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.

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