All black & white illustrations copyright Chris Riddell
1 It was interesting to hear that Chris (Riddell) started things off with the map of The Edge that appears on the inside boards of the book.
[Goes to fetch Chris Riddell's original sketch.] You can see the original is simpler than the one in the book. He had had the idea for a long time of doing some sort of big fantasy, and said, 'Look, here's a map of a world where a fantasy could take place... Go away and write something.' This was long before we had a commission for it.
We had a go but it wasn't really working. So we sat down and made a list of fantasies we liked and why. Then I had another go, and Chris liked that more. He made me write in a way I hadn't written before. He just said, "Write, and then we'll go through it.' He's not a writer, and didn't realise how slow that process is.. Spending a week writing something, then discarding it. I had to scrap that fairly soon, and get back to my way of doing it. Plot it first, and then write it.
I decided to make it a journey, and then various bits were tightened up. Usually when I start writing a book I know what the ending's going to be. With this one I didn't. So once I knew the ending, having worked all the way through to it, then I went back and put in things that led better to it, a kind of stitching it all together. Quite different from the way I usually work.
2 So was the idea of Twig finding his father not there at the beginning then?
It was very vague. When I first started there wasn't a Sky Pirate at all. That evolved as we went through it. So no, when I started writing it, the fact that his father was a Sky Pirate wasn't known but there was a vague feeling that he would be looking for somebody in his family, because he didn't fit in with the wood trolls.
3 At what stage did the commission for publication happen?
I wrote four chapters and Transworld commissioned it on that basis. That was unusual because usually they commission from a synopsis and maybe one chapter, but because I still wasn't quite sure where it was going I couldn't give them a full synopsis. But they liked the first four chapters enough to go with it. The second books was different. That one's now written. Chris hasn't done the pictures yet. This first one took a long time to write and this different process was a much slower process. It took three years altogether. Chris drew that map in '95. I'd write little bits that he could draw. I'd give him characters to complete. Then he's turn it into something real. He'd sometimes draw me characters that I could use. It was a real two-way thing, which is why we're both credited as the authors. I can't draw, but I did influence the drawings. And he acted like a sort of editor.
4 So in this first book the drawings were created as it went along. But that's not happened in the second one?
None of the ones in the published book are those original drawings. He did them all again for publication, once I'd finished the complete text, but, as were writing he was drawing and sketching and giving me sketches as we went along.
5 It's advertised as being part of The Edge Chronicles. But there's no indication as to how many volumes there are going to be. Is that known or not known at this stage?
I know that Twig is going to be in three of them. If there are going to be twelve in the end, or fifteen chronicles, there'll be the Twig Trilogy. He'll be too old by the end of the third one to continue with him. He'll be grown-up. So probably one of the characters that's either appeared in this or the second one will then take over. It'll be a different strand. But we're getting so into it that yes, I think it will be more than three books. As long as it sells, and Transworld is prepared to keep on with it.
6 The drawings minutely match your written descriptions, which can't always be said for illustrations of longer fiction.
The picture of the tarry-vine is an interesting one. Twig thinks it's a maggot, because it's wriggling at the end. The way Chris drew it first it didn't look like that quite enough. He lives nearby so it was nice to be able to say, 'Look, this needs altering.' There were several occasions like that. Similarly, he'd draw something which looked fantastic, then I altered the text. I can remember one where I'd put 'narrow-eyed' and he'd drawn it with big eyes so I just changed a word, but it was right to do that because the picture was totally right.
We had lots of talks, just sitting down in the evening, discussing the world of The Edge, and what was in it and how it was structured. We wanted everything to be logical within its own terms. So rock floats but lots of things that are tied up with that are logically connected with it. With fantasies that we didn't like, they're too convenient. Suddenly there would be something happening but it doesn't feel as if it's part of that world, it feels as though it's been put there, conveniently, to make the story progress. We wanted first to create the world so that everything that we then had happening within it seemed logical. The other thing we didn't want was to have that pseudo-mystical type thing where they're on this great quest for the Sword of Androglaze or something and once they've got that then everything will be O.K. It's not that sort of quest. It's much more things-are-happening-TO-Twig and he doesn't know why. He hasn't got to achieve one specific thing. It was meant to be more a life within this world. It couldn't be just like a diary, because then there'd be no story.
