Friday, 3 July 2009

Interview with an Author: MG Harris

Hi MG, please tell us a bit about yourself.

MG is short for Maria Guadalupe, a very typical girls’ name in Mexico, where I was born. I lived in Manchester, UK from the age of 5 and grew up loving Doctor Who and Manchester United. I studied biochemistry at Oxford University, to doctorate level. Then I ditched the science and joined the Internet boom in 1997, when I set up an IT company with a friend.
In Dec 2004 I broke my leg skiing, called my business partner and told him that I was going to step back for a couple of years and try to get a writing career going.
THE JOSHUA FILES- INVISIBLE CITY was my first novel, published February 2008 by Scholastic Children’s Books.


Book 1: Invisible City: An ancient civilization is awakening. An ancient Maya prophecy is unfolding. One boy - Joshua - holds the key. When his archaeologist father goes missing in Mexico, Josh suspects alien abduction. But when he realises his dad was murdered, Josh is caught in a race to find the legendary ‘Ix Codex’ - a lost Mayan prophecy which predicts the end of the world.

Book 2: Ice Shock: Josh is even more certain now that his father’s death was no accident - and he’s starting to wonder if he can really trust his closest allies. When he learns of a secret buried within the Ix Codex, he must journey back to the secret Mexican city of Ek Naab. Shocking news awaits him about the mysterious Bracelet of Itzamna. Did Josh’s dad really take it? And where is it now? Josh has no idea what’s waiting for him…

Was THE JOSHUA FILES: INVISIBLE CITY your debut novel? If so, was it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

It was actually the fourth novel I’d written. The first was a Blake’s 7 fan fiction that I wrote in 1997. Then from 2005, I started to write with the aim of getting published.
‘Invisible City’ was a significant rewrite of my third manuscript, which I called ‘Todd Garcia, Boy Archaeologist’. ‘Todd’ is the ms that brought me to the attention of an agent, even though we agreed right away that it couldn’t be sold at that stage.

What inspired you to write THE JOSHUA FILES and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

The idea of using the Mayan prophecy of 2012 as the basis for an adventure thriller was something I’d had in mind since I was a teenager in the 1980s and read a von Daniken-style book about the ancient Mayans. I read it the day I first visited a major Mayan ruin at Chichen Itza. That was a hugely evocative experience for me, both the ruins and the book. So in 2005, when I decided to try writing for publication, I cracked on with my 2012-themed technothriller. Partway through writing that, I read ‘Breaking the Maya Code’ by Michael Coe, which gave me the idea to write something about a lost Mayan codex –I was going to call it ‘The Fifth Codex’. Right away I saw that it could be a children’s book, with a teenage hero. So I wrote ‘Todd Garcia’.
By November 2005 I had an agent, by May 2006 I finished ‘The Joshua Files: Invisible City’ and by November 2006 we had a publishing deal.
It seems rapid but like most authors, I had to write at least three mss to get there.

You were born in Mexico City and this has clearly influenced the books’ themes. Have you always had an interest in Mayan culture? Was it something you knew much about growing up or did you have to do a lot of research for the book?

I’d read a fair bit about the Maya when I was a teenager, and since then I’d visited ruins at various times over the years. I wouldn’t say my knowledge is much deeper than any keen Mayan tourist! I’d buy the odd National Geographic to get a little more up to date. I did research quite carefully for the book, but only for the odd detail that will be noticed by almost no-one. For example the representational colours of the Bakabs. There’s inconsistency in the information you find on the Web, so I had to get quite nerdy there, tracking down the most credible view.

How many of the fantastic ideas incorporated into your books are based on real theories and myths?

The 2012 date for the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar is real. However, there’s no evidence that the Maya believed the world would end. What they did believe is open to interpretation. It’s just an intriguing thought experiment. What if we knew categorically of a cyclical event that could destroy civilisation? What could we do to prevent it, or warn future generations? The Joshua Files takes this notion and plays it backwards – what if it has happened before and we have already been warned?
I’ve appropriated other ideas too – the Mayan myths of the Bakabs and the god Itzamna. Josh believes they are mythical figures, only to be told that the Bakabs and Itzamna were real people. Obviously, that’s a fiction.
There are lots of details that are straight out of pages of research papers about the Maya. Where I write about the facts known about a city – for example the city we now know as Calakmul, or facts about the hieroglyphic language – I’ll try to be accurate. I do blend fact and fantasy quite freely though. I wouldn’t advise using The Joshua Files to get an education about the field of Mayan studies!

