Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Julian Sedgwick is a some time screen writer and therapist, and a highly accomplished, largely self-taught artist; you could call him a Renaissance Man, if he wasn’t so down-to-earth. He is also award-winning children’s novelist Marcus Sedgwick’s slightly older brother. Here he talks to Graham Marks about sibling rivalry, his obsessions (China, Japan and the Flying Wallendas), and his debut novel…
It says on the inside front cover of The Black Dragon that, from the age of ten, you wanted to be a writer – so, what did you do to fill the time between then and now?
The first thing I should say is it turns out that’s a lie.
I showed the book to my mother and she said ‘No, that’s wrong, you were seven when you told me that’; so for once I wasn’t exaggerating. That was about forty years ago, really, but I’ve always been writing, across that time, although it took me a long, long time to work out what I wanted to be doing with it and I went off in a lot of other directions one after the other.
Then what do you know, [my brother] Marcus turned out to sneakily become a writer without asking me. That was quite a surprise and gave me a real kick up the backside, which was when I re-engaged fully with writing. I was a painter for a while, which fulfilled my creative drive, randomly splodging oil paints on large canvases until I achieved something which felt like a version of what I was looking at. Big, scruffy oil paintings.
But Asia has, since I was ten or eleven years old, had a key, gravitational pull for me; since that time almost everything I’ve done has spun round Asia. I did Chinese Studies first, at university, and after that I became a shiatsu therapist, and I worked for a Japanese academic, in Tokyo, as kind of assistant-cum-amanuensis, at least that’s what I think I was! He was doing a memoir and had great English, but it’s very hard to write in a second language and so I would take notes of what he said and edit it for him.
I slowly came back to writing through film and TV work. I was working as a researcher almost always on Chinese-related subjects and that led to some film script work at last, and eventually to setting words down to tell stories. So that was the intervening forty years.
You mentioned Marcus earlier, and interestingly he isn’t mentioned anywhere on the cover, or in any of the publicity; when the book turned up I thought you had to related in some way or other as it is a unique surname. Are you younger or older than him?
I am the wise, older brother…and yeah, it is an interesting problem, because originally, ten years ago when I started to write seriously and was working on scripts, there was clear water between us. And then I wrote an adult novel set in Tokyo, which is still unpublished, and my agent suggested writing a children’s thriller. I said ‘convince me’ and she did, and I suddenly realised we had a problem: do I run with the Sedgwick connection or go completely under the radar and use a pen name?
I think the publishers were quite keen to use the association because there’s a story behind it, and I don't know how fascinating other people find it, but in my therapist work I think sibling relationships were amongst the most powerful, interesting things to happened. Sibling rivalry, when you both want to do exactly the same thing, is a gloriously complicated mixture of pride and envy.
So I thought, let’s stick with it…it means that I get introduced as ‘Julian Sedgwick, you’ll know his brother’, but any label, any tiny thing that picks you out as a new writer is useful.
I was actually quite surprised at how low key it’s been.
We’ve gone light so far! But we’ve got this joint graphic novel project we’re doing with Walker Books, so there are now three different publicity teams trying to co-ordinate things; we want to do some of that ‘relative values’ PR, that ‘how much do you love or hate your brother’ stuff. Especially as you have me as my seven-year-old self, scribbling away at his sub-Tolkien routine, and then Marcus breezes past, seemingly without effort. He always kept his cards close to his chest. It’s a very interesting dynamic, whether you can write together without killing each other.
I’ve never found writing a very easy, collaborative thing to do with anybody, especially if you’re related to them.
It worked out so naturally…I’d just done a film adaptation of a book called Summer in February, which was a fantastic learning experience as I’d never written my own full script before, and it meant I had a really quick crash course in screen writing. So when Marcus was approached to work on a film project, he’d hadn’t done any film work at all so it was really natural for him to say ‘could you help, cos I’m not sure what I’m doing’. It just worked out brilliantly.
We were very, very close as children, almost like twins, and it almost feels like I was just waiting for him to come along; we’ve got a lot the difficult stuff out of the way, so now if we’re arguing about who says what on a script, it’s probably the easiest co-writing relationship you could have because we aren’t trying to negotiate if we’re going to be friends or not.
And you must by now have develop a mutual respect for each others work.
Well I have! And I think he has for mine as well, although obviously he’s a lot further down the curve and he’s got a lot of things to show that he’s good at what he does. But he has always been incredibly supportive and generous, even as I was edging towards his area. That could’ve been the time to feel not exactly threatened, but crowded, and he’s welcomed me in.
That kind of brings us neatly round to The Mysterium – The Black Dragon, because I wouldn't say that that steps on any territory that Marcus has worked in before.
The neat thing is, I think, is that we’re both writing about things that have interested and obsessed us since we were children, and they just happen to be different; he’s always had that interest in vampires and the supernatural, and with me it’s always been China and Japan and strangely enough weird circus stuff. That was my other career plan, which I’m still working on, if needs be.
From the first page, this book hardly stops to take a breath – was the story all there in your head, just waiting to get out?
Certainly the desire to tell some of those themes has been. The actual story came very quickly compared to some others that I’ve been doing and are on the back burner. The speed is quite a scary thing for me because by nature I [used to write] quite discursive, reflective adult prose and for years people would say ‘Well the writing’s gorgeous, the prose is beautiful, but where’s the story?’. I think I’m a bit suspicious of plot just as a mechanism to grab a reader, so this was a real big change for me; but once I started writing I thought no: this happens and then this happens and it just felt fun. I was really writing about my 12-year-old self running around Hong Kong. It is almost alarming when I read it back. I think, blimey, this is fast! But I hope it does the job of pulling in boys who don’t read a lot.