7 I did wonder what would be the driving force in the second volume.
The next one's got more of a quest. We want all of the books to be completely separate. I don't want to end something with a cliff-hanger that makes the book that they've just finished seem incomplete. I think if somebody picks up the second book, which is called Stormchaser, and reads it, it should be a really good read in its own right and you don't need to have read Beyond the Deepwoods first.
The second one is about Sanctaphrax, the floating city. The rock is growing, so getting lighter and lighter. It's weighed down by something called Stormphrax, right at the centre. Stormphrax is running out. The rock is getting bigger. So they have to attach more chains. The increase in the number of chains is polluting the river and ultimately it won't work anyway; you just can't have enough chains to stop it finally breaking free. So, they have to go off to fetch more Stormphrax, from the Twilight Woods. That's much more of a quest. Twig's sort of incidental to it.
8 Presumably some of the creatures from Beyond the Deepwoods reappear.
Not so much in the second book. But the third book's going to be set again in the Deep Woods. We've just started work on that. In the second book there's a character called Toetaker, which speaks for itself. Takes people's toes. I don't know what Sarah Johnson will make of that!
9 Well, let's take Sarah Johnson's review in The Times at this point. How did you react to her comments?
I've always thought sadism was sexual, and there's absolutely nothing sexual in the book. When I read the review it made me laugh. I just thought she's missed the point completely. It's not a violent book. It's an adventure book. An exciting adventure book that happens in a completely different world, and if there is a moral to it, it's 'Don't stray from the path, because things will go wrong.' I thought it had quite a moral message in a way, a long way from the 'cult of sadism'. All I can imagine is she wanted to write something controversial.
10 It was a peculiar review. As you say, the book is very funny, and the only real cruelty is inflicted on Grossmother, but then she's a horrible creature anyway.
That episode was a cross between a termite colony and drugs. Two elements coming together and this stuff that nourished all the Gyle Goblins at the same time made them all zombie-like got dirtied as Twig was in it and then everything fell to bits. I'm not quite sure where all the ideas came from. But it was a picture of a very rigid, structured society falling to bits, because something was dirtied. They didn't actually kill her. They just pushed her down the chute onto the compost heap. So she probably got out of it. Twig had already been down there, and he'd survived!
11 Did you have to consciously include the gentler moments, such as with the Banderbear?
No, they came about quite naturally. I suppose that was like the father figure or the big brother that Twig finally discovers. It's a bit Androcles and the Lion because he takes the aching tooth out and therefore this big, potentially violent creature befriends him and helps him. And I think a lot of the themes in the book have origins in other stories. But it's right in the middle of the book, the Banderbear, and I did think that there ought to be something nice and warm and friendly and reassuring at that point. I didn't want the whole journey to be one series of nightmares. And the part with the Termagant Troggs again was meant to be a time for him to reflect, even though he was essentially a prisoner. The pace slowed down there.
12 What I do like about the book is the balance between illustration and text.
For this age it's quite unusual to have so many pictures. We were insistent and Transworld were fantastic. They did allow us the space to put in everything we wanted.
13 I think it's going to be a book which is very good for reading aloud, and has all the makings of a publishing success.
I do read aloud at the computer. Just to make sure it sounds good. Nothing awkward. I hope it's a success. It would be ever so nice. I have all these early Puffin titles here. I'm proud of them, but they're not in print any more. I still get letters about Adam's Ark, but nobody can buy it any more.
14 Let's go back to the beginning then. Did you go straight from your degree at Lancaster to the post-graduate course at East Anglia.
No, I had a year picking oranges and things in Greece. The creative writing course with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter was very good, but you get odd responses to that. When Trek, my adult book came out, there was one reviewer who said oh, here's another book from one of Bradbury's babes. I'm not quite sure it's done me that much good. The actual course was fantastic and I learnt a lot from it -- a) you learnt to become extremely thick-skinned, because you were surrounded by this little group of people who were ripping to shreds something you'd just written and b) was very good at pinpointing what was wrong with a piece.