The books are told in first-person. Do you find it easy to write from a teenage boy’s perspective?

I wouldn’t say it’s easy. Especially in the reflective, emotional bits. I often have to think back to boys I knew at that age and imagine how they would have reacted in certain situations. And I’ve been listening very carefully to lyrics of songs written by young men. It’s amazing (to me) how achingly romantic they are! That’s what’s given me the belief to write Josh as a rather sensitive and romantic boy. In his own mind he’s a misunderstood potential rock star who is forced to be this very physical adventurer.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

I did when my older daughter was young enough to have time to read my manuscripts. She’s almost 17 now and far too busy. ‘Just tell me the story’ she says.

Was THE JOSHUA FILES always intended as a series? Did you have sequel ideas in mind throughout the writing of Invisible City, or did you have to think about the sequel from scratch? What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?

I intended it as a series, yes, but wasn’t sure at first how many I’d write. The main elements of ICE SHOCK were planned when I wrote INVISIBLE CITY. They had to be, in fact, since I planned to achieve a couple of major reversals over what appeared to be going on.
The problem with a series is that you tend to try to save good stuff up for future books, which can weaken the first script. There needs to be enough in the first one and it needs to be able to stand on its own. So I’d say, pack plenty of punch, plenty of resolution into book 1 and leave only what appear to be small minor threads unsolved.
As for writing a sequel before you sell book one, I wouldn’t. Prepare an outline for book 2, then move on and write something else.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I actually wanted to be a children’s writer when I was very young, but quickly forgot that when I discovered chemistry. I rediscovered the ambition by accident. In the field of Mayan archaeology there’s a guy who started deciphering hieroglyphs when he was 11. I thought if he could do it, so could my codex-hunting hero. A teenage hero implies a book for children, so that’s what I did. It started as an experiment, to see if I could write something that would entertain my own daughter.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I loved the William books by Richmal Crompton – the ultimate adventurer of the imagination. I loved adventure fiction and comic books; Tintin, Batman, Asterix, but also some fantasy fiction like the Narnia series. E. Nesbit is a big influence too, real time-travelling, exotic locale adventure.
I think any of those books stand up in today’s markets. The main change I guess is that teenagers can now read about people their own age. When I was that age you moved to adult fiction, which was either plot-based or about adult life. Teenagers hardly featured in literature, whereas now they’re very important.
There’s a kind of realism that’s expected now, especially for teenager readers. Even if you’re telling a fantastical story, the readers like things to be taken seriously. So I think you write as if for adults, with all the careful plotting and characterisation, but with young people as the protagonists. In fact that’s often where the biggest departure from reality lies – in real contemporary life children aren’t normally secret agents or professional wizards, archaeologists, soldiers etc. The author has the challenge to conceive a believable reality in which those situations can arise.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

About ten years ago I started writing fan fiction for Blake’s 7 fanzines. I treated that as a sort of gym where I tried out different styles of writing, usually pastiching my favourite authors. The first story I ever wrote was a pastiche of Borges’ famous ‘Streetcorner Man’, but set in a tough gangster planet from Blake’s 7.
After about ten stories and a novel I felt that I wasn’t going to develop any more by writing fan fiction. But I was too occupied at work to think up my own story universe and characters. I just put the whole idea to bed for a bit, and always believed it would wake up one day, as soon as I had mental space.
The fan fiction stint was adequate training for writing, as in putting one word in front of another and also of characterisation. What I lacked was knowledge of techniques of story structure. When I came back to writing, that’s where I focused my learning.

Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?

I once started something that is totally outside of the genre that I’m getting published. It was a young adult story, one of those ‘Stand By Me’ coming-of-age-summer-type plots. But I don’t think I’ll finish it until I’ve delivered a lot more of the adventure stories. Publishers work hard with an author to develop an audience and that audience has expectations of genre, pace, etc.

Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you’d like to write for in the future?

At first it was all for adults. I suspect that I’m more naturally a children’s author. I have a deep love for essentially fantastical stories and for young characters with little experience and their whole adult life to look forward to. Perhaps I could write techno-thrillers, or something like ‘Lost’, which is basically daft, but played straight.

Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?

It was more the experience of being edited. Once I understood the requirements of pace and action for this genre and this age group (10-14), I stopped writing any long descriptive or contemplative passages.

Do you have an agent? Would you recommend having one and, if so, why?

