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Terence

Blacker


1. 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?
 

  I 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.

2. 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 versa?

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  I 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.

3. 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?
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I 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 wrong.


4. 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?
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  No, 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 it all.

5. 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?

  You 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 story.

6.In 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?
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I 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.


7.The 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?

  I 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.

The Angel 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.

8. 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?
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  No. 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.

9. 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?

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  At 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.

10. 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?
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No. 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.

 


11. 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?
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  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.

12. 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).


13. 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 are … distinctly hazy.
14. 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 too?
 

  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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