OK, this is something I’m really proud of: I’ve been interviewed by G-Fan Magazine - the official periodical of The Godzilla Society of North America! To my enormous glee and delight I was approached by Allen Debus, one of the magazine’s writers, who’d read Tim, Defender of the Earth, liked it, and wanted to put together a feature about me. I’ve just received my copy of G-Fan’s Spring issue. Here, below, is how the piece ended up.
While there are many giant monster novels and short stories not involving Godzilla itself, few capture the essence of the Godzilla theme so well as Sam Enthoven’s exceptional 2008 novel, Tim, Defender of the Earth. True - he ‘borrows’ classic science fictional themes in homage to our holiest of daikaiju eiga, but still has created something very original and captivating. Something that goes quite beyond any Godzilla movie, on into the heart of 21st century mad science. I had an opportunity to interview Sam via the Internet following my page-turning, can’t-quite-put-it-down experience with his nifty novel. And, before you go any further, yes, I do highly recommend Tim. If you like G-Fan, you won’t be disappointed with Tim.
AD: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into writing?
Hi Allen – and thank you for the kind words!
My name is Sam. I'm 35 years old and I write fantastical action thrillers for young people. For ten years I worked part-time in a London bookshop: in the evenings and weekends I looked after the kids' section; the days I spent honing my writing skills and chasing my dream of being a published author. Over those ten years I received a lot of rejection letters for my stories (and, by necessity, ate a lot of instant noodles!) but in 2006 my dream at last came true when my debut novel The Black Tattoo was published. Tim, Defender of the Earth was my second published book and a third, Crawlers, is coming out this April (2010). The novelty of being published is showing no signs of wearing off so far. On the contrary: I've basically been grinning like an idiot for nearly five years straight on end now. Hee hee hee! -Ahem! Excuse me. ;)
AD: You dedicate your novel to “Gamera, Godzilla, Kong and the rest, with love and bellowing.” And yet Steve Stone’s cover illustration conjures visions of Gorgo (1960). Don’t you live near London? I’m wondering whether Gorgo might have made a significant impact on your love for daikaiju? The scene where Big Ben becomes demolished certainly resonated with familiarity.
I do live in London which, as you'll know from Tim and many other stories that precede it, is just full of satisfyingly destructible famous landmarks. Gorgo is, inexplicably, not currently as well-known here as it should be (my copy had to come from America!) But of course it was an influence: the Tower Bridge scene, in particular, is genius!
AD: In 50 words or less, please summarize Tim for G-Fan’s readers who so far haven’t had the pleasure.
Tim, Defender of the Earth is a giant monster smackdown set in central London. My intention was to follow in the vast and venerable pawprints of Godzilla, Gamera, Kong and others - but with a modern British twist. Ted Hughes' The Iron Man (The Iron Giant in the US) was also a massive influence.
AD: What is “Tim”?
The central character of Tim is a confused thirteen-year-old male. He's a bit clumsy. He's not very bright, but he's brave and he's got a good heart. He's also green, he's one hundred metres tall and he's a genetically modified Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tim's name is an acronym – Tyrannosaur: Improved Model. He was created as part of a secret military experiment in a special enclosure seventy stories below London's Trafalgar Square. But, as Tim finds out, his destiny lies elsewhere…!
AD: Your novel targets adolescent readership, yet anyone can enjoy it. You have succeeded as Arthur Conan Doyle did a century ago with The Lost World, wherein his “simple plan” was to provide enjoyment - “to the boy who’s half a man, or the man who’s half a boy.”
Conan Doyle's books (particularly When The World Screamed) had a huge effect on me when I was the age I write for. The sentiment, too, is one that I live by, so this is probably the most wonderful compliment you could possibly have given me, Allen. I'm very touched. Thank you.
AD: Please tell us about your experiences growing up with giant monsters on the brain?
For me, the greatest joy of monster stories is imagining you are the monster. This is particularly true when you're small: with so little control over your immediate environment (your food, your living space, your clothes are all chosen by others) it's no wonder that dreams of, say, quaking streets with your every footstep tend to be pretty appealing. Young kids live in a world built on a bigger scale than them. Giant monster stories are a satisfying way of turning the tables. When I was little I must have read The Iron Man something like ninety times.
These days I'm six foot two. When I'm excited I get noisy and I wave my arms about: objects around me can end up knocked over and destroyed. One might say that imagining being a giant monster is even less of a mental leap for me, now, than it might be for other people! Most of Tim was an absolute joy to write. I hope that excitement comes across to the reader.
AD: Besides daikaiju, what other sorts of sci-fi and horror movies or books made impressions?
I sometimes think that books and movies and comics and games (particularly SF and Horror) are as important as food or breathing to me. I read first thing in the morning while I'm cleaning my teeth; I read last thing at night when I'm about to fall asleep, and in between, any chance I get I'll probably be reading or watching or playing something. There's too much stuff to list here – and a lot of it I think you know anyway, or can probably guess! But if you're interested, I've listed five hundred books that I think are amazing on my LibraryThing profile: www.librarything.com/profile/othersam Do feel free to take a look.
AD: Are you married? Do you have children? What do your relations and relatives think about your work?
