This page contains most of the Q&A’s I’ve done over the years, so it’s huge!!
Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself for those that are unfamiliar with your previous publications?
My full name is Alexander Gordon Smith, but call me Gordon (my parents have called me Gordon since I was born, but put my name this way round so that my initials wouldn’t spell GAS). I write books for children and teenagers. My first series is called The Inventors, and is about two young inventors who have to battle an evil genius. My second series, which has just come out in the States, is Escape From Furnace. The five-book story, starting with Lockdown, follows a teenage boy called Alex Sawyer who is a criminal but not a killer. He is framed for the murder of his best friend and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Furnace Penitentiary. Furnace is the world’s most secure prison for young offenders, but Alex soon realizes that it is much more than this – it is a nightmarish institution filled with monsters…
When I’m not writing books I try and make films. I run a production company with my sister and brother-in-law, called Fear Driven Films, and our first feature is called Stagnant. Making films is a lot harder than writing books, but it’s great fun! I’m trying to do some writing for computer games too, which is really interesting. In a nutshell, I just love telling stories!
What started you writing? On your bio you mentioned that you started at nearly the age of six, what were the factors influencing you at such a young age?
The main factor was simply that I loved to read. I used to devour books! For me, reading was addictive – the moment you opened up the first page of a book and felt yourself being pulled into this brand new adventure. It’s an amazing feeling, the sense of whole new worlds opening up, being introduced to incredible characters who become utterly real for the duration of the story. It really was my favorite thing to do as a kid, just curl up with a book and be taken on an amazing journey. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I guess it was a fairly natural transition from reading to writing. I vividly remember the time in my life when I realized that books weren’t these magical things that just appeared on shelves, but that they were written by real people. My mum and dad used to tell me made-up stories, and my uncle even packaged up his own stories to look like books. I thought that if they could tell their own stories and make them into books, then I could too!
So I began to write, and I discovered that writing was even more fun than reading because you had total control over the story. It was your adventure, and you could write it any way you liked. That feeling – the first blank page, laying down the first few words, feeling yourself about to begin the story – was like being on the peak of a roller coaster about to thunder down the slope, and it was addictive too. It still is! I haven’t stopped writing since I was a kid, and I hope I never do.
The story of your first publication is quite a tale in itself, could you elaborate on it please & the benefits you reaped from it?
Yes, getting published really was an adventure in its own right! I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but other than a horror novel I wrote when I was eighteen (which was rejected by everyone I sent it to for being too gory!) I have never sent anything off for publication. In the summer of 2005 my little brother Jamie (who was nine) decided that we were going to try and write a book together. We both loved reading and we wanted to see if we could write something really cool, a book that we’d both love to read.
We came up with the idea of The Inventors and set to work writing it. In the end, though, we spent more time actually trying to build the inventions in the book than we did writing. We wanted to know exactly what it was like to be two inventors, so Jamie designed and built dozens of gadgets, machines and traps and tested them on me (which was an interesting, if not entirely pleasant, experience)! Although we had plotted most of the novel and developed our characters and knew exactly what was going to happen, we only actually wrote about 13,000 words.
At the end of the holiday, Jamie spotted a competition being run in Waterstones, a national bookshop chain. It was called The Wow Factor, and was looking for “the next J. K. Rowling”. All they wanted was the first three chapters and a synopsis, so we entered without any great optimism but thinking we had nothing to lose. After that, school began again and we kind of forgot about the novel…
A few months later, I got a phone call from Waterstones telling me that our book had been shortlisted for the award. It was pretty much the best phone call I had ever received in my life, until it went on to say that they needed the full manuscript by the end of the next week. I told them that we had only written 13,000 words, and they answered that if we couldn’t give them the manuscript then we weren’t eligible. “Can you do it?” they asked. I said no, thinking it was impossible. As soon as I put the phone down, though, I realized that this was our chance to be published, this was our big break. If we didn’t take it, or at least try to take it, we would regret it forever.
So we started writing, really writing. Like I say, we had the story in our heads, we knew what was going to happen, so it flowed really naturally. Seven days later and we had a total of 96,000 words and a finished book. The experience nearly killed me – 11,000 words a day – but to be honest the mad rush actually gave the book so much of its energy and its pacing. I’ve written every book in the same white heat ever since. We got it to the post office about one minute before it closed the day of the deadline, then we kept our fingers crossed! In the end we didn’t win – Sarah Wray’s excellent The Forbidden Room did – but a few weeks later I got a call from Faber saying they loved our book and they wanted to publish it.
After so long wanting to be a writer, it really was a dream come true. I will never forget that call. Do enter your writing into as many competitions as you can find – they really are excellent ways to get your work seen.
In your bio which you have on your site you mention quite a creative & copious background, could you tell our readers a bit more about it?
I’ve dabbled in a few different things. I have always loved books, not just the writing but the actual physical objects. I think they’re beautiful. When I was at university (2000-2003) I wanted to publish them, so I used my student loan to set up a small publishing company, called Egg Box. We started off with a creative writing magazine, then gradually moved into publishing first collections of poetry. It was quite successful, as our first two books got awards and sold pretty well (for poetry…). We never made any money, in fact I lost a whole heap of money keeping the company going, but it was a labor of love so it didn’t really matter. Egg Box is still going strong, although it’s now being run by a friend of mine, the poet Nathan Hamilton.
After I graduated, and in order to keep Egg Box afloat, I started another company called Box of Words. In some ways it was the antithesis of Egg Box – it was designed to supply commercial editorial content for books and magazines, projects like The X-Files magazine and Scooby Doo. Although there were a couple of other people helping me out, most of the time it was me working fifteen hours a day pretending to be a company stuffed full of writers. It was exhausting! Shortly after I got the deal for The Inventors I wound up the company, but it was a great experience.
As I mentioned before, I’ve just set up a film production company, and am looking to maybe start up a new publishing outfit for children’s books (although not my own). I was lucky enough to learn really early on that if you set your mind to something then there’s pretty much nothing stopping you from doing it. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any experience, but if you’ve got passion and heart and you treat people with respect then things will always work out. Not every venture I’ve had has been successful, but the worst that can happen is that you simply forget about it and start something new. If you’ve got a dream then go for it, believe in yourself, and sooner or later it will be a success.
How much did your prolific background in Egg Box and Box of Words help you now in your current writing?
Doing the editorial stuff for Box of Words was really useful. Because I had to write so quickly to meet deadlines it taught me to think and write at the same time, and to do it fast. When I write now I don’t pause much, I just think it and write it in one continuous stream (and give it plenty of editing after I’ve finished the book). I don’t think I’d be able to do that if I hadn’t have written thousands of words a day for the magazines. The most useful thing about that time in my life was actually the Scooby Doo comics! I absolutely loved writing these because you could make them as crazy as you liked so long as you kept the story within certain boundaries. It taught me a lot about how to structure a story, where to put the peaks and the valleys, how to build up tension within a very short space and how to pace it. So thanks Scooby!
In one of the discussions between your characters, one question gets raised without an answer being provided to the readers “Who is the best English goalkeeper of all time” care to jump in & enlighten us!
Great question! Well, there are a number of contenders including Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and David Seaman, but I guess the winner would have to be Gordon Banks, our World Cup-winning keeper and a legend amongst legends!
The book series “Escape from Furnace” while being a YA series deals with some very serious themes [Freedom] and issues [morality], what was it that you were trying to explore via these stories?
