Sunday, 22 May 2011

PHILIP REEVE discusses Mortal Engines, Scars, King Arthur, Science Fiction and Writing

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

I'm the author of the Mortal Engines quartet, the Larklight books and Here Lies Arthur, among others. I've also done a lot of illustration, including some of the Murderous Maths and Horrible Histories series. I live on Dartmoor with my wife and our nine-year-old son.

My latest book is Scrivener's Moon, the third in the Fever Crumb sequence, which is set in the same world as Mortal Engines but many years earlier.

*  You studied Art for several years, did you specialise in a particular field?

I'd had an ambition to become an illustrator since I was about thirteen, so I studied illustration at college (Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge, or CCAT as it was known then). Sadly the only effect that had was to completely destroy my confidence, so I went off and worked in a bookshop for about ten years before I summoned up the nerve to start looking for illustration work.

*  Your Art training eventually led to you working as an illustrator for books such as the Horrible Histories series. Did your illustrating work influence your decision to write for children? And is it a genre you enjoy reading?

Only tangentially; when I wrote my first novel, Mortal Engines, I was assuming that it was a grown-up Science Fiction novel, but when I tried to find a literary agent there was none who was even prepared to read it, let alone represent me. So I rewrote it as a children's novel - or as what they call 'YA' these days - and showed it to Scholastic: I didn't know any of the fiction editors there at that time, but I'd done some illustration work for their non-fiction list, so I thought they might at least take a look at it and tell me if it was any good or if I was just wasting my time.  In the end they published it. Actually, re-writing it for a younger audience hugely improved the book, so it's not a decision that I regret.

*  Do you think your art training helps you visualise the worlds and scenes you create? In Mortal Engines, for example, cities that move amid a feudal society based on ‘Municipal Darwinism’ is such an inspired and complex idea, did you sketch your ideas to help you fully realise your creations and world?

I suppose I have quite a visual imagination, though that's probably true of most writers. I always see scenes very clearly in my mind. So clearly, in fact, that I never need to sketch them. Sometimes I make little drawings of things after I've written them, but I'm not a good enough artist to draw those huge scenes properly - if I were, I would never have needed to start writing.

*  What inspired you write Mortal Engines? And with our own over-populated world so heavily dependent on oil and ever depleting stocks of raw materials, did the reality of everyday life have any influence on the story?

I was just looking for a hook on which to hang a big, rambly sci-fi/fantasy adventure of the sort I'd enjoyed as a a teenager, and the idea of a mobile city that eats other cities came to me. I was illustrating full-time by then, and living in Brighton, which I hated, so you could see it as a sort of cartoon response to being stuck inside this dirty, crowded, slowly expanding city...

I'm actually very optimistic about the future: technology is advancing rapidly; we have plenty of fossil fuels to keep us going while we develop new energy sources like thorium nuclear reactors; there are a lot of new agricultural developments which will help feed the burgeoning population; human beings are far more inventive and adaptable than the doom mongers ever give us credit for. Of course the cities in Mortal Engines are societies which can't adapt and face all sorts of looming energy and environmental problems as a consequence, but it was never meant to be some pious eco-parable. There are way too many of those about already!

*  The main female character, Hester, in the Mortal Engines series is facially disfigured which I find an interesting, but welcome, choice for a female lead. Was this a conscious decision made at the outset of writing the first book or did it evolve along the way? And what prompted this decision?

Women warriors are a bit of a cliche in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and they tend to be very glamorous or at least good looking. But it struck me that people who live by their wits in wastelands tend not to be that glamorous or good looking, and who cares about beautiful people anyway? So I decided right from the start to make Hester ugly, and I liked the idea that the hero would slowly fall in love with her anyway, which is far more interesting than having two gorgeous people seeing each other across a crowded room and falling in love.

Then it seemed to make sense to give Hester a scar, which she's received at the hands of the villain, so there's her initial motivation - revenge - right there on her face; she's like Captain Ahab with his missing leg! But I didn't want it to be a little cosmetic scar - the Hollywood way of dealing with facial disfigurement is always to have somebody who's a bit messed up seen from one angle but is still gorgeous from most others. So Hester's scar is really grotesque; I didn't want her to be pretty from any angle!