I'm not married, and my partner and I don't currently plan to have children. As to my relatives, before I was published they all gave me the strong impression that they doubted my sanity – and now I make a living at what I do, that hasn't really changed!
AD: How did it feel smashing London’s famous landmarks to bits?
HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE!
…Ahem! Sorry about that, but I think the above is really about the best way I can describe it to you. In particular, writing the scene in Tim in which he snaps off the Big Ben tower and lobs it at his opponent was, to quote the narrator of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, "a super good day." I love my job.
AD: Your destruction of Parliament, hmmm - perhaps a political statement?
We don't have the Fifth Amendment in the UK. If I remain silent on this, will that incriminate me? ;D
AD: The most significant theme of your book involves mankind living in harmony with Planet Earth. Rather than ourselves or protective, observant aliens, in Tim it is giant creatures - such as the nine million year old, sentient, aquatic “Kraken” or the genetically modified tyrannosaur Tim who bear responsibility for keeping us from destroying our only fragile home. Do you believe that mankind is incapable of correcting our technological and environmental folly?
Human beings aren't too good at thinking ahead to see the long-term consequences of our actions. But in the absence of monstrous Defenders of the Earth, or protective aliens, all we've got is us.
I think there's hope. One of the best things about my job is that I'm often invited to speak at schools: the can-do attitude of some of the young people I've met is enormously positive and inspiring. But we can't leave everything to the next generation. We all of us, now, have to take responsibility for our behaviour and what it does to the world.
AD: The specter of atomic weapons also surfaces in your novel. Building climax, in order to destroy the evil mad scientist Professor Mallahide - or really the strange, power mad daikaiju he has deliberately transformed himself into - Great Britain is about to be reduced to smoldering ashes by a launch of the United States nuclear arsenal. The theme is cliche yet cleverly handled in Tim. What are your opinions on the real state of atomic power and weaponry in the early 21st century?
That element of the plot is mostly there because nuclear weapons are such an integral part of daikaiju mythology: I felt that, if I was writing a proper giant monster story, nuclear weapons almost had to be in the book somewhere. That said, the strategic implications of the UK's 'special relationship' with the US were definitely a factor too – particularly just how 'special' that relationship would realistically turn out to be if a Mallahide-like threat ever did originate here in London!
AD: I may be over emphasizing, but the nano-machine creature that Professor Mallahide becomes may be the most original sort of giant monster daikaiju in the annals of sci-fi literature. And a most realistic-seeming one at that! I’m thinking this nano-monster may be rooted in influences such as Star Trek’s hive-like Borg, with thematic stirring from, maybe, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Do tell - where did you get this fabulous idea?
Those two were (and continue to be!) definite influences on me, sure. But it was Michael Crichton's Prey and, particularly, Greg Bear's astonishing Blood Music that most got me thinking along the lines that resulted in Mallahide, together with the real-life transhumanist ideas of people like Hans Moravec. I don't claim any credit for originality about the elements of my stories. Each of my books is a seething, bubbling mixture of things I love. It's that mixture - and my passion for what I'm writing - that gives them their flavour, rather than the individual ingredients. Or that's what I hope, anyway!
AD: There would appear to be some Toho-movie influences ‘at large’ in Tim. For instance, when Tim battles the giant lobster/cockroach comprised of Mallahide’s assimilated nano-machinery, I recalled Ebirah (e.g. from Godzilla vs. the Sea-Monster). Are there any other giant monster movie scenes ‘behind the scenes’ as the case may be in your novel?
You probably realised that Gamera: Attack of Legion is a huge favourite of mine. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was a direct inspiration for Tim, too – particularly that unforgettable opening scene. And I bet you can guess more!
AD: And when the nano-bot swarm ‘devours’ the BT Tower landmark, I thought of the 2008 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, that is, when Gort dematerializes into that ‘carnivorous’ swarm of nano-mites. Was that Gort scene possibly inspired from your novel? I thought you managed the task to better effect ‘on paper.’
Thanks, Allen! There's no straight line of influence there in either direction as far as I'm aware, but I certainly appreciate the compliment.
AD: Also, when Professor Mallahide demonstrates how the squirrel can be consumed by the nano-bots that only he controls mentally, I was thinking about the famous scene in Godzilla, where the anguished Dr. Serizawa demonstrates how the oxygen-destroyer can horrifically destroy a tankful of fish - the dreadful consequences for the world become instantly transparent.
Exactly! To my mind the original Godzilla is arguably still the greatest giant monster film ever made (to my delight, while I was writing Tim a local cinema here in London happened to show the film on the big screen as a one-off - it was amazing!) Godzilla set the template. Questions of technology and nature, their opposition or coexistence, are at the heart of giant monster mythology.
AD: I liked how your novel takes a definite stride beyond the late 20th century’s ‘reliance’ on DNA as a primary source of science fictional ideas and mindset, on into the new current century - with its dark undertones posed by the possibilities and ramifications of nano-technology that not too many may have considered until now. Tim has moved us beyond Jurassic Park, and several Godzilla and other Toho films also relying on genetic, state-of-the-art technology. Is nano-technology the arena that Toho should explore when they revive the Godzilla film series in a few years?
