You're one of a small number of authors who write both children's
and adult fiction, with a high profile and reputation in both camps.
Has this had effects on the way you write for each audience?
don't think so. I find that writing fiction for the two very different
audiences quite invigorating and helpful to me as a writer. Sometimes
it takes a while to get out of one fictional mood and into the other
but quite often the change sharpens me up. For example, if I'm a
bit stuck in an adult novel, it can be quite a relief when Ms Wiz
comes knocking on the door.
While writing a children's book, do you work on this exclusively,
or do you have adult work 'on the go' at the same time. Have there
been instances when characters or episodes in one of your children's
books have been directly influenced by your adult writing, or vice
sometimes have to interrupt adult fiction to write a shorter children's
book - to stick to a deadline, for example - but, if I'm working
on something like The Angel Factory, I definitely wouldn't interrupt
it to return to adult fiction. I try to keep the two separate as
much as possible. I don't think there has been much cross-fertilisation
of character or incident. In my last novel, the narrator Gregory
Keays, a would-be novelist and thumping great literary snob, did
take a monstrously unfair sideswipe at children's authors - writers
who 'remove their brains, don the writing equivalent of nappies
and write kiddie-fiction'. That was Keays not me.
In addition to being a busy novelist, you also write a regular column
for The Independent and other journalism. Some writers express fears
that work of this kind (and they would include reviewing) risks
lowering the standards of their 'serious' writing. How would you
/ do you respond?
think I'd agree. Writing a newspaper column is in many ways directly
antithetical to writing fiction - you have to pretend to be more
certain and opinionated about things than you in fact are, whereas
writing fiction should be an exercise in uncertainty, a quest
to discover what you think. I'd say that journalism is second
only to teaching creative writing as one of the contemporary enemies
of promise for a young writer. I like to think that I'm now too
long in the tooth to be corrupted by the process - but I may be
Your new book for older children is The Angel Factory. It has something
in common with Lois Lowry's The Giver (an American novel, and winner
of the Newbery Medal) in that it asks readers to consider the implications
of a possible utopia. Had you read The Giver? Or were you influenced
by any other
fictional representations of utopia?
I haven't read The Giver and The Angel Factory didn't reflect any
literary influences so far as I know. I was interested in writing
about good and evil from the perspective of a 12-year-old child
and wanted to set him a really tough moral choice at the end of
The book contains a fairly waspish caricature of a West Coast
surfer-type. Do you know many of these characters? Where does the
narrative animosity towards this character spring from?
know, I don't have any particular animus against Luke. He's a bit
patronising and maybe not too bright but his main problem is that
he's the boyfriend of the older sister of Tom, who's telling the
my highly-favourable review of the novel for Literary Review, I
praised it's well-modulated structure. This was partly because I
had just endured a string of hectic, one-paced, highly-exhausting
romps, so that when I came to your book and another Macmillan novel,
Journey To The River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, it was a joy to experience
the ebb and flow of their respective narratives. Your book is more
fast-paced than Ibbotson's, but it is tightly organised and built
in such a way that the reader's capacity to suspend disbelief increases
as the book develops. What role did Macmillan's editors play in
arriving at the final version?
[US cover - UK buy link]
am particularly fortunate in having an excellent, tough editor
at Macmillan, Marion Lloyd. She certainly helped tighten up the
text after I delivered it but it had already gone through four
drafts by that stage so quite a bit of self-editing had already
taken place. I'm glad you were able to suspend belief - the story
of The Angel Factory is rather strange but I wanted it all to
be rooted in the real world.
Angel Factory will get children and young teachers to think about
freedom of will, good and evil and the desirability of a perfect
world. We are talking at a time when Melvin Burgess is coming under
fire for writing a novel that will get teenagers thinking about
sexuality, freedom and responsibility, the difference between humans
and animals and lots more. Do
you think there is a distinctive hunger or need amongst the audience
of older children and teenagers for books that provoke thought and
discussion of this kind?
suspect that that need has always been there in young readers. Fiction
is one of the ways they can work out what they think and believe
in a way that is entirely personal and interior. There's a fuss
about it now not because children's authors have suddenly decided
to tackle tricky areas - they've been doing that for years - but
because, suddenly and rather unexpectedly, books for children have
become a hot issue in the culture and journalists are forever looking
for a new angle.
Factory was not written with a sermonising agenda - I wanted to
write an entertaining story and I think that most stories that are
any good raise questions in their readers' mind. That said, I suspect
that it would not have been written before New Labour came to power.
There's an atmosphere right now of self-conscious, bullying virtue
and control freakery that may have seeped into the book.
Your Ms Wiz series is one of the most popular and long-running series
for the 7-9/10 age group. When you wrote the first book did you
have any idea that so many would follow?
