This is the first Author Interview on the new site with Mortal Engines author, Philip Reeve. I first discovered Philip’s work two years ago when I found a signed copy of Larklight at a book sale and I have been an avid fan ever since. Philip has been kind enough to answer some questions on writing…
1. Explain a little about the genre you write and how you got into it.
I’m probably best known for sci-fi/fantasy books like the Mortal Engines series. Fantasy was my favourite genre as a child – I can remember the thrill of discovering first CS Lewis and then Tolkein, and realising that it was possible to make up a whole world. Later, as a teenager, I read a lot of science fiction. Then I gave it all up, and I’ve never really gone back – but for some reason, whenever I tried to write my own stuff, it would always come out with a sci-fi or fantasy slant. I do try to write other things too; Here Lies Arthur is a historical novel (at least, there’s no magic in it) and I’m currently thinking about a story set in the first days of Hollywood.
2. Once you have an idea for a novel, what is the first thing you do with it?
I usually just keep it in the back of my mind for a long time, and mull it over very occasionally, and try out different versions in my head. Then I write a first chapter, and see where it goes. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, and I just put it away in a drawer until some other idea comes along and reminds me of it and gives me the impetus to get it underway again. Usually when I start writing a book I will have had the idea hanging about for at least a couple of years. Sometimes, as with Larklight and Here Lies Arthur, I’m dredging up ideas that I had decades before, when I was still at school.
3. Do you have a generic process that you use to write all your novels or do you find that each evolves in its own way?
Well, I start on page one and keep writing until it’s finished – is that a process? I suppose it is! I try not to plan ahead too much. I read other writers’ blogs and things sometimes and they say, “I’ve worked out the plot, and designed the characters, now it’s time to start writing.” I can’t even imagine why you would want to do that! For me the whole fun of writing a book is finding out what’s going to happen on the next page. Obviously that means I have to do a lot of re-writing – if something unexpected suddenly happens in chapter ten I have to go back and change things and set it up earlier in the story – but that kind of editing and re-editing is actually the bit of the creative process that I enjoy most. If I had some great chart worked out showing me what was going to happen in each chapter, there’d be no point writing the book. In fact, sometimes I do get an idea for a story which arrives fully formed, so that I can see exactly how it works, right through to the end; those are the ideas which I never get round to using.
4. You write such interesting, complex characters. Do they come out fully formed or do you add layers as you edit?
I’m pleased that you think so. I think a lot of readers find them a bit odd; people who read a lot of fantasy, and particularly children, seem to like their protagonists brave and resourceful and noble, but however hard I try to write characters like that they always seem to turn out a bit skewed and peculiar! I don’t usually know much about them when I start writing, except maybe what they look like, and what their name is; they develop as the story develops, and they have to respond to whatever situations I dream up. In general I try to avoid having out-and-out goodies and baddies; they are always more interesting if they’re a bit of a mix. I don’t see why the heroes of books have to be likeable; I want to write about people who are grumpy, and stand-offish, and infuriating! And it’s always nice when someone surprises you; when someone who seems completely unsympathetic turns out to be all right after all.
5. Which of your characters is most like you?
For some reason it’s always the girls! Hester Shaw in the Mortal Engines books, Fever Crumb in the prequels, Gwyna in Here Lies Arthur.
6. My average writing day consists of…
I don’t know if I have an average day. I tend to start work around 9 a.m when my son goes off to school, and if I’m rewriting or checking proofs or some such I’ll be at my desk until 5 or 6 p.m. But if I’m in the early stages of writing a lot of the work will be thinking rather than writing, so I can just as easily do that while I’m out for a walk on the moor or doing some drawing.
7. For you, as both reader and writer, what are the key elements to a good story?
It’s hard to generalise, because of course there is always an exception to the rule. I like big stories that you can sink into and get lost in: I’ve always preferred novels to short stories. Plenty of incident; good characters; surprises; a sense that things are moving towards some sort of climax or resolution. A touch of humour is good, too; it’s hard to really like a book that doesn’t have a joke or two.