15 Were you at this point planning to write children's books?
I'd read The Phantom Tollbooth when I was about ten, and I just thought it was wonderful and that was something I just kept coming back to and I kept notebooks and things, collecting my own puns. But no, when I was doing the UEA course, I did short stories for adults, and then I wrote a couple of novels that weren't published, although I got encouraging noises. And then I was living in Sri Lanka and I was teaching there and then the civil war started and people I knew disappeared. In the end I had to leave, came back to England and didn't feel I wanted to write anything for adults. I resurrected this old idea of doing a sister book to The Phantom Tollbooth, because never wrote anything else as far as I know. And that turned into my first book which was The Thought Domain.
It was about a dimension where everybody's thoughts go to. Everyone has a thought box where all their thoughts are stored so as you're a child it gradually gets fuller and fuller and the reason you forget when you're older is because these thoughts are taken out and go to Thought Heaven. Amnesia is explained by some thought of accident with the thought box. Telepathy is when two boxes are next to each other and somehow they start mingling. There's a character called General Knowledge. There's a Lame Duck. There's the Thought That Counts. What's happened is that this enormous dirty, horrible bird called the Proper Gander, which causes gooseflesh and causes people to goose-step and things, has been terrorising the place where the thoughts go to. The boxes have stopped emptying, so new thoughts can come into them so people have stopped thinking. So the quest is to go and get the world thinking again.
16 Was that the first writing you were paid for?
There was one short story before that, right at the end of the UEA course. It was published in a literary magazine called Bananas, which doesn't exist any more. It was quite long and it was a rewriting of Hans Christian Anderson;s The Snow Queen. It was called 'Ice'. So, even with that, and although it was for adults, there was a children's theme.
17 When you succeeded in getting your first book out did you feel that that was going to be a one-off or that this is it, I'm a writer, my career has started?
Oh, very much the latter. I thought, I'm on my way now. The books came out one a year for a while. ...... came second. It's about a village which was rescued by a witch from the invading Protestant army and hidden under a lake. But she decided not to release them. Two children in the present are in the country staying with their great-aunt and they fall down a hole into this perfectly preserved Elizabethan village, which is repeating the same day over and over again.
The books were getting reviewed well, it was all building up nicely and I thought things were going the way they should, but they didn't sell enough. I did a talk to a group of teachers when Adam's Ark came out and Margaret Meek was there, talking about the book too, and at that stage I thought yes! this is going to be the one that breaks through, and it didn't again. Even though it got really positive responses everywhere. It's about a boy who's been diagnosed as autistic, but he isn't, he's just been born able to communicate with animals rather than humans. It's his cat who teaches him to speak and to act in a way in which he should act, in an appropriate way, so that people don't think that he's round the bend. I know lots of junior schools have used it as a sort of text behind project work, because it deals with loads of issues... circuses, zoos, vivisection. His father works in a research institute, and so he goes and releases all the animals. The it gets a bit cosmic, because it turns out that the whole things has been in a way engineered by dolphins and there are lots of these kids who can speak this language called mammalogue and it's going to be their task to create gigantic zoos, huge ones, where animals can be stored in perfect conditions, completely mirroring the environment they've come from, and they'll stay there until the world becomes better. That's what the Ark is.After that came Rory McCrory's Nightmare Machine. This was an idea that came up when I was in a school and we were talking about nightmares. People get recurring nightmares, and until they can actually remember them, they keep having them. We thought, wouldn't it be a nice idea if there was a machine to record our nightmares so that you could play them back and then you wouldn't have the nightmare any more. And it all goes horribly wrong. The character gets projected into the land of perpetual dreams where he has to find his own nightmare.
