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April 27, 2023

Behind the Scenes at the Oxford Centre for Fantasy – Part 1: How We Got Here

Behind the Scenes at the Oxford Centre for Fantasy – Part 1: How We Got Here

Where in all the fantasy worlds is the best place to assemble a team?

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What's our story? It’s time to get to know the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. Find out how we emerged from an effort to buy Tolkien's house, but ended up setting up a literary centre in honour of Tolkien and the Inklings, which does far more than we initially imagined. Find out more about our director, Julia Golding, and her team and stick around to hear where in all the fantasy worlds is the best place to assemble a team.

[Music] Hello and welcome to Myth Makers. Myth Makers is the podcast for fantasy fans and fantasy creatives brought to you by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. My name is Julia Golding, I'm an author but I'm also Director of the Centre and today I am joined by my good friend and collaborator Brian Boyd for an episode all about how the Oxford Centre for Fantasy came to be. me and a look behind the scenes really as to who we are, what are we doing, what are we getting up to, because we've had a couple of people saying, tell us more about yourself. So this podcast is our answer to that. So first of all, all organisations start with people rather than the structures. So I'm going to let Brian sort of gently, I hope, interrogate me about my role in this project that we've been developing together. So over to you, Brian, say hi. - That's good. Well, thank you for the introduction. It's been great to spend the last few years working with you and your team. And for those of you watching and listening at home, this is a very virtual organization. You know, Julia is located in England, UK, and I'm located in New York City. And we have support team in South Africa and in Asia. Asia, and in the West Coast of the United States. There's a lot of time zones involved. And we're doing a pretty good job of keeping everything straight, I gotta say, Julia, so that's good. So Julia, let's go back in time. Before we talk about Oxford and its other name, its first starting name, Project Northmore, there was Julia Golding. So who's Julia Golding? Well, that's a really good question, that one. So I'm best known in the UK and where I started was back in 2006. I had, I started my career as a children's novelist and I had something, I often call it like a rock star beginning because very, getting published is really tough as many people listening to this will know. But I was very fortunate in that, I don't know, the stars aligned or whatever. My first book hit a lot of good critical feedback and it won two big awards and sort of was on the shortlist for one of the other major awards. And so within my first year, I went from being an unknown to being a well-known children's writer. And I ended up publishing, I think it was four books in my first year and six in my second, I had two publishers I was working with, which is very, very, that's not standard. And these were big, you know, big novels. They weren't like little things. So... - And what are those books? What are the titles of those books? - Yeah, so it started off with, there was a historical series about a girl called Cat Royal living in a theatre in London called The Diamond of Drury Lane. That series eventually grew to have six parts to it. And the reason I wrote that is I've got a doctorate from Oxford University in that period. It was a sort of working out of all this wonderful literary world that I had immersed myself in for many years. Then the other one, which is more relevant to my current job, I suppose, is a fantasy quartet for kids about children who belong to the secret society for the protection of mythical creatures. It's set today and it has an environmental message just just humming underneath, but it's really about an adventurous story about how to protect wonderful magical creatures. And that was very much written for my own children who were infants at the time. So it was started off as a bedtime story, just as "The Hobbit" started off as a bedtime story. So that was where I began. And I've written an awful lot of books since well over 60. - I think behind your shoulder, is that? - Yeah. -You look behind your shoulder there. -Yeah, that's some of them. I've recently moved house, so I've lost some of them. There is at least, believe me, there's at least 60 out there. They're in a box somewhere. Then a moving house. Oh, it's such a nightmare. Anyway, so as my own family grew up, and the reality of a writing life is that you get attention as a debut. And then after that, Sometimes people hit it massive, like a J.K. Rowling or somebody like that, and that's what they are. But for the majority of people, it's a question of keep on reinventing yourself. Having different phases, a bit like a singer might have different periods. Taylor Swift had her country period and then her later period. It's sometimes a bit like that as a writer. Otherwise, you get stuck doing the same thing. As my own family grew up, I then started writing for the YA audience and I span off another two pen names to do this. One was Joss Stirling and the other was Eve Edwards. They both exist as pen names still. Joss Stirling was doing fantasy of a kind. It was the paranormal, contemporary romance type fantasy. It was in the era when everything was dominated by Twilight. So I wrote a book that wasn't about vampires but was about extrasensory perception and a group of young people who had this, which has got a massive - that's got probably one of my biggest fandoms is that one. and then Eve Edwards was doing Historical Teen. In 2015, I won an award as Joss Stirling, which was an adult award. It was the Romantic Novelist Association Award. For anyone who's interested, romantic