Like many people I returned to reading children’s books as an adult, through J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. This inevitably lead me to Philip Pullman, and then a little later to a writer who I think deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet showed just how mind expanding children’s books could be. His world of ‘municipal darwinism’ in which cities had become mobile and survived by eating each other was an outlandish concept, brilliantly realised. It inspired me to begin my own experiments in science fiction writing for children.
Reeve has gone on to write Fever Crumb, a series of prequels to Mortal Engines. He won the Carnegie medal for his novel Here Lies Arthur and produced the ‘steam-powered Victorian space adventures’ of the Larklight trilogy. More recently he’s been delighting my own children with his partnership with illustrator Sarah McIntyre and has got his original fans all a flutter with a return to serious world building in Railhead, a story that is ‘set on a dozen different planets, and features thieves and androids, exiles and emperors, insects and intelligent trains.’
How do you become a writer with such a wide ranging, brilliant output? Philip kindly agreed to be the first person to talk to me about ‘the children’s books that saved my life’, the tales that alerted his young mind to the possibilites of storytelling and inspired him to become a writer.
The book that first got me excited about reading
Most of my early memories of books are of my mum or dad reading to me rather than of reading on my own. I do have a very vivid memory of lying in bed when I was about five, reading a book of stories about a dog. I think he was a scottie dog, and it was illustrated in black and white and red. It was a small hardback from the library, what we would call a chapter book these days, with a different story in each chapter. I remember reading chapter after after chapter and really enjoying it. But what it was, I have no idea.
tygertale: If you have any idea of the book that Philip is talking about do let my know, he’d love to find out.
The book I most wanted to write / draw
When I was thirteen I came across The Land of Froud, a book of fantasy paintings by the illustrator Brian Froud which seemed to perfectly capture the elusive feeling I got from reading Tolkein and Alan Garner, and also from the landscapes I’d seen on holidays in Wales and Dartmoor. Brian Froud lived (and still lives)on Dartmoor, and his trolls and goblins seemed to inhabit a world that was a sort of heightened version of it, with even twistier trees and mossier boulders.
I spent many years trying to draw that way, and ended up living on Dartmoor myself, so it was quite an influential book! Sadly, it’s long out of print, but I still have my original copy and often look through it. (Brian Froud went on to design the films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and since then his work has become looser, more brightly coloured, and less rooted in landscape.)
The book I read until it fell apart
Some of my Asterix books are in pretty poor repair now, but that might just be because of their age. I did read them a lot, though, and then spent ages trying to copy particular pictures. I liked Tintin too, but I loved Asterix. Like a lot of long-running series they start off a bit wobbly and eventually collapse into self-indulgence, but there’s a lengthy run in the middle including Asterix the Gladiator, The Big Fight, The Roman Agent, and Asterix in Britain which are a near perfect combination of great stories, great gags and great drawing.
The book I read as a teenager that blew my mind
I bought a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories when I was about sixteen which had a big impact on me. It’s the first time I remember reading stories not so much for the story as for the writing; I loved Bradbury’s way with simile and metaphor. Nowadays, I think a lot of his work is rather soupy and over-written, but it felt very exciting when I was a teenager, and it led me on to lots of other writers, many of them outside the SF field. It also showed me how a pulp sci-fi story could be used as a vehicle to express personal ideas and obsessions: a lesson which I took to heart.
An old book that I discovered late in life and which had a profound effect
I read some Dickens when I was in my teens, but for some reason I never got around to Bleak House – perhaps because I knew the outline of the story from the very good BBC adaptation which was screened in around 1985. I finally read it in my late twenties, and I loved it.
It’s a vast treasure house of a book, full of strange characters and hidden secrets, and with a structure that feels startlingly modern (chapters told in the 1st person and past tense alternate with chapters told in the 3rd person and present tense). It’s funny, gripping, and filled with righteous anger about Victorian poverty and the labyrinthine workings of the law. And although it contains no elements of the fantastic (apart from a memorable instance of spontaneous human combustion) it feels much more dreamlike than many actual fantasy novels.
One of my own books
To be honest, none of the books I’ve mentioned actually saved my life: I’m glad I found them, but I’d still be here if I hadn’t, and I expect other books would have filled the gaps they left. But Oliver and the Seawigs certainly gave me a new lease of creative life, and sent me off in a direction I hadn’t expected.
After being a published writer for about ten years I realised that I’d reached a dangerous stage, the danger being that I was going to end up just as the curator of my older novels for an ever-dwindling readership. It was time to do something new, and the best way I could think of to do that was to collaborate with someone else – preferably someone whose work had little in common with my own.
Luckily, my illustrator friend Sarah McIntyre liked the idea. The first result of our team-up was Oliver and the Seawigs, a book built out of Sarah’s ideas as much as mine, aimed at younger readers than I’d written for before, and in which the text is designed to be inseparable from her gorgeous pictures. In many ways, it feels like my first book.