Monday, 13 September 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: ALEX KELLER

Hi Alex and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm 29 years old and live in North London. I'm not originally from here though. I was brought up and went to school in a small town in the Midlands called Coalville.
When I was eighteen, I went to Exeter to study Ancient History and Archaeology, then did a Masters in Egyptology at Birmingham. After that I lived in Greece for a year working as a teacher. Teaching was okay, but I wasn't sure it was for me, so I tried a number different careers, hoping one would spark my interest. Unfortunately, nothing else much appealed barring writing. However, I did work as an intern in some publishing houses a few years a ago and would like to work as an editor as well as a writer (if anyone would have me!).


In the quiet village of Little Wainesford, Ludwig von Guggenstein is about to have his unusual existence turned inside out. When he and his father are blamed for a fatal accident during the harvest, a monstrous family secret is revealed. Soon Ludwig will begin to uncover diabolical plans that span countries and generations while ghoulish machines hunt him down.
He must fight for survival, in a world gone haywire.


* What inspired you to write Haywired?

Being a writer is something I've always wanted to be. For a long time I tried to write clever, rather pretentious stories that were really, really bad and stopped. However, a few years ago I started working as an intern at a couple of different children's publishers and started to rethink the idea of becoming a writer again. Working in that environment made me start thinking it was something I could actually do again, but instead of being “clever”, I tried to come up with a story that would be simply entertaining, fun, and interesting, rather than something that would shake the very foundations of the literary world.

Haywired originally began life as a backstory to another idea I had. Ludwig, the main character of Haywired , was an adult living in a world much like our own. He had a wife and son, and lived a fairly little house in the suburbs of a biggish city in the 20th /21st Century, except he was also a “mad professor”. He was more than happy to live his life rather ordinarily, but Mad Professoring was a family tradition and he tried to keep it up anyway. However, one day he invents a device that could conquer the world. He tries to hide it, but word gets out and a shadowy company kidnaps Ludwig and his wife to learn the device's secrets. Meanwhile, his son finds his father gone and, with his best friend, the monster his grandfather made, and his father's assistant, Clive, who works for Ludwig on work experience, he goes to rescue his parents.

But the more I thought about how this situation occurred, the more I wanted to write about the story of Ludwig as a child rather than an adult. This story continued to change a huge amount (it was now set in a completely new world for example), and eventually Haywired was came to be.

* I’m a fan of Steampunk and Haywired has elements of the genre. Are you a fan yourself and have any Steampunk authors inspired your work?

It depends what you consider “Steampunk”. Personally, I love the imagery that Steampunk invokes. I love the slightly run-down gracelessness of it in comparison to the modern veneer of control more pure sci-fi imagery creates (I'm not a fan of Apple for the same reason); I like imperfection. Steampunk is a fantastic style to associate with human failure and fallibility. The chaos and unpredictability I think of with Steampunk is perfect for stories that focus on underdogs and chaotic lives.

Also, Steampunk is a means of writing fantasy stories without having to rely on magic. I'm not a big fan of magic in stories. It makes things too easy. Magic implies that anything can happen and can damage any tension within a book as someone can wave a wand and everything is fine again. Steampunk is a means through which I can write about fantastic things (like the HELOTs for example), but not use magic as a reason for their existence. I'm not saying all books with magic are bad by any means, and there are many writers who use magic in their stories that I love, but I think it's easy to go wrong with magic.

In terms of authors, I've not read any writers than called themselves “Steampunk writers” directly. However, I am a big fan of Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman, who use Steampunk imagery in their work (Mortal Engines was by my side whenever I needed help and advice on how to write a book); and I regard Terry Pratchett as quite ‘Steampunky’ as his more recent novels deal less with magic and more with human behaviour and invention. I've heard positive things about Gail Carriger. Cherie Priest, and Scott Westerfeld too, and will check them out sometime (when my To Be Read pile gets smaller!).

* When we’re introduced to the character Hephaestus I wondered if you were influenced by classics such as Frankenstein monster and Greek mythology?

