Charlie Fletcher talks to Graham Marks (again!)
Charlie Fletcher is the bestselling author of the Stoneheart series and the classic adventure tale Far Rockaway; he has recently had his first adult novel published and here he talks to Graham Marks about his latest project, Dragon Shield.
Do you remember where you were when the idea of statues having a life of their own came to you?
Yes…I have said this a lot, actually, when I was talking about Stoneheart, but I was in the back of my dad’s car, as a kid, going past the Royal Artillery memorial [at Hyde Park Corner]. I saw the gunner, the one with the cape, and I thought he looked like Batman. At that stage - I was five, six - I was reading a lot of comics and I thought all heroes had capes and I thought he looked like a hero because he had a cape. In later years I realised it was a groundsheet to keep the rain off…that statue always stuck in my mind as a child, so vivid I used to imagine what it would be like if he stepped off his plinth, and that led to the whole Stoneheart world, many years later.
He is a very iconic figure – is it the same statue in Stoneheart and Dragon Shield?
I didn’t use him in Dragon Shield…that’s another World War I soldier, from the Royal Fusiliers Monument, which is at the end of Gray’s Inn Road, on High Holborn. The gunner appears in a cameo at the end of Dragon Shield, he doesn’t have a main part, we just walk past him; the active mentor figure in Dragon Shield is the fusilier - but he has a cameo in Stoneheart!
Do you have a chart which records where you have used which characters and in what book?
Of course! And I’ve also got books full of statues of London, so many of them, and I’ve also have a friend who’s a really good photographer…every time he goes round London and sees a statue he thinks I might have missed he takes a picture and sends it to me. So I’ve got a pretty good archive of statues.
Have you looked at the world differently since coming up with the idea of statues coming to life?
I think I came up with the idea because I looked at the world differently. I think as a kid, once I’d spotted the gunner I was always on the look-out…I remember, I’d spotted the gunner and almost a quarter of a mile round the corner there’s the Shackleton statue on the side of the Royal Geographical Scoiety – he has a balaclava on and the furry mittens – and I remember noticing him.
When I went round London as a kid the statues became my navigation points rather than the buildings, and I’d always look out for them. And when my kids came back, having grown up from very young in LA, it was part of the way I was able to introduce them back to London…it’s a great way of plugging people into the history of the city, you get to do the geography and history at the same time. So that’s where it really began.
Better than using pubs, isn’t it…
At that age it’s better, yeah! Although, of course, one of my favourite statues is the black friar, from the Black Friar pub; so that was another one that, as a kid, that I always thought was really mysterious…having a monk on a pub, the two of them didn’t really seem to quite join up.
There are some very obvious connections with your debut Stoneheart; is this a prequel, a kind of sequel, or a new sort of literary beast?
No, I think it’s just another story in the same world…it’s another trilogy set in the same world, with different lead characters and largely different statues – it’s re-visiting the Stoneheart universe with different characters. The books are shorter…[the publishers] came to me with the idea and said they wanted shorter, more accessible Stoneheart stories that went a bit faster to introduce the world of Stoneheart to new readers and lead them to those books.
And for me it was a great opportunity to bolt on something which came to me [when I was writing] Stoneheart, which is that I became very aware that the British Museum is fantastic and full of highly-charged items – I thought it was almost irresponsible that John Dee’s magical equipment was out there for everybody to see, snuggled up against Eskimo idols and shamanistic things from Africa, and you think about all this magical, mythical stuff just lumped in there next door to each other and there must be some conversation, some tension going on between them. In away I thought there must be a magical powder keg just waiting to go off. That’s why half the action of this series is triggered by the British Museum, and it’s a chance to bring the stuff in the British Museum to life as well.
It really does recharge your creative batteries going there.
Yes, very much so, and it was a chance [for me] to add a different layer…one of the nice things that happened with the Stoneheart books was that I have masses and masses of photographs which people sent me when their kids had made them go round London to tick off the statues in the books. I got pictures of slightly long-suffering parents standing under statues with kids holding up the books, after a long, wet Saturday afternoon on a bus. I thought, maybe if I did the British Museum, they could spend at least half the day indoors.
Using the museum also gives [the place] some kind of narrative fictional context; readers can go ‘Oh, there’s that weird cat statue with the golden earrings, I know what that is’; it adds a real-world application. It’s not like Narnia, because you can’t get there – however many cupboards you try and walk through you can’t get there – but you can get to the world of Stoneheart.
Was there a part of you that had missed being in the world of Spits and Taints?
There was, and at the end of Silvertongue, the last book of the Stoneheart trilogy, I’d left a couple of doors open thinking I might go back to it, in a more adult way. This was better, though, because I’d finished the story of the two children in Stoneheart, and I think to revisit their world would have been…well, there really was no virtue in seeing what happened next to them because I was very pleased with the way I’d ended the trilogy, I thought it was emotionally the right way to finish. And London is not short of statues, there are plenty more to play with, and so I was pleased to go back, and actually in a funny way I was pleased to go back in a way I hadn’t expected to.
My first adult book, The Oversight, came out last month and it’s not a prequel [to Stoneheart] in any shape or form, but it is set in London in 1843; in a way what I thought I might do one day with the Stoneheart books I found myself doing in a very different way in The Oversight, deepening the world and changing it quite a lot. It took the pressure off the Dragon Shield books because I was able to go somewhere completely light, without the freight of the Stoneheart world in it, [without] having to deal with those characters again.