If the Godzilla franchise sticks to its story roots in those themes of elemental nature versus human scientific innovation, then something to do with nanomachines would seem to be the obvious next step. But it'd be nice if - as I tried to do with Mallahide - the positive potential for these emerging technologies could get some screen time, too. As long as that doesn't get in the way of quality epic daikaiju destruction, naturally!
AD: What are your other projects, literary or otherwise?
I love writing for young people (I've said that already? well it's worth saying twice!) so, although I'm only just starting out as a published author, I intend to keep doing this for as long as I possibly can. My books are standalone stories. They're fast and - I hope - thrilling, and they always seem to involve monsters of one kind or another! For the latest on what I'm up to, take a look at my homepage.
AD: Where may people find your books?
Together with The Black Tattoo (a gentle tale of demonic possession, flying kung fu, vomiting bats and the end of the universe), Tim, Defender of the Earth is available to order wherever books are sold. My new one, Crawlers (part Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, part Alien is probably the quickest way to describe it) will be available from this April. And there are plenty more where those came from.
Thank you for your time!!
Thank you, Allen. I wrote Tim out of love for giant monsters. If people who share that love get a kick out of Tim that makes me very, very happy.
Best wishes from London (or what's left of it!) to you and anyone reading this,
-Sam (12th Jan 2010)
Here’s a transcript of an interview with me by Chris Skoyles of The LINC Online, who asked me ten excellent questions.
1) After receiving so many rejection letters, how did it feel when The Black Tattoo was finally accepted?
I've now been grinning like an idiot for about four years straight on end: my jaw muscles are really sore. Also? Every so often I remember that I'm now a published author and I find I'm unable to stop myself from shouting 'YAAAAAAAAAAGH!' and waggling my arms in the air like a big, black-clad, bald baboon conducting an imaginary orchestra. It's kind of undignified, but there you go.
2) The book seems to have proved very popular with readers. Were you expecting that kind of response and how does it feel knowing that people enjoy reading your work?
You try to write the best book you possibly can, of course. But no: you never know for sure whether anyone's going to like it! When people take the time to write into my websites and tell me they've enjoyed my stories, that's just… wow. I'm thrilled, and honoured. And very, very happy.
3) After all the hell and demons of The Black Tattoo, Tim, Defender of the Earth went on to feature a big dinosaur, which seems like a big departure in subjects. Was it a conscious decision on your part to move away from the almost 'gothic' atmosphere of the first book or simply that the second story lent itself to a different atmosphere?
I think that both The Black Tattoo and Tim, Defender of the Earth, plus the book I'm writing now and all the ones I intend to write(!) actually share a lot of similarities. They're all aimed at young people; they're all set in the present day; they're all fast, action-packed and (I hope) thrilling, and – heh – they've all got monsters in 'em!
But I also like books that surprise the reader, that take you in directions you're not expecting to go. So while the above elements are pretty much guaranteed when you start reading one of my stories, I warn you right now: all other bets are off. Bwah-ha. BWAH-HA-HA-HA! Er, 'scuse me. ;)
4) Are there any similar themes you try to incorporate into all your work?
I try to keep them as focused on young people as I possibly can. That sounds an obvious thing for a children's author to say and do, but it's not easy: the temptation to drift into looking at the events of a story from an adult's point of view is something that I find I have to watch in my writing, constantly. For instance: have you ever noticed how many kids' books tend to feature adult characters who explain the plot, and pass on wisdom all the time? I think that young people get quite enough of that in everyday life, so adult characters in my stories tend to be either unreliable, or absent, or (heh!) they die. As much as possible, I make my young protagonists figure stuff out for themselves. It's more exciting that way.
5) Reading your work, a real sense that you were having fun with your writing comes across, but has there ever come a time when writing perhaps wasn't as enjoyable, and how did you get past it?
I think the writing process works the other way: most of the actual writing – putting words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, etc – isn't much fun at all. It's a job: you've got to put in the hours. But like all jobs, what gets you through the tough bits, what keeps you coming back, is if you love and believe in what you're doing. Being excited about your work is crucial for a writer, it seems to me.
6) You mentioned in your e-mail that you're currently working on a new book. Is there anything you can tell us about it at this stage?
Like all my stories, it's a gleeful mixture of things I love. In this particular case, that means horror novels like Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, films like Alien and Night of the Living Dead, and games like Resident Evil and Half Life. It's fast, it's dark, it's nasty, and it'll be out in Spring 2010. That's if. (it's early 2009 as I'm typing this) I can finish writing the thing properly, of course…!
7) You've mentioned that you wanted to be a rock star before pursuing a career in writing. What was it that convinced you to take the challenge of becoming a published writer seriously?
The year I realized I was never going to be a rock star something else happened: a friend of mine died, very suddenly, in a car accident. Her name was Mary. She was 16. We had known each other almost all our lives, we thought we would be friends forever, then she was gone. A couple of years after that, when I realised that writing might be something I'd want to pursue, I took whatever steps I had to. Life is fragile and short. If you have something you want to do, you'd better get on with it.
8) Speaking of rock stars, is music still a part of your life, and if so, who are some of your favourite bands/musicians?