Frankenstein's monster was certainly an influence with Hephaestus. I loved Frankenstein the book as and it really emphasised a time in history when science was more informal and adventurous. That's what I wanted in Haywired; people creating things without any real thought to the consequences. Although I didn't want Hephaestus to be a monster. Frankenstein's monster's life was tragic, and I wanted Hephaestus to be someone in a similar situation. In the next book, Rewired, you learn more about Hephaestus' life, and there's definitely a Shelley influence there.

You're right about the Greek mythology too. Throughout Haywired there are a few nods to Greek history and mythology. If you know your Greek myths, you can even take a stab at the twist with regard to Hephaestus and the HELOTs, which was intentional. I love books that can be understood in different ways depending on what you know. Again, Pratchett is brilliant for this. His books are great fun, but as you get older and learn more, you realise there is so much more going on. I wanted Haywired to have that ability.

* Although Haywired is set in a fictional country and is a wonderful historical fantasy Steampunk mash-up, is it still important to get period detail as authentic as possible? Did you do any historical research to help ground your novel? If so, do you enjoy this part of the writing process?

In all honesty, I didn't do any research. I've studied history in the past so I could add certain elements of historical accuracy I suppose; but the reason I set it in a completely new world was because it gave me the flexibility to do what I wanted. I don't find those kind of details important. For me, a good book focuses of people and situations that echo with me on a personal/emotional level. I don't care if the details about the time they are in are accurate. I'm not going to read a battle scene for example and criticise the book because the wrong sort of sword was used.

Haywired is about people, specifically about family relationships. My only concern was to make sure the characters behaved properly with each other, nothing else was particularly important in terms of accuracy.

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

I'm only twenty-nine so no kids yet!

I only really approach other people once I've started writing. When I'm coming up with storylines I don't talk to anyone else. I want them to be purely from my own mind. Other people are good for editing purposes, but I don't let them near the stories themselves.

* Haywired is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

Very first attempt, so I'm absolutely delighted it got published!

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

Quite a long time. As mentioned in the 'inspiration' question, Haywired started out very differently from what it became. It was originally a comedy for a start! As the world is quite complex, it took a long time to make sure the internal logic of the world worked. Also, the story changed quite and I think it must have taken 2 years in total, which is a long of time considering its length. However, much of this was me trying to work the story out. As I had never written a complete novel before and I ended up having too many ideas. I'd start writing then two days later I would have another idea. Then I would have to change everything that came before! I made a huge number of mistakes with Haywired including trying to do too much, but in the end I am happy with it. Going forward have learnt a lot of things about ‘what not to do’ when writing a book.

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

Immensely. I would recommend to any would-be writer: get your first book finished, no matter what. I messed around with Haywired far too much. I've got two books on the go now and they are much easier to write as I'm avoiding all the mistakes I made with Haywired.

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

It's a bit of both. I have a general idea of what the story will be, but as I write new ideas come to me that might be better or more interesting than I had originally come up with. Also, my plans tend to be “Character A goes to...”, but I won't know how that happens until I start writing.

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

Lots and lots! After all the changes I made writing it, it was still too long and convoluted. Earlier versions were about 70,000 words long, but my editor was keen on tightening the story, so a huge amount was cut. I've happy with this though. I think the story shines through and it doesn't outstay its welcome. Admittedly, it could be frustrating for some readers as much of the backstory is now hinted at rather than explained, but I think it was a good idea to remove it.

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

As long as I remember, but I only really started trying seriously a few years ago. I think the best way to improve your writing is just to read a huge amount. Look at the writers you love and see how they compose their stories. When I was writing Haywired, I had Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents next to me. After I had written a chapter or two, I would read from these books and compare them to Haywired

* Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the publishing deal?

You could say I got published through the back door. I don't have an agent and I didn't have to deal with any rejection. I had worked at Mogzilla as an intern and I approached them directly with my book. Luckily, they were looking for new authors and liked what I had done, so here we are. I feel a bit like a cheated!

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

I really enjoy writing for children. You can't impress them with the silly things adults are easily enamoured by. You have to write from the heart; you have to entertain.

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

I was a voracious reader when I was younger. I remember loving Maurice Sendak books when I was very young, and when I was older I read lots of the Point Horror and choose your own adventure stories. I remember reading Pratchett's Reaper Man when I was fourteen and just being blown away by it.

