Writing The Black Tattoo must have been great fun as it is a brilliant read. What made you decide to write the story?
Aw, thanks Liz! Glad you liked it!
Actually I remember the point when I first started thinking about Black Tat very well. It was about five years after I'd decided to go part-time at my job as a bookseller at Blackwell's on London's Charing Cross Road. I hadn't exactly been earning a fortune to begin with, and only working there evenings and weekends meant living off even less, but it did at least give me the rest of the day to concentrate on my writing. The thing was, at that point, five years in, I just didn't have very much to show for it.
I had written three books, but they had all been rejected – justifiably, with hindsight, as they were awful. But I used to count my rejection slips for my books and stories, and not long before I started Black Tat I'd passed the triple figures mark – something like a hundred and twenty! The windows in my flat wouldn't shut properly, so in winter I had to type in gloves. I was living mostly off instant noodles, plus whatever was being flogged off cheap before they chucked it out of the supermarket. My relatives all thought I was mental. They were probably right.
It was at that point that I came across an interview with Lee Child (who, by the way, I think is terrific). He was asked for the single best piece of advice he could give to an aspiring writer:
'Write the exact book that you yourself would be thrilled to read,' was his answer.
When I read that, it was like a door opened in my head. Up until that point, what I'd been doing with my stories, essentially, was second-guessing – trying to write something like what I thought books for young people were supposed to be, based on what I found in the kids' department of the bookshop. But all that this cautious desire to imitate others had brought me so far was failure. Now I bundled up that approach, threw it out of my drafty window, and instead started asking myself what I believe is the single best question anyone sitting down to plan a book should ask themselves. It goes something like this:
If you, individual, were to come across a book, in a bookshop or library, that had everything you wanted in a book – that was so engrossing that once you started reading you'd be helplessly unable to eat, sleep or do anything else until you finished it – what would that book be? What would the elements of it be?
One of the beauties of this question is that the answers can be different with every book you write. But that winter, I stopped thinking about what I thought 'might sell', and started thinking instead about what I would most love to read. In my case, at that point, it was… monsters, swordfights, flying kung fu, demonic possession, vomiting bats, a seven-way gladiatorial monster fight to the death set in Hell – etcetera! Black Tat essentially started out as a kind of wish list. Then I set about working out how I could make these elements come together, and off I went.
It took me five years to write – five more years of instant noodles and the rest of it (and even a few more rejection letters, at first). But now, crucially, I had passion and excitement about the story to help get me through the tough bits. And eventually, the other good stuff started to happen!
Do you have a favourite character in TBT and why?
I'm fond of Jack, of course – partly because he and I have a lot in common! But there's only one answer to this question, and I think you probably know who I'm going to say. It's Esme.
I knew from the start that Black Tat was going to be full of fights. But when I worked out that most of them were going to involve a fourteen-year-old girl, that's when I really started to get excited. There's a definite lineage of female warriors that you can trace in thrilling fiction. Buffy is a great example, of course. There's Trinity from The Matrix and The Bride from Kill Bill. My personal absolute favourite is Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise (have you read those books? Do! They're AMAZING!) But it has to be said that – these glowing exceptions aside – genuinely arse-kicking heroines are oddly thin on the ground. Instead, the big buzz-word that always gets used about female characters who can handle themselves is 'feisty'. Now: to me, 'feisty' implies that, underneath whatever front they're projecting, a heroine is quite charming and ordinary and nice once you get to know her. I knew that wasn't what I wanted with Esme at all.
I wanted a heroine who was scary – a female character whose inhuman single-mindedness made her a terror to anyone who crossed her. Once I started thinking about Esme the ideas started popping straight away. Esme has hobbies, but they're weird and obsessive ones. Esme wants to be nice, but she's better at hurting people than she is at talking to them – and so forth. I knew that Jack was the hero but, damn, any scene that had Esme in it was a joy to write.
Oh, and I also like the alligator dude who yells 'Riches! Riches!' after the Akachash.
I get the impression that you enjoyed setting the story in London. Do you think London is an underrated setting for storytelling?
All my books right now are set in London. It's a brilliant place for stories – particularly, I think, fantastical ones like mine.
It's a truism that fantasy stories need some kind of anchor in reality. Usually, in Tolkien-esque 'classic' fantasy anyway, authors compensate for the distancing effect of an imaginary setting by providing reams of detail – world-building. But for me, though there are exceptions (Scott Lynch's brilliant The Lies of Locke Lamora, or China Mieville's gob-smacking Perdido Street Station, or, well, pretty much anything by Chris Wooding, for instance!) I sometimes find I'm just not quite able to make the leap into fully immersing myself in that type of writing. It's not that I don't crave weirdness, wildness and adventure – on the contrary, I'm an addict! But to follow an author into all that, I need something to hang on to. A real-life location like London is just the ticket.
