Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Philip Reeve

Philip ReevePhilip Reeve was born in Brighton, and worked in a bookshop for many years before breaking out and becoming an illustrator. His first book, Mortal Engines, was published to great critical acclaim in 2001.  It won the Smarties Gold Award, the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award and the Blue Peter ‘Book I Couldn’t Put Down’ Award. Four sequels to Mortal Engines followed, the last of which, A Darkling Plain, won both the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.  There has also been a trilogy of steam-powered Victorian space adventures and a novel set in Dark Age Britain called Here Lies Arthur which won the Carnegie Medal in 2008.

What comes first - plot, character or situation?

I usually start out with a particular image, like the mobile London in Mortal Engines or the girl in the lake with the sword in Here Lies Arthur, and then I start thinking about what sort of story it would fit into, and plot and characters slowly develop as I work.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

I usually have a vague idea of what the ending will be, but I never plan out how I'm going to get there; the fun part is finding out what happens along the way. And quite often the ending changes once I work out what the story is all about.

Do you base your characters on real people?

Not really. Sometimes I might take a particular aspect of someone's character or appearance, or some element from a historical figure, but not very often, and even when I do I don't think they'd be recognisable by the time they've been worked into the story.

What appealed to you about fantasy?

I loved fantasy when I was growing up, and later Science Fiction as well. Then I lost interest in it when I was older, and for a long time didn't read that sort of book at all. For some reason, though, every time I tried to write a story it turned out to be fantasy or sci-fi. I like the freedom of being able to make up a whole world of your own, packed with as many strange little details as I can think of. The world of my Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb books is designed so that anything in real life that interests or amuses me can be fitted into it somehow, so I can talk about the real world through a kind of fantasy filter, as well as looting all my favourite bits of history for strange ideas and inventions.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

I usually scribble the first draft of the story down very quickly in pencil. Then I type it onto my computer, at which point I start changing it - and sometimes the changes are so extensive that it becomes a whole new book. I like editing; moving chapters around, cutting out whole characters and sub-plots, changing people's names - so the computer is very useful for that.

Do you write to a particular timetable – a set number of hours every day?

I try to write something each day. I tend to start around 9.a.m. each morning, when my son has gone to school. Sometimes I work through till 5p.m., or sometimes I have something else to do, or I just want to go for a walk or do some drawing or something. But I can't really claim to have a timetable, and I have no idea how many words I write each day - I never bother counting them until the book is finished.

Is there a particular place where you write?

I have a little office in the spare room at the back of my house, and that's the most convenient place for me to work. I can write more or less anywhere though; trains, cafés, hotels, out in the garden.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I've never been in a position where I haven't been able to think of anything to write. I've quite often abandoned books that weren't working: some of them were more or less finished, and those ones lie around gathering dust until I smash them and use the good bits in some other story. If I get stuck on a story I'm writing I go for a good long walk on the hills around my house, and if I get really stuck I stop writing that story and do something different. Then when I get back to the 'stuck' one I may have some new ideas.

How important is illustration to you?

I haven't done very much book illustration lately. It used to be very important to me because it was how I made my living for many years, but I was very much a cartoonist, so I've seldom had much to do with illustrating my own books. I enjoyed working with the illustrator David Wyatt on my Larklight books, and I've just started a project with the illustrator and comics writer Sarah McIntyre. It's nice to collaborate with an illustrator because their drawings spark off new ideas and I end up writing things that I might never have thought of on my own.

How much does your editor change what you write?

I don't think anyone has ever asked me to change a story. I rely on my editors to point out bits that don't work, or could be made more clear. And, of course, to spot all the spelling mistakes. In recent years they've started changing the titles - my last three books have all had titles suggested by the publisher, which they thought were more likely to sell than the title I'd given them.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

I suppose I'd have to go back to illustration. There isn't really anything else I can do!

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

There were lots of different ones at different stages. I read a lot of books, so my favourites tended to change quite quickly. The Lord of the Rings topped the list for a few years.

What advice would you give to a budding author or illustrator?

If you like drawing or writing you need to draw or write every day, even if it's only for ten minutes. It's just like learning a musical instrument, or becoming good at a sport: you need to practise. But if you really want to write (or draw) then you probably do it every day already.

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