Music's a huge part of my life. I listen to all sorts, depending on what I'm doing (and what I'm writing!) For a selection, check my Last FM profile if you like. As to my own dubious musicianship, I play enthusiastically noisy guitar with a terrific covers band called Sour Mash Daddy And His Sixty Wives. Be my guest and hit the link to get to our MySpace, but maybe you should cover your ears!
9)Throughout all the rejection letters and the hard work that goes into writing a book, was there ever a time when you felt like quitting, and how did you get through that?
Sure. The tempation to give up is something you have to face with any big project.
I remember one time while I was writing The Black Tattoo. This was before I had a book deal or any money from my writing: I was supporting myself (sort of!) by working part-time in a bookshop. After a long shift dealing with a lot of rude customers I came home to discover a hole in my ceiling: there was a large coffee-coloured stain with one of those big, bulging wallpaper blisters, and rainwater was leaking in. It was up to me to get it fixed and I knew I didn't have the money, so that was one thing.
I was tired and hungry, so I went next door to the kitchen. I opened the fridge door and saw there was nothing in there but some past-their-best, wizened-looking parsnips I'd picked up at the supermarket because they were going extra cheap. Now, I'm fine with parsnips. But like any individual food, they suddenly become a lot less appetising when that's all you've got to eat.
At this point I'd been working on Black Tat for something like two years, and I'd been chasing my dreams of being published for something like six. All I had to show for it were three failed novels, a bunch of short stories, and a folder full of over a hundred letters from publishers, and literary agents, and magazines, all saying No, they didn't want anything to do with me. My relatives thought I was mental. They were probably right.
I stood there looking at the parsnips, and thinking about the rain dripping into my bedroom. I thought, 'I could get quite upset here.'
But I didn't. I started smiling. Then I started laughing. Then I realized I was the happiest I'd ever been in my life.
This was because, at the time, I was working on a part of Black Tat called 'The Akachash'. It's a seven-way gladiatorial fight to the death, set in Hell. Esme, my teenage kung fu superheroine, had just pulled back the hood of her red top, her sword was drawn, and she was about to go to work on six terrifying, demonic opponents. And by this point in the story, you're not worried about Esme: you're worried about the monsters.
I was having so much fun writing and thinking about that scene, all the other stuff just faded into the background.
Like I said: what keeps you going is if you love and believe in what you're doing.
10) And finally, what's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
YOU CAN DO IT. I'm not just talking about writing now: if you're prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, and to work hard enough, you can do anything you want.
Thanks and best wishes to anyone reading this,
Sam, 5th Feb 2009
1. What made you decide to write for Teenagers?
When I was about to make the leap and go part-time at my job to pursue my writing I sent a short story of mine out to fifty literary agents, to see what they said. Most came back with rejection letters – I had a hundred and thirty-four of those before I got the one that said yes, btw! But one agent suggested I write for teenagers.
I was surprised at first, but when I thought about it, I realised this was one of the single best pieces of advice I've ever been given. I'm passionate about books - reading's as essential as breathing, to me - but it wasn't always like that: what made me that way were the books I happened to pick up when I was the age I write for. Books for teenagers made me a reader – and in doing so introduced me to one of the most important parts of my life. The idea that (if I work hard enough) one of my stories might conceivably have that effect on someone now…? Wow. That's a pretty inspiring goal to aim for, it seems to me.
2. How do you get into the heads of your characters?
It's not easy. I can take feelings from my own life, or things that I've read or heard about from others, and try to extend them, stretch them to fit whatever the story needs. But the empathy and imagination I need to do that in a truthful way takes a lot of hard work.
3. Do you know instinctively what will appeal to Teens or is it more a hit or miss process?
The first question I've learned to ask myself when writing or planning a story is, will it appeal to me? Truly thrilling writing only comes, I believe, when the writer themselves is passionately involved in what they're writing. So: I write what I would love to read now, and I write what I would have loved to read when I was a Teen. But of course, that was a long time ago (I'm 34) so I also believe it's essential to take my writing out on the road and test it on its real audience. To that end, I'm always doing events at libraries, bookshops, schools - and anywhere else that will have me. If young people like listening to me or asking me questions about writing, that's great. But I'm sure I get at least as much out of listening to them!
4. What is the most satisfying part of the writing process for you?
Writers carve their work out of thin air. The feeling, afterwards, of having made something when before there was nothing – that's very satisfying. But… having people write in to me to say they've enjoyed a book? I'm delighted to say I've discovered that's even better!
5. Do you ever read the works of other Teen/YA authors? If yes, what can you recommend?
Definitely! And I don't pretend it's just "research," either. I love good stories no matter who they're supposedly aimed at, but I truly believe that some of the best writing around right now is being done for Teen audiences.
Recommendations? Check my LibraryThing profile for FIVE HUNDRED of them – it's hard to narrow it down! But if I had to choose one, the best I've read so far this year (2008) is probably LITTLE BROTHER, by Cory Doctorow. Believe the hype, that book is absolutely outstanding.
6. Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?
My books are fantastical action thrillers, full of monsters, danger and destruction. That said, it's details that make a wild story believable, so anything in my life (or anyone else's, as I've mentioned!) is fair game as far as I'm concerned. As I say, I take something I know about and stretch it, twist it, amplify it – that's a writer's job. But exactly what the sources are, how personal they are to me, I leave to you to decide!
