Hi Tracy and thank you so much for inviting me for interview. It really is a pleasure.
I live in the North-West of England with my rather large family and a huge number of chickens, dogs, tortoises… and a cat. I’ve taught English, Drama, History, Life skills, shopping, but I like teaching children most. Music is important to me and I’ve played mandolins and guitars in a few folk and ceilidh bands over the years. My childhood was spent playing in the overgrown ruins of a Victorian zoo so I suppose it’s no surprise the way my stories turn out.
A wonderfully exciting, dark, and gruesomely gothic middle-grade chiller, set in Victorian London. Perfect and pacy entertainment for both girls and boys of 8+.
For orphan Josie, life is good with Cardamom, the great magician who took her in as a baby and with whom she now performs her astounding knife-throwing act. But then three mysterious ‘aunts’ turn up - taking over the house and transforming into vicious, giant crows, in thrall to evil Lord Corvis. With his dying breath, Cardamon tells Josie to ‘seek the Amarant - and Mortlock’. So begins a terrifying quest for Josie and her newly discovered twin, Alfie, the undertaker’s mute, who soon realize that the legendary Amarant is a plant with power over life and death, which Cardamon, Corvis and Mortlock first discovered many years ago in Abyssinia.
But Cardamon had another secret and now only the final destruction of the plant can quench Corvis’s growing powers and evil plans. Josie and Alfie will need all their courage and skills to save themselves and the world.
What inspired you to write MORTLOCK and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
I was watching my son in a school production of ‘Oliver’ and when Oliver Twist is ‘sold’ to Mr Sowerberry the undertaker, I remember having one of Sarah’s ‘What if’ moments. What if Oliver as an undertaker’s mute marching behind coffins every day suddenly found he could raise the dead? At that moment, Alfie Wiggins was born. November 2007. So you could say it took two years and five months. Of course everything I had written before led up to that point.
Throughout the book each chapter is separated by a quote from a traditional folk ballad. Did these songs inspire the writing of MORTLOCK in anyway?
The main influence was The Twa Corbies (The Two Ravens) it was such a gory ballad and one I had known of since childhood. In part, it gave me the idea of crows as the monsters for the book. The other ballads formed the fabric of my imaginary world. The songs give me an insight into how people might have thought or lived in the past. In one draft of the book, I had a singer who said that the dead talk to us through the old songs. I suppose I believe that.
MORTLOCK is based in and around London during 1850’s. How much historical research did you do and do you enjoy this part of the writing process?
I surprised myself when I thought about this one! I’ve done quite a lot of research. Online sources are invaluable. The Dictionary of Victorian London is run by Lee Jackson and I spent hours browsing street maps, extracts from Henry Mayhew (no relation). I also read London by Ackroyd and visited the big smoke too. It’s not hard to imagine Victorian London once you’re standing in the numerous courtyards and chambers that nestle behind the mainstreets. I even went to Bamburgh castle in the North East to look at a Victorian hearse. So yes I did do quite a lot of research and it was fun. But I also used my imagination.
Liverpool in the late sixties and early seventies was a pretty black and grimy city and I can remember trips there. I also remember the thick, smoky fogs that blew up from the Mersey when I was a child. All of this informed the book.
The other huge influence on Mortlock’s London was my appetite for Hammer Horror films. As a teenager, I would spend the midnight hours frightening myself silly watching them. London was always foggy and full of shadows. If any of the detail is inaccurate blame the films! I wouldn’t let a bit of research get in the way of a good story anyway.
MORTLOCK is a dark, Gothic horror for middle-grade readers and some of the scenes are deliciously gruesome. Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself and tone down some of the horror elements because of your target audience?
Bloomsbury were totally open to all of my ideas and did not suggest toning anything down. During the writing process, there were things I left out because they were too strong. The gruesomeness that remains is the kind of thing I would encounter in High school children’s writing as a teacher. I think if you looked inside the head of the average eight to twelve year old, that’s what you might find lurking! Besides Darren Shan is pretty gory and he gets away with it.
What’s your experience of how children react to horror in books? Do they tend to love it more than perhaps the parents would like?
