Jack Barrow came to me through one of those random online connections. I read his book blurb, thought this sounds fun and grabbed him for an interview. As he’s not yet famous, I thought I should do some of those ‘who are you?’ questions, and the results were fascinating…
Nimue: Hello Jack! Let’s start with an enquiry about the nature of your path…
Jack: What can I say? I tend to call myself a pagan these days but only really because that’s the community that I belong to. Back when I started on this path, in the early eighties, I described myself as an occultist. I suppose magician is the definitive category. My background is probably best described as ceremonial magician, mostly derived from cabalistic or Thelemic sources. I have an interest in Crowley and Spare but not to the exclusion of other sources. I believe that the foundations of paganism lie in the time-honoured symbol systems, particularly the Tarot and astrology. If a practitioner can master those then they have a foundation that can take them anywhere. I once went through a stage of describing myself as an eclectic/comedic magician because I steal from anywhere but don’t take anything seriously. After a while I changed that as I realised that I do actually take the practice of magic quite seriously, at least in terms of my understanding of the mechanisms involved in making magic successful. I’ve been described as a chaos magician but I’ve never liked the term.
Nimue: And in the rest of your life?
Jack: I’ve been making a living out of writing, in one form or another, since the late eighties. In that time I’ve done most sorts of corporate writing (which is what you have to do to survive) including copywriting and technical writing as well as some journalism. I’ve written on all sorts of subjects from advertising features about BBQs (there’s not much you can say after about 200 words) to technical manuals for helicopter engines or photocopiers. I started writing about ideas in 1989 when I heard of an astrological event that caught my imagination. I say ideas because that’s what I write about, paganism or magical concepts are just some of those ideas but my writing back then was as much about politics and philosophy as it was about astrology, and that was mundane astrology which is the astrology of global events. Later I found I could write stories about the sort of people I knew at the time, people involved in the magical scene, and the fiction came from there. Eventually it occurred to me that writing fiction is a better way to communicate those ideas and it gives the opportunity for a few jokes at the same time. I found myself writing about the kind of magic that members of the community practise and I enjoyed getting away from the sparks from the fingertips magic portrayed in the Harry Potter stories.
Otherwise I’ve studied psychology for which I got a very poor degree from a relatively good university. I like African percussion and early blues music (as well as most things in between). After watching a Horizon programme I’m fasting two days a week in an attempt to not turn into my father. I like red wine, and Top Gear, often at the same time, and I have an over romanticised ambition to throw a tent and backpack in my car and drive off into the wilderness with a tablet computer to write my next novel in splendid isolation.
Nimue: Now, when I read the blurb for The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil, I got a strong feeling of comedy, so, you’re writing about wizards, and you come from an occult background, how does the juggling of realities, personal, mainstream, fictional, work for you?
Jack: I would say I’m writing about magicians (rather than wizards) because that’s my tradition (although I try not to push a link between myself and the characters too much). As far as juggling realities goes, I find it comes pretty much second nature. When I perform an act of magic it’s usually in some magickal scenario: in the temple, robed up, after long preparation or some other factor that divides it away from everyday life. The act of dressing a temple, the clouds of incense or candle lit room with shadowy corners; that all creates an atmosphere of magic and changes that reality, generates gnosis if you like.
Being a practitioner of magic (for me) is suspension of disbelief and when I do it just comes naturally. I don’t actually believe that waving a stick around and chanting in some ancient language is going to cause an outcome but I have an expectation that it will generate results, so long as I give it a chance.
In terms of fictional realities, I’m not sure there is any difference to the real world. My characters live in present day England, have day jobs, get drunk, fall over, etc. Their reality is the same as ours. They perform magic in the same way as we do, the only difference is that they get to save the universe at weekends. Otherwise they are just like you and me.
Nimue: Ah, suspension of disbelief, that’s a powerful thing in writing and in being an audience. The ability to choose what to believe.
Jack: I wouldn’t call it choosing what to believe as much as role play. However, I think there are only some roles that will work, or perhaps only some roles (or alternate views of reality) that I’d want to get involved with. It’s difficult to pin down and I don’t want to analyse that too closely as analysis is the province of a different approach to the world from the magical approach. It’s not so much belief as expectation. I really don’t think I believe in magic. I’m a rationalist at heart. However I do use magic and use divinations systems, that sort of thing. Rationally I can’t believe that they can possibly work, however I’ve used them so many times and found them useful that I have an expectation that it these practices will work out for me. Don’t ask me how magic can possibly work because I really don’t believe in it.
Nimue: So would you say that a Pagan reader will find something familiar about your characters and their lives? Might these be the people you run into at the local moot?
Jack: Yes I hope so. When I started to write the book I didn’t really know how the magic was going to work out and I was writing it sequentially, originally publishing a chapter a month on an obscure pagan web site. When it came to describing the first major act of magic I just described it as I would have approached it. Well, okay, I wouldn’t normally try to start a car with magic but you have to put your characters is different situations from people in everyday life. So I was left with the dilemma of how to resolve this and decided that I’d just have the car start without too much explanation, as if by coincidence. Isn’t that how magic works for pagans?
There are one or two completely impossible things that happen in the story but when I realised how the rest of the magic was working I decided I wanted to keep the obviously supernatural to a minimum. Therefore there are no Potteresque sparks from wands or people flying on broomsticks, apart from that one major obviously impossible event in the first half of the book but I’m not going to give that away as it’s got a fairly significant gag attached to it.
Could Nigel, Wayne and Clint be at the moot? Most probably, if they know about the moot but I’m not sure how much they get out, perhaps Wayne does as he spends a lot of time in pubs. They are certainly not some special breed of hero that never mixes with the public. They tend to meet in Nigel’s house on a Tuesday night to drink dark rum, or whatever they can get hold of. You might think of it as like a coven meeting but they are not witches, I’d just call it a group meeting. That’s all explored in The Esbat, that’s the title of the first chapter and a chapter title that will probably appear in all future stories featuring the Hidden Masters.
Nimue: Speaking as someone who would like some Paganish fiction to read, it sounds to me like a very promising balance. Harry Potter is fun, but it’s too much fantasy, I hanker after something a bit more like magical realism, things I can almost believe.
Jack: I think my fiction might be described as magic realism, just I don’t use the term. And of
course there is that one major event in the story that couldn’t possibly be true.
Nimue: Who are your influences, on the writing side?
Jack: Influences, definitely Douglas Adams and Robert Rankin. Otherwise I have very eclectic tastes and I’m as much into non-fiction as fiction. In the last few months I’ve reread The Hobbit, a few books by Bill Bryson, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and I’m currently reading Gandhi’s autobiography. When I’ve finished that I’m planning to read Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails as research for my next novel which starts on a mountain top with an end of the world cult. Otherwise I’m just not sure what my influences are, the Open University perhaps.
Nimue: Where can people find you?
(Book review to follow, because I’ve now read, and loved Jack’s writing… watch this space…)