7. What are you working on at the moment?
Right now? A horror story, for eleven- to fifteen-year-olds. It's a big tribute to things I love: films like ALIEN, THE THING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and games like HALF LIFE and RESIDENT EVIL. It's due out early 2010, I hope. Bwha-ha, BWAH-HA-HA-HA! 'Scuse me: I'm rather excited. ;)
8. Do you ever do Library visits to Teen Reading Groups? If yes, what is the best way to get into contact with you?
Thanks and best wishes to anyone reading this –Sam
Writing The Black Tattoo must have been great fun as it is a brilliant read. What made you decide to write the story?
Aw, thanks Liz! Glad you liked it!
Actually I remember the point when I first started thinking about Black Tat very well. It was about five years after I'd decided to go part-time at my job as a bookseller at Blackwell's on London's Charing Cross Road. I hadn't exactly been earning a fortune to begin with, and only working there evenings and weekends meant living off even less, but it did at least give me the rest of the day to concentrate on my writing. The thing was, at that point, five years in, I just didn't have very much to show for it.
I had written three books, but they had all been rejected – justifiably, with hindsight, as they were awful. But I used to count my rejection slips for my books and stories, and not long before I started Black Tat I'd passed the triple figures mark – something like a hundred and twenty! The windows in my flat wouldn't shut properly, so in winter I had to type in gloves. I was living mostly off instant noodles, plus whatever was being flogged off cheap before they chucked it out of the supermarket. My relatives all thought I was mental. They were probably right.
It was at that point that I came across an interview with Lee Child (who, by the way, I think is terrific). He was asked for the single best piece of advice he could give to an aspiring writer:
'Write the exact book that you yourself would be thrilled to read,' was his answer.
When I read that, it was like a door opened in my head. Up until that point, what I'd been doing with my stories, essentially, was second-guessing – trying to write something like what I thought books for young people were supposed to be, based on what I found in the kids' department of the bookshop. But all that this cautious desire to imitate others had brought me so far was failure. Now I bundled up that approach, threw it out of my drafty window, and instead started asking myself what I believe is the single best question anyone sitting down to plan a book should ask themselves. It goes something like this:
If you, individual, were to come across a book, in a bookshop or library, that had everything you wanted in a book – that was so engrossing that once you started reading you'd be helplessly unable to eat, sleep or do anything else until you finished it – what would that book be? What would the elements of it be?
One of the beauties of this question is that the answers can be different with every book you write. But that winter, I stopped thinking about what I thought 'might sell', and started thinking instead about what I would most love to read. In my case, at that point, it was… monsters, swordfights, flying kung fu, demonic possession, vomiting bats, a seven-way gladiatorial monster fight to the death set in Hell – etcetera! Black Tat essentially started out as a kind of wish list. Then I set about working out how I could make these elements come together, and off I went.
It took me five years to write – five more years of instant noodles and the rest of it (and even a few more rejection letters, at first). But now, crucially, I had passion and excitement about the story to help get me through the tough bits. And eventually, the other good stuff started to happen!
Do you have a favourite character in TBT and why?
I'm fond of Jack, of course – partly because he and I have a lot in common! But there's only one answer to this question, and I think you probably know who I'm going to say. It's Esme.
I knew from the start that Black Tat was going to be full of fights. But when I worked out that most of them were going to involve a fourteeen-year-old girl, that's when I really started to get excited. There's a definite lineage of female warriors that you can trace in thrilling fiction. Buffy is a great example, of course. There's Trinity from The Matrix and The Bride from Kill Bill. My personal absolute favourite is Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise (have you read those books? Do! They're AMAZING!) But it has to be said that – these glowing exceptions aside – genuinely arse-kicking heroines are oddly thin on the ground. Instead, the big buzz-word that always gets used about female characters who can handle themselves is 'feisty'. Now: to me, 'feisty' implies that, underneath whatever front they're projecting, a heroine is quite charming and ordinary and nice once you get to know her. I knew that wasn't what I wanted with Esme at all.
I wanted a heroine who was scary – a female character whose inhuman single-mindedness made her a terror to anyone who crossed her. Once I started thinking about Esme the ideas started popping straight away. Esme has hobbies, but they're weird and obsessive ones. Esme wants to be nice, but she's better at hurting people than she is at talking to them – and so forth. I knew that Jack was the hero but, damn, any scene that had Esme in it was a joy to write.
Oh, and I also like the alligator dude who yells 'Riches! Riches!' after the Akachash. :)
I get the impression that you enjoyed setting the story in London. Do you think London is an underrated setting for storytelling?
All my books right now are set in London. It's a brilliant place for stories – particularly, I think, fantastical ones like mine.
It's a truism that fantasy stories need some kind of anchor in reality. Usually, in Tolkien-esque 'classic' fantasy anyway, authors compensate for the distancing effect of an imaginary setting by providing reams of detail – world-building. But for me, though there are exceptions (Scott Lynch's brilliant The Lies of Locke Lamora, or China Mieville's gob-smacking Perdido Street Station, or, well, pretty much anything by Chris Wooding, for instance!) I sometimes find I'm just not quite able to make the leap into fully immersing myself in that type of writing. It's not that I don't crave weirdness, wildness and adventure – on the contrary, I'm an addict! But to follow an author into all that, I need something to hang on to. A real-life location like London is just the ticket.
