The Storm Maker, illustrated by David Roberts, has just been published, just as he finishes writing his third. Film rights to his first, 'The Talent Thief' sold last year, with a script now in development over there in Hollywood. By all rights I should HATE HIM SO MUCH, but he's actually a very lovely chap.
I've always been interested in writers who make the leap from screen to page (and often back again), so I thought I'd ask him a few (not entirely un-selfish) questions.
Before becoming a children's author, you'd already had some success in children's television- what had you written, and why did you move from telly to page?
Yes, I'd been lead writer on a couple of animation series and then lead writer on a live-action Pythonesque series called 'Sir Gadabout' which was critically well-received and for which I won a best writer children's BAFTA. And then it all went a bit quiet. The industry was starting to change and I could see that I'd need to adapt to continue as a professional writer. Also I was feeling creatively stagnant and wanted to rediscover the joy of being truly imaginative again. I'd had a good idea for a book, a little cash in the bank, so I took the leap...
Do you find yourself getting pigeon-holed as a children's writer? Is it harder to get work out of the field once you've had some success there?
I think there is that unspoken prejudice against children's writers - how they're somehow not quite as good as 'proper' grown-up writers. I remember attending a wedding and one of the guests was a sitcom writer who avoided me all day and then at the end grudgingly turned to me and said, 'if you need any help then get in touch,' like a lifeguard reaching out to some gasping flapper in rubber armbands. The hierarchical 'ladder' is very much there - I usually try to take the escalator.
But things are changing. There's a growing acceptance of fantasy as a legitimate form of entertainment for adults and it's the 'tall tales' that really interest me so I don't really feel hemmed in. If I can make a leap from children's TV in the UK to books, TV and movies universally while bypassing grown-up TV in the UK then that's fine by me.
You sold the film rights to your first book! How did that come about, and can I now assume you live in an enormous castle with a jacuzzi filled with champagne?
My Film and TV agent in London has connections with a good agent in LA and he liked the book and sent it to all the studios and promptly got nowhere. But then he had the great idea of 'packaging' it with a hot screenwriting team, Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay, and a big director, Shawn Levy, and producer Tom McNulty. They then pitched their take on it around town and Universal made an offer. The option money meant I could continue writing my second book with the luxury of a roof over my head but I think the champagne jacuzzi comes later down the line!
One thing I really liked about The Talent Thief was the slightly parallel universe it was set in: a sort of Thirties pulp-style world. Was that inspired by anything in particular?
Not really. I love the 1930s for its crazy mix of style and emerging technology. I figured it would make for some nice imagery and keep me inspired when I got bogged down which happened a lot! Plus a terrifying creature hanging onto the side of an old Bugatti is cooler than the same creature clambering over a Ford Focus.
How's the shift from writing scripts to writing books? What can you bring over from one medium to another? And if you go back to writing scripts again, do you think you learned anything from the books you can feed back into writing for screen?
Writing scripts, as you know, James, is drawing up an invitation to a party. You hope your invitation is gold and shiny and the subsequent party worth attending but books are a kind of finished thing in themselves so they have to be more polished, finite, wrapped up, satisfying. The upside is you get to fully explore a story and call it your own. The downside is you're kind of in it on your own. Though I do have a brilliant editor!
Funnily enough I've learned more about pace from writing the books. I'm aware that a reader or viewer has only so much patience so I think future scripts would be leaner. And I've learned yet again that structure is everything.
Something I always wondered: do you get any say over the covers?
Not a great deal. I do get sent roughs or preview versions of both the covers and inside illustrations to comment on however. On The Storm Maker a mistake was made and there are a few 'old man' proof copies floating around whereas the man on the correct cover is now significantly rejuvenated!
Any nice fan letters?
The nicest thing was hearing about a boy whose mother could never get him to read anything and for some reason he tore through The Talent Thief and found it very exciting. It's tough competing with games consoles (books are so much quieter) so that was a nice victory for the written word!
Dull technical question: did your dramatic agent get involved with pitching the book, or did you have to find a whole new agency? Is it like starting all over again?
I'm with quite a big literary agency and as luck would have it down the hall from my Film and TV agent is a really wonderful book agent. Because they all know each other it felt more like branching out than starting over again. She thought my book had promise (though I did have to rework it to her notes) and took it to one of the big trade fairs and I guess nagged everyone until Macmillan gave in.
Which is more spiritually rewarding: books or telly? Which pays better?
Ha! Are you leading me down a thorny path, James? In short, books are more creatively rewarding. But TV can be more exciting. TV pays (much) better in the short term but I guess if you can build a readership...
Three books now - do you fancy a change, or is authoring where it is now?
Films are why I got into writing in the first place so I hope there's mileage down that road in one form or another. I find working on books quite isolating yet the freedom is nice. Heck, we're all making this up as we go along, right? If you get paid for coming up with outlandish tales then that's pretty good going...