novels are the biggest part of the market. Forget literary novels, forget sci-fi, it's romance. That's where the money is, as far as publishers are concerned. So it's not an insignificant thing to win. It introduced me to a number of adult publishers and I started writing for HarperCollins at that point, who I'm still writing for. I've been doing a number of adult novels for them, psychological thrillers, a detective series and my next book, hopefully, I don't know when it's coming out, but I've written a historical puzzle thriller for them recently, which I've just delivered. So, the writing life very much carries on. And then more recently, and I think this is where our lives start to converge, is during lockdown. I started thinking, yeah, I've got this writing experience, these novels I've done, loads of festivals and children's school visits, all that stuff. what else can I do? I've got this experience. And part of this was that feeling of, I cannot say at my age now that I've got imposter syndrome, because I've done it. I've got the track. Claim my experience. It's very hard sometimes to shift from one skill set and think, "Maybe I can do something else." And so I started exploring screenwriting and that world, which was encouraged by working for a year at the Royal Institution, which is a centre for science in the UK. I'm interested in that history of science. So I started writing screenplays about figures from the history of science. This has brought me into contact with a whole new range of people. I'm working with a couple of producers on a variety of projects. Who knows if any of of these will get made, but I'm enjoying working with people who do get things made. And one of my hopes for the next 10 years is something I do get put through in that kind of, to be on a screen somewhere. Let me ask you this, is your audience just UK based? Do you feel like your audience for your writing career, before we start talking about the next thing, do you feel like it's a global audience? Definitely global. My books have been put into - I did count it up the other day - it was well over 20 languages. It's like 30 languages, I think. So there's been books in - well, you name a language, it's probably been in that. I've got, for example, my latest children's series, the Jane Austen Investigate series is being translated into French, which is great because French was one of my holdout languages. I had lots of Spanish and Russian and Greek and, you know, Estonian, but I was really pleased to see the French have decided they like something I've written. But when I was talking about fandoms, the fandom for the Savant series, which is the first Joss Sterling series, is incredibly international. In fact, I'd rather neglected it. And the other day, I've been a bit put off social media recently, partly watching all the Twitter stuff happening. But I went back in a personal capacity as opposed to the Oxford Centre of Fantasy capacity into Instagram and put out something to that group who followed me. And suddenly they were all back again. So I've started writing them a new novel because I thought, "Hey, they're still hanging around. So let's write that fan base a new novel." And a lot of them are from the Americas, Central and Southern America, because these books were translated in Mexico and Argentina, as well as Spain. So I would say that that fan base is pretty much Anglophone and Spanish. Not so much. I think I've got a market to find in America with these books, so that'll be fun if that happens. I think a tour of the States would be a good idea. Yeah, Brian, you can organize a tour for me. We'll do that. I definitely work internationally. That's very much the way I think. So let's move up to 2020 approximately. And you're living where at the time? Where are you living in 2020? Center of Oxford. So, um, we, we were thinking about this yesterday. That is when COVID started, wasn't it? Yeah. March of 2020. Yeah. Yeah. So, um, so you're living in Oxford. Tell me, just give me a short, what's Oxford like, what's it like to live there? So Oxford has been many things to me. I think the thing to understand about Oxford is it people interact with it differently. So if you come as a tourist, you see incredible old buildings. Behind those buildings are lots of secret gardens and chapels and great halls and students doing amazing work and cycling around with their robes and it all looks quite picturesque. It's been like that for centuries, a thousand years of - well, obviously the women are a new arrival - but roughly a thousand years of people doing that kind of thing. Lectures and stimulating conversations. So there's that side of it. It's a great place to visit for a couple of days. If you live there, it obviously feels different again. I did my doctorate there, so I had a high level interaction with it where I was both teaching and receiving teaching and researching. So then it becomes about the libraries and the colleges and the teaching room and the students. I had very small children at the time, I mean babies. So it then becomes about child care. People coming, taking your baby off so you could teach students. A very sort of practical nuts and bolts life. And then it became about families and friends. So we're blessed in Oxford with great schools and playing fields and lots of wonderful people around and a nice environment to go walking and riding for cycle rides. So it became about that. Then it also is about Oxfam for me. The international NGO Oxfam was originally called the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. It was set up during the war, the Second World War, to relieve famine victims in Greece. There was an appeal and incidentally Priscilla Tolkien was one of the very first volunteers and was involved in the early days. I think she donated a coat and was involved all through her life. So thank you Priscilla. And it grew from that local initiative to be a massive NGO. and at one stage