I think in the first book my idea was that actually, under this hideous exterior, she's lovely and sweet, but when I went back to write the sequel I thought that someone who had been through what she has, and looks as she does, probably wouldn't be sweet and well-adjusted, so she goes further and further off the rails as the series progresses, though I hope she remains sympathetic, and even attractive in a Ripley-ish way (Tom Ripley, that is, not Ellen).

*  I read a recent Guardian piece about Science Fiction to celebrate the opening of the British Library’s science fiction exhibition Out of This World. Your two series, Mortal Engines, and the Larklight trilogy, seem to have a strong Steampunk / Science Fiction influence and I wondered if these were genres you enjoy reading?

I still think of myself as a Science Fiction fan, though I haven't actually read any for years, so perhaps I'm more of a fellow traveller these days. As I child I always liked fantasy, and I enjoyed the Victorian and Edwardian Science Fiction of HG Wells and Jules Verne, but I found the plastic and chromium futures I saw in Star Trek and Dr Who deeply unappealing. What finally changed my mind was Star Wars, which came out when I was twelve. The opening scenes on the desert planet, with its mud-brick spaceport and rusty hover-cars, were tremendously exciting because I suddenly saw how you could mix up elements of the past and future to make worlds of your own. So that's really where Mortal Engines comes from, it just took another twenty years to emerge!

As for the current Steampunk fad for faux-Victorian Science Fiction, that's actually the opposite of Science Fiction. Its fans often try to link it to Wells and Verne, but there's no real connection; those writers understood the science of their time, and extrapolated stories from possibilities which it suggested; Steampunk is all about ignoring science and pretending the Victorians could have built robots, or whatever. Its look appeals to me as a setting for cartoons, or lightweight comedies like Larklight, but it's really just a sort of literary dressing up box, and I'm afraid it's not a very deep one and the costumes and props are starting to look rather threadbare...

*  Which leads me onto my next question… Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? And do you think they’ve helped influence the writer you are today? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today?

As a child I never liked stories set in the here and now; there always had to be some element of escapism. That might mean fantasy - I read and re-read Tolkien, Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander - but it might equally be historical novels, like those by Rosemary Sutcliff and Ronald Welch, or Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books, which are escapism about other children playing escapist games. I think all those books have had an influence on the way I write, as has the SF I moved on to in my teens.

I've read Tolkein and Ransome to my son, and we've just started reading Rosemary Sutcliff's Warrior Scarlet. They have a slower pace than the contemporary children's books I've read to him, and a much richer vocabulary, but Sam seems to enjoy them just as much. I think we may worry too much nowadays that young readers will get bored, or won't understand difficult words or concepts.

*  Have you had any formal training in creative writing or are you self-taught? And did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

I've mentioned the trouble I had trying to find an agent to represent Mortal Engines, but I've been pretty lucky really; the first publisher who read it accepted it. I've had no formal training at all, unless you count school; we sometimes had to write stories there, but they never gave us long enough for my liking, so I wrote my own stories at home. (Actually I wish they'd spent a bit less time on creative writing and a bit more hammering some grammar into us; that would have been more useful.) I've always written stories, and I suppose I've improved over the years by reading (and watching) other people's stories and noticing how they do things.

I feel rather ambivalent about the Creative Writing courses which so many universities seem to run now. That's not to say that good writers don't emerge from these courses - loads do, but I suspect that they would have been good writers anyway, and I don't think they're any better than the writers of previous generations who didn't have the benefits of CW courses. When I was little and I asked my parents how you got to be a writer they would have told me that I'd need an idea, a pen and a notebook, and that's what I try to tell children who ask me that question now. I don't want them getting the notion that you have to go to college and do an M.A before you can be a writer! It's also interesting that Creative Writing courses seem to be multiplying just at a time when it's becoming increasingly difficult to actually earn any money from writing. Perhaps that's the only way that authors will be able to make a living in future; by teaching Creative Writing to other would-be Creative Writing teachers...

