chock-full, eyes-peeled, independent


Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

You started out as a poet. When were your collections of poetry published? How would you characterise their style? Do you still write poetry?

The Taurus Press books were published around 1969/70, and my style was, I would say, quite tight and precise, very observational and quite epigrammatic. But that's just my opinion. And no, I don't write poetry any more; my Muse seems to have changed somewhat, moved on to a different style of expression.

Your backlist since then, as anyone who searches your name on will discover, is surprisingly extensive. For a while you concentrated on designing and producing children's books by other people, but when you decided to become a fulltime freelance author yourself there was a mighty outpouring of science fiction, factual miscellanies and picture books. Did you have any sense of your own direction as a writer in those days or were you simply responding to commissions.

When I started writing it was as a comic strip script writer, and that's what gave me direction, I suppose; it was meeting David Fickling, who said "I want you to write that kind of stuff for me!" that brought me into books, and my first novels were very much comic book ideas fleshed out. It's why my style has always been very dialogue-driven - that's how I learnt to write.

Latterly you have committed yourself to the role of Young Adult author. To what extent is this due to a conscious direction taken by you as author, or to your relationship with your present publisher, Bloomsbury. Or is it something to do with the market which, in your role as reporter for Publishing News, you have such an up-to-the-minute handle on.

Before I took a bit of a sabbatical from writing books I'd pitched a few ideas, including 'Radio Radio', though not as a script-novel, to various publishers - including Sarah Odedina - though to no great effect. Some 18 months later Sarah asked me what I'd done with "that idea, the one about the radio station", and I was off again. It had to be YA to make it work, and "How it Works" was born out of it as a natural progression. I'd love to be able to say I'd picked up stuff on my industry radar, but I'd be lying.

The three Young Adult titles published by Bloomsbury - Radio, Radio; How It Works; and now Zoo - collectively represent a fine but varied achievement in teenage fiction. You were moved to write the screenplay Radio, Radio after your own sons became involved in pirate radio. The main character in How It Works is studying art, and that ties in with your own background in art & design. But the genesis of Zoo, a crime novel set in America is harder to fathom. So - tell us how it got started.

The truth is, "ZOO" was set in the US because the US was stubbornly refusing to buy my stuff, and I'd been told it was because I was "too London". I wanted to see if what I'd been told was true, and the fact that "ZOO" is publishing in the States in July means it must be. I do, though, have a great love of America, and the West Coast in particular, which I know well, so it wasn't quite as cynical a plan as it might at first seem - also, I've always loved crime fiction, and was mildly ticked off that Kevin Brookes published the first noir YA novel before I did!

The strength of the book lies partly in its sense of place. I have never been to any of the places described, but your evocation of them carries complete authority. Is this the result of location research - you hint as much in the acknowledgements.

I did go on a US research trip - specifically to places I'd never
visited - but I have been going to LA and the surrounding area for the last 20 or so years.

The other main strength of the book is in the dialogue. The action is driven by the dialogue, and as a reader I love that in a book. If you had to give a masterclass in the art of narrative by dialogue what would be the main tips you would pass on?

I learnt a lot from comics and movies - there are some great writers working in those genres - and also I learnt a lot from reading Elmore Leonard. What scripts taught me was the architecture of dialogue, and from Elmore I learnt to listen. People do not speak the way most writers have them saying words in books. If I was giving a masterclass, my main tip would be to listen all the time, then re-run conversations in your head. Then
listen to your own characters talking, and write that down.

What scene in the book gave you the most trouble and why?

There is a scene, about a third of the way through the book, where Art Kellaway Jnr. shoots Cam. It's where the story turns from being about a kidnapping to something else entirely and it was completely pivotal. The US editor wanted to cut THE WHOLE SCENE! I had to fight that one tooth and nail.

You use very precise time-checking as section-headers. Apart from the connection with TV dramas like the X-Files and 24, is this intended to help the reader in any other way?

The timing's were actually part of my development process, there to make sure I got my timelines straight and that everything worked. I kept them in because they added tension.

Back on the subject of location research. I believe you recently went to Tokyo. Was that in preparation for Bloomsbury/YA novel #4, and if so can you tell us anything about it?

I did go to Tokyo last May for my next YA novel - now completed and in first edit stage. I wanted to take a teen character out of his comfort zone - away from family, friend, networks, language, everything he relied on and that allowed him to be who he is - and see what happened. To do that I had to get him somewhere very foreign and Tokyo fitted the bill perfectly. Adam goes there because his sister, on a gap year trip, has been working with a friend in a hostess bar and has gone missing. In my character's head no one is doing anything to find her, so 'logic' dictates he should do something himself and he steals one of his father's credit cards, buyshimself a ticket and goes.

You have been given an increasing amount of space in Publishing News, which is great for children's books news and publicity, but must make it tougher than ever to set time aside for your own writing. Do you have strict times in the day/week that are ring-fenced for your own work?

My time is very proscribed and while I try to be as disciplined as
possible, life doesn't often let you run things on rails and I always seem to have too many things on the go at the same time. Mainly I grab writing time when it comes up.

Does that mean you're not fussy about where you write? How do you do your best work? Silent room, closed door? On the move, in a notebook? Do you have any distinctive writing rituals?

I usually work upstairs in a loft room, door open, cat wandering about; sometimes I have music playing, I always write directly onto the computer. I only ever use a notebook when I'm planning a project. The only ritual I have is that, if I get stuck, I go for a walk and take the problem with me; I've nearly always unraveled whatever knot it was by the time I get home.

Your website has not been updated for a while? Why's that?

For reasons explained a couple of questions ago. The job is in hand, but not done quite yet...

© 2005 ACHUKA


Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
©ACHUKA 1997-2012