Children love horror books. When I taught High School English, RL Stine flew off the library shelves first in any reading lesson. I’ve seen children who normally struggle to read devouring Darren Shan’s Vampire tales. I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who was traumatised by a book. Although I read the short story, “The Fly” at a tender age and it still gives me the shivers. I could never watch the film!
I’m a total scaredy-cat myself. As a child, I can remember books that frightened me because I knew there were scary stories in them. I used to be drawn to the covers of the old Pan Book of Ghost Stories because they were so creepy.
I think most parents would agree that kids love a good fright every now and then.
Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
No. I do read my work to my children but they love most things I write because I’m their dad! My older children can be critical when they need to but I would recommend a good crit group or writing buddy for feedback.
Early drafts of Mortlock were used when I was working with a year 9 class and they seemed to like it but again, I had that connection with the class. I liked them and I think they liked me so again, they aren’t going to criticise.
Is MORTLOCK a stand-alone novel or part of a series? If part of a series how many do you hope to write? And did you have further ideas in mind before achieving the book deal or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?
Mortlock is a stand-alone novel but the other two novels will have similar settings and possibly some crossover supporting characters. The second book is called “The Demon Collectors” and has a different main protagonist. I didn’t plan a trilogy or any kind of series but I was aware of the potential for the characters to progress and for other things to happen to them if needed. I’ve a working title for Book 3 and some themes but that’s as far as it has got up to now.
Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of MORTLOCK?
I’ve genuinely lost count of the number of rewrites of Mortlock I’ve done. Loads. My first MS was a rambling 75,000 words or so and it took a Cornerstones weekend and endless e-mails to my writing buddies to get it into a more streamlined shape. Even then it took a year of grafting and crafting with Sarah Davies to get it ready to send out.
MORTLOCK is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
I had written something previously that turned out to be three stories. Elements of Mortlock came from that story, then there’s a very dark (probably too dark) horror with a modern setting and strangely, a funny younger children’s book but I don’t know what will become of them. Who knows?
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve written in some shape or form since I was a teenager but it was only recently that I considered trying to get anything published. In April 2006, I broke my ankle and found my bottom stuck firmly to a chair for six weeks. Daytime TV being what it is, I was soon sitting in front of my laptop writing. Six weeks later I had around 95,000 words. Total rubbish but it looked like a book to me.
Having broken that pain barrier, it did become an ambition to see my name on the spine of a book. I took advice from Cornerstones and went on one of their weekends. That proved invaluable because it became apparent to me just how tough it was to get published but also equipped me with some of the tools to achieve my goal. I also met my chapter swap buddy Ian Thompson on the weekend. He proved to be an excellent critical friend. Being open to his critique and acting on it certainly helped. I also had friends in the blogosphere who helped me and critted my work. Reading ‘How to’ books helped to some extent and attending workshops too. But mainly writing and then writing some more and then writing some more was the key, I think. Incidentally, I don’t think I’m there by a long chalk yet which is why I still ask people’s opinion and attend SCBWI workshops.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
Mortlock kind of happened on the page at first. I wrote it longhand and had a great time writing it but ultimately it turned out long and rambling. I had to map it out in the end to discipline it.
Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?
Mortlock evolved from countless rewrites. With The Demon Collectors, I haven’t the same luxury of time to do that in a hit and miss kind of way. I try to be more structured in my planning but the plan isn’t carved in stone and as I progress I have ideas that move the stories in different directions. I read somewhere that a novel is never finished, just abandoned.
Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?
Yes. Like any other book, Mortlock wasn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (a popular phrase), some said that it left them cold, others just said no. Everyone has different tastes and that’s a good thing. It just means that not everyone is going to love your work. But someday, someone might just pick up your story, read it, love it, understand it and want to publish.
And rejection doesn’t end with publication. Imagine if your beautiful baby book with its nice shiny cover doesn’t sell very well. Not everyone is going to like it. Can you cope with bad reviews? Even if you’ve had one book published, there are no guarantees that this success will be followed up with a second.
What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
“Holes” by Louis Sachar. I wish I could write a book like that. I taught it in class again and again and the more I read it the better it got. I never met a class that didn’t enjoy it and, importantly, didn’t think the book was better than the film. I don’t really read ‘grown up’ books at all, just the competition!