18 Were you working with the same editor on these early books?
Yes, they were all with a man called Morris Lyon, now at Lion Books. They were all pitched at I suppose 10 - 13 yr olds. Then they suggested I write for younger children. So I did two for 8 and up, still with the same editor. By that time I had an agent. I don't like doing the contracts myself. When Morris left I was given another editor, who stayed about two months. I was given a third editor and three months later she left. Meanwhile they'd had a book which was being passed from one person to the next, then I got a fourth person and by then I'd had enough. They were I suppose not satisfied with the sales figures and saw it as a natural break. I think I had quite an old-fashioned idea about publishing. I thought you had a publisher and you were loyal to them and they were loyal to you. Suddenly loyalty and commitment weren't there from their side, so I realised I'd been a bit stupid in thinking it was and so instead of just trying to find one other publisher I went all over the place, sent out letters and got lots of interest and some commissioned work, which I'd never done before. Then I wrote The Wakening and got back into the things I wanted to do.
19 Yes, and to my shame, when The Wakeningcame out I took it to be the work of a new author. I think the Transworld publicity was designed to give that impression. And, indeed, your career was effectively relaunched at that time. And I did very much enjoy Dogbird, your humorous story about a dog that barks. Has that been successful?
Yes, selling quite nicely. And the Football Mad titles are doing well too. There are two out, and two more written, waiting in the wings. I'm already working on number five.
20 I get the impression that when you were working on those books for Puffin you were working on one book at a time, one a year, and now you're working on lots of things at once.
Mm. there's the third Edge book at the moment, the Football Mad stories, another Point Horror for Scholastic...
21 Presumably, as far as the money side is concerned, it's necessary to do that, to keep that busy?
Well, I couldn't possibly write any more. So, I couldn't earn any more, if it was just advances coming in. Last year and the year before, for the first time, I started to get a trickle of royalties, and I'm hoping that that increases. Dogbird should be making me some money. Football Mad has made me money. As long as the books sell, I could eventually cut down a bit.
22 How do you decide which project to work on each day?
Not altogether sure. Each project just reaches a certain stage where I can't do any more on it, then I'll pick up something else and do that instead. I've had to make the way I work as job-like and efficient as possible. So I'll have an idea for a new book, write the idea down and send it to somebody, and if they like the idea then I'll write the synopsis, if they like that then I'll write three chapters. What I can't do now, and what I used to do, is set myself the task of writing a whole book and then have that awful three month wait to hear whether they like it or not. That's what I can't afford to do any more.
23 Does this process still break down sometimes at the stage of the first few chapters?
I don't know whether to tell you really. The follow-up to The Hanging Tree... I thought it was a brilliant idea, about a haunted sheepskin jacket. They didn't think it worked. I wrote the whole thing twice. Perhaps if you change it here, here and here. I made all those changes and they still didn't like it. That was a commissioned one, so they'd already paid me some of the money. Yes, I still have failures. But let's talk about a new project which IS working out. It's another collaboration with Chris Riddell which we're doing for Macmillan.
The Blob-heads... I went to see Marion Lloyd because she'd rejected a book but liked it and said come along with other ideas. It's a series of six stories about aliens.
24 Normally publishers like to choose their own illustrators. But you presented yourselves as a partnership, did you?
Well, they were slightly hesitant about Chris at first. They'd seen one style of his work and weren't sure that he could make it simpler, for 7 year olds. But we came as a package, so that was that really! They'll be coming out one a month in the first half of the year 2000. We've got this timetable, I've got to get the third one written by February 1st by which time he's got to have the second one illustrated, it's all been done very methodically.
25 Do you work every day?
Yes. Not Christmas Day, but weekends, and other holidays, yes. Afternoons are my most productive. I'm not really a morning person so I get letters out of the way first.
26 Do you feel the onus is very much on you to spot mistakes at proofreading stage?
Yes, and even then you can mark something up three times and it still slips through. I almost feel that publishers are moving these days towards becoming packagers. They want something they can package and market, rather than edit.
What I like about children's fiction is that it's around for longer. There are new generations growing up and they will put things back into print if they think they'll make some money out of them this time round. I also like the fact that you can be quite serious about it. You have to take your readership quite seriously. You mustn't talk down to it. What I don't like about a lot of particularly English fiction is that tongue-in-cheek, Have I Got News For You attitude. I think it comes over as smugness often. When I write I like to treat children as adults, but not the way I would treat adults, if that makes sense!
ENDNOTE: The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, an American, was published in 1961. Other books by Norton Juster