Monday, 11 January 2010

Interview with an Author: ALEX MILWAY

Hi Alex and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hello! I’m Alex. I’m 31 years old and I live in London.
I'm the author and illustrator of THE MOUSEHUNTER trilogy.

Strange things are afoot in the mousehunting port of Old Town…

In the towering mansion of Isiah Lovelock , the richest mouse collector in the land, young Emiline toils away as a mousekeeper, day and night. Down at the docks a dead sailor is dragged from the water, delivering a dangerous warning to Lovelock. And far from shore the notorious criminal pirate, Mousebeard, is on the run.

A quest at sea…

Soon Emiline is crossing oceans to hunt down Mousebeard alongside the dashing Captain Drewshank and fellow mousekeeper Scratcher. Sea monsters and terrifying battles await them in this most dangerous world of secrets and spies on the Seventeen Seas …


For many years, a curse has condemned Mousebeard to a life forever lived at sea. But after escaping the gallows he is determined to break it - if only to seek revenge on his mortal enemy, Isiah Lovelock. Now fugitives themselves, Emiline and Scratcher take up the pirate's cause. From infiltrating the garrison port of Hamlyn to discovering a lost world of mice, the young mousekeepers will fight old enemies and terrifying battles in their quest to break the curse. And break it they must, because Old Town's power is on the rise and only Mousebeard can stop it.


Old Town's finest hour... For three days, Old Town is playing host to the International Mousing Exhibition, and it should be the greatest event the world has ever seen. But one person is determined to ruin everything.
The pirate returns... Mousebeard is back, and nothing will stop him finishing what he started all those years ago. Reputations will crumble. Friends will be lost. War is coming to Old Town, and for Emiline and Scratcher, there's no means of escape.


What inspired you to write THE MOUSEHUNTER?

I originally started creating stories to while away time in a factory, doing a desperately dull and very mundane summer job building air conditioning units for range rovers. I’d repeatedly run through the scenes in my head for hours on end, while pushing pipes into a machine. When I finished my shift, I’d return home and fill notebooks with all the things I’d thought of. I guess inspiration was born out of a necessity to keep my brain active.
Many characters and situations in the Mousehunter originated in these notebooks stretching back to my art school years, even if in those days I actually wanted to animate them.
I think it was only while working in a WHSmith, once I’d completed my fine art degree, that I realised I should try putting these stories into words. I worked on the children’s book section for a short time, and loved what I saw, so it seemed to make sense trying.

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

A few years down the line from college, I’d found my way to London, working with words in magazine publishing. I’d tried writing two children’s books, but finished neither, and so to really push myself I set up a blog. Instead of a regular diary, each post was an illustrated fairy tale, and one of them was about the captain of a ship who was searching for a rare species of mouse on an island. The captain evolved into Mousebeard, and the story grew from there.
I liked the idea, so set myself a challenge of finishing the book in six months - three chapters a month - and oddly enough I managed it. Once it was finished I had a book of it made (a small paperback, that is now sadly lost), and through a chance meeting with someone at Faber and Faber (a slice of sheer luck), it was soon in the hands of a children’s editor.
Pretty much a year after the Mousebeard post went online, I had a two-book deal with Faber. I was incredibly lucky.

Why the fascination with mice? It seems like you’ve had a lot of fun creating your world of mice and mousekeeping/hunting. Throughout the book each chapter is separated by a page from the The Mousehunter’s Almanac, detailing different species of mice. How many mice species have you created?
I get asked this a lot! It may come as a surprise, but I’m actually much more of a cat lover…
When choosing a creature to go crazy with, the mouse just seemed to work in my world. It’s the perfect blank canvas – pretty ordinary, generally likeable, and they’re everywhere – and they seemed the ideal animal to embellish and stick horns on. I suppose they’re the Mr Potato Head of the animal world for me.
As for numbers, I think at last count, throughout the three books there are more than 100 species mentioned. Not all get as detailed an outing as those in the Almanac entries, but they’re in there for sure.

There are elements of steampunk within The Mousehunter, did this genre influence your writing in anyway?

I was hugely affected by Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: the Flying Island as a boy. I caught it on TV when I was about 10 or 11, and it totally changed me. I wanted to write stories like that! I never knew it as steampunk, though. I think I just loved the machines. My dad used to take me to steam fairs, and many times I’d end up stood in front of a massive steam engine, watching pistons go up and down. I got really bored of it, but I love all that stuff now.
So steampunk as a genre didn’t have such an influence on me. It was more a love of machines and a certain Japanese animator that made me put certain steampunk elements into the books.

You’ve also created the illustrations for your novel. How open were your publishers to letting you add the illustrations? Were they included as part of the initial submission or did you create them at a later stage?