Partly it's the fame of the place: people all over the world know what London looks like (and as someone – glee! – who is starting to be published internationally, that's important). But mostly, it's the age of the city – all the layers of history that have been packed on top of each other here down the centuries. London is crammed with eccentricities and mysteries, all sorts of mad pockets of story-inspiring strangeness, but at the same time it's a real place – you can stand in it. That just seems like the ultimate winning combination for a story-setting to me. And I'm lucky enough to live here!
You have an awesome quote on the back of TBT by Neil Gaiman: “Vomiting bats? I’m sold”. What was your first reaction when you saw that quote and are you a fan of his work?
Neil "The God" Gaiman
I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's writing for something like fifteen years, ever since first picking up some Sandman while I was at university. When my publishers started wondering about blurbs for Black Tat I knew I'd have to ask him – or try, at least!
I'd met Neil at a reading and signing of his, organized by Blackwell's. At a time when his encouragement was definitely appreciated (see above re noodles) he'd drawn a rat in an overcoat on the title page of my proof copy of Coraline, with the words 'Never give up! Keep writing!' I wrote to him via his website, reminding him of this and explaining a bit about Black Tat. To my absolute astonishment and delight, back came those words you quoted.
I ran straight out to the post office and sent him a proof of Black Tat, wrapped up in a picture of a bat. Some time passed, then I bumped into him again, at a press night for the stage musical of his and Dave McKean's Wolves in the Walls (which was great, by the way).
Casually as I could – which probably wasn't, very! – I asked Neil if he'd had a chance to read Black Tat. He gently and kindly explained something that, if I'd thought about it, ought perhaps to have been rather obvious.
Right now it seems almost everyone who has written a book would love to get a quote from Neil Gaiman on its cover. As a result, he said, he had a pile of proofs to read that was 'several times bigger than him.'
'Well…' I began, with a lack of shame that I can only slightly blame on the Belgian beer I'd consumed to get my nerve up to speak to him: 'Please can I put "Vomiting bats? I'm sold – Neil Gaiman" on my cover, anyway?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'but only if you put an asterisk and the message "Neil Gaiman has not actually read this book."'
The wording on the back cover of the Black Tat UK paperback is almost exactly as he instructed, with one tiny addition – the word 'yet'.
You never know! - grin -
Do you have any favourite authors or books that influenced your own writing?
LOTS! I've mentioned some here in this interview but I've listed, um, about five hundred more(!) on the website LibraryThing. You can reach the list (and some reviews and whatnot) through my LibraryThing profile, here.
I love recommending books to people, it's the main thing I miss about being a bookseller. I put that list together partly to scratch that itch, but also so young readers who like my stuff can find suggestions for other things they might want to check out next. Help yourself!
What is your writerly day like?
Over the ten years I worked part-time at Blackwell's I settled into a pretty good routine: basically on weekdays I would work on my writing until about four pm, then grab a sandwich and head out for my shift at the shop. This year will be my fourth 'non-retail Christmas' – that's still how I count 'em! But my routine (on days I'm not out doing events, of course) is substantially the same. The day's writing comes first – and no internet until it's done, either! Then after that, which still usually takes me until something like four pm, comes other stuff.
It's this 'other stuff' that has changed and grown – which, really, is why I finally gave up the bookselling. From four 'til around half eight/nine (my compulsory knocking-off time) I'm engaged in the other business that goes with being a full-time, self-employed writer – or does in my case, anyway. This consists of answering correspondence; keeping track of finances and admin; working on promotional activities; maintaining my websites (though I have Katie WebSphinx, who is a genius, to help me with that!) and – particularly – arranging visits to schools. I love getting the chance to be a visiting author in schools, it's one of my favourite parts of this job. But that and the other things can take up almost as much of my day as my actual writing does.
I'm not complaining. Far from it: this is my dream and I'm chasing after it as hard as I can! I would say, however, that managing my time has turned out to be one of the most useful 'writing skills' I've learned so far. I'd recommend it to anyone.
How do you unwind after a day of writing?
One of the great things about the routine above, for me, is that it takes the edge off the 'decompression stage' I seem to need to go through after I've spent any serious length of time sitting here making stuff up. My girlfriend might disagree with me on this(-!) but I don't think I'm half as weird and spacey after answering emails as I am right after, say, writing about monsters. - grin -
For me it's the winding up for a day's writing that's the hard bit. Among other things, every morning I have an exercise routine that I put myself through: a warm-up, followed by alternating days of t'ai chi or time on a rowing machine. I hate it – especially the rowing machine – but since my commute from bed to desk is about three feet, and I'm going to be sitting still there pretty much all day, it's essential. Plus, once it's out of the way the rest of the day often somehow seems to look easier!