Partly it's the fame of the place: people all over the world know what London looks like (and as someone – glee! – who is starting to be published internationally, that's important). But mostly, it's the age of the city – all the layers of history that have been packed on top of each other here down the centuries. London is crammed with eccentricities and mysteries, all sorts of mad pockets of story-inspiring strangeness, but at the same time it's a real place – you can stand in it. That just seems like the ultimate winning combination for a story-setting to me. And I'm lucky enough to live here!
You have an awesome quote on the back of TBT by Neil Gaiman: “Vomiting bats? I’m sold.” What was your first reaction when you saw that quote and are you a fan of his work?
I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's writing for something like fifteen years, ever since first picking up some Sandman while I was at university. When my publishers started wondering about blurbs for Black Tat I knew I'd have to ask him – or try, at least!
I'd met Neil at a reading and signing of his, organized by Blackwell's. At a time when his encouragement was definitely appreciated (see above re noodles) he'd drawn a rat in an overcoat on the title page of my proof copy of Coraline, with the words 'Never give up! Keep writing!' I wrote to him via his website, reminding him of this and explaining a bit about Black Tat. To my absolute astonishment and delight, back came those words you quoted.
I ran straight out to the post office and sent him a proof of Black Tat, wrapped up in a picture of a bat. Some time passed, then I bumped into him again, at a press night for the stage musical of his and Dave McKean's Wolves in the Walls (which was great, by the way). Casually as I could – which probably wasn't, very! – I asked Neil if he'd had a chance to read Black Tat. He gently and kindly explained something that, if I'd thought about it, ought perhaps to have been rather obvious.
Right now it seems almost everyone who has written a book would love to get a quote from Neil Gaiman on its cover. As a result, he said, he had a pile of proofs to read that was 'several times bigger than him.'
'Well…' I began, with a lack of shame that I can only slightly blame on the Belgian beer I'd consumed to get my nerve up to speak to him: 'Please can I put "Vomiting bats? I'm sold – Neil Gaiman" on my cover, anyway?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'but only if you put an asterisk and the message "Neil Gaiman has not actually read this book."'
The wording on the back cover of the Black Tat UK paperback is almost exactly as he instructed, with one tiny addition – the word 'yet'.
You never know! ;p
Do you have any favourite authors or books that influenced your own writing?
LOTS! I've mentioned some here in this interview but I've listed, um, about five hundred more(!) on the website LibraryThing. You can reach the list (and some reviews and whatnot) through my LibraryThing profile, here.
I love recommending books to people, it's the main thing I miss about being a bookseller. I put that list together partly to scratch that itch, but also so young readers who like my stuff can find suggestions for other things they might want to check out next. Help yourself!
What is your writerly day like?
Over the ten years I worked part-time at Blackwell's I settled into a pretty good routine: basically on weekdays I would work on my writing until about four pm, then grab a sandwich and head out for my shift at the shop. This year will be my fourth 'non-retail Christmas' – that's still how I count 'em! But my routine (on days I'm not out doing events, of course) is substantially the same. The day's writing comes first – and no internet until it's done, either! Then after that, which still usually takes me until something like four pm, comes other stuff.
It's this 'other stuff' that has changed and grown – which, really, is why I finally gave up the bookselling. From four 'til around half eight/nine (my compulsory knocking-off time) I'm engaged in the other business that goes with being a full-time, self-employed writer – or does in my case, anyway. This consists of answering correspondence; keeping track of finances and admin; working on promotional activities; maintaining my websites (though I have Katie WebSphinx, who is a genius, to help me with that!) and – particularly – arranging visits to schools. I love getting the chance to be a visiting author in schools, it's one of my favourite parts of this job. But that and the other things can take up almost as much of my day as my actual writing does.
I'm not complaining. Far from it: this is my dream and I'm chasing after it as hard as I can! I would say, however, that managing my time has turned out to be one of the most useful 'writing skills' I've learned so far. I'd recommend it to anyone.
How do you unwind after a day of writing?
One of the great things about the routine above, for me, is that it takes the edge off the 'decompression stage' I seem to need to go through after I've spent any serious length of time sitting here making stuff up. My girlfriend might disagree with me on this(-!) but I don't think I'm half as weird and spacey after answering emails as I am right after, say, writing about monsters. ;)
For me it's the winding up for a day's writing that's the hard bit. Among other things, every morning I have an exercise routine that I put myself through: a warm-up, followed by alternating days of t'ai chi or time on a rowing machine. I hate it – especially the rowing machine – but since my commute from bed to desk is about three feet, and I'm going to be sitting still there pretty much all day, it's essential. Plus, once it's out of the way the rest of the day often somehow seems to look easier!
Have you considered writing for adults?
Sure. In fact I did more than 'consider': I assumed I was always going to write for adults – right up until I stopped! But now I write for eleven- to fifteen-year-olds, and have been doing so for more than twelve years. I love it so much that, at present, I just can't see myself ever going back.