Is there a timeline connection between the worlds of Stoneheart and Dragon Shield?
No…Dragon Shield probably happens before Stoneheart, if I think about it, but it could just as easily happen after. There is no causal connection between the two of series; some statues intersect, like the Gunner having a cameo, but there is no consequence of one story on the other.
The pivotal relationship between brother and sister is quite complex in Dragon Shield – is this something from your childhood, watching your own kids, or simply from your imagination?
I’m an only child, so that doesn’t apply, and so it’s largely imagination; although I have a boy and girl, and that does nicely balance everything. It seemed right. In Stoneheart there’s a boy and a girl and they didn’t know each other or like each other to start with and had to build a relationship. At this stage it was more interesting to have two characters who had an existing relationship and then tease it out and unlock it; in a way I’m skinning the same cat, but starting at the other end this time!
Who’s idea was it to illustrate the books?
The publishers, and they chose the artist…I think they are quite visual books anyway and there are two ways of looking at it: You either decide that they are visual and don’t need illustration, or that they are visual and therefore they inspire drawings. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.
How was that, seeing someone else’s vision of what you’d imagined?
It’s interesting, because it’s always different to what you have in our own head, and there are two questions: What scenes did the editor and illustrator decide are should be illustrated – that’s always a surprise – and other is the style of the drawings. I think part of the tension is whether or not the drawings have the flavour of the prose.
My favourite illustrator of all is N.C.Wyeth*, who did all those fantastic classics like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and those always seemed to me to be perfect atmospheric complements to the stories.
* For more details visit: www.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.C._Wyeth
I have to say I had his illustrations in mind when I was reading your last book, Far Rockaway.
Yeah, well those were not only on my mind when I was writing Far Rockaway, they were pinned to my mood board, as it were. My pitch for that book was that I wanted Wyeth’s great grandson, a painter called Jamie Wyeth, whose style is not that different, to do a modern version…but it didn’t happen.
Did you have to make conscious effort to write differently with Dragon Shield?
I had to patrol myself, but it wasn’t that difficult…if I look at Stoneheart now, it was my first book and it is a little over-larded with words; I would probably take five to ten thousand words out of it if I was to do a ‘Director’s Cut’ now.
I thought Director’s Cuts were always longer.
Bad ones get bigger! But I might thin it out a bit. The fact that I’d just written The Oversight made it easier [for me]…the language in that book is more complicated – my editor described it as ‘The book that Charles Dickens and Jonathan Strange, if he’d existed, would have written had they ever collaborated’. Which is very fair one-line of what the book is and a good way of saying that, while the language is not impenetrable, it is richer and more adult, more Dickens slash Wilkie Collins. So, having got that all out of my system with The Oversight, it was actually a relief to come back to the Stoneheart world and tell a story in a less complex manner, with less adjectives and less rhetorical flourishes.
Will Egypt be a theme throughout the sequence?
Bast [the cat god] is the main anti-hero or villain, and things get more complicated…other allies are brought in on both sides…but certainly for Dragon Shield the prime villain is this small and very sinister cat.
The story centres on London, but there are statues everywhere – did you ever think about basing Dragon Shield in, say, Edinburgh or Paris, or anywhere else?
Well, without a spoiler…it’s entirely possible that, by the end of Dragon Shield, allies have to be sought from elsewhere.
Having done both, do you prefer writing a series to a one-off novel?
I have this really, really soft spot for Far Rockaway, but it found no audience anywhere but the UK; I loved writing that book and I loved the completion of it. It seems to be a book liked by those of us afflicted by the reading bug.
The adult book is part of a trilogy, at least a trilogy, but each one finishes coherently, so they feel like standalone novels, too. I don’t like writing a series where books [1 and 2] leave things too open at the end; you always want to leave the reader with enough stuff resolved that it doesn’t feel like a meretricious cliff-hanger, but it’s enough of a cliff-hanger to keep people waiting for the next book.
The way I look at Dragon Shield is as one novel published in three parts, because I know what the beginning, the middle and end is. What would terrify me would be doing a trilogy and not knowing where it’s going, because then you would think you were stringing together random beads and hoping it ended up as a necklace.
Like the TV series Lost…
They absolutely didn’t have an idea where that was going, and you could tell, but that was part of the fun to start with; then you thought ‘OK, Come on! Come on! Come on!’ and they never got there.
You’re working on the second book Dragon Shield book…when does the series complete?
I think July 2015.
Is there anything on the back-burner, books and ideas coming next?
There’s plenty of other stuff! And I’m never going to run out of statues in London, I don't think, it’s just a question of whether I’ll run out of stories to tell with them. There is something about the British Museum, and I have an idea at the back of my head, because I think there’s something really good, very mysterious about museums. They are, in a way, the last treasure houses, full of surprises.
We think we pretty much know everything about everything, but what we forget is what we can’t see. It’s a bit like the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the huge warehouse - just because stuff get stored doesn’t mean people remember about it. There were two things that made me want to do Dragon Shield, and one was going inside the British Museum, and the other was a phrase I came up with which was ‘Just because something’s broken doesn’t mean it should be mended’.