*  With your books, what comes first? A character, an idea, an opening line? Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I never plan stories in advance, though I do re-write them many times, so by the time I'm on the final drafts I have a pretty good idea of what goes where. I usually start out with a bunch of random images, a bit like a movie trailer; then I start to think about narratives which could link them together, and characters. Sometimes I kick these things around for several years before I put pen to paper. When I actually start writing I usually have the first scene pretty clear in my head and I just write that and then see what happens next. Hopefully there will be all sorts of surprises and new characters which will keep me interested and turning the pages. Usually I have a vague idea of what the ending will be, too, and I can write towards that, but quite often it changes as I go along.

*  How long it takes you, roughly, to write each book?

It's difficult to be precise about how long each book takes. As I think I said, I quite often think about the ideas for several years before I actually start writing. Then, if all goes well, I suppose it takes around six months to a year to get a book finished. There are always some which don't work and have to broken up and started again, so Fever Crumb, for instance, took a couple of years.

*  When writing a series, do you have methods in place to keep control of all the plot threads and characters?

I seem to keep it all in my head without too much difficulty. Sometimes, especially in the later drafts, I might scribble down a little timeline or something. If you're involved in a story it's actually pretty easy to keep a lot of different things in your head; it's not really something I think about very much.

*  When writing a series, do you plan ahead so that when writing the current instalment the sequel is also in your mind and you have a rough idea of what happens next? Or do you try and keep each book as standalone as possible, so that most plot threads are resolved?

I try to keep each book as separate as possible. Ideally they should all work for someone who has never read any of the previous books and may not read the later ones, though of course as a series progresses a certain amount of back-story does build up. (The only time I've broken that rule was with Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain, which actually started life as one book and then got split because I felt it was too long, so Infernal Devices ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger.)

I try not to think very much about sequels either: there wasn't a plan for the Mortal Engines books (indeed, I wasn't even considering sequels when I wrote the first one) and there isn't a plan for the Fever Crumb stories I'm writing at the moment, although since they're prequels to the Mortal Engines quartet I know there are a few particular episodes I have to cover. I like each book to just grow out of the previous one. It's more fun that way, I think.

*  Here Lies Arthur was a dramatic move away from your other novels and I thought it was a particularly original re-telling of the King Arthur legend. Without giving away any spoilers, the story centres around a young girl, Gwyna, who narrates the story and I loved the way you subvert the Arthurian legend into a fable about the power of storytelling and words. What prompted this particular theme? And did you do much research for the book?

Arthurian legend was a kind of obsession of mine when I was a teenager, and again it was sparked off by a movie, in this case John Boorman's Excalibur in 1981. After seeing that I read all the Arthur material I could find, from modern retellings right back to the Mabinogion. So once I'd finished the Mortal Engines books I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the past and try to make use of all that Arthurian knowledge I'd accumulated.

My favourite versions of the stories were always the fantastical, romantic, plate-armoured ones - not just Excalibur but Malory, Tennyson, and the Pre-Raphaelites . I didn't think I could compete with those so I decided to do the other sort of King Arthur book - the kind that shows him not as a king at all but as some sort of war-leader in post-Roman Britain, which is what he really was if he ever existed at all. There have been loads of good books like that, too - Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers, for instance, or Mary Stewart's Arthur trilogy - but they all portray Arthur himself as a great leader. Rosemary Sutcliff, writing in the 1950s, naturally sees Arthur as a Churchillian figure who leads the Romano-British defenders against hordes of invaders sweeping over the North Sea. But I lived under Tony Blair, not Churchill, so I had a rather different view of leaders!

It seemed to me that if there had been a real Arthur he must have been quite a minor figure, probably some local warlord, and I decided that the only reason we all know his name 1500 years later is because he had a good spin-doctor, who we, of course, remember as Merlin. That was the basis of the book, and I was pleased to discover that it did give me all sorts of scope to write about words and stories and how stories grow. I think some people thought it was a very cynical take on Arthur, but I don't see it that way; I think it's about how people's grubby, compromised little lives can hold the seeds of these magnificent stories which will live on for centuries after they're dead.

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

My son is nine now, and I have just finished a fantasy novel which I've been reading to him. Mostly I tend not to go looking for other people's opinions, though. Everybody will tell you something different anyway, so you might as well just write to please yourself.

*  What’s next for Philip Reeve? Can you tell us about any new or upcoming projects?

