Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
For official reasons the characters in Robert Muchamore’s award-winning CHERUB and Henderson’s Boys series don’t exist. The man behind these worldwide bestsellers certainly does, and here he talks to Graham Marks about writing, research and how he came to create the shadowy, sometimes savage and very real world of Charles Henderson…
For my own personal interest, really, I wanted to know about your surname, Muchamore – it’s an unusual one, do you know where it comes from?
There’s a story about Muchamore - whether it’s true or not I don’t really know – but there was a guy who was a lighthouse keeper, called Muchmore, with no ‘a’, who was a bigamist and went round having all these kids, all called Muchamores. Don’t know if it’s true, but it’s the story that goes around in the family.
The biog says you spent 13 years as a private investigator, which kind of points to the fact that you must have enjoyed the job quite a lot.
Um, I didn’t enjoy it that much. The company I worked for was Fraser and Fraser, best known for that TV programme Heir Hunters; they made the pilot for the programme just before I quit and my hand is in a lot of the establishing shots. That’s as far as I got to TV fame.
What were the best and worst parts of the job?
The best part of the job was going out and meeting people who were entitled to money, or telling them on the phone they’d come into £20,000. Once you got past the difficulty of explaining to them that we weren’t con merchants and this wasn’t a big rip-off, which was often quite tricky, they were happy. The worst part was the tedium of finding people; if a Mr Smith had died and you were looking for his son called John, there were literally thousands of John Smiths and you could spend two days on the phone ringing every single one up and asking them if they were the John Smith who’d been born on such and such a date, son of such and such. The work was very tedious, like all investigative work.
Would you say investigative work and research for a book are much the same thing?
I suppose having been an investigator gave me the skill set to actually go and find things. I didn’t go to university, and I suppose most people would learn to research there, whereas I learnt it through my job.
When you heard your nephew complaining about having nothing to read what made you think ‘I know what I’ll do…’
Do you mean why did I pick spies?
No, why did you think of writing for him?
Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer, so it sort of comes from the other direction…I’d spent years, from thirteen, fourteen, trying to write literary or adult fiction, quite serious books, which were all fairly disastrous and I got very frustrated and gave up for a while, then tried again. But when I started to write for kids I found it was something I was reasonably good at and it gave me confidence.
I wanted to be a writer and kids gave me my sense of purpose…the most difficult thing about being a writer is ‘What the hell do I write about?’ isn’t it. Finding something a million other people haven’t already written. So when my nephew moaned it was just like there was a gap in the market for me.
Was the idea for CHERUB there in your head, waiting?
It kind of evolved out of a few things; it was pre-Alex Rider, as they weren’t around - I only read the Horowitz books after I’d written The Recruit - but the thing that was around was Spy Kids, the Robert Rodriguez movies. The thing about them was that they were very, very far-fetched and I was watching one of the movies with, I think my godson David, and thinking that it would be really interesting, instead of having these over the top spies in the James Bond tradition, with all these gadgets and spaceships, what if you actually had a more down-to-earth spy in a gritty, urban, Grange Hill type of environment?
Have any plotlines ever come from your work as an investigator?
Not directly, but where my work was useful was that most of the people who did the job I was doing were ex-policemen; so, when I was doing the second book, Class A, which is all drugs-based, I was still working full-time and I was working with three former Drugs Squad officers, so that was quite handy.
They were there on tap.
Yeah, it was kind of ‘Oi, Barry!’ and I could ask what I wanted to know.
At what point did you have the idea for a prequel series?
The idea for the prequel came about at the very start of The Recruit; I actually put in the bit about how CHERUB began during World War II with Charles Henderson, never imagining it would be this successful. I did it to give the idea a bit of grounding in reality. And then it got more and more difficult to come up with ideas for two books a year for CHERUB, and I didn’t have anything radically different that I thought I could do; then I thought I could basically carry on, but do a series set in a different time period. So as much as anything else it was because I was running out of ideas for the main series.
There’s a mention at the end of One Shot Kill of the CIA being interested in what Charles Henderson is up to – any chance of a US version of CHERUB or Henderson’s Boys?
The kids have always been fascinated by the idea, e-mailing and asking if there’s a CHERUB in Australia, is there one in America, is there one in Russia? And I really just put that in there as a bit of a tease, and don’t really follow up on it at all, I don’t mention it in the next book. There’s always a possibility there could be an American CHERUB, but I don't think I’d write it now because there’ve been seven Henderson’s Boys and fifteen CHERUB books and twenty two books about kids being spies is enough really.
The books read as if you’ve done a hell of a lot of research, though it’s never shoved in the reader’s face – do you ever have to throw away material because there isn’t the space or place to put it in?
You have to be really careful about doing research when you’re writing for kids. I’ll give an example…when I wrote The Escape, the first of the Henderson's Boys series, what I did was I sent it off to I think it was eight of my most trusted readers and just basically said please write on it, comment on which characters you like and don’t like and I got all this feedback. And there was one bit, I can’t remember what it was all about, but I’d done my research meticulously and there was a page and half of detail and two of eight came back with a line drawn through it, with ‘Boring’ written by it. It’s a really strong reminder that if you’re writing historical stuff for kids the attention span is finite and you’ve got to get the balance right between getting the facts across and making it real, but at the same time you can’t just give them some long, preachy history lesson.
I grew up on war comics and WWII was something, as kids, we all knew a lot about; for your readers it’s now almost 70 years since VE Day and this would be like me knowing the details of the 19th century Franco-Prussian war as a 12-year-old (which I didn’t). How do you gauge what you have to explain – with footnotes etc – and what you don’t?
