Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Interview #11: Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve, at home on Dartmoor
I'm very privileged to have Philip Reeve as the subject of my latest Bookengine interview.We spoke via Skype (a first for Bookengine!) - me in Cheshire, Philip at his home on Dartmoor.

Philip, of course, is the author of the thrilling Mortal Engines books. To those who have yet to savour them, they are set in a post-apocalyptic world following the 'Sixty Minute War'. Entire cities and towns have become huge, mobile vehicles - traction cities - driven by a 'survival of the fittest' system called Municipal Darwinism. This results in cities consuming one another in order to survive.

He won the Carnegie Medal for his retelling of the Arthur legend, Here Lies Arthur. His other work includes the Larklight trilogy and most recently his book Goblins was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize.

Originally from Brighton, he trained as an illustrator, then worked in a bookshop for a while before becoming a freelance artist providing illustrations for the Horrible Histories series among others.

The book that started it all for Philip
His artistic training clearly influenced his writing style. Mortal Engines is a feast for the mind's eye, allowing the reader to see clearly the world Philip has created.

I was keen to ask him how he created the Mortal Engines world, with its logic, rich history, cleverly woven storylines and interconnected characters.

Surely he began with an overarching masterplan?

"I don't deal in plans. Mortal Engines came about a long time ago. About 20 years ago. I was wanting to write some big adventure. I kicked various ideas about before I hit on the notion of a city on wheels. Once I got that image I started writing. I started on page one. And it went on and on. I threw many, many versions away. But I came up with key scenes, which I salvaged. And after 10 years I had a book."

There must have been an incredible amount of editing involved?

Philip said: "You work in the way you work. I can write 50- or 60,000 words and keep 10,000. I'm not an efficient writer!

"As I say, I never do a plan. I have books here I have plotted and I've never written them because I've got it all out. I don't see the point. So instead I just write and I suddenly find I've written half a book.

"I find it quite easy writing in a visual way. It took lots of work, of course. I can usually see things pretty easily. I just have to write it down then."

... and a wonderful place it is, too!

I'd imagined Philip had planned Mortal Engines as a sequence of novels from the start.

Not so, he told me.

"At the end of the first book I thought I had tied up all the loose ends. So I picked away at it. And I noticed there were one or two things to be expanded on."

Some have described his work as steampunk.

He said: "I've always loved contraptions and strange Victoriana. I loved Oliver Postgate, The Clangers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Stuff like that. A sense of the past as a playful place.

"I was a Lord of the Rings fan as a boy. I didn't really like sci-fi growing up. I didn't like Doctor Who, I found it too scary. I loved fantasy, Tolkien and Alan Garner. I tried to write my own version of those books.
The first Mortal Engines prequel

"I liked building worlds, mapping them and creating names. Mortal Engines developed straight out of that.

"Star Wars introduced me to sci-fi and showed me it could be rusty and dusty and could draw on history.

"I've written three prequels to Mortal Engines. There's to be a fourth prequel. But it's going to be a year or two before I do that."

I loved Philip's wit and playfulness in the books, the play on words - Tunbridge Wheels is a favourite!

"Well, I think of myself as a comic writer. Goblins is humorous. It's a story like the others, though it does have lots of jokes along the way."

Goblins has garnered interest from filmmakers and there are plans for a movie by the team that made Coraline and the recent ParaNorman. It is a rollicking comic fantasy, sparked after Philip read Tolkien to son Sam at bedtime. He began writing his own, humorous story and shared instalments with Sam each night.

A film of Goblins is planned
"I have done a second one and it would be nice to do it as a trilogy, but it depends whether my publisher wants one," he said.

He has lived on Dartmoor for around 15 years. I was interested to know whether his home influenced Here Lies Arthur, which shows the dark side of Camelot.
"I did a lot of walking around Dartmoor. I do a lot of walking anyway, and sketching.

"I tried to make it feel very earthy. These people are living in nature, but not in a nice way. It's hard and it's cold. The changing of the seasons are important to them."

Recently, Philip has collaborated with illustrator Sarah McIntyre (interviewed for Bookengine in September). He's written two stories under the umbrella title Seawigs. Sarah is working on illustrations for the first, Oliver and the Seawigs.

"It's a sea adventure with mermaids. The second is set in space. It's not a series, they are standalones.

"It's out of my hands now and on Sarah's drawing board. Her illustrations look phenomenal."

Meeting his fans
Did he never want to illustrate his own work?