I worked for Oxfam, back before the writing career, and my husband works for Oxfam. That is another way I think about Oxford, because working for an international organization that has its headquarters in Oxford means that there's the throughput of international visitors, people talking about real problems, real survival problems. It keeps your feet on the ground. you're not living in the ivory tower. You're living and considering what it's like to be a pastoralist in northern Kenya. And I like that because Oxford could be a little bit precious if you didn't have that exposure to a world with bigger problems. So you're living in a normal neighborhood. You've got houses, you've got streets. Normal for Oxford. Yeah. Well, that's the neighborhood. We all live in neighborhoods like, you know, we have So I know you're on, time you're on Leckford Street and down the street from you, there's another notable home. Tell me about that. Yeah, Leckford Road. I used to live there, yeah. Leckford Road. You're in a normal, you know, kind of home, I mean, a standard two or three level home, whatever. But down the street, there's something that's kind of important. Tell me about that. Our house had four levels, by the way. Four levels, yeah. Yeah, that's, but we've left there since. I'm now in a normal two level house. And yeah, a short walk away or really short cycle ride away. And on a route I used to go past a lot was 20 Northmore Road, which is where Tolkien lived for really the main part of his family's growing up. So the 30s and 40s. He bought the house from Basil Blackwell, who is a well-known Oxford figure because he set up the Blackwell's books chain and publishing. He published Tolkien's first poem, for example. This house was where he wrote The Hobbit. He started it by telling it, because he lived next door before he moved into number 20. He started telling it as a story next door, but when it got published he was in 20. He also started and pretty much wrote most of The Lord of the Rings. So it is the house of those two books, if you're looking for a house. After that his family were moving on and so he moved to a smaller house with his wife and daughter. So he lived elsewhere in Oxford after. I think it's 1947. So we go on Google. If we go on Google Maps right now, we can punch in 20 Northmore Road, Oxford. Yeah. You can zoom in and see that. It comes up. Last time I looked, it comes up as Tolkien's house. Interesting. So this is, so this is right down the road from you and you, you've had this career as a writer. You have a career as a writer. COVID sets in lockdown. And and I, as I understand it, the house is the owner of the house decides to put it up for sale. Yeah. And that gets you thinking. So tell me what happened there. So I really gave it my all, folks. So initially I thought, can I afford it myself? And I quickly took the maths and thought, no, I can't. There's no way. I mean, it was just too much money. It was sort of, I think it was 4 million. So at least 4 million, which is an awful lot of dollars. over five million dollars. So I thought, well, the only way we could possibly get this house for the nation, the world, is to try and crowdfund it in a sense by raising the money as a charity and then turning it over to preserve it as the house where Tolkien wrote these two books. And that's where we happened to meet on a business call for another project. We got a mutual friend from Singapore, oddly. And this is very lockdown, isn't it? That we're brought together by someone I know from Singapore. And on that call, you said, "Oh, how much you loved C.S. Lewis and the Narnia stories." And I'd been thinking about this house. It'd been on the market for a while. And I thought, "Well, Brian, you know, what about this?" got very excited about the idea. And so we thought, "Right, let's give it a go." We had no guarantee of success, obviously, because we did not know what the world appetite would be to buy this house. But also, it's not a bad thing to try and do. Just see if people would back it. But we had to have a plan B, because when you're raising charitable money and someone gives it irrevocable for a charitable purpose, which is how it works here. We obviously had to have another thing that we could do with that. So the idea was to establish a creative center in honor of the Inklings. And so that was plan B. Oxford has not really's odd. There's a bit of a gap. If you come to Oxford, there is nowhere to go to sort of say, "What about Tolkien?" It's just there's a gap. >> CHANIN: Right. Well, there's the cafe that the Inklings met at. That's reopened recently, right? But that's not's just...literally, it's just a cafe. >> BAKER: No, the Eagle and Child is closed, actually. The Inklings did meet in a number of pubs around the city. There's one that has reopened recently as a community pub called the Lamb and Flag. So if you come to Oxford, do go and support that initiative. But the one that was most closely associated to them is currently in a sort of development black hole. It's called the Eagle and Child. So if anyone listening has an awful lot of money and wants to contact St John's College, I think there is a development opportunity. So there's this opportunity to purchase the home, Project Northmoor is born, a crowdfunding effort ensues. And I gotta say, it was pretty successful. I mean, we had press from around the world cover it. It was on TV, radio, blogs, many people talked about it. Even the folks at Kickstarter reached out and said, "We wanna highlight you because this story is amazing." amazing. So they hired us. We had an executive from Reddit contact us and they covered it on Reddit. But simply, the project just kind of ran out of time. And we don't need to talk about how much was raised, but quite a bit was raised. But the time ran out. And then there was an opportunity. The time ran out in that obviously we had a private individual on the other side of this who was selling