It's always exciting when an author notices my reviews of their work. Lately, I've been rewarded with more "Advance Reviewer Copies" than I know what to do with. One of them was actually the already-published UK edition of X Isle, though it has not yet been publisehed in the US. Now that I've posted my review of it, I am keen to share my interview with its author Steve Augarde. Like all my previous author interviews, it was carried out via email. Yet there's a certain charming illusion about it, as if we'd had a comfortable, face-to-face chat. Hold that image in your head. Ah, the wonders of the internet!SA: That's such a wonderful review, Robbie. Thank you so much! I hope you won't mind that I've put it straight up onto my blog, with a link to your site. And thanks for resisting the temptation to divulge the hidden surprises that you were so quick to spot!
RF: I was hoping I hadn't given TOO much away, what with my hints about flatulence. I just thought that was too much fun to pass over completely. But I hate spoilers as much as the next guy.
SA: Fire away with the questions any time.
RF: The dust jacket says that, besides X Isle and the Touchstone trilogy, you have written 70 children's picture books, paper-engineered several pop-up books, and furnished art and music for a couple animated series on the Beeb. Of which among these projects do you feel especially proud? Are there common themes between them and the books you've been writing lately?
SA: I think that longevity is perhaps a fair indication of worth. To find that past efforts continue to be valued makes me feel proud. So of my pop-up books, Tractor Factory is the one that I’m most pleased with -- it’s still in print, some sixteen years after its original publication, and I often come across copies in schools and libraries that I visit.
My work for the BBC was as an illustrator and musician on the children’s cartoon series Bump. The original viewers are now in their early twenties, and I see that the title sequence for Bump is a much-visited item on YouTube. From the posted comments it’s plain that the programmes are looked back on with fondness. That gives me pleasure.
Of my novels I feel that X Isle is the best, but then it’s the most recent and so perhaps I need a little more distance before I can make proper judgement.
RF: With the Touchstone trilogy, your work turned in a more mature direction. What inspired you to take this new path?
SA: Part curiosity, part necessity. I’d always wondered whether I could write for an older age group, and so I began dabbling with a story at a time when I was 'in between' projects -- i.e. when I’d run out of other ideas!
I sent the beginnings of this story to a publisher, who went ahead and commissioned it, to my great surprise, and I found myself embarking on what turned out to be the The Various, the first book in The Touchstone Trilogy.
RF: What traditions or influences would you like to honor in your work?
SA: Books were very special to me as a child -- real treasures -- and I try to produce books that will be treasured in their turn.
From being introduced to stories at a very early age, children get a handle on the world that surrounds them, and the infinite worlds of their own imaginations. It’s the tradition of reading itself that’s so important, I think, rather than the work of any individual writer.
RF: What has been most encouraging to you as you write and rewrite each of your books?
SA: Bank statements, mostly!
RF: What gave you the idea for The Various? When and how did you decide to build a trilogy on it?
SA: The actual storyline began as a single image. I had a picture in my head of a girl in a barn, kneeling beside a strange and injured creature – something both magical and alien. I could sense the atmosphere, the smell of hay and tractor oil, tiny beams of sunlight penetrating the holes in a rusty tin roof. The image was strong enough to get me writing, but only as an experiment. I had no notion of where the ‘story’ might go. I was simply interested in discovering whether or not I had any ability as a writer. The publisher David Fickling knew me as an illustrator and paper engineer, and I asked him if he’d mind giving me an opinion on the thirty odd pages that I’d so far produced. He gave me a not only an opinion but a contract to go with it, and so then I had no choice but to write the book.
As the tale of the Various tribes began to develop, I realised that there must be a history to these people and their struggles, a back story, and that it wasn’t all going to fit into one book. So it expanded into a trilogy. A scary prospect.
RF: What was the toughest decision you had to make as you wrote the Touchstone trilogy? Or what was the stickiest problem you had to work through?
SA: Just the sheer volume of ideas. I was very green, and knew little or nothing about how to plot a story, how to keep the writing tight, how to separate what was necessary from what was superfluous. I was continually trying to convince both the reader and myself, and piled detail upon detail in order to achieve this. My editor had to chuck out about half of everything I presented to her.
Writing the trilogy was a very long process, about six years toil, and it wasn’t always easy to keep faith with it. I’d be terrified of tackling such a massive project today, but that’s where ignorance can be a good thing. If I’d known back in 2002 what I know now, then I’d have fought shy of such an ambitious work, and The Touchstone Trilogy would probably never have come about.
RF: Did you feel a particular connection to one or two characters in that series? Which ones and why?
SA: Well, I spent a lot of time in the company of those characters and so I got to know them pretty well. I suppose in superficial terms Uncle Brian is the one most like me. I didn’t have to look too far to conjure up this rather ineffectual middle-aged man whose children are a source of bewilderment to him!
I like the three heroines, of course, Midge and Celandine and Una. Each of them is special in her own way, but Celandine is probably my favourite. Had you realised that she was gay? This was something that I’d considered all along, but it’s only finally hinted at in Winter Wood, when Celandine reappears as an old lady. The nature of her eventual relationship with Nina, an earlier childhood friend, is not something that I would expect a young readership to pick up on, nor would it be appropriate to spell it out, but I wanted it to be so nevertheless. No adult reader has ever mentioned it, not even my editor. I’m rather proud of that. It means that I’ve resisted the temptation to sensationalise, or be anything other than quietly matter-of-fact about what turned out to be a lifelong partnership.