"I would have loved to have been a painter, a landscape painter.

"But I don't have the ability, so I write them instead."

* Many, many thanks to Philip for taking the time to speak to me (by Skype!) from his Dartmoor home. His website is packed with great stuff. And make sure you visit his blog too.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Interview #10: Kate Maryon

 "The key to writing is to find your voice. And often you find your voice when you look to what was the most difficult part of your life."

Kate Maryon

Kate Maryon offered me this brilliant piece of advice right at the end of our interview when she asked me whether I was a writer. I told her I had long been a writer but felt I hadn't yet found my voice. I thought a lot about what she said after I put the phone down and I realised she was absolutely right. Writers should face up to awkward, painful events and tell the truth.

If ever there was a writer who followed her own advice, then Kate Maryon is that writer.
Her books explore themes such as isolation, loneliness and separation. She may not describe it as such, but writing could be a form of therapy for her.

"I always knew from when I was young that I could write. I used to write, with a pencil and pad, pages and pages of scribbles.

Baby Kate
 "I had a traumatic childhood and I think I was trying to express that somehow."

Kate's father was violent and cruel towards her and her siblings and mum. He'd had a troubled childhood of his own.

"When he met my mum and she got pregnant with me his anger erupted. He burned everything and threw everything out of the house. He would take a puppy or a kitten out and shoot it if it did a wee in the house."

One of Kate's strengths as a writer is her understanding of what makes people tick. And she can see why her father behaved the way he did.

"My father was born after my grandparents lost a three-year-old. He was born into an atmosphere of grief and panic. He was a wild little boy, obsessed with nature and animals. When he was 15 he went into hospital with tuberculosis and didn't come out until he was 20.

"He was full of rage."

Her first published novel
Witnessing that rage ultimately led Kate to a realisation: "I became aware of the continuum of life and he was part of it. But he was not to blame."

Speaking to Kate and looking at her books and the themes they explore, one is struck by her compassion for others and a sense that she is somehow trying to heal those around her.

So it is no surprise to learn that she is a homeopath. Since 1996 when she first qualified, she has worked with thousands of people. "My particular talent is supporting clients in unravelling the emotional and psychological patterns that are keeping them from living the deeper, truer expression of themselves," she says on her website.

She was married young and had her two children when she was 24 and 25. Her writing was put on hold, but she read lots with them. She became a writer once more years later when she had an epiphany driving through Frome, Somerset, where she lives.

She joined a creative writing class.

"It became evident that I could write after a week and the class was very supportive - we read and shared things. As the weeks went on I stopped doing the class homework and started writing a novel. It didn't occur to me it was a children's novel."

She sent the book out to the world and after the usual rejection she was signed up by agent Eve White and publishers HarperCollins.

She relished the editorial process of working with her editor and Shine was her first book to be published, in 2009, although it wasn't her first written book. Three more novels, Glitter, A Million Angels and A Sea of Stars followed in quick succession.

"I learned something new with each book. My weak spot is plotting. I am very good at emotional content and understanding characters."

On her author website, she explains: "My books are about ordinary girls, like you, who find themselves faced with an extraordinary real life situation. I’d like my characters to take you on a journey, a kind of exploration so you get curious about life, so you end up thinking… How would I feel if this thing happened to me?

The novel Kate sent to my daughter
"What would it be like if my mum suddenly got sent off to prison? How would I cope if my dad lost his business and we had no money left? How far would I go to bring my dad back home? What would it be like if my family adopted a child?"

She begins writing when a character "leaps" into her imagination. "I ask them lots of questions about themselves. They will reveal what is going on for them. There's a point where the character starts writing their own story."

She's working on a novel at the moment about a girl living on the streets of Manchester. To help with research, she has been talking to Andy McCullough of homeless charity the Railway Children. "When he was 11 he packed a bag and a teddy and lived on the streets." She said she doesn't want to romanticise homelessness and Andy has busted a few myths for her, such as the idea that homeless people eat out of bins - he told her they don't, they still have pride.

Meeting her young readers on school visits is important to Kate. She will talk to the youngsters about her experiences and leads them through workshops, encouraging their own writing and self-confidence.

"I do have a mission," she told me. "My mission is to bring about an awareness of how we relate and particularly how parents relate to their kids."