this house. So they had a certain amount of time. we were doing this and had an agreement with us that we would do this. But when somebody came along with an uncomplicated buyer came along with the money, he that was obviously in his interest to do that. Right. Which we'd always explained to gave us a window to do it. Right. I think we ran it from December until beginning of March when we thought, well, we can't do this. I remember, I have to look back. It was about mid-March. So it was a huge shame because I suppose we all thought we would do it and initially it looked as though we would. The initial giving period in that December was when we were on the right trajectory and people were very generous with their time. We had all sorts of people appear in our videos. It was great. But we got a couple of side winds, I think, that made it go off track. So there was this odd pushback from some people who, I don't know, they thought we were going to turn it into some religious commune or something. I have no idea what that was about because we're a literary charity and my career is very much firmly in the mainstream of fictions. I never really understood where that came from other than some knee-jerk reaction. No, people don't read all the information. They read the headlines and then that's it. We've got a bit of nasty stuff coming our way, which I think happens to everyone who goes out out on social media, you can be offering to, to, to, you know, sell mother, mother's love and apple pie and someone will take against you. Yeah, it's well, but a majority, an overwhelming majority of the world thought this was incredible. And the fact that the home was for sale, it was an opportunity to pick it up, turn it into a center. I mean, I think 98 99% of the people who wrote in were incredibly in favor. So you're always gonna have that 1%. But to your point about some of the 1% thought this was a religious center or something, faith was important to the Inklings. It was a part of who they were. You can't say it's completely not in the picture. So the Inklings were all Christians, but they were Christians from very different backgrounds. So you've got Tolkien, who obviously is Roman Catholic. got C.S. Lewis who is Protestant. He was going to the Anglican church but he'd grown up in Northern Ireland, so the Northern Irish Protestantism background. You've got Charles Williams who is a Londoner who had his own very esoteric version of Christianity and others, Owen Barfield and others. So there was a range of different sorts of Christian experience. And what brought them together in their faith is that they used it as part of their inspiration. And all of those people turned into very fascinating forms of writing. So, Lord of the Rings, Tolkien thought long and hard about his approach to faith when he wrote that. He keeps faith as a structure and if you read about his letters on this, he mentions it as a Christian work, but he doesn't mean it's proselytizing. He means it's informed by his faith and his understanding of that. C.S. Lewis is much more in your face about that, clearly, because that's how he was as a person. He was much more definite. But Charles Williams, again, he's meditating on these ideas in a philosophic way. He's also writing plays for the Canterbury festival in the same way that T.S. Eliot does. So if you think about him and T.S. Eliot, they're quite similar. You probably know more about T.S. Eliot than you do about Charles Williams. So yes, faith was absolutely important and for me, that's one of the really attractive things about them because I am also a Christian in a kind of really Anglican church way. Nothing too shocking. So what I'm interested in in terms of faith is this is values and positivity and hope and love. How do you put those wonderful feelings and convictions into what you write? How can you be creative? How can you recognize your potential as a human? I'm sure there are people of other faiths who will find things in their background, which they will be looking for ways of putting into their writing. I think the way the Inklings talked about these issues, the way they wrote about them, is very inspiring and continues to inspire. So that was what I'm interested in. But there we go. I don't want to apologize for having a face, but also I wasn't trying to ram it down anybody's throat. No, but it's part of, it's a part of who they were. Again, and I think the percentage of folks who had something to complain about was small, but the press and everything was amazing. So, so that project kind of came to a close. There was a, there was a methodology per, per the charity contract to, to either refund people or to apply it to the cause. and that was very, very, very well done. And that led you into a slight rebranding into the Oxford Center for Fantasy. Yeah. So this is where we knew that Plan B was, was always there, was there. It was always on there from the beginning, right up front. And what I'm so delighted to say is that we have actually done far more than I thought. Yes. So the original thought, oh, wouldn't it be nice to buy the house? You know, it wasn't really very, it was that, that was where I started. But actually what I've ended up doing is forming a literary centre which has all sorts of things going on around it. As you can see, Brian and I are quite capable of chatting for a long time. So having looked at where we came from and brought together the initiative for Project Northmoor, we're going to pause it there and And you can join us again for part two where we talk about our current activities and where we'd like to go in the future. Thanks for listening to Myth Makers podcast brought to you by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. Visit to join in the fun. Find out about our online courses, in-person stays in Oxford, plus visit our shop for great gifts. Tell a friend and subscribe wherever you find your favorite podcasts worldwide. [MUSIC PLAYING]