Interview with Hello’s Children’s Book Blogger

1. What inspired you to become a children’s writer and illustrator?
I started writing stories almost as soon as I could write, and because all the books I read at that age were illustrated, I quickly started illustrating my own too. I just loved reading, and the experience of a story being spun in my imagination, so doing it myself seemed an obvious progression. I loved that feeling of lying in bed, long after my parents had told me to go to sleep, unable to close a book because the story held me in its grip. It expanded my mind and put an overactive imagination to good use. And if there was rain or wind blowing against the window, it all helped. I just thought it would be a great buzz to do for others what these writers were doing for me.

2. Who were your favourite authors as a child?
I hate this question, and writers get asked it all the time! The problem is that it would be impossible to list all the writers who influenced me. The ones who stick out now were the ones I read over a long period, or who wrote long stories or series of books, such as Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry, Beatrix Potter, Norman Hunter, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, Jules Verne, JRR Tolkien, and then ‘grown-up’ novellists such as Stephen King and Louis L’Amour. But there were so many brilliant one-off books too, that don’t get mentioned so often, like ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes or ‘The Silver Sword’. I was plied with the classics as a kid, and loved stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ and Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, or ‘Masterman Ready’ by Frederick Marryat (all books set on or around the sea – it’s amazing I didn’t turn out a sailor). I also read a lot of comics too, written by people like Alan Moore, Pat Mills and Frank Miller.

3. What is a typical writing day for you?
I wish I had one. I like routine when it comes to writing, but many people might be surprised that working full time as a writer and illustrator doesn’t mean you actually spend your whole day writing and illustrating. At least half of my time is spent running the business of writing; answering emails, organizing and doing promotional sessions, doing talks . . . and running workshops, of course. You have to be very strict with yourself about maintaining a work routine that includes writing, as it’s really easy to get distracted by other things and the deadlines are often quite far off. Illustration is a little different, as the deadlines are invariably looming by the time you’ve sorted everything with the designer and can get started, so there’s more urgency involved. I like to illustrate purely during office hours, but normally like to write from late morning until the end of the work day, and if I can squeeze a bit in after I’ve spent the evening with my family, I will. I like writing at night, but I want to stay married! If you’re writing a novel, it’s particularly important that you do a consistent amount of work every week. I like to get at least one scene written in every sitting.

4. Where did you get the idea for your latest book, ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’?
‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’ is the second book in the Wildenstern Saga. Carrying on from ‘Ancient Appetites’, the background is an immensely wealthy, back-stabbing family, living in Victorian Ireland, who tolerate any man’s assassination of those above him as way of getting to the top of the family. The story follows those in the family who rebel against this system. There are a number of key ideas: The first is that this family have supernatural health, and believe that to breed ruthless ambition, they have to encourage a predatory way of life, but one that still maintains a civilized appearance at all times. I liked that contrast, having decided to take the concept of ambition and greed for profits to an extreme, where you have to climb past your own family members to succeed.
The second idea that underpins the story is the living machines known as engimals, whose origin is unknown, lost in the past. They roam wild, but are caught and domesticated by the human race, who use them for a variety of purposes, some of which would be recognizable to us in today’s world. I think we all treat our machines as animals sometimes, so imagining your hoover is like a dog that feeds on the dirt in your carpet isn’t too much of a leap. Now that we have robotic hoovers and lawn-mowers, this is even closer to reality. There is a link between these machines and the supernatural health of the Wildenstern family. Finally, there are the mysterious, spontaneous combustions of women around the country. That came from a number of things, but partly from a television programme that examined how ‘spontaneous’ combustion could take place. It got me thinking about how one can create a mystery by exploring the divide between magic and science.

5. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just finishing the third book in the Wildenstern Saga, ‘Merciless Reason’, which delves more into the origin of the engimals and takes the hostilities within the family to a climax. I’m also laying out the next novel I want to write, which is something very different, but I don’t want to say much about that at the moment. I have another Mad Grandad book in the works, and am working on two more books for the Armouron series, commissioned by Random House. On the illustration front, I have an exhibition of artwork, along with some other children’s book illustrators, taking place in the Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford, and then moving on to Galway for the Babaro Festival.

6. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I have a couple of sections on my website giving advice on writing, but my main advice is to get on with it. Reading interviews with authors and books about writing, doing courses, all these are useful in developing your trade skills, so to speak, but you should be spending as much time as possible actually writing. For getting published in Ireland, I would suggest you visit “cb info” on the Children’s Books Ireland website, and get yourself a copy of “The Artist’s and Writer’s Yearbook”. Between those two things, you’ll pick up most of what you need to know about getting published. Once you’ve done that, get back to doing some writing. Learn as much as you can about the world of publishing, and the rest is largely a matter of persistence and luck. Start sending your work out to publishers and don’t give up if you get rejected. Everybody gets rejected. I still do sometimes. More than talent, or training or a love of storytelling and language, or useful contacts or glittering personality (although these all help), what you really need for this job is stubbornness, and a belief that this is what you’re going to do with your life. And just don’t quit.