RF: What type of reader do you think will take the richest experience from reading the Touchstone trilogy?
SA: Haha. One with a lot of patience! A trilogy by definition is a long haul, and not something to be rushed through.
RF: With this latest book, some would say you've turned another corner - for example, from a girl's fantasy (faeries at the bottom of the garden, etc.) to a boy's (weaponized farts, fighting the ultimate school bullies, etc.). Why would you agree or disagree?
SA: Well, I wouldn’t say that the trilogy is 'a girl’s fantasy'. There are a lot of powerful male characters in there, and the three books probably contain as much terrorism and violence as X Isle, if not more. I’ve never actually done a body count! However, it’s undeniable that the trilogy’s protagonists are girls and so it’s difficult to persuade boys that this is for them too – particularly when the US covers are so overtly feminine.
With X Isle, by contrast, I very deliberately set out to write a book that boys would be happy to be seen reading. The truth is that girls will pick up anything that looks interesting to them. Boys are more self-conscious, I think, and tend to balk at the idea of 'faeries', even though said 'faeries' are more likely to put an arrow through you than dance at the bottom of your garden.
RF: How you would like X Isle to affect the thinking of young readers?
SA: X Isle is a thriller first and foremost, and many young readers may view it as no more than that. That’s fine. However, there are deep moral conundrums at its core, some very difficult questions regarding ‘right’ and 'wrong'. I’ve been careful not to provide ready answers to these -- and indeed some of the boys in the story take opposing views. It’s inevitable that readers will imagine themselves under similar circumstances, and ask 'What would I have done?' I hope that the book will provoke discussion.
I confess I was rather worried as to what you might make of the religious aspect -- whether Preacher John's twisted fundamentalism might have been seen as a swipe at Christianity. But you've obviously got the point -- that the man's a maniac who perverts belief to his own ends -- which makes me hopeful that other people of faith will see it in the same light.
RF: I am a Christian but no fundamentalist, and I recognized (particularly from Baz's urge to pray at the end of the story) that you weren't attacking religion as such. Preacher John wasn't much of a representative of Christianity, anyway. He stated, for example, that "Turn the other cheek" were not the words of his God, but they are the words of mine (Matthew 5:39).
SA: Yes, and PJ's often quoted 'God helps those who helps themselves' isn't even in the Bible as I'm sure you know. He had to be bad enough to warrant his violent end.
RF: What led you to choose the particular hymns Preacher John called for in his weekly services?
SA: Preacher John chooses hymns to suit his own twisted purpose, but of course many of these are familiar to me from childhood. I was a choirboy and a bell-ringer, and though never a true believer I’m still a lover of the old hymns and psalms and carols. Can’t bear the modern happy-clappy stuff. Why sing ‘hymns’ that sound as though they were thrown together by a teaching assistant during coffee break when you’ve got the majesty of William Blake and the Wesleys to call upon? It’s the same with the Bible. The poetry of the old King James version is beautiful to me, and all attempts to ‘update’ it for a modern readership should be vigorously resisted! Hypocritical, I know.
RF: I'm with you on this! Did you do much scientific research as you prepared this book? How plausible do you think the post-flood conditions are? How about the engineering of the boys' master plan?
SA: I did do a fair bit of research, but didn’t want to bog the reader down in unnecessary detail. Something terrible has happened to the world, and the story is set firmly in the aftermath. The hows and whys and wherefores of what led to this devastation are left deliberately vague. As regards the engineering for the boys’ plan I had to be very careful indeed. The last thing I would want is to be accused of providing a blueprint for building a WMD! If anyone should seriously think that I’ve been irresponsible then I can assure them that this is not the case. I’m both a parent and a qualified teacher, and would never suggest anything that could cause harm. Gene, the character who constructs the mighty weapon, is a clever lad, but he’s not quite as clever as his creator! Let me give you one tiny hint: ‘flawed science’. We’ll leave it at that.
RF: As you wrote this book, what changed the most from the way you initially planned it?
SA: It was originally more adult. There were a couple of passages that involved sexuality, but my editor felt that this moved the book into a higher age group, which neither of us wanted, and so I agreed to make some cuts. She was quite right, as usual, and there was no argument over it.
RF: Do you have another book cooking? What should we expect from you next?
SA: Another ‘boys’ book. This one is set South Africa during the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a kind of homage to the gung-ho adventure stories of the time, Boys Own stuff. But with a twist, naturally!
RF: Are you planning any publicity trips to the U.S. or other countries?
SA: Wouldn’t that be nice? But no, I’ve nothing planned. My youngest daughter is spending one of her university terms in Louisiana later this year, and I’d love to be able to join her for a week or two. So you never know -- I might get to visit, and turn up for a couple of bookshop signing sessions.
RF: What overall goal or mission would you like your creative work to achieve?
SA: I have no grand mission as such. I just want to produce good quality writing, work that entertains without being patronising or in any way dumbed down. Books face stiff competition nowadays from less demanding forms of entertainment – the internet, games consoles and the like. But I still believe in the power of story, whether it be delivered in electronic or paper format. Nothing else compares. I’d like to think that readers might close the last page of a book that I’ve produced, and say ‘That’s why I read’.
IMAGES: Bump the Elephant; covers of selected books by Steve Augarde. Thanks, Steve!