels are all written under my own name, though.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Visual Companion

What are you working on at the moment (editing and writing)?

Jane: I’m editing my draft of a 12th century epic novel which focuses on the build-up to the Third Crusade, on Gothic cathedral architecture and its debt to Islamic sacred buildings; on miracle-fakers and the Siege of Acre. It’s called THE BOOK OF MIRACLES: it’s my WAR AND PEACE! I also have a rather odd project in the works which I’m writing sort of secretly. Only my agent has read any of it so far…

Editing? Constantly: already this year two big fantasy novels, including the new Robin Hobb (FOOL’S ASSASSIN) which will be published in August; and two thrillers (which I also publish) including the new one by Jonathan Freedland, aka Sam Bourne. I now have Mark Lawrence’s next manuscript on my Kindle for reading.

Forgot to ask, this is a techy question. When you edit, do you do it all on screen or do you print off and read on paper ( just imagining the block of paper you would need for George RR.)

Jane: Everything is now edited on screen and sent back and forth with tracking showing every change. I run a paperless office. Which is just as well, since with temperatures hitting 47 degrees here in the summer, it’s impossible to run a printer: the inks just dry up. I read manuscripts on my Kindle, then they get transferred to an editing program on my laptop when we get to structural edits and finally copy-editing. I do like to see a book through from acquisition to printer. I don’t think there are many editors around who do that, but I see it as a crucial act of faith between me and the author.

One of the driving forces behind this conversation with Jane was my wishing to understand how the phenomena of A Game of Thrones came about. The series has been a game changer in publishing and also in tv adaptations. It is an epic that took time to build from its initial print run of 1500 hardbacks to the monster it has become. Time has played a part in this, with each book that was published new people discovered the series, and the publishers kept the back list in print so that new readers could collect all and read all. And the books had their own champions who fought for the writer and backed what has been a very long game, convincing the publisher that it was worth investing, until the series hit that tipping point. And where was that? Sales rocketed with the adaptation for the small screen. HBO brought many new readers to the books.

It is one of those books that again champions fantasy fiction until there are few households left who haven’t either read the books or watched the series. Having enjoyed both screen and book I would like to thank George RR Martin for having the vision to hold such a behemoth in his imagination, and Jane and all his editors for the work they do, and Harper Collins Voyager for buying the book and keeping the faith.

We didn’t only talk about books. I also told Jane I wanted to revisit an old haunt of mine. Every year when I was a child we would go on holiday to the sea, to a small place in Devon called Torcross. I loved it there and to a land locked child it was so wonderful to be beside the sea. We always sat on a shingle beach and I would read and doze and draw and swim. Above us a small private hotel, the Cove House Guest House. I would dream of another life, being a child, growing up there, drawing on the stretch of concrete in the sloping garden, watching the sea boil with mackerel, the storms, talking to the ghosts of the soldiers who had died there during the war. Jane went quiet. Then she went to fetch a photograph, a small black and white of a child, with a great roll of paper stretched out on a strip of concrete in a garden by a shingle beach. It was the same garden. Jane had spent the early years of her life growing up in the same house, beside the sea.