I didn’t set out to explore any theme or issue explicitly. What I wanted to do was write a horror story, a really scary book for teenagers. I knew it was going to deal with crime, with morality, but the last thing I wanted was to write a doctrine on how teenagers should behave, or a morality tale for young adults. If you set out to preach then there’s no way you can succeed in writing a story that kids will enjoy, they will know what you are trying to do and they’ll rebel against it.
So yes, I wanted to try and focus on the story, on the scares. But Alex, the main character, became so real to me when I was writing, and his friends inside Furnace – Zee, Donovan, Monty, Toby – all developed such rounded, believable personalities that of course the book did end up confronting all of these serious themes and issues. I guess when you write a story like Lockdown it’s impossible to avoid the big stuff.
Much of what happens in the book I didn’t plot or plan for, the characters just acted the way they would have if they were real. This means that they don’t always do the right thing. Alex, for one, is a thief and a bully, he can be cowardly, he can be selfish. Morally he is a very grey character. He isn’t a killer when he goes into Furnace, but he is a killer by the end of the book. I wasn’t trying to say his actions were right or wrong, I was trying to make him believable as a character. And what that means, essentially, is that right and wrong depend entirely on context. Much of what Alex does can be considered wrong, but he’s not a bad guy.
Freedom was definitely a theme I was trying to explore more directly. The idea of losing your freedom forever is terrifying, but what the characters do in Furnace is work out ways of giving themselves freedom within the confines of the prison. There are times, even locked away at the bottom of the world, where Alex feels free. And maybe that’s a similar point to the one above, that freedom is also relative, it depends on context. Alex is a prisoner, but in many ways he is free of all the responsibilities and pressures that teenagers face. But I wasn’t deliberately trying to explore anything other than the lives and actions of these characters. Any themes and issues in the book are the ones they have generated, not me!
Does your interest run only in the YA genre or will we be seeing you experiment in other genres as well?
What I love more than anything else are stories, and each story kind of demands its own audience. When I first thought about Lockdown I knew instinctively that it was a young adult book, it just felt right for that readership. Likewise with The Inventors, partly because of my brother’s age, we knew it would be for the eight to twelve bracket. You definitely get a sense of what core age range a book will appeal to (although of course you hope it will be as broad as possible) when you’re writing. I have been working on a book for adults. It started off as a horror story for teenagers but it was getting darker and darker, in a different way to Lockdown. Eventually I realized that I would get the most out of this story if I wrote it for adults. It’s not that you write it differently – the story is exactly the same as it would have been – but you maybe don’t hold yourself back so much with bad language and gore!
My favorite genre is definitely horror, and dark fantasy too. I love the way that anything can happen, that the walls of reality can peel away and reveal so much more beneath. Many of the world’s oldest stories belong to this genre. Most of what I write tends to have some element of horror and fantasy in it, even books like The Inventors which does have its scary moments although they’re told in a gentler way. I’m happy to stay in this genre for now – I can’t see myself writing a romantic comedy any time soon!
How difficult was it to write this book using the first person narrative, especially for a newcomer. What led you to this choice? What’s your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?
With Lockdown writing in the first person felt utterly natural. I couldn’t have told the story any other way. I’m not sure why, that’s just how it was. I feel very close to Alex for a number of reasons, not least that I went through a stage, when I was a teenager, of being a bit of a troublemaker – nothing as serious as him, but stealing things from my family, getting into fights, roaming the streets at night, drinking in biker bars. I vividly remember what it was like to rebel, to feel yourself becoming independent, the excitement but at the same time the fear, and the sadness of losing the child you had once been, all mixed up into a permanent lead ball in your stomach. When I started writing the book, Alex’s voice was so similar to mine. In a way, I guess, he was a version of me that could have existed – that may exist – in another reality.
The other reason it felt perfectly natural is that shortly after I had started writing Lockdown I suffered a personal tragedy. It was a really dark time for me, and I almost stopped writing altogether. But Lockdown was one of the things that helped, it was one of the things that got me through the experience. One of the reasons why is that I began to see Furnace – this horrific penitentiary built beneath the ground – as a symbol for this nightmare period I was going through in my life. Alex was trapped inside the prison, I was trapped somewhere without walls but just as bad. I knew that if Alex didn’t make it out of Furnace, or at least try, then I would never get over this tragedy. So Alex’s fear and pain and desperation and hope are really my fear and pain and desperation and hope. That’s what gives the book so much of its drive and its power. They are all real emotions because I was feeling them too, and writing in the first person was the only way to get the strength of those emotions across.
Generally speaking I either write in the first person or the third person limited. I don’t like to write as an all-powerful narrator who can skip effortlessly between thoughts, partly because I find that style difficult to control – especially with a sprawling cast – and partly because I think it can be confusing as a reader if you’re constantly jumping from one person’s head to another’s. If I do narrate with more than one third-person character I’ll always use chapter breaks to skip between them. The reason I like third-person limited, and first person, is that as a reader you’re on the same level as the character, you learn things at the same time they do so you feel more like a part of the story than just an observer.
Your main protagonist Alex Sawyer, is a very human character and a bit grey as well, how did you envision his origins & what were your reasons for adding the touch of the grey?
As I said before, he is a human character because so much of his emotional state belonged to me at the time. He is real to me, more real in many ways than my friends and family. He has grown so much since he first appeared in Lockdown, he really has evolved and developed as a person. I think that’s so important when you’re writing. You have to know your characters better than you know yourself. If you don’t, then the story just won’t be any good no matter how brilliant your plot. Nobody will care what happens.
As for being a little grey, isn’t everybody? A character who is perfect isn’t a character at all, they’re a fantasy. They’re make believe. Alex has made mistakes, he does bad things, he makes wrong choices, and is all the more human for it.
To any new reader, how would you describe your books & writing to convince them to give one of your novels a try?
Wow, that’s a tricky question! The most important thing for me when I’m writing is to keep the story moving, to keep the pace dynamic, to keep it exciting. Because I don’t plot, I often write to find out what’s going to happen. That sounds strange, but really it is the characters who drive the story, they are the ones who make the decisions, who act. All I’m doing is trying to lay down the words, the track, quickly enough for them to do their thing!
Most of the feedback I have from young adults, and adults too, is that they couldn’t put the book down, and that they were devouring the pages. Each book is like a roller coaster; you thunder down a slope so fast you can barely catch your breath, and just when you think it’s safe to relax it takes you off on another twist. So if you like roller coasters, then give my books a try!
You have had some incredible praise from James Patterson & Darren Shan, how did it feel to gain such praise for your work from such luminous & best-selling authors?
The first quote I got was the Darren Shan one, which was truly amazing as he is one of my favorite authors. I love the way he writes, the pace of his books, the roundness of his characters, the sheer scope of his series and of course the way he writes horror. I even had the characters of Lockdown talk about his work, which I think he was quite tickled by when he read it! I’d had a few letter conversations with Darren over the last couple of years and he really is the nicest guy. But when he read Lockdown and gave me such amazing feedback it truly was a fantastic moment.