The fantasy novel I mentioned will be out next year - the working title was Clovenstone, but I think Scholastic are planning to call it Goblins. After that I'd like to do another historical novel, and there will be at least one more Fever Crumb book - I've made a start on that, and I think it will be a bit of an epic.

I also have a couple of ideas for new science-fiction things, one very small, the other more on the scale of Mortal Engines. They'll be set in a bright and shiny future though. There are so many gloomy, dystopian things around at the moment, and I think it must be terribly depressing to be a young person, endlessly being made to worry that the world's going to Hell in a handcart and It's All Our Fault. I want to tell them that it's probably all going to be OK; that human ingenuity will see us through and the future will be full of wonders!

*  Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Just write, really. I meet a lot of people who want to write but seem to be stuck half way through their first novel. Finish it and move on to the next one! Or write a short story every day for a week, or every week for a month - they may not be as good as you'd wish, but at least they'll be finished, and you can always re-work the best ones. Or write a play and get it performed in some local hall or pub theatre - you'll have to finish that because the actors will need the script.

Other than that I think the only rule is that there are no rules.
Advice from other writers is always interesting, but everybody works in their own way, so it may just not apply. For instance, Elmore Leonard has a rule that you should never start a story with the weather, but personally I like a story with a lot of weather in it; some of my favourite books begin with weather!

I think this notion that there are rules to writing a story can be a very dangerous one. You only have to look at what's happened to the screenplays of Hollywood movies in recent years. They have all sorts of flakey rules about narrative structure and character arcs and 'a reversal before the second act climax' and all the rest of it, and as a result the movies have become more and more mechanical, homogenised and interchangeable. I'd much rather read a story which takes a few risks and maybe doesn't always succeed than one which carefully ticks all the boxes on some Creative Writing checklist. So take all advice with a pinch of salt. (Including this advice.)

Oh, and remember that 'careening' is not a synonym for 'careering'. That really annoys me!




The city of London is chasing a terrified little town across the dried-up bed of the old North Sea.
The great Traction City is hunting, hungry to dismember and recycle its doomed prey. In the attack, a boy is flung from the speeding superstructure, along with a murderous, scar-faced girl. Tom and Hester must run for their lives through the devastated wastes of the Out-Country as a terrifying new weapon threatens the future of their dangerous, dazzling world.


When Tom and Hester's scrapyard aircraft is pursued by rocket-firing gunships, they seek sanctuary in the speeding ice city of Anchorage. But it is no safe refuge. Devastated by plague and haunted by ghosts, Anchorage is heading for the Dead Continent. This second instalment of Reeve's critically acclaimed Mortal Engines quartet plunges readers once again into a treacherous post-apocalyptic world.


Tom and Hester's daughter, Wren, longs to escape the peace of static Anchorage. She craves the dangerous adventures her parents once had - and a charming submarine pirate is ready to take her to sea. But the mysterious object that she steals for him ignites a conflict that will tear the whole world apart. The third instalment of Reeve's critically acclaimed Mortal Engines quartet continues the breathtaking adventure saga.


Agents for peace are bringing an end to the devastating conflict between the roaming Traction Cities and their fanatical enemies whilst Wren and her father Tom travel the Bird Roads in their airship, trying to forget that Hester has betrayed them. In the ruined wreckage of the city of London they make a discovery that will change the world, and Hester must face an implacable foe with the means and will to destroy the entire human race. The final instalment of Reeve’s award-winning quartet reaches a thrilling conclusion.



Fever Crumb is a stunning prequel to Philip Reeve's brilliant science fantasy quartet. It is set many generations before the events of Mortal Engines, in whose dazzling world huge, predatory cities chase and devour each other. Now, London is a riot-torn, ruinous town, clinging to a devastated landscape and hiding an explosive secret. Is Fever, adopted daughter of Dr Crumb, the strange key that will unlock its dangerous mysteries?


In a faraway corner of a ruined world, a mysterious boy is building a flying machine. Birds help him, and so does a beautiful, brilliant, half-human engineer called Fever Crumb. But powerful enemies stalk them - either to possess their revolutionary invention, or to destroy the secrets of flight forever. The breathtaking new story from the awesome world of Mortal Engines. Award-winning writer Philip Reeve creates an extraordinary new city of moving buildings and human birds in a classic novel that is sure to thrill fans young and old.