I love all kinds of storytelling: films, games, comics, animation, whatever. But books are one of the central passions and pleasures of my life. Reading's like food, like breathing, to me: I read first thing in the morning while I'm cleaning my teeth (it's boring otherwise!); I read last thing at night before I sleep – and any spare minute I get in between those times, odds are I'll be reading then, too. If I'm on a train, and the train stops, and the announcer says we're going to be stuck there for a while, everyone else in the carriage huffs and puffs. I smile – time for another chapter!
But it wasn't always that way. In fact I don't think I would ever have come to feel the way I do about reading if it hadn't been for the particular stories that I found and loved when I was eleven to fifteen.
The age for which I write is the age at which I became a reader. I'm not talking about the books taught in school – those were work. I'm talking about the stories that first showed me that books could be fun.
They were fast-paced books, with a rigorous focus on story. They had exciting things happen in them – confrontations, narrow escapes, and the tantalizing possibility that one person's decision at a crucial moment could make a difference. They also (heh! surprise!) tended to include things like monsters, explosions, monsters, fiendish schemes, chases, fights, and monsters.
Sometimes I had to dig quite hard to find those kinds of books. As far as ones specifically aimed at young people were concerned, back when I was eleven there was Douglas Hill and John Christopher (both of whom I adored) but that was about it. After that it was books for grownups. Thrillers. SF. Crime. Horror.
Now: sometimes adults would tell me that I shouldn't be reading those books. They said I should read things that were more 'improving' – stories about people in rooms talking to each other, written by authors who died long ago. You know: great works of literature! Eventually I did read those books. Eventually I even enjoyed them – and now, as I say, I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on. But I believe that I would not have read these so-called 'better' books, if I had not first been engaged by books that some people consider 'trashy'. If 'trashy' means stories that are fast and thrilling and full of action (and monsters!) then it's my belief that there are not enough 'trashy' books for young people in the world.
It's an honour to do my best to fill that gap. Because the possibility that one of my stories might catch someone at the age where they might become a lover of books and reading forever… wow. That's an incredibly inspiring goal to aim for, it seems to me. And it's one that writing for adults just doesn't offer.
You used to be a bookseller. Imagine yourself back to then: how would you sell The Black Tattoo to a parent or child? And how about Tim, Defender of the Earth?
I don't think Tim or Black Tat would be tough to sell, because in my experience customers in the kids' section ask booksellers for my type of writing (or something like it) all the time:
'What can we get for him [and it's usually "him"!] to read?' they ask. 'He thinks books are boring.'
Hearing back from young people who've felt this way and been proved wrong is, I'm thrilled to be able to tell you, immensely satisfying. HEE HEE HEE!
Can you tell us a bit more about Tim, Defender of the Earth?
It's a giant monster story – a gleeful tribute to cinematic city-stomping classics like Godzilla, Gamera, Kong and the Harryhausen movies. When I was touring around schools and libraries and bookshops with Black Tat, I asked my young audiences a particular question: which famous parts of London would they most like to see destroyed in a book? As you can imagine, I received a lot of highly enthusiastic answers to that, and I'm proud to say I managed to work pretty much all of them in. If you've ever had a yearning to read a story in which Big Ben gets snapped off and tossed like a caber (for instance!) then give Tim a wallop, I think you'll like it. For a free taste of the opening chapter, plus some other bits and pieces, take a look at my special Tim website: www.timdefenderoftheearth.com
What is next on your writing schedule?
I'm currently (July '08) up to my eyeballs in what I modestly call Phase Three of my Sinister Masterplan to Conquer the Universe: the quickest way to describe the new project is that it's kind of like Alien meets Night of the Living Dead – for kids! I'm aiming to discover exactly how much menace, tension and horror I can get away with in a book that's aimed at young readers. Of course, it's not the readers I'm worried about giving nightmares to: it's their gatekeepers – reviewers, parents, and so forth (some adults can be so squeamish, don't you find? ;p) If all goes well, the book should be out in late 2009 or early 2010. I'll be sure to keep you posted. But now I'd better get back to it…!
Do you have any advice to young authors out there?
If I can get this far, that proves it can happen to you. Slog on. You can do it!
Many thanks! Liz
Thank /you/, Liz! And best wishes to everyone who reads this.
Sam, 24th July 2008
Describe your new book/project/work.
The central character of my new book, TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH is a confused thirteen-year-old male. He's a bit clumsy, and he's perhaps not the sharpest tool in the box, but he's very brave and he's got a good heart. He's also green, he's a hundred metres tall, and he's a genetically modified Tyrannosaurus Rex.
His name's TIM, which stands for Tyrannosaur: Improved Model. He was created by the British government as part of a top-secret military experiment in a lab buried seventy stories below London's Trafalgar Square. But what neither he nor his creators know yet, is that Tim has a special destiny…
TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH is a giant monster story in the style of GODZILLA and KING KONG - full of destruction and combat. While touring and promoting my first book, THE BLACK TATTOO, I asked members of my young audiences which of London's famous landmarks they'd like to see trashed in fiction: I'm delighted to say that in TIM I've pulverized pretty much all of them. I called in an air-strike on Hyde Park; something horrible happens to the London Eye; the Big Ben tower gets snapped off and tossed like a caber – and that's just for starters. Give TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH a wallop, I think you'll like it.