Yes, I have a brilliant agent, Peter Cox of Redhammer, who is quite unusual in that in addition to all the usual functions of an agent he provides advice and support to develop his authors’ platforms, online and otherwise.
I would totally recommend having an agent. They know the business, they have the contacts and they take the stress of having to worry about the technical stuff like contracts and negotiations. Equally important, they see you and your creative output from the outside and can advise accordingly. An agent is a business partner.

If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?

I was talking to three agents at one time but two were lukewarm once they’d read the unsellable ‘Todd Garcia’ script. All three agents felt that I could rewrite it and produce something commercial, but only one agent was keen to help me do that. I only met one face to face, but spoke by phone to the others.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I plan the plot 100%, but in the execution change up to 20%.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of both books?

With the careful plotting, I don’t revise much at all. I pretty much hand my editor the first draft, with a polish. I’m being asked to do fewer structural changes with each book, so it may be that I’m getting the hang of writing Joshua stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was tougher with something totally new.

What sort of publicity and marketing do you do? Is it arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?

My agent, publishers and I work together – I give my publishers ideas and they’ll fund what they think will work. For example, we developed a Joshua Files Alternate Reality Game (THE DESCENDANT) for the launch of ICE SHOCK.
They’ll have their own ideas too – all the code-cracking contests for example, articles in magazines and online promotions. We have three websites that we manage between the publishers, my agent and me.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

There is honestly so much stress around the process of getting published, that I would try to take your focus off that and onto telling a terrific story, ideally one that we haven’t heard recently. Unfortunately that’s where it gets complicated. I suspect that a lot of the heartbreak in writing comes from the possibility that writing can’t be taught to everyone. I think that some brains have story structure more naturally hardwired. Such individuals can learn to recognise and skilfully manipulate elements of story. If it isn’t in you though, I think it’s like expecting that everyone can be a champion athlete. Some of us just don’t have the physique.
So I’d say – believe that you’re one of those who are natural writers and write the best story you can, learn how to do that if you need to, keep trying for years because it’s a technical skill that can take 10 or more years to develop.
You need that belief to keep you going. But if in the end it doesn’t happen, don’t take it any more personally than if, like me, you can never be a world class snowboarder (or in my case, any type of snowboarder).

Agents comments: Peter Cox of Redhammer
Why I chose MG Harris:

Because MG is gorgeous and fabulous and I thought I could make some cash from her books.
Actually, that’s what she told me to say.
Just between you and me, the truth is rather different... read on...

From the moment I saw her writing, it was clear to me that she had what it takes to become very successful indeed. Most people think they can write – and most of us can write well enough for most purposes. But very few people have the ability to produce page-turning prose and a plot that twists like a pretzel. Or like a crazed torus, because as you know, MG’s background is science.

Like many successful authors, she has a mind that sees things a bit differently. You can speculate why that is – perhaps it’s something to do with her unique Mexican-Mancunian background, or it may be the extraordinary combination of a brilliant scientific mind with a strong instinct for myth and story. Whatever the reason, she has a very creative view of things. And perhaps unusually for a scientist, her own reading has been broad and diverse (she actually introduced me to Haruki Murakami, the acclaimed Japanese writer).

All these things are markers for a successful writing career. But in addition, she’s a very hard worker (she may say she’s not, but that’s not true!) she has a great engagement with her readership and knows what they enjoy, and people love working with her. That last point is more important than you might think – publishing is a tough business, and teamwork is where success is brewed.

She’s visibly matured as a writer in the time I’ve been working with her, which again is another marker for success – the most successful writers never lose the urge to constantly refine and develop their talent – I call it “honing your craft”. Spectacular though her success has already been, I know that the best lies ahead.
So for all these reasons, I jumped at the chance of working with her!

(Peter Cox, Redhammer)

The Joshua Files website -

The MG Harris Blog -

The Official Joshua Files Fansite -

Redhammer Literary Agency -


Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Great interview and the books sound like a real must read - I was also fascinated by Mayan culture as a child! Loved it that you've included a commentary from MG's agent - great touch, Tracy!
Thanks to MG, her agent and you for a brilliant post!

Chicklish said...

Fascinating interview - I really enjoyed reading it. Congratulations to M G Harris!

Joe said...

Loved reading this. Really interesting stuff - thank you!

Col Bury said...

Thanks for this, Tracy.
Having read The Celestine Prophecy when I heard about the Mayans I was intrigued.
Pity you're a Man.United fan, though, Maria!!!

Ruth Eastham said...

Josh rocks!
And now it's official; one myth is squashed flat - you CAN be a scientist and also write cracking, creative prose!

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Popular Posts

The Bookseller