The James Patterson quote was such a bolt from the blue that it took a while for the reality of it to sink in. I mean he’s one of the bestselling authors in the world, and was such a huge influence on me, that I didn’t really believe it! For him to have read Lockdown and taken the time to commend it was just brilliant. He is obviously a huge supporter of new writers, and very generous with his time, and it is so refreshing to see somebody at the very top of their game giving so much back to those who are just starting out. It may just be a few words, but people trust authors like Patterson and Shan, they respond to their recommendations, and all of that can be so important when you’ve just published your first book. Even if nobody knows your name yet, everybody knows theirs, and how cool is it to be able to share a book jacket with them!
With the first three books in the “Escape from Furnace” series already being published in the UK and the remaining two to be published next year, how is your US publication schedule going to be like for readers impatient to read[namely me] what happens next?
The publication schedules in the UK and the US are very different and I’m not sure why. Over here all three books in the first half of the series were published this year, in March, July and October. I wanted them to come out quickly so there wouldn’t be too much of a wait – I’m an impatient reader myself and always want to know what happens next! The next one won’t be out until October 2010, and there’s no news on the fifth and final book yet.
In the States, the second book, Solitary, will be out in September 2010, and the third will follow in June 2011 (although these dates may change). It’s a little longer to wait, but the difference is that in the US they are releasing hardcover and paperback versions of each title, which was amazing for me as a writer because Lockdown was my first ever hardback book! The series gets darker and more action-packed with each installment, so I really believe they will be worth the wait!
Who/what’s your Muse & how did you gain her assent? (any particular names for your muse)? And is there a specific life experience that influenced your writing?
I’m not sure who my muse is, but I know I owe her everything! She is there constantly, throwing ideas at me so fast I don’t know what to do with them all. I remember thinking once that my muse might actually be able to time travel, and would nip into the future, find a bestselling novel, then come back and transcribe it into my head – because I wrote so quickly and without really knowing what was going to happen. But obviously I hope that’s not the truth as it would make me some kind of weird, inter-dimensional plagiarist! Whoever my muse is, and however she works, I hope I never lose her.
I don’t remember any key moment that influenced my writing, although I do remember the longest story I ever wrote when I was young (maybe eleven) was one I did for school. It was called The Valleys of Olaf Karnoff and was pretty much based on The Lord of the Rings. My teacher was so impressed with it, and her enthusiasm – plus the fact that I was so proud of my story – gave me a real desire to write more. My parents always encouraged me to write, which is so important. So many young writers are put off when they are told to get a proper job (and my dad did tell me this numerous times but never seriously), but writing can be a proper job if you persevere with it. Just keep writing, never give up!
Which authors, that you have read & are your favorites, would you recommend to your readers? What book/books have you read recently that have made an impression on you?
I read so much, and every since I was a kid I’ve kind of seen every book as my favorite until I start the next. You get so caught up in the adventure that, while you’re reading, you forget about anything else you’ve ever read! Saying that, I do have some favorites. In no particular order they are Stephen King, who writes such amazing books with such realistic characters, Ramsey Campbell, who is just a master of creating an atmosphere of pure terror, George Orwell, who writes so simply but so powerfully, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Lovecraft, Poe, Clive Barker, who was a huge influence on me when I was a teenager, Dan Simmons, Darren Shan, James Patterson, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, Arthur Ransome…
Okay, this is just going to be an endless list so I’ll stop there. My advice would simply be to read as much as possible, as widely as possible, because each book is so different. And as a writer even if you find that you are not enjoying a book it’s still really useful because you can ask yourself why. Every book will teach you something, even if it’s just something to avoid when you’re writing.
A couple of recent favorites though… Skellig, by David Almond, and I’ve just re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four which gets better every time.
There have been online rumors about your fascination with kilts? What would you say to kilt them off?
Ha! This is the best question ever! I didn’t realize there had been online rumors, I’ll have to be more careful from now on! Well, I wouldn’t call it a fascination, but I do enjoy wearing a kilt. All of my family are Scottish. In fact I was the first one ever to be born outside of Scotland, and in England too. I’m definitely the black sheep of the family. I still consider myself to be Scottish, in that I have Scottish blood, and there’s something so awesome about being able to go back to your roots, to embrace your culture and your heritage, especially when it means dressing up in such cool attire!
For those of you who think kilts are skirts then think again! Okay, they are a bit like skirts, but it’s the whole suit that I like: the smart jacket with the shiny buttons, the long socks with your own knife tucked into them, the sporran to keep your car keys in, and of course a tartan bow tie! When you’re decked out in the full works you feel like a million bucks. I’d wear one every day if I could!
Hmmmm… I don’t think I’ve done too good a job at ‘kilting’ off those rumors. Okay, maybe it is a fascination…
What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I only had one hobby, and that was writing. Once I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life, it’s pretty much all I wanted to do ever. It felt like some glorious form of cheating, because when I was writing I had a million hobbies, I could do anything I wanted without leaving the safety of my bedroom. Using books from the library I would train to be a mountaineer so that I could scale the cliffs of the underworld (a memory I returned to when writing this book), I would learn martial arts to fight dragons, I would train to be a psychic in order to hunt ghosts. Most people saw me as the weird kid who sat in the corner of the library chewing a pen and lost in thought, but in my head I was throwing myself into adventure after adventure after adventure.
I’d love to say I lead a more varied life now, with plenty of hobbies… But that would be a lie. I play Dungeons and Dragons, but that’s kind of it. I just love to write, and I feel so lucky that my hobby is also my job. If I’ve got free time these days (which, with four kids, isn’t often), then suddenly I’m the weird kid again, sitting in the corner of the library chewing my pen and lost in thought. I hope I’m that kid for the rest of my life.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
I guess it isn’t too surprising that one of my favorite childhood memories involves writing. I wrote my first book when I was six, a picture book about monsters. It sucked, but I was so proud of it, because I’d stapled it and made it look like a real book. I’d recently had the revelation that all of the books I loved were written by real people—before then I’d just assumed they appeared on the shelves by magic—and I was determined to be one of those writers.
After I’d written this book my mum took me to the local bookstore so that I could “buy” a copy. I remember walking up to the counter, terrified but ridiculously excited, and showing the man my book. He didn’t even look at me. Never one to admit defeat, mum took me to the library instead. I handed my book to the librarian on duty, squeaking something about how I was a writer and this was my book. She smiled, told me that was amazing, then stamped my book with the return date and told me to bring it back in three weeks. I was so happy, I felt like a real author. That glow has never really left me, and I still have that book!
What was your favorite thing about school?
I’ll let you take a guess… It was writing! I used to get in trouble all the time in high school because I would sit and write stories in all my lessons. I just couldn’t stop myself. One time we actually got an assignment in English where we had to write a story, I thought it was the best thing ever. All the teacher wanted was a couple of sides of paper to show that we had a grasp of beginning, middle, and end. I was thirteen, and in love with horror, so I went home and hammered out a forty-page story on my typewriter. It was about a serial killer that murdered all of my teachers, and the gruesomeness of their deaths was based on how much I hated their lessons. I can’t even tell you how my math teacher and my gym teacher died, it was horrible…
Anyway, about a week after I handed in this story my English teacher, who I loved, pulled me out of class into the corridor. She asked me, nervously, whether everything was okay at home. I honestly think she was worried I was a serial killer in the making. I even had to go and see the Head of Year, a terrifying old guy who sat you down in his office and blew cigarette smoke in your face to intimidate you. He told me that writing was nonsense, and that if I wanted to do well in life I should give it up now. I remember leaving his office wondering if he was right, but when I got back to class my English teacher told me to ignore him. If I was a writer, she said, then nothing would or should ever stop me from writing. It was her words that stuck with me, not his, and I am eternally grateful to her.