The Scriven people are brilliant, mad, and dead. All except for one…
Mammoth-riders gather to fight the Scriven’s terrifying creation, the giant wheeled city of London.

Meanwhile, Fever Crumb must journey to the wastelands of the North to find Ancient technology. There she finds a mysterious black pyramid whose extraordinary secrets will change her world forever. 



Art and his irritating sister Myrtle live with their father in the huge and rambling house, Larklight, travelling through space far beyond the Moon. One day they receive a correspondence informing them that a Mr Webster is on his way to visit. Visitors to Larklight are rare, and a frenzy of preparation ensues. But when their guest arrives, a Dreadful and Terrifying (and Marvellous) adventure begins. It takes them to the furthest reaches of Known Space, where they must battle the evil First Ones in a desperate attempt to save each other - and the Universe.


A sinister-looking cloud is fast approaching the outskirts of the Known Universe. The closest planet, Georgium Sidus, has but two human inhabitants: the missionary Revd Cruet and his daughter Charity. Art, Myrtle and family bravely go where only one man and his daughter have gone before, to determine the nature of the menacing cloud and rescue the Cruets. But the evil which awaits them is far beyond their imagining. Lucky, then, that Jack Havock is hot on their heels to help save the Universe (again) from an evil demigod and its army of blue lizards.


Art and his family are invited on a fantastic free holiday to the exotic Asteroid Belt - in a remote part of space near Mars. Taking the train, they arrive to discover that nothing is quite as it seems - the hotel slips curiously back and forth through time, and the guests behave rather strangely, too. What is behind these bizarre goings on? It's up to Art, Jack Havoc and Myrtle (against her will) to get to the bottom of things. But the giant sand clams and man-eating starfish which roam freely are nothing compared to the True Enemy, which is cunning, sinister, and almost unstoppable, and may resemble a hat ...



Gwyna is just a small girl when she is bound in service to Myrddin the bard - a traveller and spinner of tales. But Myrddin transforms her - into a goddess, a boy warrior, and a spy.
Without Gwyna, Myrddin will not be able to work the most glorious transformation of all and turn the leader of a raggle-taggle war-band into King Arthur, the greatest hero of all time.


Ansel's new master slays dragons for a living. He says he's hunted the monstrous worms all over Christendom and has the scars to prove it. But is Brock just a clever trickster in shining armour? Ansel is sure there are no such things as dragons. So what is the man-eating creature that makes its lair in the crags of Dragon Mountain? Ansel and Brock must climb the ice face to discover the terrifying truth.



Anne M Leone said...

What a great interview! To be totally honest, I've never actually read ANY of Philip Reeve's books, but his answers have really inspired me to get my hands on a few. Very thoughtful, honest, and interesting. Thanks!

Tracy said...

Thanks Anne - glad you enjoyed it. And a huge thanks to Philip for such great answers.
I thoroughly recommend his books - they're a fab read! :)

MC Rogerson said...

Brilliant interview, Tracy. Philip Reeve is one of my favourite authors. I was the production controller for the first print run of Mortal Engines and have been a massive fan ever since!

bryonypearce said...

I absolutely LOVE Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series. It was, in fact, recommended to me by an agent as her favourite YA fiction - an example of how to write for this audience.

Lia Keyes said...

That was a brilliant interview. The right questions asked, but very forthcoming and complex answers, which I really appreciate. Thank you, both! You've given me much to chew on.

Tracy said...

Thank you MC, Bryony and Lia. Glad you all enjoyed the interview!

Nick Cross said...

Thanks Philip (and Tracy) - I'm already a confirmed fan (and occasional stalker) so not much I need to add here. Can I just forward a request from my wife that you write more Larklight books - she went through those in a couple of days!


Candy Gourlay said...

having wolfed down the mortal engines series, i've started on the larklight books - fantastic! philip reeve rocks (even if he doesn't like dr who's sci fi vision)

Girl Friday said...

Fantastic interview, so mcuh interesting stuff there, not the usual answers!

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