At the start there was some reluctance to having illustrations, which I must admit totally bamboozled me. I think that all books should have pictures! However, with a bit of gentle persuasion I managed to get the mice in, and then we went from there to the point that they let me do the covers later on. It’s the one big disappointment for me that I wasn’t allowed to do the original cover for The Mousehunter.

Does creating the illustrations help you create your world and is it a part of your writing process?

Totally. I draw all the time, with sketchbooks everywhere. Boxes and boxes of them. I actually feel a greater freedom when drawing than writing, although I do find it more time-consuming and harder to do. Many characters are first created in pictures before words, and the original notebooks have both story and illustrations in them, side by side.

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

For the Mousehunter, there were a number of children that looked at it, although these were easily outnumbered by the big children (friends and in-laws) who were keen to read the story. Young readers’ thoughts on stories are priceless.

THE MOUSEHUNTER is book one of a series. How many do you intend to write? Did you have further ideas in mind before achieving the book deal or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?

I always planned the Mousehunter series as a trilogy. I’m not a big fan of stories that run and run with no satisfying conclusion for six books. I like to know there’s an end in sight.
I had the first two stories planned from the beginning, but the final part was left a little more open, with just the climax plotted and set in stone. Plot always morphs and mutates as you write, but I do like a good summary to work from. I find it’s the only way to work to deadlines, actually. If time is short, a good plan allows you to know exactly where you are at all times.

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

The biggest part of The Mousehunter rewrite was actually adding more content. I’d written and edited it down in a really formal way, so it was 180 pages long, with eighteen chapters, each of ten pages. That was how I plotted it, and how I executed it. I was asked for more detail, so it grew quite a lot bigger by the end.

THE MOUSEHUNTER was your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

It was my third attempt, but it contains elements of my first ever story. Algernon, for example, was pretty much stolen directly from it, and there were ships involved, including a submarine. The Mousehunter was the first book I finished, which I took as being a good sign…

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

Since college days, although my ambitions were always a lot more about the worlds I could create, and the story that was being told, rather than the fact I was writing. It was always story first, writing second. I think that’s actually the essence of a good children’s book.
I think, like everything else, writing improves the more you do it, so I’d hope that Mousebeard’s Revenge and my forthcoming Mythical 9th Division books show signs of improvement!

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

I always plan in advance, although scenes often change when I’m writing. When characters start acting for themselves, you know you have to let them do what they want.

Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?
No, I don’t think so. I think you always strive to do the best you can. The main difference now is that I have more friends who are writers/illustrators, so the support network is greater.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

I get slightly nervous about being asked this question as the answer is no. However, I truly believe that you make your own luck. Sure, I was in the right place at the right time, but I’d finished the book and had a copy made. I was doing everything I could to make it as good and desirable as it could be.

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

I love a good story, and that’s at the heart of all children’s books. I like big ideas, and exciting adventures, and you find those a lot in young fiction. Adult books could learn a thing or two from children’s literature.

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 really started to enjoy reading when I found Roald Dahl. I loved comics, like the Beano and Whizzer and Chips, but it was Roald Dahl that made me laugh. He was dark, fantastical AND funny. And then as I got a bit older I vividly remember loving books like 1984 and Lord of the Rings.

As for comparing what we had back in the 80s to what children have now, well, I think it’s really easy to see that the market has grown up. A child walking into a shop now would find far more they’d want to pick up, and many more stories they can relate to.
Back in the 80s, the key books were all from previous decades, written by the likes of Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, but now, fiction is far more contemporary and recognisable for kids. The children’s book market is keeping up with and beating movies and TV in many ways.
Also, the YA market is vastly improved and incredibly exciting. There was very little for this age group when I was there. At school we’d be reading James Herbert, or Stephen King, whereas today there are many authors filling those gaps with more appropriate material. The books are still cool, but with possibly fewer sex scenes. Okay, and maybe too many vampires…

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Write as much as you can and do everything possible to get your work read.
Use the internet – whatever you do don’t be afraid of the web - and join in with writing communities.
Oh, and you can never have too many friends. Someone always knows someone.

And over on Alex's blog he's detailed a competition to win copies of his book.

'Win real Mousehunter artwork!

Faber are running an ace competition to win copies of Mousebeard’s Revenge. The star prize is an illustration of a mouse from the book, which is not to be sniffed at if I do say so myself.

So spread the word and maybe even enter the competition. What have you got to lose? Closing date is 1 February, 2010, so you best get cracking!'


Clare said...

Like the new-look blog Tracy but glad to see the content is staying as fresh and interesting as ever.
Thanks to you and Alex for another fascinating interview - I'm off to enter the competition now!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Very interesting interview Tracy and the new blog design is so kewl!!

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