What was your first job, and what was your worst job?
That’s easy, because they were the same! My first, and worst, job was in MacDonald’s. I was seventeen, and it was hell. It was almost literally hell, because you’d be standing next to the fryers for ten hours, hot oil spraying on your skin, the salt grinding into the flesh of your palms every time you swapped out the fries. Everything in there seemed to be designed to kill—the huge grill presses, the compactors, the walk-in freezers, the giant vats of dill pickles. I hated it, but was a good job in a way because it made me realize how much I wanted to be a writer, and it drove me to work as hard as I could to make those dreams come true. I quit after three weeks and started work on my first novel, and it was the best decision I ever made—even though I still miss those free burgers.
What advice do you wish somebody had given you when you were younger?
A lot of the bad stuff in my life was related to writing as well—not awful things, just disappointing ones. I sent so many short stories off to magazines when I was in my early teens, and I was always rejected. I never managed to finish anything, either, I had so many half written stories that just ended up in the trash. I used to feel like such a failure, and there were so many times I gave up, that I just knew I was never going to be successful. When I was eighteen I actually did give up, when my first full novel was rejected. I didn’t write a single word for years.
The piece of advice I’d love to have heard was that success never really mattered, not back then. I assumed that the only reason I was writing was to be published, and when it didn’t happen I thought it was a failure. But actually all those stories I wrote that were rejected, all those novels I started and never finished, all those manuscripts that ended up in the trash, they were essential. They were my training, it’s where I was learning the craft of being a writer. Those stories were the building blocks of the books that I write now, and even though none of them were successful, without them there wouldn’t be Escape From Furnace, or The Fury, or The Devil’s Engine. I just wouldn’t be able to write them. If my life had a Rocky-style montage, it would be me sitting at my desk as a teenager writing story after story after story, year after year after year, it’s what made me me. And that’s what I wish somebody had told me.
What sparked your imagination for Hellwalkers?
So many of my books—maybe all of them—are rooted in my childhood, and in the stories I dreamed of back then. I remember going through a phase where I was fascinated by the idea of hell. I would try to imagine what my own personal hell would be like (no macaroni cheese!), and although each version differed the constant theme was that there was no way to escape, not even death. It was eternal, and that concept of timelessness terrified me.
I think childhood and adolescence is where we’re first forced to confront demons, too, especially those in ourselves. I’ve spoken before about the fact that I was a hellraiser when I was a teenager, I used to get in all kinds of trouble. I remember the war that raged between the side of me that wanted to raise hell, that wanted the thrill of breaking the rules, and the side of me that wanted to be a good person. I think everybody has to fight that battle at some point in their life. I was really lucky that even though I did find myself in trouble a lot, most of the time I confronted my demons through writing. Stories are powerful that way.
So yeah, Hellwalkers is a personal story the way that all of my books are. Hopefully that makes it universal, too. It’s a book about fighting demons—real demons, sure, there are plenty of those here, but also the demons that live inside our heads. It’s a book about that war between right and wrong, between good and evil, the war that rages inside all of us. It’s a book about finding the courage to stand up to the darkness that sometimes threatens to overwhelm you, to fight tooth and nail for your beliefs, for your family, for your friends. And most of all it’s a book about hope, because without hope we’d all be lost.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
Teleportation, without a doubt. I’m terrified of planes and if I could teleport I could head to the States all the time to see you all! But in all seriousness, I think I do have a superpower. I think every writer has. I mean, we create worlds from nothing, we birth characters who have never existed before, we write stories that (hopefully) stay in people’s minds and hearts for the rest of their lives. It’s a strange and powerful kind of magic.
But readers have superpowers too. Stories are at the heart of who we are as human beings, and reading is simply one of the best things you can do in life. Stories inspire and delight, they educate and entertain. They make us smart, they make us brave, they make us compassionate. Stories heal us and they unite us. Stories are powerful. They can build worlds and topple empires. They can change lives and they can save lives. Stories are what make us human, and without them the world would be a quiet and lonely place. Books are the foundation on which you can build the life of your dreams, because both writing and reading teaches you that anything is possible, and that you are capable of incredible things. And if that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what is.
The first question I have to ask you about is your world building. In the Furnace series, you created an underground prison that, for most of the series, is where the story takes place. What were some of your influences in creating that world?
The prison isn’t so much a world as a character. Furnace, the place, is the true bad guy in the series. It never speaks, never moves, never does anything, but it’s a presence nonetheless, imposing and malevolent. It always watches, it never sleeps. The villains in the series – the warden, the wheezers, the blacksuits and even Alfred Furnace himself – they are, hopefully, terrifying. But the prison is what always scared me the most. I did do a bit of research, watched a lot of prison shows on TV and visited a few, too. Furnace was originally going to be a fairly average prison, the kind you get in most big cities. But one day I visited an old, forgotten medieval dungeon underground, in Norwich, England, and got locked in one of the cells (thanks to my mischievous little brother…). I completely freaked out, but it made me rethink the whole book and locate Furnace Penitentiary deep beneath the ground. It suddenly developed this personality, it became so much more a character than a place. It turned into the real bad guy that Alex had to crack.
In other interviews, you’ve compared yourself to Alex, the main character in Furnace. How did you go from being Alex to being a writer?
Yeah, I had a rocky patch when I was a teenager. Nothings as bad as Alex, but I used to hang out at this biker bar, drinking, getting into fights. I used to steal stuff, too, from my home and from my school. It was a really horrible time, but I couldn’t find a way out. Then I got into a serious fight one night, lost some teeth, knives were involved, and it shocked me into the realization that if I didn’t break out of this lifestyle then something really bad was going to happen – to me or to someone else. I turned to writing, something I’d always enjoyed when I was younger. That’s when I really understood the power that writing gives you over your own life. By writing about things, you stand a better chance of controlling them. If there was something bothering me, I wrote about it – not directly but in a story. Years later when I was writing horror, I turned to Alex – this person that I was when I was younger – and wrote his story. In doing so, I could come to terms with the actions I’d taken, I kind of set us both free. It’s what I often say when I visit schools, that writing is amazing because it gives you so much power over your own life.
When you first shopped Furnace, did you meet any resistance to the content as related to it being marketed as young adult?
Not at all, but after publication there was the usual smattering of protest from people who just don’t think horror has any place in a modern society, that it is somehow harmful to teenagers. And at first I didn’t know how to deal with that, but now when (very rarely) a teacher or parent questions the content of the books I have an answer. I don't think you ever see heroism, humanity and hope like you do in a horror story. When things are at their worst, you really do see people at their best. When things turn bad, people fight tooth and nail for everything they believe in. When people accuse horror books of "corrupting" young minds I argue that horror actually makes teenage readers aware of their own powers, their own strengths and abilities, their own priorities too. In the same way that fairy tales unconsciously bolster the confidence of young children, horror teaches teenagers that whatever challenges and obstacles they may meet in their teenage years – and there are many of them – they can overcome them, that they have what it takes to survive. I honestly believe that horror makes better people of us, it makes heroes of us, even if that heroism is just facing up to our everyday lives.
What inspired you to write about monsters wearing gasmasks? That imagery is so hard to forget.