Kate worked in diverse fields before she was a homeopath and author. She's been a nanny and a waitress. She was also  a dresser for a West End theatre and at the BBC, where she worked on EastEnders, Breakfast TV and Grange Hill. Perhaps she might find herself back in the world of television with her books, I suggested.

"CBBC looked at Shine for a  while. There's that slot around Christmas that Jacqueline Wilson seems to snaffle," she said. Not that she holds a grudge against the Tracy Beaker author. Wilson and Cathy Cassidy are authors she looks up to. If a film or TV series were made of one of her books, she would love to see director Ken Loach behind the camera.

Kate is happy and fulfilled, despite her traumatic childhood
As we brought the interview to a close, Kate asked if my nine-year-old daughter had read any of her books. I said she hadn't but explained that she had read several Jacqueline Wilsons.

A couple of days later a parcel arrived for my daughter. Inside was a copy of A Million Angels with a lovely personal inscription from Kate. My daughter was thrilled.

Kate Maryon truly knows how to touch people.

* My thanks to Kate for speaking to me. Her author website is here. There's loads to read and do there, including joining her fan club. If you are interested in her work as a homeopath, go here.

Her page on her agent's website is here.

If you want to find out more about homeless charity Railway Children and the inspiring work of Andy McCullough, you should click through here.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Bookengine guest #1: Miriam Halahmy

Welcome to the inaugural Bookengine guest blog.

I'm very privileged to welcome Miriam Halahmy, the Carnegie Medal-nominated author of three powerful YA novels, Hidden, Illegal and Stuffed. Her work has garnered rave reviews from the likes of Wendy Cooling and Nicolette Jones.

My thanks to her for taking the time to pen this post. Her website is www.miriamhalahmy.com
Her publisher is Meadowside Books, whose website is www.meadowsidebooks.com

Miriam Halahmy and some of her teen readers

Tips on writing gritty teen fiction without giving a lecture.

My books cover some of the most controversial issues of our times including human rights, immigration, racist bullying, dysfunctional families, crime, self harming and mental health issues. I have been interested in social and political issues from childhood. It is inevitable therefore that my fiction will reflect my interests and passions. So how can we weave gritty issues into a novel without sounding like a Humanities teacher reading from a text book?

Here are my top ten tips :-

1. All writing revolves around the characters. You can’t have a plot on an empty stage.

2. Don’t let your research bog down the text. No-one wants to read social work reports. Keep your information in the background.

3. Controversial Y.A. fiction doesn’t work as a soap box – it works the way all good fiction works with characters that stand up and stand out on the page.

4. Well written fiction can be far more effective than a classroom lesson or a history book. My novel Hidden has themes of immigration, racism and human rights. I have a gang calling an Iraqi boy ‘paki’ and ‘terrorist’ but then I deconstruct this awful language in the story. The impact on teens can be quite profound. A twelve year old girl wrote to me saying, “I didn’t know we had immigrants in England."

5. It is not the issues which will keep your readers page-turning. It is the characters and their journey. Make sure your characters are layered, with strong back stories and everyday problems to deal will while they confront the big issues.

Writing in a Costa coffee shop

6. Equally, don’t shy away from controversial issues because of a fear that young readers aren’t ready. Controversial fiction helps young people to form independent opinions. One thirteen year old told me after reading Illegal, “I like reading about lives which are so different to mine.”

7. Don’t forget humour. It can be one of the best ways to tackle serious issues. One of my favourite novels, Two weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman, deals with leukaemia, death, aids and gay love. But it is laugh-out-loud like all of Gleitzman’s books. Humour is a very powerful tool for dealing with gritty issues.

8. Keep it clean please! The three sss – slang, swearing and sex, often become stumbling blocks for writers wanting to deal with gritty themes. My two novels keep slang to the minimum, avoid swearing and only allude to one sexual episode. The decision on how much of the three sss to use is for the individual writer to decide, but it would be wrong to feel that you must use them to write gritty fiction.

The poster says it all

9. Is there anything you can’t write about? According to the teenagers; no. I have asked them directly and they all say, Write about anything you want. Ultimately, the writer has to decide where the boundaries lie for them and yes, we do have to be aware that some gate-keepers might not be happy but the decision is all yours.

10. Write the book you want to write whatever genre, that’s the only way you will be remotely happy as a writer.

Y.A. fiction is at the cutting edge of contemporary fiction in the UK today. Our job is to write the best books we can but let’s keep the narrative alive and engaging. No-one wants to be lectured to when they settle down for a good read.

Miriam Halahmy