Two Interviews

Just back from a few days in Manchester, where Sarah McIntyre and I were guests of the very wonderful Manchester Children’s Book Festival. We met lots of wonderful people, some of them knitted by Ann Lam, who has been turning out sea monkeys by the dozen. Here’s Sarah posing with Zombie Sea Monkey and French Sea Monkey…

While I was away, a couple of recent interviews have appeared online. Here’s a Q&A I did with Dan Metcalf for StoryWorld, in which I talk about Goblins, Cakes in Space and how working with SM has revived my enthusiasm for writing. He asks a very good question which I’ve never been asked before: ‘Do you actually like writing?’

And I discuss similar topics here, in an interview with Natasha Ngan, author of The Elites and also the forthcoming The Memory Keepers.  I also get to recommend a few favourite reads. You can check out the interview here.

The Elites: an interview with Natasha Ngan

I first met Natasha Ngan when she came along to a Science Fiction night with which I was involved  at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge. She was a student at that time, but told me she was working on a novel of her own. And two years later here it is: The Elites, one of the lead autumn titles from Hot Key Books

That made me feel very OLD: readers who enjoyed Mortal Engines when they were children are now all growed up and releasing books of their own. But I hope it’s encouraging for anyone who is writing stories and dreaming of one day getting them published – it does happen, and sometimes the process is quicker and easier than you expect! (Though ‘easy’ is a relative term here, of course. To attract the attention of agents and publishers as swiftly as Natasha did, you first have to write a decent book…)

The Elites is set in Neo-Babel, the ‘last city’ in a blighted future world. Silver is an Elite, a teenage warrior chosen to guard the city due to her superior DNA. When she fails to prevent an assassination she is forced to flee the city with her best friend Butterfly (a boy with genetically-enhanced wings). Together, they begin to uncover murky secrets about the city’s rulers. 

It’s a fast-paced,violent story, and packed with well-imagined detail. I suspect it has been quite carefully tailored to fit the ‘YA dystopian’ genre, and like many such books it seems more interested in the characters and their emotions than in the big ideas which seem to hover, intriguingly out-of-focus, in the background. I felt this was a pity – I’d have liked to know a bit more about this teeming future city, with its deadly politics and simmering racial tensions – but then I’m hardly the target demographic. Anyway, it’s a promising debut, by an author of whom I’m certain we’ll be hearing a lot in future. I’ve been talking to Natasha (via e-mail) about her book, her influences, and her future plans.

PR: One of the most appealing things about The Elites is its exotic setting – the floating cafes and abandoned solar energy structures, the air trams and so forth.  What’s your approach to building a world?

NN: I studied Geography at university, so I adore world-building, and go completely overboard when I’m constructing a world for a new story! For me, the world needs to feel authentic and realistic, even if it has elements that seem fantastical. This takes a lot of time and research. I like to be sure that every detail, whether it’s a type of futuristic material or a mode of transport, is feasible scientifically. It’s a shame really, because the majority of those details don’t actually feature in the book at all! But it means that if I can believe in my world, hopefully so can my readers. 
Another rule I have when approaching world-building is to write a world you want to spend time in. A lot of the world-building in The Elites was based around locations I wanted to set scenes in and just creating places I’d like to visit. The multicultural aspect of the book also let me take inspiration from different cultures and create a more varied social and physical landscape. It was fun getting details in from my experiences living in Malaysia too, and holidays with my parents – though I had to cut out so many food references from the first draft!
PR: I thought I detected a Mortal Engines influence (Calpol and Lemsip!) which was quite an odd feeling for me. Who/what are your other influences?

NN. Mortal Engines has definitely been a huge influence on my writing! It showed me just how imaginative, unique, quirky, and downright witty young-adult fantasy and sci-fi could be. Those are elements I certainly want to weave into my own work, though I am sure I don’t pull it off nearly as well! I think The Elites was also influenced in part by writers such as Patrick Ness and Paolo Bacigalupi, whose dystopian worlds have a real sense of exoticism and originality to them. I didn’t want it to be a typical YA setting.
I’d say that to some degree, everything I read influences me. If I really love a book, I’ll use it as a learning tool and motivation to push myself further with my own writing. If I didn’t enjoy a book so much, I’ll ask myself what elements let it down – then try to recognise and avoid those in my own work. I always try and avoid reading books that are too similar in plot or style to mine though whilst I’m writing, just to make sure my story doesn’t become derivative. 
PR: YA writers often say that YA is a marketing category, not a genre – but it does seem to have its own rules and recurring tropes – ‘strong heroines’, for instance. Were there things that you felt you ‘had’ to include when you set out to write a YA novel? And was that helpful, or restrictive?
NN. It’s not something I consciously thought about, though now I look back at my reasoning behind some of the decisions I made whilst writing The Elites, I do recognise how some of the tropes in YA fiction influenced them. The trope of having a strong heroine with enough vulnerability for readers to connect with certainly affected Silver’s character, and the common theme of having characters who are suddenly revealed to the ugly truth of their world was something that influenced the plot. 
I wouldn’t say these influences were restrictive though. They were something that happened on a more subconscious level, and I don’t even think they are even constrained to YA fiction either. Having characters readers can emphasise with, or plots where characters discover the world is not quite as they first perceived, are elements that many novels of all genres and age-groups have. I try not to think about other books too much though as I write. Instead, I try to remain true to my own stories, to make sure I tell them as honestly and authentically as possible.
PR: Despite the futuristic flourishes (DNA testing, genetically engineered wings) the world of The Elites is, in many ways , more primitive than our own (their surveillance technology isn’t up to our standards, for instance). Obviously this is true of my Mortal Engines world as well. Is it just easier to tell a story like this in a world without modern technology?
NN: I certainly find it easier to tell a story in a world without highly advanced modern technology all around. Especially security technology! I think it restricts the kind of plot you can have, and a super-tech world just wouldn’t have been a place where the story of The Elites could evolve naturally (or I could write it authentically). It’s realistic, that even as we progress leaps and bound scientifically, some technologies will regress due to social and ecological influences. 
I also think it’s about what you enjoy writing. Aesthetically, I find it a lot more fun to write about worlds where technology has both evolved and faded – it allows for a lot of creativity when world-building (I think I talked to you about this once and you said something similar?) My second novel, The Memory Keepers, which is out next year, is set in a futuristic London where memories can be downloaded and ‘surfed’ to experience over and over, and again, it’s a world where advanced science and less developed aspects go hand in hand. There’s just something so alluring to me about writing these types of societies! 
PR: What is it like to come straight out of University and become a published author? This doesn’t happen to many people!
NN: It’s all rather surreal, to be honest! Even though The Elites is now out there in the world, it still doesn’t feel real. 
In some ways, I definitely think I’m lucky to have gotten a book-deal so quickly. I didn’t have to experience a lot of rejection, and it has given me a boost of confidence in my writing. But I also think there are downsides to having work published young. The Elites was the first novel I’ve ever written, and I feel as though I’ve progressed so much just in the last year as a writer… Sometimes, I even feel a bit like a fraud – as though it shouldn’t have happened this easy, and there’s all been a huge mistake. 
In the end though, I just have to remind myself that all writers have a different route to publication, and this was mine. I’m beyond delighted to be able to live my dream, and just want to keep pushing myself to further evolve as a writer and not ever take this wonderful opportunity for granted. It’s a daunting feeling, but it’s absolutely wonderful too.