I'm not sure how they compare to today. Many of the books I loved are still around and still popular. Books are great for that; they don't fade away. To be honest though, I don't read lots of modern authors. Publishing is such a big business that hype can mar the reading experience. I like to wait a few years. If I book is still considered worth reading by after that amount of time, then I'll give it a go. I didn't go near the Harry Potter books until the fourth one was released for example.

I think children want to read what I was reading when I was young: interesting, imaginative, exciting books that don't talk down to them. But kids are all different as well. Some like swords and dragons, some like spaceships, some like vampire romances. The best we can do is offer a huge variety of books and let them decide.

* Haywired is the first in the trilogy? Can you give us a sneak preview of what might be happening in Ludwig’s and Hephaestus’s further adventures?

There is a sequel in the works but I'm not sure about after that. I have ideas but it depends on whether my publisher wants to continue!

The next book, Rewired, is about a deal Ludwig and Hephaestus' father made before the events of Haywired. I don't want to give away too much as the books are based on secrets, but you do learn more about many of the characters, especially Ludwig and Hephaestus' own pasts. I warn you, it's not for the faint-hearted.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Read a lot; write a lot; and be brutal when you edit. Make your story as entertaining as possible, and avoid adjectives, similes and metaphors like the plague.
Also, get your book finished even if you don't think it's a work of genius. It makes the next one easier.
Lastly, write about things that genuinely interest you.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Er... sorry, I can't think of a single thing.

Publisher Comments: MOGZILLA

As soon as we saw the manuscript for Haywired we were all very excited here at Mogzilla. It's a rare treat to read something so gripping and original - and from a first-time novelist too. At Mogzilla we are impressed by interesting ideas as well as good writing. Alex's book has both by the barrowload. The concepts also have an immediacy to them - so that they are accessible and really draw the reader in. Personally speaking, I loved the idea of the Helots - the creepy machines that Ludwig's father invents to do his (evil) bidding. Helots of course were the slaves in ancient Sparta - so I was expecting some kind of slave rebellion from the machines or something. This doesn't happen -Alex is always there with a surprise when you think you've guessed it. No spoilers from me - but the end is a cracker. We can't wait for a peep at Rewired - the sequel - which is out in spring 2011.

HAYWIRED ~ a tall tales & short stories review

As a fan of the steampunk genre I was eager to read Haywired and it certainly lives up to expectations. Alex Keller successfully channels the spirit of Mary Shelley with a nod to Frankenstein's Monster as his mad scientist creates his diabolical abominations in his gothic castle.

As with many steampunk creations there is that blurred line between magical fantasy and science where the reader must sit back and simply enjoy the ride and this book delivers a twisting, turning ride of secrets and lies; hideous monsters that aren't always what they seem; and some really gruesome deeds and deaths - not gory but nonetheless disturbing.

The publishers refer to Haywired as a 'steampunk fairytale' and I think that's a very apt description, at one point the main character, twelve-year-old Ludwig von Guggenstein, even 'runs away with the circus'. This is a book of monsters - monsters who take many guises and part of Ludwig's journey is discovering the truth about his life and about the things he's helped create.

If I had one criticism it would have to be the ending. The story offers up so much in terms of characters, plot and intrigue, that I wanted more in the big finale. Without giving away any spoilers, there's a great twist with one of the characters Ludwig meets along the way but I'm just not sure I quite believed the actions of another pivotal character. But I do wonder if it's because this is the first of a trilogy so perhaps things aren't quite what they seem. But I certainly wouldn't let this detract from what is a great steampunk fairytale and I look forward to reading the sequel, Rewired.


Clare said...

Thanks Tracy and Alex for another fascinating interview - and yet another book to add my to-be-read pile!

Lou Treleaven said...

Ditto - and I totally agree with Alex's comments about finishing your first novel. That's where you make your mistakes and learn your lessons. And I'm intrigued by his method of keeping books which inspire him nearby and comparing his prose to theirs. Perhaps there should be a version of the 'What Would Jesus Do?' bracelet for children's writers - 'What Would Pullman Do?'!

Alex said...

Lou - it really does help!

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