Thanks! I tend to write about things that scare me. I think that’s one of the best ways to approach writing horror. If you write about something that scares you then you’re going to feel scared as you write, and readers will sense that there is a genuine emotion in the work, and they’ll feel it too. It’s like comedy – if you try to write a funny book, but you don’t find it funny, then why would anyone else? It’s what I tell the kids when I do school events: write something based around your own fears, it will be genuinely terrifying. Luckily I am scared of pretty much everything, in one degree or another, so I have plenty to work from. Gas masks, though, are truly disturbing. If you see somebody in a gas mask you know almost instantly that a) there is something bad in the air, or b) they are some kind of psycho killer. They really do give me the heebie jeebies.
Do you notice a gender bias in your fan base?
Weirdly, no. I didn’t write the book specifically for boys, but because of the nature of the story – Furnace is an all-male prison – there aren’t any female characters in it until the fourth book. I assumed that would mean the series would pick up more male readers than female ones, but as far as I know it hasn’t worked out that way at all. In fact, I’d say I get twice as much fan mail from girls as from boys, although I’m not sure if that’s just because girls are more likely to pick up a pen and write to you, or if girls are just more enthusiastic readers in general. I’m really glad that girls don’t feel excluded from the story just because it’s an all-male cast. One of the questions I get asked A LOT is where are the girl prisoners kept, and what part do they play in the story. I guess at some point I’m going to have to write another series and work out the answer to that!
You’re co-owner of an independent film company, Fear Driven Films. Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
Fear Driven Films came about because my sister (Kate Smith) and I are huge horror fans. We’ve watched horror movies together for years. One day – I can’t remember what we were watching, and whether it was really good, or really bad – we just said to ourselves, ‘why don’t we have a go at making a horror movie?’ And we did! We sat down and wrote a script together, a film called Stagnant, and started producing it. Man, it’s seriously hard work! Coming from a writer’s perspective – one person and a computer – producing is a logistical nightmare, as literally hundreds of people need to be involved. But it’s great fun. We’re hoping to shoot Stagnant this year, and are still looking for investors… It’s a horror comedy about a mutant bride who murders stag parties (bachelor parties, I think you guys call them) on the Norfolk Broads. We’ve got a few others projects going too, including our first short, Sola Gratia, which you can watch over on our website. That truly was a baptism of fire, but it was a fascinating experience.
Your next series, The Fury, has a zombie apocalypse feel to it. Are there any horror movies that have particularly influenced you?
Zombies are my absolute favourite horror creatures. I love the sheer relentlessness of them – they are like the Terminator, they will never stop chasing you. I love the question of what happens to you when you become a zombie, what happens to your personality, your soul. And I just plain love the fact that they tear you to pieces! I’ve wanted to write a zombie book for ages, but couldn’t find a unique spin on it. I was thinking about the things that trigger zombies – chemicals, possession, viruses, and then suddenly wondered what if the thing that turned people into zombies was you. As soon as you go near people, they turn. As soon as you die, or you get out of their ‘radar’, they go back to normal. I have to say, pretty much every zombie movie I have ever watched influenced The Fury in some way – 28 Days Later being the most obvious – but I hope I put a slightly unexpected twist on the tradition.
In addition to writing and the film company you’re also the founder of Egg Box Publishing and Inkling Studios. Can you tell us a little about them?
Egg Box is something I set up at uni. I’ve always loved publishing – not just writing books but making them, they’re such beautiful objects – and I decided to give it a go. I had my student loan, which was supposed to be for food and stuff, but I blew it all on setting up a creative writing magazine, then following that with a few collections from new writers. There’s no money in poetry, so it really was a labour of love, but I’m so glad I did it. Egg Box is still going strong, although I don’t have much to do with the company any more. Inkling Studios was a similar thing. I was sitting with my daughter and girlfriend one Christmas watching a film about Pixar Studios, and we joked about setting up our own company to do books and animated films for kids. Then the more we thought about it the more excited we got, and we decided to give it a go. Nothing’s happened yet, but we’re working on a few projects – and you never know, maybe someday it will be another Pixar. It’s amazing how many times I hear people say they really want to do something, but they can’t find the time or money or whatever. The only thing stopping you from giving it a go is you. If you want to do something, do it!
You manage to keep yourself busy, can you tell us what’s next for you?
I manage to keep myself busy by hating to be bored! The Fury launches this year in the States, which is really exciting. And there’s a new YA horror series due soon after that, tentatively called Mercenary. Hopefully Stagnant will get made this year too – if we could get it into theatres sometime after Christmas that would be amazing. My sister and I are working on a few more scripts too. Not everything will happen, or work out, or be successful, but it will be fun.
What do you feel the differences are, if any, between scaring adults versus children?
That’s a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. In some ways, children are easier to scare than adults – they don’t have the sense of security and confidence that comes with experience, so will react differently to frightening events in fiction. They haven’t developed that suit of armour that year upon year of being desensitized to horror brings grown ups. Generally speaking, kids have better imaginations, too, so what they see when they read a book, the experience they go through, is much more vivid and immediate and emotional and, therefore, terrifying. But imagination is the key, I think. Because kids have these huge, all-encompassing, irrepressible imaginations, they are better equipped to deal with the horror of a book or a film. The imagination required for survival – physical and emotional – is hardwired into them. We lose so much of our imagination as we get older – school and work bludgeons it out of us – so we are less well equipped to deal with the scenarios presented in a horror book or a horror movie. We don’t have that imaginative elasticity to deal with it, to navigate our way through it. So in this way, kids are much, much harder to scare than adults. It goes back to what I was saying before, though – teenagers who read, and who read horror, keep their imaginations open, they allow themselves to believe, and they become better prepared for real life. What is horror if not the idea that anything is possible? When you read horror, you’re not just understanding that of the universe, you’re understanding that about yourself too – you are capable of anything.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. It’s the only thing I can ever remember wanting to be. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, a horror novel which was called Furnace Asylum (although the plot was completely different to the new series). It actually cost me my A-Levels as I was so convinced it was going to be successful that I pretty much dropped out (I fell asleep in my English exam). I sent it off everywhere, but it was returned by every agent and publisher, usually with a comment along the lines of ‘This is way too gory for us’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?!’ It was a very disgusting book!
The rejection put me off for a few years, but I kept writing and, more importantly I guess, I kept reading – reading reading reading all the time. The more I read, the more I learned about writing, about characters, about plot, about language. It’s really the best education any writer can get. Also, even though I didn’t send anything else off to be published for a few years, I never lost that love of storytelling. For me that’s the best part of being a writer, being pulled along by a story at a million miles per hour, feeling like you’re part of the adventure. I would have kept doing it whether I was published or not. I was in my mid-twenties when I started writing seriously again, and fortunately enough that’s when I got my lucky break!
What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
I’m not sure it was a conscious decision to write for children. I think part of it was that I was reading a lot of children’s books and really, really enjoying them. I’m a big kid at heart and what I love more than anything else is story, and that’s what’s really strong in a lot of kids’ books. Many of them are brilliantly written, but the language, the words, really seem to be there as a kind of tarmac on which the story hurtles along. Whereas in adult books it tends to be as much about the style of the writing as the content. That’s a huge generalisation, sorry, but there’s something about the speed, the momentum, the impact of children’s books that I adore.