I presume it’s because of your background, but you’ve used the classic ‘three act’ film script format for the book.
Yes, very deliberately, because I was concerned about how I could tell a quick plot effectively; and the I realised I could, because of my screenwriting experience. So I borrowed the absolute classic three-act structure, and then when we get into Books 2 and 3 it's about performance and it seemed a neat way to do it.
Did you ‘watch the movie’ in your head as you wrote?
I suppose I’d just come off about eight or nine years of either writing screenplays, or supporting other people writing screenplays. So the present tense seemed like the way to go, I was in that groove; some people feel the present tense is too restless, but I love reading screenplays; once you’ve learned the art of reading them they’re so economic and an absolute joy.
Did you plot it out in a storyboard fashion?
Kind of, mentally, yes…I can draw but I’m not a great story boarder. This time I wrote very much at the speed you’d write a screenplay, and I did a bit of a total immersion thing. I put tracing paper across my study windows and switched off the router, because this was a dive into the unknown for me, but I thought I’ll just ‘be’ Danny and see what comes out. Then there was a lot of revising to do, but it felt stronger each time.
I wondered if you’d had to do some pretty intense planning, especially with sequences like the one where Zamora is on the Harley Davidson and looking for an escape route; that must have taken some working out.
I actually had to do diagrams for that…chase sequences are hard, and often I don’t find them interesting, but I was determined to put them in to reflect things about a character’s background. Strangely enough, in the next village to me I have a friend who has a Wall of Death – one of only two in the country – and while I didn’t get on it myself it was useful to talk about what doing that felt like.
Where did the idea for the ‘how to…’ chapter titles come from?
I suppose this was the horribly didactic therapist in me coming out. I thought it would nice if the titles were almost like a manual, giving practical tips, as Danny’s dad was always telling him what and how to do things, probably far more than he should. I see his dad as a self-taught man who feels he has to pass his skills on to his one son. Probably my boys would find some echoes there…
The other thing that I was reminded of, in terms of storytelling style, was Tin Tin – the young boy hero, the exotic locales, the quirky characters and the ever-present perils and threats of instant demise; are you a fan of Hergé?
That was the very first thing I thought…I wanted to do Tin Tin for a new generation. Marcus and I devoured the books as kids, and they still work at so many different levels. Of course my favourite one is The Blue Lotus, and in fact when I was doing research on a film set in Shanghai in 1940, I realised just how much I was still channelling it.
And is Zamora playing the role of Captain Haddock?
Definitely…but I didn’t reach for a dwarf figure lightly, I didn’t want to pull him out as a kind of stock comic figure; I wanted a really strong presence for Danny, linked to his past, who wasn’t taller than him. In very early drafts Zamora was quirkier and more Haddock-like, but I didn’t want to just use someone’s lack of height for comic effect.
The other thing we learn about from the inside cover is your life-long passion for the circus, or, more precisely, all the heart-stopping and life-threatening aspects of life in the big top; did you ever run away and join a circus?
No, my big plan was to run away to Japan or Tibet and become a monk; I told Marcus this – I think I was twelve and he must’ve been ten, or something like that – and I like to think he was so distressed by this news that he thumped me and knocked me unconscious. I think that may have put me off running away. The thing I like about Danny is that he runs away to go back to the circus.
As a kid, was there one person from the circus world who was your hero?
I remember when Karl Wallenda, who was then 72, fell to his death from the high wire in Puerto Rico…I became obsessed with the fact that someone would keep risking their life, right up into their 70s. He knew no other way to be, and my favourite quote that I’ve used in the trilogy is his: ‘Life is being on the wire’; I take it to mean is that life is about being aware and alive, and that’s probably the biggest thing I want to quietly spin under the plot, and not necessarily just in a thrill-seeking way, that you make sure you’re aware of the fragility and depth of life.
The more I read about The Flying Wallendas, and how they kept going the more I love the thought that something can be so deeply in your genetic make-up that you can’t turn away from it. When I wasn’t getting anywhere with writing, I used to think that perhaps it would be an easier life to stay doing the things I was doing, as I enjoyed them anyway, but there wasn’t an option. I think that’s what most writers find. If you’re a genuine writer, you can’t decide not to do it.
We are less likely to kill ourselves or become paralysed, because of what we do.
But I suppose that’s the thing about the circus, everything about it is so easily, brilliantly metaphoric, it just permeates everyday life – everyone’s juggling stuff, everything’s a balancing act.
Danny makes great strides as a performer in The Black Dragon – does he continue at that rate through the next two books?
This is a really tricky balance, I think…what I wanted him to be doing was half-remembering half-learnt skills and kind of making the rest up as he went along, and adding to that bags of courage and heart which means he just about pulls through. In a way he’s not learning, he’s just reacting. What he is learning through the books is more how to escaping his emotional bonds…and things come to him if he’s brave enough to reach into the past.
Can you do any of the tricks in the books yourself?
No, but, annoyingly, my sons can.
Without giving too much away, how many of the cast we meet in The Black Dragon – Aunt Laura, Major Zamora, Sing Sing and my personal favourite, Inspector Ricard – carry on through the story?
Well, they all do in some way…the problem is to try and keep enough adults out of the way, because Danny is surrounded by quite a lot of interesting, competent adults and they would make it too easy for him. I can say that Sing Sing becomes a major part of the story. And I like Ricard a lot, too, I don’t know why; I actually borrowed him from a book I was writing before, that I’m now probably going back to next and will have to invent a new character for.
The Palace of Memory is due out in January 2014 and The Wheel of Life and Death in July 2014 – are they both finished?
I finished writing Book 3 the morning of the launch for Book 1. I went and had a lie in the hammock for an hour - my one hour of smugness for the year!