Well things like Maddy West and the Tongue Taker and Northwood are books for younger readers. I like to write books that have a main character that has something special about them, something they can do that’s hopefully a little unusual or just not you know your normal kind of super hero super traits. Like with Maddy West for example she can speak every language in the world. I think that would be a fascinating thing to be able to do and to have a character that can immediately talk any language as soon as she hears it spoken is a really interesting, well I think it is a really interesting power. A character that has a special power like that and then put them in a situation where that special power at some point is going to be essential in order to get them out of a sticky situation. So the books are a little bit fantastical in that sense but I also like to write them in a way that seems quite real so that the environment that they live in seems like a real environment that kids can identify with and might have some relationship with their own environment. Also talking about books like Super Freak and The Real Thing which were written around my environment at school so it’s the area where I grew up and the schools that I knew even if they got renamed slightly, so I made it real by writing about things that I remembered from being that age.
What do you think kids respond to best in your books?
A really good strong character like Maddy is the initial thing that kids respond to. There has to be some kind of danger I do think that’s what keeps kids reading is that the main character is in some kind of trouble and they’re working and not always succeeding very well at getting themselves out of it and it creates suspense in the story and gives the opportunity for some action sequences that can be quite exciting. I do like to have my books as being adventures where as (umm you know) they’re not dramas. They are adventure stories in a slightly fantastical world.
I read everything; I was a voracious reader when I was at school and not only from the school but also the local public library. My family had a thing, we went there every Friday, take back the books from the previous week and borrow new books so I’d read everything so I’d read everything in the public library by the time I was about 11. I’d moved on from children’s books and was reading adult books by that stage. As a younger reader I loved the Enid Blyton books starting with the Secret Seven moving onto the Famous Five series of books, basically anything by Enid Blyton. I moved onto an author named Willard Price who wrote adventure books, they always had names like African Adventure or South Pacific Adventure and for the age that I was, they were wonderful books. I then moved onto, by the age of about eleven, adult novels and I liked adventure thrillers there as well, Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley were the sorts of authors I read at that age. I then moved into a science fiction phase where I wouldn’t read anything other than science fiction from about the age of about 13 – 18. The big obvious authors there like and Asimov and Auther C. Clarke and all the others, so I went through different genres but all of what I read now comes out in what I write. Elements of Enid Blyton are in my books, there’s certainly a lot of Alistair Maclean particularly in a book like Assault which references one of his books and the science fiction comes through in most of my adult work.
Do you think as a kid you would have read the books that you write now?
Definitely, I write books for me to read. No question. Books that I would want to read and would have wanted to read at the age that they are set, or aimed at. I am the reader that I am writing for when I’m writing the book, absolutely.
You do a lot of school visits, what do you like about them? What do you get out of them?
The thing about going to schools is the interaction with the audience as an author you sit in a dark room, your only interaction is with a keyboard except of course what’s going on in your mind in your imagination all sorts of things are happening but with the actual physical reaction well there’s none, you’re quite isolated. When you get into a school you meet your audience and it’s like being an actor on a stage. An actor in a play delivers a funny line and the audience laugh, well in a book when you’re writing it, you write a funny line and nobody laughs.
You have to wait months to find out if the line worked…
Exactly and even then, they laugh and you don’t hear it. But when you go into a school you can read out the funny line and hear the laughter and there’s that instant gratification of the feedback from the audience and it puts you in the situation of being the actor on the stage with the audience there in front of you responding to what you’re saying. That’s what I love about visiting schools. I don’t think I could be a writer and not visit the schools and not get that reaction from the kids.
Courage is a recurring theme through your books. Do you ever set out to write about themes or do they just happen organically?
No, they happen organically. Courage is a theme; friendship is a bigger theme you’ll find if you scan through my books. You’ll see that friendship is probably the most predominant theme that I write about although courage is probably the second, what I’d consider, if I go and analyze my own work, the second most important theme that does come through. It’s not courage from the extent of ‘hey I’m brave’ it’s from the point of view of ‘hey I’m not brave but there’s something that must be done and I’m going to go and do it anyway’. So it’s kind of like finding courage where there isn’t courage and that’s a really important theme that you’ll find often in these books. But courage and friendship and what friendship actually means, particularly at this age are really important themes to me and its not that I set out to write to that theme it’s that it’s in my mind when I write. Sometimes when I’m editing a book I’ll go back and look and think, I can bring that out more strongly by having this happen and so I’ll work on it and often… a good technique that writers use is to have a minor character state the theme so that it goes from being unobvious to an obvious theme of the book to have a minor character who states it out loud and so I’ll often have that, particularly in the Recon books, minor characters will often state the theme.
I plan them minutely, I’ll have all the chapters written out, a brief description of what’s going to happen in each chapter, what the important relationships are, what conflicts will appear in the chapter how it effects the other chapters in the story, how it take s us to the end of the story and I’ll do that for all the chapters and all the characters of the story before I start and then as soon as I start most of it gets thrown out the window well not most of it but a lot of it gets thrown out the window because as you get into the book it changes organically and what you thought you were writing isn’t always what you are writing but it does give me a structure to work to and I always do it before I start a book. There are two exceptions, The Real Thing and Northwood both of them I wrote without a plan, I started at page one and just decided to see what happened and so they were created completely organically and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was a couple of chapters ahead of the reader in knowing what was going to happen in those books.
Which do you find more enjoyable? Planning or letting it happen?
Letting it happen is more enjoyable if it works. When it doesn’t work, when you’re half way through and its not happening. I’ve actually had a book that I wrote and I was 90% of the way though and it really wasn’t going where I wanted it to go and I stopped and reread it and threw the manuscript in a drawer and I never finished it. I actually sent it to my agent and asked them to pass it onto a publisher and then I rang the agent and said don’t, don’t pass it on I don’t want it going anywhere and I thought maybe in the future I’d go back to it and maybe see if I could make it work; but of course you’ve always got new projects on so I’ve never ever gone back to it.