8. How long had you been writing before you were published? And how, if at all, did being published change your life?
I’ve written stories for as long as I can recall, but I never thought seriously about trying to get one published until I came up with Mortal Engines. That came out in 2001, when I was thirty-five (though I’d been writing various versions of it since about 1990). In a sense it didn’t change my life vastly, because I was already working as a freelance illustrator, so moving over to writing instead of drawing wasn’t as much of a sea-change as if I’d had a proper job! On the other hand, it meant that I could devote serious chunks of my time to writing the next one, whereas before that writing was something I had to slip into odd evenings and days off. It’s a hard thing to explain to someone who isn’t published, because I can remember very well how, before Mortal Engines was accepted by Scholastic, getting published was all that mattered. But now that I am published: writing the books doesn’t get any easier, and instead of worrying about whether someone will publish me I worry about when they will stop publishing me; how long have I got? So I actually feel just the same, it’s just the nature of the worries that have changed!
9. How do you think an author can stay original when there are so many great stories out there?
I don’t think they can: all the stories were probably used up by Homer’s day; whatever you do, you’re always rewriting some myth or other. But that’s fine, as long as you do them in your own voice, and bring your own concerns to them; set these tales in the landscape of your own mind, and show them from new angles. I’ve just been reading my son a book called Cowboy Jess by Geraldine McCaughrean, which is a very short book for middle grade children, and is built completely out of western cliches: the round-up, encounters with the Sioux, bandits holding up the stage-coach. Yet every page of it is infused with her vision; the way she uses language and the way she sees the world. That’s what makes it original. As JG Ballard said, ‘Be true to your own obsessions’. Pinch someone else’s story if you like it, but don’t try to pinch their world-view…
10. Tell us why you chose to delve into the Mortal Engines world again with the series featuring Fever Crumb.
I never intended to return to that world, but after I’d been away from it for a couple of years I found myself wanting to do another big rambling sci-fi thing, and since the world of Mortal Engines is built out of all the stuff I like, any new world I created was going to seem quite similar. So I thought I might as well go back and do a prequel, set in an earlier era. It’s all new characters, and it’s so long before the other books that the background is quite different in many ways. I hope the feel of the prequels is different too; the Mortal Engines books all involved big journeys, whereas the Fever ones tend to be set more or less in one place and be slightly smaller in scale. People who like Mortal Engines for the big ideas and massive explosions are probably horribly disappointed by them, but I think they’re better.
11. What is the toughest criticism you have ever received?
I don’t seek out criticism – I never read reviews, for instance, or go Googling my own name – so there are probably all sorts of horrible things about me out there, but I’ve never read them! Of course, I rely on my editors and my agents to point out things that don’t work or could be improved when I turn in the first draft of a book: whenever anybody questions some detail it’s almost always worth changing it, even if it’s something that you like and can defend, because it means that they were jolted out of the story by it. But hopefully I’m my own toughest critic. I rewrite many, many times, and cut and change things pretty ruthlessly. In the end, the only opinion that really matters to me is my own. That probably makes me sound quite arrogant, but of course all writers are arrogant. What could possibly be more arrogant than writing stories and expecting complete strangers to be interested in them?
If you would like to know more about Philip Reeve and his incredible books he has a great website (www.philip-reeve.com) where you will find his complete biography, a list of his books and directions to his personal blog (www.philipreeve.blogspot.com). His website also contains an extensive list of authors that he has read – a list that would most definitely grow your skills as a writer and your enjoyment as a reader.
I haven’t read every single one of Philip’s work (only because of the lack of availability in South Africa) but those I have read have made me bite my fingernails, cry, laugh and gasp. They have inspired me to work harder at creating better stories. If you have never picked up one of his books, I highly recommend that you do.