I thought I would write three books - six maximum. I have thought
quite often of retiring Ms Wiz - in Ms Wiz Loves Dracula she actually
falls in love which, of course, is never good for magic - but I
get so many letters from children that I've kept writing the stories.
The stories have become stranger over the years, and so has she
- in the last three books, she has visited the underworld, gone
to Hollywood and won the lottery. She will in fact probably retire
soon, although writing about her is a little annual treat for me.
You are something of a football fanatic and have written a sequence
of novels about a girls' football team, Hotshots, and one of the
best children's novels about the game, The Transfer. Are you likely
to write more novels about football?
the moment, I feel I've written enough stories with a football background.
In the Hotshots novels, I used the idea of an ill-assorted bunch
of girls, and one boy, who have nothing in common except their love
of football - they were gang books, really. I loved writing The
Transfer because it pursued the football fan's ultimate fantasy,
and then turned it on its head.
Your latest adult novel was remarked upon for containing references
to actual personalities on the contemporary literary scene. Are
you at all tempted to write an adult novel about the world of children's
books with a real-life cast?
My novel Kill Your Darlings was narrated by a failed writer, eaten
up with envy of his contemporaries. It seemed evasive not to set
the book in the literary world that is actually there so I did
use real names - for example, rather than inventing a successful
novelist of about Gregory Keays's age as his fantasy-hate figure,
I used Martin Amis. (I slightly regret this because commentators
and critics in the self-absorbed literary world began to think
of the book as a satire and it was even billed at one festival
as a 'homage to Amis's The Information). I think this is the kind
of device one can only use once.
There is a growing buzz in the children's books world. Things have
changed immeasurably since 1997, when I started up the ACHUKA website.
Some children's books and authors are getting lots of attention.
But the attention is usually of two types - celebrity rapture (J.
K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer etc.) or shock controversy (Melvin Burgess).
It is really only the big names and the big books that benefit.
The result, I am finding, is that children's publishers are becoming
even more sensitive than they used to be (and they have always been
more over-sensitive than publishers of adult books) to any adverse
comment, whether it be in a review or a news feature. There seems
to be an expectation that children's books deserve 'support' and
any negative comment is somehow disloyal. As someone who knows both
worlds well, what do you see as the main differences?
It's a very interesting question. On the whole, I think the world
of children's books is more adult than the adult book world. There's
less obsession with passing fads and celebrities, less silly money
thrown around, more seriousness about the books, a more precise
sense of the market. One of the side-effects of the new fashionableness
of children's books (and how odd that sounds) is that some of the
nonsense that takes place among adult publishers might seep across.
I suppose that it's true that children's book publishers are a bit
more sensitive to adverse criticism, which is why so much of the
reviews in the papers are so dreary and goody-goody - there's a
feeling that, if one hasn't got anything nice to say, one should
keep quiet. On the whole, though, I think that the children's book
scene is saner and more professional than its adult counterpart.
On the radio recently you were discussing the fact that more adults
seem to be reading children's books and you mentioned that you found
the sight of adults reading Harry Potter on the train a bit embarrassing.
Can you elaborate?
Joanne Rowling deserves a damehood for the astonishing, invigorating
effect she has had on the social and cultural position accorded
to children's books but, like any movements, hers has had some unfortunate
side-effects. One is that the success of her books has encouraged
journalists to gurgle boastfully in print about their own children
whenever a new Harry Potter book is published. Another is that fiction-reading
by adults has become weirdly infantilised.
It's all very well for parents to enjoy reading books loved by their
children in the privacy of their own homes but when grown-ups can
be seen sitting on trains absorbed in books that were written for
nine-year-olds, something rather odd and unhealthy is going on.
The reason that people like to give for this development is that
adult fiction has lost the art of unselfconscious storytelling which
is still to be found in the best novels for children. This, of course,
is idiotic - there is some terrific new fiction being written, for
every level of adult reader, both in Europe and in America. I suppose
the trend reflects what is going on elsewhere in a childish and
child-obsessed culture but, personally, I find it embarrassing (unless
the book being read is one of mine).
Are you working on a new children's novel at the moment. If so,
can you tell us a bit about it?
I'm writing an adult novel, which should remain under wraps. I'm
soon going to start another novel for the age range for which The
Angel Factory and The Transfer were written but, as yet, the details
And what about your song-writing? You sometimes perform at parties
with guitar. Did you ever harbour an ambition to be a singer-songwriter?
Are all your songs humorous pastiches or do you write straight songs
I've played the guitar since I was 13 and it has always been very
important to me. For most of my life, I have sung other people's
songs but, over the past five years or so, I've started writing
my own stuff. I suppose most of the songs I have written have a
tug of humour in them although I hope none of them is what you'd
call a pastiche. My fantasy is to be able to write songs of heart
and humour like those of Randy Newman, Georges Brassens or Loudon
Wainwright but, except in exclusive Achuka interviews, I tend to
keep rather quiet about this.
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