In advance of the publication of THE SAVAGE KINGDOM (Simon & Schuster, 17th July 2014) literary agents The Blair Partnership asked me some questions about my work, and what advice I had for aspiring children’s writers. Thought you might like a peek:
Q: Where did the idea behind THE SAVAGE KINGDOM come from?
A: Birds nests! Seriously. I have my daughter Millie to thank for the inspiration. She was doing some school homework one day and saw some photographs in a magazine of a rainforest that was being cut down and destroyed. It made quite an impression on her, and prompted her to ask a profound question: If we cut down all the trees in the world where will the birds build their nests? I realized I didn’t have an answer worthy of the question, except to say, let’s make sure we do all we can to stop them cutting down all the trees. It was then I began to research into the loss of animal populations due to disappearing natural habitat around the world and the results were really quite shocking. The seed for the story was sown in that moment as I began to ponder the predicament from the animals’ point of view. What if they said enough is enough, mankind must be stopped. Our beloved black rescue cat Bagherra used to sleep on my writing desk when Millie was at school, so we spent a lot of time together and I realized he, like all pets, would be faced with a terrible moral dilemma, caught in the middle and forced to choose a side. Once I had that, it became a story I just couldn’t stop thinking about.
Q: What do you like most about writing for children in this age category (10+)?
A: For me, the really great thing about writing for younger readers and YA is that they’re so smart, so perceptive, they bring a sense of pure wonder to the experience, but, and this is crucial, they don’t let you get away with anything. However wild and fantastical the setting, the story either works or it doesn’t. It’s enthralling or it’s not. There’s no room for self-indulgence. There’s no place to hide in the telling of the tale. They’re by far the most demanding audience, so for an author it’s the ultimate challenge.
Q: If you could sum up THE SAVAGE KINGDOM in three words, how would you describe it?
A: Be the miracle!
Q: Can you say (without giving too much away) what else is in store for Book II?
A: I cannot wait to unleash Book II! There are some very big twists and turns in store. And some important new characters have emerged too. Though I always set out with a reasonably clear plan, the characters have definitely taken over and they’re telling me what they want to do and where they want to go. It’s thrilling and surprising me, so hopefully fans of Drue and Will-C and co will feel I’ve done them proud.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you have faced with writing this book?
A: As a lad I was quick. A sprinter. A natural. Very hard to beat over 100 metres, but cross country, I’d hobble in huffing and puffing after everyone else had reached the finish line and gone home. My writing career to date has been focused on stageplays, screenplays and songs. I love each discipline, but in comparison with a novel, they’re a 100 metre sprint. The Savage Kingdom is a marathon. I’ve had to work that much harder and dig much deeper, but the sense of achievement is that much greater for it, so I’ll be thrilled if the readers out there feel I’ve run a good race.
Q: Have you always been drawn to writing animal fantasy?
A: Well certainly my childhood was steeped in stories in which animals played a key role – the Narnia books of course, and I was 12 when the wonderful Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was published. But perhaps the most potent of them all were the works of H Mortimer Batten, both his fascinating non-fiction such as ‘The Habits & Characters of British Animals’ and wonderful tales like the adventures of ‘Red Ruff’ the fox, which combined page turning narrative with a well researched peek into the workings of the natural world. He’s by no means a household name today, but his writing had a massive influence on me, and definitely informed my desire to write stories that entertain and educate. I found a vintage copy of ‘Red Ruff’ in a secondhand bookshop recently and couldn’t wait to revisit the novel I first read when I was still in short trousers. I was a little anxious that it might not be as vivid and powerful as I remembered, but I needn’t have worried, it’s true classic that I shall read to my grandchildren one day. Along with ‘The Savage Kingdom’ of course!
Q: What is your top tip for writers who are looking to get their YA stories published?
A: Ignore the market, write from the heart, and don’t wait to be paid to do so. If you have a story you’re burning to tell, tell it. Set it down on paper or on the screen. Chances are if it thrills and excites and keeps you awake at night, it’ll probably do the same for someone else. Be disciplined. Be courageous. And never ever give up.
Q: Do you have any strange superstitions that you have to stick to, to work. For example needing to be in a certain room in the house, or wearing the same hat?!
A: Great question! But no. As my wife is an actress, she was often away filming when our daughter Millie was little, so I was very much involved in all the wild, challenging, wonderful chaos that is raising a child. Cooking, cleaning, buying the groceries, school runs etc. If I wanted to write I often had to do so in the midst of a food fight and squeals of delight as Babar the Elephant worked his magic. Things are much quieter these days, and I have my studio in our house in the Sussex to myself most of the week, but I can tap in to my imagination and zone out the world pretty much anywhere. I do need isolation to get started on a project, but once I’m on a roll a hurricane could take the roof off and I’ll keep scribbling. Much to the annoyance of our two cats Bea and Mosey by the way. They’re brother and sister, just two years old and still have that kittenish desire to play whenever possible. Fortunately they also like to sleep. A lot. Otherwise I’d never get Book II finished!
Q: How do you get ideas for stories/new work?
A: It’s alchemy. I’ve not a clue where the ideas come from or why a particular theme or subject grabs my attention. But I’ve learned to trust in the creative instinct, it’s a very powerful and persuasive force. Storytelling is a very important part of our culture I think, perhaps the very thing that defines it, so I’m just grateful that every day I’m able to dabble in the magic of it.
Q: Do you think being a writer today is a completely different experience to what it would have been like for an author 50 years ago, and can you explain why, if so?
A: Again a brilliant question. Advances in technology have changed enormously even in the relatively short time I’ve been writing, so yes, there are major differences. The jump for me from typewriter to computer meant that I had more freedom to just let an idea spill out on to the screen because it was so much easier to edit/revise with cut & paste. The internet has also completely changed the nature of research – though I still use libraries and travel to the far flung locations I write about – but you do have to be careful to double check your sources online. Wiki can be wonky at times! The great thing about websites and blogs and tweets etc. is the potential for a much more immediate relationship with a much wider readership. My new site for the Animalian novels is a perfect example, where I can keep readers up to date with what’s happening with the stories, talks I might be giving and so on. That said though, the fundamentals remain the same – a computer has even less impact on a tale than a pencil does on a drawing. For me, a good story well told is always the goal and the key to it all.
Q: Final word on the main theme that runs through the Animalian novels?
A: In a nutshell: Everyone has the power to change the world for the better. Let's do it!