The other thing was that I wrote The Inventors with my little brother Jamie, who was nine when we started. The enthusiasm he felt towards the story was contagious, and when we were writing it felt as though we were the characters in the book, that this was our adventure as much as it was theirs. The story just picked us up and carried us along with it, it didn’t let us stop for breath, and it was wonderful. It’s that sense of excitement, of adrenaline, that comes with writing children’s books that I love so much. I think it’s an addiction!
Your first children’s book, ‘The Inventors’ was shortlisted in Waterstones 2005 Wow Factor competition. Would you recommend entering competitions, do you think they can be an important deciding factor in finding success other than simply writing a good novel?
Definitely! One of the most difficult parts of the publishing process is getting your work onto an editor’s desk and making them read it. You can write the best novel the world has ever seen, but if it ends up on the slush pile, like so many of them do, then there’s a chance it will get returned unread. The great thing about competitions like the Wow Factor is that you know that somebody will definitely read what you send. Every single entry has to be read otherwise the competition isn’t being run properly. Of course there’s a chance that your book won’t appeal to the judges, but at least they’ll see it. I’d recommend entering every competition you can (legitimate competitions, that is, not some of the dubious ones that charge an entry fee, always check them out), it gave me my big break and it might just do the same for you. Good luck!
Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?
To be honest, I never really give a great deal of thought to genre. It’s best not to pigeon hole a story into a genre just because you think that’s what publishers are after, the same way it’s best not to pick an idea just because you think it fits the current market. When I start writing, I usually don’t have much of an idea where it’s heading, what’s going to happen. It just seems to evolve and grow naturally. That’s one of the best parts of the process. It may develop into an adventure novel, like The Inventors, or a horror novel, like Furnace, but until the characters start to take control themselves I never really know! Of course I’m a huge fan of horror, and I always knew Furnace was going to be dark, but I didn’t set out specifically to write a horror book. It really was Alex’s (the main character) experiences in the prison, and his reaction to them, which turned it from what would maybe have been a pure adventure story into a horror story (although it’s still an adventure story at heart).
As I mentioned before, what I love about writing children’s books is that sense of momentum, the way the story can just fly along. I definitely think my style of writing suits this sense of speed and action, and so long as I can get that explosive enthusiasm into a book then hopefully it will turn out well no matter which genre it eventually fits into.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?
My first book, the horror novel, was definitely aimed at adults (as you may have guessed!) but apart from a few short stories and screenplays that’s been about it. I would like to write for adults again, but I think it may be limited to horror novels. Thinking about it, many horror novels are basically like children’s books for adults – it’s all about fast-paced plots, gripping action, mystery, and the way the characters deal with the situation they’ve been thrust into. I’m actually working on another horror novel now, but it’s pretty gory so it may never come to anything. It’s quite nice to be able to write it, though – one thing about writing for children is that you have to watch your language, so I have a surplus of swears that need to go somewhere! I’d definitely publish a horror book for adults under a pseudonym. I was thinking about Alexander Gore and Don Smith, or do you think that’s too obvious?
Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?
It didn’t change the way I write – for me it always has and always will be about the excitement and the enjoyment of the story – but it did change something. The great thing about having a book deal is that it means a publisher will always prioritise reading your books in the future. You don’t have to send them a manuscript worrying that it will end up in the slush pile, or be sent back unread. Of course it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get the next book published – successful authors have to prove themselves again and again with each new book – but it will definitely get read. Knowing that does make the writing a little easier because it removes some of the doubt, some of the insecurity. But I’m pretty sure that even if I’d never had a book deal I would still have written the books that I have.
Do you have an agent? Would you recommend having one and, if so, why?
Yes I have a wonderful agent, Sophie Hicks. And yes, I would absolutely recommend having one. Personally speaking I am hopeless with maths and contracts and business and all things money, so me trying to negotiate a deal with a publisher is, well, I can think of plenty of comparisons but I’d better not use any of them. The point I’m making is that a publisher wants to make as much money from a book as possible, it’s their business, it’s how they survive. I’m not saying that they’ll try to rip off new writers, not at all, but they may offer a deal that isn’t perhaps as fair as it should be. Most new writers, me included, would take a packet of peanuts for their advance if it meant seeing their first book in print, an enthusiasm which can be exploited (although I’m really not saying this happens all the time, or that it happened to me, I’m just saying it can happen). An agent is there for you, she’s on your side, she’s looking out for you, and she’ll make sure you get the best deal possible. And agents are really, really good at this! I don’t think writers should be expected to manage their own contracts, they should focus on what they do best, which is the writing – so get an agent!
If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?
I was lucky enough to click with Sophie from day one. She represented some of my favourite authors and she seemed absolutely devoted to her job. And her reputation was excellent. If you ever are in the fortunate position of having a number of agents interested then I’d definitely recommend a face-to-face. You have to click with your agent, you have to get on, you have to like each other, and they have to be enthusiastic about your writing or the relationship isn’t going to work. And it’s so much easier to get a sense of this when you meet somebody in person. The same goes for publishers – find an editor who you really like, who gets what you’re trying to do, who isn’t just going to see you as another client. It’s really important.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I never really plan out my books. Weirdly it’s because I don’t have the patience for it. When I get an idea I like to throw myself into it straight away. I get gripped by that adventure and pulled along by it, and half of the fun of writing is seeing where you end up. If I plot too much – and I have tried it – it feels too much like writing by numbers. It loses something on the page, feels too formulaic. It’s a cliché, I know, but letting your characters grow and develop by themselves is amazing, it’s what writing is really about for me. That’s why it’s so important to get your characters spot on, to know them inside out. If you really understand them then they will be free to evolve, to act according to their own needs and fears, and the story will practically write itself! I love that about writing – you can be half way through a chapter and have an idea of where it’s heading, then suddenly one of the characters will break away and do something completely unexpected, and you’re wrenched off course down a completely new path. Admittedly sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere and you have to backtrack, but most of the time it leads to something much better and more exciting than you had originally envisioned.
For a book like Furnace I really didn’t want to sit down and work out how, or if, Alex would get out. I knew that if I had this planned out from the start then his adventure, and his horror, wouldn’t be as convincing as it should be. I really wanted to feel like I was in Furnace with Alex, as if I was Alex, and so when I started writing I had no idea how, or if, he would make his break. Hopefully his experience is much more realistic because of this. Having said all this, I do have a very rough story arc in my head for all five books – and I mean very rough. To start a series of books with absolutely no idea of where they are going could be literary suicide!
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?
With The Inventors I was lucky enough to write the book with my nine-year-old brother Jamie, which was one step better than a sounding board. He knew exactly what sort of book he wanted to read, what kind of adventure he wanted to have, and so the finished story was perfectly tailored to this. I would recommend the process to any writer. Writing is usually such a solitary job, but when you work with somebody, especially somebody the same age as your readership, it gives your ideas a real boost, it lets them grow and flourish in a way that doesn’t happen when you write on your own. But yes, using your own children as a sounding board is a great idea, especially when they’re brutally honest – if they don’t like it, if they seem bored, then perhaps you need to change something.
What sort of publicity and marketing do you do? Is it arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?