Do you think your experience of working as an English teacher has influenced and helped your writing in any way?
I worked with 11 to 14 year olds for many years and they always loved the ghost stories and the horror writing that we used to try from time to time. I suppose it helps to be able to tap into that excitement for the macabre. Having said that, I think anyone who is in touch with their ‘inner child’ can capture the feeling.
I think in terms of promoting my books and doing school visits, the experience of working with children will be an advantage. I know many authors and would-be authors who are nervous of promoting their work.
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?
My reading history was a strange one really. Basically, I could read from a very early age but never did much. In school, the reading scheme we followed was very dull and I can remember being stuck on one text called ‘Five and a half Club’ for months. I never read it, just stared at the pictures. It wasn’t until I was eleven or twelve that I was introduced to reading proper. Then I did this strange backwards and forwards kind of reading, looking at such titles as the Uncle books by JPMartin in conjunction with Tolkein, Heinlen and Andre Norton. I would read literally anything.
Having said that, I always enjoyed Tove Janson’s Moomin series. They were beautiful books and speak to me in a very personal way.
I would guess that there is much more choice in children’s books today. I love Season of Secrets by Sally Nichols and the range spans from that through to Artemis Fowl, Demonata, unicorn books, spy books, fairy books, all manner of fiction. It must be great being a child and having so many books to choose from. Tough for a writer, though, trying to squeeze through and get noticed.
I suppose children will always want an adventure and a good story well told, as someone once said. Hopefully, they’ll want to read my books too.
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Enjoy your writing. Don’t spend hours trying to second guess the market. Write your story and write it well.
Other fiction is a great springboard for creativity. Take a minor character from a classic story and take them on an adventure. Play the ‘What if’ game. What if an undertaker’s mute could raise the dead? What if it happened even if he didn’t want it to?
Also ask yourself what you are aspiring to. Do you just want to see your name on the spine of a book or are you aiming to make a career out of it? The latter takes a huge investment in time, energy and probably a bit of cash too. Be prepared to make sacrifices.
Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
Mortlock comes out in April 2010 and my children will starve unless you and everyone you know, and everyone they know, goes out and buys it. When you see it in a shop, turn it face out and tell anyone standing by you to buy it. Tell them it changed your life. Offer to buy it for them. Try to have a range of disguises and go into the bookshop each week in a different outfit enquiring about Mortlock.
You see, once you’ve got the deal, your focus becomes marketing.
Agent’s comments: SARAH DAVIES of THE GREENHOUSE LITERARY AGENCY
Why I chose Jon Mayhew:
I first encountered Jon Mayhew and his debut novel MORTLOCK when the manuscript was sent to me by Helen Corner of Cornerstones (who have helped so many writers take their first steps). I felt Jon’s gloriously gothic chiller of a story (complete with giant crow-ladies and foul resurrected corpse) had tons of child appeal, and I loved the fact that it sat squarely in that boy/ girl 8-12 age category, which is where the biggest sales tend to lie. The story was scary but in a wonderfully over-the-top, fun kind of way – I could tell Jon thoroughly enjoyed writing and I felt that he had a very cinematic imagination. In other words, he ‘saw’ exactly what he was writing about as the scenes unfolded. Strangely, it’s really hard to find this kind of entertaining middle-grade (as the Americans call it!) fiction, especially as there’s such a fixation at the moment on paranormal young-adult material.
Jon had been offered representation by another agent, so it was touch and go as we talked and talked across the Atlantic. I’m so pleased he decided to go with Greenhouse. I’m a bit of a tough editorial taskmaster (should I apologize for this?), so I knew we had some work to do on the story, as is virtually always the case. Fortunately, Jon wasn’t daunted and plunged into revision in a wonderful way. He’s been a fantastic author to work with and I’m delighted with his three-book Bloomsbury deal. And now we have a top LA film agent, Josie Freedman of ICM, co-agenting for film and TV, so fingers crossed. What did I say about Jon’s cinematic imagination?
Bloomsbury Children's Books
Published by Bloomsbury