What is your favorite family story?
One of my relatives was a gentleman called Andrew Crosse, better known in Britain at the time (the 19th century) as 'The Wizard of the Quantock Hills'. He wasn't actually a wizard: what he was was a pioneering amateur scientist, with a keen interest in electricity. He wired up the tall trees surrounding his house so that when lightning struck it would run straight into his laboratory: he'd then pass massive amounts of electric current through… whatever took his fancy.
One night in 1836 while he was conducting one of his experiments something weird happened: some strange insects appeared - fully-formed and apparently spontaneously - in what he thought had been a simple dish of chemicals. When news of his discovery reached the public there was a national sensation [nb: MARY SHELLEY's original FRANKENSTEIN was a big hit at the time]. Although Mr Crosse had never claimed to have 'created life' he was accused of blasphemy - and some of his, let's say, less enlightened neighbours even performed an exorcism!
Introduce one other author/illustrator you think people should read, and suggest a good book by him/her.
I write what I love: fantastical action thrillers. And one of the absolutely best writers of this stuff around right now is an author called CHRIS WOODING. Over the holidays ('08) I read one of his called THE FADE, and it was absolutely tremendous. The book's got echoes of the great old-school prison-break stories like PAPILLON or even THE GREAT ESCAPE. But THE FADE's fantasy setting - and its hard-as-nails female assassin narrator - make it something else again. Fast, fresh and very VERY cool, this will grab you from page one and never let you go.
What do you do for relaxation?
In the mornings I practise t'ai chi while listening to skull-cracking drum-and-bass (kind of an odd mixture you might think, but it seems to work for me!) And I play lead guitar in a band called SOUR MASH DADDY AND HIS SIXTY WIVES. We play cover versions of classic songs from the 60s and 70s. It's basically an excuse to meet up with some mates every six weeks or so in a shed – sorry, I mean 'rehearsal studio' – and make a cathartic and gleeful racket that leaves my ears ringing for days afterwards. Relaxes me better than pretty much anything!
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Plan A was actually to be an internationally famous rock and roll guitarist. I had it all worked out: I was going to die aged 21, having made an indelible mark on musical history. But this plan had some major flaws. First – and quite crucially – I wasn't good enough. Second, I didn't have the looks for it. And nowadays, I don't even have enough hair for it. So, writing it is, then. Hee hee hee! (;p
Why do you write books for kids?
Several reasons. For one thing, I love the discipline of it. Many older readers seem prepared to put up with almost any amount of description, lengthy exposition, endless period detail and so forth. Younger readers, by contrast, tend to prefer to focus on a STORY - and I do, too. But (second) there's also a freedom to young people's literature – a joyful acceptance of wildness and weirdness, a willingness to take risks. Example: my first book, THE BLACK TATTOO, contains (as well as swordfights, monsters, flying kung fu and the end of the universe) some vomiting bats. Where adults might ask, 'Why? Why bats? Why vomiting? What point are you making here?' younger readers (again, rightly I think) will simply say 'What? They're bats. They vomit. Cool.' All too often, and rather drearily, adult readers seem to need to have everything explained to them. Younger readers haven't forgotten how to have fun.
Third, and most important, the age for which I write is the age I was when I began to choose books for myself: in doing so, I discovered a love of reading that has become one of the central passions and pleasures of my life. The chance, however remote, of having one of my stories do something similar for someone else… wow. That's a hugely exciting goal to aim for, it seems to me - and one that writing for adults can't ever hope to match.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I love giving talks at schools, and at a recent one I misheard a question from a young student in the audience. JOE CRAIG, author of the wonderful JIMMY COATES: ASSASSIN series, was due to be appearing at the school later in the week. What I thought the student asked me was, 'Could you eat him?'
I'd met Joe, and he's a nice guy, but I believe a straight question deserves a straight answer so after due consideration I said: 'He's a little smaller than me, so yes, I suppose I probably could. I don't think I could eat him all at once though, so I'd have to cut him up into portions, keep most of him in the freezer, maybe cook him a bit at a time…' Lost in the details, it was only then I realised that what I'd actually been asked me was, 'Could you meet him?'
The student was looking a bit perturbed, so I apologized profusely. The young lady raised her hand again and asked, 'Have you always been so violent?'
If you could pick anyone to illustrate one of your books, who would it be and why?
Anyone? Really? OK, you asked for it: I would pick GUSTAVE DORE. His jaw-dropping engravings for texts such as DANTE's DIVINE COMEDY and (particularly) COLERIDGE's THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER are a constant source of inspiration and amazement to me. Only problem is, he's been dead for over a hundred and twenty-five years!
Actually (and especially for a near-beginner like me) I've been incredibly lucky about the people who have illustrated my stories so far. For THE BLACK TATTOO my US publishers Razorbill commissioned a stunning painting by the internationally renowned fantasy artist JOHN JUDE PALENCAR. And the first edition of TIM, DEFENDER OF THE EARTH has a frankly gobsmacking central gatefold painting by the supremely talented DAN DOS SANTOS [click here for a sneak peek!] So believe me, I'm not complaining. Hee hee hee!