I try and do as much as possible. There are so many books out there that it’s vital to make yours stand out somehow. These days especially, when most publishing houses are drastically cutting back on their marketing budgets, the most important thing is to get out there, visit schools and libraries, meet the kids, talk about your book, get them interested. It doesn’t cost anything except time – in fact most schools will pay – and it really does help spread the word about you as a writer. It’s great to sell books at events, but that’s not the most important thing. If every one of those kids tells somebody else that you visited their school, and those people tell somebody else, and so on, then that’s potentially hundreds of people who know your name who wouldn’t have done. And next time they go into a bookshop they may just pick up yours.
School events can be scary – I used to be so nervous before each one that I thought I was going to be sick, and even now I still get the jitters – but the adrenaline is a good thing, it keeps things fast paced and exciting. Now that I’ve had some time to practice, school and library visits are one of my favourite things to do. It’s so rewarding when you get to talk to readers face-to-face, especially when they’ve already read your book. And hearing them talk about wanting to start writing, and wanting to read more, is just fantastic. So yes, get out there and visit as many schools as possible! Festivals are great too, although where school visits can be organised fairly easily by a writer – just call or email and they’re usually delighted – festivals can be harder to get into. It’s probably best if your publisher deals with them.
Aside from events, it’s important to keep your profile up in other ways. Try and get interviews with children’s magazines, websites, blogs, etc. Do everything you can think of. It’s all about reaching as many people as possible, especially when you’re new and nobody knows your name. And it doesn’t hurt to have some goodies to give away or to offer as prizes. When The Inventors came out I made up goody packs of Inventors mugs, notepads, pencils and T-shirts. It was pretty expensive, but the cost in terms of marketing was invaluable because we could give them away as prizes. We did something similar with Furnace, although this time Faber paid which was nice! Goodies are less expensive than you think, check out somewhere like http://www.4imprint.co.uk for great deals. Be generous with free books and giveaways – it will be rewarded, even if it takes a little time.
You run your own publishing company, Egg Box, which promotes talented new writers and poets. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
I set up Egg Box at university (University of East Anglia) because I loved books and I really wanted to publish them. It started off with The Egg Box magazine, which was full of short stories and poetry and other weirder bits and pieces. We only had three issues but by the third we had some pretty big names in it. From there we published our first collection, The Zoo Keeper by Richard Evans, and our second, Come What You Wished For by Ramona Herdman, both of which were award-winners. It was silly, really, as I was basically trying to be a gentleman publisher without the gentleman’s bank roll – back then there was no print on demand so I was ordering 1,000 copies of each book to keep the unit cost down! I’ve still got quite a few in my loft… It was so satisfying, though.
That was back in 2002, and since then Egg Box has only published another handful of titles, but they’ve all been really strong books of poetry. I don’t run the company any more, my good friend Nathan Hamilton does, and under his leadership it’s going from strength to strength. I’d really, really like to start publishing again, and have been thinking about setting up a new publishing house for children’s books (not my own books!). But we’ll see what happens!
You have also set up your own production company, Fear Driven Films. What inspired you to do this? I understand you are in pre-production for a horror feature, what is your main role within the production? (I’m presuming you’re the writer, so perhaps you could tell us a bit about that side of things?)
Producing a horror film was my sister’s idea. We always get together for horror movie nights, as we’re both a huge fan of the genre, and one day she just said ‘why don’t we make one ourselves’ and I was like ‘why not?!’ So together with her husband, Simon, we set up Fear Driven Films and sat down and wrote the script for a film called ‘Stagnant’. Writing the script was so much fun. It was a communal effort, so we’d sit around and throw ideas at each other, trying to come up with the goriest deaths and the most action-packed scenes. Just like with The Inventors, working as a team meant the script went in some directions that none of us on our own would have taken it, it really was so much better because it was a group effort.
However, that’s also what’s so difficult about filmmaking. With writing you’re in charge, you call all the shots, and the only people you have to wrangle are in your head. When you’re making a film there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people, it’s a management nightmare, and that’s what I’ve found hardest about the whole thing. Well, that and the fact that it’s bloody expensive! Still, it’s another adventure, and I’m really enjoying being a screenwriter and a producer. We’re currently pulling a team together, we have most of our cast, and we’re aiming to film either later this year or sometime next year. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
As a side note, I really believe that anything is possible. If you’ve got a dream – writing a book, making a film, anything – just go for it! Passion and commitment counts for a great deal.
THE INVENTORS was your debut children’s novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
Only my horror novel! I think that writing something so complex when I was a teenager, and then having it rejected, gave me a fear of writing. I had poured blood, sweat and tears into that book, and all for nothing. It made me feel that writing was a chore, was work, even though I hadn’t thought that at all when I was writing it. When Jamie and I started writing The Inventors I suddenly remembered how much fun writing could be, how much I loved it. And the story was so fast, so action packed, that the writing was addictive. I think the horror novel was just the wrong idea for me, it did involve too much work. I wonder how many other writers have done the same thing – forced themselves to finish something that their heart isn’t in any more. If I was ever in that situation again I’d drop it and start something fresh. I think that’s all it takes sometimes to give your writing a new lease of life. If you’re not having fun writing something, how can you expect people to have fun reading it?
You co-wrote The Inventors with your younger brother Jamie Webb. How did the partnership work? Did you share the writing? Did Jamie offer valuable insight as a younger reader/writer? Does he want to pursue writing as career? (Would Jamie like to say anything? Have his picture added?)
Working with Jamie was an amazing experience, and one that I definitely want to repeat. Most of the time we spent together was planning and playing. We’d talk about our characters, draw sketches and even interview them, try and get to know them as if they were real-life friends. We’d come up with crazy inventions, plotting them on paper and even trying to build them (Jamie was the professor, I was the test subject, it was almost disastrous on many occasions). We’d talk about the villain, about what his plans were, and we’d act out sections of the plot, our favourite scenes. It wasn’t writing, but it was absolutely invaluable – it gave us a crystal clear idea of what we wanted our story to be about, what kind of adventure we wanted to have (us, not our characters), and the book that we wanted to create.
When it came to the writing, I’d do most of the work, but Jamie would usually be there. He’d read each section and tell me what he loved, and what he hated, and we’d edit it together. But because we’d conjured this story ourselves it seemed to evolve very naturally, and there weren’t many bits that didn’t make our finished cut. It was so different to the normal process of writing, and it taught me more about how to harness ideas than pretty much anything else. I’d recommend it to anybody writing children’s or YA books – writing isn’t just about sitting down and typing, get out there and have fun, play around, live out your ideas. It’s also a great excuse to be a big kid!
Jamie is now of an age (13!) where he’s not so interested in books as he is in computers, films and other things. There was definitely a period when he wanted to be a writer, and it’s something he says he’d like to come back to one day. His career choice bounces between cop, skateboarder, game designer and actor, but that’s the great thing about being a kid, you can dream about doing whatever you like. We’ll almost certainly write another book together at some point though.
What inspired you to write THE INVENTORS and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
The actual inspiration for The Inventors came from a dream. I remember waking up one morning with this image of two young inventors trying to escape an evil genius. I started writing ideas down within five minutes, and the story just felt so right, and so exciting. I bolted round to Jamie’s house (he lives with my mum three doors down the road) and told him about it, and asked him if he wanted to help me write it, and that’s how it all began!