I kind of went to town on the footnotes; basically, the feedback we got from the fans was that it was quite a neat way of explaining something in the detail you wanted, but they could just skip over it if they didn’t care. When we sent the test copies out the feedback was that they really liked the footnotes…it was funny because one of the editors wasn’t sure about them, but the kids really liked them and thought they made the books seem more real, more serious. There’s always that thing with my books, that I’m always trying create the illusion of reality and that this could really happen.
On that note, did you ever do any of the parachute jumps, unarmed combat or firing range practice?
No, none whatsoever.
All research and your imagination…
Yeah, a lot of research…all the sniper training in the book took quite a lot of research. Unfortunately there’s quite a disturbing number of very detailed sniper training manuals you can buy on Amazon and elsewhere. I’m not quite sure who the constituency for buying these manuals is…
We are dealing with full-blooded, real war here, and you don’t seem to have pulled any punches at all when it comes to the nitty gritty of what happens, like when a bullet goes through a human skull, for example. Any trouble with your editor over this?
This has been an on-going debate from the start, and I think my editor has kind of now got to grips with where I’m at on this. I’m very comfortable with the idea that someone gets shot in the head and the head explodes and blood goes everywhere and it’s horrible. What I’m not comfortable with is writing a war book where someone walks into a room with a machine gun and six people die and they just walk out of the room and you never hear what happens. You’ve either got to not have violence, or you’ve got to have violence that’s realistic. What I dislike is cartoon, very sanitised violence…maybe I’m out on a limb a little bit with this, compared to a lot of other people who think violence should be censored, but I think it’s wrong to not show the consequences of something when it happens.
I don’t think it’s shocking, but I suppose I was surprised that you’d got away with it.
It think it’s partly because I’ve worked with my editor, Rachel, for so long, we’ve got an understanding. It was funny when she came back from maternity and she realised I’d got away with something while she was away!
Sex also plays a part in One Shot Kill, at least the thought of it, if not the actual deed – have you had any problems with parents or librarians over this?
I think, because I’ve worked with Hodder for so long, that I’ve reached a point where there’s a comfort zone. They know that they will publish one of my books and it’ll sell X number of copies and they will get X number of complaints - and they do get complaints, but actually the ratio of complaints to people saying these books have helped get their kids into reading is genuinely about 20-to-1, the positive to negative. And when you consider the fact there’s the inherent bias that people are more inclined to send a negative e-mail, on the whole most parents, most people, are happy with the content of my books…[pause, smiles]…I think…
The relationships between the characters is also pretty up-front and physical – did you go to boarding school?
No, I didn’t, I went to a regular London comprehensive. I’m like James Adams in the CHERUB books.
The boys’ interactions are very realistic.
The closest thing like that in my life was probably me and my brother…that interesting thing, especially with siblings, where you love each other but you also can’t stand being in each other’s presence. There’s a strange kind of bond. In Henderson’s Boys you have one out-and-out nasty character, Luc; I made him like that purely as I couldn't do it in CHERUB, because it’s a modern organisation with ethics committees, and he’d be kicked out for misbehaving. I’ve always said the nice thing about Henderson’s Boys is that it’s like CHERUB let off the leash.
Do you always base your plots on real events, putting your characters into the action of what actually occurred – and was there ever an actual mission in France against the Nazi V-bomb effort?
Yes, there was…it was code named FZG76, and I wanted to call the book that, but Hodder wouldn't let me as they said it was too cryptic. I try and keep the stories as close as possible to what happened - I grew up with those 1960s, 1970s World War II movies they showed on Bank Holidays and my dad and granddad and me would all sit around and watch A Bridge Too Far; all those films were the background and I’m trying to create the same atmosphere, where it’s all just a little bit gung-ho and not 100% realistic. The thing about modern war films is that they’re terrifically grim and if I set the tone of Henderson’s Boys as very, very dark, kids would be put off reading it.
How involved were you in the production of the graphic novel of The Recruit? Did you have input into Ian Edginton’s script?
I was only involved in the pre-production phase. I read Ian’s script, which I really liked, and we had test sheets done by six different artists and I picked the one I thought did the business. It really was a painless process.
Your websites are an integral part of the worlds you build in your books – what’s your involvement in them?
I just do the websites, it’s just me.
You do it all?
It’s all done by me. It was one of the smartest decisions I made, early on…I was never very impressed by a lot of the author websites, even the ones done with the publisher. They often looked very snazzy and had fancy menus and little whirry sounds, but there wasn’t actually much below the surface; there was no content, no free extra stories, no competitions, just this big dead thing you looked at once, saw there wasn’t much there and would never go back to. I wanted my sites to be lively, full of news, bonus stories and always have up-to-date information on when the next book was out, really simple things like that.
Did you know how to do this, or did you have to teach yourself these skills?
Yeah…the site evolved, really. The first version was just a few pages, a biography, the cover of the book and a news page, and it grew organically. It is a constant process, but it’s good as it means I’m connected to the website, not doing it through some agency – it may not be the best-designed site, or technically the most competent, but it is up to date and there’s stuff in there.
What are you working on now? Any plans post-Henderson’s Boys?
I’ve got a new series, but we’re not announcing any details at this stage…all I can say is that it’s something completely different, aimed at the same audience as my existing books. But it’s not a thriller and it’s not about spies, it’s something completely new. I shall leave that as the hook…