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Prentice and Weil Discuss Their Black Arts

Posted on the 22 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Prentice and Weil discuss their Black Arts

Black Arts by Prentice and Weil.

Black Arts by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil is a thrilling fantasy novel for young adults, due out from David Fickling Books on March 29. Set in a dangerous and magical 16th century London, the story follows Jack, a young boy attempting his initiation into a gang of thieves. All appears to be going well until he cuts the wrong purse – plunging him into a terrifying tale of revenge. Prentice and Weil answered some questions about their debut novel:

From where did the idea for Black Arts originate?
The first inspiration came from a book called The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl – a cracking piece of historical detective work into the murder of Christopher Marlowe. It presents Elizabethan London in a sinister, glamorous, exciting light – a world of violence and deception, where the foremost playwright of the day can be murdered by a notorious conman while the deputy head of the Secret Service looks on. As aspiring thriller writers we thought it was perfect – especially since most people’s idea of Elizabethan London is based more on Shakespeare in Love than the blood-soaked, paranoid reality.

It took a long time to get from the general plan of writing a dark Elizabethan thriller to the specifics of the world we’ve created in Black Arts. The idea that really started to bring it all together came up when we were thinking about Elizabethan magic. We wanted magic in our story, and we wanted it to be historically accurate (more or less); but we also wanted it to make sense to us and our readers.

The feature of actual Renaissance magic that we hit upon was the summoning of devils and spirits to create magical objects. It supposedly worked like this: you’d summon up a devil or spirit and bind it into a physical object – a ring, a cloak, a bowl of water. As long as you’d got the right kind of spirit, you would then have a magic ring, a cloak of invisibility, a mirror to show the future. We took the idea a couple of steps further to create our magical London: what if people had been binding devils into objects – and buildings, and whole districts – for hundreds and thousands of years? A place like London would be full of these magical beings, buried in the archaeological mulch but still exerting their hidden influences. The idea made sense to us – certain places do have a particular ‘feel’ to them, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. As we read more about London, particularly the mystical histories of Peter Ackroyd, we learned that there are also weird continuities – places where the same sorts of activities keep on cropping up through the centuries. Maybe there really are spirits buried beneath London, shaping the lives of the unwitting inhabitants.

“Maybe there really are spirits buried beneath London, shaping the lives of the unwitting inhabitants.”

How did the two of you share the duties for planning and writing the book?
It’s been a process of trial an error. A lot of people assume we must have different, clearly demarcated duties, but actually we share pretty much everything between the two of us.

During the planning stage, we take lots of long walks to talk things through. Walking seems to help the flow of conversation and ideas, and we’ve found that different walks have different effects. The Regent’s Canal towpath is good for concentrating the mind on a single problem – there’s only one route, no diversions. If we’re trying to come up with new ideas, or deal with several different characters or story threads, we go for a more circuitous route – through Clissold Park, or the Stoke Newington [Abney] Cemetery.

Once we’ve figured out a story that seems to work, we split up and write out separate versions. This is where we usually see the glaring plot holes, story loops and other storytelling sins we’ve failed to notice during the walk-and-talk stage, and doing separate versions gives us each a chance to just sit and think things through without having to talk. Sometimes, of course, this means we come up with contradictory ideas; but over the years we’ve got pretty good at dealing with these without actually fighting each other.

Once we’ve resolved any disputes, one of us will sit down and write an outline of the agreed-upon story, usually about 7000 words, which we send to our editor. This usually prompts a meeting and several major rethinks before we move on to a chapter-by-chapter plan. Once we’ve done that, it gets simpler. Starting at the beginning, we write alternating chapters (or pairs of chapters, or more – it all depends where the big narrative breaks are). We then edit each other’s work, back and forth until we’re both happy with the results. This, hopefully, means that the finished book has a consistent style – one that doesn’t belong to either of us, but instead emerges from the process of rewriting, editing and argument that goes on throughout.

You’ve obviously had a lot of fun writing about London and you create a wonderful imagining of the city. Did you do a lot of research into the history of London?
We read a lot of history books of course, and also plays like Ben Jonson’s City Comedies, Webster’s bloody revenge tragedies (full of murders and double-crossing intelligencers), diaries, court records, slang dictionaries . . . It has been fun trying to capture the way people acted, dressed and spoke. But here we must make a confession: some of it’s just made up. Our excuse would be that any historical work – especially a historical novel – is a work of imagining. As long as you’ve done enough research to get the essential flavor rubbed in deep, under your skin, the things you make up will sound consistent with the ‘real’ history. (That’s what we hope, anyway!)

“It has been fun trying to capture the way people acted, dressed and spoke. But here we must make a confession: some of it’s just made up.”

In the book, Jack has an Imp in his service. What sort of devil or demon would you two like to have control of?
The Imp is a special case: it has more flexible powers than most. If we had to settle for a ‘traditional’ bound devil (i.e. one that is fitted for just a single task) . . . we’d find it hard to agree on a shared one. Andy would like a devil of gluttony to live in his kitchen and make everything he cooks there delicious. Jon has always wanted to be able to fly, and would probably go for two little flying imps bound into a pair of boots. He would also love to bind a fertility devil into some kind of lotion, poultice or ointment, that would prevent him from going bald.

Are there any plans for more books involving Jack, Beth, et al?
Yes. There are four books planned in all, and we’re currently two chapters into the second.

This interview first appeared on

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