PR: Thank you!

For more information, visit Natasha’s website, here.

My Next Big Thing

I’ve been seeing a lot of  ‘My Next Big Thing’ blogs around lately, but I’d somehow assumed this relay or cascade of blogs was for new authors, who could legitimately claim to have a chance of being the Next Big Thing – that’s not me; I was just a medium-sized thing, ten years ago.

But it turns out that the titular NBT doesn’t refer to the author but just to the book they’re working on, so established writers get to have a go as well, and I’m very grateful to Andy Robb for ‘tagging’ me at the end of his NBT blog.  I met Andy earlier this year; he’s a lovely chap, and his book Geekhood is a treat, though slightly cringe-making if, like me, you were of a geeky persuasion when young. (The hero of Geekhood is much like I was as a teenager, only he meets an ACTUAL GIRL.)

Anyway, enough about him, I have important questions about ME to answer…

What is the working title of your next book?

 Well, I have a whole bunch of things in the pipeline. There’s the McIntyre-tastic illustrated adventure Oliver and the Seawigs, there’s its outer-space based follow up, and at the moment I’m busy with my Massive Untitled Space Opera.  But the next one of my books to actually hit the shops will be Goblins vs Dwarves, and that’s its actual title, not a working title. It’s the sequel to Goblins, it will be published in April, and it’s going to look like this:

(Artwork by the brilliant Dave Semple, as before.)

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Goblins was pretty obviously inspired by The Lord of the Rings; I read it to my son a few years back and it made me think a)This is still the best fantasy world ever, and b)Why are all the orcs and goblins EVIL?  Aren’t there any nice ones? Maybe they’re just getting a bad press…  So I set out to write a fantasy where goblins were the heroes, and Goblins vs Dwarves continues to explore the same theme.  And just as everybody knows that goblins are bad, everybody knows that dwarves are good, right?  Well, not exactly

Also, when I started pondering sequels for Goblins I thought of the well-worn plot of The Seven Samurai (remade as The Magnificent Seven, Hawk the Slayer, Battle Beyond The Stars, etc…) in which the inhabitants of a beleaguered settlement have to go off and find some heroes to help defend them from the bad guys. So I started writing a Clovenstone-based version of that. It quickly escaped and found its own path, but that was the seed of it.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a fantasy adventure (but I hope it’s a funny fantasy adventure).

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

This was quite a quick book to write. All the world-building had been done in the first book, and I knew what I was after, so I sat down to start work in the first week of January and was finished in mid March. Most of my books take a LOT longer.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I can’t always think of actors I’d match to particular characters. I have no idea who would play my fresh-faced and accident-prone hero Henwyn, though I think Jenny Agutter would be a good Princess Ned.  As for the goblins and other creatures, they were partly inspired by 1970s illustrations by Brian Froud (right) who went on to design the films Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and there’s definitely something quite muppet-y about them.  (At the moment the movie rights for Goblins are with LAIKA, makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, so if that goes ahead all the parts will end up being played by stop-motion puppets anyway. Which is fine by me!)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Goblins vs Dwarves! (The clue is in the title.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

As with most of my books to date, it will be published by Scholastic.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

It’s about goblins vs dwarves, so I suppose there’s a clear comparison with The Hobbit, though it features no giant spiders and 100% less golf.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I don’t want to give away too much but there is an oracular bathtub, and some giant moles, and ghosts. WHAT MORE COULD YOU POSSIBLY WANT?

So there you have it, and it only remains for me to tag some other writers who can tell us about their Next Big Thing. I nominate…

Gary Northfield, whose Gary’s Garden strip in The Phoenix is always a highlight of the week here, and who I happen to know has a fantastic looking book on the way…

…and Natasha Ngan, who may well be the actual Next Big Thing.