Have you considered writing for adults?
Sure. In fact I did more than 'consider': I assumed I was always going to write for adults – right up until I stopped! But now I write for eleven- to fifteen-year-olds, and have been doing so for more than twelve years. I love it so much that, at present, I just can't see myself ever going back.
I love all kinds of storytelling: films, games, comics, animation, whatever. But books are one of the central passions and pleasures of my life. Reading's like food, like breathing, to me: I read first thing in the morning while I'm cleaning my teeth (it's boring otherwise!); I read last thing at night before I sleep – and any spare minute I get in between those times, odds are I'll be reading then, too. If I'm on a train, and the train stops, and the announcer says we're going to be stuck there for a while, everyone else in the carriage huffs and puffs. I smile – time for another chapter!
But it wasn't always that way. In fact I don't think I would ever have come to feel the way I do about reading if it hadn't been for the particular stories that I found and loved when I was eleven to fifteen.
The age for which I write is the age at which I became a reader. I'm not talking about the books taught in school – those were work. I'm talking about the stories that first showed me that books could be fun.
They were fast-paced books, with a rigorous focus on story. They had exciting things happen in them – confrontations, narrow escapes, and the tantalizing possibility that one person's decision at a crucial moment could make a difference. They also (heh! surprise!) tended to include things like monsters, explosions, monsters, fiendish schemes, chases, fights, and monsters.
Sometimes I had to dig quite hard to find those kinds of books. As far as ones specifically aimed at young people were concerned, back when I was eleven there was Douglas Hill and John Christopher (both of whom I adored) but that was about it. After that it was books for grownups. Thrillers. SF. Crime. Horror.
Now: sometimes adults would tell me that I shouldn't be reading those books. They said I should read things that were more 'improving' – stories about people in rooms talking to each other, written by authors who died long ago. You know: great works of literature! Eventually I did read those books. Eventually I even enjoyed them – and now, as I say, I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on. But I believe that I would not have read these so-called 'better' books, if I had not first been engaged by books that some people consider 'trashy'. If 'trashy' means stories that are fast and thrilling and full of action (and monsters!) then it's my belief that there are not enough 'trashy' books for young people in the world.
It's an honour to do my best to fill that gap. Because the possibility that one of my stories might catch someone at the age where they might become a lover of books and reading forever… wow. That's an incredibly inspiring goal to aim for, it seems to me. And it's one that writing for adults just doesn't offer.
You used to be a bookseller. Imagine yourself back to then: how would you sell The Black Tattoo to a parent or child? And how about Tim, Defender of the Earth?
I don't think Tim or Black Tat would be tough to sell, because in my experience customers in the kids' section ask booksellers for my type of writing (or something like it) all the time:
'What can we get for him [and it's usually "him"!] to read?' they ask. 'He thinks books are boring.'
Hearing back from young people who've felt this way and been proved wrong is, I'm thrilled to be able to tell you, immensely satisfying. HEE HEE HEE!
Can you tell us a bit more about Tim, Defender of the Earth?
It's a giant monster story – a gleeful tribute to cinematic city-stomping classics like Godzilla, Gamera, Kong and the Harryhausen movies. When I was touring around schools and libraries and bookshops with Black Tat, I asked my young audiences a particular question: which famous parts of London would they most like to see destroyed in a book? As you can imagine, I received a lot of highly enthusiastic answers to that, and I'm proud to say I managed to work pretty much all of them in. If you've ever had a yearning to read a story in which Big Ben gets snapped off and tossed like a caber (for instance!) then give Tim a wallop, I think you'll like it. For a free taste of the opening chapter, plus some other bits and pieces, take a look at my special Tim website: http://www.timdefenderoftheearth.com/
What is next on your writing schedule?
I'm currently (July '08) up to my eyeballs in what I modestly call Phase Three of my Sinister Masterplan to Conquer the Universe: the quickest way to describe the new project is that it's kind of like Alien meets Night of the Living Dead – for kids! I'm aiming to discover exactly how much menace, tension and horror I can get away with in a book that's aimed at young readers. Of course, it's not the readers I'm worried about giving nightmares to: it's their gatekeepers – reviewers, parents, and so forth (some adults can be so squeamish, don't you find? - grin - If all goes well, the book should be out in late 2009 or early 2010. I'll be sure to keep you posted. But now I'd better get back to it…!
Do you have any advice to young authors out there?
If I can get this far, that proves it can happen to you. Slog on. You can do it!
Best wishes to everyone who reads this.