Jamie and I wrote the first three chapters of The Inventors in the summer holidays of 2005, and Jamie spotted a competition in Waterstones to find ‘the new J. K. Rowling’. We entered, and although we carried on plotting the book, and developing the characters, and even building loads of the inventions ourselves, we didn’t get round to writing any more of it. A few months later we got a call from Waterstones to say The Inventors had been shortlisted, which was amazing! But we had to get the rest of the book to them exactly one week later or it wouldn’t be shortlisted. At first I thought it was impossible, but then I realised that this was our best shot at getting published. So we sat down and wrote 80,000 words in a week! Luckily we already had so much of the book planned out in our heads, otherwise we never would have been able to manage it.
It didn’t win, but Faber loved the story and offered us a deal, which was the best bit of news ever. It was maybe 21 months after I first had the idea that the book came out, in March 2007, but most books come out 18 months or so after contracts have been signed. It really was amazing.
Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of THE INVENTORS?
Fortunately, despite writing it so quickly, we didn’t have to change much at all. There was only one major edit, where Faber didn’t like a plot twist we’d written. It involved a character dying. We reluctantly changed it, but I’m so glad we did because that character is pretty much everybody’s favourite one, and comes back in the sequel. It really wouldn’t have been as good a book if Faber hadn’t asked us to make that change. Everything else was just typos and grammar, mainly caused by trying to write 11,000 words a day! My favourite typo involved the line ‘he shot across the room’, where an inadvertent vowel substitution had led to a sentence that you definitely shouldn’t find in a children’s book!
THE INVENTORS is the first in a 2 book series. Was it always intended as a series and therefore did you have further ideas in mind, or did you have to think about the sequel from scratch? What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?
When Jamie and I reached the end of the book we felt that, although the main story was complete, we’d only really told half of what we wanted to. For that reason we left the book on a cliffhanger and started planning the sequel. The Inventors and the City of Stolen Souls starts a few minutes after The Inventors has ended, and is basically the second half of the story. In fact, you could look at them as a single book that has been split into two. The same way, really, that Furnace is one very long book split into five. When we reached the end of the sequel it felt like a good place to stop, so we left it there. I would love us to write another book in the series, and so would Jamie, and so would a good many fans who have written to ask for one! In fact just writing this is making me feel nostalgic for Nate and Cat and Clint the robot. We’ll definitely return to it at some point in the future, although whether as a book or a film or a television series we’re not sure yet.
If you’re writing a series, but you haven’t yet secured a deal for the first book, then I wouldn’t let that put you off writing the next books. The more books in a series you have, the better chance, I think, that a publisher will be interested. The danger is that the publisher asks you to make a large, structural change of some kind – then of course the more books you’ve written, the more you may have to edit. Also remember that even if you’re planning a series each book has to be self-contained, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end the same as a stand-alone title. If you’re enjoying writing the series then keep on writing it – right now you’re writing it for yourself, and this will all change when you get a publisher, you’ll be writing it for them, and to a deadline! It’s the enjoyment of writing, the excitement, the adventure, that you need to think about, it’s the only thing that matters.
FURNACE is a dramatic change in direction and style from The Inventors. Did you find writing one style easier than the other?
Writing Furnace was very different to writing The Inventors. I’d just gone through a really rough patch in my life (well, I was still going through it). Although I’d already started thinking about the Furnace storyline I hadn’t started writing it, but as soon as this tragedy occurred I started writing, and just lost myself in it. It’s weird because as I was writing, Furnace Penitentiary ended up representing, even becoming, this dark period in my life, and I was Alex (we even had exactly the same name in the first draft). Our stories were totally different, of course, but we were in the same situation. I knew that if Alex couldn’t find a way out of Furnace, then I wouldn’t be able to move on from this part of my life. This really does give the book an edge, I think, because his panic and fear and hope really is my panic and fear and hope. I really do think that writing is excellent therapy, it certainly really helped me – although I’m not telling you if Alex makes it out or not!
I’m not saying that writing the book wasn’t enjoyable – parts of it were, hugely – but it was about as far away from the light-hearted, fun-packed adventures Jamie and I had writing The Inventors as you can imagine! But just as writing to meet the deadline for The Inventors taught me how to write fast and hard, writing Furnace taught me that you really have to throw yourself into a story, body and soul, if you want it to feel real.
Writing for an older teen age group FURNACE tackles some powerful themes. You mention the fictional ‘Summer of Slaughter,’ were you in anyway influenced by or referencing the gang culture prevalent in modern society?
I must have been, I guess, even if it was subconsciously. I certainly didn’t research it in any great detail – that’s another part of writing that I don’t really enjoy! A lot of the gang stuff really just stems from the feelings every teenager has, especially at school – the cliques, the fights, the aggro – only taken to its extreme. I vividly remember those elements of growing up, how difficult it could be, how cruel people sometimes were, and how important trust and friendship can be. Furnace may be a horror, and the plot may be edging on fantasy, but at its heart it’s about growing up, and surviving, which everybody has to learn how to do. That’s why books are so important, especially for this age group. Even if a plot is totally beyond the realms of possibility, so long as the characters are believable, so long as they act like real people and face recognisable challenges, then a reader will learn something about himself.
What inspired you to write FURNACE and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
The actual writing took about three weeks – driven, as I mentioned, by the need to escape from something myself. I decided to only offer it to Faber, and they loved it. From then it was a few weeks before the three-book contract was signed, then the usual eighteen months before publication.
The book is quite full-on in the horror stakes both psychologically and physically. Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself because of your target audience?
I made the decision right from the start that – aside from language – I wouldn’t censor anything in Furnace. I wanted it to be real, to feel like anything could happen. I didn’t want a reader to feel safe, to know that nothing would harm the main characters. I hate when you’re reading a YA book and you know, I mean really know, that nothing bad is going to happen to the characters, that they’re safe. It just takes the spark out of it! So with Furnace nobody is guaranteed survival – even Alex. It’s quite difficult building up that sense of danger when you’re writing a first-person narrative, because readers know the character has to live in order to keep telling the story. But in Furnace there are worse things than death, and that’s how I hopefully manage to keep up the tension. Obviously I don’t want to kill off characters for the sake of it, but death is an intrinsic, inevitable part of prison life, and sometimes events in the story would unfold in a way that led to somebody dying. And that’s the toughest part of writing, for me, having to kill somebody that you’ve made real. It’s heartbreaking.
Faber questioned a couple of the more violent bits, but in the end nothing was changed. Furnace is horrific, but I wouldn’t say that it was graphic. Not explicitly graphic anyway! It leaves a lot of stuff to the imagination, which is always scarier, but which means you can get away with more. I think if they ever made Furnace into a film it would have to be an 18!
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
If I had to pick one piece of advice for new writers it would be enjoy yourselves. Pick an idea that you love, that excites you, make sure it’s a story that you want to tell. Especially when you’re writing children’s and YA books. You have to want to experience that adventure yourselves, you have to want to live it – even with Furnace I wanted to be there with Alex, if only for the excitement of trying to find a way out. Don’t do what so many writers do, and pick an idea *just* because you think it will sell, or *just* because you think will fit the current fiction market. Your heart won’t be in it, and a reader (and a publisher) will sense that. Be brave, go with the ideas that you find thrilling, let yourself be carried away. For me that’s the best part of writing – the fact that you get to have these adventures, that inside your head they’re as real as your day-to-day life.
Also don’t worry about making your first draft perfect. Let the story pull you along at its own speed, get the first draft finished, and there will be plenty of time to polish it.
And read! It’s the best education a writer can have.